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.