Monday, September 27, 2010

The landing slump

It feels like years since I've made a decent landing in an airplane. I'm in a slump. I can't tell you for sure when it began, and now I can't tell you when it's going to end.

This is one of the problem with being a renter: It's too expensive to get out and keep one's skills sharp. Yesterday, Carolie and I flew along the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers to check out flooding that hit last week after some areas got 10 or more inches of rain in 24 hours.

Carolie usually doesn't fly with me, so it was nice to have her along. It was a little bumpy down low and she probably drove up the stock of Benadryl a fair amount, but she's a trooper:

And before the flight, I perform the traditional toast to the airplane.

Actually, I'm checking the fuel sample I just took out of the wing tank.

Then we flew...

The actual flying skills were fine -- better than fine, actually. I held altitude at 1,000 feet AGL in steep turns over Pine Island. While filming.

What else went right? Situational awareness. We flew well, we spotted the traffic (including birds) we needed to find, we did a great job of communicating through some busy airspace around Mankato, keeping everyone alert for us, and helping them navigate around us. We got a great view of tow plane, cutting its tie to a Civil Air Patrol glider over Mankato, and then diving for the ground.

There's just this landing thing to overcome.

We headed over to Red Wing for a bathroom break and a check of the Vikings score. Red Wing is a huge runway (5,000 feet), along the Mississippi, below bluffs on the Wisconsin side. And, sure, it gets a little squirrely, but it shouldn't have been as poor a landing as it was, especially given an incredibly stabilized four mile final.

But it was a bad landing, partially because the size of the runway makes you think you're lower than you really are, and partly because I'm not focusing on the far end of the runway, I'm looking ahead of the nose. I know this is the problem, I'm just not getting out enough to practice it.

So as we bounced down the runway, I firewalled the throttle and executed a go-around, which couldn't have thrilled Carolie, who rarely flies with me and didn't know what I was doing.

The second landing was a little better, but I still dropped it the last 10 feet or so.

And back at Flying Cloud -- a more familiar runway -- I had a better landing, but still not great.

As the RV-7A project nears its conclusion, I always think immediately after landings, "What would have happened if you were flying an RV?" I don't like the answer.

(If you're reading this via Facebook, you'll have to go to the "original posting" to see the video and Flash slideshow)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Near mid-air over Minneapolis

From time to time I write here about aircraft accidents and, in particular, near misses. I usually hear pretty quickly -- at least at my day job -- from commercial pilots  who say it's no big deal. This shouldn't be one of those times.

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued this news release on what it classifies as a "near midair" over Minneapolis St. Paul.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating a near midair collision between a commercial jetliner and a small cargo aircraft that came within an estimated 50 to 100 feet of colliding near the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport

On September 16, 2010, about 6:49 a.m. CDT, US Airways flight 1848 (AWE 1848), an Airbus 320, was cleared for takeoff on runway 30R en route to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, carrying five crewmembers and 90 passengers.

At the same time, Bemidji Aviation Services flight 46 (BMJ46), a Beech 99 cargo flight with only the pilot aboard, was cleared for takeoff on runway 30L en route to La Crosse, Wisconsin. Weather conditions at the time were reported as a 900-foot ceiling and 10 miles visibility below the clouds.

Immediately after departure, the tower instructed the US Airways crew to turn left and head west, causing the flight to cross paths with the cargo aircraft approximately one-
half mile past the end of runway 30L. Neither pilot saw the other aircraft because they were in the clouds, although the captain of the US Airways flight reported hearing the Beech 99 pass nearby. Estimates based on recorded radar data indicate that the two aircraft had 50 to 100 feet of vertical separation as they passed each other approximately 1500 feet above the ground.

The US Airways aircraft was equipped with a Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) that issued climb instructions to the crew to avert collision. The Beech 99 was not equipped with TCAS and the pilot was unaware of the proximity of the Airbus. There were no reports of damage or injuries as a result of the incident.

NTSB and FAA investigators conducted a preliminary investigation at the Minneapolis airport traffic control tower on September 18th and 19th and are continuing to review
the circumstances of this incident.

In the past, when I've forwarded these reports of near mishaps, some pilots have suggested it's much ado about nothing. This is different. Fifty-to-100 feet in the clouds? That's a big deal.

To help you visualize these things, both planes took off on parallel runways, heading in the same direction. That happens all the time. Turning one plane into the path of another is highly unusual.

Update 11:55 a.m. - Here's the audio of the conversations that morning. The controller ordered the left turn -- to the south -- for the Bemidji flight as he gave the flight permission to take off. Normally, that turn would begin when about 500 feet off the ground, probably before the end of the runway. The turn would send the plane away from the parallel runway, where the US Air jet was also taking off.

A few minutes later, the controller asks the Bemidji flight if he's "in the turn." The pilot doesn't understand the question and asks for it to be repeated. It's not repeated. A minute or so later, the pilot asks to change frequencies to the departure controller and is granted the request. From the sound of things, that happened after the near miss. The controller asks, "why didn't you start the turn after departure?" The pilot's radio is nearly unintelligible, but I think he says, "forgot to go to departure," meaning he didn't change frequencies to the departure controller, which would have put him on the same frequency as the US Air flight.

Update 12:17 p.m. - As suspected, there were two planes on two different frequencies here. Here's the tape of the "departure frequency" when the US Air pilot (Known as "Cactus" because it's an Air West flight operating under the US Air colors) reports the near miss. The controller says he thought the Bemidji flight was going to go straight.

As with most disasters -- and near disasters -- this looks like the typical "chain of events," the breaking of any one of which -- repeating a question, repeating an instruction, knowing what each plan was for each airplane -- would've prevented it.

Of course, an investigation will take place, but this one isn't going to be hard to figure out. (Audio via

By the way, weather at the time was 0900 overcast and, of course, it was dark.

So what could have prevented this? File this under speculation but let's call it "informed speculation." On the tower tape, I did not hear either a request to change to departure frequency or an instruction to change to departure frequency. I don't know if that's even required (although I believe it is). But the tower controller asked two minutes after the La Crosse-bound flight took off whether the pilot had made the turn? That would indicate that the controller knew the guy was still on his frequency, wouldn't it?

The departure frequency indicates another problem. This incident occurred right at that moment when a pilot makes a transition from tower to departure. In fact, as you can hear, the US Air pilot asks "what's this guy doing off our left" before the departure controller confirms that he's got the US Air flight on his radar. That's a really icky time for things to fall through the cracks.

Update 5:30 p.m. - Here's my interview on Minnesota Public Radio's All Things Considered:

Monday, September 20, 2010

McClellan to EAA

I'm sure Mac McClellan is a terrific guy. The former editor in chief of Flying Magazine is joining Sport Aviation, and that's the problem. I dropped Flying Magazine a few years ago because it no longer was aimed at guys like me; it was aimed at guys like McClellan, guys with big bucks and twin-engine airplanes loaded with tens of thousands of dollars of avionics.

It's tempting, I suppose, to lament that Sport Aviation would do anything -- anything -- to become more like Flying Magazine, but the fact of the matter is, experimental aviation itself is becoming more like Flying Magazine. Spend a few minutes on Van's Air Force anymore and you're looking at images of guys with their $100,000 panels.Our sport is more Cirrus than Cub these days.

If I had to create the perfect magazine, it would be full of articles by Lauran Paine Jr., who of course writes for Sport Aviation too. Unfortunately, it would probably have a readership of only a few hundred people. There aren't many of us left.

Here's the news release from EAA:

      EAA AVIATION CENTER, OSHKOSH, Wis. — (Sept. 20, 2010) — J. Mac McClellan, former editor-in-chief of FLYING Magazine and one of aviation’s most-respected journalists, is joining EAA and will share his insights through EAA’s publications and electronic communications beginning in October.

      McClellan, an extremely active general aviation pilot, will provide his aviation expertise to EAA with his popular “Left Seat” column and other features for Sport Aviation magazine. He will also contribute to EAA’s e-publications and websites.  His focus will be on EAA’s pilot community, encompassing flying experiences, flying techniques, weather, technology, and aircraft ownership.  McClellan’s writings will interest all readers, including those EAA members and aviation enthusiasts who fly more complex aircraft for personal and business transportation.

      “Mac is a most welcome addition to EAA,” said EAA President Rod Hightower.  “His expertise across all of aviation will help us build on the success of the “new” Sport Aviation magazine that was launched in January 2010. Mac is certainly no stranger to EAA, having participated at Oshkosh for decades and has a thorough knowledge of EAA and AirVenture.  His unique understanding of EAA’s mission and role within the aviation community will help us better serve and add even more value for all EAA members.”

      McClellan has logged more than 10,000 hours as pilot-in-command, flying everything from a 1946 Cessna 140, his first airplane, to the Cessna 162 SkyCatcher and virtually all general aviation airplanes that have been in production over the past 30 years.  He holds an ATP certificate for multi engine airplanes with type ratings in several business jets, has a commercial certificate for helicopters, and is a CFI-I.

      “I plan to share information on a number of topics monthly, each designed to inform, educate, and entertain the broad spectrum of the pilot community, plus those who want to be pilots, with an emphasis on using an airplane for fun or travel,” McClellan said. “It might be new equipment, airplanes, or services, or it might be the basics of flying technique that helps all readers enhance their skills in the cockpit.”

      Sport Aviation magazine is EAA’s flagship publication and is sent to all EAA members.  It is part of the organization’s suite of five monthly publications and nine electronic newsletters, designed to meet the needs of the diverse aviation interests of EAA members.

       EAA embodies the spirit of aviation through the world’s most engaged community of aviation enthusiasts.  EAA’s 160,000 members and 1,000 local chapters enjoy the fun and camaraderie of sharing their passion for flying, building and restoring recreational aircraft.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Don't let facts get in the way of a good story

I guess this column in the Austin American-Statesmen about the death of an RV-7A pilot is supposed to be a testament to the willingness of a wife to let her husband go fly those danged experimental airplanes. But, geez, it's based on an ignorant premise -- that a plane crashed because it was homebuilt and experimental.  The laws of physics could give  a damn.

I don't know how my life will end. But I know how it won't. I've vowed that my obituary will not include the phrase "experimental airplane" or "home-built airplane."

I had that in mind yesterday when I spoke with the widow of a man whose did.
"Charles William Miller, 66, died tragically when his experimental, home-built, private airplane crashed August 19 in El Dorado, Arkansas," said the recent obit for the Georgetown resident.

What kind of man goes up in an airplane he built himself? What kind of wife allows that? Chuck Miller was that kind of man. Suzy Miller was that kind of wife. And they combined for a 43-year marriage marked by triumphs and tragedies, as well as adventures sparked by the greatest of those tragedies.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


#360 An airplane you built yourself is a poor substitute for a happy spouse.

More cowling chronicles

I don't have a big video presentation for you but I do have another installment of the process of figuring out how to fit the canopy on the RV-7A. After some fiddling and the 35th and 36th reading of the instructions, I at least have the order of fitting figured out.

Once the top of the cowling is where it should be, this -- as near as I can figure -- is the process.

1) Cleco the front of the bottom cowling to the top cowling behind the spinner. By the way, it's a real pain in the next to fit the bottom while the spinner back plate is on. I had to cut an extra three or four inches on the nose gear slot.

2) Drill the top cowling to the top hinges. Today I changed out my shims from .020 to .032 because I added some fiberglass to the aft edge for strength when I put some fiberglass back on from the original trim.

3) Mark the aft bottom edge of the  bottom cowl and cut. I did this last week but decided to put fiberglass back when I cut 1/4" off the top of the front to make it fit better. I retrimmed the back bottom today. I still have too big a gap -- I think -- at one point. But I can put more fiberglass back later.

4) Drill the bottom aft of the cowling to the hinge.

5) Mark and cut the side edges (after sanding a straight edge on the top cowling). I'll be cutting the top of the bottom cowling. There's an "indented" molded edge on the top of the bottom half of the cowling. The top cowling does not mean this edge at one point on the left side so I'll be adding some glass there soon.

6) I think at this point you drill to the horizontal hinges connecting the top and bottom sections.

7) Trim the aft side edges of the bottom and drill to hinge material.

I may have #6 and #7 reversed; I'll have to see.

One of the things that's been delaying me is rather than just get this thing fitted and sliced, I've been messing around with gaps and adding glass etc. I'm pretty sure this is something that can be done after everything is drilled to hinge material.

We'll see.

More as it happens

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Continuing the airplane building maxims:

#361 The law of physics does not care that people on an Internet building support group told you to "build on" when you turned to them for crucial structural decisions.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

#362 Larry flies

Like you, I read the first-flight reports on VAF and elsewhere all the time. While I'm happy for the builder-owner, they all tend to sound the same and I don't usually know the person.

Every now and again, however, a friend of mine completes his RV  and goes flying. When it's someone who's been building for quite awhile, it's all the better.

I first met Larry Frey at one of the RV BBQ's at Oshkosh. He was always ready to help, usually with his patented beans and unabashed enthusiasm. He's as good a guy as I've ever met and one of the draws that keeps me going back to Oshkosh.

So I'm thrilled to point you to this article in the newspaper in Larry's hometown near St. Louis.

Larry went flying!

And a quote Larry gave to the newspaper is the Maxim of the Day:

"You will find out in the first 100 hours if you will finish or not."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Continuing the airplane-building maxim of the day:
#363 As you build your airplane, you will have fewer parts around your workshop. You will spend more time looking for those that remain.

Monday, September 6, 2010


Continuing the one-a-day plane-building maxims:
If you have a pneumatic rivet squeezer, you will oneday mow your lawn sitting down.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Cowling Chronicles - Episode two

One of the most interesting things about building the cowling for the RV-7A airplane is that when you change something somewhere, the effect shows up somewhere else. That's what I'm doing in episode two -- chasing the somewhere elses. Apparently, that will also be the storyline for episode three.

Airplane-building maxims

It occurs to me that since I've taken so long to build my RV-7A, I have more "airplane-building experience" than most people. I've got 10 years; they've got, say, three. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

So I'm starting a new category on the blog -- maxims. If I can get 364 more of them, maybe I'll publish one of those one-a-day calendars. Some will be truthful and insightful. Others will be humor only. But you'll have to determine for yourself which is which.

Let's begin:
#365 - The best part about building an airplane is you meet some great people. The down side of taking 10 years to build is you constantly increase the odds of meeting some real dicks.