Thursday, December 9, 2010

Modifications vs. stock

Once upon a time in a land far, far away called Alaska, the agency who thinks they are in charge of flying held a "supercub seminar." Their bright idea was to have a social gathering right before the pilots switched from skis back to wheels or floats, and as the winter hibernators were coming back up from sunnier climes, or starting to drive to the airport again and check in their plane in anticipation of the coming summer flying. They would gather some locals who were well-respected to talk about various safety and sanity-inducing aspects of flying, refresh those who didn't fly all winter on awareness of weather and airspace, and let everyone know what the latest regulation and rule changes were. Free coffee and cookies, Saturday morning, some elementary school.

A few local organizations and businesses decided this was an awesome chance to remind pilots about their goods for sale, or their organization, and set up booths and displays along with the tables full of friendly agency's pamphlets and paperwork. (In the case of Atlee Dodge, an entire brand-newly welded extended baggage extra-wide reinforced lightweight fuselage sat in a hallway for pilots drool and start asking their wives about next Christmas.) The idea took hold, and people came.

Our local friendly agency agents are, for the most part, a practical sort who recognize that innovation is better than stagnation, and people who want to modify their aircraft are usually doing it because they want a better plane for their purpose. While there are certainly pilots who put big tires on aircraft that rarely leave asphalt (akin to the lifted pickups around town that have never been offroad), tundra tires make landing on gravel and soft surfaces safer (in many cases, replace safer with possible at all). They sign off on replacing stiff, fracture-prone metal hydraulic lines with flexible hoses familiar to every car and dune buggy, replacing solid copper wiring wrapped in varnished silk with modern wiring, old 25-hour-life landing lights with thousands-of-hours life LED landing lights, installing inertial reel harnesses where there were no seat belts before... our airplanes are practical working vehicles, and we make them better, stronger, and safer. But outside, in the blasted aviation ruins of the Lower 48, the agency is not so friendly and resents the changes and challenges of innovation to their domineering static statism.

Worst of all are the agents of Mordor, also called Oklahoma City. I don't know why the unfriendly agency chose to base there and not the pit of DC, but I know from whence the squamous and rugose shadows with their lashing tentacles of strangling red tape come. And I could tell that this one that stepped upon the stage had a fresh whiff of that foul place man should not mention about him. His suit stood as a shout against the creeping informality of the friendly agents' polar fleece vests and polo shirts over jeans, in polar opposition to the battered carhartts, beards, and baseball caps eying him with distrust and disfavor. He glared at us with the self-righteous disdain and fury of a Brady Campaigner at Knob Creek (an apt simile, as most of the people in the room were armed), and imperiously clicked his powerpoint remote to batter us all with the overwhelming power of fine print.

Taking a deep breath, he stared us all down and said to the Alaskan pilots, "There is no reason any airplane should be anything other than stock!"

A humming silence met his remark, as pilots stopped chatting about the wife and kids, and turned to stare at him. Half-awake pilots woke up, looked at him, and looked at each other to confirm they heard correctly. Next to me, a gentleman who stopped logging hours years ago, as he figured there was no point past 40,000 hours in the bush, snorted and leaned back to watch the fireworks. I took another drink of bad coffee, trying to wake up and wondering what he was going to come up with for a speech after that lead-in.

He was serious. He continued haranguing us with powerpoint slide after slide, stating that we were deviants and degenerates tampering with designs created by our betters, and should not presume to try to improve upon what the unfriendly agency had decreed the airplane should be, coming off the production line. I looked at his superiors from our friendly agency, and saw the highest one there leaning back, arms folded, letting the unfriendly agent from Mordor dig his own grave.

Finally, with the spit-flecked fervor of PETA members assaulting a little old lady in a fur coat, he clicked to his penultimate example of everything that is bad and wrong with Alaskan aviation. "This! This! Can anyone even tell me what kind of airplane this is?"

I didn't recognize it. It had nice big tundra tires, long high wings, kinda like a...but nah, the fuselage wasn't right... the room was silent as he glared at us, looking enraged at our temerity and satisfied that he had browbeaten us into submission.

Then a voice spoke, from the audience. "Well, actually, that's my plane." Heads whipped around to the source, and the unfriendly agent's jaw dropped open, eyes bulging in disbelief.

"Really? What'd you do?" Someone asked, and the owner stood up, coffee cup in one hand, other one tucked into a pocket in a defensive slouch.

"Well, I was going into..." And he named a rather treacherous area well-known down on the peninsula. "And I ground-looped her. The only wings available were off a... so I flew her out, but really she performs better with them, so I left those on, and I got an Atlee Dodge landing gear and bigger tires to help with the potholes on this strip, and..." And he was off, standing up straight with pride as he told the story of how much work, effort, and thought he'd put into his baby. Questions flew fast and furious, opinions and debates sprung up about the effects of various modifications upon other modifications, the usefulness and relative merit of variations given the wildly different terrains these pilots operated on, and the room was alive, awake, and trading information.

I looked up at the stage, where the head of the friendly agency had a hand on the unfriendly agent, and was quietly leading him back to their chairs on the side, talking too quietly to be heard over the debate on 31" vs. 26" vs. 8:50 tires, powerflow exhausts, and so on.

What is the moral of this fairy tale?

For me, it's "Don't post identifying information about your airplane or yourself on the internet when doing modifications, for the agents of Mordor desire to crush and drown all beneath their sea of writhing red tape."

I hope there are better agents, even perhaps some last holdouts of sanity, in the blasted wastelands of the Lower 48, but the news we get here is not encouraging. I hear all the other FSDOs have been corrupted within, forsaking field approvals and one-time STCs for the ichorous hisses of "suspected unapproved parts are our highest priority!"


  1. Sigh... Ya just need to shoot em at the state line... :-) Either that, or let THEM take a stock airplane up and try to land it on a sand bar on the edge of a river in the Yukon (assuming they could even find it)...

  2. If we pile enough of them into the plane before telling them to land there, do you think the locals would eventually organize a search party for the remains?

  3. What Old NFO said.

    Newbius: No. Nor should they.

    OAWAAW: I've corrected a long-standing error by adding you to my blogroll. Apologies for not doing it MUCH sooner.