Wednesday, October 01, 2014

A Trip to Catalina

Back in August I chartered a Beneteau 43-foot sailboat for five days out of Marina del Rey in Los Angeles with Dawn, my little brother Steve, and friends Lance, Ivy, Kelly, and Rob. We did a 4-day trip to Catalina Island, and then Steve and I spent an additional night anchored up at Paradise Cove near Malibu. We enjoyed beautiful weather and phenomenal sailing conditions, and I was able to get the entire crew training & practice time at each of the crew positions. It was actually my second time taking this boat to Catalina, as "Liberty" was the boat used for my ASA104 Bareboat Chartering course last September. Here's the really cool part: the charter company / sailing school, Blue Pacific Boating, hired Steve to make a promotional video from our trip. Steve is a multi-talented guy, and he did a really nice job with it (including enlisting our brother-in-law Jordan to write & record the music). I don't know about you, but it makes me want to head for the nearest body of water and jump on a sailboat! Watch it full-screen in 1080p.


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Carbon Envy

I have only flown a handful of taildraggers in my life: the Piper PA16 Clipper, Aeronca Champ, and Bellanca Super Decathlon before I had my tailwheel endorsement, and the Cessna 170B and my club's current 1946 Piper Cub since. I look at Luscombes, Piper Pacers, and Stinson 108s on barnstormers.com all the time, but I have yet to fly any of these. I just haven't put the necessary legwork and gumption into making contacts and scoring rides, I guess. Compare this to "Weasel," otherwise known as Eric Whyte, chairman of the AirVenture Cup race that I recently participated in. He's only a little older than me and has flown 105 aircraft types, many of them rare classics and warbirds. You can guess how he got his nickname!

I'm interested by the many variant aircraft that the Cub eventually spawned, from the Cub Special to the Super Cub to the Aviat Husky, but I have not flown any of them - until now. I recently had the opportunity to fly a brand new CubCrafters Carbon Cub SS, the newest and perhaps most impressive descendent of my humble J-3. Because I have no experience with the intervening and more equivalent aircraft, I can only compare the Carbon Cub with my own well-used 68-year-old club airplane, which inevitably pales in comparison. The Carbon Cub's empty weight is only 100 lbs heavier than the J-3, with 180 horsepower available vs. 75! But more about that in a minute.

I'll admit that I used my newfound "aviation journalist" status and accompanying press badge to score this little junket at Oshkosh. I did so on the advice of Jeff Skiles (most well known as the FO on US1549, but more recently a part of EAA leadership and a writer for Sport Aviation). Dawn and I hung out with Jeff for an hour at Oshkosh and afterwards sat in on an interview with CubCrafters' General Manager, Randy Lervold. Afterward Jeff arranged a flight for that evening and suggested I go up as well. "Being an aviation writer is all about collecting new experiences," he noted. "Airline flying and early career stories will only take you so far." Touché. Lervold immediately granted my request, though it was obvious I didn't have a Carbon Cub story in the works.


So on Monday evening, Dawn and I rode her motorbike to Hickory Oaks, a 2200' grass strip a few miles north of town that seemed to be in an entirely different universe than the bustling convention grounds. Five brand new Carbon Cubs sat prettily on the freshly mowed grass, looking perfectly at place as potential customers and sales reps milled about. The CC appears nearly identical to a Super Cub, as intended, but its underlying structure is in fact almost entirely different. It shares very little commonality with CubCrafters' Super Cub-derived Top Cub design. This is how it saves so much weight over the 80-year-old Cub airframe: a modern computer-aided design that eliminates unnecessary structure. For sure, there's some use of space age materials (cowling and spinner use the eponymous carbon fiber, for example) but it's still mostly a tube and fabric design. There's just a lot less tube than the Super Cub. Time will tell whether it makes a difference in durability. The Super Cub is so popular in places like the Alaska bush precisely because it's so over-engineered.


Lervold rightly points out that serious bush flying is not really what the Carbon Cub was intended for; that's the Top Cub's balliwick. The Carbon Cub was made for the recreational Light Sport market; the target audience is older, affluent, and downsizing into something fun that reminds them of the taildraggers of their youth while offering decent comfort and excellent performance. It certainly has that in spades; it is without question the best-performing LSA out there and arguably the most "airplane-like." This has stirred up considerable controversy in the LSA world. Like all LSAs, the Carbon Cub did not go through the rigorous Part 23 certification process; it was designed to meet less rigid ASTM standards. In order to qualify as an LSA, though, it was limited to a maximum gross weight of 1320 lbs and a max top speed of 120 knots. The airplane is clearly very capable of hauling much more and going considerably faster, and the Carbon Cub's critics argue that CubCrafters is promoting the airplane's performance with a wink and a nod regarding the certified limits.


They may have a point. As Lervold and Skiles climbed into the airplane for the first demo ride, I couldn't help but wonder whether an enterprising FAA inspector conducting ramp checks at this small grass strip would find the aircraft to be loaded within legal limits. In fact both Lervold and Skiles are relatively svelte men and the airplane had partial fuel, so I'm guessing the 424 lb useful load was observed on this occasion. I can't imagine many owners would be so fastidious. But is having the performance to exceed a limitation really a flaw? Most airplanes have a fair bit of margin built into their maximum gross weight. Pilots speak with admiration of designs that will "haul anything you can stuff in 'em." Conversely, underpowered designs seldom win fans, which is one reason most LSAs have not sold as well as the CarbonCub. I certainly enjoy a good extra bit of oomph even at sea level with a long runway, much less on the short, tree-hemmed, high-altitude strip that every potential Carbon Cub customer imagines themselves taking the airplane to. The old Cub has some very attractive qualities, but sprightly performance is not one of them. You fly it on the wing, not on the engine. It's worth noting that our club's J3 has almost the exact same legal useful load as the CarbonCub, and is also likely flown over max gross weight at times, but with a far more negative impact on safety margins.

Just from watching Skiles' takeoffs and landings it was clear I was in for a treat. When they returned, I took his place in the front seat, which felt fairly familiar as I usually fly the J3 from the front seat with Dawn aboard (it must be soloed from the rear). The instrument panel is roughly the same size as the J3 but packs in far more information using an interesting design. The airspeed and altimeter are conventional steam gauges; the digital tachometer, comm radio, and transponder are contained within similar compact round dials. Mixture, primer, light switches, and "magnetos" (actually dual electronic ignition) are squeezed around the edges of the panel. But in the middle is a large empty rectangle for mounting an iPad running Wing-X Pro, Foreflight, or similar software. Just about everyone I know (other than myself) uses an iPad for light plane flying these days, and the middle of the panel is a far better mounting spot than most setups I've seen. It's strictly VFR, of course, but it worked great.


The Carbon Cub on conventional tires has better over-the-nose visibility than the J-3, but this demonstrator was on 26" tundra tires, giving it a very familiar attitude and the necessity to S-turn to the runway from either seat. For my first takeoff, Lervold had me use 10 degrees of flaps (the J-3 has none) and an otherwise conventional takeoff technique of stick slightly forward to bring up the tail and then very light back pressure to fly. It happened about as quickly as you read that, maybe 5 or 6 seconds, during half of which I was still getting the throttle fully open! After liftoff I pulled up, and up, and up to a fairly nutty deck angle to achieve the Vy speed of 71 mph. The plane didn't have a rate of climb indicator, but I'd guesstimate it around 2000 fpm - remember, this is at max legal gross weight.


We flew a few miles northwest where Lervold invited me to explore the slow flight regime. The Carbon Cub maneuvered beautifully at partial flaps & 50 mph, including steep turns up to 45 degrees bank. At 35 mph I could still turn it without much complaint other than the occasional chirp of stall warning. Leveling the wings, I cut the power and did my best to get it to break into a stall. It finally did so, but the airspeed indicator was buried at the lower limit of 20 mph. I doubt that was actually accurate, but the VGs do keep the wing flying incredibly slowly. When the plane did break, it started to drop a wing but was easily righted with the powerful rudder. That was actually the biggest adjustment coming from the J-3; the rudder is considerably more sensitive. Other than that, the control feel was quite familiar, albeit with none of the stiffness or slop that comes from 68-year-old bellcranks, stretched control cables, and an out of square airframe. 

Maneuvering complete, we dropped down to Lake Butte des Morts and loafed along at partial flaps and 70 mph checking out the lake shore homes and boats - exactly the sort of sunset patrol that I take the J-3 on all the time, really the one mission at which the Cub thoroughly excels. It was quieter and more comfortable in the Carbon Cub, and I really enjoyed it, but I can't say I would have enjoyed it any less in the J-3. Landings on the other hand...whew, what a rush. Hickory Creek isn't really a STOL strip, not by Cub standards, but we treated it like one, turning base-to-final low between a strand of trees and a gravel heap that made the 45 mph approach speed seem a lot faster than it was. I nursed it over the boundary fence and chopped the last bit of power, brought the nose up to the attitude I use to three-point the J-3, put the stick in my lap as we touched down softly with nary a bounce, and very quickly rolled to a stop. Nice! Either it was beginner's luck or those tundra tires really soften out landings! We didn't bother back-taxiing for the next takeoff. Lervold had me use maximum performance technique: 20 degrees of flaps and stick back a half-inch, full throttle, and let the airplane levitate off the ground from a three-point attitude. CubCrafters claims a ground roll of 60 feet. That sounds about right, it was incredibly quick.


For the encore I did a wheel landing, this time being less aggressive about getting the airplane down and barely touching the brakes after another smooth touchdown; we still only used about 600 feet of runway. We taxiied back to the other Carbon Cubs, which had finished their own demo rides, and shut down the engine. Lervold complimented my flying (like any good demo pilot!) and remarked that I could put .5 hours of CC11-160 PIC time in the logbook. Dawn and I hung around for a while chatting with Lervold, Skiles, and the CubCrafters sales reps while munching on burgers, quaffing cold beer, and eyeing the pretty taildraggers sitting quietly in the grass.


A few days later I was headed home from Oshkosh in my underpowered, beat up flying club Cub, watching pickup trucks pass me on dusty country roads as I strained against a 20 knot headwind at 500' AGL. No iPad or GPS in this plane; my finger followed our route on an open sectional and I peered into the haze for a 300 foot tower that the chart said was somewhere out there. Afternoon thermals tussled the wings and sixty-eight years of oil and dope and sweat swirled about the cockpit. I opened the window and was instantly rewarded with a warm blast of freshly cut hay. I don't mind saying that I didn't miss the Carbon Cub just then. Don't get me wrong; it's a fantastic airplane, I enjoyed flying it, and if I ever strike it rich and have $200k(!) to spare on a fun new airplane, it will be on my short list. But though it's distantly derived from the Cub and looks similar to the Cub, they're really entirely different airplanes. The Carbon Cub is built to safely take you to adventurous and challenging places through modern engineering and superior performance. The J-3, on the other hand, turns entirely routine flights into grand adventures through its very inadequacies and anachronisms. Maybe someday there will come a time when a Carbon Cub makes sense for me. Till then, I'll be perfectly happy to just weasel the occasional ride!

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.