Thu, 05 Jul 2018
I've been curious for a while to see what the efficiency of the Champ was. How much does engine power buy you speed? What's the most efficient use of fuel vs. travel time?
I don't have a complete answer by any means, but I've collected one form of data:
This data was generated in the X-Plane simulator flying a mostly-accurate Aeronca 7AC model someone made available on the x-plane.org download site. To gather it, I flew at different throttle settings, stabilized the plane so it was flying level, and recorded fuel flow and indicated airspeed. Much easier to do this in the simulator than in real life -- I don't have a fuel-flow meter in real life!
Obviously, this is not Hard Science™. It's still interesting. I only gathered 5 data point over the course of about 15 minutes of flying, but it's representative of the range of speeds you might reasonably fly a Champ. The fuel flow numbers are at least similar to what I would expect in reality, though the RPM indicated for a given fuel flow is substantially high compared to what I see in my own plane.
The Champ instrument panel in X-Plane
The conclusion that I see here is obvious: if you're flying a digital Champ in X-Plane, and you have the same model of 7AC I downloaded, aiming for a cruise of about 83 MPH will get you the best fuel efficiency. Pretty much squares with what I see in the real world.
It'd be neat to some day instrument the plane to duplicate this test in real-world conditions, though I doubt I will. Fuel flow meters are expensive, and somewhat counter to the feel of the Champ. If I could do it temporarily, though, that would be very interesting...
Wed, 13 Jun 2018
Back in February of last year, I got a plane. Norbert, the Champ. I was (and still am) an active member of Chapter 84 of the EAA. EAA 84 has their chapter meetings on the second Tuesday of every month. Now that I owned a plane, I really wanted to fly it to one of these meetings.
The problem is, Chapter 84 meets in Snohomish, at Harvey Field (S43), the same airport where the plane is based. It doesn't make much sense to fly the plane to its own airport. How would that even work?
It works if you're a bit crazy. Crazy like a crazy person!
It goes something like this: very early in the morning, drive up to Snohomish, conveniently going the opposite direction from all the traffic. Get in the plane, and fly it from Snohomish to Boeing Field, which is reasonably close to downtown Seattle, where I work. Take a taxi (since there is no practical bus service) to downtown. Work for the day. Leave a touch earlier than normal, and take a taxi back to the airport. Fly from Boeing Field to Harvey Field, waving slightly ironically at all the poor car commuters below me on I-5, moving through a 10 MPH continuous traffic jam. Go to the meeting. Drive home. Simple, right?
As simple as it should be, the Seattle weather and my schedule have conspired for well over a year to prevent it from happening. If I can go to the meeting, the weather is terrible. If the weather is gorgeous, I'm otherwise committed. Most vexing.
Finally, yesterday, I was able to pull off the World's Silliest Commute™. The weather was predicted to be perfectly flyable until midnight, well after I needed to fly.
I should note that I live about 6 miles from my workplace. A bike trip takes 35 minutes each way. Taking the bus takes 35-45 minutes depending on traffic.
So, I left the house at 7 am almost on the dot. I arrived at Harvey Field without much incident 45 minutes later. There was a car fire that was out at Northgate, which slowed everyone down so they could rubberneck at the flashing lights, but that only added a minute or two to the trip. So far so good. I preflighted the plane, and was in the air by about 8:20. I shut down at Boeing Field half an hour later, at 8:49. So far, so good!
The weather was gorgeous for the flight in
I parked the plane at Kenmore Aero Services, who charged me the princely sum of $15 in "handling" to stay there for the day. Cheapest parking on the field, though, and compare that to a day of parking your car anywhere near downtown ($30+). Parking for airplanes is weird.
Anyway, I called a cab, who showed up about 9:05, and we were on our way. Unfortunately, Airport Way (the most logical path to downtown) was blocked, and we had to backtrack and take a very crowded I-5 to get there. I arrived at the office around 9:40. Fortunately my workplace is very chill about when people show up.
So, trip to work: two hours and 40 minutes. Pretty clever, eh!? Also, $15 parking, and $40 for the taxi. Also, 27 driving miles and 24 flying miles.
My plane-a-day calendar was, happily, an Aeronca Champ!
The trip back was even better.
The taxi ride was about twice the cost I'd been anticipating, so I was somewhat anxious to avoid having to take a taxi back. Spending another $40 wouldn't kill me, but it wasn't very appealing either. I've never signed up for Uber or Lyft, so I figured I'd check out taking a bus to close by, and then using one of the rental bikes that litter the city to make the final stretch. The buses run to the north end of the field, but then they divert down the west side, and I needed to go to the east side, which would be a long walk from the nearest stop.
I identified the route: Metro 124 goes right past, and was the obvious choice. I tried signing up for Limebike (one of the rental bike outfits), and was dismayed by the terms I ran into: the Lime app won't even show you the map unless you've got location (GPS) turned on -- which I don't normally do, since I try to limit data leakage. It appeared from the non-existent documentation (ie, how the app behaved) that I would have to load a minimum of $10 into my account, but I have no plans to use these bikes long-term. Overall, the experience left me very unhappy with how it worked, and kind of turned off from the whole idea.
I looked back at the bus route, and realized that A) I needed to go to nearly the southern extremity of the field, and B) there was a bus stop on the west side of the south end of the field. It would only be about a 20 minute walk from the bus stop to Kenmore, vs. the 45 minute walk from the north end of the field (Boeing Field's long runway is about 10,000 feet long, or nearly two miles long; the surrounding land is over 2 miles long). Sold!
So, I left the office early, at 3:45, and grabbed myself a sandwich to eat for dinner once I'd arrived. I caught the 4:03 bus, and we were off. Then we hit Georgetown, and about 20 minutes of unexpected traffic. One of the other riders complained about the slow pace, and how she was going to spend her entire day just getting home. When I finally arrived at my stop, it was 4:48, making it almost exactly a 45 minute ride.
The walk around the south end of the field and up to Kenmore's building took 20 minutes, with a slight delay while I called to get the weather briefing, staying away from the very loud traffic on Airport Way S. I reflected, as I was walking along the 9" wide path through the grass on the side of the road, how oddly happy I was -- it was delightful to be doing something so different from my normal routine, even if it was kind of weird.
Kenmore was pleasant to deal with, and I fired up the engine around 5:20. Boeing ground sent me to the long runway (Boeing Field has two runways: the 10,000 foot runway, and a 3700 foot runway; the 3700 foot runway is 3000 feet longer than I need to take off), which I found fairly delightful. The Champ is an impressive aircraft in some ways. One of them is its take-off performance: 300-400 feet on the ground under conditions like this. The weirdness of having 8000 feet in front of me (leaving from part-way down the runway, at the A10 intersection) was wonderful. I could take off and land several times in that distance.
Flying past downtown Seattle
Norbert the Champ revved up, and we were quickly off the ground, passing through 100 feet as the control tower went past on the left -- it takes off quickly, but it doesn't climb very fast, with all its drag and its small 90 HP engine. We continued straight out, flying over all the Imperial Walker-looking loading cranes on the waterfront, and past the jeweled splendor of downtown's many skyscrapers. I flew over my house in Ballard just for fun, then angled my path northeastward toward Harvey Field.
As I crossed I-5, I looked down benevolently on the poor suckers in their cars, grinding slowly northward. Normally, that's where I'd be, and the difference again delighted me. It's amazing how often the weather screws up my plans to fly to the EAA meeting.
Crossing over I-5's packed traffic
The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I dropped down to land at Harvey Field, shutting off the plane around 6:15. I quickly tucked it away in the hangar, and was to the meeting by about 6:30. Later than I'd wanted to be, but the bus trip had taken longer than I thought it would.
If you're keeping score at home, that's two and a half hours from downtown Seattle to Snohomish -- and I still had another 50ish minute drive home after the meeting.
The Final Score
On the way in to work, on a normal day:
On the way in to work, yesterday:
On the way home from work, on a normal day:
On the way home from work, yesterday:
Total for the day: 121 miles in 5.8 hours: about 20 MPH average, and $0.61 per mile.
Of course, what's not calculated there is how much fun I had doing it. Aside from the patent silliness of what I was doing, I was having a good time the entire time. Even grinding through I-5 traffic in the morning in a taxi driven by a guy who spent more time looking at his phone than at the road was fun, if only in how different it was from my normal daily routine.
In short, it was a good, lightweight adventure. A thrilling change from the normal day-to-day. I'm not likely to do exactly that thing again unless I can figure out a better airport-to-downtown link, but I'm very glad I finally accomplished it after dreaming about it for so long.
Wed, 21 Mar 2018
If you like real-life adventure stories and are like me, you've probably heard of The Long Way Round, in which Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman ride motorcycles from London to New York by going east instead of west.
But have you heard of the other Long Way Round? It's the story of a Pan Am Clipper crew in 1941 who found themselves caught up in world events in a way they never saw coming.
Read it here: The Long Way Round: Part 1
Tue, 02 Jan 2018
For my New Year's Day, I took advantage of surprisingly good weather, and went flying. It wasn't any kind of grand flight, just up to Bellingham and back (a bit less than an hour each way). It was a good make-up for the previous day's attempt, where we got off the ground for just long enough to make a slightly uncomfortable pattern before landing again under clouds that were much lower than they appeared to be from the ground.
On my two year-spanning days of flying, I encountered two other pilots who stand out in my mind. Unfortunately, they don't stand out for good reasons.
The first pilot is a gent with a Cessna 150. I encountered him while fuelling up my plane. He'd parked his 150 relatively far from the pump, and the ground wire reel got tangled, so that he had the wire stretched to where it just reached his tie-down bolt. We were both setting up to fuel at the same time, and he had some trouble with the card reader. Once he got that sorted out, he pulled out a length of hose, and started fueling up.
Unfortunately, he hadn't gotten the hose retraction reel to a locked position (it's one of those spring-powered reels that goes click-click-click-pause as you unwind it, and you have to stop in the middle of the clicks if you want to keep it from retracting). It started retracting as he was atop the ladder, concentrating on working the nozzle. It didn't seem profitable to let that situation continue, so I grabbed the hose and pulled it out until it locked. I didn't have the impression that he noticed.
When he started his motor, it roared to life with a lot of throttle, then he pulled it back down, and taxied off to run up. I had the impression at the time, and remarked to my passenger, that he seemed like a pilot who was badly out of practice.
I ran into this same gent the next day, and confirmed my impression. He engaged me in conversation, and mentioned that he'd wanted to fly to a nearby airport (about 15 minutes' flying time away), but couldn't, because he couldn't sort out the radios. The aiport we were at, and the airport he was flying to, are both untowered fields, which 1. have no requirement for any radio use at all (though it's a good idea) and 2. need only one frequency change if you do want to use the radios. Most aircraft radios are very simple to use, with a knob to change frequencies, and a volume control, and maybe an audio panel if you have multiple radios. The audio panels can be opaque in their operation, but the 150 has never had very complex equipment.
Based on all this, I would be surprised if he's flown with an instructor in years. That's a bit of a problem, because you're required to do a biennial flight review every two years. I can't imagine the instructor who would have signed off on a pilot who couldn't operate a radio. The requirement for a BFR is relatively buried in the rules, and there are certainly pilots who fly for decades without them, but if anything goes wrong, you can bet the FAA will hike up its eyebrows and tick a couple extra boxes on its clipboard when it finds out, and the slacking pilot will feel the sting.
If this sounds more like you than you'd like to admit, you might check out AOPA's Rusty Pilot Program. I'm all for getting back in the game. But don't endanger other people in the process.
Pilot #2 seemed much more competent, but embodies a type of pilot who gets right under my skin: the "Those laws don't apply to me" pilot. We met while (again) refuelling, and admired each others' planes. He had a similar vintage plane to my Champ, and we got to discussing lighting requirements. I had just landed to avoid flying after sunset, since my plane is not (yet) equipped with anti-collision lights, and he was obviously prepping to launch. He mentioned, "Oh, my IA [highly-qualified airplane mechanic who should theoretically know all the applicable regulations] said I don't need strobes." He explained that, because his plane was made before the 1971 anti-collision-light law mentioned in 14 CFR 91.205(c)(3), it was exempted.
This is an area of aviation law that I'm intimately familiar with, because I want to be able to fly at night, but legally can't due to this missing anti-collision light issue. There's no profit in telling someone that he's wrong, so I mentioned only that I had understood the law differently, and hoped his IA was correct. I had called the FAA district office last summer, and asked this exact question; the answer was unequivocal: no aircraft may operate after sunset without flashing anti-collision lights, period, the end. There is no grandfather clause, as there so often can be with this kind of law.
So I wish him luck in his night-flying, and hope that his position lights are enough to keep him out of trouble. I honestly have mixed feelings about this particular regulation. On the one hand, flashing lights are certainly more visible. On the other hand, they don't seem sufficiently more-visible than steady position (red/green/white) lights as to require all planes ever to have them for night flight. This opinion is certainly a bit selfish on my part, because it's going to take hundreds or thousands of dollars and a bunch of work to set my plane up with the right lights.
What I can't get behind is pilots who act as if the laws we've agreed upon shouldn't apply to them. What else doesn't apply to them? When will it impact someone else? I know we're all guilty of breaking laws on a more or less constant basis (when was the last time you drove over the speed limit, or didn't come to a complete stop at a stop sign?), so I can't get too high-n-mighty about this, but I hold pilots, including myself, to a higher standard. You have very few chances to mess things up with an airplane before the stakes become life-or-death. Why start out every flight with a deficit?
Fri, 27 Oct 2017
I decided, in the face of glaringly sunny and clear skies, that today would be a good day to burn a vacation day and go flying.
So, I got up at my usual time, but made a leisurely departure of the house, finally driving off at about 9 am. I knew that Harvey Field would be socked in with morning fog, so there was no need to rush, but also that the sooner I was there and all pre-flighted, the more quickly I could leap into the sky when the fog burned off.
Thus, I had my pre-flight inspection done by about 10:30, but the fog had other plans. I ended up spending an hour in the FBO's plush chair reading my book (nunquam non paratus -- "never unprepared" after all) while the fog slowly dissolved. At 11:30, it was just about burned off, and I made my leisurely way back to the hangar. This was the beginning of the problem.
On my way to the hangar, I pulled out my phone to check in to the FATPNW group page on Facebook, to see if anyone else was planning aerial shenanigans today that might be fun to join in on. I had been pondering a flight around the Olympic Peninsula, or up to Eastsound on Orcas Island, but hadn't made any firm plans yet. There was indeed a post right near the top: several folks were planning on meeting at the Jefferson County International Airport (0S9), also known as Port Townsend, for lunch. That sounded good to me, so I set my sights on 0S9, although I knew from the start I couldn't possibly be there at noon. It was already 11:45 by the time I pulled the airplane out of the hangar, and I still needed to get fuel. So much for getting the preflight done early.
I taxied over to the fuel pump and added 10 gallons to the tanks. I had 9 already on board, and with the extra 10, I would have a guaranteed ~2 hours of fuel that I knew I'd just pumped in, plus some extra from the 9 (never take the dipstick reading at face value -- it's always off by some amount). I was trying to move quickly so I wouldn't be too late to the lunch, but I was trying for "efficient" rather than "rushed."
I didn't actually push back and fire up the motor for real until a couple minutes before noon. It would be at least half an hour's flight to Port Townsend, possibly a bit more, so I was guaranteed to be 45 minutes late after all the taxi, run-up, travel, and tie-down once I'd arrived. Even so, I was trying to keep efficient, since it would at least be nice to say hello in passing.
The run-up was normal, though the engine was a little off for the take-off and climb out. Not enough to cause me worry, and it picked up to normal once it warmed up a little bit more. I got myself cleared over Paine Field, then called up Seattle Approach to get flight following, and have some extra eyes on my sky.
The transit and landing were normal and unremarkable. I tied down, and had a good lunch, packed into a stool at the crowded bar. I wasn't the only one who thought skipping out on work to go flying would make for good lunch plans.
I got myself back out to the plane, belly pleasantly full of sandwich and marionberry pie, and started through the preflight: fuel on, check fuel drains for water, dipstick into the tanks to check level... Wait a minute. The right tank was normal, but when I got to the left tank, there was no gas cap.
This is approximately a Level 4 Oh Shit moment, on a scale of 10. Missing gas cap is embarrassing, because it means I was more rushed than I thought when I fueled up back at Harvey. But it also means (I confirmed a few minutes later on my walk-around) that the low pressure on top of the wing was sucking fuel out of the tank and scattering it to the wind, coincidentally leaving some tell-tale marks on the tail that confirmed the story. It also also means that, somewhere at Harvey Field, hopefully, hopefully, fingers crossed, nowhere near the runway, there was a ¼ pound piece of metal and rubber on the ground, ready to be kicked up by some passing airplane and potentially do some real damage.
So, this was bad juju. I was embarrassed, and scared, mostly because I was worried I'd dropped it where someone else was going to run it over at high speed, which conjured up all kinds of bad images in my head. I dipped the tank, and I still had 14 gallons between the two tanks, so I didn't lose too much fuel on the flight over. Maybe 2-3 gallons. Annoying, but not world-ending.
I had to find something to cover the tank opening with, but that was easily done by approaching the first mechanic I could find and begging a ziptie so I could fasten a nitrile glove over the opening for the flight home. Not terribly practical for everyday use, but enough to fly home safely.
No issues getting back to Harvey, and the instant I had the plane back in the hangar, I went for a walk to find the missing cap. I started by the fuel pump, hoping it just dropped there, which would be fairly safe. No luck. I asked the fuel truck guy, who happened to be driving by, if he'd seen a fuel cap on the ground, but he hadn't. I disconsolately walked along the taxiway, scanning as I went, distantly thankful that there wasn't more traffic trying to use the path. I did a full search grid over the run-up area, figuring that if it had miraculously ridden the wing all the way there, that's where it would be blown off, but no luck. I walked the entire length of the runway, where I located and removed a very sharp stainless steel #10 sheetmetal screw, but no sign of my gas cap.
I realized, as I was halfway down the runway (walking well off to the side, and constantly scanning for aircraft traffic, I'm not always a complete dummy) that I should check in to the maintenance office, on the off chance someone spotted it and turned it in. As I got to the north end of the runway, and turned toward the skydiving area, one of the skydiving folks walked toward me with that purposeful stride that says, "I'm going to challenge your right to be where you are." I quickly explained my situation, and she relented, telling me the tale of a dog-walker she encountered once, who nonchalantly walked his dog across the runway without apparently being aware of what he was doing.
I stopped in to the maintenance office, and before I could say anything, the woman behind the counter said, "Oh Ian, did you get my voicemail?" I gave her a dumb look and said, "Voicemail?" "Yeah," she responded, "someone turned in this gas cap and we thought it might belong to your plane..."
So, I was saved from the worst consequence of someone hitting my gas cap at high speed and causing real damage. I'm glad it fell off right at the gas pump like I'd first expected, and that it was quickly removed to safety. I'm glad I didn't have to rummage around for the spare gas cap that lives somewhere in the hangar.
I decided that I need to find a better place to stick the cap when I take it off to add fuel. I have two choices lined up to try out: one on the engine cowling, so that it will be obvious from the cockpit, and the other in my pocket, so that at least if I forget it, it won't cause anyone else any problems (and I can put it back on when I realize my mistake). I like the cowling idea better, but between the two I'm likely to have a good solution.
It occurred to me as I was walking the airport with my eyes down to the ground that I was lucky in another way: if I'd made the same mistake when intending to fly around the Olympic Peninsula, it could have easily killed me. Extrapolating from the actual fuel consumed on my trip to Jefferson County, I was losing about 4 gallons per hour extra from the tank. Presumably it would go faster if it was fuller, and slow down as it emptied out, but let's call it 4 gallons per hour on average. This plane only uses about 5-6 gallons per hour in normal operation, so I would nearly double my fuel consumption and be completely unaware of it. If I planned on having 4 hours of fuel on board, I would be in for a rude shock at about the 2 hour mark. The plane still glides with the engine off, and I tend to fly high, so I'd have some altitude to spend. But the peninsula is not full of friendly places to land, and my embarrassing error could easily have turned into a fatal one.
So, ultimately, I must both thank and curse FATPNW: without it, I probably would have felt less rushed, but I also would have been in for a longer flight (the path to Orcas is about twice as long as that to Jefferson County). I'm very glad it worked out the way it did, but I've clearly got some reforms to make in my refuelling practices.
Mon, 09 Oct 2017
I took the opportunity last Sunday to enjoy the sunny weather from aloft, and went flying in Norbert the Champ.
I put the dipstick in the tanks, and decided that I had about 12 gallons of fuel. Plenty for the ~1 hour flight I had in mind, and it would put me in reasonable territory to drain the tanks and re-calibrate the dipstick, which had seemed a little off when I was trying to work out the math between fill-ups and gallons per hour on recent trips.
The flight went as planned, and I set up in the hangar to drain the fuel from the tanks, eventually (holy buckets does it take a long time to drain a fuel tank by the sump drain) getting about 4 gallons out of the two tanks. Given that I had just flown 1.4 hours at ~4 gph, that already suggested I was on the right track: I should have had about 6 gallons left, not 4.
The tools I had at my disposal were two 6-gallon jugs, and a "2 gallon" jug, which I decided would be my measuring container. It turned out, half way through, that it's actually a "2 gallons and 8 ounces" jug, intended for mixing 2-stroke oil with gasoline, so my measurements were on the imprecise side. I also had the magic hydrophobic funnel, which allows me to do all this fuel pouring without transferring water or other crud.
The fuel system on the Champ is very simple: two 13 gallon tanks reside in the wings, and are connected together above the fuel shutoff valve. This means that they (very slowly) cross-feed at all times, so any fuel additions would have to be to both tanks before taking a reading, to ensure I wasn't seeing one tank slowly creep up the level of the other.
The plan was this (and it worked reasonably well): go to the pumps and fill the two 6-gallon jugs with exactly 10 gallons of fuel, 5 per jug. Fill the 2-gallon jug twice, and fill each tank on the plane with 2 gallons of fuel. Dip the tanks, and mark where the fuel hit, having previously erased the old marks. Lather rinse repeat until the 10 gallons are in the tanks, then go fill the two 6-gallon jugs again and repeat the whole process.
Since I started this exercise with about four gallons of fuel, I first poured this amount into the tanks, and got my first surprise. The right tank registered about an inch of fuel on the stick. 2 gallons, marked and done. The left tank left the stick completely dry. No 2 gallon mark. (The landing gear on the left is always extended slightly further than the gear on the right, so that the left wing is several inches further from the ground at rest.)
Keep going: 4 gallon marks for each tank -- one side of the dipstick is marked RT, and one is marked LFT, but previously, the levels had been exactly the same on each side; don't ask me why there were two sides before. Interestingly, the 4 gallon mark for the left side was only about 4mm below the 4 gallon mark for the right side, suggesting that at 2 gallons, the left tank was just barely shy of hitting the stick.
So I kept going, marking 2, 4, and 6 gallons, then marking 7 when I split the final 2-gallon jug between the two tanks. I went back to the pump, and refilled with another 10 gallons, figuring I was already half-way there, so I might as well finish the job. Marked 9, then 11 gallons, although the right tank overfilled and spilled down the wing by some amount, so the final count was not terribly accurate. Presumably, the tilted wings mean that it would be possible to fill the right tank so far that it comes out the vent, when filling the left tank to the very top.
In all, I put in around 24 gallons of fuel (exactly 20 from the pumps, and about 4 that had already been there, minus the overfill), and completely filled the right tank, while the left tank got near the filler neck but didn't quite touch it. The dipstick reads about a quarter inch difference between the right and left tanks, and had been reading almost two gallons too full on the right tank, and about one gallon too full on the left.
That means I had previously thought I had half an hour more fuel than I actually did. That's a sobering error, and one that could have bitten me badly. It's a more than 10% error.
Since the 2 gallon jug was actually more than 2 gallons, and I didn't fill it to exactly the same amount each time, I'm still only going to trust the dipstick as an approximation of the fuel left in the tanks. It's a more pessimistic approximation now, though, and that suits me just fine.
Until I can redo the job with a properly calibrated filling rig, I'll live with the knowledge that I may have a little bit more fuel than the dipstick says I do, but do the math as if I don't. It's always a better surprise to find out you have more fuel than you think you do, rather than the other way around.
Sun, 24 Sep 2017
Last Christmas, I got a Stratux box as a present. This is a little Raspberry Pi tiny-computer with a couple SDR dongles attached, which will listen to aicraft traffic and show it on a tablet. But if you needed that introduction, you can definitely skip this entry, for it will go Deep Nerd on the Stratux, and be incredibly boring for you.
My particular Stratux was running version 0.8r-something (I forgot to note exactly which version it was). It worked pretty well, but on the last few flights, it started doing this thing where it would stop sending traffic to the tablet. If I pulled the power and rebooted it, it could come back for a period of time, but never for terribly long.
So, I decided I would try loading current software on it. The Stratux project is up to 1.4r2, which is a pretty substantial leap. I downloaded the upgrade script for 1.4r2, and sent it in via the Stratux web page. Once I re-joined the wifi network, all appeared to be working, so I tucked it back into the flight bag, and brought it with me for today's flight.
It all seemed to be working for the first maybe 20 minutes, but as soon as I was done with my pattern work and departed for Jefferson County to see if they had any pie left (gotta have some kind of goal, right?), I noticed I wasn't seeing traffic again.
Sighing a bit, I pulled the power and plugged it back in again, wondering if I had burnt out some part of the hardware. It wouldn't be the end of the world if I had, but how annoying. However, it didn't come back. In fact, the wifi network didn't show up again either. That was weird. Made troubleshooting harder too, since I didn't have any other way to access the Stratux than wifi.
I tried a few more times on the way to and from JeffCo, but didn't have any luck. This was just kind of piling on, since I'd already blown 40 minutes trying to retrieve a pen that mysteriously ended up in the belly fabric under the cockpit (a royal pain to deal with, and had me seriously considering whether I'd have to bring in a mechanic to solve it), and discovered that my inexpensive endoscope camera had mysteriously died between the last time I used it and today, when I really wanted it to be working, so I could locate that stupid pen. (I did ultimately get the pen out, by locating it through primitive tap-based echolocation on the fabric, then tapping it so it ended up in a spot I could reach past the baggage area.)
Anyway, discouraging to have all these things going wrong, seemingly all at once.
I brought the box home, and found some information, which I thought others might enjoy seeing as well.
The first tidbit: the green "status" light (labelled ACT on the Raspberry Pi 3) was blinking rapidly, about 5 times per second. I downloaded the source code, and found where that gets set. Unhelpfully, it does that any time the Stratux software encouters a "critical error." Not terribly specific, but I knew at least that the software was still running, though it had croaked in some fairly fundamental way.
The next tidbit: I found this bug report suggesting that other people are having a similar problem. Specifically, they saw the flashing green light, and the lack of wifi, and they were using the same 1.4r2 version that I was. One mentioned that downgrading to the older 1.2.r2 version worked correctly, so I decided I'd try that.
Since I'd upgraded the system, and it had knocked the wifi offline, the only way I could do anything with it would be to reload the SD card. So I found the Stratux release page, and located the 1.2r2 release image. Next, I had to figure out how the Stratux folks want you to blow an image onto the SD card, so it was off to the Raspberry Pi documentation page to figure it out. They want you to use some new graphical tool, but I'm sufficiently oldschool that I just wanted the dd command line. Fortunately, they have it, couched in a whole lot of "You don't know anything about Linux, so..." exposition, but they have it. I dd'd the image file onto the SD card, and have now had it running for just over 50 minutes, without apparent issues.
So, two out of three things were salvaged today: I got that stupid pen out of the belly (and it will always live in its elastic loop on the kneeboard from now on), and I got the Stratux box back into something approaching serviceable order. The endoscope continues to show a black image though, so that may be the end of that. Fortunately, it's one of the $15 variety, so it's not a huge financial hit to replace it. It was more the frustration of having a tool, needing to use it, and it not working like it should when I needed it.
An hour and 6 minutes in, and we're still showing traffic, so I'll call the Stratux upgrade/downgrade a success.
Tue, 22 Aug 2017
My "campsite" in the dawn light
I awoke on Friday morning ready to face the day's flying. As usual, I woke up as the sky showed the sun's progress toward our horizon. The placement of the airplane between myself and the sources of light worked well, and my sleep that night had been a bit more restful than previous nights in the tent. It wasn't as if I was sleeping in my own bed, but I had at least gotten the temperature right, and didn't wake up as many times in the night.
In my planning for the flight back, I had looked at the flight from Ashland (S03), and reconsidered my fuel stop. On the way down, Roseburg (RBG) had made sense to give myself two-hour legs headed south, but it left me with only an hour and a half necessary to reach Ashland. I wanted to start the day with a longer flight, so I had filed the flight plan to Eugene (EUG), an additional 60 miles beyond Roseburg.
A flight plan for my kind of flying is an interesting beast. Its main purpose in life is to have someone else there to check in on you. It is effectively declaring, "I will fly from XYZ to ABC, leaving at this hour, and taking this long to do it." When you take off, you call up the local Flight Services station on the radio, and ask to activate your flight plan, giving the actual departure time if it's different from what you planned.
The plan is opened, and practically speaking, nothing further happens until you either close the plan, or the time enroute expires. If the time expires, they have an escalation policy, that goes something like:
If the first step doesn't yield any results, they move on to the next step, trying to locate the pilot who is now overdue. They keep moving up the steps until they find you, dead or alive.
Usually, I'm pretty good about remembering to give them a call either on the radio shortly before I land (wherever I land is inevitably outside radio range once I'm on the ground), or on the phone shortly after I land. On the one occasion this trip where I forgot to call and close my flight plan, I got a call within about a minute of the planned arrival time, and I sheepishly said that yes, I was down safely, and apologized for not closing the plan.
The cool thing is, it's really quite effective. If I were to have a problem enroute, I have a double safety: I'm talking to Air Traffic Control to have them watch out for traffic that might get too close, and I've got the Flight Service folks who will trigger escalating searches for me if I don't show up at the planned time.
ATC, being in contact with me, is very likely to get a call from me saying something's wrong, if something goes wrong. I carry a spare, battery-powered radio specifically to cover the case of a full electrical system failure. Even if they don't get a radio call from me, I've told them where I'm headed, and if they see me suddenly descend or go wildly off-track, they'll call me trying to figure out what's going on. If they can't reach me and I drop off the radar, they note where I dropped off, how fast I was going (both laterally and vertically) and what direction I was headed. They now have a very good idea where to send the SAR folks.
If, for some reason, ATC doesn't notice me drop out of the system, Flight Services will start ringing bells when I go overdue. All the radar information and radio calls are recorded for later review, or to assist with a search operation. By having myself logged in to the system to use VFR flight-following (which is the term for this kind of casual ATC contact), they will specifically track my plane, and can identify it on the radar screen at all times.
Heading out of Ashland, toward Medford
In any case, I had filed the first flight plan of the day for Ashland to Eugene. It would be something like two and a half hours, but I had discovered that I could withstand 3 hours in the plane at a time. My estimation of which was the biggest problem with the pilot's throne in Norbert vacillated between the coccyx-bending seat cushion and the lock-kneed rudder pressure, but as time went on, the tailbone pressure was winning the award for Most Annoying.
I don't know if you've experienced continuous, unshifting pressure on your tailbone for any real length of time, but if you haven't, take it from me that it is a literal and very real pain in the butt.
I had decided that for this leg, I would not take the shortcut over the mountains that I had taken on the way down, direct between Medford and Roseburg, skipping Grant's Pass (3S8). I wasn't pressed for time now, and preferred to keep the big safety net of I-5 under me.
Mountains peeking above the smoke
I'm very glad I followed my planned path. I ended up seeing the most ridiculously beautiful smoke + mountain vistas. The pictures don't really do the sight justice, but I'll see if I can do a bit of post-processing later to bring out what I was seeing from my fabric-covered cockpit.
Smoke swirls across the landscape like water flowing in a stream
The smoke cleared as I hit Roseburg, and I was treated to the sight of my previous fuel stop from 8500 feet in the air.
Roseburg (RBG) from above. North is to the upper-right.
The hills that housed Roseburg gradually smoothed out, and turned into foothills, which turned into ripples, followed by plowed fields, until I was looking down runway 34R at EUG. ATC directed me to make a straight-in landing to runway 34R, which makes my longest-ever straight-in approach, of something like 30 miles.
The amount of time it took to actually descend and reach the runway was kind of comical. I was still going the same ~85 MPH as I'd ever gone, but it was like one of those uncomfortable sketch comedy routines where it just keeps going and going. It goes from funny to annoying to boring to really annoying to funny again. I could only imagine the poor controllers in the Eugene tower were looking pointedly at their watches, kindling a fire on the exterior platform and pointedly roasting marshmallows, pointedly spawning new generations of controllers, and generally making a big deal out of how very slowly I was moving. Not really, but it was fun to think about.
I got clearance from the tower to land on 34R pretty early on, maybe 8 miles out. It really was ridiculous how long it took me to actually arrive and land.
I did finally touch tires to tarmac, and after a minor miscommunication with the ground controller, got myself taxied over to the self-serve fuel. There was a lovely Fairchild high-wing monoplane just taxiing away as I pulled up, and I gave them an enthusiastic thumbs-up out the window. It took me 2.5 hours from Ashland to Eugene, and obviously most of that was the approach to landing. I had departed Ashland at 8:40, and shut down in front of the fuel tanks in Eugene a few minutes before 11. (If the math seems a bit off, I had started the motor ten minutes before I departed Ashland, and the official 2.5 hour time is motor-start to motor-shutdown.)
Eugene was a brief stop, and I was quickly back in the air and headed for Scappoose (SPB). I had briefly toyed with the idea of stopping in Salem for lunch, but I really wasn't feeling hungry, so I decided to stick to the original plan. As I flew past Salem, I was glad I'd kept to the plan, since it appeared too quickly after I'd taken off, so that I would have felt like I'd flown too short a leg.
The flight to Scappoose was unremarkable, until Seattle Center handed me off to Portland Approach. Portland was apparently busy that afternoon, and I was shuffled past Hillsboro (HIO), and commanded to "Maintain VFR flight at or below 4000 feet." Normally they give a nice "Descend and maintain" instruction, but this was like a gym teacher saying, "Drop and give me 20!" I lost altitude from 6500 as quickly as I figured was prudent, directly over the Hillsboro airport. There was a mass of dots on my traffic display over Hillsboro, but I figured 4000 feet would still be well clear of them.
Finally I was given the instruction to resume my own navigation, and I continued over the ridge toward Scappoose, one eye tracking an airplane 1500 feet below me that was zigzagging around directly below my flight path.
Scappoose was also experiencing an aerial festival of some sort, and I counted at least four aircraft calling positions in the traffic pattern over the airport. I found my way behind a twin, and followed him in to land, glad that we were landing to the north, so that my taxi to fuel wouldn't take as long.
Norbert with Dave Baxter and son's Stardusters
I noticed as I taxied in that there were temporary-looking signs declaring a ground control frequency. Then I noticed a blue biplane crossing the runway, and called on the radio to see if it was who I thought it was. Yep: Dave Baxter, unofficial head honcho of the Starduster Too fanclub. That made two unofficial biplane head honchos I'd run into on this trip.
I gassed up, and chatted with another pilot in line for fuel, who had a slightly cartoonish looking composite Light Sport plane (I wish I'd taken a picture), which he said flew 150 knots or something ridiculously fast like that, using a Rotax 912, which is more or less the same engine as in Norbert (note to airplane people: I know, I know -- I'm writing this for everyone though, not just aviation nerds). It was hard to believe it was so much faster on just 10 HP more.
While I was there, I bought another quart of oil at the FBO, even though the oil level in my engine hadn't reached an uncomfortably low level. I wanted to check my hypothesis that the oil temperature on climb would be lower with more oil in the tank.
Then I taxied over and parked Norbert next to Dave's Stardusters to say hello. I flew with Dave last year, when he very kindly took me up for an hour of Starduster time, which was also my first time in an open-cockpit biplane. We chatted for a bit, and he ran off to get me some spare temper foam he had lying around, to see if it would help with my increasingly uncomfortable seat.
I had to excuse myself again as I had with Glenn and Judi in Placerville, since I wanted to continue on. I felt bad, because Norbert was a logical addition to the vintage aircraft fly-in they were having. It would have been interesting to stay and see what other cool vintage planes showed up, but I knew I had hungry kitties at home who would be sad if I didn't feed them.
Headed toward Kelso and some friendly puffy clouds
My parents' house is in Scappoose, and I debated flying over it to make sure it was still standing, but decided I needed to make forward progress rather than lollygagging around. I continued my climb toward Kelso (KLS), oddly pleased to see a layer of puffy clouds -- I was finally back to weather conditions that made sense to my Northwest-raised brain. I had initially thought to fly this leg at 6500 feet, but ended up climbing further for 8500 when I saw that the clouds topped at around 5000 (technically I only need 1000 feet over the tops of the clouds to be legal, but legal and comfortable are different things).
I noticed as I climbed that the oil temperature was indeed a bit lower. The highest temperature I'd noticed in climb was about 215° F, climbing out of Bakersfield to cross the Grapevine, with 3.9 quarts in the engine. The climb to Kelso was with 5 quarts, and the temperature only reached about 195°. Just flying around Seattle, the highest I'd previously seen was about 180°.
Around Chehalis (CLS), I started to worry that the clouds were bunching up, and that I might have trouble finding a hole to get through further along. There was a handy break in the clouds just under me, so I called ATC and told them I'd be "maneuvering" to get below the cloud deck. If you count a more than 90° turn and droppling like a rock through the hole as "maneuvering."
I found myself now flying at 3200 feet over the rolling hills of central Washington, and the flight had gone from perfectly smooth to rough and tumble as the wind rolled over the hills and took me on the rollercoaster with it. I aimed for Olympia Regional (OLM) to avoid some military airspace that chatter on the frequency had suggested to me might be active. I reached calmer air as I got over the water south of Tacoma Narrows (TIW).
Seattle in the distance, beyond Blake Island
Now in the home stretch and on my home turf, I cruised up the Kitsap Peninsula, over Winslow on Bainbridge Island, and crossed the water to get a picture of my house in Ballard, then diagonal up to Harvey Field.
While I was looking for my house in Ballard, the controller called me up, and mentioned that I was 200 feet below the approach path of a major turbojet route. Alarmed, I asked him if I needed to change where I was flying, and he clarified: he was commending me for using flight following in the area, and said they were trying to advertise to pilots that they should do this around Boeing Field (BFI). I concurred heartily and assured him that I was usually talking to ATC if I was flying here (which is true). He voiced his pleasure at hearing this. It was an interesting exchange, because I frequently think of requesting flight following in the Seattle area as being a burden on controllers rather than something they want to be doing.
He cut me loose as I crossed the north end of Lake Washington after warning about a business jet crossing my path 500 feet above (quickly spotted, unlike most of the traffic that ATC calls out for me). I made my descent over the ridge, called a few position reports, lined up for a longish base leg into runway 33R at Harvey Field (S43), and was quickly on the ground and rolling for my hangar after a pleasantly smooth landing.
Norbert safely tucked into its hangar
Groaning a bit with the exhaustion of flying 15.7 hours in two days, I heaved myself out of the cockpit, and slowly unpacked the plane. I repacked all my stuff into the car. I did the post-flight tasks. I didn't really want it to be over, but it was time to go home.
I accomplished my goals for the trip: I flew to LA in a 1956 Champion 7EC; my flight planning was sufficiently good that I was opening all my flight plans within half an hour of expected departure; I got to fly with my brother; I got to visit a Marquart Charger and go for a short flight. Even the weather had mostly cooperated (though I would have accepted less overcast at the start, and less heat through central California).
There are no profound lessons to be learned from this flight. Or, if there are, they'll come to me over the next year or two. There are some mundane lessons, like, "Remember to check the winds aloft," or "Find a better seat cushion," or "It is possible to pack that much stuff safely into Norbert's baggage areas." Even, "Yes, it really doesn't go any faster than a slightly speeding car, but at least you can fly in a straightish line."
Returning to work this week has been a little bit of a let-down. I'd rather (as the license plate frames say) be flying.
Mon, 21 Aug 2017
Previously: Tulare to LA, and Flying with David
Aside from a somewhat dodgy choice of hotels (maybe avoid the Travelodge Pasadena Central -- it's cheap, but it's also cheap), my stay in LA was pretty cool. David and Tara, his wife, were fun to hang out with, and in addition to getting to spend time with them, we also went to the California Science Center, which was one of the tiny handful of museums which received a Space Shuttle when the shuttle program was decommissioned. It was very cool to see the shuttle in person. The trip was well worth it even if that's all I'd done. I was still eagerly drinking it all in as the closing hour drew nigh, though my companions were nearing done with artifacts of the space program.
On the flight down, I'd found myself squinting uncomfortably into the sun as I flew south, and had finally grokked what ball caps were good for: my full-brim sun hat, though effective and good for most things, simply wouldn't fit under the headset. I figured a NASA baseball cap would be the closest I'd ever get to actually wanting to wear one, so I grabbed just such an item from the Space Shuttle Endeavor gift shop, exclusively for use while flying.
It was odd saying farewell so far before my actual departure, but the timing of things meant that I said goodbye to Tara shortly after dinner on my departure eve, and David and I said goodbye around 10 that night. They both had work in the morning, and the directions everyone was driving meant that it was far more sensible for me to take a taxi to the airport than any other choice.
So, I prepped that night and got everything as ready as I could. David and I had stopped by the Vons supermarket earlier in the night and I'd picked up my flight snacks. We also made a trip to Sprouts, which seems to be the LA equivalent of the Puget Consumer's Coop, so I could get slightly less terrible candy-style snacks than Vons carried.
My plan was to try to launch by 9 am the next morning. I figured that would mean about half an hour of getting to the airport, and at least 45 minutes of packing, preflighting the plane, getting fuel aboard, paying bills with Billion Air Aviation (everything's bigger in LA: I'd passed several Million Air Aviation FBOs already on the trip, but LA just had to one-up them), etc. So I called the taxi for 7:30 am on Thursday.
As expected, I was awake before the alarm went off (I never sleep very well when I know I have an early alarm, probably out of anxiety I'll oversleep and miss it), and went down to check out the breakfast offered as part of my room price at the Travelodge. It was better than I'd expected, and I had a waffle from the waffleautomat and half of an indifferent bagel with cream cheese from a little blister pack, along with a nearly ripe banana. I found I wasn't very hungry though, being somewhat anxious about my day's itinerary.
Norbert was alert and ready to go
The weather was as close to perfect as I could have asked for. The previous days I'd been aware of had all had a heavy marine overcast layer in the morning that wouldn't burn off until almost midday, but on this day, it was bright and clear (for LA) when I checked upon waking. Good thing, too, because the flight plans I'd filed had outlined that I needed to make an early launch if I wanted to actually reach Ashland by sunset.
As it happened, things continued well as I went to the airport. I got a friendly, chatty cab driver, and we spent the whole ride discussing engines, airplanes, cars, racing, motorcycles, and more engines. After he dropped me off, he asked if he could come see the plane, so I took him back and showed him Norbert, with its very simple instrument panel, and the engine, which is really just an overgrown VW Bug engine. The Continental C90 under Norbert's engine cowl, which produces 90 HP, displaces about 200 cubic inches, or almost 3.3 liters, vs. the last generation Bug engine, which produces about 65 HP from 1.6 liters. The Beetle engine gets to turn twice as fast as the Continental, though, since the Conti is limited to 2500 RPM.
Residential Pasadena, looking westish, with the Rose Bowl just visible in the distance
The fuel truck rolled quickly, and I got the plane packed faster than I'd expected, so that I found myself starting the engine at 8:42, and starting my enthusiastic trundle down the runway at 8:51, a full nine minutes ahead of schedule. Norbert eased off terra firma, gained a bit of speed, and we proceeded confidently into the LA permasmog. Of course, the air was perfectly smooth, and I thought wistfully of David, even now on his way to his office. Hindsight, as he commented a couple text messages later, is 20/20.
In the comparatively cool morning air, we climbed with admirable speed, and it didn't take long before I was passing the Burbank airspace and climbing for my mountain-traversing 8500 feet. The mountains didn't seem so daunting as I flew northbound, mostly because they were no longer Terra Incognita for me.
Mountains receding to the east, toward the Mojave Desert
The trip back, like most trips back, seemed to take much less time than the trip down had. There's something in our psychological makeup that makes it much simpler to retrace footsteps in reverse than it is to follow that path the first time. Of course, it took a similar amount of time, but it seemed to go by much quicker. I also finished the bulk of Ruby 2 as I traversed the San Joaquin valley, which may have contributed to the effect.
Flying past Burbank and headed into the mountains, making good time in favorable wind
I noticed, while I was in LA, that I had a weird itchy spot on my left leg. I couldn't remember if I'd scratched myself there and perhaps it was getting infected, or quite what could have caused it. It was sort of a low-grade rash, but there was something familiar about it. Right above the knee, and it certainly felt like an allergic reaction.
My first stop was Porterville (PTV), which had been a planned stop on the way down. It had the cheapest fuel in the area, but was otherwise unremarkable, at least in my mental state as I was passing through. When I unstrapped the kneeboard from my left leg, I suddenly realized what must have caused the rash. I turned the kneeboard over, and sure enough, it was bright shiny metal right where it had been resting on the rash. Well, it used to be bright shiny metal. It was nickel, and I inadvertently confirmed that I am still allergic to nickel (a process which quickly corrodes and renders dull whatever nickel I'm in contact with). I filled the tanks, and continued on, stopping only 20 minutes on the ground. I departed from Porterville at 11:15 am, and aimed myself at Tracy (TCY), another cheapest-fuel-in-the-area airport. A washcloth was laid carefully under the kneeboard to prevent further nickel contact.
The trip to Tracy (which I chose for scenic variety as much as anything else, though it didn't end up being terribly different from other airports in the valley) was remarkable for one reason: I spotted and reported a fire that had apparently not yet been reported. I'd heard some discussion of reporting fires to ATC in the weeks before my trip, particularly with the wildfire smoke sweeping down into Seattle, and I wondered at the time if I'd have occasion to do such a thing. The possibility seemed remote.
A fire burning in a field near Merced Regional (MCE)
Yet here I was. I called up the controller and asked if they'd had a fire reported near my position. She didn't think so, and asked a few detail questions: could I tell what was burning? What was the exact location? I answered as best I could -- I initially thought I was approaching a couple of low-lying clouds, which seemed weird. It took about five minutes of approaching the clouds before I realized they must be smoke, and I started looking for the source. Finally I saw it, and reported back that it was a field burning, about 2 miles off my right wing, bordered by a canal to the north. She thanked me, and presumably sent off a report to regional fire authorities.
The remainder of the flight to Tracy was unremarkable, though it was on the western edge of the valley; if I had kept flying west, I would have crossed the hills into the Bay Area. As I descended, it became clear that there were a number of people flying around the airport, and it took me a little bit to figure out how to insert myself safely into the traffic pattern.
Once I was in, I was following a Cessna a little bit too closely, banking on Norbert's relatively glacial speed to get us a little bit of separation. Fortunately, my plan worked, and it was aided when the Cessna made an uncomfortable-looking touchdown, thought better of it, and goosed it to go around and try that landing again. I asked over the radio if he'd run into a crosswind (gusting crosswinds are kind of a nightmare in a taildragger like Norbert, and I'd never really dealt with one before, so I was a little worried), and he gave me a one-syllable answer that I couldn't interpret. Another voice came on the radio and said, "Yeah, there's a bit of a crosswind down here." I thanked her, and determined to do my best.
As it happened, I needn't have worried. There was indeed a crosswind, but it wasn't very strong, and at least for my landing, was pretty steady. I got the plane on the ground with a minimum of squealing tires and bounces -- the oleo gear in the Champ really does make non-bouncing arrivals easier than they should be -- and taxied to the fuel tank.
It was 1:30 when I shut down the engine, and I decided I should probably eat my lunch at Tracy. After a moment of panic that I'd broken the fueling protocol when I forgot to press the START button (which apparently reset the counters), a guy in an official-looking truck pulled up, and we looked helplessly at the squat industrial boxes as he explained that the person who actually knew the system was out. Then, minutes after I thought it should have happened, the self-serve console beeped and printed out my receipt. It listed the correct amount, about 11 gallons. We both heaved a sigh of relief. I asked him about bathrooms, and he pointed to a trailer with PUBLIC RESTROOMS printed on it in big bold letters, and when asked about lunching shelters, pointed to a covered picnic table. Good enough for me. I had my supermarket lunch of bread and cheese and a brownie as I listened to the ravens cawing at each other from lamppost to fence. The trailer bathrooms were, miracle of miracles, air conditioned and pleasantly cool.
A cool construction that gave every house waterfront access
Norbert's tires lost contact with Tracy's runway at 2:45 pm, and I aimed our path towards Willows (WLW), where I'd stopped on the way down. The path was quite different, coming from Tracy as I was, and I found myself flying over a fascinating series of canals and waterways, including the one pictured above, which seemed to provide a large number of houses, each with its own dock jutting out into the water. The water around the houses was connected to all these canals and waterways, which seemed to stretch in a network for miles and miles.
Eventually, I left the waterways behind me, as I listened to Ruby 1 ripping the jacket off Rodant Kapoor, button by button and piece by piece, as he emceed a concert on live holovision, to his complete spluttering displeasure. It was understandable: poor Ruby had been attacked by the Slimeys, genetically engineered assassins, and one of them said Rodant had hired them. What a pickle for poor Rodant, framed by Horace Wimpy!
Willows was just as I had left it. As I came in, a Cherokee coming from the southeast tried to sneak in front of me, but gave up when he realized we were trying to land on conflicting runways, and he hadn't spotted me yet. I didn't have him in sight either, but I had him on the traffic display, and after we'd both landed he came up to ask what I was using that had allowed me to see his location. I showed him my tablet and Stratux box. He admitted to feeling a bit rusty, and I congratulated him on not landing on runway 31 like he'd been planning on, since it would have been a 5+ knot downwind landing (downwind landings can dramatically increase landing distance, and it's pretty easy to run off the end of the runway doing them; pilots who want to have long flying carers avoid downwind landings if at all possible). When I departed Willows shortly thereafter, I chose runway 13, the opposite direction of 31, as the one best aligned with the wind.
I launched from Willows as quickly as possible, mostly because it was still beastly hot: 35° C, 95° F. In fact, we left the ground at 5:10 pm to fly our final leg of the day, to Ashland. Since the planned flight time was only a bit over two and a half hours, I felt confident we would be able to make it before sunset. Surprised it had all worked so well, but confident nonetheless.
Mt. Shasta with considerably less smoke obscuring its flanks
The flight to Ashland was livened up by a call from air traffic control as I was passing Mt. Shasta: there was a much faster plane behind me, on exactly the same path (a logical rubber-band-line between airports). He asked me to divert, and I found myself briefly aimed straight west instead of the north I had been going. I finally spotted the plane as it passed me by, a thousand feet below off my right wing and, indeed, going much faster. In the monocular, it looked like it might be a Cherokee, although your basic Cherokee isn't that much faster than the Champ.
Air traffic control lost radar contact with me as I descended toward the Ashland airport (as expected), and let me loose to fend for myself. I had a moment where my brain couldn't make sense of the scene in front of me before it snapped into mental focus, and I saw that the Ashland airport was still behind a hill. I thanked them (as always) for their help, and landed at Ashland a whole fifteen minutes before sunset. I felt like I was losing my razors-edge timing.
Sunset as seen over Norbert's nose
I fueled up and picked a spot far from the sodium lights, strategically placing Norbert between tent and rotating beacon for the night. It was a better setup than the first time through.
As I ate my dinner at Skinner Aviation's picnic table, a gent walked by with his dog, and we ended up chatting for an hour. He had spent many years living in Ballard, the same neighborhood I live in now, and we discovered that we're both theater folks, he being employed working in the scene shop for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. It was a delightful end to a long but fulfilling day of flying my plane from Los Angeles to Ashland.
And now I've broken the rule of internet articles which ask a question as their headline, by answering "yes:" a Champ can, in fact, fly from LA to Ashland in one day.
Sun, 20 Aug 2017
The crop duster takes on his 500 gallons(!) of pesticide while Norbert wakes up
The Grapevine (as I understood it at the time -- research now suggests I've got the wrong name) is a range of mountains that stretches roughly east-west north of Los Angeles. As I chatted with the crop duster pilot that already-hot morning at Mefford Field in Tulare, CA, he casually mentioned, "Are you worried about going over the Grapevine?"
Well, I hadn't been, until he mentioned it.
I had, as expected, slept poorly at Mefford Field. Between the heat and the freeway noise (somewhat attenuated by wearing earplugs, but that introduced its own discomfort), I woke up frequently, and slept only lightly. Still, I did sleep, and I didn't feel particularly tired when the brightening sky woke me up around 6.
The other thing that had woken me up was some variety of large truck trundling by, its diesel engine loud against the backdrop of commuters on the freeway. It pulled up and parked nearby, and I figured it would be prudent to get up and see if I'd inadvertently parked the plane in the way of someone's activities for the day. A man popped his head around my plane, and I asked if I was in the way; he said no, but that they were about to make a whole lot of noise.
I arose to see a tanker truck parked 30 feet away, with a caged area in back where a man in white coveralls was already busily mixing something from slickly packaged white cardboard boxes. My suspicion was confirmed when one of the crop dusters rolled up, its big turbine motor screaming oddly as it idled. The gent in the coveralls dragged a big hose over and attached it to a port on the plane. Pesticides. I thought it was hilarious that they were packed up in very clean, white boxes with a colorful swoosh on the side, looking like packaging for shoes or industrial toilet paper more than semi-controversial chemicals.
I ended up chatting with the ground support guy and the pilot both, at different times. The ground guy was talkative, and was much easier to talk to, since the plane wasn't sitting there screaming for most of our chat. The pilot seemed very nice, though between his noise-cancelling headphones and my earplugs against the turbine noise, we said relatively little to each other.
Then he made his comment about crossing the Grapevine, and I started worrying that maybe I was taking the whole thing too lightly. I walked behind their hangar to escape the noise, and made my requisite call to Flight Services to check the weather.
It was great in the San Joaquin valley, where I was, but in the Los Angeles basin, there was a heavy overcast, and the briefer didn't think it would burn off until 11 am or later. It would take me most of my flying time before I would encounter the overcast, so this wasn't a huge deal, but it meant I couldn't really start the trip in earnest for a couple of hours from that point.
Mefford Field, although many things, was not a place I felt like hanging around for a few hours. I googled up "california airports with restaurants" or something, and found that Bakersfield Muni (L45) in Bakersfield had a cafe attached that sounded interesting: the Rocket Cafe. Bakersfield was just about an hour's flight from Tulare, so I packed myself up and alighted into the intangible aether at 9 am almost to the second.
A town amidst the fields, somewhere north of Bakersfield
The flight to Bakersfield was uneventful, and I passed the time by listening to Ruby 2, a somewhat inscrutable sci-fi radio drama from the 1980s that my brother and I used to listen to. Every so often, Bakersfield Approach or Norcal Approach would interrupt the story with a radio call, but since I've had the story memorized for decades, this was no real impediment.
Land in the San Joaquin valley seems to be largely given over to agriculture, which makes sense for an enormous flat plain with lots of sun and reasonable access to water. Occasional towns dot the landscape, connected by long threads of freeways.
Eventually Bakersfield hove into view, and I navigated around Meadows Field (BFL) to the smaller Bakersfield Muni, a few flight-minutes further south. I dropped down and taxied into the parking area for the Rocket Cafe.
The Cafe itself is a large room with a bar, many tables, and profuse displays of sports memorabilia. Pretty much what you'd expect from an airport bar. I ordered an omelette with hashbrowns and a glass of orange juice as I continued reading the pulp WWI book I'd picked up for my brother David, who's researching for a story set in an alternate WWI timeline.
An hour and a half after shutting down the engine, I was firing it up again, wondering how slow the takeoff would be in the heat of a Bakersfield summer day (about 100° F; answer: not substantially worse than all the other fields I'd departed in the high 90s). Breakfast sat comfortably in my belly, and the weather reports around LA had shown complete improvement, so there was nothing to stop me from continuing with the trip (but the air conditioning in the restaurant was sure nice, and I took the opportunity to charge a radio that had been doing excellent work).
I-5 running straight as an arrow toward the pass south of Bakersfield
As I flew toward the mountains, I realized that there was no way I was going to climb high enough to be comfortable before I reached them, so I started doing the flying equivalent of switchbacks, zig-zagging over the valley trying to gain altitude. I initially aimed for 7500 feet, but eventually climbed up to 9500 as the mountains loomed larger.
Because I was so high, the actual traversal of the mountains was completely uneventful, though Norbert's oil temperature was creeping higher with every climb, so I was keeping an eye on it in the heat. I tried to spot the handful of airports that the map showed were present, but only saw one or two. My ability to recognize airports improved noticeably during the trip, but Agua Dulce (L70) remained hidden to me.
The final pass, with LA in the hazy distance
I told my air traffic controller that I would start my descent as I passed over the final mountain toward Burbank, but he had me stay high to allow jet traffic to pass under me. That was an odd feeling, to be flying over the jets in a Champ. I had several altitude holds as I descended toward El Monte (EMT), my final destination. The LA airspace is quite busy.
Finally I was allowed down, and made the approach to El Monte. The tower told me to turn for the base turn into landing over the 210, but since I didn't know where that was (I was directly over it, as it happened), his explanation delayed me until it made more sense to make a straight-in approach. I landed at El Monte and shut down at 1:06 pm, 48 hours and six minutes, and 15.8 flight hours, after I'd departed Harvey Field in Snohomish.
Flying with David
Norbert on the ground at El Monte
My brother has never flown with me before. Since he lives in LA, and I live in Seattle, the factors have never come together before. Additionally, he's preparing to write a story about a plucky young woman who successfully flies a WWI era monoplane against all odds as part of her adventure, and I've been consulting with him on technical aspects of the airplanes and tech in the story. It was completely logical that we should go for a flight together to put some of the theory we'd been talking into practice.
We drove to the airport (a day and a half, and one very welcome shower, after my arrival), and I gave him the preflight speech as we drove. Which control does what, what to do in a variety of foreseeable emergencies, the order of events and what to expect, etc. We went over the plane, and I gave him a narrated preflight inspection. It was all good material for the book.
We strapped in and called the tower for takeoff clearance. I had reset the video camera to record full-speed video, so that he could have a visual reminder of what we'd done. Unfortunately it's not set up to record our intercom audio, which is too bad. We took off to the south, and followed the traffic pattern to depart the area to the northeast. The air was bumpy from all the heat rising off the pavement, though not unusually so.
I had forgotten, in the many years since we were children, that David used to get seasick on the sailboat we had. It briefly crossed my mind that morning, but I forgot to mention it in the preflight discussion. It turns out this sensitivity hasn't changed.
We flew over to the practice area east of El Monte, and discussed the various features on the ground. He mentioned he was feeling a bit ill, so I decided we would avoid the more strenuous maneuvers I'd been planning to demonstrate -- nothing aggressive, but steep turns can be tough on the ol' motion sickness.
I demonstrated a power-off stall (David's wife had given me a very disapproving look when I mentioned we'd try stalls, and I had to explain why it was safe, and wasn't as bad as it probably sounded; in brief, a stall makes the wings fly less efficiently, but if you do it a couple thousand feet in the air, it's simple to recover from, and offers basically no danger -- it's something every student pilot learns to do early on). I demonstrated a power-on stall. David said, "Oh, I think I'm gonna throw up," and I heard him anxiously opening up one of the airsick bags helpfully tucked into a little pocket directly in front of the passenger. The mic went quiet for a minute, then he returned, saying, "Ugh, but I feel better now."
We decided to return to the airport and land, to reassess if it made any sense to continue flying. We were quickly down, and David said he felt better, so I restarted the motor and we went up again, with the goal of giving him at least a few minutes of stick time. Before we'd even made it to pattern altitude, another bag came out, and I called the tower back to ask for a return to the lovely, stable ground.
He felt bad for cutting the flight short, but I assured him it was no trouble: through the previous owner's foresight, there were airsick bags ready for use, and the only downside to the adventure from my point of view was that I had two fewer airsick bags now. I felt bad that the motion was bad enough to make him sick, but there was no way to control it in that situation. It's too bad we didn't go flying on the previous, overcast day, simply because the air probably would have been calmer. But, as he said, hindsight is 20/20. He was still able to get up in the air, and despite getting ill, had a good time. Who knows, maybe his plucky young woman adventurer will also suffer a bout of airsickness, now.
Sat, 19 Aug 2017
In the previous episode, I described getting myself from the Seattle area to Ashland, OR.
Hint: my tent is in the corner
I didn't sleep well in Ashland, overwhelmed by the sound of crickets and cars occasionally driving by on the road behind the airport. I was too warm to start, and then too cold until I woke up and dragged the sleeping bag over me. The sky started lightening around 5:30, and I was thoroughly awake by 6.
I'd planted the tent in front of a parking spot for the Brim Aviation hangar. As I was making my somewhat bleary way to upright, someone parked further down the lot, and came over, asking if he could help me (I had the impression he thought I was homeless). I explained that I was flying through and had sought a dark place to sleep, and he laughed. He said it was a good thing I was up, because they were about to get really busy with fire-fighting flights.
I finished packing myself up, and got the weather briefing on the phone (I was pleased to find that the terrible cell coverage I'd expected was actually pretty good, particularly once I was on the ground). Nothing of note except the smoke, which was going strong from a number of local fires. Norbert looked surprisingly majestic in the early-morning light as I packed up and got myself ready to go.
Norbert in the sunrise light
I got myself oriented, and taxied out to runway 12, surprising a deer as I went. It bounded over a wire fence, then turned to look at me curiously as I trundled past in my green and black plane. I lined up on the runway, and launched at 8:18 am. Someone had called on the advisory frequency that there were a pair of heavy military helicopters transiting the area, and they passed me by as I climbed away from Ashland, making altitude to get over the pass just south of town.
Two heavy military helicopters passed me by
Up and over the pass -- for some reason, it was really fascinating to see the roadworks under me as I flew over I-5 -- and into the valley beyond, for my first tantalizing view of Mt. Shasta. The smoke was pretty heavy, and I ended up climbing all the way up to 9500 feet (the highest altitude I aimed for on this trip, though I reached it several times) to get clear of the smoke. The smoke continued to have its interesting scent, but I blew my nose orange afterwards, so I think I'm happier to have not lingered there.
The route that I-5 follows after Ashland is well defined by a series of distinct small mountains to the east. I had a vague impression that they might have been formed by a giant putting down a series of toy mountains and arranging them for a pleasing visual effect. Of course, I viewed all this through a layer of smoke, and the haziness contributed to the dreamlike feeling of it.
Onward and upward. I finally reached 9500 feet, and leveled out to cruise above the smooth white layer of smoke. I noticed an odd optical illusion, where when I looked at something that I thought was level with me, evidence told me it was actually lower. For instance, I would have sworn the smoke layer was level with me as I passed Mt. Shasta, but I knew for a fact that it was between five hundred and a thousand feet below me. The illusion was particularly strong when looking at mountain peaks. I'd spot one that I was sure I'd smack into if I flew over it, and on the chart it said the actual elevation was two thousand feet below me.
Mt. Shasta from 9500 feet, civilization just visible below
Once past Mt. Shasta (which has its own weather station, that I tuned into as I passed), it was over the many-tentacled Shasta Lake, and on to the broad, flat valley that starts at Redding, and continues south all the way to the Grapevine mountains that spread north of LA.
My next stop was at Willows (WLW), which I had initially (ha!) planned to be my first day's stop. It took me nearly 3 hours to fly from Ashland to Willows, and although I could have done it had I launched exactly on schedule, I'm really glad I didn't. The remainder of the flight to Willows was unremarkable except for one thing: the temperature inversion.
As I descended into Willows, the temperature on my $6 aquarium thermometer (with the temperature probe jammed into the little fresh-air vent around ankle level), the temperature slowly climbed from about 20° C at altitude to the high 20s, then there was a palpable spike. I wasn't looking at the meter as I descended, but I could feel it as I passed into the inversion. Suddenly it seemed like it was 10° C hotter.
Willows, CA (WLW)
On the ground in Willows, it was hot and dry. I pulled up to the self serve tank, and filled the plane up. I had been in communication with Glenn, who I was hoping to visit in Placerville (PVF), both to meet him, and to see his airplane. As you can read elsewhere, I'm just starting on a project to build a Marquart Charger biplane, and Glenn is a huge proponent of the type online. When he moved to California as I was planning this trip, it was obvious I'd have to stop in.
So, I launched from Willows just past 11:30 am, and climbed to 7500 feet, as much to escape the heat as anything else. I flew past Sutter Butte, which is an odd sight in the middle of the otherwise completely flat plains of the valley. I had to give Beale Air Force Base a wide berth, as they had a Temporary Flight Restriction around the field, which seems to be pretty much perpetual. Once I was around that, it was direct to Placerville.
Placerville is somewhere in them thar hills
The approach to Placerville was hillier than I'd been expecting. The map shows that it's in the foothills of the mountains, but somehow it doesn't make clear just how hilly it really is. As I dropped down once I was finally sure I had the field in sight (I didn't want to lose altitude until I was sure where I was going to land: the Champ is not a quick climber), I traded radio calls with someone else who was departing, and fought the controls a bit as the wind tossed me around. I braced myself for a difficult landing. It was on the "handful" side of the "easy-peasy:handful" spectrum, but manageable.
As I was tying the plane down, I got a text on my phone: "We're sitting at Norbert's ten o'clock in the open hangar." I walked over and shook hands with Glenn and his wife Judi, and we immediately started into the biplane talk. We've been conversing online for many months as I've sorted out what kind of biplane I wanted to build, and we were immediately comfortable talking planes.
Glenn showed me over his plane, and some of the special touches the builder put in. I sat in the cockpit and noted how I fit -- generally pretty well, though the rudder pedals were a bit closer than I really wanted them, but it's simple enough to get them placed properly while building. My plane will definitely have the pedals in the right spot, and I will hopefully build them in such a way that they can be moved for different pilots (though perhaps not easily).
Glenn kept glancing apprehensively at the windsock on the runway, and I could see why. It would swing back and forth between running directly down the runway (good) and straight across the runway (bad). The fact that it was variable was the worst part of the situation, though. It would make landings in the comparatively twitchy Charger somewhere between "handful" and "disastrous" on the ol' spectrum. "Easy-peasy" was not in the offing. So we decided to go to lunch instead. We had a lovely Mexican lunch at the base of the hill on which the Placerville airport is perched.
Back at the airport, the weather had calmed just enough that Glenn was willing to go flying, so he prepped the plane and pulled it out. I slipped on the flying helmet and goggles, he fired up the engine, and we taxied out to the runway.
The takeoff was interesting: the movements of the plane were much more sharp and definite than the Champ. The tail raised abruptly, and we lifted off very definitely, with none of the "yeah, sure, I guess" feeling the Champ conveys. Of course, it's got 60 additional HP (150 vs. the Champ's 90), and only weighs a hundred or two hundred pounds more.
We climbed for a minute or two, chatting over the intercom as we flew. My microphone was quiet, so I found myself covering the mic with my hand and leaning forward to avoid the wind noise that constantly threatened to drown me out.
Glenn gave me control of the plane, and I did some gentle maneuvers -- we were both feeling full of heavy Mexican food, so aerobatics were definitely not in the cards -- getting a feel for the plane. For the short time that I flew it, it was very pleasant and really just felt like an airplane. There was nothing surprising about it, it just did what I asked it to do. I wasn't willing to wrench it around between my lack of experience and our full bellies, but my time at the stick was pleasant.
I noticed that I also felt much more in control than my last open-cockpit flight, in Oregon with Dave in his Starduster. Not that anything was substantially different beween the Charger and the Starduster; I think the big difference was between my ears. I was much more mentally prepared this time, I think.
When we were back down, they offered me a place for the night in their spare room, which was a very tempting offer (particularly as I thought back on the night half-awake in a tent in Ashland). However, I felt a powerful urge to keep moving: LA was still over 300 miles away, and I needed to cover more distance.
So, I bade them a fond farewell, and went back to my plane. I filled it up with gas as the wind gusted around me, and taxied out to the runway. Glenn and Judi were right behind me, bound for an ice cream social at a nearby airpark. It was funny to watch their short flight on my ADS-B display, which shows a map overlaid with my route, and other airplanes in the air around me. I took off just before 5:30 pm and aimed myself southward for somewhere between Fresno and Bakersfield.
My destination wasn't exactly set in stone. I'd targeted Porterville (PTV), which has the cheapest fuel in the area, but the GPS remained insistent that I would arrive about 15 minutes after sundown. Since the plane isn't legal to fly at night, I considered my other options. Cell coverage came and went at random in the air, and I tried several times to look up the local airports online as I flew. I finally got my search result back, and decided on very little information to try for Mefford Field (TLR) in Tulare. The fuel price (five cents per gallon higher than PTV) was the only definite fact I had, but I assumed based on its size and location that there would be facilities like a bathroom available. The GPS said I'd be there just before sunset, so I decided that was good enough.
Flying a plane built in 1956 when you're my size is always a compromise. Planes were built for the size of the average person at the time, which was about a 5' 7" man who weighed 150 lbs. I am... larger than this. The problem I was really running into was that my legs are longer than the stretch to the pedal was designed to accomodate. Add to this that my body has started getting painfully stiff in the knees if I sit in one position for too long, and there was a recipe for some trouble.
I had discovered as I flew down to Ashland that I could cross my legs around the control stick, though this left the problem of cruise rudder: the plane needs a pretty constant 3 or so pounds of pressure on the right rudder pedal. It's not a lot, but if it's not there, the plane flies a bit crooked (or "uncoordinated" in pilots' parlance). An uncoordinated plane is basically flying with one side to the wind, which makes everything less efficient and increases drag by a lot.
The thing I realized as I sat there with crossed legs was that the rudder pedals for the passenger (who sits behind the pilot) are right next to the pilot's seat. I could drop my hands right onto the rudder pedal on either side of my seat. So, I just added that rudder pressure with my right hand while I flew with my left. It was hard to coordinate the controls, but I worked on it as I flew and slowly got better.
Crossed legs didn't solve the problem that I really wanted to straighten my legs, but at least it resolved the issue of keeping my knees in only one position for the entire flight.
I think those are house boats
Flying over the hills toward Mefford, I passed a number of lakes that seemed to have a series of house boats on them. There was no obvious way to get to or from the house boats, so I'm not sure what the deal was with them. Perhaps there was some kind of water taxi available.
I had a small monocular (basically a compact telescope) with me, and it came in handy any number of times to identify things on the ground, or occasionally other planes. Telescopic examination of the little white dots on the lake suggested they were house boats, mostly because I couldn't imagine what else would be shaped that way.
Soon enough I was past the hills and back out over the flat valley plain. It was another race with the sun, but the sun had a dirty trick up its sleeve: as I went further south, sunset got earlier and earlier. Still, I was once again able to get my wheels on the ground a few minutes before the sun completely disappeared below the horizon.
Norbert faced by a large crop duster the next morning
Mefford Field was not really what I was expecting, though it made perfect sense for where I was. There was a self-serve tank, and I'd noted a sign for Johnston Aviation pointing the opposite direction of where I was going. But other than that, there was a small crowd of very distinctive looking agricultural spraying planes: crop dusters, and not much else. There was no FBO (fixed base operator, the jargon for the typical pilot services business found on most airstrips), and it became increasingly obvious that I would have no access to a bathroom. I picked a tiedown spot that was further away from the lights, and noted with interest the dust skittering away in the wind as I pulled the chains out of their recesses in the pavement to hook the plane to the ground.
Tied down, I pitched my tent, suddenly aware of the noise of the freeway only a couple hundred feet away. The pavement radiated heat, adding to the heat that was already in the air -- I took a picture with the thermometer in the background, blurrily showing what I think is 37° C (98° F). I am not a great fan of heat, and I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable night. I thought harder about finding a hotel in nearby Tulare (pronounced "to-larry"), but laziness overcame me. I washed my face off at a hose attached to one of the hangars, and did my best to sleep on my thankfully insulated sleeping pad.
Fri, 18 Aug 2017
Last year, I took a long cross-country flight in a rented Piper Warrior, from Seattle to Mono Lake in California, just east of Yosemite National Park, about as far south as San Francisco. It was a cool trip, but it was breathtakingly expensive at $130 per hour plus tax.
So this year, when I found myself the owner of a 1956 Champion 7EC (known affectionately as Norbert, after the dragon hatched by Hagrid in the first Harry Potter story), it occurred to me that I should look at another long cross-country. I fixed my sights on Los Angeles, so that I could visit my brother: we rarely get to spend any time together, and when we do, it's always in the context of a family gathering like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I just returned from the flight (like, this evening -- I should be taking a shower and going to bed, instead I'm sitting here writing), and wanted to relay some of the more interesting parts.
I planned to take a week to make the trip: I'd fly down on Saturday and Sunday, hopefully stopping in Placerville to visit a friend who has a Marquart Charger biplane. David (my brother) and I would hang out for a couple of days, go flying, etc., and I'd return later in the week, again taking two days. I'd take a week off from work to accomplish all this, and hopefully have a few days at the end to recuperate.
As the time was running out to my week's scheduled vacation, Seattle welcomed (if that's the right term) a choking haze of forest fire smoke from nearly 100 fires burning in the interior of British Columbia to the north. I tried going flying the weekend before I was to leave, and basically had to turn around and land after half an hour -- the smoke just kept getting thicker, until I didn't feel I could safely fly through it any more. I just couldn't see well enough.
So there was some anxiety about my ability to leave on Saturday morning as planned. Fortunately, the weather seemed to be on my side, and late Friday night, a westerly wind came in and started clearing the smoke. Of course, in its place, it left a low overcast, so my start on Saturday was still delayed for three hours, waiting for the clouds to lift a bit.
Packed to the gills, I say!
I was eventually able to take off on Saturday, the plane packed relatively to the gills with Stuff: I was planning to pitch a tent next to the plane on my overnight stops rather than finding a hotel and doing all the phoning and taxicab riding necessary for that eventuality. I'd realized when I got to the detailed planning that there was no way I'd make it to LA in two days if I was going to stop and hang out to talk biplanes for half a day, so the plan was now to stop the first day in Ashland, near the Oregon-California border, and again somewhere in the valley, between Fresno and Bakersfield.
Norbert, being a Champ 7EC, is not what you would call a speed demon. In perfect conditions, it cruises at about 85 MPH. If you're trying to burn all the gas as fast as possible, it'll cruise up to 105 MPH, but the plane is perceptibly unhappy at that speed. So I banked on about 85, forgetting about (or, perhaps, imagining improbably favorable) wind.
Downtown Seattle is somewhere out there in the haze
So, I launched in the early afternoon of Saturday. The smoke was still a distinct presence as I left, and it would become a running theme of the trip.
I ended up recording time-lapse video of the entire trip, which will be posted later, once I've had a chance to catch my breath a bit.
The first leg would take me from Snohomish, north of Seattle, to Stark's Twin Oaks Airpark (7S3; every airport has a code, like SEA for SeaTac, or PDX for Portland International), in Hillsboro, OR. I had planned on about two and a half hours, and it ended up taking almost three. I planned to fly the route at 9500 feet to save fuel (the plane is more efficient the higher it flies) without giving sufficient thought to the wind at different altitudes. I averaged 70 MPH on that leg. The only reason it went any faster than driving a car is that I could fly in a straight line, and didn't have traffic to deal with.
Mt. Rainier in smoke
Once at Twin Oaks, I fueled up and ate half the sandwich I'd brought. After too much dithering, I bought a quart of oil after I used the quart I'd brought with me, then I was off again, bound for Roseburg (RBG).
The flight down to Roseburg was unremarkable, except for the continued presence of the smoke. There were particular altitudes where it was concentrated the strongest, and flying through them smelled like someone had turned campfire smoke into a candy, and I was smelling the result. It was pleasant and nostalgic and vaguely disturbing all at the same time.
Dashcam shot of the industrial fuel pumps at RBG as I taxied up
Roseburg was a cool little airport, just off I-5, and tucked neatly between all the hills. As I flew the traffic pattern to come in for a landing, I was very nearly level with some rich-looking houses on a hill west of the field. I found myself wondering if those rich people had expected to have ratty small plane pilots looking in their windows all day, when they bought their fancy house on the hill. Refuelling at Roseburg was bizarre, as the fuel pump looked like something designed by a Windows 95 screensaver, and it took me almost ten minutes to figure out how to actually ground the plane, turn on the pump, and pump my gas. The only reason I made it under ten minutes is there was an airport geezer (this is a term of affection for people who hang out at airports watching the planes come and go) who came over and offered his insights into the industrial-looking system. I regret not taking a picture, but I was in a hurry. (Update: found a shot of it in the time-lapse footage!)
Norbert is an odd plane in one way: it has navigation lights and a landing light, but it doesn't have a rotating beacon or strobe light. You need at least nav and either beacon or strobe to be legal to fly at night, so Norbert is not technically night-legal. There's no one around who would bust me for it, but I make every effort to not fly in the dark.
A smoky sunset from the air near Ashland
The reason I was in a hurry leaving Roseburg was that by my calculations, I could just barely reach Ashland (S03) by sunset, which is the legal limit for this plane. I'd previously called the airport, and gotten permission to pitch a tent there (other airports I called all gave me a very CYA "no camping allowed" response, with various poorly-reasoned excuses offered along with the official policy).
So I poured on the meager coal (Norbert is not a powerhouse), and shaved a corner off my flight from Roseburg to Ashland: I'd planned to follow I-5 (giving me a convenient if highly dangerous emergency landing strip -- I plan every flight for the contingency of the engine giving out, since I've only got one), which would have meant flying to Grants Pass (3S8), then onward to Medford (MFR) and Ashland. I decided instead to go up to 9500 feet, giving me extra clearance over the mountain peaks, and fly directly from Roseburg to Medford. I lost the safety net of having the freeway nearby, but it meant I would make it to Ashland before sunset.
Once I was committed to my path, I started to question my own judgement. The smoke was pretty thick, and the sun angling through it from near the horizon made it completely opaque to the west. I could still see to the south, in my direction of travel, but when I looked west to spot the comforting ribbon of I-5, the smoke shook its proverbial head and said, DENIED! I pressed onward.
Rogue Valley International through the smoke
It was with some relief that I spotted Medford's Rogue Valley International Airport (MFR). The mountains I crossed to get there were particularly forbidding-looking in the smoke. I told Air Traffic Control that I was going to descend to below the smoke deck, since the remaining distance to Ashland would pass quickly. I kept glancing behind me and at the clock, and managed to get wheels down in Ashland just as the sun dipped below the horizon. I was within a minute of arriving too late. After having left Seattle three hours late, I was astounded the timing had worked out so well.
I gassed up the plane and pitched my tent behind a hangar, trying to get myself away from all the sodium-vapor lights around the airport, and the rotating beacon (a green and white rotating light that advertises a land airport to the night flyer, but also sweeps the airport grounds every few seconds). The Ashland layout was pretty nice: there was a bathroom available, and the tiedown fee was a mere $7 per night. There was even a picnic table, at which I had the other half of my sandwich for a late dinner.
It was with contentment at my accomplishment that I lay my weary head down to sleep, and listened to the crickets going mad in the dark around me.
Tue, 18 Apr 2017
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.
Fri, 30 Dec 2016
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.
Just a sliiiiight jump there in 2016.
Tue, 27 Dec 2016
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:
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,
NOTE: when you see
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.
Thu, 22 Dec 2016
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.
Fri, 02 Dec 2016
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).
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.
Sat, 26 Nov 2016
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.
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.
Sun, 30 Oct 2016
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).
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.
Sun, 11 Sep 2016
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.
Written by Ian Johnston. Software is Blosxom. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.