Sunday, May 24, 2009

When God speaks on the radio...

I had a flight, a while ago, from Lake Martin to Smith Lake to visit a friend. Both lakes are here in Alabama and about 100 miles apart. We planned to leave around 9 a.m. with 30 gallons of fuel, which should have been plenty for a round trip of 2.5 to 3 hours. We planned our trip via Logan Martin lake in order to have an emergency stopping area and to keep us clear of the Birmingham Class C airspace (we don't have a transponder).

We filed our flight plan, which is always a bit of a challenge when you try to explain to the briefer that you are not departing or landing at any "airports" (I usually try to tell them what airport we are near). We lifted off about 30 minutes late, on the hottest day of the year, into a stout headwind. Our flight time was 1.5 hours, but the flight was bump free and very pleasant at 4500 feet.

When we got to the lake, we discovered that my friend's dock was a seaplane nightmare. No flat areas to nose into and every bit of the dock had a cover over it to bang the wings, preventing a side approach. So we borrowed a beach and a tree from a neighbor. I took my friend for a cruise around his lake for about 30 minutes and introduced him to seaplane flying. He seemed to really enjoy the ride.

Around 3:30 that afternoon we departed for home. We had burned around 17 gallons of fuel, but we were enjoying the tailwind that had plagued us earlier as a head wind. We figured we'd need no more than 8 gallons to get home, which left us with more than a 30 minute margin. Our return flight again took us over Logan Martin Lake. We knew we had fuel to make it home from there, which was less than a 30 minute flight, but the larger the fuel margin, the happier things are, and we were getting hungry since we had missed lunch.

We decided to press on home. A few minutes later, while still over Logan Martin, a religous radio broadcast came through on the VHF radio--all frequencies. I cycled the radio a couple of times. Still I got the religous station. This is not an issue that I had faced before. My buddy and I decided to find a marina and buy some fuel, since God might be trying to send us a message. Fortunately we found a seaplane compatibile marina after scoping out several on the lake for poles, manuevering room, gas pump access, a place to land near it, etc. The one we found also happened to have a restaurant. The fuel dock did not allow us to pull up beside it since there were poles. This meant a straight in approach. Approaching a dock straight on makes it difficult to catch the dock from the front of the floats without bouncing off. You have to cut the engine just at the right time to coast all the way to the dock, but not so fast as to bash into it. Once the engine is off you must get out of the plane with rope in hand and get to the front of the float, around the strut. Moving forward on the float slows you down a little too. Once close enough to the dock, you step or jump with the rope and tie things off. Aside from the locals looking at us like we just stepped off an alien spaceship, we had some fine food, conversation, and an extra 7 gallons of fuel.
We were very comfortable on the last 30 minutes of our trip knowing that we had ample fuel and full stomachs. An awesome flying day was had by all.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Living with our seaplane

I love just about everything aviation. The people, the scenery, the utility, and the feeling of being in the air are all wonderful. I also love being at the lake for many different reasons and some of the same. When we bought the seaplane and parked it at our dock (actually in the yard, on a trailer for a while) it really finished off the feeling of absolute perfection of being at the lake with our plane.

We had a Cessna 206 at Bessemer airport, and I loved that plane too, but it is a 20 minute trip to the airport and 10 minutes pulling the plane out and getting airborne. When done flying the whole process starts over. I am sitting here right now, enjoying the smell of the yard after a spring rain, watching the clouds move away, and watching my plane sitting out there peacefully in the water, waiting for me to come and play. Unfortunately I only get to play at the lake on the weekends, as my grown up job is in Birmingham about 90 minutes away, but that is part of what makes the lake special. I do have the stress of worrying about the plane when I am away during stormy weather, which we get plenty of during the spring, that is actually the reason that I am here now.

The weather people were talking tornados and 70 mph straight line winds, and the radar showed a line of red 150 miles long and bowed out like it meant business. So we got into the truck and drove down here to batten down whatever hatches that I could. We made it just before the storm and everything survived. Now we have to drive home in a few minutes. Tomorrow is a school/work day and we have no power since the storm knocked everything out.

Having the plane at the dock allows sunset flights before or after dinner. It allows unheard of utility for getting around the lake. It makes it really easy to tell people which house is ours. You say “It's the house with the plane in front of it” and you get “oh yeah, that is so cool," and a conversation is started up. One day I hope to live here full time, but that will remain something to dream about.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A morning Cub flight

It's a cool spring morning in Alabama. We've had a number of days of rain and clouds, but this morning looks pretty good, so I make the decision to head out to the airport- I can sneak in a flight before work. At 7:30, it will take me 20 minutes to get to the airport. Traffic is light since I'm traveling against the main flow of rush hour.
I get to the airport to find it all quiet. I open the hangar door, greet the Cub and marvel at the freedom that we enjoy. So much of the world does not have the liberties and opportunities that we sometimes take for granted. I check the oil and gas, drain some fuel, and preflight the airframe. I push the Cub outside using the flying wires that square up the tail feathers. The plane only weighs about 700 pounds so this is an easy one man task. I check my portable radio and batteries, chock the wheels and verify the throttle connection. I push the mixture in and prime the plane by pumping the throttle three times. I turn the mags on and spin the prop three times. On the third pull, the engine fires just like it always does with a few puffs of black smoke and then things smooth out.
This is part of the beauty and simplicity of a Cub. I am not dependent on electrons stored in a battery for starting, or an alternator, or a voltage regulator, or even a belt, just the pull of my arms. It's not even that much of a pull. I give the plane a once over look. It seems eager to fly so I hop (crawl) in and buckle up. Original Cubs are flown solo from the back seat for weight and balance reasons. Besides, the view out the open window and door is best from the back seat. One would think that it would be windy inside a Cub with the door and window open, but it is actually very pleasant. Even in the Alabama summer Cub occupants remain comfortable. I taxi out to the runup area and do my pre-takeoff routine. There is no DG to set, no complicated procedures, just controls, mags and carb heat. I check final and the other end of the runway for traffic, make my call and taxi onto the runway, ridiculously long and wide for a Cub. I line up and apply power holding the stick back and keeping the plane lined up with the rudder pedals. In a few seconds I let the tail rise, and just a few seconds after that I am airborne.
I see the earth descend below the open door to my right, the Cub in its element gently climbing skyward. A grin develops on my face as I continue around the pattern. It's a little windier up out of ground effect than I anticipated. I have a 30 degree crab established to keep the crosswind at bay on upwind and downwind. I'll make this a quick hop since this wind will make landing more stressful as it gets down to the surface later. I set up for my landing. Abeam the numbers, I pull the power back to 1900 rpm and add carb heat, and the cub descends easily. There are no flaps. I could slip it if needed, but not this time. I am thinking, due to the crosswind, that I will make this a wheel landing rather than a 3-point. I line up on final and set the carb heat to off. You don't want to have to take your hand off the stick to mess with carb heat when you are on or near the runway. I skim over the lights at the end of the runway and hold a level attitude until I gently touch the pavement. Cub tires have a deeper sound when they touch the ground than higher performance airplane tires. It's still a bark, but it is deeper and more drawn out. I hold the tail off as long as I can, and it finally settles on its own. The tailwheel hits smoothly.
It takes some time to taxi down the runway to get to the first turnoff at 1200 feet. I gently turn the Cub onto the taxiway and taxi back to the hangar. The grin is still on my face. It was a short flight but I will think back on it for a couple of days as bad weather comes back in. I put the Cub back in its hangar, and apologize to it for not making it a longer flight. I close the doors, still thinking about how lucky we are to have this freedom. I feel a little sad for those potential pilots out there who have not yet tasted flight. I know it's not for everyone, but there are tons of folks who just haven't made it to the airport for that first flight. I get into my little car and drive to work, arriving on time.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The healing powers of flight

In the fall of 2006, I made my annual trip to my non-aviation doctor. I generally do this several months before I go and see my AME (aviation medical examiner) to get my medical, which allows me to fly and not go insane. He did not like my blood pressure readings. He had mentioned that it was a little high the year before. I was not outside the FAA limits, but there was a trend that just didn't look good.
I like to think that I lead a pretty healthy lifestyle. I was getting some exercise several times a week at that point. My weight was higher than it should be but it was stable. Apparently they worry about the low number more than the high number, but both are important. My doctor decided to put me on some drugs to get it down. I took this for about a month. My doctor gave me his email address so that I could keep him apprised of my bp on a weekly basis. (In my opinion, all doctors should use email with their patients.) The drug caused me to have a really annoying dry cough that kept me awake at night. This was one of those reactions that made him take me off that drug. It was reducing my bp. Having had the bad reaction to that drug he put me on another one. Both of these were legal from an FAA perspective. I never actually took the new drug, but I started flying my Cub every "flyable" morning before going to work.
There is something magical about a Cub. The slow and easy flying. The open window. The simplicity of the controls. The satisfaction of a good tailwheel landing. I don't really know if it was the getting out to the airport early in the morning and starting up the Cub at a peaceful airport which I had all to myself, or the act of flying the Cub, but my bp went down to normal levels. I don't know if this will work for everyone and I don't know if it will work for other airplanes, but it worked for me. I suspect that if you have something that you love to do and you start your day with it, doing something just for you, it will help.

I would be remiss if I suggested that you fly if you are not healthy or well enough to fly safely. You must always follow the guildlines setout by the FAA and be legal when you fly, which means no illegal illnesses or non approved drugs. That being said, you CAN take along a safety pilot who can perform the duties of pilot in command while you enjoy the gift of flight. I have done this on more than one occasion when the distractions of life had me down or confused.
I took one such flight back in 2000 when the company that I was working for had been bought out by a "DOT COM" company. They were in the process of wrecking our company out of sheer incompetence. I later quit that job and went on to form another company that is thriving today, but that is another story. I went up with a friend in his 150 for about an hour and just had the best of times. It was really head clearing. It is one of those days like my first solo, that I will never forget, and I will always owe my friend for that experience. I could have taken up the Twin Comanche, but that would have been too much for my distracted brain at the time, and my friend would not have been able to act as PIC since he was not rated in the plane.

Good luck with your Cub therapy, whatever form it may take.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


So far this year I have dealt with two bird's nests. The first was while we were still rebuilding the seaplane at Bibb Co. Airport. A bird built a nest in one of my wings while it was still dissassembled and waiting for paint. The latest one was last weekend. The plane was out of the water, on the trailer overnight after some work being done.

Birds built a nest inside the engine compartment. This one was only noticed becase I saw a little bit of pine straw on the spreader bar under the engine. Being curious and a good preflighter, I reached up into the engine compartment where the nose wheel would normally protrude, were it not a seaplane, to find much more pine straw. The bird had built a nest on top of my air intake box. I cleaned all of this out. I caught it early so there were no eggs or birdies harmed in this endeavour.

Last summer, I found a nest only after flying for a bit and noticing high oil temps. This nest was behind the back cylinder on the left side of the plane between the cylinder and the oil cooler (see above pic). Unfortunately these eggs were cooked by the time I found the nest. This nest was not visible except maybe for one strand of pine straw poking up beyond the back cylinder. My plane gives a pretty good view of the top of the engine from the front. Many planes give a very poor view into the engine.

I do use cowl plugs just to be extra vigilant this time of year, and I thought I was pretty safe. The birds are actively nesting and airplane orifices make a pretty inviting spot. They are elevated off the ground, which keeps ground critters away from eggs, have plenty of bird friendly openings, and they provide protection from the elements.

So what are the dangers of bird's nests? There is the obvious fire danger from the pine straw igniting from a hot engine. There is engine damage because air cooled engines don’t get cooled when a birds nest insulates them and blocks the air. Finally there is the corrosion issue from caustic bird droppings on our precious aluminum.

What to do? If you see anything unusual around, on, or under your plane, investigate it further. The time to find a bird's nest is not when you are on fire or doing damage to an expensive engine. If you find something, clean it out thoroughly, so that any blockages are removed and any corrosion is stopped early or never started. Use cowl plugs to reduce the risk. Cowl plugs also require removal before running an engine. There have been many engines ruined by leaving the cowl plugs in and overheating. So go out and enjoy the spring and all the new life that it brings, but do your part to keep that new life out of your engine compartment.