Wed, 21 Mar 2018
If you like real-life adventure stories and are like me, you've probably heard of The Long Way Round, in which Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman ride motorcycles from London to New York by going east instead of west.
But have you heard of the other Long Way Round? It's the story of a Pan Am Clipper crew in 1941 who found themselves caught up in world events in a way they never saw coming.
Read it here: The Long Way Round: Part 1
Sun, 18 Mar 2018
The Marquart Charger is generally very well designed, but one of the problem areas over the years has been the landing gear. Thinking about this problem is years ahead of where I am in the build, but it's been bugging me for a while, and I wanted to get some ideas for a fix before I start building any fuselage pieces.
The Charger landing gear is a cantilever design that uses a box-frame leg, which pivots at the lower outside corner of the fuselage frame, and operates a sort of rubber shock absorber/spring under the passenger's feet. It's very clean-looking, since it only has one "tube" going down (most small biplanes have several tubes, forming a kind of 3D triangle).
Because of this single tube design, the pivot point for that tube has to be very strong. In practice, it hasn't ended up being quite strong enough. On top of this, the rubber shock absorber starts out a little bit too stiff, and only gets stiffer with age. The result of these problems combine to show up as cracked fuselages near the landing gear attachments.
Finding a Solution
The problem really breaks down into two issues:
Fortunately, there is a reasonably simple solution for problem #1, which is to replace the rubber spring with a different material. Univair sells the SK-35 Belleville spring kit for the Ercoupe, which is a drop-in replacement for the rubber donuts (also from an Ercoupe according to the Charger plans), and which by all accounts provides a much smoother ride.
The solution to the second problem, though, is one which required (and still requires) a bit more thought.
To this end, I solicited help on the FATPNW Facebook group, and got a couple offers. I just finished up meeting with one gent, B. (to be named later if he is amenable), who discussed the gear situation with me.
A surprising amount of our time was spent getting the existing structure adequately described for him. It's far too easy for me to forget that I've been thinking hard about this subject for a long time, and how clearly I have it visualized. For the purposes of this discussion, I will refer to the part numbers where they exist, from the diagram above.
The chief problem we ended up on was that the -479 part is a little bit too narrow where it meets the fuselage. In the left-hand section of the diagram, you can see the -479 piece edge-on, and you're looking from the side of the plane in toward the inside of the fuselage. In the right-hand section, you see it looking forward. This setup is about the same for both the forward and aft gear attachment points.
Looking at the red arrow on the diagram you can see how the faded red line is a straight line from the surface of the vertical tube to the beginning of the curve around the bottom of the -479 piece. The plans show that divot inward, and B. said that this is likely to be an area of high stress. Flattening out that curve, and making it more tangential to the vertical tube's surface will help to remove that stress concentration. Doing a similar change on the right-hand side of -479, do smooth the transition between -479 and fuselage was also recommended, although it's not drawn in.
The other change he suggested was to increase the length of the strap (the red faded shape on the left side of the drawing), to increase the welded area that attaches the gear pivot to the fuselage.
We discussed and discarded a number of other ideas:
These ideas were either pointless (changing part thicknesses), or too complicated (moving the gear attach points).
Generally, the idea he had was to increase the amount of material bearing the stress of the landing gear pivot. As he said several times, it's pretty intuitive. Adding a little bit more steel, and a little bit more weld area, can pay big dividends. It was a gratifying conversation in a way, since that was the idea I'd had as well, but I didn't know if it would negatively impact the stresses in the fuselage in some non-intuitive way.
I particularly like that his proposed solutions amount to a couple ounces of additional weight at most. They're not big changes, but should make a difference in the longevity of the landing gear (assuming I understood the problems correctly; a possibly big "if").
Tue, 27 Feb 2018
Imagine for a moment that you're embarking on a decade-long project. You know the rough order in which you're going to take your steps, but not how much time each step will take, beyond very rough "Maybe two years?" type estimates.
That was me last June. I made my first wing rib, and started on the long and repetitive task of making a big stack of ribs. I knew from others' experience that the wing spars would take a long time to actually ship. Most people seemed to place an order, and see the shipment about 6 months later. So, I figured, I would order my spars early, and maybe they'd arrive about when I'd be finishing ribs, in the December-ish time-frame.
December has come and gone, and I'm still slowly grinding out ribs, so that timing was inaccurate. Un/fortunately the timing of finishing ribs was the least of my worries.
I placed the spar order with Wicks Aircraft Supply in June. The price was a bit steep, at almost $800 for eight 11- and 12-foot spars. Still, I'd understood that Wicks was the best place to buy aircraft grade Spruce, and I didn't get into building an airplane thinking I'd do it for free.
They didn't provide a shipping or order completion estimate when I ordered, but I knew it would take months, so I put it out of my mind, and worked on ribs.
I got a phone call around September or October with an update on my order: they were still trying to locate sufficient wood of a high enough quality. They knew I was waiting, and asked me to be patient. I said I was, and thanks for the update. I figured we were more or less on track.
Then I got another call on December 1st: we're unable to find enough wood to fill your order. In fact... we're getting out of the Spruce business. Sorry. Good luck.
Wicks explained that they'd had multiple large shipments of Spruce come in, and they simply couldn't find enough high-quality wood to fill the orders they were getting. They were taking a bath on wood orders, so they decided to cut their losses. They implied heavily that the supply of Spruce was simply inadequate to the demand, and that I was probably out of luck getting spars anywhere.
I was, to put it mildly, discouraged.
The next thing I did, though, was go check out the Aircraft Spruce wood selection (I found it ironic too, that Wicks was supposed to be a higher quality supplier of aircraft Spruce than Aircraft Spruce the business was). They listed everything I wanted as "in stock," which seemed like a potentially good sign. Previous experience with them had shown that they were generally on the ball, and if they listed something as in stock, that's because it was.
I also checked a few other options. I called up Steen Aero Lab to see how much they'd want to for a set of laminated spars. A week later, I got the answer: $2300 or so. That seemed like a choice of last resort to me. I contacted an aluminum extrusion company to see if they'd be willing to make a custom extrusion, and how much it would cost, but never heard back.
It seemed like Aircraft Spruce was the best choice, so I called them up and asked them what their expected leadtime was on a set of spars. They went into consultation with their wood department and mailed back a few days later: two to three weeks. Awesome, thought I, and placed the order with them on December 6th.
I'm sure you can imagine my surprise when, 3 weeks later, I had not heard from them. Around the 30th, I called and asked for an update. They eventually got back to me: my shipment would most definitely go out on Janury 30th. Ok, sure. I would have been perfectly happy if they'd told me it would take 3-6 months to ship the order, but they said 2-3 weeks, so now I was unhappy. This is pretty basic business logic: don't make up numbers you can't meet.
It was with a sense of resignation that I watched the 30th come and go without contact from ACS. A week or two into February, I put in a "customer contact" form asking for more information and expressing my displeasure at being misled on multiple occasions. Don't lie to me, I explained, just tell me you don't know, if you don't know.
Several days later, I got a terse response saying that my order would be shipping the next day. Of course, that would put the shipment arriving at my house in the middle of a week I'd be away in Hawaii for my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, so I had the weird role reversal of calling ACS and asking them to delay my order by a week. With visions of one of the spar horror stories in my head, there was no way I was going to allow delivery without me being there to personally inspect the package before signing: one of the Biplane Forum members had his spars delivered in similar circumstances, and discovered that a forklift operator had put the forks clean through the shipping container, destroying the spars inside. He turned the shipment back and had to wait another 6 months for replacements. I don't expect that to happen to me, but for a shipment of this price and fragility, I want to minimize all the risks I can.
And that puts me at now. The spars are supposed to arrive today, in the afternoon. Look for an update below on the actual condition they arrive in. Hopefully they'll be in perfect condition and give me a kick in the pants to get on with my slow-paced rib building so I can move on to building some wings already.
And the expected update:
The spars did, in fact, arrive with damage to the box. The UPS delivery driver and I cut away the outer box and determined that the abrasion damage was only to the outer layers, and didn't go past the second layer of three of sturdy cardboard around the wood. Without realizing I had an choice other than "Send them back" and "Accept the shipment without reservation," I signed on the form, since it looked like the damage was light, and the wood had been spared.
I turns out (news to me), you do in fact have another option. If you suspect that a shipment has been damaged, but it's not so bad you want to send it back, you can note your concerns on the form, something like "Possible hidden damage." Then you sign with that on the form, and UPS is still on the hook even though you've accepted the package. Future damage claims will be substantially easier. Of course, I learned this after I signed for the damaged package.
In any case, a day later, I was able to take the package apart and inspect the contents. The damage did not indeed go further than the cardboard, and the wood appeared to be intact and without problems. I am now the slightly nervous owner of eight lengths of nearly perfect vertical grain Sitka Spruce, which will be carefully stored against the day that I actually finish making ribs, and can move on to the next phase of building a wing.
Thu, 15 Feb 2018
A 30 Second Script
Casting note: no race has been specified for any actor except MAN #3, with the intention that any suitable actor can play a given part regardless of their skin tone. In order to reach the intended audience, we should unfortunately stick with men on stage, and mostly women in the audience. MAN #3 should be white to maximize the impact of the message.
Editing should be very tight. Total length of this piece should be around 30 seconds.
SCENE: Exterior, day. A beautiful sunny day in a rural county fair setting. 4H stalls, Elephant Ear stands, portable merry-go-round, calliope music in the background, etc. Mixed crowd doing the county fair thing, walking with cotton candy and oversized teddy bears from the ring toss, etc. Colors bright and saturated, almost super-reality.
PAN TO wide shot of the main stage.
DOLLY PAST a sign with the stage schedule. "Manliest Man Competition" should be a prominent entry on the list. A sizeable crowd of mostly women has gathered to watch. Eager anticipation is evident.
Slowly ZOOM IN to a stage-wide shot of:
EMCEE: ...don't forget, the Bovine Beauty Contest is happening at the Hewitt pavilion in twenty minutes, by the sign of the smiling cow. And now, what you've all been waiting for, the Manliest Man Competition!
A group of MEN run on to the stage. All are gorgeous body-builder types (IRL the actors will all be gay, of course) with appropriate props in hand.
EMCEE: Without further ado, contestant number one, show us what you've got!
CUT TO close up of MAN #1, who is holding a football. He picks an AUDIENCE MEMBER at the edge of the crowd, and urges them to go way back.
CUT TO close up of AUDIENCE MEMBER running into the distance: they know what MAN #1 is capable of.
CUT TO close up of MAN #1, who winds up and throws the football.
SFX of a jet engine spooling up as he winds up, and an explosive take-off noise as he throws.
VFX the football disappears into the distance.
CUT TO a wide shot from the back of the crowd, overlooking crowd and stage. The crowd erupts in applause. MAN #1 smiles winningly and bows.
CUT TO a close-up of the EMCEE.
EMCEE: Wow! Contestant number two, beat that!
CUT TO a close-up of MAN #2 who is, if anything, even more dashing and handsome than MAN #1.
MAN #2 beckons to one of the ladies in the AUDIENCE, who is attractive, but not petite. Our AUDIENCE MEMBER could be another man, but this might distract from the message for the intended audience of this piece.
CUT TO a close-up of the AUDIENCE MEMBER doing a silent, flattered "Who, me?" routine.
CUT TO a wider shot showing our AUDIENCE MEMBER being easily lifted on stage by MAN #2.
CUT BACK TO a close-up of MAN #2, who rips off his shirt, places the AUDIENCE MEMBER on his back, and proceeds to do one-handed push-ups with effortless grace.
SFX: A subtle thudding noise at the bottom of each push-up, as if MAN #2 is making the ground shake.
The AUDIENCE applauds gently, awed by the feat.
CUT TO a stage-wide shot as MAN #2 gracefully hands the AUDIENCE MEMBER back down into the crowd to applause that ratchets up to being thunderous.
EMCEE: Contestant number three!
CUT TO close-up of MAN #3 who is somehow even more ripped and beautiful. He smiles winningly at the crowd, and pulls a tacti-cool AR-15 rifle from out of nowhere, Bugs Bunny style. It is equipped with numerous accessories like a bayonet, scope, laser, foregrip, etc.
CUT TO wide shot encompassing audience and stage, again from the back of the crowd. There is a beat of silence as everyone takes this in.
AUDIENCE laughs uproariously and humiliatingly. Pointing and jeering. Booing. MAN #3 visibly deflates, and slinks off stage. MAN #1 and MAN #2 look after MAN #3 with pity and mild scorn, shaking their heads at his misguided attempt.
ZOOM IN on an AUDIENCE MEMBER, who is lauging and wiping their eyes. They turn organically to the camera, and interspersed among the laughter:
AUDIENCE MEMBER: He thought a gun would make him manly? What a dupe! [more laughter]
FADE TO black.
SFX: Audience laughter continues into the black, taking on an echoing quality.
Do not add any titles or VO at the end. The viewer should be left with ringing laughter in their ears and nothing else.
Wed, 10 Jan 2018
Back in October of 2017 (it seems so long ago, and yet so recent), the temperature started dropping, and I kept on building ribs at my slightly glacial pace. Soon, it was 40° F in the garage. This poses a bit of a problem. BTW, Deep Nerd alert -- if you think the idea of a technical discussion of epoxy mixing sounds boring, you can probably skip this one.
System Three's T-88 Structural Epoxy lists the minimum application temperature of their glue at 35° F. I can't find the reference right now, but I have read from System Three that the epoxy will cure at any temperature, but every 18° F rise will halve the curing time. So it'll cure at 40°, but it might take a while.
Along with some of the ribs, I would make up these little test joints, to be destroyed later to see if the glue holds up. I've made perhaps a dozen of these as I've made the ribs, and never had a problem with any of them. Until December.
I tested the joint I'd made along with ribs #22 and 23, the little rib nose pieces that go in front of the gas tanks, in the upper wings. The test joint separated neatly at the glue line with a mushy-jam kind of feeling as they pulled apart. What it should do is tear out the wood somewhere. This was bad news.
My first suspicion was that I was mixing incorrectly. A variety of people on the Biplane Forum had told me that T-88 is tolerant of sloppy mixing -- that is, mixing ratios that aren't exactly 1:1 by volume (or 1:0.83 by weight). I was mixing up these little tiny batches, though, and I had quickly decided to use a scale to measure my mixture when I discovered that the bottles were uneven after a few batches of measuring by eye.
So, I got more or less the cheapest little scale I could find. It measured down to 0.1g, which seemed like plenty of accuracy to me: a tenth of a gram is pretty small. I happily mixed away with my little drug-dealer's scale, until that failed joint happened.
Then, I stopped what I was doing, and started testing my technique. First, I deliberately mis-mixed a batch at a ratio of 1:0.9 by weight, which I was sure I'd done multiple times on previous ribs ("It's very tolerant of ratio errors," they said). I tested these joints after varying degrees of being left out in the cold, and brought into the relatively warm house, and they failed in the glue line regardless of temperature. So I definitely have some suspect ribs in the stack, though I hadn't been taking notes on my glue weights until after I discovered this problem, so knowing which ribs are affected is impossible.
However, compounding my confusion was the fact that I'd tested a handful of joints previously, and they'd been good, and probably (or maybe not?) at least one of those joints was made with a poor mixture. So now I was unsure. The house isn't kept ridiculously warm, perhaps 66-68° F, and that only for the parts of the day we're actually home and awake. Perhaps the temperature just wasn't getting high enough.
One thing I was reasonably sure of was that the low-resolution scale was causing problems. On my test joints where I mixed at 1:0.9 instead of the recommended 1:0.83, part of the reason my mixture was so off was the scale. I had poured out 1.0g of resin, which meant I should have been aiming for about 0.8g of hardener. Ideally, I'd pour out exactly 0.83g of hardener, but the best I could hope for was 0.8, with only decigram resolution. As I was carefully squeezing hardener out of the bottle, the scale jumped from 0.7g to 0.9g. How much over 0.9g? Who knows! I shrugged, and made my test pieces, figuring this was a valid test.
So, the next order of business was a more precise scale. I located another inexpensive scale, but this one read down to milligrams (0.001g). I didn't need that last digit, but better too much precision than too little. This scale, at least, wouldn't jump from 0.7g to 0.9g without ever showing 0.8g.
Of course, the larger the batch of glue you mix, the less important it is to have a super-precise scale. Unfortunately, for now, I need to mix a roughly 3.0g and 2.52g batch, and it doesn't take much variance on the hardener to take the ratio far from its ideal place. The new scale gives me much greater confidence that I've got the mix right. My tests with the 1:0.9 batch are too worrying to allow that kind of mixing error to continue.
Discussion on the forum started to convince me that what I really had was a temperature problem. That my summer ribs were all good because they'd cured in a 60-70° F average temperature, and the cold Northwest winter was causing my problems.
I pondered my possible options, and decided I would make the grown-up version of that venerable child's favorite: the Easy Bake™ Oven. I cut up a sheet of plywood I had sitting around from some previous project, and scrounged around in my project supplies to come up with a pair of light bulb bases, an electrical box, a short electrical cord, a discarded computer fan, and some Romex to connect it all together.
In two days of casual bodging, I put together my Easy Bake™, and after scientifically determining that it wouldn't catch itself on fire by leaving it on overnight with nothing inside, I stuck a temperature probe inside the box, and measured 82° F. Perfect.
My next test was to make up some test joints and put them in the Easy Bake™ to see if that made a difference. I mixed up a very close-to-perfect batch of T-88, and assembled three test joints: one with a thick layer of glue and no pressure before stapling, one with heavy glue and normal pressure, and one with a normal thickness of glue and normal pressure. I had read over the T-88 FAQ again, and developed a vague fear that I might be suffering from glue starvation, where there's not enough epoxy in the joint to form a good bond. A starved joint sounded like it might fail in a way similar to the failures I was seeing. All three test pieces went into the oven for a days' cure.
The heavy-glue, no-pressure joint failed on one side but not the other, which suggests that the glue at least isn't the issue (and one day may not have been enough to fully cure it, as System Three says it takes 72 hours at 77° F for a full cure). The heavy-glue, normal-pressure joint broke exactly where it should, in the wood. Likewise, the normal-glue, normal-pressure joint failed in the wood, confirming that at least my normal technique wasn't causing problems.
So, with any luck, I now have a system which will result in full-strength ribs going forward. Doesn't help me with past ribs that may or may not be strong enough, but I can deal with those later. At least now I can bake my ribs to be sure they're getting the cure temperature they need, with a mixture of glue that's as close as humanly possible to perfect.
Tue, 02 Jan 2018
For my New Year's Day, I took advantage of surprisingly good weather, and went flying. It wasn't any kind of grand flight, just up to Bellingham and back (a bit less than an hour each way). It was a good make-up for the previous day's attempt, where we got off the ground for just long enough to make a slightly uncomfortable pattern before landing again under clouds that were much lower than they appeared to be from the ground.
On my two year-spanning days of flying, I encountered two other pilots who stand out in my mind. Unfortunately, they don't stand out for good reasons.
The first pilot is a gent with a Cessna 150. I encountered him while fuelling up my plane. He'd parked his 150 relatively far from the pump, and the ground wire reel got tangled, so that he had the wire stretched to where it just reached his tie-down bolt. We were both setting up to fuel at the same time, and he had some trouble with the card reader. Once he got that sorted out, he pulled out a length of hose, and started fueling up.
Unfortunately, he hadn't gotten the hose retraction reel to a locked position (it's one of those spring-powered reels that goes click-click-click-pause as you unwind it, and you have to stop in the middle of the clicks if you want to keep it from retracting). It started retracting as he was atop the ladder, concentrating on working the nozzle. It didn't seem profitable to let that situation continue, so I grabbed the hose and pulled it out until it locked. I didn't have the impression that he noticed.
When he started his motor, it roared to life with a lot of throttle, then he pulled it back down, and taxied off to run up. I had the impression at the time, and remarked to my passenger, that he seemed like a pilot who was badly out of practice.
I ran into this same gent the next day, and confirmed my impression. He engaged me in conversation, and mentioned that he'd wanted to fly to a nearby airport (about 15 minutes' flying time away), but couldn't, because he couldn't sort out the radios. The aiport we were at, and the airport he was flying to, are both untowered fields, which 1. have no requirement for any radio use at all (though it's a good idea) and 2. need only one frequency change if you do want to use the radios. Most aircraft radios are very simple to use, with a knob to change frequencies, and a volume control, and maybe an audio panel if you have multiple radios. The audio panels can be opaque in their operation, but the 150 has never had very complex equipment.
Based on all this, I would be surprised if he's flown with an instructor in years. That's a bit of a problem, because you're required to do a biennial flight review every two years. I can't imagine the instructor who would have signed off on a pilot who couldn't operate a radio. The requirement for a BFR is relatively buried in the rules, and there are certainly pilots who fly for decades without them, but if anything goes wrong, you can bet the FAA will hike up its eyebrows and tick a couple extra boxes on its clipboard when it finds out, and the slacking pilot will feel the sting.
If this sounds more like you than you'd like to admit, you might check out AOPA's Rusty Pilot Program. I'm all for getting back in the game. But don't endanger other people in the process.
Pilot #2 seemed much more competent, but embodies a type of pilot who gets right under my skin: the "Those laws don't apply to me" pilot. We met while (again) refuelling, and admired each others' planes. He had a similar vintage plane to my Champ, and we got to discussing lighting requirements. I had just landed to avoid flying after sunset, since my plane is not (yet) equipped with anti-collision lights, and he was obviously prepping to launch. He mentioned, "Oh, my IA [highly-qualified airplane mechanic who should theoretically know all the applicable regulations] said I don't need strobes." He explained that, because his plane was made before the 1971 anti-collision-light law mentioned in 14 CFR 91.205(c)(3), it was exempted.
This is an area of aviation law that I'm intimately familiar with, because I want to be able to fly at night, but legally can't due to this missing anti-collision light issue. There's no profit in telling someone that he's wrong, so I mentioned only that I had understood the law differently, and hoped his IA was correct. I had called the FAA district office last summer, and asked this exact question; the answer was unequivocal: no aircraft may operate after sunset without flashing anti-collision lights, period, the end. There is no grandfather clause, as there so often can be with this kind of law.
So I wish him luck in his night-flying, and hope that his position lights are enough to keep him out of trouble. I honestly have mixed feelings about this particular regulation. On the one hand, flashing lights are certainly more visible. On the other hand, they don't seem sufficiently more-visible than steady position (red/green/white) lights as to require all planes ever to have them for night flight. This opinion is certainly a bit selfish on my part, because it's going to take hundreds or thousands of dollars and a bunch of work to set my plane up with the right lights.
What I can't get behind is pilots who act as if the laws we've agreed upon shouldn't apply to them. What else doesn't apply to them? When will it impact someone else? I know we're all guilty of breaking laws on a more or less constant basis (when was the last time you drove over the speed limit, or didn't come to a complete stop at a stop sign?), so I can't get too high-n-mighty about this, but I hold pilots, including myself, to a higher standard. You have very few chances to mess things up with an airplane before the stakes become life-or-death. Why start out every flight with a deficit?
Fri, 01 Dec 2017
I have been slowly but surely building up my stack of ribs in the Charger project. I'm up to rib #33 (out of 44), with each taking about 2 hours, plus about 6 hours to produce all the parts to support every 15 or so ribs. So, slow but steady progress.
The wings are built up of ribs, some metal bits and pieces, and spars. These are the long pieces of solid wood that stretch out from the fuselage, and provide the foundation of the wings. The plans call for aircraft-grade Sitka Spruce, which basically means wood with straight, tightly-packed grain and a minimum of flaws and defects. The spars are a bit under 12' and a bit under 11' long, depending on whether you're talking about the top or bottom wing.
In June of this year, I placed an order for my spars with Wicks Aircraft Supply. I knew they would take months to actually ship, so I figured that by the time they shipped, I'd probably have all my ribs done, and everything would move along hunkey-dorey.
We have encountered a small snag in that plan.
Wicks called today and said that, effectively, they can't get high enough quality wood any more, and they're quitting the Spruce spar business. My order is canceled, so sorry, have a nice day. They were very kind about it, and I understand, but this still leaves me in a bit of a lurch. I still need spars.
Fortunately, I have some alternatives:
So I've got some options, but it's a bit disappointing that my well-planned order fell apart like this, putting me further behind on my construction plans than I already was. We'll see what Steen and Aircraft Spruce have to say, and that may determine the way forward.
Sun, 12 Nov 2017
There's a lot of good discussion going on right now around sexual abuse. It's finally becoming acceptable to call men out for their terrible actions.
Along with that has come a certain amount of disbelief (particularly from men) that surfaces as "But why didn't you just leave/kick him in the groin/scream?" The implication is that by doing the one thing (leaving, fighting, etc.), the situation would be defused, and the person being abused could walk away with their head held high and no more the worse for wear.
But that's not how it works. It's not that simple. It's not a fire-and-forget solution to kick the guy in the balls and stalk away like an action hero in a movie walking cooly away from a giant fireball.
Allow me to relate an experience I had back in college. To be clear, I'm male, white, a shade over 6' tall, and reasonably large. People seem to avoid bothering me on the street, not that I would offer them any harm.
I was living in Scotland for a year abroad. I was walking down the sidewalk on my way somewhere, with my bookbag, and as far as I can tell, I looked like a typical somewhat impoverished college student. For the last several weeks, I had received an occasional calls from the back of a truck, "Hey, mate, you want to buy some speakers?" The person who would ask this of me had a look about them like a pub brawler: someone who was trying to turn a quick buck (or quid, in this case), and I had no doubt about how stolen his speakers were. I said "No, thanks" and kept walking.
Remember Begbie from Trainspotting?
Finally, I was stopped again, by another feral-looking guy leaning out of the back of his box truck, asking if I wanted to buy some speakers. Something in me snapped. I stopped in my tracks, looked at him, and said, "I don't have any money, why would I want to buy any fucking speakers! Leave me alone!" He straightened up, suddenly alert, and said, "What did you just say to me?" I could see the look creeping up his face, looking forward to teaching this long-haired idiot a lesson in manners. I felt a cold flush wash over me.
In fraction of a second, I realized this was one of those situations that would result in a "Stupid Student Badly Beaten in Stolen Speaker Scuffle" headline, with a one-column-inch story about what an idiot I was, maybe with a tiny picture of me, black and blue and lying in traction gear. Trying not to grit my teeth, I replied, "I said, No thank you, I am not interested in buying any speakers. Have a good day." "That's better," he replied, standing down, but with a look on his face that suggested he was still considering whether I was worth a fight. I quickly walked off, thankful that my outburst hadn't made things worse than it did.
In that moment, I knew that there was only one choice: I could give this thief the respect he felt entitled to, or I could expect a quick sprint to turn into at least a beating, but possibly also a knife between the ribs. I was prey, and he was a predator, with a pack of predators around him, ready to enforce my status. Any show of strength, any continued lack of respect would be met with swift and unhappy violence to me. If that happened, and for some reason they didn't beat me up, you can bet that my face would suddenly attract more attention from the brawler set around Edinburgh. I could be assured that any report to the police (which I didn't even consider at the time) would be received with a barely covered scoff and summarily consigned to the circular file.
Now, if you're female, you're likely nodding along, saying, "Yep, that's how it works." If you're male and reading this, there's a chance you're saying, "I don't get it, how are these things related? That speaker guy was clearly a criminal..."
The thing is, my interaction with the speaker thief and every woman's iteraction with men they don't know is about the same. That potential for violence is there. That feral gleam in the eye is all too easy to see. It's impossible to know, to really know, how a man will act once they're alone, so every man is suspect.
If you don't really get the equivalence of my story to all the accusations that are coming out now, I encourage you to think about it for a bit. I've given you a minor tool you can use to bridge the gap between a male experience and that of the women around you. You can substitute your own tool: a time you were bullied, a bad experience at a bar, hazing at the frat house, whatever you have to draw on. Remember that feeling of being trapped and cornered and not knowing if you were going to get out of this alive. Remember that your presence may be having that effect on women you meet, particularly the first time you meet them.
With that in mind, imagine how you would want a might-be predator to act around you. If you have the courage, check in with your lady friends about your behavior, and really listen if they tell you things (they may not: see above about Men, Predators, Likeness to). Accept that some of how you normally act might be misinterpreted, and be prepared to change that behavior once you see the problem.
Above all, THINK and LISTEN. Put yourself in other people's shoes and try to see things from their perspective. You have a huge power to make life better for everyone by making minor changes to your behavior. It costs you almost nothing, but the positive change can be enormous. You have that power, but it's you that has to act on it.
Fri, 27 Oct 2017
I decided, in the face of glaringly sunny and clear skies, that today would be a good day to burn a vacation day and go flying.
So, I got up at my usual time, but made a leisurely departure of the house, finally driving off at about 9 am. I knew that Harvey Field would be socked in with morning fog, so there was no need to rush, but also that the sooner I was there and all pre-flighted, the more quickly I could leap into the sky when the fog burned off.
Thus, I had my pre-flight inspection done by about 10:30, but the fog had other plans. I ended up spending an hour in the FBO's plush chair reading my book (nunquam non paratus -- "never unprepared" after all) while the fog slowly dissolved. At 11:30, it was just about burned off, and I made my leisurely way back to the hangar. This was the beginning of the problem.
On my way to the hangar, I pulled out my phone to check in to the FATPNW group page on Facebook, to see if anyone else was planning aerial shenanigans today that might be fun to join in on. I had been pondering a flight around the Olympic Peninsula, or up to Eastsound on Orcas Island, but hadn't made any firm plans yet. There was indeed a post right near the top: several folks were planning on meeting at the Jefferson County International Airport (0S9), also known as Port Townsend, for lunch. That sounded good to me, so I set my sights on 0S9, although I knew from the start I couldn't possibly be there at noon. It was already 11:45 by the time I pulled the airplane out of the hangar, and I still needed to get fuel. So much for getting the preflight done early.
I taxied over to the fuel pump and added 10 gallons to the tanks. I had 9 already on board, and with the extra 10, I would have a guaranteed ~2 hours of fuel that I knew I'd just pumped in, plus some extra from the 9 (never take the dipstick reading at face value -- it's always off by some amount). I was trying to move quickly so I wouldn't be too late to the lunch, but I was trying for "efficient" rather than "rushed."
I didn't actually push back and fire up the motor for real until a couple minutes before noon. It would be at least half an hour's flight to Port Townsend, possibly a bit more, so I was guaranteed to be 45 minutes late after all the taxi, run-up, travel, and tie-down once I'd arrived. Even so, I was trying to keep efficient, since it would at least be nice to say hello in passing.
The run-up was normal, though the engine was a little off for the take-off and climb out. Not enough to cause me worry, and it picked up to normal once it warmed up a little bit more. I got myself cleared over Paine Field, then called up Seattle Approach to get flight following, and have some extra eyes on my sky.
The transit and landing were normal and unremarkable. I tied down, and had a good lunch, packed into a stool at the crowded bar. I wasn't the only one who thought skipping out on work to go flying would make for good lunch plans.
I got myself back out to the plane, belly pleasantly full of sandwich and marionberry pie, and started through the preflight: fuel on, check fuel drains for water, dipstick into the tanks to check level... Wait a minute. The right tank was normal, but when I got to the left tank, there was no gas cap.
This is approximately a Level 4 Oh Shit moment, on a scale of 10. Missing gas cap is embarrassing, because it means I was more rushed than I thought when I fueled up back at Harvey. But it also means (I confirmed a few minutes later on my walk-around) that the low pressure on top of the wing was sucking fuel out of the tank and scattering it to the wind, coincidentally leaving some tell-tale marks on the tail that confirmed the story. It also also means that, somewhere at Harvey Field, hopefully, hopefully, fingers crossed, nowhere near the runway, there was a ¼ pound piece of metal and rubber on the ground, ready to be kicked up by some passing airplane and potentially do some real damage.
So, this was bad juju. I was embarrassed, and scared, mostly because I was worried I'd dropped it where someone else was going to run it over at high speed, which conjured up all kinds of bad images in my head. I dipped the tank, and I still had 14 gallons between the two tanks, so I didn't lose too much fuel on the flight over. Maybe 2-3 gallons. Annoying, but not world-ending.
I had to find something to cover the tank opening with, but that was easily done by approaching the first mechanic I could find and begging a ziptie so I could fasten a nitrile glove over the opening for the flight home. Not terribly practical for everyday use, but enough to fly home safely.
No issues getting back to Harvey, and the instant I had the plane back in the hangar, I went for a walk to find the missing cap. I started by the fuel pump, hoping it just dropped there, which would be fairly safe. No luck. I asked the fuel truck guy, who happened to be driving by, if he'd seen a fuel cap on the ground, but he hadn't. I disconsolately walked along the taxiway, scanning as I went, distantly thankful that there wasn't more traffic trying to use the path. I did a full search grid over the run-up area, figuring that if it had miraculously ridden the wing all the way there, that's where it would be blown off, but no luck. I walked the entire length of the runway, where I located and removed a very sharp stainless steel #10 sheetmetal screw, but no sign of my gas cap.
I realized, as I was halfway down the runway (walking well off to the side, and constantly scanning for aircraft traffic, I'm not always a complete dummy) that I should check in to the maintenance office, on the off chance someone spotted it and turned it in. As I got to the north end of the runway, and turned toward the skydiving area, one of the skydiving folks walked toward me with that purposeful stride that says, "I'm going to challenge your right to be where you are." I quickly explained my situation, and she relented, telling me the tale of a dog-walker she encountered once, who nonchalantly walked his dog across the runway without apparently being aware of what he was doing.
I stopped in to the maintenance office, and before I could say anything, the woman behind the counter said, "Oh Ian, did you get my voicemail?" I gave her a dumb look and said, "Voicemail?" "Yeah," she responded, "someone turned in this gas cap and we thought it might belong to your plane..."
So, I was saved from the worst consequence of someone hitting my gas cap at high speed and causing real damage. I'm glad it fell off right at the gas pump like I'd first expected, and that it was quickly removed to safety. I'm glad I didn't have to rummage around for the spare gas cap that lives somewhere in the hangar.
I decided that I need to find a better place to stick the cap when I take it off to add fuel. I have two choices lined up to try out: one on the engine cowling, so that it will be obvious from the cockpit, and the other in my pocket, so that at least if I forget it, it won't cause anyone else any problems (and I can put it back on when I realize my mistake). I like the cowling idea better, but between the two I'm likely to have a good solution.
It occurred to me as I was walking the airport with my eyes down to the ground that I was lucky in another way: if I'd made the same mistake when intending to fly around the Olympic Peninsula, it could have easily killed me. Extrapolating from the actual fuel consumed on my trip to Jefferson County, I was losing about 4 gallons per hour extra from the tank. Presumably it would go faster if it was fuller, and slow down as it emptied out, but let's call it 4 gallons per hour on average. This plane only uses about 5-6 gallons per hour in normal operation, so I would nearly double my fuel consumption and be completely unaware of it. If I planned on having 4 hours of fuel on board, I would be in for a rude shock at about the 2 hour mark. The plane still glides with the engine off, and I tend to fly high, so I'd have some altitude to spend. But the peninsula is not full of friendly places to land, and my embarrassing error could easily have turned into a fatal one.
So, ultimately, I must both thank and curse FATPNW: without it, I probably would have felt less rushed, but I also would have been in for a longer flight (the path to Orcas is about twice as long as that to Jefferson County). I'm very glad it worked out the way it did, but I've clearly got some reforms to make in my refuelling practices.
Tue, 10 Oct 2017
Back in the Good Old Days™, I used to call bulletin board systems (BBSes) with my TRS-80 Color Computer -- the first version, though heavily modified. I had a Hayes Smartmodem 1200, and when I started calling in perhaps 1981 or 1982, I would usually connect at 300 baud. It was a rare sysop who could afford 1200 baud (we only had it because it was a loaner from my dad's work, nominally so he could call in and use the VAX remotely).
When calling either Miranda Surface Station or Tranquility Base, I would see the normal connection messages scroll by, and then just before the command prompt, I would see:
* You have a secret communique
I never figured out exactly what that meant, or how to find my secret communique. I wonder to this day what was in my secret message.
The BBSes are of course long gone, remembered on the internet only as listings of access numbers that will certainly not answer with the 2100 Hz v.8 bis handshake tone if you call them, and more generally in the BBS Documentary.
It was, in the grand scheme of technological time, a fairly short epoch. Starting around 1980 and ending around 2000 (though a few are still online and available on the internet), when landlines were king and internet access was impossible or rare, BBSes were a brief preview of what was to come from connected communications.
Mon, 09 Oct 2017
I took the opportunity last Sunday to enjoy the sunny weather from aloft, and went flying in Norbert the Champ.
I put the dipstick in the tanks, and decided that I had about 12 gallons of fuel. Plenty for the ~1 hour flight I had in mind, and it would put me in reasonable territory to drain the tanks and re-calibrate the dipstick, which had seemed a little off when I was trying to work out the math between fill-ups and gallons per hour on recent trips.
The flight went as planned, and I set up in the hangar to drain the fuel from the tanks, eventually (holy buckets does it take a long time to drain a fuel tank by the sump drain) getting about 4 gallons out of the two tanks. Given that I had just flown 1.4 hours at ~4 gph, that already suggested I was on the right track: I should have had about 6 gallons left, not 4.
The tools I had at my disposal were two 6-gallon jugs, and a "2 gallon" jug, which I decided would be my measuring container. It turned out, half way through, that it's actually a "2 gallons and 8 ounces" jug, intended for mixing 2-stroke oil with gasoline, so my measurements were on the imprecise side. I also had the magic hydrophobic funnel, which allows me to do all this fuel pouring without transferring water or other crud.
The fuel system on the Champ is very simple: two 13 gallon tanks reside in the wings, and are connected together above the fuel shutoff valve. This means that they (very slowly) cross-feed at all times, so any fuel additions would have to be to both tanks before taking a reading, to ensure I wasn't seeing one tank slowly creep up the level of the other.
The plan was this (and it worked reasonably well): go to the pumps and fill the two 6-gallon jugs with exactly 10 gallons of fuel, 5 per jug. Fill the 2-gallon jug twice, and fill each tank on the plane with 2 gallons of fuel. Dip the tanks, and mark where the fuel hit, having previously erased the old marks. Lather rinse repeat until the 10 gallons are in the tanks, then go fill the two 6-gallon jugs again and repeat the whole process.
Since I started this exercise with about four gallons of fuel, I first poured this amount into the tanks, and got my first surprise. The right tank registered about an inch of fuel on the stick. 2 gallons, marked and done. The left tank left the stick completely dry. No 2 gallon mark. (The landing gear on the left is always extended slightly further than the gear on the right, so that the left wing is several inches further from the ground at rest.)
Keep going: 4 gallon marks for each tank -- one side of the dipstick is marked RT, and one is marked LFT, but previously, the levels had been exactly the same on each side; don't ask me why there were two sides before. Interestingly, the 4 gallon mark for the left side was only about 4mm below the 4 gallon mark for the right side, suggesting that at 2 gallons, the left tank was just barely shy of hitting the stick.
So I kept going, marking 2, 4, and 6 gallons, then marking 7 when I split the final 2-gallon jug between the two tanks. I went back to the pump, and refilled with another 10 gallons, figuring I was already half-way there, so I might as well finish the job. Marked 9, then 11 gallons, although the right tank overfilled and spilled down the wing by some amount, so the final count was not terribly accurate. Presumably, the tilted wings mean that it would be possible to fill the right tank so far that it comes out the vent, when filling the left tank to the very top.
In all, I put in around 24 gallons of fuel (exactly 20 from the pumps, and about 4 that had already been there, minus the overfill), and completely filled the right tank, while the left tank got near the filler neck but didn't quite touch it. The dipstick reads about a quarter inch difference between the right and left tanks, and had been reading almost two gallons too full on the right tank, and about one gallon too full on the left.
That means I had previously thought I had half an hour more fuel than I actually did. That's a sobering error, and one that could have bitten me badly. It's a more than 10% error.
Since the 2 gallon jug was actually more than 2 gallons, and I didn't fill it to exactly the same amount each time, I'm still only going to trust the dipstick as an approximation of the fuel left in the tanks. It's a more pessimistic approximation now, though, and that suits me just fine.
Until I can redo the job with a properly calibrated filling rig, I'll live with the knowledge that I may have a little bit more fuel than the dipstick says I do, but do the math as if I don't. It's always a better surprise to find out you have more fuel than you think you do, rather than the other way around.
Sun, 24 Sep 2017
Last Christmas, I got a Stratux box as a present. This is a little Raspberry Pi tiny-computer with a couple SDR dongles attached, which will listen to aicraft traffic and show it on a tablet. But if you needed that introduction, you can definitely skip this entry, for it will go Deep Nerd on the Stratux, and be incredibly boring for you.
My particular Stratux was running version 0.8r-something (I forgot to note exactly which version it was). It worked pretty well, but on the last few flights, it started doing this thing where it would stop sending traffic to the tablet. If I pulled the power and rebooted it, it could come back for a period of time, but never for terribly long.
So, I decided I would try loading current software on it. The Stratux project is up to 1.4r2, which is a pretty substantial leap. I downloaded the upgrade script for 1.4r2, and sent it in via the Stratux web page. Once I re-joined the wifi network, all appeared to be working, so I tucked it back into the flight bag, and brought it with me for today's flight.
It all seemed to be working for the first maybe 20 minutes, but as soon as I was done with my pattern work and departed for Jefferson County to see if they had any pie left (gotta have some kind of goal, right?), I noticed I wasn't seeing traffic again.
Sighing a bit, I pulled the power and plugged it back in again, wondering if I had burnt out some part of the hardware. It wouldn't be the end of the world if I had, but how annoying. However, it didn't come back. In fact, the wifi network didn't show up again either. That was weird. Made troubleshooting harder too, since I didn't have any other way to access the Stratux than wifi.
I tried a few more times on the way to and from JeffCo, but didn't have any luck. This was just kind of piling on, since I'd already blown 40 minutes trying to retrieve a pen that mysteriously ended up in the belly fabric under the cockpit (a royal pain to deal with, and had me seriously considering whether I'd have to bring in a mechanic to solve it), and discovered that my inexpensive endoscope camera had mysteriously died between the last time I used it and today, when I really wanted it to be working, so I could locate that stupid pen. (I did ultimately get the pen out, by locating it through primitive tap-based echolocation on the fabric, then tapping it so it ended up in a spot I could reach past the baggage area.)
Anyway, discouraging to have all these things going wrong, seemingly all at once.
I brought the box home, and found some information, which I thought others might enjoy seeing as well.
The first tidbit: the green "status" light (labelled ACT on the Raspberry Pi 3) was blinking rapidly, about 5 times per second. I downloaded the source code, and found where that gets set. Unhelpfully, it does that any time the Stratux software encouters a "critical error." Not terribly specific, but I knew at least that the software was still running, though it had croaked in some fairly fundamental way.
The next tidbit: I found this bug report suggesting that other people are having a similar problem. Specifically, they saw the flashing green light, and the lack of wifi, and they were using the same 1.4r2 version that I was. One mentioned that downgrading to the older 1.2.r2 version worked correctly, so I decided I'd try that.
Since I'd upgraded the system, and it had knocked the wifi offline, the only way I could do anything with it would be to reload the SD card. So I found the Stratux release page, and located the 1.2r2 release image. Next, I had to figure out how the Stratux folks want you to blow an image onto the SD card, so it was off to the Raspberry Pi documentation page to figure it out. They want you to use some new graphical tool, but I'm sufficiently oldschool that I just wanted the dd command line. Fortunately, they have it, couched in a whole lot of "You don't know anything about Linux, so..." exposition, but they have it. I dd'd the image file onto the SD card, and have now had it running for just over 50 minutes, without apparent issues.
So, two out of three things were salvaged today: I got that stupid pen out of the belly (and it will always live in its elastic loop on the kneeboard from now on), and I got the Stratux box back into something approaching serviceable order. The endoscope continues to show a black image though, so that may be the end of that. Fortunately, it's one of the $15 variety, so it's not a huge financial hit to replace it. It was more the frustration of having a tool, needing to use it, and it not working like it should when I needed it.
An hour and 6 minutes in, and we're still showing traffic, so I'll call the Stratux upgrade/downgrade a success.
Thu, 14 Sep 2017
This was the enigmatic error message that we fought with all evening long:
"Looks like your Google Account can't go here"
But what could it mean?
My partner and I were trying to figure out how to set up an email account on the ubiquitous Gmail platform for her 10 year old son. The 10 year old part is important -- Google won't allow you to have an email address under its normal terms unless you're 13 year of age or older. The solution they offer is a thing called Family Link, which allows you to give your child an Android device with limited access to most Google services.
What Google doesn't make particularly obvious, and what their phone support agent also didn't know (he hadn't even heard of Family Link, which is apparently a new service this year) is that the only way to make it work is on an Android device. You may not use a Mac, or a Windows machine, or a Linux machine, or an iOS device, or even a Chromebook that runs Android apps (as some of them do). It needs to run Android as its base OS, or it just won't work.
My partner had acquired a Chromebook that runs Android apps, thinking quite reasonably that this would be sufficient to the task. Her reason was sound: school is teaching on actual computers equipped with keyboards, so that's the most sensible thing to have at home. Only after re-reading the descriptions very very carefully, and spending half an hour on the phone with the aforementioned clueless but engaged phone agent, did we figure out what the problem was.
Great, Just Tell Me What the Error Means
The bit that probably brought you here, though, is that useless error message. We kept running into it, everywhere we tried to go with this new Junior Google account. Log into Gmail? "Doesn't work here" Log into YouTube? "Doesn't work here" Log into Docs? You get the picture. The key is, we were trying this from regular computers, and not from the one and only one blessed Android device.
I finally pulled out my recent Huawei 8" tablet (which thankfully runs Android 7, about which more later), created a new user, and was able to finish the process, activating the Family Link account. We both breathed a sigh of relief: after claiming the son's name as a Gmail address 8 years ago, then losing access to it due to changing email accounts and overly-cautious account recovery algorithms, we were not eager to burn this slightly longer one as well. (Apparently, even if we could recover the originally-camped address, existing Gmail accounts can't be converted to Family Link accounts in any case.) She hoped to secure him a reasonably respectable and neutral Gmail address -- leave it to him to come up with a quirky and convention-defying address once he knows what he's doing online. Nothing like having to live down a parentally-inflicted email@example.com as you enter professional life.
Google's Family Link has some specific requirements you would do
well to keep in mind. Particularly, that you need an Android device
for your child which runs Android
The insistence on the device running Android also means that kids are incapable of experiencing the internet as much of the adult world does: as a mixture of mobile and desktop interfaces. At least, as regards Google's services. Now that we have the account set up on my tablet (a non-ideal solution, since the son and I may well have conflicting schedules of use), Gmail and other things are available. But only on the tablet. If you try to browse to gmail.com on any browser except the one on that particular tablet, you get the inscrutable error message which appears above.
Finally, the Actual Answer
So, to answer the question you probably came here to find answers for: the "Looks like your Google Account can't go here" error is more or less what's printed on the tin: you're using an account that's limited in some way, and according to Google's rules, the limitation prevents you from going to the place you're trying to go.
If you're using a Family Link account (internet searches suggest that this is the main way to get this error right now), go back and find a (very expensive) recent Android device and either do a factory reset on it, or create a new user (usually buried deep inside the Settings app on a phone or tablet), and follow the directions on the Family Link app on your own phone. Log in with the child's new account (Google's overuse of the word "kid" was jarring after the second instance -- a kid is a baby goat, and will never be a particularly respectful term for a young human) on your Expensive New Device That You Wouldn't Normally Hand to a Child (ENDTYWNHC), and it should Just Work.
Keep in mind that the only way to access those Google account services is via that one ENDTYWNHC, and you'll be golden. Forget it at home and need to check your child's email? Tough. Google's compromise account for children is sufficiently limited that you might be better off just fibbing on their age and getting them a normal Gmail account with some other, more flexible parental control software.
Update to the Original Post
September 15 Update: I was wrong about the versions of Android that support Family Link: it's only v7 (Nougat) devices that all support it, with a small number of v6 (Marshmallow) devices on a list. There's no support of any v5 devices, which I had incorrectly said above.
The market for inexpensive Nougat devices isn't quite as dire as I'd seen on my first glance -- we were able to find a $130 Acer 10" tablet that will do the job well, and paired with a $30 keyboard case, it'll very nearly look like a laptop. That's still a lot of money to spend on something to hand to a typical young human, but at least it's (just) under $200.
We were also pleasantly surprised to find that any number of devices could apparently be set up using the restricted child's account. After all the run-around we'd been through, it would have been logical to find that there was literally only one device the account could exist on, but that was not the case.
Tue, 22 Aug 2017
My "campsite" in the dawn light
I awoke on Friday morning ready to face the day's flying. As usual, I woke up as the sky showed the sun's progress toward our horizon. The placement of the airplane between myself and the sources of light worked well, and my sleep that night had been a bit more restful than previous nights in the tent. It wasn't as if I was sleeping in my own bed, but I had at least gotten the temperature right, and didn't wake up as many times in the night.
In my planning for the flight back, I had looked at the flight from Ashland (S03), and reconsidered my fuel stop. On the way down, Roseburg (RBG) had made sense to give myself two-hour legs headed south, but it left me with only an hour and a half necessary to reach Ashland. I wanted to start the day with a longer flight, so I had filed the flight plan to Eugene (EUG), an additional 60 miles beyond Roseburg.
A flight plan for my kind of flying is an interesting beast. Its main purpose in life is to have someone else there to check in on you. It is effectively declaring, "I will fly from XYZ to ABC, leaving at this hour, and taking this long to do it." When you take off, you call up the local Flight Services station on the radio, and ask to activate your flight plan, giving the actual departure time if it's different from what you planned.
The plan is opened, and practically speaking, nothing further happens until you either close the plan, or the time enroute expires. If the time expires, they have an escalation policy, that goes something like:
If the first step doesn't yield any results, they move on to the next step, trying to locate the pilot who is now overdue. They keep moving up the steps until they find you, dead or alive.
Usually, I'm pretty good about remembering to give them a call either on the radio shortly before I land (wherever I land is inevitably outside radio range once I'm on the ground), or on the phone shortly after I land. On the one occasion this trip where I forgot to call and close my flight plan, I got a call within about a minute of the planned arrival time, and I sheepishly said that yes, I was down safely, and apologized for not closing the plan.
The cool thing is, it's really quite effective. If I were to have a problem enroute, I have a double safety: I'm talking to Air Traffic Control to have them watch out for traffic that might get too close, and I've got the Flight Service folks who will trigger escalating searches for me if I don't show up at the planned time.
ATC, being in contact with me, is very likely to get a call from me saying something's wrong, if something goes wrong. I carry a spare, battery-powered radio specifically to cover the case of a full electrical system failure. Even if they don't get a radio call from me, I've told them where I'm headed, and if they see me suddenly descend or go wildly off-track, they'll call me trying to figure out what's going on. If they can't reach me and I drop off the radar, they note where I dropped off, how fast I was going (both laterally and vertically) and what direction I was headed. They now have a very good idea where to send the SAR folks.
If, for some reason, ATC doesn't notice me drop out of the system, Flight Services will start ringing bells when I go overdue. All the radar information and radio calls are recorded for later review, or to assist with a search operation. By having myself logged in to the system to use VFR flight-following (which is the term for this kind of casual ATC contact), they will specifically track my plane, and can identify it on the radar screen at all times.
Heading out of Ashland, toward Medford
In any case, I had filed the first flight plan of the day for Ashland to Eugene. It would be something like two and a half hours, but I had discovered that I could withstand 3 hours in the plane at a time. My estimation of which was the biggest problem with the pilot's throne in Norbert vacillated between the coccyx-bending seat cushion and the lock-kneed rudder pressure, but as time went on, the tailbone pressure was winning the award for Most Annoying.
I don't know if you've experienced continuous, unshifting pressure on your tailbone for any real length of time, but if you haven't, take it from me that it is a literal and very real pain in the butt.
I had decided that for this leg, I would not take the shortcut over the mountains that I had taken on the way down, direct between Medford and Roseburg, skipping Grant's Pass (3S8). I wasn't pressed for time now, and preferred to keep the big safety net of I-5 under me.
Mountains peeking above the smoke
I'm very glad I followed my planned path. I ended up seeing the most ridiculously beautiful smoke + mountain vistas. The pictures don't really do the sight justice, but I'll see if I can do a bit of post-processing later to bring out what I was seeing from my fabric-covered cockpit.
Smoke swirls across the landscape like water flowing in a stream
The smoke cleared as I hit Roseburg, and I was treated to the sight of my previous fuel stop from 8500 feet in the air.
Roseburg (RBG) from above. North is to the upper-right.
The hills that housed Roseburg gradually smoothed out, and turned into foothills, which turned into ripples, followed by plowed fields, until I was looking down runway 34R at EUG. ATC directed me to make a straight-in landing to runway 34R, which makes my longest-ever straight-in approach, of something like 30 miles.
The amount of time it took to actually descend and reach the runway was kind of comical. I was still going the same ~85 MPH as I'd ever gone, but it was like one of those uncomfortable sketch comedy routines where it just keeps going and going. It goes from funny to annoying to boring to really annoying to funny again. I could only imagine the poor controllers in the Eugene tower were looking pointedly at their watches, kindling a fire on the exterior platform and pointedly roasting marshmallows, pointedly spawning new generations of controllers, and generally making a big deal out of how very slowly I was moving. Not really, but it was fun to think about.
I got clearance from the tower to land on 34R pretty early on, maybe 8 miles out. It really was ridiculous how long it took me to actually arrive and land.
I did finally touch tires to tarmac, and after a minor miscommunication with the ground controller, got myself taxied over to the self-serve fuel. There was a lovely Fairchild high-wing monoplane just taxiing away as I pulled up, and I gave them an enthusiastic thumbs-up out the window. It took me 2.5 hours from Ashland to Eugene, and obviously most of that was the approach to landing. I had departed Ashland at 8:40, and shut down in front of the fuel tanks in Eugene a few minutes before 11. (If the math seems a bit off, I had started the motor ten minutes before I departed Ashland, and the official 2.5 hour time is motor-start to motor-shutdown.)
Eugene was a brief stop, and I was quickly back in the air and headed for Scappoose (SPB). I had briefly toyed with the idea of stopping in Salem for lunch, but I really wasn't feeling hungry, so I decided to stick to the original plan. As I flew past Salem, I was glad I'd kept to the plan, since it appeared too quickly after I'd taken off, so that I would have felt like I'd flown too short a leg.
The flight to Scappoose was unremarkable, until Seattle Center handed me off to Portland Approach. Portland was apparently busy that afternoon, and I was shuffled past Hillsboro (HIO), and commanded to "Maintain VFR flight at or below 4000 feet." Normally they give a nice "Descend and maintain" instruction, but this was like a gym teacher saying, "Drop and give me 20!" I lost altitude from 6500 as quickly as I figured was prudent, directly over the Hillsboro airport. There was a mass of dots on my traffic display over Hillsboro, but I figured 4000 feet would still be well clear of them.
Finally I was given the instruction to resume my own navigation, and I continued over the ridge toward Scappoose, one eye tracking an airplane 1500 feet below me that was zigzagging around directly below my flight path.
Scappoose was also experiencing an aerial festival of some sort, and I counted at least four aircraft calling positions in the traffic pattern over the airport. I found my way behind a twin, and followed him in to land, glad that we were landing to the north, so that my taxi to fuel wouldn't take as long.
Norbert with Dave Baxter and son's Stardusters
I noticed as I taxied in that there were temporary-looking signs declaring a ground control frequency. Then I noticed a blue biplane crossing the runway, and called on the radio to see if it was who I thought it was. Yep: Dave Baxter, unofficial head honcho of the Starduster Too fanclub. That made two unofficial biplane head honchos I'd run into on this trip.
I gassed up, and chatted with another pilot in line for fuel, who had a slightly cartoonish looking composite Light Sport plane (I wish I'd taken a picture), which he said flew 150 knots or something ridiculously fast like that, using a Rotax 912, which is more or less the same engine as in Norbert (note to airplane people: I know, I know -- I'm writing this for everyone though, not just aviation nerds). It was hard to believe it was so much faster on just 10 HP more.
While I was there, I bought another quart of oil at the FBO, even though the oil level in my engine hadn't reached an uncomfortably low level. I wanted to check my hypothesis that the oil temperature on climb would be lower with more oil in the tank.
Then I taxied over and parked Norbert next to Dave's Stardusters to say hello. I flew with Dave last year, when he very kindly took me up for an hour of Starduster time, which was also my first time in an open-cockpit biplane. We chatted for a bit, and he ran off to get me some spare temper foam he had lying around, to see if it would help with my increasingly uncomfortable seat.
I had to excuse myself again as I had with Glenn and Judi in Placerville, since I wanted to continue on. I felt bad, because Norbert was a logical addition to the vintage aircraft fly-in they were having. It would have been interesting to stay and see what other cool vintage planes showed up, but I knew I had hungry kitties at home who would be sad if I didn't feed them.
Headed toward Kelso and some friendly puffy clouds
My parents' house is in Scappoose, and I debated flying over it to make sure it was still standing, but decided I needed to make forward progress rather than lollygagging around. I continued my climb toward Kelso (KLS), oddly pleased to see a layer of puffy clouds -- I was finally back to weather conditions that made sense to my Northwest-raised brain. I had initially thought to fly this leg at 6500 feet, but ended up climbing further for 8500 when I saw that the clouds topped at around 5000 (technically I only need 1000 feet over the tops of the clouds to be legal, but legal and comfortable are different things).
I noticed as I climbed that the oil temperature was indeed a bit lower. The highest temperature I'd noticed in climb was about 215° F, climbing out of Bakersfield to cross the Grapevine, with 3.9 quarts in the engine. The climb to Kelso was with 5 quarts, and the temperature only reached about 195°. Just flying around Seattle, the highest I'd previously seen was about 180°.
Around Chehalis (CLS), I started to worry that the clouds were bunching up, and that I might have trouble finding a hole to get through further along. There was a handy break in the clouds just under me, so I called ATC and told them I'd be "maneuvering" to get below the cloud deck. If you count a more than 90° turn and droppling like a rock through the hole as "maneuvering."
I found myself now flying at 3200 feet over the rolling hills of central Washington, and the flight had gone from perfectly smooth to rough and tumble as the wind rolled over the hills and took me on the rollercoaster with it. I aimed for Olympia Regional (OLM) to avoid some military airspace that chatter on the frequency had suggested to me might be active. I reached calmer air as I got over the water south of Tacoma Narrows (TIW).
Seattle in the distance, beyond Blake Island
Now in the home stretch and on my home turf, I cruised up the Kitsap Peninsula, over Winslow on Bainbridge Island, and crossed the water to get a picture of my house in Ballard, then diagonal up to Harvey Field.
While I was looking for my house in Ballard, the controller called me up, and mentioned that I was 200 feet below the approach path of a major turbojet route. Alarmed, I asked him if I needed to change where I was flying, and he clarified: he was commending me for using flight following in the area, and said they were trying to advertise to pilots that they should do this around Boeing Field (BFI). I concurred heartily and assured him that I was usually talking to ATC if I was flying here (which is true). He voiced his pleasure at hearing this. It was an interesting exchange, because I frequently think of requesting flight following in the Seattle area as being a burden on controllers rather than something they want to be doing.
He cut me loose as I crossed the north end of Lake Washington after warning about a business jet crossing my path 500 feet above (quickly spotted, unlike most of the traffic that ATC calls out for me). I made my descent over the ridge, called a few position reports, lined up for a longish base leg into runway 33R at Harvey Field (S43), and was quickly on the ground and rolling for my hangar after a pleasantly smooth landing.
Norbert safely tucked into its hangar
Groaning a bit with the exhaustion of flying 15.7 hours in two days, I heaved myself out of the cockpit, and slowly unpacked the plane. I repacked all my stuff into the car. I did the post-flight tasks. I didn't really want it to be over, but it was time to go home.
I accomplished my goals for the trip: I flew to LA in a 1956 Champion 7EC; my flight planning was sufficiently good that I was opening all my flight plans within half an hour of expected departure; I got to fly with my brother; I got to visit a Marquart Charger and go for a short flight. Even the weather had mostly cooperated (though I would have accepted less overcast at the start, and less heat through central California).
There are no profound lessons to be learned from this flight. Or, if there are, they'll come to me over the next year or two. There are some mundane lessons, like, "Remember to check the winds aloft," or "Find a better seat cushion," or "It is possible to pack that much stuff safely into Norbert's baggage areas." Even, "Yes, it really doesn't go any faster than a slightly speeding car, but at least you can fly in a straightish line."
Returning to work this week has been a little bit of a let-down. I'd rather (as the license plate frames say) be flying.
Mon, 21 Aug 2017
Previously: Tulare to LA, and Flying with David
Aside from a somewhat dodgy choice of hotels (maybe avoid the Travelodge Pasadena Central -- it's cheap, but it's also cheap), my stay in LA was pretty cool. David and Tara, his wife, were fun to hang out with, and in addition to getting to spend time with them, we also went to the California Science Center, which was one of the tiny handful of museums which received a Space Shuttle when the shuttle program was decommissioned. It was very cool to see the shuttle in person. The trip was well worth it even if that's all I'd done. I was still eagerly drinking it all in as the closing hour drew nigh, though my companions were nearing done with artifacts of the space program.
On the flight down, I'd found myself squinting uncomfortably into the sun as I flew south, and had finally grokked what ball caps were good for: my full-brim sun hat, though effective and good for most things, simply wouldn't fit under the headset. I figured a NASA baseball cap would be the closest I'd ever get to actually wanting to wear one, so I grabbed just such an item from the Space Shuttle Endeavor gift shop, exclusively for use while flying.
It was odd saying farewell so far before my actual departure, but the timing of things meant that I said goodbye to Tara shortly after dinner on my departure eve, and David and I said goodbye around 10 that night. They both had work in the morning, and the directions everyone was driving meant that it was far more sensible for me to take a taxi to the airport than any other choice.
So, I prepped that night and got everything as ready as I could. David and I had stopped by the Vons supermarket earlier in the night and I'd picked up my flight snacks. We also made a trip to Sprouts, which seems to be the LA equivalent of the Puget Consumer's Coop, so I could get slightly less terrible candy-style snacks than Vons carried.
My plan was to try to launch by 9 am the next morning. I figured that would mean about half an hour of getting to the airport, and at least 45 minutes of packing, preflighting the plane, getting fuel aboard, paying bills with Billion Air Aviation (everything's bigger in LA: I'd passed several Million Air Aviation FBOs already on the trip, but LA just had to one-up them), etc. So I called the taxi for 7:30 am on Thursday.
As expected, I was awake before the alarm went off (I never sleep very well when I know I have an early alarm, probably out of anxiety I'll oversleep and miss it), and went down to check out the breakfast offered as part of my room price at the Travelodge. It was better than I'd expected, and I had a waffle from the waffleautomat and half of an indifferent bagel with cream cheese from a little blister pack, along with a nearly ripe banana. I found I wasn't very hungry though, being somewhat anxious about my day's itinerary.
Norbert was alert and ready to go
The weather was as close to perfect as I could have asked for. The previous days I'd been aware of had all had a heavy marine overcast layer in the morning that wouldn't burn off until almost midday, but on this day, it was bright and clear (for LA) when I checked upon waking. Good thing, too, because the flight plans I'd filed had outlined that I needed to make an early launch if I wanted to actually reach Ashland by sunset.
As it happened, things continued well as I went to the airport. I got a friendly, chatty cab driver, and we spent the whole ride discussing engines, airplanes, cars, racing, motorcycles, and more engines. After he dropped me off, he asked if he could come see the plane, so I took him back and showed him Norbert, with its very simple instrument panel, and the engine, which is really just an overgrown VW Bug engine. The Continental C90 under Norbert's engine cowl, which produces 90 HP, displaces about 200 cubic inches, or almost 3.3 liters, vs. the last generation Bug engine, which produces about 65 HP from 1.6 liters. The Beetle engine gets to turn twice as fast as the Continental, though, since the Conti is limited to 2500 RPM.
Residential Pasadena, looking westish, with the Rose Bowl just visible in the distance
The fuel truck rolled quickly, and I got the plane packed faster than I'd expected, so that I found myself starting the engine at 8:42, and starting my enthusiastic trundle down the runway at 8:51, a full nine minutes ahead of schedule. Norbert eased off terra firma, gained a bit of speed, and we proceeded confidently into the LA permasmog. Of course, the air was perfectly smooth, and I thought wistfully of David, even now on his way to his office. Hindsight, as he commented a couple text messages later, is 20/20.
In the comparatively cool morning air, we climbed with admirable speed, and it didn't take long before I was passing the Burbank airspace and climbing for my mountain-traversing 8500 feet. The mountains didn't seem so daunting as I flew northbound, mostly because they were no longer Terra Incognita for me.
Mountains receding to the east, toward the Mojave Desert
The trip back, like most trips back, seemed to take much less time than the trip down had. There's something in our psychological makeup that makes it much simpler to retrace footsteps in reverse than it is to follow that path the first time. Of course, it took a similar amount of time, but it seemed to go by much quicker. I also finished the bulk of Ruby 2 as I traversed the San Joaquin valley, which may have contributed to the effect.
Flying past Burbank and headed into the mountains, making good time in favorable wind
I noticed, while I was in LA, that I had a weird itchy spot on my left leg. I couldn't remember if I'd scratched myself there and perhaps it was getting infected, or quite what could have caused it. It was sort of a low-grade rash, but there was something familiar about it. Right above the knee, and it certainly felt like an allergic reaction.
My first stop was Porterville (PTV), which had been a planned stop on the way down. It had the cheapest fuel in the area, but was otherwise unremarkable, at least in my mental state as I was passing through. When I unstrapped the kneeboard from my left leg, I suddenly realized what must have caused the rash. I turned the kneeboard over, and sure enough, it was bright shiny metal right where it had been resting on the rash. Well, it used to be bright shiny metal. It was nickel, and I inadvertently confirmed that I am still allergic to nickel (a process which quickly corrodes and renders dull whatever nickel I'm in contact with). I filled the tanks, and continued on, stopping only 20 minutes on the ground. I departed from Porterville at 11:15 am, and aimed myself at Tracy (TCY), another cheapest-fuel-in-the-area airport. A washcloth was laid carefully under the kneeboard to prevent further nickel contact.
The trip to Tracy (which I chose for scenic variety as much as anything else, though it didn't end up being terribly different from other airports in the valley) was remarkable for one reason: I spotted and reported a fire that had apparently not yet been reported. I'd heard some discussion of reporting fires to ATC in the weeks before my trip, particularly with the wildfire smoke sweeping down into Seattle, and I wondered at the time if I'd have occasion to do such a thing. The possibility seemed remote.
A fire burning in a field near Merced Regional (MCE)
Yet here I was. I called up the controller and asked if they'd had a fire reported near my position. She didn't think so, and asked a few detail questions: could I tell what was burning? What was the exact location? I answered as best I could -- I initially thought I was approaching a couple of low-lying clouds, which seemed weird. It took about five minutes of approaching the clouds before I realized they must be smoke, and I started looking for the source. Finally I saw it, and reported back that it was a field burning, about 2 miles off my right wing, bordered by a canal to the north. She thanked me, and presumably sent off a report to regional fire authorities.
The remainder of the flight to Tracy was unremarkable, though it was on the western edge of the valley; if I had kept flying west, I would have crossed the hills into the Bay Area. As I descended, it became clear that there were a number of people flying around the airport, and it took me a little bit to figure out how to insert myself safely into the traffic pattern.
Once I was in, I was following a Cessna a little bit too closely, banking on Norbert's relatively glacial speed to get us a little bit of separation. Fortunately, my plan worked, and it was aided when the Cessna made an uncomfortable-looking touchdown, thought better of it, and goosed it to go around and try that landing again. I asked over the radio if he'd run into a crosswind (gusting crosswinds are kind of a nightmare in a taildragger like Norbert, and I'd never really dealt with one before, so I was a little worried), and he gave me a one-syllable answer that I couldn't interpret. Another voice came on the radio and said, "Yeah, there's a bit of a crosswind down here." I thanked her, and determined to do my best.
As it happened, I needn't have worried. There was indeed a crosswind, but it wasn't very strong, and at least for my landing, was pretty steady. I got the plane on the ground with a minimum of squealing tires and bounces -- the oleo gear in the Champ really does make non-bouncing arrivals easier than they should be -- and taxied to the fuel tank.
It was 1:30 when I shut down the engine, and I decided I should probably eat my lunch at Tracy. After a moment of panic that I'd broken the fueling protocol when I forgot to press the START button (which apparently reset the counters), a guy in an official-looking truck pulled up, and we looked helplessly at the squat industrial boxes as he explained that the person who actually knew the system was out. Then, minutes after I thought it should have happened, the self-serve console beeped and printed out my receipt. It listed the correct amount, about 11 gallons. We both heaved a sigh of relief. I asked him about bathrooms, and he pointed to a trailer with PUBLIC RESTROOMS printed on it in big bold letters, and when asked about lunching shelters, pointed to a covered picnic table. Good enough for me. I had my supermarket lunch of bread and cheese and a brownie as I listened to the ravens cawing at each other from lamppost to fence. The trailer bathrooms were, miracle of miracles, air conditioned and pleasantly cool.
A cool construction that gave every house waterfront access
Norbert's tires lost contact with Tracy's runway at 2:45 pm, and I aimed our path towards Willows (WLW), where I'd stopped on the way down. The path was quite different, coming from Tracy as I was, and I found myself flying over a fascinating series of canals and waterways, including the one pictured above, which seemed to provide a large number of houses, each with its own dock jutting out into the water. The water around the houses was connected to all these canals and waterways, which seemed to stretch in a network for miles and miles.
Eventually, I left the waterways behind me, as I listened to Ruby 1 ripping the jacket off Rodant Kapoor, button by button and piece by piece, as he emceed a concert on live holovision, to his complete spluttering displeasure. It was understandable: poor Ruby had been attacked by the Slimeys, genetically engineered assassins, and one of them said Rodant had hired them. What a pickle for poor Rodant, framed by Horace Wimpy!
Willows was just as I had left it. As I came in, a Cherokee coming from the southeast tried to sneak in front of me, but gave up when he realized we were trying to land on conflicting runways, and he hadn't spotted me yet. I didn't have him in sight either, but I had him on the traffic display, and after we'd both landed he came up to ask what I was using that had allowed me to see his location. I showed him my tablet and Stratux box. He admitted to feeling a bit rusty, and I congratulated him on not landing on runway 31 like he'd been planning on, since it would have been a 5+ knot downwind landing (downwind landings can dramatically increase landing distance, and it's pretty easy to run off the end of the runway doing them; pilots who want to have long flying carers avoid downwind landings if at all possible). When I departed Willows shortly thereafter, I chose runway 13, the opposite direction of 31, as the one best aligned with the wind.
I launched from Willows as quickly as possible, mostly because it was still beastly hot: 35° C, 95° F. In fact, we left the ground at 5:10 pm to fly our final leg of the day, to Ashland. Since the planned flight time was only a bit over two and a half hours, I felt confident we would be able to make it before sunset. Surprised it had all worked so well, but confident nonetheless.
Mt. Shasta with considerably less smoke obscuring its flanks
The flight to Ashland was livened up by a call from air traffic control as I was passing Mt. Shasta: there was a much faster plane behind me, on exactly the same path (a logical rubber-band-line between airports). He asked me to divert, and I found myself briefly aimed straight west instead of the north I had been going. I finally spotted the plane as it passed me by, a thousand feet below off my right wing and, indeed, going much faster. In the monocular, it looked like it might be a Cherokee, although your basic Cherokee isn't that much faster than the Champ.
Air traffic control lost radar contact with me as I descended toward the Ashland airport (as expected), and let me loose to fend for myself. I had a moment where my brain couldn't make sense of the scene in front of me before it snapped into mental focus, and I saw that the Ashland airport was still behind a hill. I thanked them (as always) for their help, and landed at Ashland a whole fifteen minutes before sunset. I felt like I was losing my razors-edge timing.
Sunset as seen over Norbert's nose
I fueled up and picked a spot far from the sodium lights, strategically placing Norbert between tent and rotating beacon for the night. It was a better setup than the first time through.
As I ate my dinner at Skinner Aviation's picnic table, a gent walked by with his dog, and we ended up chatting for an hour. He had spent many years living in Ballard, the same neighborhood I live in now, and we discovered that we're both theater folks, he being employed working in the scene shop for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. It was a delightful end to a long but fulfilling day of flying my plane from Los Angeles to Ashland.
And now I've broken the rule of internet articles which ask a question as their headline, by answering "yes:" a Champ can, in fact, fly from LA to Ashland in one day.
Sun, 20 Aug 2017
The crop duster takes on his 500 gallons(!) of pesticide while Norbert wakes up
The Grapevine (as I understood it at the time -- research now suggests I've got the wrong name) is a range of mountains that stretches roughly east-west north of Los Angeles. As I chatted with the crop duster pilot that already-hot morning at Mefford Field in Tulare, CA, he casually mentioned, "Are you worried about going over the Grapevine?"
Well, I hadn't been, until he mentioned it.
I had, as expected, slept poorly at Mefford Field. Between the heat and the freeway noise (somewhat attenuated by wearing earplugs, but that introduced its own discomfort), I woke up frequently, and slept only lightly. Still, I did sleep, and I didn't feel particularly tired when the brightening sky woke me up around 6.
The other thing that had woken me up was some variety of large truck trundling by, its diesel engine loud against the backdrop of commuters on the freeway. It pulled up and parked nearby, and I figured it would be prudent to get up and see if I'd inadvertently parked the plane in the way of someone's activities for the day. A man popped his head around my plane, and I asked if I was in the way; he said no, but that they were about to make a whole lot of noise.
I arose to see a tanker truck parked 30 feet away, with a caged area in back where a man in white coveralls was already busily mixing something from slickly packaged white cardboard boxes. My suspicion was confirmed when one of the crop dusters rolled up, its big turbine motor screaming oddly as it idled. The gent in the coveralls dragged a big hose over and attached it to a port on the plane. Pesticides. I thought it was hilarious that they were packed up in very clean, white boxes with a colorful swoosh on the side, looking like packaging for shoes or industrial toilet paper more than semi-controversial chemicals.
I ended up chatting with the ground support guy and the pilot both, at different times. The ground guy was talkative, and was much easier to talk to, since the plane wasn't sitting there screaming for most of our chat. The pilot seemed very nice, though between his noise-cancelling headphones and my earplugs against the turbine noise, we said relatively little to each other.
Then he made his comment about crossing the Grapevine, and I started worrying that maybe I was taking the whole thing too lightly. I walked behind their hangar to escape the noise, and made my requisite call to Flight Services to check the weather.
It was great in the San Joaquin valley, where I was, but in the Los Angeles basin, there was a heavy overcast, and the briefer didn't think it would burn off until 11 am or later. It would take me most of my flying time before I would encounter the overcast, so this wasn't a huge deal, but it meant I couldn't really start the trip in earnest for a couple of hours from that point.
Mefford Field, although many things, was not a place I felt like hanging around for a few hours. I googled up "california airports with restaurants" or something, and found that Bakersfield Muni (L45) in Bakersfield had a cafe attached that sounded interesting: the Rocket Cafe. Bakersfield was just about an hour's flight from Tulare, so I packed myself up and alighted into the intangible aether at 9 am almost to the second.
A town amidst the fields, somewhere north of Bakersfield
The flight to Bakersfield was uneventful, and I passed the time by listening to Ruby 2, a somewhat inscrutable sci-fi radio drama from the 1980s that my brother and I used to listen to. Every so often, Bakersfield Approach or Norcal Approach would interrupt the story with a radio call, but since I've had the story memorized for decades, this was no real impediment.
Land in the San Joaquin valley seems to be largely given over to agriculture, which makes sense for an enormous flat plain with lots of sun and reasonable access to water. Occasional towns dot the landscape, connected by long threads of freeways.
Eventually Bakersfield hove into view, and I navigated around Meadows Field (BFL) to the smaller Bakersfield Muni, a few flight-minutes further south. I dropped down and taxied into the parking area for the Rocket Cafe.
The Cafe itself is a large room with a bar, many tables, and profuse displays of sports memorabilia. Pretty much what you'd expect from an airport bar. I ordered an omelette with hashbrowns and a glass of orange juice as I continued reading the pulp WWI book I'd picked up for my brother David, who's researching for a story set in an alternate WWI timeline.
An hour and a half after shutting down the engine, I was firing it up again, wondering how slow the takeoff would be in the heat of a Bakersfield summer day (about 100° F; answer: not substantially worse than all the other fields I'd departed in the high 90s). Breakfast sat comfortably in my belly, and the weather reports around LA had shown complete improvement, so there was nothing to stop me from continuing with the trip (but the air conditioning in the restaurant was sure nice, and I took the opportunity to charge a radio that had been doing excellent work).
I-5 running straight as an arrow toward the pass south of Bakersfield
As I flew toward the mountains, I realized that there was no way I was going to climb high enough to be comfortable before I reached them, so I started doing the flying equivalent of switchbacks, zig-zagging over the valley trying to gain altitude. I initially aimed for 7500 feet, but eventually climbed up to 9500 as the mountains loomed larger.
Because I was so high, the actual traversal of the mountains was completely uneventful, though Norbert's oil temperature was creeping higher with every climb, so I was keeping an eye on it in the heat. I tried to spot the handful of airports that the map showed were present, but only saw one or two. My ability to recognize airports improved noticeably during the trip, but Agua Dulce (L70) remained hidden to me.
The final pass, with LA in the hazy distance
I told my air traffic controller that I would start my descent as I passed over the final mountain toward Burbank, but he had me stay high to allow jet traffic to pass under me. That was an odd feeling, to be flying over the jets in a Champ. I had several altitude holds as I descended toward El Monte (EMT), my final destination. The LA airspace is quite busy.
Finally I was allowed down, and made the approach to El Monte. The tower told me to turn for the base turn into landing over the 210, but since I didn't know where that was (I was directly over it, as it happened), his explanation delayed me until it made more sense to make a straight-in approach. I landed at El Monte and shut down at 1:06 pm, 48 hours and six minutes, and 15.8 flight hours, after I'd departed Harvey Field in Snohomish.
Flying with David
Norbert on the ground at El Monte
My brother has never flown with me before. Since he lives in LA, and I live in Seattle, the factors have never come together before. Additionally, he's preparing to write a story about a plucky young woman who successfully flies a WWI era monoplane against all odds as part of her adventure, and I've been consulting with him on technical aspects of the airplanes and tech in the story. It was completely logical that we should go for a flight together to put some of the theory we'd been talking into practice.
We drove to the airport (a day and a half, and one very welcome shower, after my arrival), and I gave him the preflight speech as we drove. Which control does what, what to do in a variety of foreseeable emergencies, the order of events and what to expect, etc. We went over the plane, and I gave him a narrated preflight inspection. It was all good material for the book.
We strapped in and called the tower for takeoff clearance. I had reset the video camera to record full-speed video, so that he could have a visual reminder of what we'd done. Unfortunately it's not set up to record our intercom audio, which is too bad. We took off to the south, and followed the traffic pattern to depart the area to the northeast. The air was bumpy from all the heat rising off the pavement, though not unusually so.
I had forgotten, in the many years since we were children, that David used to get seasick on the sailboat we had. It briefly crossed my mind that morning, but I forgot to mention it in the preflight discussion. It turns out this sensitivity hasn't changed.
We flew over to the practice area east of El Monte, and discussed the various features on the ground. He mentioned he was feeling a bit ill, so I decided we would avoid the more strenuous maneuvers I'd been planning to demonstrate -- nothing aggressive, but steep turns can be tough on the ol' motion sickness.
I demonstrated a power-off stall (David's wife had given me a very disapproving look when I mentioned we'd try stalls, and I had to explain why it was safe, and wasn't as bad as it probably sounded; in brief, a stall makes the wings fly less efficiently, but if you do it a couple thousand feet in the air, it's simple to recover from, and offers basically no danger -- it's something every student pilot learns to do early on). I demonstrated a power-on stall. David said, "Oh, I think I'm gonna throw up," and I heard him anxiously opening up one of the airsick bags helpfully tucked into a little pocket directly in front of the passenger. The mic went quiet for a minute, then he returned, saying, "Ugh, but I feel better now."
We decided to return to the airport and land, to reassess if it made any sense to continue flying. We were quickly down, and David said he felt better, so I restarted the motor and we went up again, with the goal of giving him at least a few minutes of stick time. Before we'd even made it to pattern altitude, another bag came out, and I called the tower back to ask for a return to the lovely, stable ground.
He felt bad for cutting the flight short, but I assured him it was no trouble: through the previous owner's foresight, there were airsick bags ready for use, and the only downside to the adventure from my point of view was that I had two fewer airsick bags now. I felt bad that the motion was bad enough to make him sick, but there was no way to control it in that situation. It's too bad we didn't go flying on the previous, overcast day, simply because the air probably would have been calmer. But, as he said, hindsight is 20/20. He was still able to get up in the air, and despite getting ill, had a good time. Who knows, maybe his plucky young woman adventurer will also suffer a bout of airsickness, now.
Sat, 19 Aug 2017
In the previous episode, I described getting myself from the Seattle area to Ashland, OR.
Hint: my tent is in the corner
I didn't sleep well in Ashland, overwhelmed by the sound of crickets and cars occasionally driving by on the road behind the airport. I was too warm to start, and then too cold until I woke up and dragged the sleeping bag over me. The sky started lightening around 5:30, and I was thoroughly awake by 6.
I'd planted the tent in front of a parking spot for the Brim Aviation hangar. As I was making my somewhat bleary way to upright, someone parked further down the lot, and came over, asking if he could help me (I had the impression he thought I was homeless). I explained that I was flying through and had sought a dark place to sleep, and he laughed. He said it was a good thing I was up, because they were about to get really busy with fire-fighting flights.
I finished packing myself up, and got the weather briefing on the phone (I was pleased to find that the terrible cell coverage I'd expected was actually pretty good, particularly once I was on the ground). Nothing of note except the smoke, which was going strong from a number of local fires. Norbert looked surprisingly majestic in the early-morning light as I packed up and got myself ready to go.
Norbert in the sunrise light
I got myself oriented, and taxied out to runway 12, surprising a deer as I went. It bounded over a wire fence, then turned to look at me curiously as I trundled past in my green and black plane. I lined up on the runway, and launched at 8:18 am. Someone had called on the advisory frequency that there were a pair of heavy military helicopters transiting the area, and they passed me by as I climbed away from Ashland, making altitude to get over the pass just south of town.
Two heavy military helicopters passed me by
Up and over the pass -- for some reason, it was really fascinating to see the roadworks under me as I flew over I-5 -- and into the valley beyond, for my first tantalizing view of Mt. Shasta. The smoke was pretty heavy, and I ended up climbing all the way up to 9500 feet (the highest altitude I aimed for on this trip, though I reached it several times) to get clear of the smoke. The smoke continued to have its interesting scent, but I blew my nose orange afterwards, so I think I'm happier to have not lingered there.
The route that I-5 follows after Ashland is well defined by a series of distinct small mountains to the east. I had a vague impression that they might have been formed by a giant putting down a series of toy mountains and arranging them for a pleasing visual effect. Of course, I viewed all this through a layer of smoke, and the haziness contributed to the dreamlike feeling of it.
Onward and upward. I finally reached 9500 feet, and leveled out to cruise above the smooth white layer of smoke. I noticed an odd optical illusion, where when I looked at something that I thought was level with me, evidence told me it was actually lower. For instance, I would have sworn the smoke layer was level with me as I passed Mt. Shasta, but I knew for a fact that it was between five hundred and a thousand feet below me. The illusion was particularly strong when looking at mountain peaks. I'd spot one that I was sure I'd smack into if I flew over it, and on the chart it said the actual elevation was two thousand feet below me.
Mt. Shasta from 9500 feet, civilization just visible below
Once past Mt. Shasta (which has its own weather station, that I tuned into as I passed), it was over the many-tentacled Shasta Lake, and on to the broad, flat valley that starts at Redding, and continues south all the way to the Grapevine mountains that spread north of LA.
My next stop was at Willows (WLW), which I had initially (ha!) planned to be my first day's stop. It took me nearly 3 hours to fly from Ashland to Willows, and although I could have done it had I launched exactly on schedule, I'm really glad I didn't. The remainder of the flight to Willows was unremarkable except for one thing: the temperature inversion.
As I descended into Willows, the temperature on my $6 aquarium thermometer (with the temperature probe jammed into the little fresh-air vent around ankle level), the temperature slowly climbed from about 20° C at altitude to the high 20s, then there was a palpable spike. I wasn't looking at the meter as I descended, but I could feel it as I passed into the inversion. Suddenly it seemed like it was 10° C hotter.
Willows, CA (WLW)
On the ground in Willows, it was hot and dry. I pulled up to the self serve tank, and filled the plane up. I had been in communication with Glenn, who I was hoping to visit in Placerville (PVF), both to meet him, and to see his airplane. As you can read elsewhere, I'm just starting on a project to build a Marquart Charger biplane, and Glenn is a huge proponent of the type online. When he moved to California as I was planning this trip, it was obvious I'd have to stop in.
So, I launched from Willows just past 11:30 am, and climbed to 7500 feet, as much to escape the heat as anything else. I flew past Sutter Butte, which is an odd sight in the middle of the otherwise completely flat plains of the valley. I had to give Beale Air Force Base a wide berth, as they had a Temporary Flight Restriction around the field, which seems to be pretty much perpetual. Once I was around that, it was direct to Placerville.
Placerville is somewhere in them thar hills
The approach to Placerville was hillier than I'd been expecting. The map shows that it's in the foothills of the mountains, but somehow it doesn't make clear just how hilly it really is. As I dropped down once I was finally sure I had the field in sight (I didn't want to lose altitude until I was sure where I was going to land: the Champ is not a quick climber), I traded radio calls with someone else who was departing, and fought the controls a bit as the wind tossed me around. I braced myself for a difficult landing. It was on the "handful" side of the "easy-peasy:handful" spectrum, but manageable.
As I was tying the plane down, I got a text on my phone: "We're sitting at Norbert's ten o'clock in the open hangar." I walked over and shook hands with Glenn and his wife Judi, and we immediately started into the biplane talk. We've been conversing online for many months as I've sorted out what kind of biplane I wanted to build, and we were immediately comfortable talking planes.
Glenn showed me over his plane, and some of the special touches the builder put in. I sat in the cockpit and noted how I fit -- generally pretty well, though the rudder pedals were a bit closer than I really wanted them, but it's simple enough to get them placed properly while building. My plane will definitely have the pedals in the right spot, and I will hopefully build them in such a way that they can be moved for different pilots (though perhaps not easily).
Glenn kept glancing apprehensively at the windsock on the runway, and I could see why. It would swing back and forth between running directly down the runway (good) and straight across the runway (bad). The fact that it was variable was the worst part of the situation, though. It would make landings in the comparatively twitchy Charger somewhere between "handful" and "disastrous" on the ol' spectrum. "Easy-peasy" was not in the offing. So we decided to go to lunch instead. We had a lovely Mexican lunch at the base of the hill on which the Placerville airport is perched.
Back at the airport, the weather had calmed just enough that Glenn was willing to go flying, so he prepped the plane and pulled it out. I slipped on the flying helmet and goggles, he fired up the engine, and we taxied out to the runway.
The takeoff was interesting: the movements of the plane were much more sharp and definite than the Champ. The tail raised abruptly, and we lifted off very definitely, with none of the "yeah, sure, I guess" feeling the Champ conveys. Of course, it's got 60 additional HP (150 vs. the Champ's 90), and only weighs a hundred or two hundred pounds more.
We climbed for a minute or two, chatting over the intercom as we flew. My microphone was quiet, so I found myself covering the mic with my hand and leaning forward to avoid the wind noise that constantly threatened to drown me out.
Glenn gave me control of the plane, and I did some gentle maneuvers -- we were both feeling full of heavy Mexican food, so aerobatics were definitely not in the cards -- getting a feel for the plane. For the short time that I flew it, it was very pleasant and really just felt like an airplane. There was nothing surprising about it, it just did what I asked it to do. I wasn't willing to wrench it around between my lack of experience and our full bellies, but my time at the stick was pleasant.
I noticed that I also felt much more in control than my last open-cockpit flight, in Oregon with Dave in his Starduster. Not that anything was substantially different beween the Charger and the Starduster; I think the big difference was between my ears. I was much more mentally prepared this time, I think.
When we were back down, they offered me a place for the night in their spare room, which was a very tempting offer (particularly as I thought back on the night half-awake in a tent in Ashland). However, I felt a powerful urge to keep moving: LA was still over 300 miles away, and I needed to cover more distance.
So, I bade them a fond farewell, and went back to my plane. I filled it up with gas as the wind gusted around me, and taxied out to the runway. Glenn and Judi were right behind me, bound for an ice cream social at a nearby airpark. It was funny to watch their short flight on my ADS-B display, which shows a map overlaid with my route, and other airplanes in the air around me. I took off just before 5:30 pm and aimed myself southward for somewhere between Fresno and Bakersfield.
My destination wasn't exactly set in stone. I'd targeted Porterville (PTV), which has the cheapest fuel in the area, but the GPS remained insistent that I would arrive about 15 minutes after sundown. Since the plane isn't legal to fly at night, I considered my other options. Cell coverage came and went at random in the air, and I tried several times to look up the local airports online as I flew. I finally got my search result back, and decided on very little information to try for Mefford Field (TLR) in Tulare. The fuel price (five cents per gallon higher than PTV) was the only definite fact I had, but I assumed based on its size and location that there would be facilities like a bathroom available. The GPS said I'd be there just before sunset, so I decided that was good enough.
Flying a plane built in 1956 when you're my size is always a compromise. Planes were built for the size of the average person at the time, which was about a 5' 7" man who weighed 150 lbs. I am... larger than this. The problem I was really running into was that my legs are longer than the stretch to the pedal was designed to accomodate. Add to this that my body has started getting painfully stiff in the knees if I sit in one position for too long, and there was a recipe for some trouble.
I had discovered as I flew down to Ashland that I could cross my legs around the control stick, though this left the problem of cruise rudder: the plane needs a pretty constant 3 or so pounds of pressure on the right rudder pedal. It's not a lot, but if it's not there, the plane flies a bit crooked (or "uncoordinated" in pilots' parlance). An uncoordinated plane is basically flying with one side to the wind, which makes everything less efficient and increases drag by a lot.
The thing I realized as I sat there with crossed legs was that the rudder pedals for the passenger (who sits behind the pilot) are right next to the pilot's seat. I could drop my hands right onto the rudder pedal on either side of my seat. So, I just added that rudder pressure with my right hand while I flew with my left. It was hard to coordinate the controls, but I worked on it as I flew and slowly got better.
Crossed legs didn't solve the problem that I really wanted to straighten my legs, but at least it resolved the issue of keeping my knees in only one position for the entire flight.
I think those are house boats
Flying over the hills toward Mefford, I passed a number of lakes that seemed to have a series of house boats on them. There was no obvious way to get to or from the house boats, so I'm not sure what the deal was with them. Perhaps there was some kind of water taxi available.
I had a small monocular (basically a compact telescope) with me, and it came in handy any number of times to identify things on the ground, or occasionally other planes. Telescopic examination of the little white dots on the lake suggested they were house boats, mostly because I couldn't imagine what else would be shaped that way.
Soon enough I was past the hills and back out over the flat valley plain. It was another race with the sun, but the sun had a dirty trick up its sleeve: as I went further south, sunset got earlier and earlier. Still, I was once again able to get my wheels on the ground a few minutes before the sun completely disappeared below the horizon.
Norbert faced by a large crop duster the next morning
Mefford Field was not really what I was expecting, though it made perfect sense for where I was. There was a self-serve tank, and I'd noted a sign for Johnston Aviation pointing the opposite direction of where I was going. But other than that, there was a small crowd of very distinctive looking agricultural spraying planes: crop dusters, and not much else. There was no FBO (fixed base operator, the jargon for the typical pilot services business found on most airstrips), and it became increasingly obvious that I would have no access to a bathroom. I picked a tiedown spot that was further away from the lights, and noted with interest the dust skittering away in the wind as I pulled the chains out of their recesses in the pavement to hook the plane to the ground.
Tied down, I pitched my tent, suddenly aware of the noise of the freeway only a couple hundred feet away. The pavement radiated heat, adding to the heat that was already in the air -- I took a picture with the thermometer in the background, blurrily showing what I think is 37° C (98° F). I am not a great fan of heat, and I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable night. I thought harder about finding a hotel in nearby Tulare (pronounced "to-larry"), but laziness overcame me. I washed my face off at a hose attached to one of the hangars, and did my best to sleep on my thankfully insulated sleeping pad.
Fri, 18 Aug 2017
Last year, I took a long cross-country flight in a rented Piper Warrior, from Seattle to Mono Lake in California, just east of Yosemite National Park, about as far south as San Francisco. It was a cool trip, but it was breathtakingly expensive at $130 per hour plus tax.
So this year, when I found myself the owner of a 1956 Champion 7EC (known affectionately as Norbert, after the dragon hatched by Hagrid in the first Harry Potter story), it occurred to me that I should look at another long cross-country. I fixed my sights on Los Angeles, so that I could visit my brother: we rarely get to spend any time together, and when we do, it's always in the context of a family gathering like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I just returned from the flight (like, this evening -- I should be taking a shower and going to bed, instead I'm sitting here writing), and wanted to relay some of the more interesting parts.
I planned to take a week to make the trip: I'd fly down on Saturday and Sunday, hopefully stopping in Placerville to visit a friend who has a Marquart Charger biplane. David (my brother) and I would hang out for a couple of days, go flying, etc., and I'd return later in the week, again taking two days. I'd take a week off from work to accomplish all this, and hopefully have a few days at the end to recuperate.
As the time was running out to my week's scheduled vacation, Seattle welcomed (if that's the right term) a choking haze of forest fire smoke from nearly 100 fires burning in the interior of British Columbia to the north. I tried going flying the weekend before I was to leave, and basically had to turn around and land after half an hour -- the smoke just kept getting thicker, until I didn't feel I could safely fly through it any more. I just couldn't see well enough.
So there was some anxiety about my ability to leave on Saturday morning as planned. Fortunately, the weather seemed to be on my side, and late Friday night, a westerly wind came in and started clearing the smoke. Of course, in its place, it left a low overcast, so my start on Saturday was still delayed for three hours, waiting for the clouds to lift a bit.
Packed to the gills, I say!
I was eventually able to take off on Saturday, the plane packed relatively to the gills with Stuff: I was planning to pitch a tent next to the plane on my overnight stops rather than finding a hotel and doing all the phoning and taxicab riding necessary for that eventuality. I'd realized when I got to the detailed planning that there was no way I'd make it to LA in two days if I was going to stop and hang out to talk biplanes for half a day, so the plan was now to stop the first day in Ashland, near the Oregon-California border, and again somewhere in the valley, between Fresno and Bakersfield.
Norbert, being a Champ 7EC, is not what you would call a speed demon. In perfect conditions, it cruises at about 85 MPH. If you're trying to burn all the gas as fast as possible, it'll cruise up to 105 MPH, but the plane is perceptibly unhappy at that speed. So I banked on about 85, forgetting about (or, perhaps, imagining improbably favorable) wind.
Downtown Seattle is somewhere out there in the haze
So, I launched in the early afternoon of Saturday. The smoke was still a distinct presence as I left, and it would become a running theme of the trip.
I ended up recording time-lapse video of the entire trip, which will be posted later, once I've had a chance to catch my breath a bit.
The first leg would take me from Snohomish, north of Seattle, to Stark's Twin Oaks Airpark (7S3; every airport has a code, like SEA for SeaTac, or PDX for Portland International), in Hillsboro, OR. I had planned on about two and a half hours, and it ended up taking almost three. I planned to fly the route at 9500 feet to save fuel (the plane is more efficient the higher it flies) without giving sufficient thought to the wind at different altitudes. I averaged 70 MPH on that leg. The only reason it went any faster than driving a car is that I could fly in a straight line, and didn't have traffic to deal with.
Mt. Rainier in smoke
Once at Twin Oaks, I fueled up and ate half the sandwich I'd brought. After too much dithering, I bought a quart of oil after I used the quart I'd brought with me, then I was off again, bound for Roseburg (RBG).
The flight down to Roseburg was unremarkable, except for the continued presence of the smoke. There were particular altitudes where it was concentrated the strongest, and flying through them smelled like someone had turned campfire smoke into a candy, and I was smelling the result. It was pleasant and nostalgic and vaguely disturbing all at the same time.
Dashcam shot of the industrial fuel pumps at RBG as I taxied up
Roseburg was a cool little airport, just off I-5, and tucked neatly between all the hills. As I flew the traffic pattern to come in for a landing, I was very nearly level with some rich-looking houses on a hill west of the field. I found myself wondering if those rich people had expected to have ratty small plane pilots looking in their windows all day, when they bought their fancy house on the hill. Refuelling at Roseburg was bizarre, as the fuel pump looked like something designed by a Windows 95 screensaver, and it took me almost ten minutes to figure out how to actually ground the plane, turn on the pump, and pump my gas. The only reason I made it under ten minutes is there was an airport geezer (this is a term of affection for people who hang out at airports watching the planes come and go) who came over and offered his insights into the industrial-looking system. I regret not taking a picture, but I was in a hurry. (Update: found a shot of it in the time-lapse footage!)
Norbert is an odd plane in one way: it has navigation lights and a landing light, but it doesn't have a rotating beacon or strobe light. You need at least nav and either beacon or strobe to be legal to fly at night, so Norbert is not technically night-legal. There's no one around who would bust me for it, but I make every effort to not fly in the dark.
A smoky sunset from the air near Ashland
The reason I was in a hurry leaving Roseburg was that by my calculations, I could just barely reach Ashland (S03) by sunset, which is the legal limit for this plane. I'd previously called the airport, and gotten permission to pitch a tent there (other airports I called all gave me a very CYA "no camping allowed" response, with various poorly-reasoned excuses offered along with the official policy).
So I poured on the meager coal (Norbert is not a powerhouse), and shaved a corner off my flight from Roseburg to Ashland: I'd planned to follow I-5 (giving me a convenient if highly dangerous emergency landing strip -- I plan every flight for the contingency of the engine giving out, since I've only got one), which would have meant flying to Grants Pass (3S8), then onward to Medford (MFR) and Ashland. I decided instead to go up to 9500 feet, giving me extra clearance over the mountain peaks, and fly directly from Roseburg to Medford. I lost the safety net of having the freeway nearby, but it meant I would make it to Ashland before sunset.
Once I was committed to my path, I started to question my own judgement. The smoke was pretty thick, and the sun angling through it from near the horizon made it completely opaque to the west. I could still see to the south, in my direction of travel, but when I looked west to spot the comforting ribbon of I-5, the smoke shook its proverbial head and said, DENIED! I pressed onward.
Rogue Valley International through the smoke
It was with some relief that I spotted Medford's Rogue Valley International Airport (MFR). The mountains I crossed to get there were particularly forbidding-looking in the smoke. I told Air Traffic Control that I was going to descend to below the smoke deck, since the remaining distance to Ashland would pass quickly. I kept glancing behind me and at the clock, and managed to get wheels down in Ashland just as the sun dipped below the horizon. I was within a minute of arriving too late. After having left Seattle three hours late, I was astounded the timing had worked out so well.
I gassed up the plane and pitched my tent behind a hangar, trying to get myself away from all the sodium-vapor lights around the airport, and the rotating beacon (a green and white rotating light that advertises a land airport to the night flyer, but also sweeps the airport grounds every few seconds). The Ashland layout was pretty nice: there was a bathroom available, and the tiedown fee was a mere $7 per night. There was even a picnic table, at which I had the other half of my sandwich for a late dinner.
It was with contentment at my accomplishment that I lay my weary head down to sleep, and listened to the crickets going mad in the dark around me.
Sat, 29 Jul 2017
If you're following along this journey because you're maybe going to do it yourself, or you really want to know the nitty-gritty of how an airplane is built, have I got a treat for you! If you're just kind of interested but not that interested, probably skip this one.
When I bought my Ninja 250 in 2006, I knew it wouldn't last forever. I didn't know what might be around when it came time to replace it, but I know the answer now. The Littlest Ninja started smoking recently, indicating some form of semi-advanced oil usage, and I have neither time nor inclination to tear the engine down and overhaul it.
So, it's time to look at the small-bike market. And what a market it is!
Kawasaki has kept the dream somewhat alive, with the Ninja 300. It's fuel-injected now, and no longer looks like it was designed in the late 80s. Yamaha has entered the ring, with the YZF-R3. I've never owned a Yamaha, so this is especially interesting. Honda has the CBR300. And, somewhat unexpectedly, KTM has the 390 Duke.
I start with my obvious biases: I like twins. Single-cylinder bikes have never appealed much to me. Three- and four-cylinder machines are fine, but usually have too little torque and too much rev to make good 250cc class street bikes. Twins seem like the right configuration at this particular size. However, I'm going to withhold judgement with the KTM, since it's a single, and I've read overwhelmingly positive stuff about it.
I recently took a trip with a friend, where we traded off between my Ninja 250 and my SV650 (which is how I spotted the smoking, as I followed the Ninja) on a long weekend of riding. It was an informative weekend: he's riding a Harley Sportster now, and was stunned at how easy life is on a more upright bike. He also confirmed what I've long thought: although the SV is a great bike, there's something very engaging about the Ninja, and it's both more interesting and more enjoyable to ride.
So my inclination is to stick with something very 250-ish with the new bike. The Honda Grom and the Kawasaki Z125 are very interesting looking, but don't hold out any promise of being distance bikes, and I will continue to take multi-hundred-mile trips on whatever is my next bike.
With this in mind, I went out to one of the local testosterone-parlors and tried my hand at a Ninja 300 and a YZF-R3 (they'll call me when a 390 Duke shows up, apparently they're hard to find at the moment). Each bike I rode was a used example, the R3 being from 2015, and the Ninja from a similar vintage, though I didn't note the exact year.
I rode the R3 first. My initial impression was very favorable. A narrow tank and light perceived weight while sitting still were very Ninja 250-like. I liked the instrument cluster, with its 180 degree tachometer. I really like that it has two headlights, and when the high beam goes on, the low beam stays illuminated. More light, as they say, is better. It also has the turn-signal lights on all the time as markers. Points to the Yamaha for lighting. None of them are LEDs that I noticed, so demerits there, but not terrible.
Upon starting the bike, the impression went down a little bit. The engine sounded oddly clunky, and the throttle cable was hugely loose without any obvious way to adjust it. Obviously this is a used bike, so I'm not placing any real weight on the loose cable, but the fact that I couldn't figure out how to tighten it was a little distressing.
The suspension felt good sitting still, which is a major improvement over the stock Ninja 250: I had to spend $800 or so upgrading the suspension to make it feel like I wasn't riding a children's toy. The tool compartment under the passenger's seat is miniscule, which is disappointing considering how much space could be offered there. It doesn't have any sort of grab bar, which seems like an odd ommission.
Once rolling, I noticed a thing which became a running theme: the clutch starts its engagement smoothly enough, but right at the end, I had a very hard time not jolting as it went from slipping to fully engaged. It became distressing as the ride went on, and one out of four shifts was distinctly abrupt. However, the gearbox was smooth and precise and very nice to use.
In coming to a stop, I noticed that the front brake engages with a sharp bite, though it's not unusually powerful once it's engaged. The front suspension had an odd clunking feeling as I tried to come to a smooth stop, as if I was completely lifting off a set of springs as it uncompressed. I noticed this several times, enough that it was a little distracting.
On the brief stretch of freeway I rode, the amount of heat sweeping past my legs was impressive. The Ninja 250 blows air under the seat, making it uncomfortably hot, and I'm not sure which I dislike more.
Interestingly, after riding both bikes and getting back on my 250, I realized that none of them was noticeably more powerful. This was surprising, since on paper at least, both the R3 and the Ninja 300 have considerably more oomph than the 250. It may be that with my grr-grunt break-in procedure (lots of high-pressure action inside the cylinders, and progressively longer heat cycles, avoiding any thought of RPM), my 250 is simply an unusually powerful example, and the used bikes I was riding were broken in per the factory method.
My overall impression of the R3 was that it was very Ninja 250-like (a good thing), with a considerably sharper clutch and transmission. The suspension was a bit soft, and the rest of the bike was about the same. If I were buying a race bike, the R3 would be at the top of the list, particularly with some suspension upgrades.
The Ninja 300
Getting on the Ninja after the R3, the first thing I noticed is that it feels distinctly heavier sitting still. According to Wikipedia, the Ninja is indeed 17 pounds heavier, but it felt like more than that. I assume it keeps its weight up a little higher, which contributes to a perception of weight at a standstill.
The particular bike I rode was customized by the previous owner, so I was treated to adjustable shorty levers on the handlebars (bright pink!), and an aftermarket CF muffler with a distinctly blatty sound. I also realized, as I rode along, that the handlbars were twisted to the right about 10° from where they should be. Based on this, I rode more gingerly than I might have otherwise done. I had no desire to find out what else about the bike might not be completely straight. Fortunately, it showed no bad habits as I rode; the handlebars were just a little disconcerting.
I immediately noticed that the clutch was much more pleasant to use. No abrupt jolt at the end of engagement. The gearbox was also about half-way between the mushy clunk-box in the 250 and the scalpel I'd found in the R3. Had I ridden the Ninja 300 first, I would have been impressed, but after the R3 it felt a bit disappointing. Still, it worked fine, and would not dissuade me from owning a Ninja 300.
The instrument cluster on the 300 is a little disappointing. For some reason, they have set up the tachometer with about a 100 degree sweep (it's more than that, but it feels very limited), so that it's hard to tell what the needle is pointing at. It includes a fuel gauge, but no indication of engine temperature (the R3 has engine temperature, and also fuel efficiency, along with a better tach; points to the R3 for instruments, without question).
On the heat issue, I noticed a little heat sweeping past my legs on the freeway, but not a huge amount like on the R3. It seemed better controlled, and much less present.
I was again surprised to find that the 300 is not much more powerful than my 250. I assume this is something where the difference would make itself known as I rode it less conciously. I think I was expecting a really substantial power increase over the 250, and that just wasn't there. I also have to keep in mind that these were used bikes, with over 4000 (R3) and 2000 (Ninja) miles on the clock. A new, properly broken-in bike may be a different matter.
I was almost unaware of the suspension on the Ninja 300, so I'll call that a win. I did bounce the front once at a stoplight, and found none of the clunking like I'd felt on the R3. It just felt smooth and solid. The feeling of solidity continued on the freeway, where the 300 felt a bit more planted than the R3, but only barely. Neither bike would excite any comment except for the odd clunk coming to a stop on the R3. The 300 also felt slightly better sprung for someone of my relatively heavy weight.
My overall impression of the Ninja 300 was that it was a bigger, more refined bike than the R3. This is not necessarily a positive thing, as one of the things I really like about the 250 is that it feels just a little toy-like, as if it shouldn't be as awesome as it actually is. The Ninja 300 felt a bit like moving from a small but sporty car like a Miata to a heavier sporty car, like a mid-range BMW.
There are some on-paper specs that matter to me. Probably the biggest one is fuel range. Reports I've read suggest that the R3 will expect to get fuel efficiency in the 50-60 MPG range. The Ninja 300 is supposed to get up into the 60s, even to 70 if you're riding very gently. The R3 has a tank capacity of 3.7 US gallons, and the Ninja has a tank capacity of 4.5 US gallons. This all boils down to the fact that the Ninja will have about 50-70 miles more useable range than the R3 if they're ridden with equal spirit. That's a lot, when you're looking at 200 vs. 270. Many are the times I would have been happy to have another 50 miles available before refuelling, and that is a compelling thing.
Kawasaki has a long, long, looong track record with small street bikes. The first Ninja 250 came out in 1986, and by the time my 2006 was purchased, they'd probably paid off the tooling 15 years previously. Yamaha has been making small bikes for a long time too, but not in this particular format. I feel like they've done a great deal of work on single-cylinder engines for dirt bikes and dual-purpose bikes, and I don't know how well that translates to this kind of baby twin track bike. This is probably a minor issue, but it's one that occurs to me.
I haven't made any firm decisions. I really can't, until I've tried out the 390 Duke. It comes so highly recommended that I would be foolish to act without giving it a chance. So, I must wait patiently until whatever import issue is sorted out, to give the Austrian contender a chance. I'm very curious to see what I think.
Written by Ian Johnston. Software is Blosxom. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.