Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Summer Aloft

A long, hot Minnesota summer is rapidly drawing to a close, although nobody has informed the weather gods just yet - it's nearly 90 degrees in Minneapolis as I write. Dawn is back in her sweltering, non-air conditioned classroom, preparing for a fresh onslaught of restless seventh graders after Labor Day. Soon enough her kids will be settled in and learning their algebra, the air will turn crisp, and the leaves will summon one last burst of brilliance before falling to be buried by the first snowfall. A long, hot summer that passed too quickly and slipped away too soon, as Minnesota summers do.

As it happened, a good portion of it wasn't even spent in Minnesota. There was work, of course, with several 90+ hour months despite my best intentions to fly as little as possible; my airline had an unexpected spike in block hours and it was "all hands on deck." The work was good, though, with a lot of west coast flying and the attendant good weather and interesting scenery and fun layovers and almost nothing worth blogging about. I was hassled by surprisingly few thunderstorms even when my trips loitered in the midwest or strayed east. And despite the heavy workload, I found the time to take a ten-day whirlwind tour of Italy with my younger brother Steve and a friend of his.

The rest of my free time was filled with family functions and motorcycle rides and camping and road trips and days on Lake Minnetonka - for Steve and I bought an old sailboat, currently parked in our driveway to Dawn's dismay. But none of these were as central to my summer as was flying - not button-pushing or cockpit managing or whatever you want to call what I do for work, but flying! I had not one but two classic birds "of my own" to take up, and I took them up as much as possible. It was the most just-for-fun flying I've ever done. The only time I came close was in the summer of 1999, between high school and college, when I flew as much as my minimum-wage job could support.

We took the Cessna 170 to Dawn's family reunion in Glenwood, and later to visit her parents and pick up our nephew in Wheaton. We took the 170 to EAA Oshkosh and camped under her wing for three nights. We took early morning dawn patrols and late evening sunset cruises. I made countless circles of Lake Minnetonka and flybys of downtown Minneapolis skyscrapers. I took a ton of people flying: crewmembers, friends, siblings, parents, in-laws, cousins, nephews and niece, family friends, young eagles and others who'd never flown in a small plane. One beautiful Sunday a few weekends ago, I took eight people up over five flights in the 170 and the Cub.

Speaking of which, I'm beginning to get comfortable in the J-3, and I'm really starting to appreciate what a good, honest little airplane it is. Hand-propping is getting easier, and it'll usually start on the first or second blade. Dawn finding the back seat much easier to get into, I've started flying it from the front seat, an entirely different experience. Our flights are usually local to Airlake, with occasional meanderings across the cornfields to the grass strips at Stanton or Wipline. The door stays open, making warm days comfortable and encouraging the occasional friendly wave to boaters and farmers peering skyward at our little yellow airplane. Even my mom, who generally dislikes small planes and has only flown with me thrice, loved the Cub, open door and all. So did my nine-year-old nephew Dylan, who I recently took to Stanton in the Cub for a picnic lunch while we watched the gliders launch and recover. Dylan is well on his way to being a little airplane fanatic.

The Cub is a delightfully easy plane to land, particularly when wheel-landing it, and it handles crosswinds much better than its light construction would seem to suggest. In the 170, my wheel landings have improved dramatically with practice, proving that my previous bouncers weren't entirely the steel spring landing gear's fault. My approach and landing to 18R at Oshkosh - a tight left base to a 3-pointer right on the pink dot - was a thing of beauty. I did have a well-worn tailwheel tire blow out on landing at PNM, which was an interesting experience to say the least, but I kept the ole 170 out of the weeds. Guess my preflights should be a little more critical, eh? Learning to fly these old airplanes better has been a rewarding part of my summer aloft.

With Dawn going back to school and the temperatures dropping and the days shortening, I figure the flying will drop off a bit. The 170 will get moved back to Buffalo, and we'll be closing the Cub's door more often. Still, there are the fall colors to look forward to, and then the possibility of flying the 170 on skis if we get more snow this winter than last. And even if I don't get up as much as I'd like, I have many wonderful memories of warm evenings spent soaring low over golden wheatfields and rustling oaks and sun-speckled lakes to last me through the long, dark Minnesota winter.