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.

Here's what was going on behind the scenes while we were trying to pull this off:

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.
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