Powerful airpower

Wow, wow, WOW! I just saw the movie Above and Beyond, and it’s truly above and beyond the typical movie experience. This is an amazing, beautiful, and informative movie that’s a joy to watch. It’s the story of the birth of the Israeli air force, and it’s an amazing tale that’s gone untold for too long.

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Probably most Americans know the rough outline of the birth of the State of Israel: The United Nations voted to “partition” Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. At once the new Jewish state was attacked by five neighboring Arab nations. The Arabs publicly vowed to finish the job Hitler started, and the world community stood by and did nothing. The Jews basically had nothing more than handguns, while the highly organized, well armed, state-of-the-art professional Arab armies had all the implements of modern warfare, including armor and aircraft.

The smart money was on the Arabs, but that was not how history played out.

That much I knew, but what I didn’t know until I saw this movie, was that Jewish pilots from around the world who had served in World War II came to the aid of the new Jewish State. Think Flying Tigers, only in the Middle East. They were called the Machal, the volunteers from abroad.

Many of these volunteer pilots had never really thought of themselves as Jewish, and most didn’t speak Hebrew. One pilot, after being shot down by Arab air forces, was then shot at by Israeli ground forces. He saved his life by yelling out the names of all Jewish foods he could think of.

And combat wasn’t the only risk to the pilots. Many of them were Americans, and our government threatened loss of citizenship for anyone who flew for Israel. The fliers had to sneak out of the country using elaborate subterfuge, sometimes with the FBI nipping at their heels.

Above and Beyond does a great job of giving the viewer just enough information about the birth of Israel to put the creation of the nascent air force into perspective, while shocking us by reminding us just how deep and pervasive anti-Semitism ran in our own society not so long ago. But the movie is riveting and beautiful, both in its story and in its storytelling. Director Roberta Grossman seamlessly blends interviews with some of the surviving pilots, archival footage, and modern computer-generated graphics into a feast for the eyes, ears, and soul.

The most amazing moment for me? To set the stage, understand that while enough countries in the world voted for partition, creating the state of Israel, only one afforded any assistance to them beyond that point. And it wasn’t us. It was, of all nations, Czechoslovakia. But this wasn’t noble on their part; it was practical. The Czech economy was in tatters and the Israelis had the only American export that they’d managed to finagle: Money. And lots of it. The Czechs also had a German Messerschmitt factory that survived World War II. It made ME-109 Fighter planes. Well, a plane that was a shadow of the ME-109. The original engine factory had been destroyed, so the workers stuffed bomber engines into the fighter’s noses, turning a fearsome Nazi warbird into a plane that might be more dangerous to her pilots than to the enemy. Many were lost on takeoffs and landings, and in other cases, with the gun synchronizer timing improperly adjusted, the planes would shoot their own propellers off. The Czech 109s were poorly built and almost impossible to handle, but Israel had no air force and was being invaded by five belligerents who did have airpower (as well as tanks, artillery and all manner of modern weapons).

Four of these fighter planes were disassembled, loaded into cargo planes that had been illegally purchased in the US and then smuggled to Czechoslovakia by way of Panama, South America, and Italy, and flown to Israel. The four fighters were then secretly re-assembled in a hangar near Tele Aviv. To maintain the element of surprise, the Israelis didn’t even risk test flights. On May 29, 1948, with the 10,000-man Egyptian army literally at the gates of Tel Aviv, these four piece-of-crap planes—called Messer-shits by their pilots—took off, and in one single sortie changed the course of world history.

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How? Hey, I’m no spoiler. Go see the film yourself.

The movie, produced by Nancy Spielberg, Steven Spielberg’s sister, is being screened at various venues around the country. Check and see if one is near you. If not, plan a cross-country trip. I promise that it will be worth your time and Avgas. It’s not too often you can learn a ton of things you never knew in 87 minutes, and enjoy yourself at the same time.

Hopefully the movie will eventually come to DVD, I’ll be the first to add it to my aviation video library.

Big news about windsocks

You know what a windsock is, right? That iconic cone of orange cloth that’s emblematic of airports everywhere? Well, they’re not just decoration, they’re actually precision metrological instruments that have been with us since the dawn of aviation. Their job is to help pilots “see” the wind, which lets us choose the best runway to land on, and gives us some idea as to the angle and ferocity of any crosswind that might be present.

I love windsocks. They’re simple, effective, and plenty accurate. Sure, the tower or an automated AWOS broadcast can tell me that the wind is exactly 17 knots at 233 degrees, but I practically have to go into an epileptic fit to translate that precision information into something I can actually visualize. On the other hand, I can just look at a windsock and I know in a second which direction the wind is coming from and how hard it’s blowing.

The magical windsock makes the invisible forces of nature plain to the naked eye.

Still, despite how universal they are, you don’t ever get up close and personal with windsocks at airports. Windsocks are on tall poles at the edges of runways, atop hangars, and flying from the crests of control towers. Accordingly, I’d never given much thought to their size. Well, more accurately, I had just assumed they were smallish. After all, they don’t look very big.

But what I had not taken into account is that, first off, the scale of everything at airports is on the large side, and second off, a windsock is designed to be seen by airplanes in the traffic pattern getting ready to land. At most airports that means the pilot’s eye view of a windsock is from 800 or 1,000 feet above the ground.

So they are actually kinda big.

Actually kinda really big. In fact, I just recently discovered that instead of stuffing a sock in it, I could stuff my whole self into a sock. A windsock.

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Why on earth would I do such a thing? Pretty much just to show you that windsocks aren’t small potatoes: Either in their importance (which I always knew myself) or in their size (which I just learned).

So how’d it come to pass that I had a close encounter of the third kind with a windsock? Well, as you probably know, we have quite the collection of aviation memorabilia in our hangar. In addition to all the Ercoupe stuff, we salvaged a runway marking sign and a vintage rotating beacon light, and we have working blue taxiway lights down each side of the interior.

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So when the airport manager asked me if I wanted a retired windsock for the collection I said, You bet!

I’m not sure what I expected, but I can guarantee you that I wasn’t prepared for a 12-foot long, 3-foot diameter tube. It looked more like a banner that hung from the rafters over the great hall in King Arthur’s Camelot than what I expected out of a windsock. Not only did I fit inside of it, I could have easily fit my clone and two border collies inside with me as well!

But beyond size, a grounded windsock isn’t really all that interesting. It’s just a big piece of orange fabric, after all. Sadly, windsocks lose their magic when they’re not at their posts on the edge of runways, atop hangars, and at the crests of towers—catching the wind. I guess some things just can’t be displayed by hanging them on the wall.

But, hey, maybe if I got a big fan…

Book a flight for this great read

Normally, coming of age tales make me want to barf. Partly because I was born old, or so says my mother, (so I never needed to come of age), and partly because they tend to be sappy-sentimental-trash.

That’s why Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage sat in the tower of need-to-read books by my bedside for a good half-year or more before I cracked it open. I bought the story of two brothers flying a Piper Cub coast-to-coast in the 60’s on a whim after reading that their very cub had been found and restored. I’m impulsive that way.

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But once I finally started reading it, I found I couldn’t put it down, and I wished I hadn’t put it off so long.

Why? Well, for one thing it’s superbly well-written. And for another, it’s a great story from a great age in general aviation. The Buck boys made the 1966 flight from New Jersey to California in a Piper Cub that didn’t even have a radio. But everywhere they went there were airports, fuel, and “geezers” who gave them tips on flying the local area.

It was wonderful, but it saddened me, too, as I realized how much has changed since then. How much the vibrancy of general aviation has faded. The three airports closest to my home base are open, but empty. They don’t sell fuel. No one is around when you land. Some of them feel as eerie as ghost towns.

The book traces the weeklong adventures of pilot in command Kern Buck—age 16 at the time—and the author, his younger brother. The boys became an overnight media sensation during the trek, but then like so many aviation sensations, they disappeared from collective memory as quickly as they appeared. It wasn’t until three decades later that Rinker Buck wrote the story of the flight. I’m astounded at his ability to remember so much from so long ago. He captures a time a place lost to us while recounting how the flight created a lifetime bond between him and his older brother, and helped them both navigate their complex relationship with their demanding father—an old barnstormer who taught both boys to fly.

The book carried me aloft and along in their noisy, drafty, vibrating cub; and the story kept me engaged. Night after night I stole some solo time after dinner to read a few pages, then later selected an alternate bedtime to fly deeper into the 351-page volume. As I came towards the end of the book, a sense of sadness overcame me, I didn’t want it to end. And last night, when I closed the cover after reading the last page, a wave of depression came over me.

Now what on earth will I do with my free time?

A book that good is a rare treat indeed. So “book” a flight with Flight of Passage. You won’t regret the trip.

The ultimate Tom Sawyer

One of the unglamorous aspects of owning an airplane is keeping the damn thing clean. If you’re not a flier, you would be forgiven for wondering why this is even a problem. The air is clean, right? Surely, you don’t drive through dirt, mud, slush, or snow. And birds couldn’t possibly poop on your plane while it’s parked at work or under the tree at home at night.

Wrong on all accounts.

Let’s start with the air. It’s far from clean. From early spring though late fall, we share it with swarms of other flying things, most notably insects. Just like in your car, our windshields get splattered with bugs. And just like your radiator grill can collect quite a pile, so to can our plane’s noses. But then it gets worse. The leading edges of my wings, thirty feet wide from tip-to-tip, like a blunt, wide sword of a mythical hero, are amazing bug slaughterers. As are my twin tails, and the “back wing” of the pane, the horizontal stabilizer on the tail. No forward-facing surface is immune from bug-strikes when descending for landing through a cloud of gnats: Landing gear struts, the propeller, the spinner on the tip of the nose, and even radio antennas.

Dirt? Many planes are immune to dirt, but that’s not true for us. Our hangar sits at the end of a 100-foot dirt and gravel run to taxiway Foxtrot, which leads to runway 8-26. I taxi on dirt every day I fly. Spinning propellers create miniature tornados between the ground and the bottom of their arc, sucking up dust, and sometimes rocks, off the surface, dirtying the nose and occasionally taking an expensive chunk out of the spinning pair of blades that keep me in the air. This is why tail draggers are preferred for dirt strips: The bottom of the prop is much higher off the ground.

Mud? After a rain or snowstorm, my gravel taxiway is a morass of mud, caking my tires and landing gear, and spraying a twin row of mud tracks back along the underside of the wings aft of the wheels. And you can even be flying along minding your own business when, high above you, rain falls though a dust cloud, giving you an airborne mud bath.

And trust me on this, birds are just as happy to use a refueling airplane as a parked car for a latrine.

But the ground and the sky aren’t the only enemies of a clean plane. Planes, especially old ones like the Plane Tales Plane leak oil like a vintage Harley Davidson motorcycle. In fact, of the Continental C-85 that pulls us through the air, some of the old timers say the only time they don’t leak oil is when they are out of it.

Oil comes from various places, both intended and unintended. Unintended splats tend to work themselves out of the side of the cowling and leave long pinstripes of greenish black on our pretty blue & white airplane. The crankcase has a breather on the bottom of the plane, and any plane like ours that’s flown for any distance, or hasn’t had a bath for a while, will have an impressive oil slick across its belly from stem to stern.

Back in the heyday of aviation, young boys—star-struck with aviation—would hang out at airports and clean planes for a few bucks to save money to pay for flight lessons; and today there are professional plane cleaning outfits that make car detailing look cheap by comparison. But based at a lonely strip and not being filthy rich, the task of cleaning the Plane Tales Plane falls to her Chief Pilot. Me. I don’t love it, or even like it one little bit, but it has to be done.

Now, I’m not sure everyone does it this way, but I’ve divided cleaning into two phases: Post flight and Postpone.

Post flight cleaning is done after each and every flight and it mainly focuses on bug removal during the flying critter time of the year, which is pretty much all year. Even in the dead of winter we sometimes mow down a swarm of flying insect creatures, which don’t seem as smart about getting out of the way of airplanes as (most) birds are. We do this debugging after every flight not so much out of dedication to keeping the plane clean, but because the longer a squashed bug stays on a plane, the harder it is to get its smashed remains back off again. Fresh “airkill” cleans up with a wipe of a damp cloth; but after a week, it’s like removing paint. Revenge of the bugs, I guess.

So after each and every flight, it’s the co-pilot’s job to take some soft heavy-duty paper towels, wet them in the spigot at the northeast corner of the hangar building, and wipe down the leading edges of the wings, the gear, the nose-spinner-prop, the leading edges of rudders, and the horizontal stabilizer. It takes less time than you’d think. Meanwhile, I take on the more delicate task of cleaning the Plexiglas bubble windshield. This requires distilled water and two cloth towels. The wet towel is used to gently clean off individual bug strikes, and then dampen the whole surface. The dry one is used to polish the plastic dry—smudge-free and water spot-free. All motions are front-to-back, never side-to-side or round-and-round, so that if you get unlucky and scratch the plastic, the scratch is going in a direction that makes it minimally interfering when it comes to seeing out the windshield from inside the plane. Windshields aren’t that expensive, but paying an appropriately licensed mechanic to put one in puts a pretty good dent in your flying budget, so it’s best to be careful in the first place.

Postpone cleaning is removal of the mud, dirt, and engine grime. We do it about four times per year. It’s like washing and waxing a car. A two hundred fifteen square-foot car. A two hundred fifteen square-foot car that also needs to be cleaned as well on the bottom as it is on the tops and sides.

Needless to say this takes time, and a nice day.

There are countless airplane cleaning products on the market designed to make this easy, and I’ve yet to find any I like. For a while we used Carbon-X to try to clean oil off of the belly and grease off of the struts. This required scooting around the ground under the plane on our wheeled “creeper,” spraying and scrubbing. Did I mention that the space under Tessie’s belly is exactly 1.5 inches more than the height of her chief pilot lying on a creeper? It’s a tight fit. More recently I discovered an un-approved miracle product: The plane’s own gasoline. A small squirt onto a rag from the sump drain, and the oil comes off with a mere swipe. You’d swear you’re co-starring in one of those late-night TV infomercials.

Of course, No Smoking Allowed when cleaning with gasoline, and you need to remember that if you leave gas-soaked oily rags in a big pile, the damn things will spontaneously combust, burning down your hangar and your airplane—so proper cleanup of the cleanup rags is a must.

For the skin of the plane, we’ve been using Fleet Wash. In theory, you spray it on, then hit it with a hose and the water sheets right off, no wipe-down drying required. Yeah. Right.

Well, I guess it sort of works. One time I got my two spray bottles confused and sprayed the whole plane with Carbon-X and went through a lot more towels drying her off following the hose down. At least with Fleet Wash, the wipe down, although still required, doesn’t take as long.

Of course, plane cleaning takes a calm day. Spraying the entire body of the plane with the hand-held spray bottle feels like it takes hours, and this last time around, by the time I was done, I had a cramp in my hand that lasted for days. I should probably find some sort of power sprayer.

But once the cleaner is hosed off, and the is plane wiped down, you’re done, right? Wrong.

Now it’s time for waxing. Waxing an airplane’s surfaces accomplishes several things. It protects the expensive paint job you don’t want to pay to have redone, it creates a smoother surface that (at least in theory) allows you to cut through the air faster and pick up a mile or two per hour in airspeed, and it makes the Post Flight bug cleaning easier.

There are, I’m told, men who enjoy taking hours on weekends rubbing wax patiently onto their show cars, then removing the excess with each corner of a clean cloth, buffing the rubbed-on wax to a sparkling shine.

I’m not one of those men.

I’m busy and impatient. I get no joy out of plane cleaning with its scrubbing, and spraying, and rinsing, and wiping, and waxing, and buffing. Luckily, however, I’ve read Mark Twain, and have not forgotten the lesson of Tom Sawyer and the white picket fence. However, I’m not quite so devious, even though I aspire to be. Still, properly incentivized, I figured I could get some help.

So this last time around I called Lisa with an offer (I hoped) she couldn’t refuse. Hey, I’ll take you flying if you’ll help me wash and wax the plane afterwards. Her response?

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Tom and I took the pictures.