Launch for lunch

“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, quickly swallowing a bite of my sandwich, “the tow plane has rear-view mirrors?”

Rio, Lisa, and I were eating in the car as we commuted from Rio’s new home airport back to the Plane Tales home airport at Santa Rosa. Thirty minutes before, Rio had just completed his first training flight in Bravo Golf, the lanky sailplane that’s his new best friend. He and his instructor were towed to three thousand five hundred feet above the New Mexico prairie and were cut loose, where they soared around the sky, riding thermal updrafts for forty five minutes while Rio began to get the feel for the big bird.

Lisa and I couldn’t hear enough about the experience.

What was the view like, Lisa asked? What did it sound like, I queried? What was your favorite part, Lisa wanted to know? Which instrument was the most useful?

Not his usual taciturn self, Rio was positively talkative and gave us the cockpit view of the whole experience. Of course Lisa and I had watched the takeoff from the ground, and it’s quite a process, involving a tow plane, a lineman, a very long steel cable and a ton of communication using a secret dance of arm and hand signals that would put the Masons to shame.

First, Rio, his instructor, and the lineman pushed the sailplane out onto the runway. Next the tow plane, a faded yellow retired crop duster that reminded me of a down-on-his-luck Dusty Crophopper, fired up and pulled into place well ahead of the glider. A cable between the two was secured and the tow plane inched forward until the cable was taut. When everyone was ready, the tow plane’s engine roared to life and off they went down the runway, both planes picking up speed.

In three breaths, the anorexic seagull shook off her lethargy and lifted into the air, hugging the runway, her tow still glued to the ground in front of her. Rio later told us the instructor had to hold the sailplane down, keeping her close to the runway. Her instinct was to rise, and if she rose above the tow plane, the glider could flip the tow plane onto its nose.

Finally the tow plane lumbered off the runway and off the pair went, the sailplane obediently behind and below her ride, like a faithful dog following her master on a leash for a walk in the park.

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Up they went, then around the pattern to the left, finally passing right over our heads. The ugly duckling in the lead, followed by the sailplane, now in her element, full of grace and power.

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And then off they went into the western sky, smaller, smaller, smaller until they were only two points of light: One white and one yellow. Then they were gone and Lisa and I were left alone on the ramp, no sound but the wind.

After a time, the tow plane returned. It swooped down onto the runway and briskly taxied to parking. The pilot climbed out and left for lunch, leaving Lisa and I again with only wind and sun for company as we scanned the cobalt sky, painted with high wispy white clouds, waiting for the anorexic seagull to return from on high, wondering what it was like for Rio up there.

Full of questions we couldn’t wait to ask.

 

The anorexic seagull

By some measures Three-Zero-Seven Bravo Golf is a big airplane. Her wings stretch nearly sixty feet from tip to tip, double that of the Plane Tales Plane, and well more than most commuter jets. But she doesn’t come off as big, perhaps because she’s impossibly slender. Her wide wings are narrow. Her fuselage is cousin to a kayak: Narrow and tapered, extending beanpole-like back, back, back, back to her delicate tail. She’s soft white with a hint of orange on her nose, wingtips, and tail.

All in all, she looks like an anorexic seagull.

And maybe one that caught the flu, too. She crouches low on the ramp, resting nearly on her belly, flopped like a bird too tired to even stand on her legs. But even while collapsed on the pavement, she is still clearly a creature of the air. Her smooth, sleek lines are so aerodynamic as to be hydrodynamic to the eye. Part airplane, part sea creature.

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She’s a sailplane. A high-tech, engineless, airplane built to ply the turbulent currents of air and play dice with the laws of gravity. To literally sail the winds in the sea of the sky and dance with the clouds. She can soar so high her crew of two—who sit tandem under a clear fighter pilot-like canopy perched on her nose—need to wear oxygen.

This is a whole different kind of flying. But not for me. For my son.

Children of pilots are usually taught to fly at a young age. Partly from exposure, partly for safety. And, in fact, there is no minimum age for when a person can start training to be a pilot. Still, when can you become a “real” pilot?

Well, that depends on what you are flying. To hold a pilot’s certificate (the official word for a “license”) that allows you to fly powered aircraft, you have to be 17. Balloon and glider pilots only need to be 16. Ages for the important training step of flying solo—by yourself with no assistance and no one else along for the ride—are 14 for gliders and balloons, and 16 for powered denizens of the air.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Yep. Rio is thirteen, mere weeks from 14. And as a self-described student pilot, he had an interesting choice to make. Despite having several years’ experience with powered airplanes, he cannot venture into the sky alone in one for over two more years. But on March 15, he would be allowed to solo in a glider.

After dinner one night recently, we had a man-to-pre-adult talk, and I laid out the two possible paths ahead for him. I told him I’d never flown a glider, but that it seemed to me that if someone could master the art of flying a plane without the benefit of an engine, they’d be a better pilot for it. Rio mulled it over and then announced that he thought glider training would be, “Fun and beneficial,” and before bedtime I emailed my contacts at 0E0, a hotbed of glider activity, to ask for recommendations on schools and instructors.

And a week later we stood on the windswept tarmac of Moriarty Municipal Airport, taking in the anorexic seagull.

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Shaken, not stirred

My hosts at Pratt told me the field was used to “outfit” B-29s during the war. The massive bombers were built in Wichita, then flown to Pratt to receive their turrets and machine guns.

They had a crew car and said I was welcome to take it to town if I wanted to get a bite to eat. But instead I decided to feed my gear. I brought all my various electronic parasites in from the plane and plugged my GPS into the wall next to a lamp, my iPad into the plug shared by the water cooler, and my cell phone had to make friends with the microwave’s plug.

It was warm and friendly and the airport residents wanted to know where I was from, where I was going, and whether or not my Ercoupe had rudder pedals. (She does not.)

While my head was buried in weather forecasts on a huge iMac in the pilot’s lounge, I heard the lineman say to a local pilot, “Well how’s that for a change in the weather?”

I looked over my shoulder at them and was surprised to see sunlight. Stepping out onto the ramp, I could see that the entire southern sky was a towering mass of grey, like the ramparts of a fairytale castle in the air. Sun spilled over the ramparts and above us was glorious blue sky with not a single cloud. The storm was retreating south.

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Still, the distant horizon to the west remained white. There were still clouds out there, but the number of reporting stations made it difficult to know what was really happening on the micro scale across my route. I decided, rather arbitrarily, to give it another go at noon, an hour away, and if I couldn’t get through, I’d stay the night at wherever it was that I managed to reach. Decision made, I had the lineman top off Tessie’s wing tanks. She actually has three gas tanks. One in each wing, and one in the nose.

The engine runs off the nose tank, sometimes called the header tank. The gas flows down from the header to the carburetor by gravity. An engine-driven fuel pump pulls gas from the two interconnected wing tanks to fill the header, which overflows back down into the wings. Like a beating heart, the pump keeps the fuel constantly flowing between the tanks. The whole design is a great safety feature: If the heart fails, the engine doesn’t die. In fact, if the pump fails you’d have about an hour’s flying time. There’s a float gauge on the nose that lets you know if the level starts to drop, signaling either empty wings or a dead fuel pump.

While the lineman gassed me up, I admired the other plane on the ramp. Sharing the tarmac with my expensive-to-maintain antique was a brand spanking new expensive-to-buy Diamond Twin with the aeronautical equivalent of the curves of a Playboy centerfold. I gotta say, this is one sexy airplane. But despite being new, the owner was having some mechanical issues dealing with the brakes. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I found some sort of perverse reassurance in the fact that new planes aren’t immune to expensive maintenance issues. My only defense is that our last annul cost nearly half as much as the plane herself did, and I’m guilty of wondering whether our family’s money might have been better spent on a newer airplane. Apparently not.

At noon as I headed for my ride, I told the twin owner that I hoped the weather gods were feeling kinder than the brake fluid gods (he assured me he thought they would be) and I was off and on my way.

I cruised in sunlight at first and wondered if I should have taken my winter flight jacket off, but soon enough I was under a high blanket of grey again and the temperature in the cockpit dropped. The ceiling seemed to stay put, but the stupid ground got higher and higher with each passing mile. The rules for the kind of airspace I was in state that I’m supposed to stay 500 feet below the clouds. How high off the ground? Actually, there is no set altitude over empty, open prairie. You just have to be high enough to land in an emergency without hurting anyone on the ground.

The horizon grew brighter and brighter as my opening between sky and ground got tighter and tighter. The final edge of the clouds clung to a ridgeline southwest of Meade. I sailed over the flat, open ridge at 200 feet above the ground and then burst into bright, clear sunshine. For a moment all was calm and beautiful.

And then the turbulence hit.

You can almost count on angry air between frontal boundaries, and this region did not disappoint. I had a momentary vision of my being bounced right out of the cockpit, and falling (with 12 bottles of expensive red wine) to the earth below. I tightened my seatbelt and shoulder belt, and then did the same for the case of wine that was riding shotgun with me. I climbed back up to 500 feet, then added another two hundred for good measure, Tessie was like a bucking bronco. I held onto her yoke with my left hand and onto her windshield support with my right. My only mission was to get the wings level when the churning air knocked one wing higher than the other. The up and down lurching I didn’t worry about. One blast of air would send us up a hundred feet, the next would fall on us like a hammer, driving us back down again.

And just when I was far enough out from the frontal boundary to escape the turbulence, I entered a popcorn sky. Well, that’s what I call it. I’m sure that’s not it’s formal name. But a popcorn sky is one populated by a sea of small cumulus clouds, all at the same altitude.

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They are beautiful and look puffy and harmless like cotton candy, but each one of the little bastards has it’s own personal weather system. As you fly under each, you hit the updraft. It’s as if the cloud wants to suck your plane up into its hungry maw. And as you hit the far side, you encounter the downdraft. Angry you escaped, the cloud hits you with a rolled-up newspaper.

The game is harmless, but tiring. Like taking a roller coaster to work. After about one hour of it, I was sure glad I was transporting wine, not champagne.

And finally, after hours of being jostled and jolted, Runway 26 at my homebase appeared off my nose. I was glad to be home again: I’d had enough flying.

Well, at least for a day or two.

 

Weatherwise is never wise enough

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Fully loaded to within a few pounds of gross weight with fuel, spare oil, and wine, I taxied down the giant apron originally laid down for B-29 bombers during World War II. I was going faster than normal to minimize low power running, as my cylinder break-in was only half over. I zipped past rows of brick chimneys that are all that remain of huge arched-ceiling hangars that once lined the field to house fleets of the big birds, contemporaries of my little ride.

I did a running runup, checking the mags and the carb heat as I taxied, so when I reached the end of the runway I made my radio call and rolled right onto the 100-foot-wide mile-and-a-half long stretch of asphalt without stopping.

It was cold and cloudy, with a solid ceiling about 3,000 feet up. As I was still generally flying at 500 feet, this was not an issue at all. I’d studied the weather in my hotel room before driving out to the airport and it looked like the cloud cover would stay with me for about the first quarter of the trip. There would be some low—but legal and safe—ceilings near Dodge City, but the airports beyond were reporting clear skies.

I lifted off, banked left at 500 feet, and headed west, anticipating a late breakfast at the Red Barron in Dalhart, and being home with my new case of wine by noon.

Neither of those things happened.

Half an hour into the flight something odd happened to the horizon. It turned white. A knot formed in the pit of my stomach. This didn’t look good for the home team. I tried to tune into the Dodge City automated weather broadcast, but it was still too far away. I activated the weather reporting on my iPad and was stunned to see a red dot above the Dodge airport. I clicked for details and learned that the airport was shrouded in freezing fog with virtually no visibility. As I looked wider, airports to the north seemed clear, while airports to the south were reporting low, but legal ceilings. Deviating north seemed to be the best option. But as I approached the great while wall I could see an orange glow to the south. The sun was trying to break through down there. Looking north, the color of the sky was such a dark grey as to nearly be evil.

Cockpit weather is a great thing, but the types of systems we use in general aviation are never quite up to the minute, so I believe in trusting my eyes over my tech. I turned south, keeping well clear of the wall of cloud and fog.

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After flying south for about ten minutes I thought I’d found the end of it. I turned west again, congratulating myself on my superior airmanship and decision-making skills. Still, I kept one eye behind me to ensure that I had a safe escape option.

Everything was going fine, when suddenly the clouds exploded downwards and patches of fog sprouted up everywhere below me. The way ahead became dangerous, and the escape route behind was closing off.

It was clear I couldn’t get the hell out of Dodge because I’d never get there.

I did a quick one-eighty and dropped down to 400 feet. Then to 300 as the cloud deck chased me. It’s hard to estimate how far above you the wispy grey tendrils are when you look up at them through the clear canopy, but I knew for damn sure I couldn’t risk flying into that soup. It was time to get on the ground. I called up the nearest airport on my flight pad: Kinsley. I selected the “Direct To” command and a course was plotted for me.

As I came in low over the farm fields, I could see neither hide nor hair of the airport, even though my navigation said I was right on top of it. Finally, I spied the hangars and then the strip: A frozen ribbon of white, narrow and short. Was it snow or was it ice? There was no way to know from above.

Still, any harbor in the storm. I’d rather risk sliding off the runway and pranging the plane than fly into the grey soup and risk ramming a cellphone tower or some other cloaked obstacle at full speed.

I wheeled over the airport and entered into a low downwind pattern for the north-facing runway. I wanted to touch down at the slowest possible speed and give myself as much runway as possible to slow down without braking. I powered back, raised the nose and slowed the plane to the lowest airspeed I dared use, and aimed for the first few feet of the runway.

Slowly, slowly, down we came. The wheels touched the white-cloaked asphalt, and…

Nothing happened.

It was a totally uneventful landing. I decided it must be snow, not ice, painting the runway white. I exited at the only taxiway and parked in front of a hanger. I shut down the transponder, radios, the engine, and then cracked open the canopy. A wave of bitter cold air poured into the plane. I hoisted myself up out of the cockpit, grabbed my cell phone, and stepped onto the wing. I closed the canopy behind me and jumped down the to the ground where I did the crazy chicken dance trying to stay on my feet. The apron was a sheet of black ice. As was everything on the ground at Kinsley.

I skated my way to the grass at the edge of the apron and then tromped through a thin layer of snow to what I thought was the terminal building. It turns out it was the local gun club, and based on a sign on the window, it hadn’t been used since 2005.

Next I checked the doors at five hangars. All locked. All cold. No signs posted about who to call or where to go. It was like a ghost airport, abandoned and frozen. Large chemical tubs stood in stacks everywhere between the buildings. It was a crop duster strip, but it was the off-season. No one would be back until spring. There was nowhere warm to stay and wait out the weather.

I trudged back across the black ice to my forlorn-looking little plane. I climbed back in, buttoned myself in and looked around. From the ground, the sky didn’t look that bad. I checked weather for Dodge again and was highly annoyed to find it reported good visual conditions. My unscheduled landing was unnecessary. Oh well. I reminded myself of the old aviation saying: It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.

I fired Tessie back up and taxied with utmost care to the very end of the short runway. I gently tapped on the brakes to stop the plane, and then held her in place and applied full power for an aircraft carrier-style takeoff. The strip was short, with tall tress on both ends. The official “obstructions” text for the airport reads: “Trees, both sides, 45 feet high, 1,700 feet from end, 33:1 clearance slope.” I released the brakes and in a cloud of snow Tessie shot down the icy runway. We lifted off, easily cleared the trees and headed back up into the grey sky.

No sooner than I was off the ground than the blue “friendly weather” icon for Dodge City turned red again and the sky returned to its threatening antics. I flew dead south, towards the orange glow. Still, the way west was blocked. Near a wind farm the sky was a patchwork of low dense clouds and beautiful blue. The blue holes in the clouds were inviting: Come up on top and enjoy the sun, they seemed to say. I could see how thin the cloud deck was. Popping up through a hole would be quick and easy. But there were two problems: I’m flying under the Light Sport privileges of my commercial license. That means I’m not “allowed” to fly out of sight of the ground on top of the clouds; plus the problem with popping up through a hole is you can’t be sure there will be another hole to get back down through at the other end of your flight.

I decided I needed to pack it in and find an airport with a warm terminal and wait out the weather. I checked my options and chose Pratt Regional, about 30 miles away, back to the east.

When you absolutely need to be somewhere on time, take a car.

As I approached Pratt I could see that it, like Great Bend, had once been an Army Air Force field, with its distinctive triangle of three runways, except now a cattle feedlot covered two of them. From above I could see a dozen airplanes and many hangars with welcomingly open doors. I entered the pattern and descended toward my new shelter from the storm. When I touched down after more than an hour and a half of flying, I was actually farther away from home than when I lifted off that morning.

 

Next time: Waiting for the weather