Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The dream of infinite flight

Because I was doing a daily talk show for EAA Radio, I didn't write the usual Oshkosh Diary this year; doing so would've demanded too much time and certainly more bandwidth than EAA seems capable of providing at Oshkosh.

Over the next few weeks, and as some of the archived audio comes online, I'll be writing about some of the people I met over on my day-job's blog with cross-posting here.

Among the more fascinating individuals, however, was the person I met on Saturday.

If electric-powered flight is ever going to be a reality, it's going to take people like Chip Yates, who might've been close to blowing himself up earlier this month when the warning lights were flashing on his battery-powered airplane telling him to "stop." Instead, he twisted a knob a little more and broke the 200 mph barrier.

Yates had just started flight lessons in May, he told me on Saturday. He got his pilot's license in June. He had flown the airplane that broke the record only once -- the day before the record-setting flight. He intends to fly across the Atlantic on batteries, as soon as he conquers the next frontier -- air-to-air battery refueling. I was explaining the concept to him here...

You're right; I'm lying. Chip is 10 tons of brilliance and he sent me home from Oshkosh with a renewed passion for pushing the envelope.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The missed opportunity

I met the person who may be one of the smartest people I' ve ever heard speak at Oshkosh tonight and it's a shame -- a damned shame -- that more people in the RV community and the experimental aviation community didn't turn out to here him too.

Mark Giron is an FAA safety inspector. He's also the guy who's going to start putting a response together to the National Transportation Safety Board recommendations on experimental aviation. Did I mention he's also an RV-6 owner?

Mark is one of us. By the warped thinking of a lot of people in the homebuilding community, he's also "one of them."

He held a safety chat out in the homebuilt camping area of Oshkosh tonight and it wasn't much of an accident -- no pun intended -- that he didn't do in the big FAA pavilion, standing up on a stage at a podium with the big FAA shield. He invited people just to sit around on the grass, enjoy some free corn on the cob and talk as if we actually are adults about how we can fly safer.

I spent a few minutes with him today when he was a guest on my EAA Radio show (it'll be archived and you can hear it probably next week). I'm impressed. I'm impressed with his thoughtfulness and his insight and his position and his guts and his willingness to extend a hand to the EAB community to help formulate that response.

And so it was disheartening around 6:30 when only a handful of people -- Andrew Barker and the TruTrak staff, Mike Regan, the Dynon folks -- showed up to listen to him. It was more disheartening when I overheard his cellphone conversation to the AOPA government affairs official when he said, "the experimental community doesn't care."

That one's on us and we deserve what we get. The notice was posted on Van's Air Force site, I made it clear on the EAA radio site, and you can draw a crowd at Oshkosh by burping loudly. So there was no legitimate excuse for not having more people show up.

Those recommendations are going to come out, and then people will have a lot to say.

The crowd did get larger over the course of our discussion and it was just the people you'd expect to see -- the best and the brightest: Paul Rosales, Paul Dye, Kyle Boatright, Gary Sobek, to name a few.

Admittedly, I'm in the minority in the RV community and in particular, at Oshkosh -- the world's largest Tea Party convention. If it takes a regulation to start to ground some of the idiots who are flying homebuilts, I'm all for it. I was alone in this thought. The AOPA official, in particular, seemed to make it clear that that organization is against any addition regulation of any kind. I get the sentiment, I just don't think it gets us anywhere.

The discussion was quality stuff, however. Should people be allowed to take a person on a first flight as part of transition training? From the sound of things, it sounds like that will be recommendation.

And Mark is no fool. He knows people are faking their test periods and logging enough hours to say they've properly tested their plane. He wasn't surprised when I told him I've met at least three people at Oshkosh who flew up here while in Phase I testing. This guy is not a fool. But he should be our friend and we should've been there and nobody should ever be saying the homebuilt community doesn't care about having a seat at the table of recommendations.

In the end, the sentiment seems to be that peer education is the way to go, rather than education. Twenty-five hours? Forty hours? Mark isn't sure how arbitrary those numbers are. What he is sure of, though, is that people are testing their planes, and that people are using Phase I as pilot training. That's not what Phase I is for.

It falls to use -- especially in the stance of AOPA that no regulation, no policy is acceptable -- to police ourselves. That doesn't make me very confident. Maybe if people had showed up to partake in tonight's conversation, it would. Trust me, when the recommendations come out, people will be complaining on all the bulletin boards and at Oshkosh. My response? Where were you when you had your chance?

There is some progress being made. Mark says Chad Jensen, EAA's homebuilt community now has a list of everyone who offers transition training by type. You'll be able to find a trainer, presumably off the EAA website, instead of hearing things through word of mouth.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Team RV formation video released

Formation flying isn't my thing but I've seen Team RV in action and it's pretty impressive.

Apparently, they've got some video-editing chops, too:

Next week, there'll probably be a zillion videos and pictures from the ground as the group is to fly at Oshkosh.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Flight Test Follies: Climb tests

The other night I noticed the plane was taxiing like garbage and when I felt the inside of the right wheel pant bracket, I burned the finger. So I realized -- after some thought -- that I had tightened the axle nut too tight a week ago. So, yesterday, I fixed that and today I restored the wheel pants to their previous grandeur and went flying.

This is a lousy time of the year -- at least this year -- for flying in Minnesota. It's ridiculously hot and the air is awfully dirty. It's not IMC, but you better keep looking down to keep ground contact, and that's only at 1500 AGL.

I went out this morning -- my plan was before it got too hot, but it was already too hot -- to do some more climb tests which I've been doing for the last few weeks. I climb at 70, 80, 90, 110, and 120 knots and time how long it takes to climb 1,000 feet. Then I average it out and I plot it on this here graph paper.

This show the feet-per-minute climb rate (known as Vy) which is the most FPM gained over a given time. And, with a fixed pitch prop and only wheel pants on, it's pretty easy to calculate Vy -- it's about 90 knots, at which I climb at roughly 1275 FPM.

But I also need to calculate Vx, which is the speed at which the plane will gain the most altitude over a given distance

The Van's instructions say to calculate it using this graph...
"Draw a straight line from 0-0 beginning of the chart up to a point where it is tangent to the curve."

This is the part where you find out why I'm a writer and not an engineer. I have no idea what "tangent to the curve" means.

The FAA's flight testing handbook (available here)
(1) Best angle of climb speed can be found
by using the same chart developed for the best rate
of climb tests. Draw a line (tangent) from the zero
rate of climb feet per minute (see figure 4) outward
to a point, on the rate of climb airspeed curve. Where
both lines touch, draw a line straight down to the
airspeed leg of the chart.
(2) The airspeed that the line intersects is
the best angle of climb airspeed.

And it provides this example:

I can draw a line as well as the next guy, but when it says, "draw a line out to the airspeed curve," well, to where, exactly?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The one ride I want to give

I know I'm asking to do the impossible, but I have to give a try anyway.

My mother is 90 years old, doesn't move so well anymore, and -- let's face it -- we're running out of time.

I'm hoping to take N614EF back to Fitchburg, Massachusetts sometime after Oshkosh. Showing it to her would probably be good enough, but if I had one wish right now, it would be to figure out how to get a 90 year old woman who doesn't move so well in and out of an RV.

"I'd love to see what my house looks like from the air," she said to me five years ago when I took her on her first -- and only -- ride in a small airplane.

It was a Piper Warrior, which -- as you probably know -- requires you to get up on a wing to get in. She couldn't get up on a wing, so she just sort of leaned against it and started rolling herself up. "I'm not going to miss this, " she said.

And so we flew -- and I realize many of you have heard this story -- and she told me how she wanted to be like Amelia Earhart.

"Fly the plane, Amelia," I said.

We landed in a small town, and sat on a bench overlooking the prairie for a half hour or so, she went back to her childhood, on the farm in Ohio.

I'd give anything to give her a ride in the plane I built, the one that's numbered in her honor, and grant her that wish to see her house from the air, and maybe be Amelia Earhart one more time.

But, of course, the RV isn't built for giving rides to elderly people who have a hard time moving, and who probably -- well, really there's no probably about it -- couldn't lift themselves OUT of a seat.

Still, although I'm out of ideas, I have to give it one more try to see if anyone has ever developed a contraption or method of doing this.

Or, are there enough RVers near Fitchburg, Massachusetts who could figure out a way to lift her in?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Coming up on EAA Radio

Isn't this a gorgeous picture?

It's Lauran Paine Jr. and his RV-8, which he built five or six years ago. He writes the Plane Talking (and other writing assignments) for EAA's Sport Aviation magazine and approaches aviation pretty much exactly the same way I do -- through the people who are in it.

We've exchanged e-mails a few times over the years, usually after I read one of his terrific columns, but we've never been able to meet.

We're going to rectify that at Oshkosh in a few weeks.

Today, Lauran agreed to come on the show I'm hosting daily from 12-1 (CT). He'll be on for two segments on Thursday the 26th, starting at 12:15 p.m.

My Oshkosh is already a success!

Welcome to the sky!

Kevin Hester took a friend flying...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Flight Test Follies: Putting on my pants

Well, let's see now, heavy wing problem? Fixed. Oil leak? Fixed. Calibration of panel equipment? Done. Engine roughness? Cured.

It was time yesterday to begin adding wheel pants, gear leg fairings, and intersection fairings to reduce drag and allow the plane to zip along a little faster while using less fuel (please!). I spent many months, it seems, fitting the wheelpants with a laser level (with help from RV pal Chris Knauf), hoping that they wouldn't be off by as little as 1/4", which would adversely affect handling.

You see a lot of RVs with little pieces of balsa wood on the rudder. This is a "trim tab," designed to offset the effects of improperly installed wheelpants.

I've waited this long in the flight testing process because I want to solve each problem as it arises. Had I flown the first flight with wheel pants installed -- as some recommended -- it might disguise, say, a heavy wing problem (tendency to roll in one direction when you let go of the stick).

First I had to finish all of the problems I encountered on Saturday (see previous post) and as I was struggling with getting the brake lines bled, my friend Adam walked in. "Need a brake bleeding assistant?" he said. Adam is one of the people who pitched in when a year and a half ago when the plane seemed like it'd never get done. He shows up faithfully.

We got the brakes bled, the axle nut tightened and the wheel pants put on.

It was time to take it for a ride.

I started with just the wheelpants and made one high-speed run -- to be sure the brakes worked -- and then took off for a quick trip around the pattern. The "ball" on the Dynon D100 stayed centered, indicating the wheel pants were not acting like rudders. Yahtzee!

I landed and then put on the nose wheel fairing. This time I took off and headed southeast to the test area, landed in Dodge Center, then zipped off to Red Wing, 35 miles away.

I had no problem getting the plane -- traveling at 3020 feet -- to 140 knots (that's 161 mph) at about 65% power (2400 RPM and about 24 inches manifold pressure). I was able to also lean the engine back to under 7 gallons per hour, which makes flying a little more affordable than when I first started flight testing and was burning 14-15 gallons per hour.

I did detect what I think was a little nosewheel shimmy on landing at Dodge Center, but I'm not sure what that's all about. It's a pretty rough runway, the locals tell me, but I don't know that merely installing wheelpants would contribute to shimmy. I'll have to research that.

Back at Airlake, I cleaned the plexiglass canopy of all the bugs. I have to get some cleaner to clean up the aluminum. A lot of bugs have given their lives on the wing's leading edge...

It's funny how an obsession with cosmetics when you're building, tend to melt away once you're flying. There are oil stains and bugs on the cowling, and greasy fingerprints along the edges.

I'll have to sand that down and reprime at some point when I care. Plus, I've got to do some fiberglassing to close that gap anyway.

But I also found this problem yesterday...

At some point, things got so hot on the wingtip lens on the right side, that it started to melt. It's not from the NAV light, because I haven't used the nav light, and I don't think it's from the strobe. Given that it melted inward, I'm guessing it happened a week ago when the plane was sitting in the sun at Red Wing on a 100 degree day, and the sun beaming off the aluminum targeted the very soft plastic.

I'll order a new lens. Someday.

There are now 19 hours on the plane and I also passed 200 flight hours in my flying career.

This week I'll try to start doing some speed testing to establish best-climb, best rate-of-climb, and best-glide airspeeds. Then I'll need to change the oil on the plane and start making that final push which will allow the plane to come home to South Saint Paul.

I still have the gear leg fairings to do. They're mostly fabricated, but they're held in place by intersection fairings and I'll need to figure out how to secure them in place, and will probably need someone to help me install nutplates. That might be a job that'll wait until the plane is back at its home airport.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Flight Test Follies: Days of waste

I had big plans yesterday to knock off some more air time with N614EF. Carolie was working a 3-11 shift (She spends every other weekend working at a transition home for people with mental illnesses; if you've never met my wife, you've really missed out. She'll be at Oshkosh, by the way) and that freed up some non-guilt time to spend with the mistress.

The "heavy wing" is pretty much fixed now so I'm moving on to installing the wheel pants to cut down the drag the exposed wheels and gear legs present, and I'd intended to go out and see if they'd impact the flying qualities of the plane (which would mean, of course, I fitted them incorrectly), and then do some speed runs to establish Vx (best angle of climb) and Vy (best rate of climb).

Total number of hours flying yesterday: 0.

I needed to pump up the tires but my attachment for an air compressor was back at the hangar in South Saint Paul. I started to install the nosewheel fairing, but the hex wrench I needed for the job was also back at the hangar in South Saint Paul.

So I dropped what I was doing, closed the hangar, and drove into Lakeville to find the Ace Hardware. It's on Main Street, which -- I found -- was closed to traffic because of Pan-O-Prog days, which celebrates the opening of the city's industrial park (and airport) many years ago. I parked about a half-mile away and hoofed it into town.

I found a bike pump ($9) and a hex wrench set ($21), which -- coincidentally -- is the same hex wrench I bought three months ago when I didn't have one that fit out at the hangar in Saint Paul.

Back to the hangar and I found the bicycle pump is a poor -- that is to say, fruitless -- way to pump up airplane tires, but I made it a little better and put the wheel pants on. Then I moved over to the left side.

As I was putting the wheel pant on and bolting it to the axle nut, I noticed the axle nut was turning. I originally installed these back before the gear legs weren't even on the plane.

And while fitting the fairing, I moved the brake line slightly, which unleashed brake fluid. The flare must've cracked. I'd need to make a new brake line, but all of the tools and aluminum tubing was back in South Saint Paul. So I put a rag around the fitting to absorb all of the brake fluid that would soon be leaking out, closed up the hangar and drove back to South Saint Paul.

I picked everything up, and drove back the 30 miles to Lakeville when I realized I'd neglected to bring the spring benders you need to bend aluminum tubing by hand. I would have no choice but to do it by hand. As it turned out, that wasn't too bad and I installed the new brake line.

Time to put brake fluid in. Whoops. The can of brake fluid -- in a Post Office crate that had everything else I hauled down to the new hangar with -- had tipped over. Time to clean that mess up.

I eventually got everything straightened out, attached the plastic line to the brake bleed connection, one end to a little hand pump, and the other hose to a jar of brake fluid. Crank. Crank. Crank. Crack. For some reason the fluid wasn't going in so I cranked harder and that was the end of the little pump I bought a few weeks ago for $20.

I now had no way to bleed the brakes, which didn't keep me from trying, even though it's a two-man job. After an hour, I gave up and decided to move on to tightening the axle nuts on both sides.

Once that was done, of course, I needed to drill new holes for the cotter pins that secure them. I had a six inch drill bit for this purpose and after I got one hole drilled through on one side of the nut, I moved to the other. Just as it was about to break through the steel, the flexing of the drill bit was too much, and it snapped. It was the only drill bit I had.

If you're keeping score, that's one plan to finish the nose gear, two plans to install the wheel pants, one plan to fix thebrakes, and two plans to fix the axle nut "play" that now lay on the floor, dreams shattered.

It was now 8:30, I'd been "working" for 10 hours and had accomplished exactly nothing. A weekend day wasted.

I'll go back at it today and see if we have better results.

And then tomorrow, I'll go back to work, and spend five days waiting for the chance to do it all again.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Good planes makes better pilots

I'm almost halfway through the flight testing of N614EF and I still haven't been able to do speed runs to establish Vx and Vy yet. It's too hot and it would be too hard on the engine.

But that doesn't mean the plane isn't proving its worth to me. Yesterday, for example, I filled the tanks full and took off with a density altitude of about 3400 fit, into the filth of the air mass that's been over Minneapolis-St. Paul for the last week.

I didn't pay a lot of attention to the length of the takeoff roll and neither did the plane; it took off, I'd guess, before the first turnoff on the runway and easily climbed at 100 knots, developing just under 2400 RPM on the climb.

This plane doesn't care; it doesn't care about crosswinds, it's doesn't care about density altitude. It just cares about flying, as if it's been waiting for 11 years -- patiently -- to do so.

I flew down to the practice area, over to Faribault, down to Owatonna and back -- about an hour's worth. Mindful of cylinder head temperatures, I was able to lean out to less than 8 gallons per hour, the new Zaon keeping me well informed of traffic (at least the traffic with transponders, I saw a glider the other day it didn't see). At 3,000 feet (2,000 AGL), I might as well have been in the clouds it was so hazy.

So now the question: Am I as good a pilot as my performance (especially landings) has suggested? Or is the RV just making me seem like a better pilot than I really am?

I was thinking about this today while watching this neat new video from AOPA, which looks at the reality of flying around World War I. Those planes didn't make the pilots better pilots (Scroll to about 18:37 to skip all the garbage with AOPA and its political buddies).

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Flight Test Follies: Things to do when it's hot

It's been hot in the Upper Midwest for the last few days, near 100 degrees. Keep that in mind if you're coming to Oshkosh in a couple of weeks.

As much as I love flying (and by the way, I've put more hours in my logbook in the last three weeks than in any year since the year I learned to fly in 1997), I've had very little interest in getting under a bubble canopy in these conditions.

So, it's given me a little bit of time to work on various "squawks" that the plane has provided, most of which involve a few systems. There's very little flight testing of the design that goes on as this is a proven design.

Still, I've done a few stalls and such (stalls clean at 51 knots, stalls with flaps extended at about 47-48 knots), but for the most part, I'm trying to check systems.

I'm still chasing the source of oil on the bottom of the cowling and had pretty much concluded it was coming from the top fitting on the oil cooler. I installed a steel fitting but it didn't "clock" the the best orientation for the hose coming from the engine (or going to the engine, I always forget which) and while it wasn't finger tip loose, it wasn't real tight either.

Not having another steel fitting, I swapped it out for an aluminum fitting.

And that solved the immediate problem, although I'm still seeing drips on the bottom of the oil sump bolts in a few spots.

I'll reinstall the steel fitting eventually. Mahlon Russell at Mattituck says the trick is to use Loctite 272, which is resistant to heat and expands to fill any gaps i the threads. You can't find the stuff anywhere but online, it seems.

I also noticed a couple of brown spots on the bottom of the cowling, mostly on the left side where the exhaust stack comes across to the #2 cylinder stack. I had already ordered -- and have been carrying around in the trunk of the car -- a role of reflective foil from Van's so I slapped another piece on and that seems to have solved that problem.

The #1 and #2 cylinders are still the hottest of the four cylinders, the GRT EIS 4000 engine monitor tells me. With the injection nozzles being cleaned (I've been checking them often just to be sure), this can only be due to those large "air dams" that Van's' instructions for the baffle have you install.

So I cut each one down by about 1/2". Stein Bruch gave me a piece of stainless steel to place between the cylinder fins and the air dam and then I simply cut them with a Dremel tool and cutoff wheel, and then filed and sanded them smooth.

I tested it out on a flight in the hot weather and while they remain the hottest two cylinders, the readings on all four cylinders are within about 10 degrees of each other.

Which brings us back to the nagging EGT reading (exhaust gas temperature) on the #1 cylinder. It had been low for months before initial flight, so I assumed it was a bad probe. When I cleaned the injector out, it zoomed to a reading 200 degrees hotter than the others, but then eventually settled back to being hundreds of degrees cooler.

When I watch the readings, it drops hundreds of degrees in a second, and then increases by 100 degrees. I traced the connection -- again -- and cleaned and tightened the spade connectors, and when I was taxiing out to fly, and when I took off, the readings were all similar. But when I taxied back in, I notice #1 was reading on 680 degrees. That's ridiculous. I'm really tired of chasing this problem and maybe I'll order a new probe, or perhaps I'll swap probes out and see how that works.

Maybe there's a problem with the bottom spark plug, but I haven't been able to check. The deep 7/8" socket I have to get at it, isn't deep enough to work. I bought another yesterday from Sears, but I'm not sure this one will work either. So does anyone have a deep socket for this task I can borrow?

Other squawks: There was a little chip on the lower right aft portion of the canopy from hitting the rear skin, so I sanded that out.

The heavy wing problem is becoming less of a problem. Although I ordered new brackets for the "heavy aileron," I haven't yet started filing bolt holes to lower the aileron. Instead, I've been squeezing the trailing edge of the "light" wing aileron. And it's improved. I calculated the other night, that it's about a 24 pound difference. That is, if I use 4 gallons of fuel in the "heavy" wing's tank, it flights pretty much level. At 3 gallons, Van's says don't worry about it. But I squeeze just a little more and I'll see -- maybe tonight or early tomorrow -- if that makes any difference.

I also have a larger "gap" from the top wing skin to the flap on the left side. I've been pushing the skin down and over time, I suppose that will make a difference.

I'm also recalibrating the Dynon D100 to see if that makes any difference in the -- as we say in New England -- wicked slow HSI information coming from the Garmin 296. At times, it can show a heading that's 180 degrees off. But the calibration system for the Dynon is pretty rinky-dink and it's possible to enter incorrect data, so I'll be doublechecking tonight whether that can be made better.

Everything else seems to be working well. In this heat, I can't get the oil temps to get much below 206-212, the cylinder head temps are about 390-406, and I can't get much more RPM tan 2350 pm the takeoff roll. But I got it to 2600 at 3,000 feet, I'm getting about 135 indicated on the airspeed indicator for both the backup steam gauge and the Dynon. The Garming GPS showed a groundspeed of about 149-157. Is this good, considering I don't have wheel pants or gear leg fairings or intersection fairings in place? I have no idea. But 130 knots is still 150 MPH and you get places with that.

I'm only up to about 13 hours through my 40 hours of Phase I testing, and I'm running out of places to go. On Sunday, I dropped into Dodge Center and was met by a gentleman who said, "is this the plane Doug has written about?" And, of course, it was (and is). It was Gordie Westfall, an affable man with great homebuilding skills who recently sold his RV-6 when he lost his medical. We visited his hangar and talked about projects he's got underway.

Then I flew over to Red Wing and met another builder who is building such a beautiful RV-9, I wanted to hang a sheet over my RV-7A to avoid any comparisons.

But, unfortunately, time spent chewing the fat on the ground doesn't count toward Phase I hours, so it was back in the air to fly around, look down, and hear the cash register ringing in my head while watching the fuel flow meter.
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