Categories: all aviation bicycle gadgets misc motorcycle theater

Tue, 18 Apr 2017

Leveling Up

I recently had the opportunity to level-up my airplane game: changing a tire.

I've changed many a tire on motorcycle, bicycle, and once or twice on a car, but changing a tire on an airplane was a new experience. I can see why the FAA allows pilots to do it: it's surprisingly easy.

On a motorcycle with a tubeless tire (which has been a lot of my experience), you have to employ a distressing amount of force to unseat the bead, and getting the tire fully on the rim can be a surprising amount of work as well. Seating the bead is an exercise in "Will it explode and kill me?" as you apply 80 PSI to a tire rated for 40, and it slides into place with two loud BANG! noises.

An airplane, on the other hand, is a gentle, simple affair. You jack up the landing gear leg (simple on the Champ I was working on, my 1956 Champion 7EC), undo the axle nut, and pull the wheel off (carefully placing the bearings to the side, to be cleaned, inspected, and repacked with grease). The tire is deflated first, just in case the axle nut was the only thing holding it together. Then you undo the three bolts holding the wheel halves together, and pull them out of the tire. No force required, it just all gently comes apart.

In my case, I was missing some key components, so the process took much longer than it should have. I didn't have replacement cotter pins (special aviation cotter pins are required, though at 17 cents apiece, they don't exactly break the bank), so I had to walk over to the maintenance hangar and spend $1.80 on 10. After I took the wheel halves apart, looking over the bolts that hold the halves together, I wasn't entirely convinced they were aviation-grade hardware, so another walk to the maintenance hangar, and $20 later, I had a complete set of replacement hardware for both wheels.

As it came time to re-assemble the wheel with the new tire in place, it became obvious that I was missing a torque wrench, so I toddled off to Harbor Freight to blow $22 on a small clicker wrench in inch-pounds -- the one I have at home can't be set to a small enough value to deal with aviation hardware, so I hadn't bothered to bring it. I switched on the air compressor that came with the plane, and.... nothing happened. Poked around a little bit, but it wasn't obvious what was wrong, so I drove up the road to a bike shop and bought the fatty-est floor pump they had, and now I've got an air source that doesn't make any noise or need any power.

Fortunately, I had the appropriate grease (AeroShell #5) on hand, and greased up the bearings as I reassembled the whole mess in the afternoon sun, wishing the rain clouds would come back so I'd stop overheating. The axle nut is a weird one, just a round section of pipe, appropriately threaded and with holes spaced every 30° around its circumference: it should be basically finger tight, then you throw a cotter pin through it to keep it from coming loose.

Unfortunately, I discovered that the axle nut cover has two of three screw-holes stripped out, so I'll be taking it to someone for some Helicoil action. I'd hate to see my lightweight hubcap spinning away from me on landing some day.

In all, though, the experience of changing an airplane tire was gentle and lightweight compared to dealing with motorcycle or even bicycle tires. It was delightful in how easy it was. I can't wait to tackle the next one, particularly now that I've got all the bits and pieces read to go.

Posted at 20:51 permanent link category: /aviation

Wed, 22 Mar 2017

Building a Biplane: Gathering Materials

I am finally making some forward progress on actually building a biplane, instead of merely thinking about it, and doing activities that prepare me for the eventual build.

The first thing to figure out about the build -- about what happens the first time I take a piece of wood or steel and try to turn it from raw wood or steel into an airplane part -- is where to start. The Marquart Charger has so very many parts.

So, I fell back on a couple of reasonably simple tests: 1. What can I do that will not be a huge committment (in case I hate it and realize it's a waste of time)? 2. What do I already have the skills to do?

The answer to #2 is simpler than #1, so I'll address that first: I know how to work with wood. Although I've had a class in welding, and I was reasonably happy with my progress there, I currently lack equipment to perform welding, and my skill level at the end of class was clearly... beginner. There's work needed before I want to honestly assemble any airplane parts with my welding skill. So, woodworking was a logical starting place.

The only parts of the plane that are made of wood are the wings. The wings are made of these parts, when viewed simplistically: wooden ribs, built up out of little sticks and epoxy; 12 foot long spars that cost hundreds of dollars each; and some steel cables, fittings, and welded parts. The ribs need to be built before the wings can be assembled, so ribs are a fairly obvious starting place.

The rib is built up of 1/4" spruce sticks known as capstrip. The general idea is, you build a jig to hold the various pieces in place by cutting out a piece of plywood or MDF, then screwing blocks or inserting pins, then you cut out a bunch of capstrip to the appropriate lengths, fit them into their locations, and glue the whole thing up with epoxy. Those little squares are made of 1/16" thick aircraft plywood (don't even ask how much aircraft plywood costs), and are also glued on, then stapled in place. Once it's all held together with staples, you can pull the rib out of the jig, flip it over, and glue down the plywood gussets to the other side, and start on another one. There's also the plywood nose-piece which needs to be prepared beforehand.

So, then my list of things I need to acquire before I start goes like this:

  • 600 or so feet of 1/4" capstrip
  • Several square feet of 1/16" plywood
  • Several square feet of 1/4" plywood (for nose-pieces)
  • Epoxy and supplies (mixing cups, stir sticks, etc.)
  • A fancy staple gun
  • Fancy staples
  • Some hardware-store plywood or MDF
  • A way to cut the nose-pieces so they're identical to each other

As you can imagine, not every store in town carries aircraft certified plywood. There's no market for it. So, that has to be ordered from a specialty supplier in Illinois. Ditto the 1/4" capstrip: specialty supplier. Fortunately, the epoxy and supplies are easy to find locally. The special stapler (a Senco SFT10XP-A/D) wasn't available locally that I could find, but was available online. Special staples from Senco are ridiculously priced (mostly because they come in quantities sufficient for building 100 airplanes), so cheap Chinese Ebay staples are on hand for a trial, and if I don't like them I can order the name-brand ones. The MDF I'll be using for a jig hasn't been acquired yet, but is easily available at any lumber yard for not very much money.

The fancy wood has been ordered, but I don't yet have a delivery date from the supplier.

Of course, I have a stumbling block: the garage isn't finished yet. I've been dragging my heels on getting out there and tackling the final steps, which are to clear it of everything and paint the floor, then to move all my workshop stuff into the space and build a work table for the plane.

There's also the unacknowledged missing tool: how to cut out the nose pieces? I can do it with the jigsaw I already have, but really a bandsaw is the right tool for the job. I don't want to put theater-quality parts into this plane, I want aircraft quality parts. So there may be a major-ish tool purchase on my path before I can really start.

Even with the impediments and stumbling blocks in front of me, it's pretty cool to be getting close to actually sawing wood on the first part of my very own biplane build!

Posted at 14:33 permanent link category: /aviation

Fri, 30 Dec 2016

A Simple Accounting

As I am extremely unlikely to fly for the remainder of the year (all one and a half days of it), I decided to tally up my flying hours.

2013 4.0
2014 8.8
2015 8.5
2016 71.4

Just a sliiiiight jump there in 2016.

Posted at 11:12 permanent link category: /aviation

Tue, 27 Dec 2016

Avare ADS-B Notation

Warning: Deep nerding ahead. It's safe to skip this one if you're not super into aviation and ADS-B.

This year, Kwanzaa-bot brought me a Stratux box, which is a little Raspberry Pi-based ADS-B receiver. Neat!

So, I hooked it up and set up Avare, my aviation app of choice, to read the data. Totally works. Neat!

But, what the heck does it all mean? There are these hard-to-see dots, and small text, and although it's cool to see other airplanes flying around, it seemed a bit obscure and hard to understand. So, I ended up digging into the source code, and figured I'd write up a quick document to let other folks know what the ADS-B display is actually showing you in Avare.

Decoding the ADS-B Data in Avare

ADS-B traffic data in Avare is represented by a colored dot with a line extending out of it, and a small text area beneath the dot. The dot moves as updates are received, but if an update is missed, the dot will not move.

Dot color: The dot is colored to indicate the vertical position of the traffic. The colors are as follows:

Green: Traffic is more than 1000 ft/300m below you
Red: DANGER! Traffic is less than 1000 ft/300m below you
Magenta: DANGER! Traffic is less than 1000 ft/300m above you
Blue: Traffic is more than 1000 ft/300m above you

Barb direction and length: The line extending off the dot (called a barb in the source code) shows the velocity of the traffic. The longer the barb, the faster the traffic is moving. The direction it points shows the indicated heading of the traffic.

Text info: Each target has text associated with it, in a small box below the dot. This consists of two pieces of data, separated by a colon. The first is the callsign of the traffic (such as ASA1234 or N12345), and the second is the target's altitude.

If your altitude is known, the altitude will be displayed as a + or - value (eg, +5000 or -120). If your altitude is not known, the target's pressure altitude (ie, altitude above sea level) will be displayed, with PrA' appended.

NOTE: when you see PrA', remember that you must refer to your own altitude to determine if the target presents a danger to you or not. PrA' traffic will always be colored blue.

I'm looking forward to flying with ADS-B In on my tablet, and I'll be glad to know what I'm actually seeing on the screen. If I find changes to how it works, I'll try to update this document.

Posted at 11:36 permanent link category: /aviation

Thu, 22 Dec 2016

The Champion I Didn't Need

I went out to visit a Champion 7EC in person today, which I was considering buying. The ad sounded good as far as it went, but I knew that it had been somewhat neglected by its current owner, who wants to get out of flying. So, I was going with the theory that it might be a bit rougher than what I was looking for.

In case you're feeling lost: the Champ 7EC is a 2-person airplane, this particular example built in 1957. I'm looking into Champs as being the kind of plane I might really enjoy owning -- I love flying the 7AC Champ at Harvey Field, and the 7EC is basically a 7AC with an electrical system (which means no hand-starting, yay!).

The drive out to Eastern Washington took a bit over three hours, and I chose today because it looked like the last day where the weather and my schedule might coincide in the near future. I stopped in town to grab a burrito before I continued on to the airport.

I was greeted upon entering the office with the information that the man I wanted to speak to wasn't around, as he was out for lunch, but the logs were there on the table if I wanted to look them through. Look them through I did, and the picture which emerged was not exactly positive, but was good enough that it would be worth checking out the plane itself in person.

When my man arrived, we talked for a minute or two, and the subject of the airplane's current owner came up. They described him as "Mr. Magoo-like." If you're not familiar with the reference, Mr. Magoo is an old man character, famously short-sighted to the point of blindness. Further conversation revealed that our owner only had an annual on the plane every 5 years or so, probably didn't have a medical cert, etc. For obvious reasons, I'm not putting anyone's name anywhere here, since I don't want to get any of these fine folks in trouble.

We walked into the hangar to look over the plane.

This particular Champ started life as a 7FC, which was the famously reviled "Tri-Champ," a tricycle-gear Champ that most people disliked, simply because Champs have always been taildraggers. Bellanca issued a Service Letter on how to convert a 7FC to a 7EC, and this letter was followed to make the conversion.

My first impression of the plane was mediocre, and unfortunately it didn't get better from there. The paint was patched and faded, though not badly so. We approached from the right side of the tail, and my man explained that he'd taken the gear legs off to repaint them -- I had told him I anticipated coming next week, but the weather forecast convinced me to come early, and so I caught him somewhat unaware. He'd also removed the upper cowling, and those parts were sitting off to the side, stripped and ready for new paint. It looked like he was doing a good job with them, so no complaints on those touch-ups.

The interior was as I'd seen from the advertising photos, with no real surprises. The inside of the plane was the best part of it, with clean instruments, if not the most lovely panel. The seats appeared to be in good shape, including the wide rear seat, which would fit two skinny people. It was interesting to see the extra frame tubes that were installed to support the nosewheel, and which would render the frame more sturdy in a crash, though probably also a bit heavier than a real 7EC.

We walked around to the engine, and that's where things went downhill for me. Although the engine was rebuilt about 20 years ago, it was in rough shape. Rusted rocker covers were the worst sin that the engine itself indulged in, but aft of the engine, the battery was covered by a distressing coat of white acid damage, there was exposed wiring, frayed insulation, and the baffle seals looked like they'd been salvaged from the Titanic before being installed and left in the sun.

The starter is the old pull-type, where you pull a handle in the instrument panel, which engages the drive gear and completes the connection all at the same time. Nothing wrong with this on its face, but the unit itself had chipped paint and rust showing, and just generally looked like it was halfway to the scrap pile. The pull mechanism appeared to work, but was loose on the starter -- possibly normal, possibly not, I'm not familiar enough with them to know.

I ran my fingers over the leading edge of the metal McCauley prop, and was pleased with the first blade, but the second blade revealed a heavily dressed area 1/5 of the way from the tip that is probably perfectly legal and safe, but gave me real pause. I noticed the wing root fairings (and later the elevator trim tab) had badly peeling paint, and the gap sealing rubber at the wing root was ancient and cracked. The landing lights and nav lights looked to be in good shape, and strobes had been added to the wingtips.

As I continued my walk-around, I noticed that the ailerons were quite stiff, and moving the stick confirmed that both ailerons and elevator felt like I was fighting ancient oxidized grease, or possibly rust, on the pullies. Not encouraging at all. At the same moment, I tried the carb heat knob, and realized that it had probably not been pulled in years, and certainly wasn't about to start moving now. Master switch on, and the radio lights up, but has no display. Mr. Magoo probably hasn't used it for years; no idea if the transponder works or not.

The tailwheel was trapezoidal in cross-section, as if the mount were permanently rolled to the left, though it looked alright, and any misalignment wasn't visually obvious (helped by the fact that the plane was rolled ~10° to the left to facilitate the gear leg work). The tail looked like a standard Champ tail, though the numbers on the port side of the tail were peeling badly.

In general, the plane felt like one of those situations where you mentally read over the ad again in your head, and realize that although it was accurate, and although the pictures you saw were correct as far as they went, there was an awful lot they didn't say. The advertised price of $29,500 also suggested a plane that was in decent shape, although I never expected it to be a show winner at that price.

I feel bad that my reaction to the plane was so negative, as the gent who was showing it to me was correct -- this plane just really needs someone to take it home and fly it regularly. Unfortunately, I am not that person. I need whatever plane I take home to be in good shape, not a project. I have project enough ahead of me without buying a second one.

Posted at 19:25 permanent link category: /aviation

Tue, 20 Dec 2016

Build Time

Any time anyone has asked, I've been sort of casually saying that building this biplane project will take between 5 and 10 years, "More like ten than five," I usually finish.

I was chatting with someone recently, and I explained my logic more completely:

If I followed an ideal, unobtainable schedule, I would work on the project 2 hours every day after work and 10 hours every weekend. Then I pulled out my calculator, confidently typed in 3500 / 520 and got a huge shock: 6.7 years!? But it used to be three and a half! What crazy-ass numbers was I looking at before?

Glumness followed. The ideal, unobtainable schedule is just that. There's no way, in reality, that I'm going to go out to the shop for two hours every single night, nor be able to spend 10 hours every single weekend. So 6.7 years... crap, it's gonna take me 20 years, not 10!

A day or two later, glumness still more or less in place, I explained it again to someone else, and had the forehead-slap moment: that's 20 hours a week, not 10! 1040 ideal hours per year. Whew! I was right before. 3.4 years for my crazy ideal schedule. So, 5-10 years still sounds like a reasonable expectation.

It's amazing what a little slip of a digit will do.

Posted at 11:41 permanent link category: /aviation

Fri, 02 Dec 2016

Champ or Biplane?

I have reached an odd plateau in my search for an airplane. I am basically equally compelled by two fairly different approaches, and I keep switching back and forth between them, depending on my mood.

On the one hand, the Champ. There are numerous 7EC Champs out there for sale, and they look pretty good. On the other, the biplane. I have found a surprising number of Charger and Charger-adjacent biplanes out there too. These are photos of planes that are currently up on Barnstormers, not necessarily planes that I'm thinking about buying.



How They Differ

Here's a breakdown of the important differences between the two plane types. Note that most of these dollar amounts are not real, they're just to give a sense of the differences between the planes. I've colored some fields red and green to indicate where I like or dislike a factor about the plane. Uncolored fields indicate differences that are of minimal importance, or where I prefer both choices equally (sometimes for different reasons).

Champ! Charger!
Purchase Cost $25-30k $20-35k
Date of Manufacture 1945-1960 1980-2005
Horsepower 85-100 180
Direct (fuel) Cost per Hour ~$25 ~$50
Cruise Speed (mph) ~90 ~110
Climb Performance (ft/min) 600 1500
Cockpit Type Enclosed Cabin Open
Maintenance Requires A&P (mechanic) Me and a Wrench
ADS-B Out Costs ~$5000 ~$2000
Cheap Avionics Allowed Nope Sure
Modifications Allowed Very Limited Unlimited
Fun Factor Good Huge
Year-round Flying Sure If you like being cold
Travel-worthy Slow but pleasant Faster but WINDY
Passenger Friendliness High Intimidating/Exhilarating
Wow Factor Low Oh Yeah
Applicability to Charger Build Basically None Total
Resellability Good Terrible

A few notes about what these things mean.

Horsepower: No doubt you're looking at me a bit sidewise right now. Despite what every advert in every magazine will tell you, some people do not actually want all the horsepower. I really like the Champ's low-powered approach.

Climb Performance: Why should I rank these dramatically different climb rates equally? Same reason I don't place a huge value on horsepower. They're both fine.

ADS-B Out: This is an avionics system that I will be required to install by January 1, 2020, so it's pretty much a guaranteed cost. The huge difference in price is because the Champ is certified, whereas the Charger is experimental. This means that (practically) you can use cheap gear in the Charger that you can't in the Champ. Additionally, the Champ will require the services of an avionics shop for the installation. In truth, $5000 may be unrealistically low for the Champ.

Travel-worthy: Going any distance in the Champ is a pleasant, if somewhat slow, affair. There's a lovely enclosed cockpit around you, and as long as you have the patience to wait out the relatively slow cruise speed, it's fine. The Charger, on the other hand, will get you there a little bit faster, with less luggage, and feeling like you've just been beat up for however long you've been flying. The open cockpit is not a deal-breaker, but it makes longer journeys less pleasant.

Passenger Friendliness: The reason these are equal is because I have a variety of passengers I'll go up with, for a variety of types of trips, and they will split roughly 50/50 on whether the Champ or the Charger is the better plane to fly in. Some will love the gentle ease of the Champ, and some will love the rowdy fun of the Charger.

Resellability: The Champ has a ready market of planes and people who want them. It's not fantastic, though (the pilot population is shrinking steadily, and the population of pilots who want anything to do with a taildragger is tiny and shrinking). The homebuilt biplanes seem to have, effectively, no market at all. I'm chatting with sellers who have had their planes nominally for sale for years. I can only assume at this point that if I buy a biplane, it's mine forever, because I'll never be able to sell it.

What Does It All Mean?

I wish I could tell you. If I had all the money, I'd have one of each, but I don't, so I can't.

There is no single most important factor on that list, but the high ranking ones are resale value, travel worthiness, fuel costs, and the accessability of maintenance, both in terms of costs, and what can be done. The two planes are ridiculously balanced with those factors in mind.

I don't know what any of this means, but I suppose the best lesson I can take from it is that I should look at planes as they come up, and perhaps when the right one appears, it will make itself known to me. Unfortunately, I already know that this approach will leave me forever wondering about that plane I didn't go visit (most of these are far across the country in the Midwest or on the East Coast), or the one that appears shortly after I make my decision. I'm better off if I make a firm choice one way or the other, but I can't seem to find the right answer for myself yet.

Posted at 22:55 permanent link category: /aviation

Sat, 26 Nov 2016

Checkin' Out the CB-1

In my previous entry, I looked at a Starduster Too for sale in Bellingham. Interesting, but ultimately not the right plane for me.

About a week ago, I noticed that there was another plane for sale in Bellingham (what is it about Bellingham?), this time a Hatz CB-1, which is also a small two-place open-cockpit biplane. I had been to visit one earlier this year, in Olympia, and it was interesting enough that it seemed like it was worth a closer look. In particular, it only has a 140 HP engine on it, which would make it much more like the Champ I so enjoy than the "overpowered" (for my use) 180 HP motors on some of the other planes I've found.

So I skipped out on work last Tuesday, and drove myself up to Bellingham to check it out.

Click for a gallery of detail pictures

The plane is being kept in a heated hangar at Command Aviation, at Bellingham International Airport. In conversations with Cassidy, Command's chief A&P mechanic, I learned that it had been sitting for a while, and that a pilot who had some experience in the plane would be there to meet me when I arrived. I reserved a Piper Warrior to fly up, but I had very little confidence the weather would support it, and indeed I ended up driving instead.

The plane is tucked into the back of the Command maintenance hangar, where it seems to be reasonably out of the way, and hasn't suffered from any obvious hangar rash. I ended up going over the whole thing, looking at all the documents, checking out everything I could think to check out.

The plane, N4257, is actually in pretty good shape. It hasn't been run in the last 2 years, which is the biggest technical ding against it, although it's been in a heated hangar for that entire time, so the chances of it being damaged by sitting so long are comparatively low.

What I learned going through the docs is that it was put together pretty well, but was ground-looped at least once a few years ago. Jeff, who had experience in the plane, said it was ground-looped twice, once in each direction. Command opened up the wings, and declared the repairs to have been well done. Looking at the plane itself, there were a couple of relatively minor technical issues (the cowling rubbing on the engine; the throttle cable having been improperly tightened so it didn't work correctly any more). Otherwise, it was pretty nice.

I did think a couple of choices were odd, notably the non-sensitive altimeter. However, the oddest choice is one that the builder doesn't really have any control over: the access to the front cockpit.

The Hatz CB-1 is well-known for having tough access to the front cockpit, where the passenger sits (in all these biplanes, the pilot sits in the rear cockpit for balance reasons -- the passenger seat is right on the center of gravity, so the balance isn't noticeably changed by adding 100-200 lbs there). I had noticed it in Olympia, but didn't give it a lot of thought. Then I tried to get in myself.

A word about me: I'm about 6'2" tall, and a relatively lean 215 lbs, but still, I'm a big person. I'm also unusually flexible for my size and age. With a bit of grunting and twisting around, I was able to get into the passenger cockpit. It wasn't fun, I wouldn't want to do it ever time, but it was possible.

Unfortunately, it would not be possible for some of the people at the top of my list of "passengers I want to fly with." Notably, my parents, who are healthy and in reasonable shape, but are not likely to be flexible enough to make that entrance.

To get into the seat, the prospective passenger must duck under the wing (the top wing completely covers the passenger seat), somehow pull their legs over the coaming around the cockpit, get their feet on the seat, and then slide down into the seated position. I found it easiest to shove my head and torso forward, between the windshield and the wing, as if I were trying to jump forward onto the engine cowling. But my chest is too deep, so I was listening to the windshield creak as I was doing it, and it felt very unstable.

I wasn't able to start the motor, but that's for the best. It would disrupt whatever minor oil protection the motor currently enjoys after sitting for so long. The passenger seat is a sufficient problem that it's simply not a good idea for me to pursue the plane. I'm sad about that, since it's otherwise such a good choice. There are other factors working against it, but they are no more substantial than I've found on any of the other planes I'm looking at.

Command Aviation is asking $25,000 for the plane, which is a pretty reasonable price. If you find yourself interested in a small biplane with a 140 HP motor and an inaccessible passenger seat (but much more friendly for people who are shorter and more flexible), I recommend you check it out.

I shall continue my search, with my sights set on a distant but seemingly near-ideal Marquart Charger next.

Posted at 16:22 permanent link category: /aviation

Sun, 30 Oct 2016

Checkin' Out a New Ride

Some time late last year, it suddenly occurred to me that I was in a position to buy an airplane. I'd been flying a bit more, so it was on my mind. I ended up doing a bunch of research and settled on the Beech Musketeer as a likely plane I might own. It never really came to pass, since I wasn't sure it was actually a good idea (spoiler alert: owning an airplane, much like owning a boat, is never actually a good idea, as far as your accountant is concerned).

I decided, instead of buying a plane, to take the money I was seriously considering spending every month on this project, and put it into rentals for a year instead. If I still felt the same way at the end of my experimental year (ie, I'd flown a bunch, and didn't feel like I was breaking the bank), I would look more seriously into getting my very own moneypit in the sky.

Without thinking about it too hard, I spent the last year flying whenever the urge hit me, and have ended up spending a lot of time flying Harvey Field's Aeronca Champ 7AC. And really, I've grown to love it. The plucky little Champ, with its diminutive 85 HP motor and bare bones aesthetic. Something about it really puts a smile on my face.

So I realized, I'm in the same position again. Time to look seriously at planes. Only this time, it's not quite the same position: now I'm looking for an interesting tailwheel plane. Without getting into specifics, tailwheel planes tend to be older, they tend to be more quirky, and they're in much less demand because they're perceived as being more difficult to fly (specifically, more difficult to land) than the tricycle gear planes you normally see at the airport.

So, I've got my eyes open, and I'm looking at the Luscombe 8E, Champion/Citabria 7EC, and small, two-place homebuilt biplanes. The 7EC is the most familiar, for all that I've never been in one: it's a descendant of the Champ, and predecessor of the Super Decathlon I flew earlier this year. The biplanes are also surprisingly familiar, since that's all I've been reading about and studying up on for the last few years. The Luscombe is a wild card, since I know it's a small plane, but I don't yet know what they're like to fly, or whether I physically fit in the cockpit and/or through the door (they're small planes).

Click for a gallery of plane pictures

Today I was able to go up and see my first strong contender: a Starduster Too that's for sale near Bellingham. It's a plane that was built in the early 70s (registered in 1973 according to the FAA), and has been restored/refinished at least once, most recently in the late 1980s. It's powered by a 180 HP Lycoming O-360, which frankly seems like overkill for what I want, but there's no benefit to downgrading the engine unless it ends up being my lieblings-plane and I feel like throwing lots of money at it in return for a reduced resale value.

Walking around, the plane proved to be as the seller described: in generally good shape, though the paint was cracking for lack of sufficient flexibility to move with the fabric. The engine looked like most older airplane engines look: it had some oily spots and was generally a bit dirty, but there were no obvious problems and it seemed to be in fine shape.

This particular plane has a smoke system, which is cool enough, though it's hard to imagine when I'd use it.

The seller was kind enough to allow me to taxi it around, and it was surprisingly easy to handle on the ground. Just yesterday, I went for a lesson in a Cessna 170, which is a large taildragger, about the same size as a 172, which is Cessna's current four-place small plane. The 170 was a handful on the ground: the rudder didn't produce any real effect when taxiing around, and I had a hard time keeping it under control (a tailwheel plane is a bit like pushing a loaded hand truck in front of you -- if you don't keep on top of it, it will slip off to the side).

I was expecting/fearing that the Starduster would be the same way -- a real handful on the ground, requiring constant attention and care to keep it lined up where I wanted it to go. Instead, it went where I pointed it, and was much more like a sharpened up Champ, where the 170 was like someone had taken the Champ, reduced its steering effectiveness to near zero, then made it half again as heavy into the bargain.

I didn't have an opportunity to fly the Starduster, both because the wind was contrary for its runway, and because the seller would only let me go up with a non-refundable deposit "to avoid giving everyone and their brother joyrides." I can't blame him for that policy, but it feels jarringly off in a world where people eager to share the experience of their planes keep giving me rides just for the joy of going flying and sharing it with new people.

Regardless, it only took a few minutes of taxiing the Starduster around before I was feeling surprisingly comfortable in it. It was odd to come to that comfort level so quickly (though it's quite possible that it was a bit of beginner's luck masquerading as "skill"), but it mirrors my experience with oxy-acetylene welding earlier this year: I have read and studied up on both subjects for so long, that actually putting the knowledge to use was an immediate relief of a pressure I hadn't been aware was building. OA welding came to me almost immediately (I'm still not any good, but I was instantly comfortable with it), much like ground handling in the biplane came very quickly.

The cockpit of the Starduster is tight, but not so tight that it's uncomfortable. I probably wouldn't be happy in it for long flights, but I think it only has 2.5-3 hours of range in any case, so my butt and the engine would probably be competing for who needs to rest first. Most of my flying recently has been in the 1-1.5 hour range, and even a trip down to Portland would only take an hour and a half at most.

The front passenger's cockpit is a little harder to get into than the pilot cockpit from my brief attempt at each, but it's still pretty manageable. The passenger has sort of terrible access to the rudder pedals, since the landing gear truss is in the way, but it would be enough to fly the plane for a little bit. Both seats have acrobatic-quality four-point harnesses.

Speaking of acrobatics, the plane is clearly capable. The seller posted this video of himself flying it through a variety of maneuvers. I have very little interest in aerobatics, but it's eyebrow-raising to think I might have a plane that could do all that.

One thing I've heard from nearly everyone who's heard this plan is, "Wait, aren't you building a biplane?" That is true, but as I tell anyone who's interested to hear it, my biplane build is going to take 5-10 years, probably more like 10 than 5. I would hate to get to the end of that and realize I'm unable to fly for long due to a huge variety of factors that may come up, simple age and illness chief among them. It's unlikely I'll run into any problems, but why squander the time if I can do it now? This is one of those cases where you get to eat your cake, and have it too.

The giant burning question is now: could I live with an open-cockpit plane in the Pacific Northwest? It's not like we live in a tropical paradise here, and I would have to be ok with flying in near-freezing weather, if I wanted to fly year round (which I definitely do, if I can manage it). It's better than living in the midwest, where I might expect to be snowed in for three months of the year. Certainly I've managed to ride motorcycles successfully down to just above freezing, and arguably that's more arduous than flying, with the full-body exposure to the wind.

Whatever the case, whether I ultimately decide on a different style of plane, or even no plane at all, it's encouraging to have had this moment where I was in a biplane, very similar to the one I'm building, and was happy with the experience.

Update: With some reflection, I've realized that open-cockpit flying is not actually a burning giant question. My flying time is at least 90% solo, and I'm still wearing shorts as the weather descends into daily highs in the 50s and pelting rain. I'll be fine. Any passengers who might want to come with me would have to be willing to bundle up in the colder months, though.

Posted at 22:35 permanent link category: /aviation

Thu, 22 Sep 2016

Building a Biplane: The First Work

Now that I've decided I'm definitely building a plane, and have basically settled on the model (finally, hopefully, fingers crossed), I have actually gotten started on some honest-to-goodness work on the plane.

Well, sort of.

The Marquart Charger plans were drawn up in 1968, on paper, and photostatically reproduced. These plans contain dozens of little metal bracket-y things that are to be produced in quantities ranging from 1 to 20 (based on what I've seen so far). An example is shown to the right.

Rather than bust out my file, or a cutting torch or a hacksaw or anything else, I thought about it for a bit, and realized that it would make sense to investigate having these parts cut out by some variety of CNC machine. That is, a machine that can be programmed to cut a shape precisely, and automatically -- Computer Numerical Control. A bit of looking, and I settled on waterjet, which has the advantage of being very accurate, and unlike laser cutting, creates no heat in the part to mess up the temper of metal parts.

One of the reasons I settled on this "waterjet first" plan was very practical: without a shop space, I couldn't build a "real," physical thing. On the other hand, turning the drawings from hand-drawn to CAD models was something I could do just about anywhere, on my laptop. The CAD models are required in order to get the waterjet cutting done. Seemed like a win-win situation, so I started in.

I decided to use FreeCAD, an open-source CAD program, to do my work. I'm a big fan of open source software, and it ended up being a better choice than using the paid program I already owned. FreeCAD does a thing called "parametric modelling," which was perfect for this task. It took me a few tries before I understood it properly, but once I got it down, it made perfect sense, and worked really well.

The basic idea behind parametric modelling is that you draw out roughly the shape you want, without any real regard for exact dimensions or anything else, first off. It's just the shape. Then, you systematically start applying measurements, or parameters; parametric constraints, if you will: this hole is this many inches from this edge. That rounded area has this radius. This other hole has this diameter. In fact, if you look at the diagram, all that information is already spelled out, pretty much exactly as you'd need to enter it into the CAD program!

So, I started drawing out these little parts in FreeCAD. Some of them were more challenging than others. This part, -201 (apparently pronounced "Dash two oh one"), was actually pretty difficult, but it was also the first one I tried. I went back to it after doing a few others: I ended up redrawing it in 1/4 the time it took on my first attempt, plus it looked way better. I am now able to draw up pretty much any of these parts in less than half an hour, and I've got several dozen done.

I haven't yet sent any samples off to a waterjet company, but I've talked to one, and have an idea of what happens next. I think it will be years before I need the majority of these parts, but one of the things I will do early on will be to go get a couple sheets of 4130 cut up by a waterjet. The price hasn't been worked out, and that's the only thing that might keep me from following through with it. But then, even if I decide against doing it, the parts will be modelled, and I can put up the files for others to use if they want. It also sounds like the setup fees are minimal or zero, so it may make sense to farm out a few of the complex or many-copies-needed parts, and do the remainder by hand.

I'm sure I'll write more about it, but that's the progress I've actually made on building my own biplane so far. I've even been logging the time, and I'm already up to nearly 20 hours. Only three thousand, four hundred and eighty-odd hours to go.

Posted at 22:53 permanent link category: /aviation

Sun, 11 Sep 2016

I Really Like That Champ

I started my tailwheel training for real about two years ago, in Aeronca Champ N84842 at Harvey Field. I've had two different instructors in that time, the first doing the majority of my initial training before he got too busy, and eventually left, and the second helping me hone my skills and then, once proficient, burn off time to meet the 10 hours minimum required by their insurance carrier.

Harvey Field's Champ, a 7AC model, has been upgraded from the 65 HP engine to a freshly rebuilt Continental 85 HP. It's been flying out of Harvey Field, if I understand correctly, since it was new in 1946. It is not what you would call a fast plane -- it climbs at about 600 FPM under ideal conditions, and I haven't really seen it cruise higher than 85 MPH. It's got enough weight capacity to carry myself and an FAA-standard 170 lb person with full fuel, but not much more.

It has, to be sure, its fair share of dings and bruises and deficiencies, though no more than might be expected of a well-loved 7500 total time airplane. It's a pity that it doesn't have an electrical system, though mostly for lack of a starter. I'd love to take it further afield than Harvey or Paine, but the rules prohibit stopping the engine anywhere other than Harvey. Hand-propping an airplane is no longer commonplace, and most of us youngsters would mess it up and lose a hand into the bargain.

And yet, despite all these deficiencies, or perhaps because of them, I really like this plane.

There's something about being in a plane with that kind of history, and that lack of pretention, that is very gratifying. It feels like a human-sized plane, and one that can be flown by normal humans. There's no need for an iron-jawed, steely-eyed Pilot Man here. Indeed, the steely-jawed and iron-eyed among the pilot population probably scorn the Champ as a weak little trainer for students and weak pilots. So be it.

I find myself drawn to the underpowered vehicles wherever I find myself, so it comes as no surprise that the Champ is on my short-list of planes I enjoy flying. I also find that flying a tailwheel plane is far more engaging -- literally, I have to be so much more present and attentive for all the ground handling that it feels like a different world compared to the tricycle-gear planes I've flown.

I'm only at about 25 hours of tailwheel time so far, but I eagerly look forward to each new flight, and imagine that number will be growing steadily. I'm very glad I decided to do some tailwheel training a couple years ago. Now I just have to find other tailwheel planes I can rent for some diversity of experience.

Posted at 15:55 permanent link category: /aviation

Sun, 14 Aug 2016

Building a Biplane: Picking the Engine

In the previous entry, I discussed the considerations that went into choosing a biplane model to build. In this one, the next most important consideration: what engine to use?

There are a huge variety of engines that can be used in this class of aircraft, from a glorified chainsaw motor through a gigantic WWII era radial that produces hundreds of horsepower and swings a 9 foot prop. A list of candidates might look like this, in no particular order:

  • Rotec radial (150 HP)
  • Lycoming O-320 (150-160 HP)
  • LOM in-line engine (120-170 HP)
  • Verner Scarlett 7Si radial (137 HP)
  • Warner radial (145-165 HP)
  • Subaru conversion (100-200 HP)
  • Chevy V-8 conversion (200+ HP)

Some of these engines are off the table from the get-go. The automotive conversions, though some have been successfully flown, are generally regarded as "very experimental" and not suitable for a first project if there's any way you can afford a dedicated aircraft engine. The Warner, although a wonderful, well-proven design, has been out of production for decades, and the parts supply is finite and shrinking.

This leaves the certified Lycoming, and "everything else:" the Rotec, the Verner, and the LOM. I'll discuss the everything else category first.

The Rotec R-3600 is the most viable of these engines. It is gorgeously made, and there are a relatively large number of them flying. The Hatz Classic powered by a Rotec is a huge inspiration to me, and their installation has been very successful from what I can tell. Hatz even includes an option for the Rotec in their plans.

The engine itself seems to be well received, but it has a large number of strikes against it. The first one is that it's hideously expensive: I could install a brand new 160 HP Lycoming O-320 for less (not a lot less, but less). The Lycoming doesn't inspire the same reverential vintage feeling, but it has many other positives going for it, which I describe later.

The next issue is that, at some point, it's going to break. Everything breaks, and that's fine, it's part of life. However, when this engine breaks, spare parts are half a world away: the Rotec is made in Australia, and there are no parts suppliers in the US, that I'm aware of. Regardless of how good their support is, it's still a minimum of many days' shipping away, which could potentially leave me stranded somewhere for several weeks between shipping waits (assuming the part is in stock) and finding a mechanic who's willing to work on such an uncommon engine (or who will lend me their tools to work on it myself).

The final big issue is another "it's so uncommon" problem: I'd have to engineer the installation myself. With a more common engine, there are many resources from which I can draw for help with the firewall-forward installation. I'd have to figure out the engine mount, the fuel system, the electrical system, the exhaust system, the cowling, and whether the combination is viable from a cooling standpoint once it's all cobbled together. To be honest, that sounds like both blessing and curse -- I would greatly enjoy solving all those problems, but they would potentially also add years to the build, and I'm already looking at a decade of build time.

The Verner Scarlett 7Si has an advantage that the Rotec R-3600 doesn't have: it's made by a company that has been designing engines for a long time. The Rotec is made by a pair of Australian brothers who decided, with no real engine design experience, to build an engine in the late 1990s, and have made a good success out of it. The Verner factory had been making aircraft engines for decades by the time the Chernikeiff brothers cast their first piston. The Scarlett shows it, too, with design choices that are perhaps less beautiful looking, but more practical, such as the oil filter mounted on the front of the engine, where it's as simple as possible to service, or the direct drive crankshaft instead of using a reduction gear system.

However, the Scarlett 7Si model was just introduced. As in, last year. It is, as far as I can tell, completely unproven. By the time I get to where I have to make a choice on the engine, it may be viable, but right now it's a huge question mark.

The Scarlett also suffers from all the same problems as the Rotec: I will have to engineer the whole installation; parts only come from the Czech Republic; price is unknown, but likely to be high, at least as much as installing a professionally rebuilt Lycoming.

Couldn't find a bigger picture, sorry

The LOM 332A/AK/C is an interesting engine. The Bücker Jungmann, upon which the Marquart Charger is based, used an inline engine like the LOM. It would be thematically very appropriate. The inline configuration also means a smaller frontal area, which means lower drag, always a good thing. (The radial engines, on the other hand, have the highest drag of all the choices.) The LOM engine also seems to be highly regarded among those who have access to it.

However, from what I can tell, people in the US aren't in that group. It appears to be somewhere between problematic and impossible to get a LOM engine here. It may be that I haven't asked the right questions (and I haven't gotten on the phone with anyone yet, which is sometimes required in the airplane world -- not everyone has a website).

Thus the LOM suffers from the same problems as the other unusual engines (engineering challenge, parts availability, maybe cost, but who knows), plus they're difficult to acquire. This presumably also extends to part availability, making it even worse than the others. The LOM is probably not a practical choice.

Which leaves us, conveniently, with the Lycoming O-320. There are about a zillion different versions, but it boils down to the fact that they make between 150 and 160 HP. They have been installed in about a zillion different Pipers, Cessnas, Beeches, and the majority of the other small planes in the world.

The list of positives is long, longer than the negatives of the other types: parts are available everywhere; every mechanic at every airport in the US knows how to work on them; used engines can be bought for less than $5000 and rebuilt for less than $10,000 (assuming I do the work, which I am eager to do); millions of flight hours have proven them to be very reliable and problems are well-known where they exist; the installation instructions are right there in the plans; I can choose to rebuild myself, have a core rebuilt, buy overhauled, or buy new depending on how well I've saved my pennies; cowling parts (such as the nosebowl) are readily available.

The downside of the Lycomings is primarily that they're a very, very old design: the first boxer engines of this type were flying before (probably well before) WWII, and the first O-320 was certified in 1953. Compared to modern engines such as you might find in your car, Lycomings are heavy and inefficient, with little scope for improvement. However, they're also a well and truly proven design for light planes, which is something that basically no other engine design can offer.

A brand new O-320 costs between $30,000 and $50,000 depending on where you look. An overhauled one is in the low $20,000 range. A used one, as mentioned earlier, can be as low as $5000, or as high as you can be suckered into. It's not unusual to see run-out but rebuildable engines on Ebay for under $4000.

Critically for me, the engineering to install a Lycoming in a Marquart Charger has largely already been done. There's still a huge domain of problems that will have to be solved, but the big, oops-my-engine-just-departed-the-plane engineering is already done, and done well.

Ultimately, it's this combination of factors that inclines me toward using the boring old Lycoming for my build. I would love to mount a shiny Rotec on the front of my plane, or figure out how to get the sleek LOM faired in, but I think the advice of my biplane elders is best: stick with the plans, young man. I'll leave my crazy plans for plane #2, should that ever come about.

Still... I wouldn't be entirely surprised to read this entry over in about 5 years, and wonder what the hell I was thinking, with my blingful Rotec freshly unpacked from its crate.

Posted at 22:49 permanent link category: /aviation

Thu, 04 Aug 2016

Building a Biplane: Picking the Model

As I mentioned in the last installment, I'm going to be building a biplane soon. I mentioned that I'd settled on the Marquart Charger as the model I wanted to build, and then coyly mentioned I'd gone through a laundry list of other models without really expanding on the subject.

Welcome to the expansion. I'll go over the various models (as I remember them) and why they appealed to me, but ultimately didn't make the cut.

First, a bit of explanation. An ultralight is an aircraft that can be flown by anyone, with or without a pilot's license, although obviously getting some training is a clever idea. They're very limited, with a low maximum weight limit and other restrictions that make them purely "fun" aircraft with travel potential only a masochist would enjoy. An experimental, in this context, means a plane which falls under the FAA's Experimental Amateur-Built rules, which basically say that you have to build 51% or more of the plane, and it can't be flown commercially. An Experimental Amateur-Built (EAB for short) can otherwise be a huge variety of aircraft, but for the purposes of this discussion, I'll be looking at mostly biplanes capable of carrying two people: pilot and passenger.

The first plane on the list is the Loehle Spad XIII, a kit which can be built as either an ultralight or an experimental. I found it because I searched for ultralights, just kind of wanting to find out more about them, and this was one of the search results. "Right!" I thought, "Biplanes!" I figured if I was going to spend a bunch of time building a plane (which was now percolating in my brain like fireworks), I should build something awesome. I've always liked biplanes, and thus, it began.

The Spad is pretty cool: it looks like one of the important biplanes from WWI, and it could be built as either an ultralight or an experimental. Under experimental rules, it could have a more powerful engine, and would be just generally a more awesome plane. My mind was made up that I was going to build experimental.

However, the Spad has a downfall: only one person. There's no way to lever a passenger in there, and I quickly realized that just like choosing to build a biplane, if I was going to spend all that time building a plane, I better be able to take friends up for rides.

At this point, I kind of went on a biplane research binge, and looked at the huge variety of biplanes I suddenly realized were available to the homebuilder. I rejected a lot of them, finally settling on the Fisher Celebrity.

The Celebrity was my Lieblingsflugzeug for a while, and I researched it intensely, eventually finding a builder who was mid-build, and keeping an active blog. I read the entire thing, fascinated with the process. I even sent him corrections to the weight and balance calculations that he'd published, after he did something simple like forgetting to carry a 1 or something.

My memory of the Celebrity fascination is vague, but I remember really liking that it was powered by a small (100 HP) motor, which meant low fuel consumption. The kit claimed to be easy to build, although I was learning at the time that there's basically nothing easy to build about biplanes, no matter how simple they appear to be. Fisher was claiming some very low build time, like 1000 hours, but internet folk-wisdom was that a biplane always takes 2500-3500 hours, or more if you want to get finicky and detail-oriented.

What ultimately killed it for me was when my builder either finished or got near the end, and ended up horribly disappointed in the actual performance of the plane. It just wasn't enough plane to realistically take two people into the air. 100 HP isn't enough. It can be done, but it will be a slow-poke, and might even be dangerous. And I am not, as you might say, a light guy, so that was pretty much the death knell for the Celebrity as far as I was concerned. There was also something strangely plasticky about the plane that I've never been able to explain, but that's neither here nor there.

The disappointment over the Celebrity left me looking again -- something I'd get to recognize, since it happened over and over and over.

In my latest wave of searching, I came across the Sherwood Ranger. This was many years ago (probably around 2008-2009), so the link you see here is not quite to the same plane I was looking at.

The Ranger had one killer feature that really excited me: folding wings. The wings could be folded back so that you could park your Ranger in a one-car garage, or transport it on a trailer if you wanted. Hangar costs kind of terrified me at this point in time: $300-500 a month, it seemed like an enormous committment, and wouldn't it be cool if I didn't need to have one? So much money saved!

Alas, the Ranger was also without an owner at that time, or at least its ownership was changing. It became obvious as I looked around that the design wasn't really a good choice, simply because its existence seemed to be in question. Without a company backing it, the plans would be unavailable. I also thought seriously about what it would be like to have to tow an airplane to the airport every time I wanted to fly, and spend 30-45 minutes setting up the wings. I'd never do it. The Ranger was off the list.

I was also still on the high-efficiency kick. I looked at the Acrosport II somewhat wistfully, but crossed it off the list as needing too much power. More on the ASII later.

Then, I came across this almost cartoonish looking plane called the Flitzer. It was kind of ugly, but also, kind of... cute? Something. Before I knew it, I was hooked. The cartoonish nature of it was compelling, and it used the venerable VW Bug engine, which could be bought as a kit for a mere $6000 (1/4 the cost of a "real" airplane engine). I subscribed to the mailing list, and was an avid follower for years.

The Flitzer's designer, Lynn Williams (a delightful man who must design airplanes rather than eat or sleep, he's so prolific) also promised a two-place version, the Flitzer Schwalbe, but until just recently, it was always just around the corner, but never quite available. I was pretty sure I'd build a Schwalbe. I didn't love the higher wing as much (the super tight upper wing really appeals to me for no reason I can pin down), but hey, it would carry two people!

One of the very appealing things about the Flitzer is that it's made entirely of wood. There are a handful of metal fittings in the plane, and the landing gear and motor mount, but the rest is just wood and fabric. That was very appealing to me, since I didn't know how to weld, and found that to be a daunting prospect. Most biplanes of this size are built of steel tube for the fuselage, and wood for the wings.

But then, one day (actually quite recently, less than a year ago), I looked at the weight numbers on the Flitzer Schwalbe, and realized the problem: although it would fit two people, the weight limits meant that with full fuel, I could take up a ~60 lb passenger. I only know one person under 60 lbs, but he's 9, and he's going to be above that weight well before I could get anything built. Even reducing to half fuel didn't help much, since the plane only carries about 13 gallons (6 lbs per gallon of fuel filled). And there's no way I could take my parents or some of my more me-sized friends even with no fuel.

It was with profound sadness that I crossed the Flitzer Schwalbe off the list.

That left me, honestly, feeling a bit adrift. I had been thinking "Flitzer!" for so long that it was hard to shift my brain around to anything else. However, I rallied, and started looking around. Interestingly, it wasn't a biplane that next caught my attention, but rather a parasol monoplane -- a plane that just has one wing, but has it up on struts so that it looks like a biplane with the bottom wing missing: the Bakeng Deuce.

The Deuce appealed to me for reasons that aren't as clear now, looking back on them, but I liked it for whatever reason. (If it isn't clear by now, what draws me to these various planes is clearly based on emotions to such an extent that I can't actually explain some of my choices.) It carried two people, looked interesting and different (there are actually a lot of biplanes out there, but relatively few parasol designs in the air). I think this was when I was suddenly looking at payload capacity, and the Deuce delivered on that, with 600 lbs payload. I would definitely be able to take up myself, my heavy friend, and enough fuel to do interesting things. Not much else, but that's what mattered.

However, as I looked more into it, it became apparent that the Deuce was essentially a moribund design, from a support standpoint. There is still an "active" forum online, but I use that term reservedly: I made a post there, and there was only ever one person who responded (the designer), and he was so discouraging that I felt like it was a bad choice. He was being intentionally discouraging to weed out frivolous people, which I am not, and I understood that as I was reading it, but it still left me with a bad taste in my mouth and I decided I'd rather find something with a bit more of a community around it. I also couldn't find any Deuces anywhere nearby to go visit, which ended up being a big turn-off.

This was roughly when I started looking again at the "big" two-place biplanes. These are, in no particular order, the aforementioned Acrosport II, the Hatz Classic, the Stolp Starduster Too, the Steen Skybolt, and a number more. The ASII was appealing in part because I'd looked into it pretty thoroughly a few years earlier, and everything I'd read sounded right. It's a docile handling plane that can work as an acrobatic trainer, but isn't twitchy and hard to land. It can definitely carry two people. It is actually physically large enough to fit me. There's a huge support community, with numerous active builders. I could see numerous examples nearby if I wanted to.

That list of attributes can actually be applied to every plane I listed there. They all look good on paper, but for one thing: I don't much like the way they look. That thing I mentioned earlier, about emotion and non-rational decisions? It keeps me away from this long list of otherwise ideal projects. It's kind of a pity, really.

Actually, I should provide some detail: the Hatz Classic is a gorgeous plane, particularly with that lovely (and expensive, but that's for the next installment) Rotec radial mounted on the nose. It would be a good choice, and was basically riding in a tie for first place with the Marquart Charger for The Plane I Want To Build.

The Classic has a strong positive, and a strong negative to balance each other out. Sort of. The fact that it comes with plans already drawn for the installation of the radial engine is a huge plus. However, the negative is that the front seat, by all reports, requires that the passenger be a contortionist to actually get in. Many of the people I'd like to take into the skies with me are not contortionists. Some are very far from any hint of contortionism. So, that's a huge negative for my purposes.

The death knell for the Classic came when I tried to inquire about ordering the evaluation plans offered by the company that nominally sells them: I never heard back. I'd read about this, but wasn't sure what my experience would be. Sure enough, my attempts to reach them were completely ignored, or never even arrived in the first place. The company selling the plans appears to have no interest in actually, you know, selling the plans. Without plans to look at, there's little I can do. I crossed the Classic off the list.

This is where the Charger (what I think will be my actual, real, it's-actually-happening project) really wins: the plans are free. Plan cost isn't a big deal -- it's a $50,000-75,000 project, who cares if the plans are zero dollars or $350? But because they're public domain, they're available. I downloaded a set and had them printed out full-size. It cost $75 from a local print shop. I have PDFs on every computer around me, so I can refer to them any time I want to.

However, in addition to that, the Charger is described in print and in person as being a delight to fly. A "pilot's airplane." One which can go up and do acrobatics if you want, but isn't really intended for that. One which will hold enough weight to take me and a friend up. A plane that, importantly, looks good to me, with those swept wings and long tail.

It's not perfect. There's no one building now, so the pool of people with direct experience is slim to none. However, the Charger is also sufficiently like all the other planes of very similar design that only super type-specific questions will be hard to answer. The landing gear is in need of reinforcement as-drawn, so some engineering brainpower is going to have to go into that. It doesn't have a radial engine installation all planned out and ready to go (this might be a blessing in disguise, but again, that's for the next episode).

But, for its faults and its highlights, the Charger is the plane I've already got 10.4 build hours logged on, all spent with a CAD program, re-creating little metal brackets and fittings so they can be sent to a waterjet shop and cut out exactly right. I've begun learning how to weld. The garage will start construction soon, and I'll finally, finally have a place to build this project that's been bounding around inside my brain for the last decade.

Posted at 23:02 permanent link category: /aviation

Sun, 31 Jul 2016

Wait, You're Building a What?

I've had this conversation a number of times lately, so I'm sure there are others out there who would like to hear it as well.

Since about 2006 (see this previous article), I've been thinking about building an airplane, and for most of that time, I've centered my interest on a biplane. As I said before, I have gone through a lot of designs, but have basically settled on the Marquart Charger.

Glenn Mittenberger's Marquart Charger

The Charger was designed in 1968 by Ed Marquart, as an American version of the Bücker Jungmann, a German biplane from 1932. The Jungmann was designed as a light trainer, good with relatively low horsepower, and nimble enough to do aerobatics. The Charger continues with that plan, though it uses more modern steel in the fuselage. It's a two-seat plane, and I'll be able to take up passengers with no problem, although weight will always be a thing to watch out for.

Jeff and John Hansen's Hatz Classic - click for more pics

The plane is built out of steel tubing in the fuselage (the body), and the wings are made out of spruce wood. The whole thing is covered in fabric, except the sides of the fuselage are covered in aluminum from the engine back to the back seat. The fabric that would have been used in the 30s was cotton, but apparently that grade of cotton is no longer being produced. That makes sense, since when polyester came on the scene, it was a big improvement: cotton needs to be shrunk onto the frame with butyrate dope (a relatively noxious chemical, and a long, laborious process), while polyester can be shrunk on with a hot iron in a few passes.

Lycoming O-320 engine

The engine will be around 150 HP, although exactly which engine I go with is still up in the air. Most likely, I'll go for the same engine that you'd find in a Cessna or Piper light plane, a Lycoming O-320. This is an engine that looks like an old VW Bug engine, but scaled up: 320 cubic inches works out to a 5.24 liter engine (the Bugs only got as big as 1.6 liters). It's a very well-proven design, and you can get parts and service pretty much anywhere you can find an airport.

Most people, after they've finished goggling at the idea of a normal person building a full-size airplane a person can climb into, then wonder where on earth I'm going to do this huge project. The answer to that is fairly straightforward: I'm days away from starting construction on a new one-car garage in the back yard. It will be bigger than my last one-car garage by a little bit, but also substantially taller, and since I'm building it with the specific purpose of building an airplane inside, it won't be the multipurpose hodge-podge space that my last garage was.

Of course, an entire airplane definitely won't fit inside there, so it'll be built in pieces. The fuselage is about 15 feet long, but only about 3 feet wide. No problem for a one-car space. Each wing panel (there are four) is about 5 feet front-to-back, and about 12 feet long. Again, no problem. The tail is around 7-8 feet wide, and 6 feet tall. So, I can fit each piece, unassembled, into the garage. Once it comes time to actually attach wings to fuselage, of course, I'll need a bigger space, but that's years away. I'll rent a hangar somewhere, hopefully not too many hours' drive away. I've already got my name on the list at Harvey Field in Snohomish, where I've been flying their Aeronca Champ 7AC.

I expect this project to take between 5 and 10 years, depending on how diligent I am about working on it regularly. I'm pretty sure I'll have periods of intense work, and periods of less intense work, possibly resembling slack to an outside observer.

This is something I've been wanting to do for a long time, and it's pretty exciting that I'm getting close to actually starting on it. I've technically started, putting in a few hours doing CAD work so I can get some of the numerous little metal pieces cut by a waterjet company rather than endlessly hacksawing away myself. That will be a huge time savings, and well worth the expense. I've also got my build logging system partially completed; it's based on a database, so I'll soon have a page where you can go look at the build log, and it will update as soon as I add a new entry.

I hope that's answered the most common questions, but you know how to reach me if you have more.

Posted at 14:08 permanent link category: /aviation

Wed, 01 Jun 2016

The Return of the Biplane

Ages ago (2006, to be precise), I found I was bored with flying, and needed to figure out something different to do. I was just going out, flying around the pattern three times to keep current, and coming back. Uninspiring, and it felt like a waste of money.

So, I turned to the internet for inspiration, typing "ultralight" into your favorite mega search engine. A number of clicks later, I was saying to myself, "Wait a minute, why am I not just building a plane? What about a biplane? YEAH!"

Unfortunately, I looked around me, and realized that although a fine dream, I didn't have anywhere to do it. My garage was packed to the gills with motorcycles and motorcycle accessories, not to mention stuff, tools, more stuff, random junk, and some stuff. There was nowhere else for all this stuff to go, so I shelved the idea, knowing I would some day move, and be able to pick a house with a better shop situation.

That day has finally come, and I'm in sight of having a good place to build.

Now, of course, I have to figure out which biplane to build. There are a number of good choices, and I have, in that ten years, been through about a dozen designs, each appealing for a number of reasons, but having some ultimate downfall. First, it needs to carry more than one person. I'm not going to spend most of a decade building a plane only to self-indulgently deny anyone else from going flying with me. Next, it needs to actually fit me. I'm not the tall willowy fellow I always wanted to be, more like tall and well-packed. If I want a plane that will work for me and a realistic passenger, it has to have a 500-700 lb payload. On top of that, I want it to look "vintage," like it might have just flown out of the 1930s.

That all narrows the field considerably. The designs which are left after the culling process are the Hatz Classic and the Marquart Charger. Some research has revealed that they each have strengths and weaknesses: the Hatz is a good design, but suffers from a company selling the plans who are basically unresponsive, and from a front seat that is very difficult to get into. Not a huge problem if I'm taking up my lithe young friends from the theater, but a bigger deal if I want to take my parents. The Hatz also has, right there in its plans, the information necessary to mount a Rotec radial engine, which is high on the list of "Oooh, shiny."

The Marquart Charger doesn't have the front seat problem. It's still not like climbing into a car, but at least it's not a contortionist act. However, the designer passed away in 2007, and there's basically no one building one now. It also has a landing gear design which has a few issues, such as being stiff, and prone to cracking at some high-stress points. Although I will obviously always make perfect, slick landings, I don't want to build myself into a known issue.

Of the two, the Charger is currently my favorite. Since Ed Marquart passed away, the plans are now in the public domain, so I've had a chance to review them extensively, and it's easy to see how the plane goes together. It's a lot of work (a lot of work), but none of it is difficult. It's just time-consuming. It will also require some design work of my own, if I decide I want to drop the vast amount of cash necessary to get a Rotec hanging off the front of the plane; the Charger was designed in 1968, and the Rotec didn't show up until 2000.

The Real World

Of course, none of this internet research is actually worth a whole lot without some experience in actual, real-world biplanes.

So, I started looking around. When I was still planning on the Hatz Classic, I sought out Classics in the FAA database, but I only found a few registered, and all quite far from me. I wasn't yet ready to buy a flight to Ohio to look at an airplane, so I looked at the alternatives that were closer to home. There, I located a Hatz CB-1 (the original design on which the Classic is based; slightly smaller, a little bit less refined, otherwise identical) in Olympia. The plane's owner was on several of the forums I was now frequenting, so it was easy to get in contact with him.

I arranged a trip down to Olympia, and was able to spend about an hour circling around the CB-1, sitting in the cockpit, examining details, and generally making vroom-vroom noises. There was no arrangement to go flying, and even without it, I left quite happy with the experience. However, that front seat was troubling. I didn't even try to get into it, but it was obvious from looking at it (it's almost completely under the top wing, which means you'd have to fold yourself in half, dive between wing and windshield, drop your legs in, then slide down the seat until seated) that it would be a real challenge to get into.

Out of the blue, a Skybolt owner based at Paine Field (much closer than Olympia) offered to take me up in his plane. Of course, I said yes, and soon I had 0.8 hours of Skybolt time in my logbook. The Skybolt isn't one of my chosen designs, looking a bit too modern to my eyes, but still, one does not scoff at the opportunity to fly a biplane in this situation.

It was quite enjoyable, but still not exactly the right kind of experience -- it had a canopy, and I am definitely planning on my plane having an open cockpit, with just a windscreen between you and the elements. However, I did discover that, unlike a flight in a Christen Eagle II in about 2007, I was not hopelessly overcontrolling the plane, making it skitter about the sky like a drunken crow. It was a very positive experience, and made me begin to suspect that I could actually do all this, and end up happy with the experience.

Then, this past weekend, I got the opportunity to go up in a Starduster Too. Still not on my short list (it has very graceful lines, but I'm not smitten by the design). However, this plane has open cockpits, and is much more like the right feeling. It is, similar to the Charger, not designed for aerobatics, although it is certainly capable of them.

I found the experience of being in an open cockpit to be a mixed one. It wasn't disastrously windy, and I could certainly get used to the wind (and would quickly figure out the right clothing to make it comfortable). However, between the wind noise and the headset volume necessary to make any of the radio calls audible, I was half deafened by the time we shut off the engine. Obviously a better hearing protection system would be required.

The Starduster Too experience further suggested that I was on the right path, its owner and builder telling me that I've got a good touch for biplanes (a very encouraging comment, as it was unsolicited). I'll have to work on some of the aspects of open cockpit, but it still feels like a reasonable plan. Quite likely many passengers will enjoy the experience, but not choose to repeat it too often -- I think the feeling of all that wind, even though you don't feel the direct blast on your face, will be fairly overwhelming to many. Others, I'm sure, won't be able to wipe the grins off their faces.

What's Next

At this point, I have plans for the Charger printed up (you can see them here if you like). I don't yet have a shop, but I have plans for one, and construction will hopefully start this summer.

Obviously, I need to get myself in the presence of, and hopefully an hour or two flying in, a Marquart Charger. There are two examples in Oregon, and I've already arranged with one of them to visit and see what we can see. I'll be very interested to see how cramped or open the cockpit is, and what I think of the plane in person. I quite like the swept wings in photos, but seeing it in person will be a different experience. To some extent, I can fix cockpit size problems, since I'll be the one building the plane, but clearly the physical presence of the plane is not something to lightly tinker with.

I would also like to get myself in the presence of a Hatz Classic, but I don't have any clear plans for how that's going to work. It may become a moot point: I've attempted to contact the seller to buy a set of "review" plans (printed on letter paper instead of the big 2x3' sheets), but haven't heard anything after a few weeks, and kind of expect not to hear from them. If I can't get at the plans, I definitely can't build the plane.

It's exciting, after a decade of thinking about it, to finally be within clear sight of the start of a project. There are still a few points to be sorted out before I can actually start cutting wood or steel (like taking a welding class starting in June), but I think I'm on track to actually start building ribs (a logical starting point) before the end of the year.

Posted at 09:09 permanent link category: /aviation

Mon, 15 Feb 2016

A Proud Flight-Sim Moment

I've been flying in X-Plane a lot lately, since there's a huge variety of planes I can fly, and it's quick and easy to start off in some cool place, fly around, see the sights, etc. It's also great for practicing flying into and out of airports I've never been to before, or want to have more practice with. It's not ideal (I need an Oculus Rift or similar VR setup for it to be really good -- still waiting, Laminar Research!), but it's pretty good. Plus, I got it working on my Linux laptop, which is fantastic, and may be inspiring me to make my own folding portable joystick; but that's a story for another time.

Anyway, mere moments ago, I was flying a very nice Piper Archer III model out of Fairchild International, in Port Angeles, WA. It's a place I've never flown to or from in reality, and I wanted to practice flying in the area for future reference. The Archer III model is very similar to the Cherokee and soon Warrior models that I like to fly in real life.

My destination was Boeing Field, just south of downtown Seattle. The direct path is over the foothills of the Olympic mountains, so I climbed until I was at about 9500 feet, and cruised there. I have always maintained that extra altitude is your friend, and today that proved to be true.

I'm used to the simulator, just like all the real planes I've been in, being completely reliable. Nothing ever fails*. There are settings you can twiddle to make your flights more "interesting," but I've never set them. Imagine my surprise when I noticed my power going down.

* I've had real-life radios freak out before, but that's why I carry a handheld with me.

I did the things you're supposed to do: carb heat on, and when that made no diference, switched fuel tanks, turned on the fuel pump, looked in vain for the magneto switch (a substantial omission from this model -- no real plane could start or be operated without a magneto switch), set my transponder to the emergency code (7700). Had this been a real flight, I would have been talking to Seattle Center, and the instant power started to drop, would have declared an emergency and requested vectors to the nearest field. Unfortunately, X-Plane's ATC system is almost comically rudimentary (and has gotten worse in the last year or so), so I rarely bother with the radios except as a way to check weather conditions at a field.

However, the power continued to drop, and was soon reading negative numbers. I checked my chart and found WA45, Olympic Field Airport, a tiny private airstrip, was very nearly under my position. Not the most ideal place to land, since it's a short grass strip, but since it was very close, it gave me a lot of latitude for maneuvering. Much better than trying to stretch my glide to land somewhere with a nicer runway.

My flight path, starting upper left, and landing after looping around WA45

I overflew the field, losing altitude gradually (I had guessed at 80 knots as the best glide speed for the Arrow III, which is pretty close to the 76 knots listed in the checklist that comes with the model -- demerit points to me for not opening up the checklist in the moment, though). With no idea what direction the wind was coming from, if there was any wind, I arbitrarily chose a direction to go to lose altitude, and guessed at about what my turning point should be.

It's nervewracking flying a simulator when trying to maneuver relative to points on the ground -- the view options are very limited, and there's no chance to move your head around to see around obstacles like window pillars. The best solution I've found is to switch to the "Chase Plane" view, and move around to see the thing you need to see. It's not very good for anything that needs to happen quickly, but it can help.

Fortunately, my turning point was about right, and the airfield was lined up well. The angle looked about right, although as I got close, it was clear I was a bit too high. Better than too low, but still a problem. I dropped the flaps to full extension, which is similar to putting on the air brakes, and allowed me to dive to lose excess altitude without speeding up too much. I floated a bit as I lost speed, and touched down about midfield (not a good idea on a very short runway like this, but you don't get second chances when the engine has stopped), pulled the elevator all the way back to shift the weight onto the main wheels, and hit the "maximum braking effort" button.

I stopped off the end of the runway, but not by very much, and I didn't leave the runway going very fast. In real life, it might have damaged the landing gear a little bit, but the plane would have been otherwise undamaged, and all occupants scared but undamaged. If the runway had been longer, it would have been a bog standard landing, which is fantastic when landing with the engine out.

My cockpit once stopped -- note the dark smoke out the windshield

Once I was down and stopped, I ran through the menus, trying to figure out what had happened. All the failure options were set to Always Working, until I got to Engine Fire #1, which was throbbing red: Inoperative. So, assuming I had landed for real with an engine fire, I probably would have had to deal with smoke in the cabin, and the instant we were stopped, I would have jumped out with a fire extinguisher to see if I could keep the whole thing from going up in flames.

However, overall, I'm very happy with how that turned out. I've certainly run through emergency procedures with instructors, and in my head, but I've never had to deal with a real emergency (or, in this case, a "real" emergency). It's nice to know that even with the limitations of the simulator, I was able to effectively deal with the problem and get the plane on the ground without damage. I even did the right things (or mimed them, in the case of unlatching the door, calling ATC and declaring an emergency, etc.) that should have given me a good chance once we were on the ground.

I would say that I did not properly handle the scenario of "engine fire," but I also didn't know that's what was supposed to be happening until I interrogated X-Plane about it. In an engine fire scenario, the very first thing you do to try to contain the fire is to turn off the fuel and the magnetos, which is the opposite of what I did. However, I was working on the theory of fuel starvation, either due to carburetor ice or some kind of fuel feed blockage. I like to think that in a real life scenario, the problem would be more obvious -- I saw smoke in the chase plane view, but X-Plane has a tendency to start smoke going any time anything goes wrong, so I didn't think much of it.

That was a good training moment. I could have done better, but not by a whole lot. That's encouraging to discover.

My Archer III on the ground at WA45, smoking

Update: I have since gone back and re-run the failure scenario, and discovered a few things. First of all, the airplane model does, in fact, have all the necessary magneto switches, but they're in an overhead switch panel (along with the fuel pump and starter).

However, the most important discovery was that I had significantly short-changed myself on a landing location. With more than 9000 feet of altitude available to me, I was easily within range of Jefferson County Airport (0S9), near Port Townsend. It's a larger strip, has weather reporting equipment broadcasting 24/7, would be virtually guaranteed to have someone around, and could probably have fire trucks in position by the time I hit the ground, in case anything went horribly wrong. A much higher probability of landing safely, but also of surviving any crash or mishap. Also a high likelihood of mechanics being available to fix whatever caused the problem in the first place. Just a generally better place to be.

I looked up my first landing field, Olympic Field, on Google's satellite map, and discovered that it is actually a very narrow grass strip, with a narrow waterway parallel to the grass, suitable for landing a seaplane on. Neat! But also, very small. Better than landing into trees, but not my first choice if Jefferson County is also on the table.

One of the lessons I took from this incident is that I need to be more aware of some facts that become vital in an engine-out scenario: what direction is the wind moving? What is the best glide speed for the plane I'm in? What is the glide ratio at that speed? Where is the emergency section of the checklist? Where (in a real airplane) is the fire extinguisher, and can I actually reach it while I'm flying?

I also find myself more interested in asking the simulator to throw me random failures, both to see how I do, and to see where I'm blind to potential problems. This blends into my recent thoughts on ego-less flying, but that's a topic for a separate post.

Posted at 17:57 permanent link category: /aviation

Sat, 28 Feb 2015

Achievement Unlocked: Tailwheel

Some time in 2006, I realized that flying was getting stagnant for me. I would go out and practice to keep my skills current, but it was always the same thing: take off, fly the pattern, land. Take off, fly the pattern, land. Repeat until sick to death.

So, I decided that I needed a new challenge. I started looking into ultralights. Then I found an ultralight with two wings: a biplane. Hey, wait! thought I. Biplane!

There followed a fiendish amount of internet searching, and I eventually settled on a plane that's far from practical, but would sure be cool: a Flitzer.

The Flitzer Z-2 Schwalbe

This is a plane you can only build from plans. There are no kits. You get some sheets of paper, and a comparatively active Yahoo mailing list. Awesome.

But, I thought, maybe I should figure out if I like flying biplanes first. So, I asked around, and found someone who would take me up for a demo flight in his Christensen Eagle. Although it was awesome, it was also horrible. Most of this I put down to aerobatics, which I said yes to with a bit too little forethought. I'm not an adrenaline junkie, and flying upside down and tensing my whole body to keep blood in my head (neat trick, glad I know it, hope never to use it again) is not really my cup of tea.

Years later, I got interested again, and took a milder approach: maybe I should figure out if I like tailwheel airplanes first. I had been flying the Flitzer Z-21 model in X-Plane (the best flight simulator you've never heard of) for years, but had never actually been in a taildragger.

So I looked around, and discovered Harvey Field (specifically Snohomish Flying Service) had an Aeronca Champ. Perfect! I went out and flew a bunch of lessons.

Aeronca Champion, copyright Kevin Porter

Then, today, flying with my second instructor (the first, who I get along with a bit better, being out on other duties), I flew enough time, and performed the various demonstrations of skill necessary: I now have a tailwheel endorsement.

What does this get me? Mostly the opportunity to go practice a lot more without having to schedule according to someone else's schedule along with the plane's availability. I have a long way to go until I'm comfortable in a tailwheel plane, for all that I've demonstrated sufficient proficiency.

Posted at 20:04 permanent link category: /aviation

Tue, 14 Aug 2012

Aviation Tablet Follow-up

I was able to use both Avilution AviationMaps and Naviator on flights this last weekend, and I now have more-firm opinions on the two apps based on actual use.


My favorite going in was Naviator, and I was largely not disappointed by this choice. I found it mostly intuitive to use, and without too many bad habits. This may sound like faint praise, and to some extent, it is. Naviator was not truly easy to use. It still had bad habits.

Notable among the bad habits were a disappearing plane icon (indicating my position on the map), and a bizarre recover-from-sleep refresh error. The disappearing plane icon could be worked around by zooming in or out, and the icon would reappear. It didn't happen consistently, although usually I was switching from some other screen or mode into the map when I lost the icon. The recover-from-sleep error was more vexing: the map would flash on and off repeatedly (and distractingly) until I hit the Back button and re-entered the map screen. This only happened when the program itself recovered from being dormant (such as when looking at some other app, and returing to Naviator), but it was pretty consistent. As I wasn't doing this during flight, it largely didn't affect me en route, but it was still annoying as hell when it did happen.

For all that, Naviator was still definitely my favorite among the four choices I outlined. Its data displays were big and easy to read, and I was comfortable reconfiguring them on the fly (so to speak) when I needed some piece of information that wasn't displayed. The "where will I be in X minutes" path of travel indicator was clear and easy to read, and easy to find on the screen. I didn't really use the airport information displays in flight, but for planning and prep work, that information was very handy.

Filing a flight plan was mostly very straightforward. The only weirdness was that Naviator apparently expects you to enter your cruise altitude to the foot (ie, 5000 for 5000 feet), whereas DUATS expects you to enter 050 for 5000 feet. I initially entered my cruise altitude as 055 (which was shortened to 55 by the app), but this was rejected by DUATS with the error message that it should be in 055 format. Confusing until I figured out that Naviator was lopping off the extra zeroes for me, but was actually lopping off the last two digits, no matter what they were. I entered the altitude as 5500, and the flight plan was accepted.

One other weirdness was that switching orientation (ie, from portrait to landscape) closed the screen for the flight plan I'd been filling out, and opened a new one. It saved the work I'd already done to the list of flight plans, but it was annoying, and happened several places in the app. I encourage Naviator to look into orientation switching functionality. The saved flight plan only inconsistently saved the flight times (departure, enroute and fuel onboard), and the estimated time enroute was occasionally, but not always, filled out apparently from the entered route and available winds aloft.

Among the very positive features was the flight recorder. This feature saved a complete track of my flight from takeoff to landing (configuration options let you set the speeds at which it starts and stops recording). For example, this track from our flight around Mt. Hood, which you can download, and open in Google Earth to see the path we traveled.

In all, my experience with Naviator was quite positive, and I recommend it for Android aviators. Its few bugs are acceptable, and reasonable workarounds exist. It would be delightful if those problems could be addressed, but for all I know, the next version is poised to come out even as I type this.


If I didn't have the example of Naviator to compare to, I would have been pretty happy with AviationMaps. Its interface is straightforward and easy to use, and it was noticeably less buggy than Naviator.

Unfortunately, I do have Naviator to compare with, and AviationMaps suffers as a result. Its information displays (speed, altitude, heading) were miserably small, and its plane icon was 20% transparent, with a light-blue dashed line indicating the projected path of travel that was very difficult to see. In fact, all the text in the app was miserably small -- possibly this is my own fault for having a 7" tablet (I'm doing all this on a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0), but there was simply no way I could expect to leave the tablet in my lap and read anything. I had to get it close to my face, or there was no chance.

Tapping on an airport brings up information about that airport including, very usefully, the bearing and distance to that airport. Unfortunately, that text brings "miserably small" to new depths, and my distance-adjusted eyes were not happy having to shift so rapidly to close-in reading. Still, once I was reading it, the airport information was very well laid out and included everything I needed to know at a glance.

As I said before, the bug experience with AviationMaps was excellent, with no bad behavior to report. Everything worked as it was intended to. I have already had several exchanges with AviationMaps' creator Avilution, and they have been prompt to respond, and had useful feedback to my question or comment.

AviationMaps features an X-Plane compatibility mode, in which it will read data from the X-Plane flight simulator, and act as if what you're flying in the sim is actually happening, essentially using X-Plane as an alternate GPS data source. This was interesting, but somewhat twitchy (the course of travel twitching back and forth about 20 degrees 4-5 times a second most of the time), and a bit hard to look at. In particular, setting the "3/4" display option, which puts your plane at the 3/4 point on the map, rather than in the middle, made the app unusable while talking to X-Plane. It was kind of annoying in the air, too, making it even more of a hunt than normal to find the partially-transparent plane icon showing your current position.

With an option to make everything bigger (text, icons, lines, etc.) and bolder, AviationMaps would be a strong contender with Naviator. They go about things different ways, but neither is right or wrong, they're just different. If you're in the market for an aviation app on your Android tablet, you should check both out -- they're both free for the first month, and doing a side-by-side comparison is a great way to decide what's better for you.

Garmin Pilot

Ironically, it was Garmin Pilot that first got me excited about aviation apps on Android, and I ended up not using it. Look at previous entries to see my thoughts on Pilot. I will note that it's had several updates since I first loaded it (including going to a 2.0 version), but at double the price of the other two apps and with as many problems as I identified before, I just wasn't that excited for it.

I decided to stick to AviationMaps and Naviator for my in-flight testing, so I don't have any further feedback on Garmin Pilot, or OpenFlightGPS Free for that matter.

Using a Tablet

Actually using a tablet in the air was a bit more fraught with difficulty than I'd first anticipated. There were two major problems I noticed, neither of which will surprise veteran tablet users.

The first problem was with heat. All of my flights this weekend were in 80°+ weather and bright sun. The sun falling on the black tablet heated it considerably, until I looked down at one point and saw a message saying that battery charging was suspended due to high battery heat. The screen never blacked out or anything, so Samsung is to be congratulated for that, at least. I was able to hold the tablet over one of the fresh-air vents and get it cooled down. Subsequently keeping it out of the sun kept the problem from recurring, so I don't think it was the CPU overheating or anything.

The second problem was with the touch interface. By its nature, a touchscreen will be sensitive to inadvertent input such as when handling the device, and on several occasions I found myself looking at a very odd screen due to this problem. I think my ideal aviation tablet would have a lock switch on the side, so I could prevent it from receiving any touch input (and it would ideally pop up a little message when I did touch the screen, reminding me of the lock, so I wouldn't accidentally decide my device was broken if I forgot I'd locked it). This obviously has nothing to do with the apps. It does, however, suggest that a yoke mount would be a good investment, as the tablet would be much better controlled, and wouldn't subject it to so much handling as I juggled between map, kneeboard, and tablet.

For all that both apps included some variety of scratch pad, I still found myself grabbing for the pencil and paper when I needed to scrawl down a squawk code or frequency change. This will be a matter of personal preference, of course, but I found paper to be easier to deal with. AviationMaps' Flight Pad feature looks useful on the ground, but I would have been highly vexed with it in the air, again frustrated by tiny text and fiddly input. Paper simply worked better and faster.

Essentially, I was pleased with my experiment, and will be proceeding with Naviator. AviationMaps has some interesting features, but not enough to get me to blow $5 a month on them. I'll continue checking on Garmin Pilot from time to time (assuming I ever get another trial period), but I won't be giving them my hard-earned aviation dollars.

Posted at 21:35 permanent link category: /aviation

Fri, 27 Jul 2012

More Tablet Aviation Nerdery

When I wrote my previous entry on aviation software for Android tablets, I missed out an obvious contender. I'm here to correct that omission.

$5/mo or $50/yr: Naviator

That contender is Naviator, an app in a similar vein to the other three.

I was originally turned off by Naviator, because the first thing it does is ask for you to create an account on their system. Honestly, I get enough of this crap in my life, and my first instinct was to shut down the app and uninstall it (which I did). I ran across it again several days later, however, and decided to give it a try. What's one more disposable email address, right?

I am glad I took the leap. Naviator is a very polished piece of software. It's clearly been refined through use and feedback, with all of the features well laid-out and easy to use. I haven't had any problems understanding how to do something in Naviator, although that may be as much me learning the ropes of tablet aviation software as anything else, it's hard to say.

Naviator strikes me as being the logical evolution of AviationMaps, which I had previously proclaimed my favorite. It includes most of the same features, while refining some of them, and adding new ones.

First, most of the things you want to do are easier to figure out. This only matters when getting used to the app, but if you only use it occasionally, it also means a shallower re-familiarization curve every time you pick it up. The data I care about on the map, such as the data fields, is big and bold, and will be easier to see in a bouncy cockpit. The data fields can also be reconfigured to your preference, similar to how many Garmin GPS units work.

Although Naviator doesn't go as far as Garmin Pilot with preflight planning, it offers the most useful planning section of the remaining apps. The flight plan, including magnetic course, distance, and ETA, is shown on half of the screen (easily resized by dragging the border between map and plan) -- this feature would be better on a bigger tablet, although it can be switched to full-screen view. Oddly, the full-screen option is hidden in the menu, rather than being present as a button next to the other buttons, where I expected to find it.

There are lots of little touches I like in this app: the big data fields; the NO GPS warning that stays prominently on the map (the only app in this collection which offers such a warning); the rubber-band route modification; lots of data available offline, without being prompted to collect it; night-mode that's very effective; scratch pad (although not as comprehensive as AviationMaps); a Nearest button.

The Nearest button in particular merits kudos: one of the many potentially life-saving applications of GPS is the ability to quickly find a place to land. AviationMaps also includes a Nearest feature, but I didn't know it was there until I went looking as I wrote this review -- it wasn't obvious, and the last thing I'm going to do as I battle a problem that requires an airport NOW is to figure out which non-descript button tells me where to get that list. Garmin Pilot includes a Nearest tab under the Direct-to button, which is about as unintuitive as AviationMaps' solution.

The night mode in Naviator is worth special mention as well. It includes a variable-strength dimming feature that effectively reduces the maximum brightness of all program elements. This is similar to how AviationMaps works, but goes even darker if you want.

In all, Naviator feels like a more finished product than AviationMaps. It's missing the comprehensive scratch pad functionality of AviationMaps, but in most other respects seems superior. Garmin Pilot remains the trailing choice for me, among paid services. It's exciting to have so many good choices available. It's a good time to be a pilot.

Posted at 13:02 permanent link category: /aviation

Sat, 21 Jul 2012

Aviation Tablet Nerdery

When I was in doing my yearly "I haven't rented in a while..." re-acquaintance flight a few months ago, my instructor showed me the tablet computer he was using as his chart replacement. It was pretty sweet, and got me thinking. Several months later, I decided (when a particularly good deal came along from a friend who upgraded) to buy a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7". I've been running the three obvious Android Electronic Flight Bag applications in parallel, and thought I'd share my experiences.

Notable about this is that I'm not using an iPad. Silly name aside, the iPad is apparently the go-to device for EFB use. For me, it's too big, and if I can avoid Apple iOS devices, I do, since I don't like the closed environment Apple has set up.

A note about compass calibration: I used GPS Status to calibrate my compass, and it launched in landscape mode. I ran the calibration, and initially thought the compass sensor had been installed to only use landscape orientation. Only when I re-set GPS Status to use portrait mode and re-ran the calibration did the compass work like I expected, with the compass pointing correctly in portrait mode.

All these reviews are (at present) only based on ground-based testing. I haven't had them up in the air yet, but I will before August is out, and I'll write a new article if that experience brings anything new to light.

I'll order these by price, since that makes as much sense as anything. It may be a useful bit of context to know that I'm fundamentally a cheap bastard, and I don't spend money if I don't have to. Thus (listen up, app developers), I'm only checking out the apps that are free, or offer a trial period to get me hooked.

Free: OpenFlightGPS Free

OpenFlightGPS Free is, as its name implies, free. It offers free downloads of sectionals (which are themselves free from the government -- your socialist dollars at work).

Like all these apps, it will stick your position on the map with more or less accuracy. They all include warnings that they're not to be used for actual navigation. The coding on the map is pretty good, locating me just about where I would expect to find myself. In addition, it'll give you basic instrumentation: altitude, ground speed, heading, magnetic bearing, latitude and longitude. But that's the end of it.

Unlike the other apps in this list, OpenFlightGPS Free doesn't include Airport/Facility Directory data, which makes it much less useful as an EFB application. No airport information, no frequencies, no taxiway diagrams. The information is out there, but this app doesn't deal with it.

It also has one weirdness that comes with the zero-dollar price tag: you have to choose your sectional when you launch the program. It won't just detect where you are and load the right thing, that I can tell. It will switch between sectionals you've downloaded automatically (like all of these, the expected operation is to download the charts you'll need before the flight, as befits the Galaxy Tab 2's Wifi-only connectivity).

It seems fairly stable, and quite workable, if you want a free chart mapper. It would still be a huge improvement over paper charts and no GPS, so I recommend it, even given its limitations.

$5/mo or $50/yr: Avilution AviationMaps

Avilution AviationMaps is a much more full-fledged program, including A/FD data, taxiway diagrams where available, and weather data which can be overlaid on the map. It also costs money, at $4.99 per month, or $49.99 per year (prices obviously subject to change, but that's what it costs right now).

All the data can be downloaded, and it gives you pretty fine-grained control over what you want to be downloaded. This is handy if you don't want to blow out your tablet's potentially meager storage capability with All The Maps. Weather and TFR data is downloaded when the app launches, and it's popped up a dialogue box when I started the app without wifi around. It still worked fine, but clearly wanted to get fresh data, so it would make sense to launch the app just before your flight to have the freshest data possible.

AviationMaps is pretty easy to use, although the context-sensitive options along the top bar take a little getting used to. It has the data you want to see (speed, altitude, heading) in little numbers next to the aircraft marker on the map. It has additional data (cross track error and such) in a bar across the bottom, also in little numbers. Good luck reading those in a bouncy cockpit, but they're there.

The airport data is comprehensive, including a PDF of the A/FD page and taxiway diagram, both of which are viewed within the app. This app is the only one which includes a "night time" mode, that dims the map display, turns the normally black-on-white data pages to white-on-black (for some, but not all, pages), and makes it much more night-vision friendly. It's still not perfect, but I appreciate the effort, and between the Galaxy Tab 2's lowest brightness and night mode, it would be pretty useful in night flying.

Update: I forgot to mention that AviationMaps also has what they call the Flight Pad, a section of the app which is surprisingly well-formatted for recording the stuff you need to record while at the helm: ATIS reports, mid-flight frequency changes or squawk codes (or a variety of other things), destination ATIS reports, etc. This is broken into Departure, Enroute, Arrival, Scribbles (a drawing slate where you can quickly scribble stuff), and Briefing. The Departure and Arrival tabs contain information about your departure and arrival airports, if you've got a flight route loaded: frequencies, airport data, etc. The Arrival tab includes a section which shows your orientation to the runway graphically (haven't tested this yet, but it looks promising). Neither of the other two apps include any kind of note-taking feature that I could find.

The map view includes graphical depictions of TFRs, and it took me a while to figure out that you can see the text of the TFR by long-pressing over a TFR area. I actually discovered the long-press menu by accident, so the documentation (which is sparse) could be improved. The long-press function is mentioned once, as being how you add an airport to a flight plan, in the tutorial which runs when you start the app for the first time.

$10/mo or $100/yr: Garmin Pilot

Garmin Pilot was heavily anticipated, and just recently made the leap to Android, from iOS. It costs the most of these apps, at $9.99 per month, or $99.99 per year for the lesser subscription (and more for the Pro subscription, which doesn't interest me). The app itself is free, and like AviationMaps, includes a month-long free trial.

At first glance, Pilot is a slick, well-crafted program. Even at second glance, it has a lot to recommend it: long-press on a location to get information, navigate Direct To, or just place a marker; well-organized airport information; actual flight planning software (the only app in the bunch to offer time/distance/speed/fuel calculations). The drop-down menu for different actions is big and bold and easy to see, even with some movement in rough air.

But (and you knew there was going to be a but here) it also suffers from some really bizarre omissions. At least on my tablet -- and I admit the 7" tablet is a bit of an odd size, as the help text suggests there are some features I'm not being offered -- there's no way to show altitude and groundspeed data on the map page. There's a dedicated page for seeing that stuff, and it's easy enough to switch to, but its omission on the map page is puzzling. There are lots of options, but it's missing some big ones, like drawing an intersect line off the nose of the aircraft when moving, or keeping the screen on while the app is running (in my testing, I had to repeatedly unlock the screen of the tablet to see the map -- this is an easy problem to avoid, and both other apps do it, so it's just an omission on the part of Digital Cyclone, the app's developer).

In addition to all this, the app dies somewhat at random. It will just exit with no warning, bringing up a dialogue box saying it's done so. I'm not sure why it's happening, but it happens both on the Galaxy Tab 2, and on my years-old Droid X phone. On the Droid X, I actually had a honeymoon period of several days where it worked perfectly, and now it basically won't even launch. On the Tab, when I was playing with it today, no problems, and no unxpected exits.

Garmin Pilot has the feel of an app designed by someone who's not a pilot, and hastily rubber-stamped rather than being given a proper design review by Garmin. As a company, Garmin is capable of great, great things (I own numerous Garmin devices, and am very happy with them), but this app is not really among them. I think the developer got a spec list, and they checked off all the boxes, but they didn't really get what they were building.

This is a good thing for Garmin, as all the pieces are there for a great app. They just need to be re-arranged and shifted and made for a pilot rather than (speaking as a geek who sits at a computer all day) a geek who sits at a computer all day. I could offer more recommendations, but the biggest one would be to have a half-dozen Garmin employees who are pilots sit down and try to use the thing for a few flights. They'll come up with a better list than I could, and many of the fixes would be easily implemented. Check back on this app in 6-12 months, and it may well be fantastic.


In my testing thus far, AviationMaps has proven to be my favorite. It's got enough data, it's easy enough to use, and I can actually imagine sitting through a cross-country flight with this thing on my lap as a reference.

Garmin Pilot, while it's interesting and promising, simply isn't there yet. OpenFlightGPS, while free and therefore a fine choice, doesn't have the extra data for which I find myself willing to pay $5 or $10 a month.

Posted at 16:57 permanent link category: /aviation

Categories: all aviation gadgets misc motorcycle theater

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