Sunday, April 19, 2015

To Rushford for chili!

Although N614EF and I haven't ventured to that many airports outside of Minnesota, it's hard to beat our two favorite ones in the competition for the "best airport ever" title.

Sky Harbor Airport in Duluth sits right on Lake Superior, is a 40-step walk from the beach, and is Minnesota's version of the famed -- and late -- Meigs Airport in Chicago. It's a place where my wife -- who is not overly excited by flying -- will go enthusiastically.

But there's one thing Sky Harbor doesn't have -- at least in our visits so far -- an unmatched gregariousness.

That's what separates Rushford Airport in southeast Minnesota apart.

It sits atop a bluff in "bluff country", offering lovely views of the surroundings below.

But it's the people we've met there that makes the 80-mile trip (by air) from South Saint Paul so rewarding.

Yesterday, I flew down for EAA Chapter 919's annual chili feed. The chapter is incorporated in Winona, but, according to one founding member, WONA isn't a very aviator-friendly spot, so many of their activities take place in Rushford. Good choice.

It's possible to camp on site and if you do, you can use the facilities -- a house, really -- at the airport terminal. Our host said if you want bikes, they'll bring theirs over.

Rushford used to have a courtesy car -- a Toyota -- but it died and they haven't convinced the town to pony up $1,000 or so for a new one. Too bad, because there are shops and restaurants in the region that visitors would most certainly patronize, if they had a way to get off the bluff.

True, our hosts did say "we'll bring one of our cars over" if you decide to visit, but nonetheless it would be wise for the region to invest in a beater so they don't have to do without a car.

In that vein, I'm kicking myself. Last February I traded in my 2004 Chevy Cavalier -- still in great working order -- so that my wife and I could have a new car (a payoff for her unwavering support and sacrifice during the 11 or 12 years I was building a plane). The dealer -- Luther Subaru -- offered only $800. It didn't occur to me at the time that I just should have donated it to the Rushford Airport.

If you're in the upper Midwest, it's worth visiting at your next opportunity. Starting next month, there'll be a hamburger feast on the first Saturday of every month.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Saint Paul to South St. Paul

I went out yesterday, one of the more beautiful days of the Minnesota spring, to see if I could find a colleague, who was running her dog up in Pine City. No luck, but it was a fine flight which I wanted to take before the earth started heating up and causing all sorts of turbulence. The return -- over Saint Paul -- gave me a chance for a little air tour. It's fun to look down at things in this video, because I'm too busy flying when I'm actually flying to sightsee. There were five planes to contend with in the pattern in South St. Paul, but I shoehorned in. It's funny: Once you fly to Oshkosh, fitting five planes into a pattern at a non-towered airport doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Want to be a pilot? Be a good liar

(From the day job)

Investigators carry boxes from the apartment of Germanwings airliner jet co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, in Duesseldorf, Germany, Thursday March 26, 2015. On Thursday, French prosecutors said Lubitz, the co-pilot of Germanwings Flight 9525, "intentionally" crashed the jet into the side of a mountain Tuesday in the French Alps. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

In the 24 hours since we learned the first officer of a German airliner intentionally drove it into the French Alps, we've been told plenty about the mental health screening of pilots.

In the United States, a pilot needs a pilot certificate and a medical certificate to fly any aircraft, including commercial airliners. For airline pilots over 40, it must be renewed every six months.

The FAA form asks a couple dozen questions about medical history. Here's the one I filled out for my last medical a year or so ago.

Below this section, the FAA asks for details on any visit to a health care provider in the previous term.

Answer "yes" to any question, or indicate any visit to a health care provider, and the FAA flight surgeon is going to probe deeper and, potentially, ground you. That's an expensive pain in the neck for private pilots like me, but for a commercial pilot it could lead to the end of a career.

There's a way to prevent this from happening: Don't answer "yes" and don't go to the doctor.

On more than one occasion, for example, I've been infirmed enough to need an ambulance, but delayed calling for one while I debated whether it was worth giving up flying. I currently fly on a "special issuance" after losing my medical certificate. Maintaining it is time consuming and expensive. I could've avoided it -- maybe -- by withholding some information on the FAA form.

For sure, there's a penalty for lying on the form. The FAA could pull your ability to fly forever. But when a career is at stake, many pilots consider it worth it.

In aviation, the warning among pilots is always "don't tell the flight surgeon anything." The culture is distrustful of government in the first place and considers the FAA medical examiner "the enemy."

This, of course, is counterproductive. The pilot is usually the first on the scene of a crash. But we're talking a livelihood and even if commercial pilots suffer from the same maladies -- mental and physical -- as the rest of the population (they do), the FAA medical certificate procedure discourages seeking help. In addition, many pharmaceuticals are banned substances under FAA guidelines.

This is why some pilots flew drunk for years. Ask Joe Balzer, who was one of the three Northwest Airlines pilots who flew a DC-9 from Fargo to Minneapolis in March 1990. All three were hammered. Balzer went to prison.

Subsequently, the infamous flight led the airlines, the unions, and the FAA to coordinate programs that could get an alcoholic some help.

“First they can save their lives. Then they can save their careers,” he told me in a 2009 interview. He now encourages pilots to seek help. And airlines are more proactive in providing help these days.

But pilots remain suspicious that the FAA is a partner in these endeavors. A year or so ago, it tried to expand its reach by grounding overweight pilots -- based only on their body-mass index -- on the theory that they also suffered from sleep apnea and may be too tired to pilot an airplane. The pushback was immediate and the FAA rescinded its proposed rule, but a new rule was due to be released this month that allows pilots to keep flying while the doctor investigates their sleep habits.

For non-commercial pilots, efforts in Congress and at the FAA have restarted recently to get rid of the third-class medical certificate (the one for private pilots), and depend solely on self-monitoring. The FAA has generally resisted the initiatives -- a lot of older pilots fly illegally rather than risk an official FAA grounding -- and it's unclear what effect the new spotlight on medical standards in the wake of the disaster in the Alps will have.

"I’m uncertain what more we should want or expect," Patrick Smith writes on Ask the Pilot. "Pilots are human beings, and no profession is bulletproof against every human weakness. All the medical testing in the world, meanwhile, isn’t going to preclude every potential breakdown or malicious act. For passengers, at certain point there needs to be the presumption that the men and women in control of your airplane are exactly the highly skilled professionals you expect them to be, and not killers in waiting."

That reality probably won't survive in the aftermath of the Germanwings murders. Uninformed media and political pressure generally exceeds a standard of reasonableness in matters like this, leading to new procedures that create the illusion of additional safety.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chasing Oil

It took a few months longer than I'd hoped-- hey, it's cold in Minnesota and you can only breathe so many kerosene fumes from the heaters! -- but the annual condition inspection has been completed. The goal has been to slowly move the annual date to the middle of winter from its original June so that I can have the plane "grounded" when I'm not likely to fly anyway. Mission accomplished.

I didn't find anything serious during the inspection, but a few weeks ago, I did find more oil in the cowl than I care for.

Some comes from the oil screen plug, which has a particular torque value that always seemed too low. It's something like "finger tight and 135 degrees," or something.

But it's hard to find the source of the drips because the oil flies all over the place in the cowling once it's pressurized by ram air.

For example, this is the picture of things a few weeks ago when I first started exploring:

Looks to me like it's coming from that cover near the oil return, and therein lies the problem. It's pretty hard to figure out for sure where it's coming from.

But then Dan Baier had a suggestion. Clean up the engine and wipe off the oil, and then spray things with a foot powder. So I did. I waited for it to dry -- it provides a "white" cover -- then took the plane out to the ramp and ran up the engine for 10 minutes.

This is roughly the area:

Things look pretty good, right?

I should point out that the worst thing I ever did was what everyone suggested I should do: put a "whistler hole" in the oil breather tube. It spits out oil (and water) which gets everywhere. It's nearly impossible, it seems, to get the tube itself to drop it drips on the exhaust stack (where it would burn up) because of the engine mount which gets in the way.

I suspect there's also a problem -- well, not really a problem -- that with this engine, if I fill to capacity (about 8 quarts) with oil, it immediately pukes a bit of it overboard. I've heard that's the case with a lot of airplane engines.

I did find one area of concern, and it's the case. Here's a shot from the front.

You can probably see a little oil coming out near where that bolt and nut are. That would account for the occasional drip of oil I see in the front of the engine.

Now, the problem here is it's pretty impossible to get wrenches on either one of those locations, although I did and gave it a little tug; it was pretty snug.

A check of the rest of the engine did not reveal anything suspicious, so I put the cowling back on and took her flying for the first test flights post-inspection.

Afterward, I just looked in the back of the bottom cowling and saw a few drips of oil directly under the oil strainer and the usual mess around the breather tube, including drips of water. I hate that breather tube!

I also determined that what I thought was oil running down the gear leg when I first started the firewall-forward inspection, was probably avgas, coming out of a small drain hole I made in the filtered air box. I've always gotten fuel drilling in there -- possibly after shutdown or from overpriming. Even after 175 hours, I'm still learning things about what makes the engine happy with starting and I see this as a lessening problem.

But the oil drips cause me concern anyway because I don't really know the difference between routine and worrisome. Airplane engines are dirty things. Beautiful. Just dirty.

But at least mine doesn't have athlete's foot.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rutan back to Oshkosh

Have I mentioned how much I love the new EAA since Jack Pelton took over?

No? Oh, well an announcement from Oshkosh tonight reveals another step forward in an attempt to clean up the mess created by the previous EAA administration and its imports, who alienated just about everyone in aviation not worth alienating.

Here's today's news release:

Burt Rutan, the visionary aircraft designer whose innovations made history and changed the aviation world, will be back at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in 2015 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of his iconic VariEze aircraft.

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2015, the 63rd annual Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in convention, will be held July 20-26 at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh.

Rutan’s designs have been groundbreaking for more than 40 years, beginning with the VariViggen in the early 1970s through the concepts that became the SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo vehicles that are launching the era of space tourism. His use of canard wings and composite materials changed the look and efficiency of homebuilt aircraft, with more than 1,000 airplanes based on his designs now flying in the U.S. alone.

“There are few individuals in the history of aviation who can match Burt Rutan’s imagination and accomplishments,” said Jack Pelton, EAA chairman of the board. “His presentations are eagerly anticipated whenever he is in Oshkosh. Although he officially ‘retired’ several years ago, his innovative mind continues to push forward with new concepts and ideas that he’ll share at EAA AirVenture in 2015.”

Why is this significant? Because a few years ago, according to legend, someone high-ranking in aviation -- as Robert Goyer of Flying Magazine notes -- said Rutan is a "failure" and questioned why anyone would write an article about him.

The only thing I can come up with is perhaps that Rutan's impact on the certificated market has been minimal compared to his huge successes elsewhere. The Starship was a commercial failure, to be sure, though its small base of owners loved it out of all proportion to its overall sales figures. At some stage of their development, Rutan had an impact on the design of a few other certified or to-be-certified airplanes, including the Eclipse, the Visonaire Vantage and others. Moreover, the impact of Rutan's thinking on the thousands of engineers who daily apply their Rutan-inspired judgment in the crafting of the next generation of airplanes is impossible to calculate.

Then again, judging Rutan by how he measured up commercially is like judging Van Gogh by his commercial success during his lifetime. Each man painted his canvasses to please an audience of one. The results in both cases were spectacular works of art in the case of Van Gogh, and spectacular works of art/technology in the case of Rutan.

In terms of achievements, all Rutan did (in no particular order) was successfully design a private spacecraft and launch system, single-handedly invigorate the homebuilt aircraft movement, popularize the use of composites in aircraft design, dream up an airplane that successfully flew non-stop and unrefueled around the world, and create a worldwide intellectual aerodynamics movement that is vibrant and active to this day. And I'm leaving a lot of good stuff out. A lot.

The rumors around Oshkosh in recent years was that Rutan got wind of the comments and was justifiably upset, so much so that former EAA boss Rod Hightower released this statement at the time:

"EAA, and all our staff, have the highest regard for the legendary Burt Rutan and his incredible career. His many contributions and achievements – from being named one of Time Magazine's “Most influential people in the world” to his being awarded the Lindbergh Medal, and dozens of other aviation and business honors – show that Burt Rutan is a man of achievement who embodies the American spirit and all the good it reflects."

Maybe Rutan has been around Oshkosh since, maybe not. I haven't seen him since the White Knight was at Oshkosh before all of this broke.

No matter. Rutan is return to Oshkosh and Pelton and the gang are putting the EAA back together the way it once was.

Just don't ask Rutan about climate change.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Float flying in Seattle

If I could do it over again, I might consider being a pilot at Kenmore Air in Seattle.

Or I'd be Brady Lane of the EAA.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The approach to St. Maarten

If you're an aviation fan -- and why would you be here if you weren't? -- you've probably seen videos and pictures of the arrival end of Runway 10 in St. Maarten. It's where the jets pass just a few feet above a crowded beach.

What does it look like from the cockpit of a 747?

KLM has just posted a video with the answer.

A beautiful huge baby-blue KLM 747 used to fly into Minneapolis St. Paul back when Northwest Airlines ruled the skies overhead. It was a spectacular time every Sunday afternoon when it departed. I haven't seen it in years.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Don't take selfies when you're flying at night

It's hard for anyone who has flown an airplane to understand the jaw-dropping foolishness documented in a National Transportation Safety Board report that blames a Colorado plane crash on a pilot taking selfies, according to the Denver Post.

Amritpal Singh, and his passenger were killed when their small plane went down near Watkins, Colorado last May 31.

In its probable cause report issued last week, the NTSB said...

An onboard recording device (GoPro) was found near the wreckage and the files were recovered. Based on the available information, it is likely that the GoPro files were recorded on May 30 and May 31, 2014, with the final GoPro file recorded during the 6-minute flight in the traffic pattern. The accident flight was not recorded. The GoPro recordings revealed that the pilot and various passengers were taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern.

Some news organizations are reporting that GoPro footage showed that just before it crashed, the pilot was taking a selfie. That's incorrect, as the NTSB noted.

The actual report from those analyzing GoPro footage (available here)from the camera in the crash didn't really provide any evidence that when the pilot lost control of his plane, it was because a flash went off and blinded him.

In fact, none of the video footage recovered was from the doomed flight, so there is no proof of the NTSB's conclusion.

But the NTSB found other videos on the camera from a flight just before the flight which crashed, which it said shows a "pattern of behavior" by the pilot.

The crash occurred on a flight an hour or so later. The pilot was in the clouds, and couldn't tell which way was up. He was an instrument-rated pilot and should have been able to rely on the plane's instrumentation, but instead he climbed, lost airspeed, and the plane lost lift and spiraled to the ground, killing the pilot and his passenger.

The NTSB is doing something here it normally doesn't do: guessing that the pilot was blinded by taking selfies and unable to see the instruments.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Tail rotor separation blamed for Oshkosh crash

The NTSB has issued a probable cause for one of the accidents at this year's AirVenture at Oshkosh.

The more serious accident, the Breezy accident in which a passenger died, has yet to be settled.

But the NTSB has finished its investigation in the crash of a Mosquito.

Just after takeoff, the experimental, amateur-built helicopter started to rotate and then impacted the ground in a level attitude, which resulted in substantial damage to the helicopter. Examination revealed that one tail rotor blade had separated from the tail rotor and gearbox assembly and that the blade had separated cleanly from the assembly; neither the collar nor the pins used to secure the blade were located. The pilot reported that he had been testing this tail rotor design for 4 years. A tension/torsion strap and two steel pins were used to retain the blade. The strap was not completely restricted from movement, and, over time, movement and wear resulted in the failure of the retaining assembly. The tail rotor assembly was a unique design and was not used in any other application.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A trip around the pattern

A few weeks ago, anticipating the arrival of my sister and brother-in-law to Saint Paul for Thanksgiving, I went out after work and shot some night landings to get current.

Pushing the plane back into the hangar has always been difficult because of the incline and also a wooden ramp, meant to block water from flowing back into the hangar in the winter.

If there's any snow or ice, it's very difficult and on this night there was a little snow on the pavement.

I had some ice cleats but didn't have the best ones on and as I was pushing to get another shot at clearing the ramp, my footing gave way and I went down hard on the shoulder, knocking my arm out of the socket -- a.k.a. a dislocated shoulder. I'll spare you the details but it was incredibly painful and expensive.

I took the plane out today after installing the new Whelen LED taxi/landing/recognition lights and thought it would be a good idea to use the GoPro that my friends at AOPA gave me.

This video will be interesting, probably, only to those of you who don't fly RVs and aren't sick of the plethora of RV videos out there.

And here's a little tour of my neighborhood...

After landing, although there was no ice, I still had a difficult time pushing the plane back in (the shoulder hasn't healed and won't for months). Fortunately, a crew from Xcel Energy, which is working on running new cables for a new Wipaire paint shop, saw me struggle and rushed over to help.

They were extremely interesting in the plane and I was only too happy to take a half hour (or so!) to explain how N614EF came to be.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The trip home

I can't put my finger precisely on what it is that allowed me to plod through the decade it took to build my own airplane, but the prospect of flying it back "home" certainly played a part.

Home is about 1,200 miles away, even though I haven't lived there for more than 35 years. Fitchburg, Massachusetts -- my hometown, a hell of a town in its day and one that still is imbued with great character. You don't build a city out of granite without it. So maybe there's a connection between it and what it takes to build a plane.

Most of the goals I had for N614EF have already been met. Not that one. And it's the one that hurt the most when I lost my medical certificate more then a year ago.

So the prospect of fulfilling it was high on the agenda when that e-mail came earlier this summer that said I could fly again.

I'd been back East with most of the family in August, but returning in September -- before the sun flees the northern hemisphere -- was about the only option I had to get the dream put in the 2014 book.

On Friday September 19th, I launched a solo trip across half the country, back to my hometown.

The farthest I've flown in the plane has only been to Oshkosh -- a couple hundred miles, but I'd planned this trip more than two years ago. Carolie and I had planned to go in 2012, but a last-minute check of the winds showed we'd be getting over the Berkshire mountains after dark, and North Adams Airport, her hometown, was closed for runway sealing. The disruption in light and landing seemed like a bad idea to me, admittedly a conservative pilot. So I canceled, unaware that the Meniere's would flare up a few months later and my flying days would end.

My plan was to fly first to Auburn, Indiana, recommended to me as a good pitstop by Doug Weiler, who runs the Twin Cities RV Builders group, then somewhere northeast of Binghamton, NY, and finally into Fitchburg.

Though there was fog in the valley, the sky was mostly clear as the sun came up and shimmered off the Mississippi River.

Being just a VFR pilot, I haven't done a lot of work with serious air traffic control -- a light flight following here or there, and that's about it. On this trip, however -- especially with a route around Chicago -- I thought it best to be in touch, and so an early request to Minneapolis Approach put me in the system. It turned out to be educational, as I was handed off from Approach to Minneapolis Center and then to Rockford Approach. It's old hat to a lot of you, I know, but it helped my confidence to be able to navigate the territory and the system.

Somewhere over Wisconsin, came the first indication of a problem. Minneapolis Center reported my transponder was intermittent. I increased my altitude to 7500 and recycled (turned it off and on) the transponder and it helped for a bit, but they continued to report the problem. When I was handed off to Rockford Approach, the Center controller advised them of the situation, and it would be hours before I heard of it again.

I flew along fat and happy. The airports I'd plotted as emergency landing strips appeared where they were supposed to be and when they were supposed to be there. The plane was performing well as I passed over Rockford, but the hard part was still ahead -- Chicago.

I still had time to sightsee, observing that nothing sticks out as a waypoint like a nuke plant.

I'd taken the route Doug and others advised -- direct from South St. Paul to the Joliet VOR, where I would turn east toward Ohio and my first stop. I thought I would run into a lot of heavy-iron as I circled Chicago, but as it turned out I saw one jet -- a 737, well ahead of me and somewhat lower. I was handed off to Chicago Approach -- still no mention of any transponder issue -- and the TruTrak autopilot turned the plane over the Joliet VOR.

While the ground below was certainly more populated than the Wisconsin farmland, there were still plenty of places to land.

It was hazy, so I could barely make out downtown Chicago off in the distance. But Lake Michigan was clear, so was Gary.

In no time at all, I was back over farmland, handed off to Chicago Center, then South Bend approach, and, finally, For Wayne approach for an uneventful landing in Auburn, Indiana. Total time 2:57.

Everything Doug said about the FBO was right. It was comfortable, the service was friendly, there was wiFi, and I was able to make a quick blog post to keep my day job, and then heat up the pizza I'd purchased the night before, to take me through the trip home.

The weather was reported to be perfect from here all the way home. So, after an hour break, I launched for the trip along Lake Erie.

Fort Wayne handed me off to Toledo. Toledo handed me off to Cleveland Center. I took the airplane up to 9500' and put on the oxygen canula. I wasn't sure I was a little slow on the take as I flew along, but I didn't want to any chances of the effects of hypoxia.

It was a beautiful route along Sandusky...

And on over Cleveland, where I was handed off to Cleveland approach. There, I again heard of intermittent transponder problems, only this time with more urgency. "We have numerous arrivals and departures at 10,000 and lower," the controller said. But there wasn't much I could so other than promise not to change altitude or direction. (Listen to exchange -- telescoped)

That was the last I hard of the problems for the rest of the day, as I was handed off to Cleveland Center, then Erie Approach, Binghamton Approach, and, finally, New York Center.

This, by far, was the longest leg of the trip, the point I realize that there was no way Carolie would be able to fly this route with only two stops. And, really, me neither. The fuel supply was dictating the planning, but I realized that the bladder dictates the stops.

It was thrilling seeing the topography below me change. Pennsylvania is a wilderness and as you go over the Alleghenies, there's no margin for error.

I'm not sure how I picked Sidney, NY as the final fuel stop; I don't remember picking it out on the planning chart or map. But it had fuel and the day was getting late and I needed some before it was somebody's "quittin' time" below. I made a nice left track pattern entry over a large hill, realizing that it's probably a right-hand pattern, and admired the way the plane stood against the Catskills. That's I-88 on the right that goes up to the New York Thruway. If we were driving, we'd be about 19 hours and a second day into the trip. As it is, I've reached this point 7 total hours since leaving South St. Paul.

Surprisingly, my bladder be damned, it was only a 2:45 leg, because I was on the ground around 5 local time.

A half hour break and I was back in the air, heading for the final leg across familiar territory.

The Hudson River.

Pittsfield and the Berkshires, where I spent my early years in the radio business.

Looking north, I could see Mt. Greylock, home territory for my extended family.

Then Quabbin Reservoir, which flooded several towns many years ago to collect drinking water for Boston.

And finally, Gardner, Mass., about 50 minutes after I launched, which told me my mother's house -- the house I grew up in -- was nearby.

I'd told her earlier that I'd be around by 4:30, failing to account for a too-long stop in Indiana. She waited for me, but went back inside by the time I flew overheard and circled....

... and then headed for Runway 14 five miles away, which took me past my hometown.

I landed around 5:30. I'd done it. And I've rarely felt better.

An old friend from Sunday School, Karl Edmunds, was there to pick me up. We haven't seen each other in 45 or so years, but we follow each other on Facebook and when I asked for a lift from my "Fitchburg peeps," Karl was there.

An hour later, I walked into my mother's house and an hour after that, we were having dinner at a restaurant. These planes are magical things that make dreams happen.

The next day -- Saturday -- Mom got to meet her plane. N614EF is named after her and my father and their wedding anniversary.

She's almost 93 now and getting into the plane is no longer an option. So after showing it to her, I walked her over to the bench outside the airport restaurant and I went back, started the plane, taxied past her, and then took off on a crosswind runway, letting other people in the pattern, using the correct runway, know what I was up to.

I took off, and then made a low, high-speed pass as I announced on the radio (which was playing loudly in the fuel truck parked nearby) that this was a pilot's salute. I don't know if she heard that or not. We New Englanders don't really talk about such things.

Then I landed on the correct runway, and as I taxied past her, I blew her a kiss.

Work pretty much dictated that I not stay long, but a cold front was racing through overnight. I knew that if I would be able to fly on Sunday, I'd probably be staying somewhere around Elmira waiting for a second front to move through.

The forecast said the 900' overcast would lift at noon and another dear old friend and onetime neighbor -- Susan Ellstrom (now Gates) -- picked me up and delivered me back to the airport. It was wonderful to see her again after so many years.

By noon, the clouds had broken and while the ceiling was still only around 3,000, I launched, confident I'd at least be able to get to Pittsfield, less than an hour away, at which time I could re-evaluate the weather. If I had to "hop-scotch" home, I now had enough confidence in the plane to know she could handle what I threw at her.

But not long after launching -- around Gardner -- I ran into showers and zigged and zagged along, until I saw broken sky. I then headed for it -- Being on top seemed a better option than trying to cross the Berkshire mountains running scud.

It was beautiful "on top" , and Pittsfield was reporting a broken ceiling.

A half hour or so later, the buildup seemed to grow ahead (I realized later this was an optical illusion), and Pittsfield was now reporting overcast. Now, keep in mind, just several days earlier, I'd gone to the AOPA Air Safety Institute seminar on weather. So I knew better than to let myself get stuck on top, and yet -- here I was: unwilling to turn around and too stupid to check the weather ahead to see if it had afforded me any options. Instead, I circled the field as judged by my GPS, and then descended through 2,000 feet of clouds, somewhat confident than the ATIS reporting 3,900 broken, was correct. It was.

It was illegal. It was stupid. And I apologized to the plane and, upon landing, went straight to the mirror and promised myself I'd never do such a stupid thing again. There were so many options -- better options -- I could have made and didn't.

After spending a half hour talking to a man who was shepherding a half dozen or so kids getting airplane rides (one of whom was my nephew's daughter and I never realized it) and then having the fuel tanks topped off, I launched again for Elmira. Five minutes west of Pittsfield, as I crossed the Hudson River, the clouds cleared and the sun came out.

With the frontal passage, the air was turbulent, but I didn't care. Even on approach to Elmira, with a 25 knot crosswind, I didn't care. And neither did the plane, which nestled up at the FBO against some executive jets, carrying racing teams who were competing at nearby Watkins Glen that afternoon.

There was still a chance I could make it home, although the last few hours would be in the dark. The second front was near Cleveland now and I'd hoped it would pass before the end of the football game I watched at the luxurious FBO. I could make it farther west, I suppose. But as the afternoon progressed, and me having been made smarter by the events of a few hours before, I asked the FBO to get me a room at the hotel and I accepted their ride.

An hour after she dropped me off, I couldn't see across the street, because of the rain. Good call.

Of course, I obsessed over the weather through the night. The front was moving more slowly than expected and when Monday morning dawned (I was able to make several day-job posts from the comfort of the hotel room), I was pretty sure that I could snake over the Alleghenies to Meadville, PA, less than an hour away.

Not long after taking off around 11:30 a.m., I was able to cruise around 2,500 feet. The ceiling was closer to 3,500 and I had to snake around showers, following roads and rivers across the Pennsylvania wilderness. Again, it was beautiful, especially once I put out of my mind that if the engine quit, there was nowhere to go after the occasional farm disappeared.

The airport in Meadville, PA appeared on schedule -- about an hour after taking off -- and the ceiling seemed to be lifting, so I decided to press on. For the return trip, I planned South of Cleveland to avoid any "lake effect" showers that were in the forecast. So my plan was to stop in Medina, Ohio, the home base of my RV friends Bernie Ockuly and Gary Baker. Bernie was halfway across the country making a living. And Gary was up in the air in some far-flung location, also making a living. But Gary offered me a hangar for the night if things got rough.

I had brought a sleeping bag and pillow with me and if worse came to worst, I'd sleep on his hangar floor.

Instead, things were improving markedly, the ceiling had lifted to 7,000 feet when I landed in Medina, it was only for fueling -- somewhere in this trip I stopped caring how much AVGAS was selling for -- and a rest room. Besides, there was still a chance that I could make it home. I was on the ground for only half an hour.

By the way, during the return trip, I didn't run into any reports of intermittent transponder problems except by Erie Approach, and I think that had more to do with my relatively low altitude over a mountainous region. Cleveland Center and Approach reported no problems.

The rest of the trip was ad-libbed. I knew I needed one more refueling stop, but it was already fairly late. It was 2 p.m. by time I left Medina and I wasn't sure if I could make it to Auburn before they closed. Plus I can never figure out Indiana's time zone from one season to the next. Do something about that, will you, Indiana?

I settled on Valparaiso, because there are self-serve pumps there.

It was another great location with a huge and sprawling FBO, which allowed me to make one more day-job blog post.

This stop was about an hour and a half and for the final push home, I decided not to bother with Chicago or South Bend air traffic control. It was a Monday, I figured there wouldn't be much air traffic and, indeed, I only saw a few jets coming up out of O'Hare, and turning long before they got to me.

I jumped up over the Rockford TSRA ...

... and then back over the farmland of Wisconsin.

Nothing felt better, though, than crossing the Mississippi River at La Crosse and re-entering Minnesota airspace. After a flight from home, I was home.

I picked up Minneapolis Approach -- mostly because I thought a mid-air would be a terrible way to end a trip -- and made an uneventful, if perfect, landing at KSGS (South St. Paul).

My trip was over.

I came home a smarter and wiser pilot than when I'd left, also a more confident one. And I had a new knowledge of the particular characteristics of cold fronts.

I could check off another item on the Bucket List, and try to imagine more trips I could take on a magic carpet.

Keep pounding those rivets!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Behind the scenes of the AOPA giveaway

In today's AOPA Live (watch it here), there were details of last Sunday's giveaway that I wasn't aware of, specifically that some of the AOPA people were landing in Litchfield as we took off, which suggests that we were just minutes away early on from blowing the whole operation, especially if Steve Lagergren's wife had arrived a few minutes earlier.

Why did we head for Hutchinson instead of Winsted? Let me explain.

The whole goal of the effort was to get Steve to Winsted, from which we could launch for home and allow Tom Horne, flying the Debonair to catch up to us.

But there was nothing going on in Winsted and, to make matters worse, Steve indicated early when we met that Jim Weckman in Hutchinson (who also has the Waco project in Winsted) and his RV-9A were going to come over to Litchfield, a move that would have put us solidly on the ground in Litchfield for most of the afternoon, ruining the surprise.

So I quickly suggested, "hey, let's fly over to Hutchinson to see Jim instead and then go over to Winsted."

I figured, "let's just get OUT of Litchfield and play it by ear."

Fortunately, when we jumped out of Steve's plane in Hutchinson, Steve headed off to talk to one of my other RV pals, which allowed me time to meet Jim and explain what we were up to, enlisting his help getting us all over to Winsted and setting the final rendezvous in motion.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

How I helped give a guy an airplane

The mission was clear: Quickly get to know a Litchfield resident I'd never met before, figure out a way to get into the passenger seat of his airplane on one particular Sunday when he might not be interested in flying and coordinate an air rendezvous with a refurbished 1963 Debonair airplane at which time Steve Lagergren, 43, would be told he had won the airplane.

The request came from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the largest association of general aviation pilots, of which Lagergren and I are both members.

Every year the AOPA rescues a down-on-its-luck airplane and extensively overhauls it over the course of a year and then awards it to one of its members. But we didn't want a run-of-the-mill surprise; we wanted to do something different. We wanted him to find out while he was flying his small airplane.

I didn't really have an idea how to pull off an air-to-air surprise, but then I found that Lagergren built his own airplane -- an RV-7, the same model I built.

Then I enlisted these people in the ruse -- a small group of pilots of planes each built themselves.

Out of the blue, I called Lagergren and told him our group throws a dart at a map of Minnesota each week, visits the airport and treats the people we find there to lunch. Lagergren, an engineer at Hutchinson Technology, warmed to the idea quickly and even suggested a short hop over to Winsted, home of an active parachuting squadron.

"Yahtzee!" I thought. While we're at Winsted, the giveaway elves could swoop into his home airport in Litchfield.

But how to get into his passenger seat, from where I could shoot video and capture the moment of his surprise?

I told him that I'm not comfortable with landing an airplane on a grass strip (which I'm not) and since Winsted is a grass runway, I could fly with him instead.

The co-conspirators launched out of Fleming Field in South St. Paul on Sunday morning at 10, about an hour after the AOPA crowd landed from an early morning flight from Fredrick, Maryland to Anoka, where they would wait for me to tell them we'd left the airport in Litchfield to fly over to Winsted and watch parachutists jump out of perfectly fine airplanes. Then they'd swoop in and transform the small airport into a real air show.

When our crew of six small planes landed at Litchfield, it was clear Lagergren was still puzzled by our appearance. "How did you get my name?" he said. An expert liar, I told him we merely checked the FAA aviation database to see if there are homebuilt-airplanes on the airports we visit.

Then he noted that there was no parachute jumping at Winsted today because of the weather, but mentioned he had homebuilding friend in Hutchinson. With the battle plan already not surviving its first contact with the enemy, we piled in the planes -- I in the passenger seat of Lagergren's plane -- and headed to Hutchinson.

Once we were off the ground, we sent a signal to Anoka to let everyone know to move in to Litchfield, and and AOPA president Mark Baker, a Minnesota native, called Lagergren's wife, so that the whole family could be at the airport for the moment of our return.

In Hutchinson, I took Lagergren's friend aside and told him what we were up to, and enlisted yet another co-conspirator, which worked out well because he had an airplane project in Winsted, and I'd previously arranged with the pilot of the airplane to be given away to rendezvous between Winsted and Litchfield. He would circle the field in Winsted and meet up with us when we departed. That plan would only work if we actually were in Winsted.

We again jumped in our planes and headed to Winsted. This might work, yet.

We visited a beautiful restoration of an old Waco...

Then departed Winsted. I could see the giveaway-airplane circling well off in the distance. But we had a problem. Lagergren's plane was outracing the Debonair. And, besides, it's very hard to spot -- let alone fly alongside -- another airplane.

Here's the entire video from the moment at which Horne asks Lagergren to slow down, with Lagergren believing that the person who was calling him was one of our South St. Paul co-conspirators. It gave me the opportunity to quickly come up with even more lies.

The AOPA website picks up the story from there.

"I'm Mark Baker from AOPA and I'm here to present you with your new airplane," he said on the multicom frequency, 122.9 MHz.

"Yeah, that's a good one," Lagergren replied, dismissing the statement as a joke.

"It's also true."

There was a long pause before Lagergren keyed the microphone again.

"Unbelievable—I love that airplane!" he said as reality sunk in. I've got to calm down a little bit to land. Oh my gosh."

"It was a total surprise," said Lagergren, 43. "There were a few things going on that seemed unusual in retrospect, but I never suspected this."

The Lagergren family—wife Dawn and daughters Nora, 12, and Holly, 10—was listening to the exchange on the radio base station at the Litchfield airport, and the girls giggled as they heard their dad figure out the secret they had learned that morning. (Baker had called Dawn Lagergren at 9:35 a.m. to tell her the good news and invite her and her daughters to be at the airport when the airplane was awarded. They also brought about a dozen friends to see the handover.)

"It was a total surprise," said Lagergren, 43. "There were a few things going on that seemed unusual in retrospect, but I never suspected this."

Frankly, I was worried in the planning that we had two problems: (a) Steve is an engineer and (b) Steve is a Minnesotan. The chances of a big reaction were slim. But he didn't disappoint us and once on the ground, Lagergren was reunited with his family, got the keys to a new airplane and enjoyed an airshow put together by AOPA.

A more produced video will be made available on the AOPA website later this week.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

I can't stop looking at it

There's no reason for this post at all other than to relay that the "I can't believe I built that" feeling never goes away with an RV airplane.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Three days of Oshkosh

A year or so ago at this time, there wasn't much chance I'd ever fly to Oshkosh as pilot-in-command. My well-documented medical woes seemed to preclude much flying at all.

But I got my medical back in mid-June and after some refresher training, I was ready to go.

These two guys -- sons Sean and Patrick -- were there when the first parts of the plane arrived in 2001. Their signatures (I made everyone sign a part they worked on ) are all over the innards of N614EF.b

So last Thursday, my youngest son, Patrick, and I set out in the RV-7A from South St. Paul.

It was a hazy flight, thanks to the fires in the Pacific Northwest, and there were plenty of clouds. We went on top. But about 20 miles from Black River Falls, it looked like things were thickening.

Patrick wants to learn to fly and I want to be a good role model. I could've pressed forward. Instead, I suggested we divert to Winona (MN) and assess things. I passed along the old saying, "better to be on the ground wanting to be in the air than in the air wanting to be on the ground."

Winona is an old-time airport that has seen its best days. We bought some fuel at a ridiculous price since the plane was aft loaded with camping gear and this would prevent me from having to buy fuel at Oshkosh, which -- as it turns out -- was a good 40 cents a gallon cheaper than Winona.

"Sorry I'm not more hospitable," the owner of the FBO said as we walked in while his helper took 20 minutes to process the credit card purchase, "but I'm beat." Selling $60 worth of fuel can take a lot out of you in Winona.

I called flight service and found that, indeed, things were thick in central Wisconsin (this is bog country) but a single PIREP gave me hope when it reported that the clouds "were breaking up nicely" over Wautoma, not too far from the Fisk approach. So we launched.

The arrival was OK, not great. We slipped in behind a Cherokee that couldn't do the 90 knots required and when we got close enough to get caught in his prop wash, we decided to bag the approach. Turning back toward Green Lake, though, we spied a long line of planes coming from all directions. My expletives probably didn't make Patrick any more comfortable.

We eventually found a place to slip in and ran the approach again. We were assigned 36R and it seemed we got the one controller working his first Oshkosh. He was well behind things and struggling to catch up. He didn't make it.

A plane decided to pass us on base and proceeded to turn final just ahead of us -- thanks, pal. Great airmanship! -- and while I expected a controller to notice, he didn't. He was concerned about an amphib above us heading to 36L while I was turning base for 36R, the taxiway that becomes a runway during AirVenture.

"RV on final for 36R," I announced, because it was clear the controller wasn't going to give me clearance to land because he'd stopped paying any attention to us, if he'd ever started.

A few minutes later, we were tied down in homebuilt camping.

We did the usual Oshkosh things.

We checked in with Jerry.

And stopped by to see Bernie Ockuly and the Metro Warbirds crew.

And watched the airshows, of course.

I, of course, checked out the various polished aircraft on the field. They were beautiful.

I liked mine better.

We had a great time one evening sitting with the EAA Radio folks. And on our last evening I did a quick interview about getting my medical back. "I could tell this story by now," my exasperated son said. He'd heard me tell the story dozens of times to people who stopped by the plane. But they asked.

But Patrick had to work Friday night, so on Friday morning we left the tent and tie-downs behind, and headed home. See you later, Oshkosh.

We were about 25 miles out of Oshkosh when I pulled my cellphone out to see if I could detect weather on the Garmin Pilot app (I couldn't). "Oh, (**&@@*&^, " Patrick said. "I left my cellphone charging outside the showers."

Nothing we could do but set a course for Green Lake and fly the Fisk approach again to get it. Patrick flew it and flew it expertly and it worked out well because we got on-the-ball controllers all the way down. We again got 36R assigned for us, which required the jets landing on 36L underneath us to throw on some smoke so we could see them. No big deal.

I taxied back to HBC and kept the engine running while Patrick went to get his phone. He hopped back in and we departed again for home without incident.

"Nice paint job," the controller said as he cleared us to depart on 36.

But we'd used so much fuel that by the time I landed in South St. Paul, well, let's just say it didn't take much to keep the nosewheel off the ground while rolling out.

We filled up the gas tanks and pushed it back into the hangar...

... because the next morning, my oldest son, Sean, and I set out for Oshkosh.

We had a great Fisk arrival -- our third -- and an hour and 47 minutes after we started the engine in South St. Paul, we stopped it in Oshkosh.

Sean primarily wanted to see the night airshow, but we had some time to walk around.

To visit Jerry, for example.

And Sean found the perfect spot to get some shut-eye from the early morning start.

Sean always liked it when they blow stuff up, so the night airshow was perfect.

Sunrise in Oshkosh on Sunday. Time to go.

We were ready for engine start at 9 a.m. "Got your cellphone?" I asked Sean. He did. We were in the air after about 15 minutes.

And approaching South St. Paul by 10:30 or so.

There were lots of people I didn't see. Lots of things I didn't do. But I accomplished the one thing I wanted to do: Take two boys who were there from the start, to the place to where we always wanted to fly.

Mission accomplished.