Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Airfield That Time Forgot

In case you missed it, my July "Taking Wing" column recounted a Cub flight to one of my favorite airports around, Stanton Field. It's now available for free on Flying Magazine's website:

Taking Wing: The Airfield That Time Forgot

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Oshkosh '14

This year was my fifth time flying to "The Show." I brought in a Cessna 172 (N738FZ) in 1999 and 2010, and a Cessna 170A in 2011 and 2012. So I'm quite familiar with the VFR arrival procedure and have landed on several different runways (including the infamous tight left base to 18R that got Jack Roush). That said, flying a Cub in presents its own challenges, namely that it's far slower than nearly everything else coming to Oshkosh; its maximum cruising speed is actually below the stall speed of several single-engine homebuilt designs. The Fisk arrival procedure calls for inbound aircraft to maintain 90 knots and 1800' MSL over the railroad tracks from Ripon to Fisk, or 135 knots and 2300' if they can't go that slow. It says nothing about what to do if you can't go that fast! So that poor little Continental 75 had probably never been thrashed as hard as I pushed it for the last 15 minutes inbound to Oshkosh, it was redlined the whole way. I possibly even made it up to 85 mph.

Surprisingly, nobody passed me - until just before Fisk, when a C-185 snuck around me to the right. We were actually within sight of the controller, who asked if we were a flight of two. "Affirmative," answered the Cessna as he sped off ahead of me. Jerk. I had to clarify that the Cub was not part of a flight, and the understanding controller gave me my own clearance to fly east down Fisk Avenue as fast as I could for 36L. Off I went. Once I was with tower, they cleared me to land on the yellow dot (midfield) and asked me to go direct to the dot, a slight dogleg. A Piper Cherokee behind me was told to slow to final approach speed, square his base, and land on the numbers. I stayed redlined at 90 mph all the way down final, knowing that the Cub's massive drag would slow me to landing speed within seconds of pulling the throttle to idle. Still, the Cherokee apparently made up a lot of ground on me and then floated his landing, because an anxious-sounding supervisor broke in on tower frequency as I was just about to touch down on my dot: "Keep it in the air, Yellow Cub, keep it in the air! Cherokee, I need to you put it down!" No problem, I had a good 3000 feet of runway left and only needed 300 to get the Cub stopped. Several seconds passed and I was wondering if tower had forgotten about the Cub flying down the runway when he said "OK Yellow Cub, this just isn't going to work, go around, immediate right turn, enter right traffic for 36R." Must have been quite the floater for that Cherokee.

The go-around and subsequent landing on the narrow east taxiway (temporarily repurposed as Runway 36R) was uneventful. I fast-taxied with the tail up to a midfield crossing of 36L, and from there it was a straight shot to race plane parking at smack-dab show center. I tied down the Cub, gathered my camping equipment, and was halfway to Camp Scholler when the skies let loose with a mighty deluge accompanied by an impressive albeit short-lived lightning display. Glad I didn't arrive 20 minutes later! It was actually a fairly active weather day in Wisconsin and I was lucky to not encounter much of it on the race course, in Wausau, or on my way into Oshkosh. Dawn got lucky too: she was riding her Yamaha FZ6 motorbike from Minneapolis and stayed dry the whole way.

This was a rather different Oshkosh experience for us. We didn't walk nearly as much as usual, and we didn't even attempt to see everything. We spent a lot of our time meeting up and hanging out with friends, and otherwise just relaxing, admiring homebuilt and vintage airplanes, and chatting people up. Unlike my four previous conventions, we didn't camp under the wing - it wasn't allowed in the race plane corral, and I wasn't about to give up the novelty of parking the race-numbered Cub alongside sleek Lancairs, Glasairs, and SX300s. Fortunately, we got to pitch our tent in one of the best and most convenient campsites in Camp Scholler: in the second row of Paul's Woods, just behind the exhibit hangars, with a fun bunch of AirVenture Cup and EAA volunteers. Unlike showplane camping, which is usually pretty quiet by 9pm, the beer & campfire stories flowed well past midnight. We had more freedom than usual thanks to Dawn's motorcycle; it was actually my first time venturing far off the airport into Oshkosh proper. For the first time, we caught a night airshow, which Dawn loved. That and the "One Week Wonder" Zenith CH750 project were her favorite aspects this year, and we were both among the 2500 attendees who pulled a few rivets and signed our names on the plane that flew less than a week later.

This was my first time at Oshkosh since I began writing for Flying, which made for a few memorable experiences. I had several people walk up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my writing - a few were even readers of this blog. That was really neat. Though Flying didn't have a tent this year (there was a mix-up and/or politics involved, depending on who you asked), I was able to meet Robert Goyer and several other editors/writers for the first time. Dawn and I were invited to Flying's big party at The Waters on Tuesday night, which was pretty fun. And lastly, shortly before the show I got an email from Jeff Skiles - yes, that Jeff Skiles - saying he liked my writing & asking if we could meet up. Wow! Jeff is currently EAA's Vice President of Chapters & Youth Education. He and Dawn and I spent an hour on Monday morning tooling around the convention grounds in "Teal 1," one of EAA's vintage VW Beetle convertibles, chatting and stopping to check out airplanes that caught our eye. Really nice, cool guy. At hour's end he invited me to sit in on an interview with CubCrafters' General Manager, Randy Lervold. After the interview Jeff made plans to fly the CarbonCub that night at a grass strip north of Oshkosh and urged me to fly it too; the CubCrafters people graciously obliged my request. That was fun and cool enough to merit its own future post, so that's all I'll say about that for now. But it's something I likely never would have done if not for the Flying column.

I will say that there was something in the air this year that has been missing the previous several times I've been to Oshkosh: a palpable sense of optimism. Last time I went, 2012, was the year of "Occupy Oshkosh," when a large number of volunteers and members made their displeasure at EAA and AirVenture's direction loudly known at the membership meeting. That anger was gone this year. The flight line chalets are gone. Oshkosh is as commercialized as ever - witness the Thunderbirds performing for the weekend airshow - but EAA's new leadership under Jack Pelton has made big changes in their tone & actions towards members and volunteers, and the EAA Board of Directors seems to be newly invigorated in taking their oversight responsibility seriously. But I dare say the optimism went beyond EAA politics and reflected positive opinions about the state of the economy, the aviation industry, and prospects for the future of GA. A lot of people seem to feel that GA flying has rebounded quite a bit in the last year, which matches what I've been seeing at my local airport. It's supported by the attendance numbers at OSH this year, and by the number of vendors that reported having a good year there. Time will tell if the optimism is warranted, but it's a good start. Sometimes I feel that negativity about GA can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody wants to go hang out at the airport or fly somewhere if they think it's going to be dead.

Our time at Oshkosh ended on a sad note. I was planning to fly out Thursday morning, but my departure was delayed by a fatal crash of a Breezy. This was the 50th anniversary of the Breezy design, and 13 of them were at OSH, an all-time record. The Breezy has a special connection to OSH because over the years Carl Unger and Arnie Zimmerman gave so many kids and volunteers free rides in their Breezys. My little brother Josiah is among the thousands that got a ride around the patch in Carl's Breezy. Carl passed away a few years ago but his Breezy was there, as was Arnie's. It was Arnie's Breezy that crashed, with his friend Jim Oeffinger as the pilot. Jim didn't make it. His young passenger was an EAA volunteer named Jenn, and she was camping a few tents over from Dawn and I. Fortunately she survived and is well on her way to an expected full recovery. I certainly hope this doesn't mean the end of the Breezys giving rides at OSH, because I think they are a wonderful symbol of what EAA and Oshkosh is all about.

I really enjoyed this year's show, and between the race and the convention, I made a lot of new friends that I'm looking forward to seeing next year. I just might become one of those "can't miss a year" guys yet!

















Saturday, September 06, 2014

The Hazards of Going On Autopilot

An interesting New Yorker article that mirrors a lot of what I've found to be true of cockpit automation over the years:


The Hazards Of Going On Autopilot - Maria Konnikova

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Racing The Cub

The 2014 AirVenture Cup Cross-Country Air Race officially began at 8:48am on Sunday, July 27th, but I wasn't in Mitchell to see the checkered flag drop. I had in fact already been airborne for nearly two hours and was diverting to Windom, MN for fuel, gusty 20 knot direct crosswind notwithstanding. In a nod to my Piper Cub's very limited speed and endurance, I had been allowed to start the race early, just after daybreak. The weather across the route wasn't great, but not horrible either. Most importantly, I wouldn't be facing any significant headwinds over the 370 nm course. For the first leg, I even had a good tailwind up high; I took the Cub to 7500 feet and saw 85 kts groundspeed in cruise! Mind you, that was with a nearly 30 degree crab to stay on course. I had high hopes of making St James but it was not to be. The occluded front that was producing so much wind also created an increasingly solid undercast 50 miles west of Mankato. Staying on top was not a wise choice in a very fuel-limited, non-gyro airplane, so I dropped to the deck, saw my groundspeed drop to 50 knots, got tossed around pretty good, and crabbed my way to Windom.

The 20 knot crosswind was sporting, to say the least. I'd previously landed the Cub in up to 15 kts and have been on board while the friend who sold me my share landed in 23 kts - but he's an expert taildragger CFI, & still nearly lost it if not for a well-timed jab at the downwind brake. I fortunately was able to keep the wing pinned down without resorting to such heroics, but turning around and taxiing downwind was tricky. And then when I shut down and hopped out to chock the wheels before the Cub blew away, I discovered that the airport's fuel tanks were literally gone, dug out of the ground. Whoops - missed that NOTAM. I had an hour of fuel left in the Cub, and I was an hour away from the official pit stop of Mankato. Fortunately, I had a five gallon gas can in the baggage compartment for this exact scenario. I put it all in the header tank, checked the weather in Mankato, threw the prop over, and was soon bouncing my way to the northeast.

I was nearly to Mankato when the other race planes caught up with me. I hadn't been monitoring race frequency; there's no electrical system in the Cub and the juice in the onboard motorcycle battery had to last me the rest of the day to Oshkosh. I turned on the radio just in time to hear "Passing on your right, Yellow Cub, stay straight ahead!" A few seconds later, a white Lancair came screaming by at an absolutely astonishing speed. It was like I wasn't even moving; seeing something that small go that fast was shocking and thrilling. I saw a few other racers go by as we converged on Mankato, but none so close.

The crosswind component to Mankato's wide Runway 33 was "only" 15 knots, making for a much less exciting arrival than Windom. And they had fuel! I added half a quart of oil to the Cub's aging A65, checked the weather, took off, and circled back across the airport for the turning point timekeeper to restart my time. I was in very familiar territory now, passing south of Airlake and almost directly over Stanton. Here on the east side of the front, the skies cleared and the wind eased; the ride smoothed out, the crab lessened, and my groundspeed crept back up to 70 knots. I had been planning on a short leg to Red Wing MN followed by one long final push to Wausau, an endurance-stretching 123 nm. There were a few private grass strips along the way to refuel via gas can, if need be. But when I checked the weather in Mankato, I noticed that the wind, which had backed to the west a bit, was forecast to swing north throughout the day and across the course. This seemed to match what I was seeing in the air. Why not make my northing now, land in Menomonie WI, and then run straight east for the last 95nm to Wausau? It was a little more distance but I was pretty sure it would be faster, very similar to playing a shift in sailboat racing.

I turned a bit left, crossed the Mississippi just north of Red Wing, and dodged a few scattered rain squalls on my way into Menomonie. I landed there just after 11am, refueled, grabbed a soda and some chips, texted Dawn, and checked the radar. A big cell was just moving across Wausau but would be gone by the time I arrived. I took off to the northeast, skirting around Eau Claire's Class D (which race rules prohibited penetrating, likely with Lancair speeds in mind) before turning straight east along Highway 29. An hour later, the Wisconsin River and Rib Mountain came into view, and then the Wausau Airport. I started a cruise descent from 3500', enjoying a last burst of speed. Rolling out over the river, I gave the old Cub everything she had and possibly even broke 100 mph in the last dive to the finish line! "Race 103....Mark! Congratulations!" crackled the voice on race frequency.

On landing I was surprised to find that many of the racers were still in Wausau, though they soon began to leave en masse for Oshkosh. I refueled the Cub (cheap mogas!) and enjoyed a picnic meal courtesy of EAA Chapter 640, then beat a hasty path out of town with the last two support planes as a large thunderstorm bore down on the airport. From there it was an enjoyable last hour to Ripon, and then the now-familiar Fisk arrival to Oshkosh. My arrival there was complicated by the fact that I was flying a plane that couldn't even nearly maintain the standard 90 knots - I'll write more about that next post. Suffice it to say I made it in safely without too much commotion, and was rewarded with one of the best parking spots in all of Oshkosh: smack dab in the middle of show center, right on the flightline. My little Cub, wings and fuselage marked with duct-tape "103" decals, looked oddly at home with all the sleek Lancairs, Glasairs, and RVs in the race corral. She had kept me safe and even fairly comfortable over 7 hours and 470 nm in a single day, my greatest Cub adventure thus far. Over the next week her yellow fabric-covered wings would provide shade for countless spectators at the daily airshows.

That night the racers and family & friends reconvened at Wendt's on the Lake for fried perch, cold beer, and the awards ceremony. It was fun hearing all the different stories from the day. Some very impressive race times were posted, above all that of "Screaming Yellow Zonker," a Lancair IV that finished the course in 1 hour 13 minutes at an average speed of 346 mph. On the opposite end of the field, I finished in 5 hours 24 minutes (excluding stops) for a rather respectable average speed of 78 mph. I actually won the Vintage class! Unfortunately, I was the only entrant in that class after a Taylorcraft (which would have smoked me) dropped out.

Racing the Cub in the AirVenture Cup was a very fun way to begin an enjoyable week at Oshkosh, one that was quite a bit different for me than previous years. I'll write about that next time.








Sunday, July 27, 2014

Live from Mitchell, SD

As I wrote in my "Taking Wing" column in the August issue of Flying that hit newsstands this week, I'm flying into Oshkosh for the fifth time this year - the first time in my flying club Piper Cub. What I didn't say is that I was flying 220 nm in the wrong direction to Mitchell, South Dakota, and then racing one of the world's slowest airplanes to Oshkosh! I'm participating in the 2014 AirVenture Cup tomorrow, technically from Mitchell to Wausau, WI, and continuing on into OSH.

I was roped into this by a friend who formerly flew with me at my last airline and now flies for USAirways. He's the Vice-Chairman for the race committee, and has been helping put in on since he was in his teens. I've met other AVC volunteers and participants at previous Oshkoshes, and it always sounded like a good time. So yesterday, Friday July 25, I packed up the Cub with camping equipment and headed west, averaging 55 kts groundspeed over 4 hours flying time to Mitchell with fuel stops in Redwood Falls, MN and Brookings, SD. Approaching Mitchell, the airport was already quite busy with arrivals by RV-6s, Long-EZs, Lancairs, Glasairs, SX300s, Questairs, Thunder Mustangs, and even a Cassutt or two. If it wasn't clear that this is a race populated by people serious about speed, it was after I flew over the airport while three experimentals made low passes down Runway 30 at velocities I'd normally associate with the jets I fly for work. What was I doing here with a Cub!?

I duly made my "high speed" pass down Runway 30 - I think I broke 100 mph in the dive! - and landed. From the moment the little 75 hp Continental puttered to a halt, all the volunteers, racers, and spectators welcomed me as though I was an old-time veteran racing a 300 mph Lancair. Racing the Cub, believe it or not, isn't exactly a novelty - they've had an equally-slow Pietenpol race multiple times before! But it has been a good conversation starter, and I've naturally become known as "the guy racing the Cub." Most of the people here have Cub memories of their own, and clearly have a soft spot for the airplane. There were actually three Cubs in attendance today for the open house and Young Eagles event. Despite a 3 hour delay due to some heavy weather this morning, a lot of people ended coming out and we flew 126 Young Eagles. We had plenty of pilot volunteers, and I took up 3 youngsters in the Cub, all of whom elected to leave the door open and enjoy the cool breeze and great views. Mark Baker, President of AOPA, flew in with his Caravan amphib and addressed the crowd both at the airport and at our pre-race briefing/banquet tonight. He had some great things to say about lowering the expense of flying for newcomers, particularly promoting flying clubs and simple used aircraft like the C150/152, or the Cub. You don't hear many industry groups talking like that, because it doesn't benefit the manufacturers - not directly, anyways (down the road, I think anything that reverses the decline in the pilot population will pay dividends throughout GA).

I'm taking off tomorrow at 6:30am, in the interest of making it across the finish line and into Oshkosh while the beer's still cold. It sounds like I'll actually have good tailwinds, but perhaps some lower ceilings and showery activity across Minnesota and Wisconsin. It's 368nm to the finish line, and another 80 or so into Oshkosh, which is a grand adventure in a Cub any day! We'll see if I make it in one day - safety is priority number one, and if weather forces me to abandon the race, that's a lot better than pressing on into deteriorating conditions in a very basic airplane. Whether I finish tomorrow or later in the week, there will be a lot of cool new friends with slick speed machines to meet up with in Oshkosh.





Friday, July 25, 2014

I Heart NY

Well, it sure didn’t take long to get off low-time restrictions. My seven weeks of line flying on the Mad Dog have netted me 120 hours in the plane despite being on reserve. Reserve pilots usually fly less than lineholders because you're seldom used every day, you do plenty of oddball 1- or 2-leg trips, and you tend to ride around in the back of airplanes a lot (deadheading). This summer, though, my company is doing a lot of flying, especially in the Mad Dog, and it’s all hands on deck. Thus far I’ve been used on nearly every day of reserve, mostly for 3 and 4 day trips.

I’m based in New York City, partially by choice. My airline has a Mad Dog domicile in Minneapolis, but it’s proving to be an extremely popular base among our junior pilots. I estimate that there are 50+ pilots between me and the “plug” in MSP, meaning it could be a year or more before I can hold it. In the meantime I’m forced to either move or commute. Dawn has a good job she enjoys in the Twin Cities, we like our home here, and we’ve become used to having family nearby, so we’ve decided to stay put for the time being. My choice then, is which commute is least painful. I can hold all three other Mad Dog bases, but the first is a small base connected to MSP only by 50-seat RJs, and the second has a ton of employees that commute from MSP, making it difficult to find an open seat or jumpseat. New York, however, has plenty of flights from MSP, they tend to have seats available, and I have higher seniority there than I would in any other base. This is true across all fleets at my airline: NYC goes junior.

This extra seniority comes at a price. NYC-based pilots at my company must cover three separate airports (LGA, JFK, and EWR); moving between them is slow and expensive, and the airspace and airports are both quite congested. Because there’s so much Origination & Destination (O&D) traffic, many of the rotations begin early in the morning and end late at night, forcing pilots to commute on their days off and spend extra nights in the domicile. That said, because so many NYC-based crewmembers are commuters (I’ve seen estimates of 80%), there’s a pretty well developed infrastructure in place. For starters, there are many crashpads scattered throughout Queens between LGA and JFK. One area, Kew Gardens, hosts so many crashpads that it has acquired the nickname of “Crew Gardens” and boasts a cab company that caters almost solely to airline crew. Some crashpads are pretty basic and offer little more than a mattress for the night; others offer all the comforts of home. My crashpad is actually pretty close to LGA, in Jackson Heights, since ¾ of the Mad Dog flying is out of that airport. It’s quite nice, well equipped and clean, with its own free shuttle service to LGA and JFK. It's also not far off the E or 7 trains, making it easy to go into Manhattan on the rare reserve days I'm not being used.

Commuting to reserve is a notoriously tough gig, but the work rules at my airline make it a lot easier than it was at either of my last two companies. Most reserve days are “long call," meaning I get at least 12 hours notice before report time, and I usually know about trips by 3pm the day before I start reserve, making informed commuting decisions much easier. On the first day of reserve we cannot be assigned a trip that begins before 10am. Many of the trips begin or end with deadheads; our contract allows us to “deviate” from a scheduled deadhead positive-space. So if I begin work tomorrow and am awarded a trip for which the first leg is a deadhead LGA-ATL, I call crew scheduling, tell them I will deviate, and book positive-space travel MSP-ATL for around the same time as the original deadhead. I save myself a night away from home and get a confirmed seat to work - score! Reserves can put in “Yellow Slips” that tell crew scheduling their preferences for awarded trips. I have a permanent yellow slip for trips that begin or end with a deadhead, as well as for trips that have a report time after 1pm and/or release time before 6pm (allowing a same-day commute). Obviously if a trip needs to be covered and I’m next in line, I’m going to fly it regardless of preferences, but if there are several trips to be covered and one meets my criteria, that’s the one I get. This has worked very well over the last month, giving me multiple extra nights at home and eliminating several potentially stressful commutes.

The Preferential Bidding Software (PBS) that my airline uses also gives reserve bidders much more flexibility than my last company. If you wish, you can lump all 17 reserve days into a single giant block, giving yourself a stretch of 13 days off (or 26, if you go back-to-back across bid periods). Of course, under Part 117 you are required to have 30 hours free of duty every 168 hours (7 days), so unless you are awarded a trip with a 30-hour overnight, you’ll end up with extra days off in the middle of your reserve block. This has happened several times, and the timing has worked out to give me several extra nights back in Minnesota.

Because of all the flying this summer, crew scheduling is offering a lot of “green slips” – basically, last-minute trips on your days off for premium pay and/or additional “payback days” off later in the month. A lot of senior pilots, anticipating the ability to make extra cash by green-slipping, purposely bid reserve with the first two weeks off, during which they pick up enough green slips to get the next two weeks off, during which they greenslip yet more, essentially flying the whole month at 200% pay. This is known as "Rolling Thunder." Those senior enough to buddy-bid with check airmen often get their trips bought off for IOE and then greenslip the entire month, basically making 300% pay. We have one Mad Dog FO in NYC that reportedly made over $300k last year doing exactly this.

As for me, I value summer days off far more than extra cash, so I don’t bid with green slips in mind, and I don’t hang around NYC any longer than necessary hoping I’ll get one. Thanks to the fact that reserve is going fairly senior, and that I’m already #80 out of 105 FOs in my category, I got a regular line for August, and a pretty nice one at that! All the trips are commutable on at least one end, I got partial weekends off, and I got a mid-month 8-day stretch of days off for a sailing trip I’m doing out of LA. Not bad for my third month! So yes, New York can be a pain to get to, and it can be crowded, dirty, and expensive, and the airports can be pretty hectic places – but these things, much like the Mad Dog's quirks, keep senior FOs away and afford me much better seniority than I'd otherwise have. So I don't care what anyone says - 'till the day that I can hold Minneapolis, I love NY!