Categories: all aviation Building a Biplane bicycle gadgets misc motorcycle theater

Thu, 05 Jul 2018

Fuel Used vs. Airspeed (X-Plane edition)

I've been curious for a while to see what the efficiency of the Champ was. How much does engine power buy you speed? What's the most efficient use of fuel vs. travel time?

I don't have a complete answer by any means, but I've collected one form of data:

Fuel flow (GPH) Airspeed (MPH) Miles per gallon
7.4 106.5 14.4
5.77 98.8 17.1
4.1 90.5 22.0
3.53 82.2 23.3
3.1 69.2 22.3

This data was generated in the X-Plane simulator flying a mostly-accurate Aeronca 7AC model someone made available on the x-plane.org download site. To gather it, I flew at different throttle settings, stabilized the plane so it was flying level, and recorded fuel flow and indicated airspeed. Much easier to do this in the simulator than in real life -- I don't have a fuel-flow meter in real life!

Obviously, this is not Hard Science™. It's still interesting. I only gathered 5 data point over the course of about 15 minutes of flying, but it's representative of the range of speeds you might reasonably fly a Champ. The fuel flow numbers are at least similar to what I would expect in reality, though the RPM indicated for a given fuel flow is substantially high compared to what I see in my own plane.


The Champ instrument panel in X-Plane

The conclusion that I see here is obvious: if you're flying a digital Champ in X-Plane, and you have the same model of 7AC I downloaded, aiming for a cruise of about 83 MPH will get you the best fuel efficiency. Pretty much squares with what I see in the real world.

It'd be neat to some day instrument the plane to duplicate this test in real-world conditions, though I doubt I will. Fuel flow meters are expensive, and somewhat counter to the feel of the Champ. If I could do it temporarily, though, that would be very interesting...

Posted at 23:04 permanent link category: /aviation


Wed, 13 Jun 2018

The World's Silliest Commute

Back in February of last year, I got a plane. Norbert, the Champ. I was (and still am) an active member of Chapter 84 of the EAA. EAA 84 has their chapter meetings on the second Tuesday of every month. Now that I owned a plane, I really wanted to fly it to one of these meetings.

The problem is, Chapter 84 meets in Snohomish, at Harvey Field (S43), the same airport where the plane is based. It doesn't make much sense to fly the plane to its own airport. How would that even work?

It works if you're a bit crazy. Crazy like a crazy person!

It goes something like this: very early in the morning, drive up to Snohomish, conveniently going the opposite direction from all the traffic. Get in the plane, and fly it from Snohomish to Boeing Field, which is reasonably close to downtown Seattle, where I work. Take a taxi (since there is no practical bus service) to downtown. Work for the day. Leave a touch earlier than normal, and take a taxi back to the airport. Fly from Boeing Field to Harvey Field, waving slightly ironically at all the poor car commuters below me on I-5, moving through a 10 MPH continuous traffic jam. Go to the meeting. Drive home. Simple, right?

As simple as it should be, the Seattle weather and my schedule have conspired for well over a year to prevent it from happening. If I can go to the meeting, the weather is terrible. If the weather is gorgeous, I'm otherwise committed. Most vexing.

Finally, yesterday, I was able to pull off the World's Silliest Commute™. The weather was predicted to be perfectly flyable until midnight, well after I needed to fly.

I should note that I live about 6 miles from my workplace. A bike trip takes 35 minutes each way. Taking the bus takes 35-45 minutes depending on traffic.

Getting There

So, I left the house at 7 am almost on the dot. I arrived at Harvey Field without much incident 45 minutes later. There was a car fire that was out at Northgate, which slowed everyone down so they could rubberneck at the flashing lights, but that only added a minute or two to the trip. So far so good. I preflighted the plane, and was in the air by about 8:20. I shut down at Boeing Field half an hour later, at 8:49. So far, so good!


The weather was gorgeous for the flight in

I parked the plane at Kenmore Aero Services, who charged me the princely sum of $15 in "handling" to stay there for the day. Cheapest parking on the field, though, and compare that to a day of parking your car anywhere near downtown ($30+). Parking for airplanes is weird.

Anyway, I called a cab, who showed up about 9:05, and we were on our way. Unfortunately, Airport Way (the most logical path to downtown) was blocked, and we had to backtrack and take a very crowded I-5 to get there. I arrived at the office around 9:40. Fortunately my workplace is very chill about when people show up.

So, trip to work: two hours and 40 minutes. Pretty clever, eh!? Also, $15 parking, and $40 for the taxi. Also, 27 driving miles and 24 flying miles.


My plane-a-day calendar was, happily, an Aeronca Champ!

The trip back was even better.

Getting Back

The taxi ride was about twice the cost I'd been anticipating, so I was somewhat anxious to avoid having to take a taxi back. Spending another $40 wouldn't kill me, but it wasn't very appealing either. I've never signed up for Uber or Lyft, so I figured I'd check out taking a bus to close by, and then using one of the rental bikes that litter the city to make the final stretch. The buses run to the north end of the field, but then they divert down the west side, and I needed to go to the east side, which would be a long walk from the nearest stop.

I identified the route: Metro 124 goes right past, and was the obvious choice. I tried signing up for Limebike (one of the rental bike outfits), and was dismayed by the terms I ran into: the Lime app won't even show you the map unless you've got location (GPS) turned on -- which I don't normally do, since I try to limit data leakage. It appeared from the non-existent documentation (ie, how the app behaved) that I would have to load a minimum of $10 into my account, but I have no plans to use these bikes long-term. Overall, the experience left me very unhappy with how it worked, and kind of turned off from the whole idea.

I looked back at the bus route, and realized that A) I needed to go to nearly the southern extremity of the field, and B) there was a bus stop on the west side of the south end of the field. It would only be about a 20 minute walk from the bus stop to Kenmore, vs. the 45 minute walk from the north end of the field (Boeing Field's long runway is about 10,000 feet long, or nearly two miles long; the surrounding land is over 2 miles long). Sold!

So, I left the office early, at 3:45, and grabbed myself a sandwich to eat for dinner once I'd arrived. I caught the 4:03 bus, and we were off. Then we hit Georgetown, and about 20 minutes of unexpected traffic. One of the other riders complained about the slow pace, and how she was going to spend her entire day just getting home. When I finally arrived at my stop, it was 4:48, making it almost exactly a 45 minute ride.

The walk around the south end of the field and up to Kenmore's building took 20 minutes, with a slight delay while I called to get the weather briefing, staying away from the very loud traffic on Airport Way S. I reflected, as I was walking along the 9" wide path through the grass on the side of the road, how oddly happy I was -- it was delightful to be doing something so different from my normal routine, even if it was kind of weird.

Kenmore was pleasant to deal with, and I fired up the engine around 5:20. Boeing ground sent me to the long runway (Boeing Field has two runways: the 10,000 foot runway, and a 3700 foot runway; the 3700 foot runway is 3000 feet longer than I need to take off), which I found fairly delightful. The Champ is an impressive aircraft in some ways. One of them is its take-off performance: 300-400 feet on the ground under conditions like this. The weirdness of having 8000 feet in front of me (leaving from part-way down the runway, at the A10 intersection) was wonderful. I could take off and land several times in that distance.


Flying past downtown Seattle

Norbert the Champ revved up, and we were quickly off the ground, passing through 100 feet as the control tower went past on the left -- it takes off quickly, but it doesn't climb very fast, with all its drag and its small 90 HP engine. We continued straight out, flying over all the Imperial Walker-looking loading cranes on the waterfront, and past the jeweled splendor of downtown's many skyscrapers. I flew over my house in Ballard just for fun, then angled my path northeastward toward Harvey Field.

As I crossed I-5, I looked down benevolently on the poor suckers in their cars, grinding slowly northward. Normally, that's where I'd be, and the difference again delighted me. It's amazing how often the weather screws up my plans to fly to the EAA meeting.


Crossing over I-5's packed traffic

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I dropped down to land at Harvey Field, shutting off the plane around 6:15. I quickly tucked it away in the hangar, and was to the meeting by about 6:30. Later than I'd wanted to be, but the bus trip had taken longer than I thought it would.

If you're keeping score at home, that's two and a half hours from downtown Seattle to Snohomish -- and I still had another 50ish minute drive home after the meeting.

The Final Score

On the way in to work, on a normal day:

  • Distance (bicycle): 6 miles
  • Time: 35 minutes
  • Cost: $0

On the way in to work, yesterday:

  • Distance (motorcycle): 27 miles
  • Distance (airplane): 24 miles
  • Distance (taxi): 10 miles
  • Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
  • Cost: About $65

On the way home from work, on a normal day:

  • Distance (bicycle): 6 miles
  • Time: 35 minutes
  • Cost: $0

On the way home from work, yesterday:

  • Distance (bus): 9 miles
  • Distance (airplane): 24 miles
  • Distance (motorcycle): 27 miles
  • Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
  • Cost: About $10

Total for the day: 121 miles in 5.8 hours: about 20 MPH average, and $0.61 per mile.

Of course, what's not calculated there is how much fun I had doing it. Aside from the patent silliness of what I was doing, I was having a good time the entire time. Even grinding through I-5 traffic in the morning in a taxi driven by a guy who spent more time looking at his phone than at the road was fun, if only in how different it was from my normal daily routine.

In short, it was a good, lightweight adventure. A thrilling change from the normal day-to-day. I'm not likely to do exactly that thing again unless I can figure out a better airport-to-downtown link, but I'm very glad I finally accomplished it after dreaming about it for so long.

Posted at 00:00 permanent link category: /aviation


Sun, 10 Jun 2018

Building a Biplane: The Waiting Game

When I started building the ribs last year, I ordered a bunch of materials: Spruce capstrip (1/4" x 1/4" by 4' long pieces), plywood in 1/16" (!), 1/8" and 1/4" thicknesses, and so on. The Charger plans include some estimates of of the material required to build the ribs: 600 lineal feet of 1/4" capstrip, 24 square feet of 1/16" plywood, 16 square feet of 1/8", 8 square feet of 1/4". I took these numbers as my basis, and ordered about 120% of each of them, since I figured I'd make some mistakes, and it never hurts to have extra.

As I mentioned about ordering wing spars, the shipping on some of this stuff can take a long time. Well, more fulfillment than shipping. Shipping itself is pretty quick, but it can take a long time for the businesses involved to get all the bits and pieces sorted out for an order. Particularly with orders like these, where it has to go by freight instead of normal package shipping, you can't just split it up and ship some of the stuff separately. A freight shipment is a $150-200 proposition for the things I'm ordering.

So the rib materials arrived after a not-too-bad wait last year, and I got to building. I quickly discovered that some of the capstrip I'd received had gouges in the side, and I was assured that this is simply par for the course. However, I lost about 10% of my order to these gouges. Without being finicky about the math, that meant that I only had 10% extra for mistakes and, as it happened, extra ribs "just in case."

This brings me to a month and a half ago, when I ran out of materials with three and a half ribs left to make. I guess I didn't use the 1/16" plywood as efficiently as the designer or something, as I was out of that around the same time I was out of usable capstrip. Since I can't get either material locally, I was stuck.

So, I loaded up my shopping cart at a national aviation supplier to build the rest of the ribs. Then I thought, "You know, I will just need to launch into building wings once the ribs are done, let's see what else I'm missing." More items into the shopping cart until I had about $750 worth of stuff. It took me a week to be sure I had everything I could reasonably predict into the cart, and I finally hit submit. I got a call a few days later: UPS has updated their shipping prices, and it's now cheapest (at $190) to ship this particular order by truck freight. That was weird, but I double-checked, and indeed, the shipping charges for normal UPS package delivery was nearly $400. Fine, ship by truck.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) I had ordered an item that was backordered -- 11 sheets of 0.8mm Baltic Birch plywood for the leading edges -- and it took most of a month before the order was finally assembled for shipment. As it happens, that was June 1st.

Something else happened on June 1st, of course: Mr. Art-of-the-Deal announced 25% tariffs on imported steel. Well, what is my plane going to be made of? About $2300 (pre-tariff) worth of steel tubing, most of it not produced domestically, whether I wanted domestic or not. Faced with a likely $500+ surcharge to stroke his frail ego if I waited, I decided now was the time to pull the trigger on the steel order, too.

Fortunately, I've had the materials list assembled and ready to order for a few months now, hastened by the first rumblings of a steel tariff. I quickly put together the order, and called to get it added to the existing order if it hadn't shipped yet: might as well make the truck shipment charge really work for me, since UPS definitely won't be taking 20 foot lengths of steel tubing in the brown trucks. I was in luck, and the shipment was scheduled to go out on June 1st, but they were able to put a hold on it before it was actually loaded onto the truck.

Downside: more waiting. Upside: reduced overall shipping cost, and I'll have much or all of the hard-to-ship material in hand for the next 5+ years of the project. There will still be many orders to place as I come on new phases and realize just how much stuff I still need.

Unfortunately, all this means that I've had a half-completed rib sitting in the jig for a month and a half, and not much else to do. I've occupied myself in the meantime with some steel work, trying out a technique to machine bushings for the wing compression struts which was successful, but is likely to be time-consuming if I pursue it.


Bushings. I'll be using the right-hand design.

I had thought up until just now that I could only make prototypes for this bushing out of the material I have on hand: mild steel rod. Then I gave it some serious thought (and this is why I need to write more often), and realized that no, the bushing is under practically no stress in any direction, and can be made from mild steel or aluminum, or whatever works. For some reason I was thinking it had to be made from 4130 chromoly steel, which is very strong, but also expensive and likely to be harder to machine. It's nice to occasionally make little positive discoveries like this.

I still have to wait for the 4130 tubing to arrive so I can weld everything together. But at least I have a project I can work on now, while I'm waiting for things to arrive.

Posted at 11:09 permanent link category: /charger


Wed, 21 Mar 2018

The (Other) Long Way Round

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

Posted at 09:41 permanent link category: /aviation


Sun, 18 Mar 2018

Building a Biplane: The Landing Gear Problem

Marquart Charger forward view

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:

  1. The rubber shock absorber is too stiff, and doesn't provide an effective energy buffer for the gear
  2. The fore-and-aft attachment points for the gear are pretty close together, meaning that braking and rolling-resistance forces are very high

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.

Marquart Charger gear attachment diagram
The Marquart Charger gear attachment pivot

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.

Charger gear leg diagram
The Charger gear leg

We discussed and discarded a number of other ideas:

  • Increasing the thickness of the fuselage tube (-402, not pictured) that runs fore-and-aft holding up the gear attach points

  • Increasing the thickness of the -479 part

  • Moving the gear attachment points further apart

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").

Posted at 14:32 permanent link category: /charger


Tue, 27 Feb 2018

Building a Biplane: The Saga of the Spars

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.

Posted at 09:15 permanent link category: /charger


Thu, 15 Feb 2018

The Manliest Man Competition

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.

AUDIENCE: Ooooooooh.

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.

Posted at 14:49 permanent link category: /misc


Wed, 10 Jan 2018

Building a Biplane: The Glue/Temperature Problem

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.


Test joints; the one on the right has failed badly

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.


The Easy Bake™ Rib Oven

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.

Posted at 22:34 permanent link category: /charger


Tue, 02 Jan 2018

Don't Be These Guys

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?

Posted at 10:40 permanent link category: /aviation


Fri, 01 Dec 2017

A Minor Setback

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:

  1. Laminated Spruce: just because Wicks can't find any 12' lengths of aircraft-quality Spruce doesn't mean there's no aircraft-quality Spruce to be had. It just means that finding it in 12' lengths is no longer possible. Shorter, smaller pieces of Spruce carefully laminated with high quality glue can make up a spar, and there are distinct advantages. Laminated wood is stronger (see plywood vs. a plank of the same thickness), fails more gracefully, and is not prone to warping. Because it's made up of a lot of small pieces of wood, you get to preview the wood for defects that would be hidden in larger pieces. I can do the lamination myself, which sounds both enjoyable and inexpensive. Steen Aero Lab sells laminated spars, and I have a request in to them for a quote.

  2. Douglas Fir: Fir is about 20% stronger than Spruce, and is about 20% heavier (rough numbers from memory, don't hold me to them). I can't change the shape of my spars, that ship has already sailed unless I want to remake all 33 of the ribs and re-calculate a bunch of other stuff. So, I'd add 20% to the weight of the spars, which would amount to probably 5-10 lbs at a guess. Douglas Fir is much easier to find in plain old lumberyards, so I'd be looking at cheaper lumber, too.

  3. Aircraft Spruce still sells spars: the cost is about the same as Wicks, and at least on the phone when I asked, there was no suggestion that they would have trouble finding the wood I was asking for. I have a request for a quote in to ACS to see how long their leadtime would be, and what shipping would cost.

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.

Posted at 15:21 permanent link category: /charger


Sun, 12 Nov 2017

The Feeling of Being Prey

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.

Posted at 14:31 permanent link category: /misc


Fri, 27 Oct 2017

Rushing is Never Good

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.

Posted at 23:46 permanent link category: /aviation


Tue, 10 Oct 2017

Random Memories

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.

Posted at 10:23 permanent link category: /misc


Mon, 09 Oct 2017

Assumptions

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.

Posted at 21:54 permanent link category: /aviation


Sun, 24 Sep 2017

Oh, Stratux

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.

Posted at 21:18 permanent link category: /aviation


Thu, 14 Sep 2017

Looks like your Google Account can't go here

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?

The Background

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 bobbo.the.cute@gmail.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 6 or 7 (Marshmallow or Nougat in Google's increasingly-annoying versioning nomenclature), with a very small list of v5 (Lollipop!) devices also being compatible. Go hop on your favorite Android shopping portal and take a look at the devices that run 6 and 7. You may not be pleased at the prices (see Update below for further discussion). At least as of right now, these are decidedly not the hand-me-down phones and tablets I'd expect most parents to pass off to their under-13 children. Give it a few years and we'll be ok, but for now, Family Link is only for those families which can afford a several-hundred-dollar hundred-dollar-plus device for young Bobbo the Cute.

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.

Posted at 11:19 permanent link category: /misc


Tue, 22 Aug 2017

The Final Episode: From Ashland to Seattle


My "campsite" in the dawn light

Previously: Can a Champ really fly from LA to Ashland in one day?

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:

  1. Call the pilot
  2. Call the alternate contact
  3. Call the destination airport
  4. Talk to ATC
  5. Scramble Search and Rescue

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.

Posted at 23:30 permanent link category: /aviation


Mon, 21 Aug 2017

Seattle to LA and Back, Episode 4: Can a Champ Really Fly from LA to Ashland in One Day?

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.

Next: Ashland to Snohomish and Home Again

Posted at 23:27 permanent link category: /aviation


Sun, 20 Aug 2017

Seattle to LA, Episode 3: Over the Grapevine and Flying with David


The crop duster takes on his 500 gallons(!) of pesticide while Norbert wakes up

Previously: Flying from Ashland to Tulare, and flying a biplane

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.

Next: Can a Champ really fly from LA to Ashland in one day?

Posted at 19:57 permanent link category: /aviation


Sat, 19 Aug 2017

Seattle to Los Angeles in a Champ: Day 2

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's Charger

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.

Next: Over the Grapevine and flying with David

Posted at 21:04 permanent link category: /aviation


Categories: all aviation gadgets misc motorcycle theater

Written by Ian Johnston. Software is Blosxom. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.