Monday, July 27, 2009

I Think You Guys Are Crazy

It was a promising-looking day at the gliderport, and Tim, Ron, and I were rigging our gliders. Well, Tim and Ron were rigging, I am still pretty inept. We know that the only cure for that is to fly more often.

Tim and Ron got there before me, and Tim was talking to a stranger about soaring. He was patiently explaining how we did things and how our club worked. From his conversation, the guy sounded like a pilot. "I've been in 2000 foot-per-minute downdrafts east of the Wellsvilles," he said, actually pointing at the Wellsvilles.

But he didn't look like a pilot. That's hard to do: pilots are a pretty mixed bunch. In my career as a flight instructor, I've had the privilege to fly with people from every walk of life. Well, not every: I can't remember flying with any doctors. I wonder what that means?

So, it's hard not to look like a pilot. I could describe his hair, and mustache, and build, but that would be useless because I can think of lots of pilots with his hair, or his mustache, or his build, or, come to think of it, any hair style, mustache, or build. I've flown with walrus mustaches, Fu Manchus, Boston Blackies, Errol Flynns, and some British Army waxed jobs. Nothing remarkable. And my personal hair style has varied from long and curly to bald to ponytailed and back to bald.

What was it about this guy? I finally realized that he was shirtless. Now, in America, a shirtless man on a hot day is a common sight, except at airports. And it's not that pilots are a modest bunch, as I am sure you know. But in all my years of flying (and AOPA just sent me my [gulp] 25-year-membership pin), I can remember exactly one shirtless flight, between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket in my Mooney.

We had been on the Vineyard for a few days and had settled into the island mentality. When my friend's cousin mentioned that his son would be arriving at Nantucket, we said "We'll go get him!" We jumped in the Mooney and launched. I was wearing a swimsuit and flip flops. We crossed the channel at 1000', admiring the clear water. We landed in Nantucket, threw the kid on board, switched seats so my partner could fly, and flew back to the Vineyard. My log says 0.4 hours, MVY to ACK. But clearly this was an exception to my usual over-preparation for any flight. It was only when we got back to Jerry's house and I saw my wallet on the mantle that I realized I had flown without a pilot or medical certificate. Geesh, what a loser.

[For the Red Board types out there, we paid for the flight.]

In fact, I can only remember a handful of flights wearing short pants, except in gliders. This is not modesty(hang around at the start of a triathlon to see how immodest people can be), or formality. It's fear of fire.

What they say is that clothing protects you from a flash fire, although not from an extended fire. So, no shorts when I fly.

Come to think of it, our guy was wearing shorts, too. He really didn't look like a pilot.

But I fly gliders in shorts all the time. The reason? No fuel means no fireball if something goes wrong. I usually wear a long sleeve shirt, though, for sun protection.

The conversation drifted in and out, and I was hoping that I might get a little flying out of it, giving him a demo ride. Then he said it:

"You guys are crazy to fly without an engine."

I don't know what got into me. I wasn't thinking about fire at the time, but I was thinking about energy. "An engine turns chemical energy into kinetic energy or potential energy, right?" I asked.

"Right," he agreed.

"And what organ of the body uses the most energy?"

"The brain." He had obviously thought about this a little, his answer was quick.

"And that's our engine," I said. "We've got our brains."

"You guys are crazy," he repeated, and went back to talk with the others. He wasn't insulted or anything; he really thinks we're crazy. I guess it's mutual; I think flying without a shirt is crazy, too.

Tim and Ron, more experienced than me, released below 2000' above the ground. They got high and headed off cross-country. This was only my fifth flight in my glider, so I took a high tow. But I never got high; I spent 3 hours moving from thermal to thermal within gliding range of the airport. Not a bad flight. I have 11.3 hours in the Jantar, an average of about 2.3 hours per flight. And I still have a lot to learn.

Ron landed about an hour after me, and Tim came in a little later. Tim did his racing finish: he did a low pass on runway 35, the air screaming and his wings wiggling from the load, pulled up, and landed on runway 10.

And that was the only crazy thing about the day.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Java Jive

I'm a tea drinker; I've always been a tea drinker. I'll always be a tea drinker. "Very few situations in life can't be fixed by a nice hot cup of tea," I say.

But I enjoy a good cup of coffee. Even my favorite coffee shop fails miserably at making tea, but they make great coffee.

So I've always been intrigued by the airport at Tea, South Dakota (Y14). Listen to the Ink Spots while I tell you about it. There are lots of versions of The Java Jive on YouTube, but Tea is one of those timeless airports you always hear about. The Ink Spots fit the era.

Tea is the closest airport to my sister-in-law's house, and she has been suggesting that we stop instead of Sioux Falls. You know how it goes: the big airport has certain guaranteed services, but the fuel prices are higher and when you go into the FBO lobby all you see are office people dressed for office work. The old FBO in Sioux Falls was even called "Business Aviation;" No right-thinking EAA member would go there. Of course you can be fooled, too; this nice Sonerai is on display in the terminal at Casper, Wyoming (KCPR),

Last year we tried, but Tea is a VFR airport and it was an IFR day. This year's weather was a lot better.

I called ahead to make sure there would be fuel. There was, at the lowest price I've heard in quite a while. "Plenty of tiedowns," he said.

After an easy flight, Tea came into view. I entered the pattern and landed. My sister-in-law was waiting, and someone let her through the gate so we could unload the plane right into her car. That's a good sign. I walked over to the office, and somehow I knew before I got there that there would be a crowd in there, hanging around, watching us with curiosity.

A little dog leapt at my knees when I opened the door. "I'll bet you're in charge here," I said to the dog, and everyone laughed.

"No, that's Tyler, he's in charge," someone said, pointing to the line guy. "And he's our best instructor, too. Where'd you fly in from?"

And so we all got to talking. Where we came from, when was the last time one of them landed there, the weather, the Cherokee Six, a comparison between the Mooney one of the owned and the one I used to own, and on and on and on. "Here's the gatecode," someone said. "Oh, tomorrow morning's the EAA breakfast, be here before 9am." I felt more at home than I have ever felt at my home airport.

We talked long enough that my wife came into the office to tell me that the airplane was completely unpacked.

The next morning my daughter and I headed back for the EAA breakfast. Their EAA chapter is very active; someone said they had built 40 airplanes. Now I think that my EAA chapter is pretty special, too, but there's plenty of "special" to go around, and I was happy to see more of it. We had a nice breakfast and met some wonderful people and saw some neat airplanes.

Too often these days, stopping at the airport means seeing a lot of folks in business casual doing business. Not to belittle it; business is important. But that's all you see at my airport, unless you happen to drive by one of the hangars and find it open. I remember airports where people would routinely stop in after work to talk about airplanes and aviation, but I haven't seen one in a while. But Tea is one of them.

Are there more? Airnav only lists one airport when you search for "coffee." It's a hospital heliport. I think I'll skip it.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Practicing What I Preach

It's time for the annual family trip to my sister-in-law's farm in South Dakota. It's 700 nautical miles, and we take the Club's Cherokee Six, which trues about 140 knots. The Six is not the most comfortable airplane I have flown, but it can take the four of us and full fuel with capacity to spare. Full fuel is 84 gallons, which is well over 5 hours' worth, but nobody's bladder can make it that long.

So do I practice what I preach?

  • Current charts? Kind of: I couldn't find all of the sectionals I needed at the local pilot shops, so I used a WAC chart for part of the flight, supplemented by current instrument enroute charts. WAC charts don't show airspace. I had current approach plates for any airport we were remotely likely to use.

  • Weight and balance? Yes. I made the family wait on the ramp while I figured this. "Can we load yet?"

  • Checklists? Yes. I had my daughter read them to me.

  • Flight plans filed and opened? Yes. By the way, I like the DUATS email notification when the flight plan is transmitted to FSS.

  • Flight following? Sort of. The Idaho portion of the trip is below radar coverage, so none was avaiable. I called Casper approach 30 miles out, so got some coverage then. But then we left Casper naked. I monitored Center frequencies, but that was mostly for entertainment. For example:

    Aircraft: Center, your transmissions are getting pretty weak!
    ZLC: I have multiple transmitters, and the other plane is hundreds of miles away. How's this one?
    Aircraft: Loud and clear. [stage whisper] Sorry!

    Or another:

    ZDV: United 123, there's an F-16 going to pass on your left, he's got 100 knots on you." In other words, the F-16 was 100 knots faster.

    Oh, they're shooting F-16s out of Ellsworth AFB! I called Center and got flight following.

  • Navigation logs? Yup, I had navigation logs (one form the AOPA Internet Flight Planner, and one from DUATS.

  • But I used my handheld GPS (old, no moving map) for the whole trip. This got me thinking: what would I have done if the visibility had been, say, 6 miles? There would be no comfort in spotting the Black Hills 50 NM ahead, and pilotage across Wyoming is a real test of map interpretation skills. Those "rivers" on the left are often dry, although this year's extra rain has made the riparian area green and thus more visible form the air than I can ever remember. There are few roads, fewer cities, and even fewer public-use airports.

    So I know the answer: navigation in 6 miles visibility is just too hard. I would file IFR, even though the trip would be longer.

    The municipal airport where we landed has a few hangars with ag planes and one open hangar with a recently-restored Super Cub. You can see the city from the field but it's actually a good walk. I wandered around for a while looking for cell phone coverage, finding none ("More bars in more places?????"), but closed our flight plan using the phone in the pilot's lounge. The lounge consists of a table and chair, a phone, and a bathroom. It smells of uncured concrete. The bathroom light is on a timer; twist it to get 10 minutes of light, which should be more than enough, right? There are a few aviation magazines on the table. You've got to love it.

    Labels: , ,

    Sunday, July 12, 2009

    Flying in America (L'aviation aux Etats-Unis)

    Some French believe that France was the country that brought aviation into the world. "What about the Wright Brothers," people ask, incredulously. "Ah, an accident of history," is their reply.

    And while I am not a chauvinist (a word derived from the possibly apocryphal story of French soldier Nicolas Chauvin), I would like to see America get its due. Plus, if you are obsessed like I am, everything is related to aviation, and aviation is related to everything.

    For the record, I really like France. I have been there twice. I speak French well enough that I never hesitate to converse with people. I have never faced the arrogance other American francophones report. Both trips involved mathematical conferences, but once I did manage an hour of flying an Archer above les Callanques, the cliffs of the Mediterranean coast.

    Many years ago, I read Jules Verne's De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon). Verne was French, of course. One of the book's premises stuck with me: when you want to have something built, ask an American, because Americans can build everything. This corresponded to my observation of the American tendency to solve problems by building machines to do so. This perspective informs everything from the Grand Coullee Dam to Chicago politics ("the machine") to the Boeing 777. Not that Americans have a monopoly; I've made several flights on Air France's A340s, as a passenger, of course.

    I was reminded of all this by a remark by Lexington in this week's Economist. The Economist has no masthead, and none of the columnists are known by personal name. Each uses a nom de plume (another French phrase): Bagehot writes about England, Charlemagne writes about Europe, Lexington writes about the USA, and so forth. This was the last column for the current Lexington, and he compared his time in America with Alexis de Tocqueville's visit in 1831. de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, had noted that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults,” and Lexington praised this same virtue.

    What does all this have to do with aviation? de Tocqueville's remark reminds me of my philosophy that "all pilots make mistakes, but good pilots detect them sooner and fix them better." The greatness of society, its "ability to repair [its] faults" echoes the greatness of a superior PIC.

    So, a French author highlights America's greatness at building machines. Another sees the essence of good piloting in the nature of American society. No, the Wright Brothers were not an accident of history; the French themselves acknowledge America's superiority in aviation as a consequence of the American personality.

    This is not to malign France's contribution, going back to the Montgolfier Brothers' first manned flight, the airship triumphs of Alberto Santos Dumont (although, strictly speaking, he was from Brazil), and Blériot's first crossing of the English Channel. France brought us the Comet, and the beautiful Falcon jets from Dassault Aviation.

    Being magnanimous, I would offer to share the glory. But Verne and de Tocqueville have declined that honor. It's ours.

    Labels: , , , , ,

    Monday, July 6, 2009

    Don't They Get It?

    Fourth of July weekend came and went with no flying, although I must admit that there are other ways to have fun. Shocked? First there was some fishing, but we also had two nice bike rides in the Sun Valley area. You might recall that the Wright Brothers made bicycles. It's a long way from a bicycle to a Gulfstream 550...

    There were a couple of big Gulfstreams sitting on the ramp at Hailey (KSUN). And some Piaggios, Citation Ultras, Hawkers, King Air 300s, and even an old 20-series Lear. Checking Flight Aware showed a lot of jets headed to the Bay Area, San Diego, and the like. And those are only the ones whose owners haven't blocked their tail number to make them impossible to track. The picture is a drive-by, but you get the idea.

    Blocking is pretty common for big corporations. Blocking prevents prying eyes (but not all of them) from knowing the company's travel plans. They say this is for security, but you have probably come to recognize the ones that frequent your airport; it's easy to pair the tail number ending in AW to the big Amalgamated Widget plant nearby. Pressed, they say it's to keep the competition from divining corporate secrets. But it's easy enough for a competitor with a scanner to hear an airplane "...cleared to the San Jose airport via..." (they might even be able to listen to ATC online), so again the corporate secrets aren't very secret.

    I mentioned a blocked tail number in this post. The airplane involved (I was coy then, and will be coy again) was a corporate aircraft, but it was taking a bunch of couples with golf clubs to Someplace Really Nice and Far Away. And that's what these people don't get.

    That was in September, long before car company executives were unfairly chastised for using their corporate jets to go to DC to testify before Congress. Even if they were incompetent, it is clearly a tremendous waste of corporate resources to put someone whose time is valued (at least by someone) at $1000/hr into a car for a 12 hour drive. Back in September, before the backlash, we all understood this. But after the Detroit to DCA debacle, the utility of small turbine airplanes in general and corporate aviation in particular has been forgotten.

    The utility is obvious to me, but I know that many of my turboprop flights made the world a better place. I took patients to hospitals that were better equipped, I flew body parts from the scene of the motorcycle wreck to the waiting transplant recipient. I flew high cover, providing life-saving radio relays to wildland firefighters battling tough terrain. I flew teams of engineers to bid on contracts; they spread their plans out on the tables and strategized, in private and with their shoes on.

    And I flew wealthy grandmothers to visit their families far away. A good use of wealth, in my humble opinion.

    And now the business and turbine communities are fighting back, with campaigns like No Plane No Gain. There are lots of editorials in the magazines that are only read by corporate aviation managers, too, describing how frugal companies like Wal-Mart use corporate jets to improve the efficiency of their operations. And everything they say is true!

    So what's the problem? Look at the Sun Valley ramp on the Fourth of July, or at the departures from Aspen last Sunday. Try to park at Telluride on a ski weekend. You can't: those incredibly useful corporate jets (not Wal-Mart's) are clogging the ramp, taking people on vacation. And as long as those incredibly useful airplanes fill the best vacation spots in the country, the public will never forgive.

    Labels: ,