Luckily for us, the bag that holds our headsets also holds our GPS and iPad. We’d set neither up, as we didn’t think we’d need them, but they were both in the luggage compartment. Rio reached back over the seat and fetched the two pieces of gear while I practiced my breathing exercises.
In a few minutes he had our nav system up and running and the radio chatter seemed to be dying down. I turned on a heading back to the airport. On the way back we saw quite a few members of our fleet flying in various directions and various altitudes. The pattern was busy and at least two planes cut others off, forcing extended patterns and at least one go-a-round. Finally we got a slot in the traffic pattern, number three to land. Some other minor chaos ensued and we had to extend long, but finally I was lined up on final for landing. I was shooting for mid-field to leave lots of room for the ’Coupe behind me, when it happened.
A Ryan Warbird pulled right out onto the runway in front of me, radioing, “Don’t worry little Ercoupe, I’ll be out of your way in a moment.”
It was the first time that day I wished I had guns. I would have shot the son of a bitch down.
To his credit, he was right; his powerful radial engine pulled him quickly ahead of me, but we had to land short, not long. I did a high-speed taxi to the first turnoff to clear the active runway. Then we taxied leisurely back to the apron, joined the refueling line, and shut down our engine.
Groups of pilots, in threes and fours, began to gather along the fueling line Monday-morning quarterbacking the flight. Grousing about what went wrong, offering thoughts on how it could have gone better. Syd was already dialing the FAA to cancel our airspace reservation, but at the last minute held off to wait for everyone’s feedback. I ended up missing the bitch session, but I understand from talking to others that Syd took a lot of heat.
But in Syd’s defense, he had spent a lot of time thinking about this flight, planning this flight, and even practicing the flight. Several years ago the Piper Cub had its anniversary and did a horribly disorganized flying chain into Oshkosh. They spaced out with miles between planes, leaving arriving traffic at Airventure in endless holding patterns while the Cubs straggled in. This left the FAA reluctant to let large fleets of amateurs attempt what we wanted to do. But they gave in and granted us a block of “sanitized” airspace. The airport would be closed to everyone but us. It was up to us to be professional and arrive in good, close order, and not tie everyone else up.
The problem—as I see I after the fact—is that there’s a Law of Engineering that says that up-scaling does not work. For an aviation example of this principle, I can direct you to Samuel Langley, aviation pioneer and head of the Smithsonian at the turn of the last century. He successfully created a small steam-powered “aerodrome” that flew almost a mile up the Potomac in flight tests. Delighted with the results, he built a larger, manned model that flew straight off its launch pad, dropped straight down into the drink, and nearly drowned its pilot.
Just because something works small, doesn’t mean it works big. And, boy, were we big.
Our chain of Ercoupes, had we all been properly spaced that day as planned, would have extended 22,000 feet long above the green fields of Wisconsin. Had the hoped-for 75 planes all been participating in the practice, the chain would have been 37,500 feet long. That’s over seven miles of Ercoupes. Now, small errors in a flight of ten planes are easily fixed and adjusted. Small errors in over seven miles of planes echo with the domino effect. But that’s easy to see in hindsight.
In the end our planned mass flight was cancelled. Our disastrous practice was only 16 or so hours before the real event. I think if we could have practiced twice more we could have mastered it, but there was no time left. The decision was announced: We fly in small flights by the standard approach.
I then made what would turn out to be the worst decision of my life. I opted out. Our hotel was in West Bend, 45 miles south of Oshkosh as the seagull flies. I couldn’t see any benefit to the time and trouble it would take to fly-in, virtually on our own, for only a few days, as we had to leave Airventure early. Plus, I’d only studied the departure process, not the approach procedures, as I didn’t think I’d need them. Instead, I decided we’d redeploy the plane and drive up for the rest of the activities of our group. I’ll share the horrible ramifications of that decision next week.
But in the end, how did I feel about taking part in this glorious disaster?
Once safely back on the ground, 1.8 hours later on my Hobbs meter, the events of the day brought to mind Shakespeare. Specifically, Henry V’s Band of Brothers speech before the battle of Agincourt, “…gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap…”
I’m damn glad I was part of it, not at home snugly “abed.”
And, in honor of Henry the Fifth, and Baron Von Cohen, this is what I wrote in my logbook that night:
Next time: The biggest mistake of my (flying) life