Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Plane of our Own (kinda)

A few months ago I wrote about getting my tailwheel endorsement in a 1946 Piper Cub and expressed hope that I would be able to join the flying club that owns the Cub by summer. As it turned out, the club was too good of a deal. None of the members could be persuaded to sell their share, even the inactive ones. In the meantime I got checked out to rent a 1969 Cherokee 140/160 at a nearby flight school.

Early last month, Dawn and I were out flying the Cherokee around on a sunny Saturday when she mentioned that she would really love to have a plane of our own. The last time she made a similar statement, I bought my BMW motorcycle within a week. This time I was paging through Trade-A-Plane within hours and had soon set my sights on a beautiful '67 Cherokee with 3000 hours, a new engine, new paint, new interior, and all the right mods for $27k. It looks like the recession has finally impacted light single-engine piston plane prices.

Dreaming aside, I knew that buying our own plane would be silly at this stage of our lives. We could afford the purchase price and fixed costs, but there wouldn't be much left over for five dollar 100LL. We wouldn't fly it nearly enough to justify having our own plane. It'd end up being far more expensive than renting on a per-hour basis. Sitting unused is also hard on airplanes, particularly pistons. And really, any disruption to our income would result in our dream bird becoming a financial albatross we'd have to sell in a down market.

Shared ownership, on the other hand, makes a great deal of sense for us. I ran the numbers on a 4-person partnership and concluded that with the fixed costs split four ways, you'd only need to fly about 2 hours per month to save money over renting while still retaining most of the benefits of sole ownership. The problem is generally finding like-minded partners. It's often said that aircraft partnership is like marriage, which I suppose would make a 4-way partnership like Bill Henrickson's marriage(s). You need more in common than miserliness. The ranks of NewCo pilots would provide my most likely partners. Setting up a partnership as a first time owner, though, seemed a rather daunting prospect. I started investigating the details.

In the meantime, I was keeping an eye on the Minneapolis craigslist. It was there that I saw an ad for a flying club with a 1949 Cessna 170A; no buy-in, no monthly dues, $50/hr dry. That seemed almost too good to be true, so I inquired. The 170 turned out to be a new purchase by two guys who are already partners in a 182 on straight floats. They wanted a wheel plane for the winter and when a floatplane is inconvenient. However, realizing that the plane would potentially sit for long periods with no use - particularly during the summer when they mostly fly the 182 - they decided to start an informal 5-person flying club by finding three other insurable pilots willing to fly it at least 25 hours a year. It's potentially a win-win scenario; they partially defray the cost of a plane they don't often fly, and the plane gets steady use to keep the engine happy. Meanwhile I get to fly a classic 4-seat taildragger for cheaper than an equivalent FBO spam can, retain the flexibility of a rental arrangement, but enjoy much of the ownership experience.

The devil is always in the details, but with no buy-in cost it seemed pretty risk-free to check it out. I met the partners and looked at the plane. It won't win Grand Champion at Oshkosh but seems pretty well maintained and is in good condition for a 62-year old airplane. It has a low-time engine, good interior, original VFR panel, Horton STOL kit, beefed up main gear, larger-than-stock tires, and a Scott tailwheel. The six-cylinder Continental O-300 runs amazingly smooth to someone who's used to 4-cylinder Lycomings. It's set up for snow skis, which the owners are hoping to have it on this winter.

I submitted my experience to Avemco and they approved me the same day with a 5-hour checkout requirement. I flew with a CFI friend of the owners, who happens to be a Mesaba pilot. The five hours were a nice introduction to what turned out to be a very sweet flying airplane. It's similar to a 172, as you'd expect, but a bit more nimble. The visibility is actually much better than a 172 due to a lower instrument panel and downward sloping cowling. In fact, visibility is so good you don't need to S-turn during taxi and the runway remains in view during 3-point landings, which this plane loves to do. Like most taildraggers, the 170 is particularly in its element on grass runways. My first few takeoffs and landings on pavement were a bit wobbly - the 170 is heavier and less responsive in ground handling than the Cub, and needs to be led a bit more - but it was a no-brainer on grass. Eventually I got things sorted out on pavement, even making passable wheel landings (where the 170's spring-steel gear turns out to be a bit of a handicap). The last hour of the checkout was a workout making wheel landings in a gusty 20 knot direct crosswind. It's less harrowing once you figure out to give the downwind brake a little tap as the tail comes down.

The weekend after that, Dawn and I rode the BMW out to the airport where the 170 is currently being kept and went for a sunset flight over Lake Minnetonka and the surrounding countryside. It was a clear evening with gorgeous soft, golden light blanketing the rolling, green dimpled hills. We lazed along, throttled back at 500 feet, and I couldn't resist opening a window; an icy blast reminded me that it's still spring in Minnesota. To further prove the point, upon returning to the airport the wind across the runway was blowing harder instead of dying down as forecast. I was glad for that last hour of the checkout as I slid down final in a mighty crab. A kick of the rudder, a twist of the yoke, the chirp of the upwind main touching down softly. In a trike the work's pretty much over at that point, but in a taildragger the fun is just beginning! It all worked out quite nicely this time; it would have been very bad form to groundloop my first time in a taildragger without an instructor (to say nothing of my wife's first C170 ride!).

So far, the flying club arrangement is working out great. The other members have been cool and availability is great. It's nice to fly the same plane all the time and know its quirks, and know who else has been flying it. Even though I don't own the plane, it feels like mine. If I continue to get back into GA more heavily and finances permit, ownership may well be in my future. In the meantime, this is a very nice way to get my toes in the water.

Monday, May 09, 2011

A Short History of Flight

Mankind has dreamed of flight from the very dawn of time. Cave paintings and fossilized remains discovered in Croatia prove that sometime around 30,000 B.C., an early tribe of Homo Sapiens designed and began construction on a wood-and-reed aircraft clearly inspired by the wings of eagles. Unfortunately, the project was beset by design flaws, underperforming subcontractors, an overextended supply chain, and certification delays. To offset cost overruns, the village aircraft consortium floated an IPO, but it attracted little interest and share prices plummeted from the very start. The village elders were debating subsidies for the consortium when a competing tribe of Neanderthals snuck into their camp and clubbed everyone to death. Dreams of flight would remain dreams only for thousands of years.

Around 1500 B.C., a Greek communist named Daedalus and his son Icarus wished to return from Crete to Athens for the annual austerity measures riots. King Minos, an early tea party member, forbade it, so Daedalus and Icarus plotted their leave. Daedalus rejected a more traditional seaborne escape; a pleasure cruise on the sunny Mediterranean, he declared, was a bourgeois extravagance of the corrupt middle class. His escape could only be revolutionary, and to that end Daedalus superglued duck feathers onto his and Icarus’ arms and they flew out over the sea. Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but Icarus rejected the fascist paternalism of the reactionary generation and flew where he damn well pleased. In the process he got a very nasty sunburn, stopped flapping to apply aloe, and plummeted to the sea where the modern laws of physics were already in effect; water tension snapped his spine and liquefied his internal organs. Daedalus torched a bank in Icarus’ honor.

Jack and Joe Montgolfier were French farmers who wished there was a quicker way to get their produce to market. Observing the way that smoke rises from lit fires and orating politicians, Joe deduced that heat rises and built the first hot air balloon in 1783. At first things went swimmingly, for their balloon transported their ducks, sheep, and roosters quite safely and efficiently. But then a rumor sprang up that the balloon was German, and all the Frenchmen started surrendering to it. The brothers Montgolfier solved the problem by sending up a man on all subsequent flights to shout Frenchy things, and human flight was born.

Otto Lilienthal was German, and surrendering Frenchmen were forever impeding his experiments with gliders in the late 1800s. It became such a problem that he built an artificial hill near Berlin, where he could work in peace without Frenchmen surrendering to him. His life was cut tragically short in 1896, when he crashed into a lost Polack. His last words as he lay dying were “Kleine Opfer müssen gebracht werden!,” which means “We should probably just annex them both!”

The Wright Brothers were bicycle mechanics and visionaries who saw that bikes were clearly on their way out; after all, who in their right mind would toil and sweat and risk getting trampled by horses when they could fire up their trusty 3 horsepower Stanley Steamer and cruise to work in comfort and safety? Instead, the Wright Brothers turned their attention to powered heavier-than-air flight. In 1903 they got Charlie Taylor to build them a light gasoline-powered engine, strapped it to a Lilienthal glider, checked carefully to make sure there were no Frenchmen or Polacks present, and flew into history (actually, into a sand dune 100 feet away). They spent the rest of their lives suing anyone who challenged their assertion that they were the Fathers of Flight, as well as anyone who tried to repeat their feat in a similar aircraft. Among the Wright Brothers’ greatest accomplishments is the creation of the aileron.

In 1914, all of Europe went to war and dragged all their colonies along with them (including the cute ones who naively insisted they were ex-colonies). Two happy side effects were massive depopulation that prevented the world from starving to death by 1972, and a rapid advance in aircraft design. Everyone had a jolly time shooting off their propellers and dropping flour bombs on the trenches. It was so much fun that the French stopped surrendering and joined in heartily. The Red Baron pioneered the first airborne pizza delivery service, and everyone was happy and well fed during their 3-week average lifespan at the front.

A major flaw in World War One aircraft was uncovered at the end of the war, when it was discovered that wood-and-fabric planes could not be easily turned into beer cans. Instead, barnstormers flew them around the country, inspiring thousands to leave the comfort and safety of their Stanley Steamers to take to the air. One of these was Charles Lindbergh, a disgruntled postal worker who decided to fly across the Atlantic. He brilliantly realized that the surest way to find one’s way to Europe is to do so in an airplane without windows, and he did exactly that in 1927, all the way from New York to Paris. There he was mobbed by thousands of surrendering Frenchmen, a traumatic experience that turned him into a lifelong German.

In 1939, failed Bruno Ganz impersonator Adolf Hitler said “Kleine Opfer müssen gebracht werden!” and annexed both Poland and France. All of Europe went to war and dragged all their colonies along with them (including the cutes ones who pretended to be neutral for a few years to prove their independence). Two happy side effects were massive depopulation that prevented the world from starving to death until 2086, and a rapid advance in aircraft design. The French sat this one out, but everyone else had a marvelous time. Many people joined flying clubs and warbird associations, for such classics as the P-51, Spitfire, Bf 109, and B-17 were readily available then. Airshows were held almost daily. Fly-ins were held at prime holiday destinations like Italy, the French coast, and the South Pacific. Eventually the Germans insisted on all events being held in Germany, which made it all rather dull, so everyone went home (the Americans by way of Japan for one last airshow). This time everyone had the foresight to build their airplanes of aluminum for easy beer-can conversion.

After the war, the Americans turned their undivided attention to making peaceful technological advances for the betterment of humankind. They invented jet engines and installed them on supersonic fighters to keep the peace. They built massive bombers to pulverize any troublemaking cities quickly and humanely. They developed bigger and better nuclear weapons to wipe out whole countries of miscreants with the least pain and inconvenience to the recipients possible, and invented giant rockets to deliver this humanitarian assistance in mere minutes at the press of a button. Contrary to all hopes and expectations, massive depopulation did not result, and mankind was doomed to eventual starvation. More happily, the new technology was readily transferred to the realm of space exploration, where great strides were being made. In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon. He memorialized the occasion by exclaiming “Holy [redacted], I’m [redacted] walking on the mother-[redacted] moon! Can you [redacted] believe it!?” NASA deemed these remarks unsuitable for television audiences and substituted moon landing footage that had been pre-recorded on a Hollywood sound stage.

Meanwhile, ordinary Americans were doing what Americans did best: bilking other Americans out of their hard-earned money. Legendary men like Eddie Rickenbacker, Juan Trippe, and Howard Hughes built airlines like Eastern, PanAm, and TWA into global powerhouses that would stand forever as immortal testaments to the inherent goodness, wisdom, and morality of American Capitalism. In 1958 Boeing launched the jet age with the 707, an airplane that whisked passengers to their destinations in half the time and half the comfort of the old propliners. Suddenly there was no place in the world that Americans could not quickly and easily go to loudly complain about how inferior everything was to America.

In 1978, everyman Edward Kennedy and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter lamented the fact that commercial flying was still too expensive for the Average Joe. Failing to see any way to decrease the inherent cost of using a finite fuel source to accelerate an object weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds and consisting of thousands of intricate parts painstakingly assembled by skilled craftsman to near-supersonic speeds and loft it to altitudes at the outer reaches of the atmosphere and do so with great reliability and safety, Kennedy and Carter hit on a plan to simply transfer the costs. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 indeed made flying much cheaper for passengers, and much more expensive for airlines, their employees, their suppliers, and their shareholders. It was wildly successful. By 2000, so many people were flying that nobody could fly anywhere without a three hour delay.

Saudi bad boy Osama bin Laden graciously lent a helping hand in 2001, the newly created Transportation Security Administration did its part, and soon traffic was humming right along with nary a delay. The airlines took advantage of the breather to rid themselves of all their old, nasty, polluting narrow body aircraft and replace them with comfortable, efficient Canadian Regional Jets. These aircraft were flown by pilots so experienced that they met or exceeded FAA minimums, and their crews were paid near or sometimes even at the federal minimum wage. Any remaining gaps in the system were gamely filled in by Southwest Airlines, which seemed to come out of nowhere with an audacious business plan that involved young, attractive stewardesses in gogo boots serving free booze (who could’ve anticipated that working, especially in Texas!?!).

In the mid-aughts, airline executives courageously declared that they would not allow such stirring success to go unrewarded. Convinced of the justness of their cause, they took their companies to court, where some of the bravest judges in the free world did the right thing and transferred more of the cost of flying onto airline employees, suppliers, and shareholders. At long last, airline executives were able to share in the bounty of all they had wrought through the force of their blood, sweat, and tears. After striking such a blow for freedom one might expect the executives to rest on their laurels, but they were relentless in their pursuit of justice. With hardly a pause, they embarked on a crusade against the rapacious work rules that kept them toiling night and day. In short time they had merged six airlines into three, thus emancipating countless executives from the tyranny of their duties and freeing them to enjoy the fruits of their labors with such middle-class pastimes as yachting, mansion decoration, and making love to the secretaries of their Vice-Presidents’ Executive Assistants’ Assistants’ Assistants to the Assistant Executive Assistants.

The remaining executives, meanwhile, were finding their obligations much less taxing as they had discovered they could run an airline without actually running an airline. Through the magic of codeshares and global alliances they could sell tickets and take in revenue while poor executives still enslaved on the dark shores of Europe and Asia did the hard work of actually flying the passengers. Whatever could not be done offshore was subcontracted to regional airlines, whose executives still worked very hard flying so many legs every day but didn’t seem to mind so long as wads of cash were being constantly stuffed in their suits.

Boeing executives took note of airline management’s stirring example and threw off their own chains by shutting down production of every airliner except the most dated one, which Southwest bribed Boeing to keep building with gogo-booted stewardesses and free booze. Meanwhile they designed a revolutionary new airliner clearly inspired by the wings of eagles and built with advanced wood and reed composites, but the project was beset by design flaws, underperforming subcontractors, an overextended supply chain, and certification delays. None of this bothered the executives much, for all the hard work was being done overseas, freeing them to enjoy such middle-class pastimes as yachting, mansion decoration, and making love to the Secretary of the Air Force.

As the second decade of the twenty-first century dawns, America stands triumphant in the field of aerospace, as in most other things. We have the biggest airlines, who are burdened with very little flying. We have the best airplane manufacturers, who only need do very little building. Our marvelous aviation industry, in short, has achieved the American Dream, so succinctly summed up by that philosopher of the mother country, Mark Knopfler: “Money for nothing, and chicks for free.” Let the Canadians, the Brazilians, the Japanese do the hard work. We will have a jolly time yachting and mansion decorating and mocking those blinkered Airbus executives working hard shouting Frenchy things at their Polack workers and surrendering wheelbarrows full of cash to their German bankers. The future is bright!

Monday, May 02, 2011

Stuck in the Mud

Last week, Southwest Airlines topped off a month of unwanted publicity when one of their B737s slid off the end of Runway 13C at Chicago's Midway Airport. Thankfully, nobody was seriously hurt and the aircraft appeared to suffer only minor damage. It's not the first time Southwest has been off the runway in Midway: in 2005, SWA1248 departed the same stretch of pavement (in the opposite direction, on 31C) at high speed, crashing through the airport fence and coming to rest on South Central Avenue, where a six year old boy in a car was killed.

This time around, the happier ending had a few airline pilots making cracks at Southwest's expense. It's true, SWA's accidents have all involved running off the end of runways, and their pilots do have a reputation for taxiing at a, umm, brisk speed. That said, I think there's a bit of schadenfreude over SWA's financial success and the fact that their B737 pilots are now better paid than senior widebody pilots at all the legacy airlines. The old advice about stone-casting in glass houses definitely applies here. The fact remains that Southwest has yet to kill a passenger in 40 years of flying, something none of the legacy airlines can claim. Moreover, to the extent legacy pilots haven't been running airplanes off runways lately (ahem), it's worth pointing out that much of their flying to marginal airports has been outsourced. Delta and American and United jets have all gone on offroad adventures lately, but in each case the airplane was operated by a regional carrier. Every Southwest jet has a Southwest pilot at the controls, something that should shame legacy pilots a whole lot more than Southwest's superior payrates and work rules.

The 2005 accident occurred while landing downwind on a contaminated runway in an intense snowstorm. Touchdown occurred 2000 feet down the runway, and the thrust reversers failed to deploy for 18 seconds. This incident took place in considerably better conditions, although the runway was reported to be wet. The NTSB will do its thing and we'll find out what went wrong, but for now it's worthwhile noting that the airplane went off the end of the runway to the side, and not straight ahead into the EMAS bed that was installed to prevent a recurrence of the 2005 accident. I'm guessing the pilot tried to make a fast left turn onto Taxiway Echo and lost traction.

Regardless of what mistakes were made in this case, Midway is a pretty marginal airport for most jet airliners. Runway 31C is the longest landing runway with 6059' usable, and all the others have under 6000 feet. There are no approaches to 22L/R, and only the ILS 31C is available in under one mile visibility. Circling approaches and landings with strong crosswinds or slight tailwinds are all common. There's really nothing wrong with the airport that an extra 1000' of pavement for each runway wouldn't fix, but that would involve bulldozing a fair amount of South Chicago low-income housing. It isn't going to happen.

In the meantime, Midway is one of those airports that require special attention. I am particularly mindful of what the wind is doing and what runways are available, and will divert rather than land downwind. O'Hare is very close, and there are a number of other usable alternates within a half-hour's flight time. I always land with full flaps regardless of landing weight (we land at normal airports with "Flaps 5;" full flaps make the Junglebus "shake like a dog trying to pass a peach pit!"). At Midway, my idea of the "touchdown zone" shrinks significantly, and I'll usually touch down in the first 1000' or so of runway.* I'll always try to touch down firmly, and few of my MDW landings would be considered "pretty." A firm touchdown ensures that the landing gear proximity sensors close immediately, extending the ground spoilers and enabling immediate braking. All of this is admittedly overkill on a good day, but I use the good days to practice for the really bad ones.

Most pilots that land at Midway or similarly marginal airports with any regularity can understand how it wouldn't take a whole lot going wrong to end up sliding off the end of the runway. Seeing the Southwest 737 stuck in the mud off Runway 13C is a good reminder to stay vigilant and continue doing everything I can to prevent it happening to me. Incidentally, I worry a lot more about the "Engine Failure at V1" scenario in MDW than a long landing, and there's not much I can do to decrease my risk in that department. The good news is that the chances of anyone suffering a complete engine failure in the few seconds between 100 knots and Vr while departing Midway are rather small, which makes my own personal risk quite tiny indeed.

* Touching down at 1000' requires going below the VASI in the final stages of the approach. Some airline pilots balk at this based on a flawed understanding of 91.129(e)(3), which requires pilots to "maintain an altitude at or above the glide path until a lower altitude is necessary for a safe landing." If you follow the VASI all the way down, you will touch down 1500-2500 feet down the runway, which is unacceptable at Midway with anything other than dry, bare pavement. Most airplane's contaminated runway numbers are contingent on touchdown at the 1000' mark. I certainly don't suggest dusting off the chimneys of the houses surrounding Midway, but with the displaced thresholds and lack of high obstacles on approach, going below VASI in the last quarter-mile at MDW is both safe and legal. You will see most aircraft cross the displaced threshold at well under 50'.