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

Fri, 07 Dec 2018

Building a Biplane: In Which Mistakes are Made

I've been warned repeatedly that I was going to make a bunch of parts, then realize I'd have to completely re-make them due to some small error or flaw I built in without realizing it. So, in a way, I'm better off than I could have been.

Having now completed all 36 drag strips (why 36 when I needed 32? Let's charitably say I was building in my 10% extra and not just mis-remembering), I finally sat down to figure out what was the deal with these drag wires everyone else uses. Good timing, right?

So, I worked out the math. The drag strips are .063" thick and 1/2" wide. The total length of drag strip material is 916", if you add all the plans-specified lengths together. Add another 32" for the 1" doublers that go on the flat end of each strip, another 16" for the 1/2" of length after the flat-end hole, and another 51.2" for the 1.6" length each strip is folded over. This amounts to 1015.2" of strip length. With a cross-section of .0315 square inches, this adds up to about 31.98 cubic inches of 4130. It takes about 3.6 cubic inches of 4130 to make a pound, so the final weight of all this metal is:

8.88 pounds

4130 steel has an annealed yield strength (the strength at which deformations like stretch or bend become a permanent part of the metal) of 52,200 PSI. So one square inch of 4130 will lift 52,200 lbs before it will yield. .0315 square inches of 4130 will lift 1644 lbs if the metal is in the annealed heat-treat condition. This annealed condition is important because it's the weakest state of the metal, and after welding, you can't count on the heat treatment state of the metal around the weld. For normalized 4130, the yield strength is 63,100 PSI.

The turnbuckles, at .06 lbs each, add another 1.92 lbs of weight. We will ignore the weight of the pins, since the alternative wire construction will also use pins (though they'll be shorter, and so will contribute to any weight savings). The turnbuckles are rated for 1600 lbs as their "strength" (I'm not sure if that's working load or yield load or breaking load, but I'll guess it's either yield or working load), so they match nicely with the 1644 lb strength of the drag strips.

Total weight is now: 10.8 pounds for the drag strips. Not bad.

But what about wires?

This is where things got real for me. I checked, and realized that although a 3/16" wire has a smaller cross-section than a drag strip (.0276 in2 instead of .0315 in2), the wires are guaranteed to be normalized. You don't have to weld them, so you don't mess up the heat treatment. This means you get to use the higher 63,100 PSI number, and a 3/16" 4130 wire has a yield strength of 1741 lbs. So... it's stronger and weighs less? What's the downside?


AN665-21R clevis fork rod ends (like you didn't know that already)

There really isn't one. The wires by themselves weigh 8.12 lbs (916" length plus 144" to account for the now-missing turnbuckles, for a total length of 1060"; making 29.26 in3 of steel). You have to add AN665-21 clevis fork rod ends and locknuts, which add up to 1.16 lbs for a total weight of:

9.28 lbs for drag wires.

Hmm. Compared to 10.8, 9.28 sounds pretty good. Saving a pound and a half is nothing to sneeze at -- I've heard tales of people substituting titanium fasteners on a plane for a total savings of less than a pound, at the expense of several thousand dollars. Here, I can do it by returning a thousand dollars worth of turnbuckles and buying $800 worth of rod ends and $200 worth of steel rod. So, I spend the exact same amount of money and save 1.5 lbs? Sign me up!

Now, it would have been really awesome if I'd figured all this out before spending a bunch of hours making drag strips. So, if you're building a Charger, this is my gift to you. Go figure out drag wires rather than wasting a bunch of time on heavier strips. Fortunately, I had a good time with making the strips, and I don't consider it time wasted. I got to meet a local Charger owner to have the strips cut, and learned about fabricating an interesting part. And now I get to play with threading a bunch of 4130 rod and RMA-ing a small army of turnbuckles.

Posted at 21:44 permanent link category: /charger


Mon, 03 Dec 2018

Building a Biplane: The Many Steps to Actually Make a Part

I've been impressed by the seemingly countless steps necessary to actually make a part for this biplane build. I'm currently in the middle of making the drag and anti-drag strips, which will go inside the wings as crossing "wires" to keep the wing structure from racking forward and aft.

At first glance, the drag strip idea makes a lot of sense -- no special tooling required, sheet metal is widely available (and probably more available or cheaper in the late 1960s than 4130 wire of the appropriate size), it's easy to cut on a sufficiently beefy shear, etc. However, on reflection and having accomplished 90% of the construction of the strips, I think I would have been happier buying wires.

Here's what it takes to make a batch of 36 drag strips:

  1. Acquire sheet metal. $80 at Online Metals for a 2x3' sheet of .063" normalized 4130. This was by far the simplest part of the process.

  2. Find someone with a big enough shear to tackle 1/16" 4130. I managed to find someone through the Biplane Forum who offered to do it for free at his shop. We cut my sheet into about 40 1/2" by 36" strips.

  3. Polish the edges of the cut strips. I finally figured out that I could hit multiple strips if I was careful by using the belt sander that has served me so well making ribs. This process alone took over 2 hours between finding the right procedure and actually doing it. I started out with draw filing individual strips clamped in the vise, which doesn't count the 2+ hours I spent making perfectly smooth vise jaw covers. Such a simple operation that took so much time and head-scratching.

  4. Bend the teardrop end of the drag strip (see the above picture). 4130 is no slouch when it comes to the strength department, and I wanted to get these bends perfect the first time. The solution I eventually came up with was to build a bending jig out of beefy 1/4" thick angle iron and 1/4" plate (7.3 hours, not counting driving around hardware stores for a couple hours, looking for 1/4" angle iron). This can be used in the 12-ton el-cheapo hydraulic press I got back in my engine rebuilding days to get the strip most of the way bent, then it's off to the vise with a hunk of 1/4" round to close the end of the loop, but keep the teardrop open.

  5. Weld the edges of the loop's tail. For all my initial fears of welding, this was among the simplest operations in this process. It still took 3 hours to weld all 36 of them.

  6. Cut the slot into the teardrop. This process was the subject of much heartache for me. My first idea was to use my milling machine with a very tiny endmill to cut the slot before the strip was bent. This worked, but was very slow, and ran a substantial risk of breaking the cutter, for it was ever so wee. Then I had the idea to use a slitting saw in the mill once the loop had been bent. Much better, but I discovered that after welding, the slot would expand a bit, and the plans are very particular that the slot should be a particular size. So I thought it better to weld first, then cut the slot to eliminate welding as a possible source of error. I welded up the first 17 strips, and tried to cut the slot in one of them, only to be horrified to find that welding modified the strength of the metal such that the saw (which had worked perfectly before welding) suddenly sounded like it was about to explode. Finally someone on the forum suggested using an abrasive cutoff wheel, which worked well, and was the method I finally used to cut the rest of the strips. I spent nearly 5 hours just figuring out how to cut slots and then slotting all the strips. I'm glad I didn't have to use a hacksaw and file to do the job, as someone suggested when I asked how Ed might have expected the average homebuilder to do it.

  7. Clean up the welding scale. I started out by hitting the strips with sandpaper to clean up the scale, but it didn't do a very good job. I finally switched to a wire brush and had much better success. I also destroyed two partially-used wire brushes in the process. If I have to do any more of that, I'm getting the wire wheel set up on my bench grinder again. I need to do that anyway, as long as I'm welding parts.

That's the process so far. I'm not done yet, but that's as far as I'm taking it until the wings are built, and I can see exactly how long each strip needs to be.

By contrast, the steps necessary to deal with wires would be:

  1. Buy wire. This requires an order from Aircraft Spruce, and costs more than the sheet metal ($128 + shipping vs. $80 for sheet metal).

  2. Cut wire to length. Hacksaw and file to clean up the cut.

  3. Thread ends. Time-consuming, and requires a left-hand threading die for one end, but a well-denfined problem with a well-defined solution.

That's it. If I had it to do over again, the extra $50 would be 100% worth it. I think the turnbuckle situation would be a bit cheaper too, by at least half. If you find yourself building a Marquart Charger, may I humbly suggest that you don't follow the masochistic "Do it exactly per plans" path that I have, at least for this particular situation.

For your edification and edumacation, I also filmed much of the process and turned it into this moderately interesting video:

Posted at 23:06 permanent link category: /charger


Mon, 26 Nov 2018

$50 COOAU 4k Action Camera Review

If you go to Our Favorite Online Retailer that Used to be a River, you will find about a gajillion "action cams." These are little boxy cameras that always come with a hard plastic case so they can be used underwater, and usually fit onto a now-universal two- or three-bladed mount first pioneered by GoPro. They range in price from about $50 for the cheap Chinese knock-offs to many hundreds of dollars for the name-brand versions.

I still own a first-gen GoPro, which was powered by AAA batteries that would inevitably rattle loose about mid-ride when I was filming motorcycle races back in 2008. I don't think it works any more. It was ok, but felt pretty chintzy at the time, and didn't have a screen on the back or any more feedback than a little LCD panel with a number and a couple icons on it. Times have changed.

A few years ago, I got a Xiaomi Yi 4k 2 camera, which was, at the time, a $250 Chinese work-alike of the $400 GoPro Hero 3. It wasn't a cheap Chinese knock-off though, and I've actually been pretty happy with it. Its biggest problem was that the 1/4" tripod mounting screw broke out of the body. The thing it never did that I wanted it to was to take an external audio input.

So, a week or two ago, I typed some appropriate search terms on our retailer's site, to see if I could find an inexpensive camera that would take an external microphone. Sure enough, there were a gajillion of them, priced between $50 and about $150, all with brand names that make your eyes bug out, they're so weird. So of course I chose the $50 kind. Here's part of the description they apparently came up with on their own:

COOAU Sports Camera comes with several powerful function,such us Loop Recording,Time-Lapse Shooting, Car Model, Underwater Model,Slow Motion,Audio Record,Burst Photo, giving you the texperience of a digital camera.Exposure Value and White Balance meet various needs under specific conditions.The F2.5 Lens allows more light to enter the camera to make sure the photo and video are extreme clear under low light conditions

(Text copied and pasted from big online retailer site, can't add enough [sic] tags without making it ridiculous.)

COOAU's motto or saying or subtitle or whatever you want to call it is "MAKE YOU COOL & PROUD". Sure.

What it Comes With

So anyway, it's a $50 camera that includes the camera, the waterproof case, a plethora of mounting widgets, an external microphone (yes!), not one but two little batteries, and a carrying case. This is one of those cases where you wonder how they can afford to sell them for this price. It claims to have a Sony sensor, but I would be surprised to learn it was a recent Sony sensor.

First Impressions

The first impression as I laid my hands on the camera itself was actually pretty good. It's covered in a soft, grippy rubber that feels much higher quality than a $50 action cam has any right to feel. Fortunately, as soon as you check out the buttons or actually turn it on, you're back into reassuring territory. The rear screen turns on at a nearly obnoxious brightness with the bright white COOAU logo splash screen, and a tiny, tinny power-on noise plays through a speaker that must be 2mm across. It cuts off before it's finished, and the screen blacks out, and you think something's wrong. Then the screen lights back up again, and you're looking through the sensor and very wide-angle lens.

The lens itself is quite wide, 170° according to the description. It's described as being fish-eye, which is kind of right. I'd rate it as about half-way to fish-eye, like they were trying for rectilinear, realized it was way too much work, and gave up. It's not bad, it's just kind of its own thing, neither rectilinear nor fish-eye but somewhere inbetween. Initial testing inside the house at night (unlikely to be a cheap action cam's strong suit) was not terribly encouraging, with noticeable grain and poor dynamic range.

The user interface is useable, but a bit on the weird side. It has three buttons across the top: power, M, and a circle. The power button is pretty obvious until it's not; you quickly discover M means Mode; and the circle is the most sensible of the three, being either record or select. The M button switches you from video to still camera, then to video review, then photo review, then settings. Once you're in settings, it keeps looping through until you get to the Exit Settings mode (a U-turn arrow icon), and press record/select; if you press M again, you're back to the first settings screen, which takes some getting used to. The power button, once you're in settings screens, moves the cursor to the next thing. So if you want to set the video mode, you press M until you're on the video settings screen, then press power to move the cursor down until video mode is highlighted. Then you press select to enter the setting, power to move to the option you want, and select to pick it and exit back to the higher level menu -- there is no "back" button, you just gotta select something.

My initial tests with the internal and external microphone suggested that the internal mic is probably made of the same materials that go into a foxhole crystal radio, and very nearly doesn't record sound. The external mic, on the other hand, sounds pretty good, though it peaks quickly, and doesn't seem to offer any kind of gain control.

I was immediately annoyed with the battery cover, a small piece of plastic the size of an elongated postage stamp, which is sure to become lost within a month of owning the camera. I understand that the hinges on other cameras can be problematic, but this completely disconnected battery cover seems like a step in the wrong direction. Fortunately nothing will fall out if the cover goes missing. Along the same lines, the port cover on the other side of the camera is amazing for its ability to snug back down into its ports even when you are explicitly trying to plug a cable into one of them. It has to be actively restrained from getting in the way.

Actually Using It

The reason I got this thing in the first place is to record my melodious voice as I fly around in my little airplane. The first proof-of-concept test was to jam the external mic into the headset's earcup, and use that to record what my ear would hear. For lack of anything better to film, I aimed the COOAU at my ugly mug, while the Yi did its standard duty of aiming out the windshield to show a more-or-less pilot's-eye view.

I mounted the two cameras with a combination of the relatively heavy pro clamp mount I use with the Yi, and the pile of mounting widgets the COOAU came with. Mounting options in my Champ are limited, so the COOAU (facing me) ended up really being a receding-hairline-watch camera rather than a good view of my face. Not the camera's fault.

I fired up the plane, and jammed the mic into my headset. I had no idea what the audio would be like, though in reviewing it, it's at least usable. Unfortunately, keying the radio results in huge distortion (not too surprising), so I will be subtitling the video that will end up at the bottom of this review. Fortunately, this is not a challenge that most users of the COOAU 4k (remember, "Make You Cool & Proud!") will run into.

The flight went as well as I could ask, and as I write this, I am in the midst of exporting videos so that I can edit them together. I've reviewed some of the COOAU footage, and it's actually pretty decent. The dynamic range compression is still there, mostly noticeable as JPEG-artifact blowout on my giant forehead when I lean forward. The finished video will not be color corrected or adjusted in any way other than cuts (you don't want to watch an hour-twenty of me flying around, it's rull boring unless you're actually there), so that you can see exactly what comes out of the camera.

As is common to avoid creating over-large files, the COOAU 4k splits its videos up into 15-minute chunks when recording 1080P at 30 FPS. There's probably a more efficient way to join them together than what I'm doing, but I never claimed to be an expert at editing video.

I'm using Davinci Resolve 15 for my editing (because free, also awesome) on a recent iMac, and one problem cropped up: although the built-in QuickTime Player app would play back the audio on the COOAU clips, Resolve couldn't decode them. They just came across as silence. Many of the questions about the camera on our retailer's site had a canned response from COOAU about making sure audio worked right, and defensive statements about how it's AAC audio, so evidently COOAU is sensitive about this audio issue. I got around it by using the QuickTime Player to export the audio. The resulting m4a file imported well into Resolve, and it was a matter of mere moments to line the audio up with its clip.

I had the COOAU mounted upside-down, and forgot to set the "upside-down" setting. As a result, I had to flip the videos in Resolve, which is fortunately a trivial operation. The Yi automatically detects when it's upside-down, a feature that I have appreciated, and appreciate even more now.

One thing to note is that the batteries can only be charged in the camera. Charging from nearly-empty takes an hour or two on a normal USB port. One battery lasted me for an hour and seventeen minutes of recording, though it showed no bars left when I shut it down. It appears to work fine when plugged into an external power source, so vehicle use will only be limited by storage space, and it does include a "loop" mode that only records the last N minutes of footage.

My camera came with a card in the package saying I'd receive a free battery if I left an "honest review" on our retail site and told them about it, which I'll probably do for yuks, because free stuff.

Conclusions

Reviewing the footage from the Yi and the COOAU, there's no question that the Yi looks nicer. Does it look five times nicer? Not really. The footage from the COOAU is pretty good. I can't really compare the internal microphones, as I haven't played with the COOAU's mic.

The Yi uses a touchscreen for most of its settings, which offers an interesting comparison: since the COOAU is not a touchscreen, you can do all the setting and adjusting you want with the camera while it's in the watertight case. That's not true with the Yi. Score one for COOAU (Cool & Proud!).

Is the COOAU worth fifty bucks? No question. I'd actually say it's a pretty good deal for $50. Not only do you get a halfway decent action cam, you get a bunch of mounting widgets and a pretty good carrying case. If you're coming from a GoPro or Garmin or Sony or similar high-end camera, you'll probably be disappointed in the quality, but that's kind of not the point. It's a fifty dollar camera. I could strap it to my wing, and if it departed the plane, I'd be considerably more worried that it would damage something when it landed than that I'd lost the camera. It's a perfect "disposable" camera if you need an action cam for something dangerous enough that you'd hesitate to put your $500 GoPro in that situation. It would be a fantastic My First Action Cam for a young person to strap to a helmet or handlebars or snorkel mask.

It even records external audio with a perfectly standard 2.5mm mono phono plug, no weird, hard-to-find adapters needed. I'll probably look for a smaller microphone if I want to keep using it inside the headset, the supplied mic is a fairly chunky 12mm in diameter.

In all, I'd say it's a good deal on an acceptable camera. This is not the camera to get if you want to include your footage in your high-class indie film (unless low-quality footage is the gimmick). It is absolutely the camera to strap to your amateur rocket to get a cool shot you'd hate to try with a higher value camera.

Coming Soon

This review is not finished. I'll be taking some photos and possibly more video to show some of the idiosyncracies of the camera. Check back in a few days.

Posted at 09:47 permanent link category: /gadgets


Thu, 13 Sep 2018

A Triumvirate of Chargers

My work sent me on a trip to Orlando recently, and I checked in with folks on the Biplane Forum to see if there was anyone who's be interested in showing off a project, or if there was some aviatory attraction I should definitely see. I got a few suggestions, but by far the most appealing one was to visit a set of three Chargers at the Ormond Beach (OMN) airport.

My work duties were finished around 5 on the day of my visit, and I was rolling by about 5:20. Unfortunately, from where I was, it would be at least an hour and a half drive, and traffic at 5:20 on a weekday meant there was an additional ten minutes of delay. Silently cursing as I passed through Florida's plethora of poorly-explained road toll booths, I made it to the airport around 7.

I met D., who had made the invitation initially, at the gate, and he introduced me to a crowd of folks, all of whose names have already disappeared from my fickle memory. I think two of them were Charger owners, D. used to own a Charger, and there was one owner who wasn't at this particular event. They were gathering anyway for a birthday celebration for R., who I ended up talking to after my flight.

D. looked up at the sky and said, "Let's get you up before sunset!" We pulled his plane out, and climbed in. I found that I mostly fit in the front cockpit, but the rudder pedals were uncomfortably close. I still managed to fly the plane just fine, but I wouldn't enjoy a long cross-country in the passenger seat.

I had an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, and a tachometer as my instruments; a control stick, rudder pedals, and throttle as my controls. We taxiied out to runway 8, and after a brief run-up, launched into the humid, warm air. D. gave me the plane as soon as we were out of the traffic pattern around OMN, and told me to stay around 1000 feet to keep under the Daytona Class C, and then we could climb once we hit a particular body of water.

We got to our mark, and I sent the throttle forward. The plane didn't scream upward, but it climbed with more vigor than Norbert the Champ would have. Looking out over the short twin wings was a little strange -- Norbert's wings are 5 feet longer in each direction, and there's only the one on top.

I was more relaxed than I had been in the other Charger I've flown in, probably because I was over the first-time jitters. I found that the plane responded quickly to control inputs, and felt like it was shorter in all dimensions than the comparatively pokey Champ, which is true. Ailerons rolled the wings faster, the rudder swung the tail more aggressively, and the elevator pointed the plane up and down with greater speed and less pressure. It also struck home how much more comfortable the stick arrangement is in the Charger: in the Champ, the stick pivots below the floor, and although this is very neat and trim looking, it means the stick swings pretty far in all directions. The Charger has the stick's pivot above the floor, so you can see the workings of the system.

I tried a variety of maneuvers, dancing around the puffy clouds that dotted the sky: a power-off stall, a power-on stall, steep turns, a slip, a dive, etc. The power-off stall was almost shocking in how gentle it was. It wasn't properly a stall at all -- we were clearly going down while aiming up (or at least level), but there was no break, and I had a sense that at least one of the wings was still flying. The power-on stall was much more interesting, breaking distinctly and dropping the left wing promptly. A release of pressure and a touch of rudder straightened the plane back up, and we were flying again. The steep turn was unremarkable and quick. The slip was pretty weird: unlike the Champ, which seems to be designed to slip, the Charger wouldn't plunge over at 45° and drop like a rock. I could get it over about 20° then ran out of rudder, and it didn't seem to go down appreciably faster than just slowing the motor down and coasting downward. I suppose the advantage would still be that you could descent without gaining extra airspeed, but a slip was definitely where the Champ is the more capable plane.

The wind in the cockpit was basically unnoticeable. It was there, and in cold air I would have been cold, but it wasn't howling through or anything. The windshields were a single sheet of (probably) polycarbonate that had been scored through about half of its thickness by a 1/8" or so saw blade, then bent along those scores to form the three-faceted windshield shape I like for these planes. It was an interesting technique that I haven't seen before. It's nice in that it doesn't leave a big distorted section around the bends, and it doesn't require a frame. D. said that the wind in the back cockpit was more present, but not terrible. He was able to turn off the push-to-talk feature of the intercom, and just leave it always-on, so maybe I block the wind more effectively than other passengers. D. said that a front pit cover is a very good idea, and very nice to fly with compared to an uncovered but unoccupied front cockpit.

As the sun descended toward the horizon, we turned back to the airport, and dropped down to get under the Class C again. D. seemed to be offering to let me land the plane, but as we approached OMN, I gave it back to him, unsure which runway we were landing on, and certainly having no experience landing a biplane. In the traffic pattern is a bad time to learn much of anything, and I figured it would be safer all around to give that particular offer a thanks-but-no-thanks this time.

After we were down -- the landing was stiff-legged but not bad, and I could feel the difference between the Champ's oleo gear and the Charger's rubber donut setup -- we taxiied back in, and I had a chance to wander around the assorted Chargers in the hangar. One was missing its motor (I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the firewall, motor mount, and what accessories were still mounted), and the other was fitted out with a giant Dynon glass-panel screen in the pilot's cockpit, with a very professional-looking black instrument panel. All three Chargers were painted the same scheme of white and red and black checkerboards and sunbursts. It's a good looking scheme, though it looks like it would take a long time to mask off and paint.

I ended the evening talking to R., who built one of the Chargers (I think he built the one that was sitting with its engine removed, but I'm not so sure now). He was the owner of the one D. took me up in, and I got the impression he's been building airplanes for a long time now. We talked about good and bad points of the Charger design. He pointed out a few things that I should address:

  • Fix the landing gear -- even with my plan to switch to Grove spring gear, he suggested I should reinforce the longeron they will bear on
  • Reinforce the upper wing landing wire attach plates, right where they get welded to the inner hoop; I believe these are parts -203 and -204; apparently they crack under hard acro
  • Add 1/8" plywood plating over the wing fuel tanks to increase the strength of the structure

I wish I had had more time to chat with him, but I knew I still had a 90 minute drive ahead of me, and my sleep schedule has been all kinds of messed up lately with the switch from Pacific time to Eastern time plus not sleeping well in the hotel bed. It was after 9 by the time I left, though fortunately the return trip was through much less traffic than the way there. It still took an hour and forty-five minutes to get to the hotel after a stop for gas and slowing down for some torrential rainstorms that passed through.

It was a surprisingly nice visit -- I don't mean that I had expected it to go poorly, just that I didn't have any real expectations beyond that I would see some planes. Everyone was very friendly, and welcomed me as if I've been hanging out with them for years. D. and R. were very generous with their plane and their time, and it was a very kind gesture on D.'s part to let me fly basically the whole flight after takeoff.

I know a few more things to look out for on my build, and I have re-confirmed that the Charger is a nice plane to fly. Being in the 160 HP plane rather than one of the 180 HP planes means I also have a reasonable expectation for how my plane might perform (I'm not planning on using the larger 180 HP motor unless a too-good-to-ignore deal shows up). R. and I exchanged eyebrow waggles and appreciative discussion of putting a radial engine (probably the Verner Scarlett 9S in my case) on a biplane, which would be a 150 HP solution.

So, hooray for unexpected business trips that can be turned to biplanely purposes. I have more information, and another half hour of Charger time in my logbook.

Posted at 10:58 permanent link category: /aviation


Sun, 09 Sep 2018

Flying East

I recently took a day off work, and decided that I would fly Norbert, my little Champ 7EC, to Yakima. Actually, I decided to fly to Wenatchee, but the runway was closed, so I changed my destination to Yakima. The main reasoning was to try flying over the Cascade mountains, which have formed a real barrier in my mind that was limiting where I thought was a good destination.

The Cascade mountains run north-to-south, east of Seattle, and they form an unbroken chain from British Columbia all the way into Oregon, where they merge and blend with a few other mountain ranges. They're not the 11,000 foot monsters to be found further east in the Rockies, but with many of the peaks topping off between 6,000 and 10,000 feet, they're still nothing to sneeze at.

And they have formed the eastern border of where I was willing to fly in the Champ, which is many fine things, but "fast climber" is not among them.

So, I drove out to the airport, sailing past the grinding traffic heading the other direction, toward Seattle. I arrived at Harvey Field (S43) around 10:15, and preflighted the plane. Plenty of fuel, having tanked up at Arlington's (AWO) relatively cheap pump a few days before. Relatively cheap these days is $5.06 per gallon of 100LL gasoline.

I was floating off the runway around 10:50, a bit later than I'd planned, but not catastrophically so. The path I'd plotted out took me down the Snoqualmie Valley to Fall City, where I would form up over I-90, and fly more or less over the freeway to ensure I'd avoid any dead-end canyons. Once to Ellensburg, turn left for Wenatchee (EAT), with a right turn to Yakima (YKM) presenting a good alternative.

The flight briefer had mentioned that runway 12-30 at Wenatchee was closed, but I didn't take much note of it. The airport symbol at Wenatchee shows two runways, so I figured I'd just land on the one that wasn't closed. I've gotten into the habit of just glancing over the airport information for my destination before I depart, now that accessing the chart and supplement with airport data is so easy on the tablet I usually fly with.

As I was climbing out from Harvey, I called into Seattle Radio and opened my flight plan, also giving them a quickie pilot report about the smoke in the air -- I guessed I could see about 50 miles in haze. The flight service operator repeated the warning about runway 12-30 in Wenatchee being closed, which I thought was odd, but I thanked him and switched back to Seattle Approach to set up flight following (a radar service where they call out traffic they think might conflict with your flight path, and very handy). Fall City's tiny private airstrip passed underneath, and I eyed my chart to make sure I wasn't climbing into the tightly controlled Class B airspace that surrounds SeaTac airport (SEA) even as far east as Snoqualmie.

The fact that the flight services guy had mentioned Wenatchee's 12-30 closure again nagged at me, so I pulled up the airport info for EAT. Oh. There is only one runway at Wenatchee. And it was closed. The second runway shown on the chart is present, and thus visually important enough to depict on the chart, but you're not allowed to land on it. Sigh.

So, I called Seattle Radio again, and amended the flight plan to land in Yakima instead. I had considered Yakima as a destination already, so it wasn't any real mental effort to shift my plans.

By this time, I was nearly to my desired 7500 foot cruising altitude, chosen so that I'd be above the majority of the mountain peaks by a comfortable margin, but not so high that I'd climb into the unfavorable winds predicted at 9000 feet. As it was, I seemed to have no wind at all to contend with, which was nice. The air was smooth, and I placidly watched I-90 wind around under me. Snoqualmie Pass crept slowly past (I was making all of 83 MPH over the ground), looking odd and barren with its ski slopes covered in yellowed grass and empty parking lots presenting appealing emergency landing strips should the engine falter.

Then Norbert and I were on the dry side. The road, I knew from driving it in the past, started sloping down, and the vegetation changed. The big lake just east of Snoqualmie Pass passed by, and the last threat of the mountains faded away. In truth, I never felt like I was flying through mountains, since I'd reached 7500 feet by the time I got over serious mountains, and none of the nearby peaks reached that high. There was probably a 50 mile stretch where finding a good landing spot would have been tough, but never impossible.

Then we were on to the valley that spills to the east from Snoqualmie Pass. I flew over the small airstrips that dot the landscape alongside I-90, spotting some, and unable to see others. De Vere (2W1) in particular evaded my efforts to spot it despite knowing exactly where it should have been. Ellensburg (ELN) was easy to spot, and once I reached it I turned right over the hills to find Yakima.

The advantage of having a flight planned out on the tablet is that you get immediate feedback that you're going where you intended to go. Because it's tracking your travel over the ground, corrections for wind drift are built in by the nature of the beast. I could have planned everything beforehand, and filled out one of the cross-country planning sheets I got when I started flying (and before tablet computers beyond the Apple Newton existed), but it would have meant that when I realized I needed to go to Yakima instead of Wenatchee, I would have had to pull out the chart and do some plotting and calculating to know what compass heading to fly. With the tablet, I just scrolled over to the Route tab, deleted EAT, and added YKM. New line drawn on the chart for me, and I'm good to go. I appreciate knowing how to do it the old way, but the new way is pretty awesome.

It was a short leg to Yakima, and Chinook Approach put me in contact with the tower when I was about 12 miles out from the airport. I could see where I thought it should be, but I knew from past experience that I can very easily get airport identification wrong, so I held off on descending until I was 100% sure I had the airport in sight.

Then, being 4000 feet too high, I had a lot of altitude to lose in a hurry. Fortunately, the Champ is a champ at going down quickly and safely, so I put it into a slip, and flew the plane sideways. We descended over Yakima quickly. I realized at some point that I was smelling gas, which is never a good feeling, and glanced out the side window to see fuel dripping out of the right-wing tank vent. Oops. Straightened out the plane, and thanked past-me for filling the tanks full enough that I wouldn't have any danger of fuel starvation, but also slightly cursed past-me for filling the tanks so full I couldn't slip down to get to pattern altitude.

The tower cleared me for landing, and I touched down on the soverign soil of Yakima International Airport.

I knew from my preflight studies that Yakima didn't hold any appealing attractions for me, which is part of why I'd picked Wenatchee at first. So, I wandered around a little bit, looking for an entrance into the terminal to use the bathroom, eventually being directed to the big, obvious RAMP EXIT sign over a gate far from the terminal. Logical, really, that you'd walk away from the bathroom to get to the bathroom.

Having successfully used Yakima as my biological dumping ground, I checked the weather and the fuel price at Ellensburg, and got the plane back in the air. My plan now was to fly the half hour to Ellensburg and fuel up there for the return trip to Snohomish.

The return trip over Yakima town and the ridge to Ellensburg was uneventful, though I did look down at the smooth, bare ridge and ponder a YouTube video recently pointed out to me of a Kitfox pilot landing on similar hills in Nevada. I didn't ponder it very hard, since the Champ is not a Kitfox, and my little tires are not the giant tundra tires he was sporting, and I had no idea if the land below me was public-use or privately owned. Ellensburg hove into view, and I descended down to the traffic pattern, slotting in behind a twin that was doing touch-and-goes.

After a little musical-chairs action with another pilot who was sitting in front of the fuel pump looking at a phone, I pumped another 10 gallons into Norbert's tanks, and made my way back into the air. I was getting anxious about getting back to Harvey, since I was due to meet with an instructor at 4 to do my Biennial Flight Review.

Oddly, I immediately spotted the wind turbine farm west of Ellensburg as I took off, but completely missed it on the way in. It's a huge, distinctive landmark, and I thought it was odd that I hadn't seen it. It ended up being a useful landmark as well, as I communicated with a plane that was doing maneuvers over it, and we were able to negotiate who would go where by references to it.

Past the wind farm, I started to notice that I was flying the plane a bit oddly. I kept adding way too much right rudder. Norbert normally needs a few pounds of pressure on the right rudder in cruise flight, for whatever reason. So it's a habit to just keep that pressure in, but for some reason, I kept adding way too much, so we ended up flying a bit sideways. I eventually decided it had to be from the quartering tailwind that was speeding me along a little bit, but also causing me to drift to the right over the landscape. Even being conscious of it, I found that I had to repeatedly correct my over-use of the right rudder. Fortunately, the side-wind went away about half-way along the mountains, and I was able to stop worrying about it. Snoqualmie Pass drifted by dreamily and I kept glancing at the Estimated Time of Arrival box on the tablet's display. I was going to be 10 minutes early according to the box, but I knew that maneuvering for traffic patterns and taxiing would eat much if not all of that time.

In light of the comparative rush, I decided to do something unusual. I turned right at Snoqualmie Pass, directing my path of travel right over a tall mountain, but with I-90 and the flat fields beyond the mountain still in gliding range. I had been cruising at 8500 feet (if you're flying east, you fly at odd thousands-plus-five-hundred-feet, and if you're flying west, you fly at evens), and tried pointing the airplane downhill without substantially reducing power. This is unusual, but not wrong necessarily. The plane doesn't seem to enjoy flying much over 100 MPH, but the official Never Exceed speed is actually 135 MPH, so there's a lot of leeway available. Being a 60+ year old plane, I don't like to push it to the point of discomfort, but I figured it couldn't hurt to try. Norbert dove like an expert as I put us into a 115 MPH speed-descent. Of course this all had the advantage of getting me to Harvey Field noticeably faster than my normal 80 MPH cruise speed.

I made it on time almost to the minute, shutting down the engine at 3:59. It's funny how these timings seem to work out. My instructor ended up being a few minutes late in any case, and we had a good BFR, he passing me with flying colors. It helps to have an instructor who's just as finicky as you are.

Interestingly, I am writing this entry from 22,000 feet above eastbound I-90, where was just able to observe the same path that I flew a few days ago, but at several times the altitude, and many times the speed. My two-hour flight to Yakima probably would have taken 25 minutes in an Airbus A320. I prefer the two-hour version in the Little Champ that Could, even if it does shiver uncomfortably when you push past 100 MPH.

Posted at 10:50 permanent link category: /aviation


Thu, 06 Sep 2018

Heard on the Radio

I was flying to Yakima yesterday, talking to Seattle Center, an air-traffic control facility that covers most of the northwest United States. Seattle Center is responsible for the airspace that's not around big airports; you talk to Seattle Approach when you're coming in to SeaTac, you talk to Portland Approach when you're coming in to Portland International, etc., and you talk to Seattle Center once you're outside of Approach's airspace.

As a small plane flying under Visual rules (the big planes are all flying under much more restrictive and communication-required Instrument rules), I talk to ATC mostly so they know where I am in case of potential conflicts, and for the reassurance that someone is paying attention to me if anything goes wrong.

Normally, on the radio with Center, it's all business all the time. You get a lot of exchanges like this, where this is the entire conversation:

Controller: United 123, turn left heading zero-five-zero.

United 123: Left to zero-five-zero, United 123.

It's normal to get a long string of these instructions, so you get used to the rhythm of the language.

Controller: Alaska 234, climb and maintain fifteen thousand, one-five thousand.

Alaska 234: Climb to fifteen, one-five, Alaska 234.

Controller: UPS 987 heavy, turn left heading one-two-zero for traffic.

UPS 987 heavy: Roger, left turn to one-twenty, UPS 987 heavy.

Controller: Cessna 456-Tango, contact Seattle Approach, one-one-niner point two. Good day.

Cessna 456T: Nineteen-two for 456-Tango, good day.

Airplanes are handed off to different controllers by zone, so when you cross from one zone into another, you get passed off to that zone's controller. When you switch frequencies, you check in with the new controller, so they know you're on frequency and talking to them:

Cessna 456T: Seattle Approach, Cessna 456-Tango with you, ten-thousand-five-hundred, VFR.

Controller: Cessna 456-Tango, roger.

So when something unusual happens, it sticks out just because it disrupts the flow. Thus the following incident, which happened more or less like this (details changed because I can't remember them), sticks in my memory:

Santos 123: Seattle Center, Santos 123 with you, ten-thousand.

Controller: Aircraft calling Center, say again the callsign?

Santos 123: It's Santos 123, that's Spanish for "underpaid."

Unexpectedly long pause

Controller: [barely contained laughter] Ok, Santos 123, maintain ten-thousand, expect lower in one-zero miles.

I suspect, unfortunately, that you had to be there, but it was a good joke.

Posted at 10:55 permanent link category: /aviation


Sun, 19 Aug 2018

Building a Biplane: Good to the Last Rib


That's a lotta ribs

I reached a pleasant milestone at the end of July: I finished all the ribs for the Charger. I had run out of materials at the start of May, having underestimated capstrip and 1/16" plywood by about 5%. Aside from kicking myself for the mistake, there wasn't a lot I could do, so I went off and did other things while I waited for my order of new materials to ship. I took advantage of the announcement of the new steel and aluminum tariffs to order my fuselage steel at the same time, although that delayed the order by another month or so. What's a month on a 10-20 year project, right? (Sigh)

In any case, on the 22nd of July, I glued together my final two ribs. This is the first major-ish milestone I've reached in the build. It was great to achieve it, but it was distressing how long it took -- more than a year from first rib to final rib. I had known it would take a while, but I was figuring 6 months. I blew my time estimate by 100%.

The downside to reaching this milestone is that I was now without a singular task to work on. When I was building ribs, it was easy to go out to the garage, and pick up wherever I left off on the ribs, going until I was at an obvious stopping place. Now, I suddenly had a variety of tasks to accomplish: profile the spars; machine bushings for compression tubes; weld bushings to compression tubes; produce drag strip.

Profiling the spars is the scariest task for me. Each spar costs between $100 and $150 to replace, but much more importantly, would take something like 6 months to arrive once ordered. Spar-grade spruce is hard to find. I mean, it's easy to order, but Aircraft Spruce and Specialty, despite their name, don't have a pile of spruce sitting around ready to ship. So, if I mess up a spar, that's 6 months of waiting, and about $300 lost (because they're 10-11 feet long, the spars have to ship by truck, which is a minimum of $150 on top of just buying the wood).

Because of this trepidation, I've been dithering. I got a couple of 2x6s at the hardware store, and crudely resawed them to 1" thick to mimic the spar blanks. I tried a variety of methods of cutting them down until I found a method I like: cut the bevels on the edges with a table saw, but cut it oversize, then finish with a hand-powered bench plane. I got a bigger plane (a Stanley #5), but discovered that Stanley has gone substantially downhill in the quality department, and then went on a week-long research bender getting deeply, deeply nerdy about bench planes. I ended up ordering a Lie-Nielsen #5, and have a bid out on a vintage Stanley #7. For those of my loyal readers (ie, all of you) who don't know planes that well, the Lie-Nielsen is the ridiculous-but-worth-it Cadillac of bench planes, and a vintage Stanley is the they-made-them-well-back-in-the-day winner. A #5 is a good all-around size, and a #7 is a bit of a monster, but good for making sure you don't accidentally introduce some hills-n-valleys on your piece of wood.


That's a lotta tubes

I also found myself dithering on the welding front. Although I now have much of the metal in stock (plus some) that I should need, I've been worried that my welding skills aren't up to scratch. I welded up practice piece after practice piece, but they didn't quite seem good enough. Finally, a couple nights ago, I made some new test pieces, and took a methodical approach to solving the problem, setting up the best jigging system I could think of. I welded my four test pieces, and by the fourth I was actually feeling pretty good. Not great, but good enough that I was willing to try with the expensive aircraft steel.

Fortunately, it looks like I had the technique right, and the resulting welds have met with approval from the experienced folks who've seen them. I now have twelve half-compression tubes. Only 24 to go. (Actually, they went really fast. I should have the compression tubes done in a couple of work sessions if I can maintain that rate.) Not quite worthy of the name "milestone," but it was good to get some real aircraft welding done.

I also made my first foray into the world of waterjet contractors. My original plan was to draw up all the little metal brackets and bits that I would need in CAD, and ship the drawings off to a waterjet shop to have the pieces cut. Then all I would have to do was bend the pieces appropriately (easier said than done, but new pieces would be as far away as the waterjet shop when I messed up), and voila! All done. It turned out that I found a good deal on a set of Ken Brock wing fittings, which took care of 90% of my waterjet work for 1/3 the likely cost, and that was an easy decision when it came up on Ebay. However, it didn't include the drag strips (criss-crossed strips of steel inside the wing, which stiffen it and make it so it won't rack side to side), so I've sent those DXF files out to a bunch of shops to get estimates. I'll be curious to see what they say. Of course, the drag strips would have been cut on a metal shear back in Ed Marquart's day, and I need to explore that option as well, since it may be substantially cheaper. I can cut my own slots and holes if it saves hundreds of dollars.

It's nice to be making progress. I wish I was making progress faster, but I need to let go of any concept of building to a schedule unless I want to upend my life to do it. I enjoy still having relationships and friends and other activities, though, so the airplane building will continue to be a "when I have time" priority.

Posted at 18:42 permanent link category: /charger


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


Categories: all aviation gadgets misc motorcycle theater

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