Author Archives: Bluejay

Autumn at Croft

Or, “A walk in the woods, pt. 3″.

Sometimes the weather is just “forget about it” for some outdoor activities, but just right for others. Today was one of those days. Early morning started out with low clouds, fog, and some drizzle, making it unsuitable for cycling, and with the low ceiling forecast to persist for the day, flying wasn’t much of an option either. But it was just right for a walk in the woods. So I packed a couple lunches (I get hungry) and headed back to Croft State Park, my favorite, and closest, place to get out in the forest.

The trees were well into fall colors, and some had even fallen on the ground already.

I was following a trail that cut across a road at one point. When I got here, I suddenly felt like I imagine a deer might feel when facing a crossing like this: a little apprehensive, wondering if there might be something coming. But it’s not a road that gets used much (if at all, there’s a gate across it upstream) and I was able to cross without incident.

Kelsey Creek is where I had a bit of a navigational mishap: I managed to miss where the trail turned to cross the creek while another, unmapped trail continued on. I was wondering about crossing the creek, and was rather surprised to come across a road and a bridge, which was not where I needed to cross. I doubled back and got back on the correct trail, finding some rocks to hop across the creek on. I mentioned to the park staff that this could be marked a bit better.

Ah, civilization, a nice place to stop for my first lunch. No, I didn’t take the 3-mile shortcut back to “the barn”, although that was where I planned to end up.

This could be a fungus, or maybe a spaceship, perhaps part of the G’Gugvuntt and Vl’hurg battle fleet. Didn’t see any small dogs, though.

Coming down the east side of the Foster Mill Loop I saw evidence of the tornadoes that went through the area a few weeks ago. As of this writing, the Beech Tree Trail was still closed due to storm damage.

All in all, a nice walk. I guess some would call it a hike, but it just seems like a “hike” should involve more than just throwing some food and water in a backpack and walking off. Shrug.

I probably covered about 15 miles, maybe a bit more with my little side trip, over the 5.5 hours I got to spend there. I certainly feel like I got my money’s worth out of the paltry $2 admission.

Here’s a link to a little bit of video.

Reflections of a former airplane owner

They say the two best days of a person’s life are the day they buy their airplane, and the day the sell it. I’m not so sure. Certainly the day I bought my airplane was a Good Day, but I’d probably feel better about selling it if I had better reasons.

In late 1985, I was a very active flier. I was spending a lot of time in the air flying for my self, instructing, even doing a little corporate flying. One day I was fiddling around with a calculator (they weren’t a part of everyone’s phone back then), and after putting in my income, subtracting out my housing and food expenses, I came to the startling conclusion that I could afford an airplane of my own. And even afford to fly it 7 hours a month. I worked on the numbers some more, but still came up positive.

By then I’d flown a pretty wide variety of airplanes, and I knew what I wanted: a Grumman Tiger. I did a lot of my early flying in these, and always liked the capabilities and handling of them. I let word get around that I was in the market.

My airplane found me. While I was out of town for Christmas of 1985, N45210 stopped in at my home airport and a line person mentioned that he knew someone who was looking for a Tiger. The then-owner said he was getting pressured to sell the airplane and use the money for other things, and left his contact information. After the holidays we got together, and on January 28, 1986, I became an airplane owner. As far as I know, the airplane never was actually advertised anywhere. Call it fate, kismet, divine intervention, who knows? It just seemed meant to happen.

It was great. I was making trips to Florida regularly to visit relatives. I could fly whenever I wanted to, in between my students and other flight school activities. The Grummans were not nearly as ubiquitous as the Cessnas and Pipers that were all over the airport, and many people around the flight school were quite interested in getting a ride in this, what did you call it, “Grumman”. And there are some unique things about these airplanes that I enjoyed explaining (read: showing off).

One of the unique things about the Grumman line is their responsive handling: they’re much more responsive to the flight controls than most rental-line fare. You learn to fly with a light touch in such an airplane. There was a trip I made in a P-Navaho, a large (to me) cabin-class twin-engine airplane that just needed a second pilot for that trip. Prior to the flight, the pilot in charge briefed that we’d do everything on autopilot, to ensure we gave the execs in the back a smooth ride and didn’t spill anyone’s coffee. I guess he didn’t realize how Grumman pilots flew, because after watching me handle the takeoff he ended up letting me hand-fly the whole trip: we never did turn on the autopilot and everyone’s drinks went exactly where intended.

In July of 1986 I was diagnosed with a medical condition that, as far as the FAA was concerned, was “forget about it, don’t even bother asking”. That put a big wrinkle in things, as I could no longer act as the pilot in command (I.E. the one person who has to be on board).

Now, the traditional and sane thing that people do in this situation, when they lose the ability to fly like this, is to sell the airplane and go do something else. Maybe buy a boat and sail to the Bahamas, or get a motor home and hit the road. But I couldn’t walk away from the sky.

And, for quite a while, things were ok. There were plenty of people around who knew me, my situation, and were more than willing to go fly with me. Of course, I could fly the airplane, so long as another pilot was on board to act as pilot-in-command. I could even instruct, if my student was already qualified to fly under the regulations, but maybe wanted some additional or recurrent training.

One summer several of us flew to a bunch of airshows in this quadrant of the country. I remember taking off from Dayton, Ohio on a taxiway, which was temporarily designated a runway to handle all the departing traffic.

Then there was the night we got pulled over by a Sheriff. Yeah, in the airplane. A very good and special friend and I were out late one Sunday night (ok, it was Monday morning by then) just flying from airport to airport. At our last stop before returning home, Calhoun Falls, SC, we made a low pass down the runway to make sure it was all clear (no deer on the runway), then landed. As we taxied back to the end of the runway to depart, we noticed a car parked there. Rather unusual, but maybe someone just came out to see what all the fuss was about. We swung into position to depart, and I was about to bring up the power when the blue lights came on. The Sheriff said he just wanted to see if we had some problem he could help us with, although the Deputy made a point of looking in the back of the airplane, looking for who-knows-what? I guess they don’t get much late night (early morning) traffic in Calhoun Falls.

I learned quite a few things because I fly. For example, I never knew that not only bulls had horns, but also some cows. I learned that when I took a friend out to a farm in Alabama. I would probably never have known that you could buy fishing bait from a vending machine, but at a hotel in Virginia we stayed at there was a Vend-a-Bait machine.

When you own an airplane, there always good times like that, and bad times. The worst thing I had happen in the air was when one of the exhaust valves broke, resulting in an engine that ran very rough and produced little more power than was necessary to maintain altitude. Fortunately, we were near our airport. I called the tower, told them I had a rough engine and I was landing straight in on [runway] 36. We were immediately cleared to land, even without using the “E” word (“Emergency”). Upon disassembly we found a piece of the valve in the muffler. I stuck it in my pocket and there it stayed. I don’t know if it became some sort of talisman, good luck charm, just a reminder that things don’t always happen to someone else, or maybe nothing. But it was in my pocket whenever I flew thereafter.

That was my first Expensive (the other cringe-worthy “E” word in aviation) repair. Make no bones about it, owning an airplane takes money. My Dad would often introduce me as “my rich son: he owns his own airplane”, and I would correct that by pointing out that owning an airplane doesn’t mean you have money, it means you had money.

Avionics upgrade, an engine overhaul, paint job, those were the big things. Along the way there were plenty of smaller things: parts that regularly wear out like tires and batteries, things that need replacing when they act up like magnetos and alternators, and the dreaded (by some) annual inspection every year.

In part to help control the expenses, I earned my A&P (Airframe & Powerplant) Mechanic certificate, so I could perform most of the maintenance myself. The first repair I did on my own was replacing a worn cowling hinge. I marveled at how I was able to do that for just the cost of the hinge, about $40. That, and about $500 worth of tools I had bought for the job, not to mention other tools, tuition, time spent studying, the written, oral, and practical tests,…. Over time I think I probably came out ahead. It’s also interesting how often the skills I learned and developed around the hanger have come in handy in the data center where I work, from basic tool use to AC power systems and air conditioners.

The costs and maintenance and whatall are one thing, but I think the worst of times were when I just couldn’t fly for one reason or another. Some fliers, particularly those who fly, for lack of a better term, for the sheer joy of flying, call it being “groundsick”. I’m not sure I can explain it; it’s one of those things that you know when you see (or feel) it, but doesn’t have a tangible presence. It’s a frustration… a longing… a sort of ennui… nothing seems right. One can get downright grumpy. Physical symptoms are not unknown. The good news is that the cure is very quick and effective. As soon as the prop starts to turn and the engine catches, the world is back to being right again, and all the angst gets blown aft in the prop wash.

Another airplane owner I knew once remarked that when things aren’t right with the airplane, nothing is right with the world. There is truth in that. Something like an airplane, that takes a lot of resources in terms of time, money, attention, and just mental bandwidth is a significant part of your world. Still, when the ground drops away, when you go to the other end of the state for lunch, when you see all the Smoky Mountains lined up stretching into the distance, when you take off in the early morning and see the sun before anyone else and the fog heaped along a river like a big caterpillar, when you see the city lights glowing through an undercast layer, when you see that glory on the cloudtops, it’s all worth it.

So, why then am I a former airplane owner? It’s the medical certification situation. For a long time, this wasn’t much of a problem, but eventually a lot of the people I knew and flew with moved on, or drifted away, one even died, leaving me with a paucity of qualified pilots. Over the last several years, the AOPA and EAA were working with the FAA and congress to change the medical certification rules, but that ended up being too little, too late for my case. With another round of Expensive Things looming for the airplane, I decided it would be best for us to part company. A new owner would be able to meet those expenses as an investment, and do what I could not, and now never would, properly do for the airplane: fly.

When I set out on this course, it felt like looking at a BandAid that’s been stuck on for a very long time. It served a purpose, but now it needed to be pulled off in order for things to get better. It wasn’t something I was looking forward to, but it had to be done. I wasn’t sure if I wanted the sale to happen quick and be done with it, or maybe take some time.

It didn’t take long to find a qualified buyer, as far as these things go. It seemed to take almost as long to get the weather to settle down so the new owner could fly his prize home. For me, maybe that was a good thing, as it gave me time to get used to the idea of not owning N45210 any more, while the airplane was still here, in sight, in my rented hanger. When the day came, I really didn’t have time to dwell on it, as I was busy trying to share everything I knew about the airplane with the new owner, explaining about that piece of exhaust valve I gave him, giving some tips about the airport and local ATC, and taking pictures during the departure on October 19, 2017.

It didn’t really hit me until I went to leave the airport that day. Call me silly, but before leaving I would always pat the airplane on the spinner and tell him when I’d be back. Suddenly, there wasn’t anyone there. The BandAid had been ripped off.

So, what now?

The light sport aircraft (LSA) category was created in the 2000′s to provide a cheaper, more accessible way for people to get into aviation. These would be smaller, less-capabible aircraft, but also much cheaper, and, importantly, no FAA medical certificate would be required: if you held a current, valid state driver’s license, you could self-certify that you were healthy enough to fly (something all pilots do before every flight anyway). Since I never applied for and been denied a medical certificate by the FAA, my fitness to fly would be a matter between me and my doctors.

It’s a bit ironic for a segment of aviation created to be more affordable, but the money from my airplane, and even including what I knew I would need to spend in the near future, is a bit short of what a good LSA airplane would cost. Part of that is the youth of the market: what’s on the used market hasn’t depreciated all that much (not that airplanes depreciate a lot, I actually made some money on mine, but still there’s a big difference between a 40 and a 10 year old vehicle). Another factor is that those cheaper airplanes weren’t all that popular: instead of being driven by people getting into aviation and wanting something simple (inexpensive) to start with, a lot of the market force came from people like me: moving down from larger aircraft but still wanting all the bells & whistles. So, I need to save up a few years of those operating expenses that I don’t have any more and see where that gets me.

In the meantime, I still have the bicycle (one of the cheapest modes of transportation one can own, as opposed to one of the most expensive, like an airplane) and the kayak, there’s trails to hike, and a new segment of aviation to learn about.

Stay tuned, I’m not done quite yet…

Creature Feature 2017 #5

Been a while since I had time for the camera, so here’s some catch-up.
The seasons have been changing while I was busy, but there’s still a lot going on out there, or even right here. This Red Fox visited my back yard the other day:

This morning started out foggy. And then it got a bit thicker (I was navigating by ear at one point):

I think these conditions meet most of the criteria to be called absolutely atrocious for photography, but I did manage to get a picture of our Bald Eagle flying in the fog (apparently flying VFR, but this is class G airspace):

The Spiders have been eating up other insects all summer, and fall is their time (looks like this area is decorated for Halloween, but I’m sure the Spiders don’t care about that):


This Killdeer was just across the water from the Spider enclave, and was being very vocal:

A few Turtles were out taking in some late-season sun:

Speaking about late-season, some fall flowers are out now:

Heading back down the lake, I spotted someone in the water:

Oh! Otters (don’t miss the two under the bank to the left)!

Obligatory Great Blue Heron picture:

Eclipse 2017

My solar power production took a hit this afternoon:

and I suspect that this was typical across just about all of South Carolina. There was a bit of temperature drop at the same time:

Even with the solar power drop, it looks like the utility companies were prepared:

Yes, this was the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017. I had the fortune to spend it with family members and have the broken clouds get out of the way just in time to see the total eclipse and corona. Amazing.

Creature Feature 2017 #4

It seemed like things were pretty quiet around the lake this morning. We’re coming up on deep summer, the breeding season is winding down, and there’s plenty of food around. A good time to just sit back and relax a bit.

Humans, however, never seem to let up. I suppose if you mow hay on a hillside enough, a roll is bound to get away.

As I was working my way up the lake, I spotted a bird rather high up. From the size, I just assumed he was a Great Blue Heron, and tried to get a picture. A bird high up in the sky is a difficult photo target, because they’re small, and the bright sky can obscure any detail of the bird. Anyway, once I got a look at the picture, I wasn’t so sure about my identification.

A while later, as I was thinking I wasn’t going to see anything special today, I saw a large bird on the side of the lake, apparently well into brunch.

Ah, that’s what I saw up high, and yes, that was no Heron.

Yeah, a Bald Eagle, right here in Laurens County.

Creature Feature 2017 #3

Finally got back out on the lake today.
I’m not sure where the creature was that created this, but I’m sure she’s around somewhere:

The lake itself might not be considered a “creature”, but it does change over time. This area used to have navigable water all the way up into the trees in the background, but over the last few months has accumulated a good bit of silt:

which has formed an almost square sharp shelf where the water runs out of the delta:

Fortunately, these mud flat areas are very productive, and many take advantage of that:

A group of Red-Winged Blackbirds was working the trees along the lake:

Probably taking advantage of all the Mayflies hanging around:

Common Grackles were also getting a piece of the action:

A walk in the woods, pt. 2

I didn’t really plan this around Earth Day, but today was a rare day with no pressing obligations. I thought about taking the kayak out, but with a forecast of increasing winds through the morning, I decided to return to Croft State Park and take a more extensive look around. I got there a bit before opening time, but the gates were open so I deposited my admission and proceeded.

Since I was planning to spend quite a while on foot, I decided to forgo my Good Camera and rely on the cell phone, which doesn’t do too bad a job and I needed to take it with me anyway. Any other weight I was carrying went into food and water.

I hadn’t been out of the car but a few minutes when I heard a knocking up in the trees. I followed the sound and found a Pileated Woodpecker working the tree. Unfortunately, with the early light and just my cellphone, there was no way to get a picture. But it was neat watching her for a while. If you’ve never seen one of these birds, they’re One Big Woodpecker. About as big as a full-grown crow.

Things were a lot greener than when I was there the first of the month. I took the Fosters Mill loop trail to the Rocky Ridge trail (as usual, click on the picture for a higher-resolution version):

Most of the rocks I saw were down in the creek, but there was a good bit of “ridge” along this trail:

A short side spur takes one to a place called Whitestone Springs:

where there used to be a hotel and bottling business, but that’s all long gone:

Now it’s just a really nice place to sit and rest for a bit; here’s a little video:
VID_20170422_091642433
Rocky Ridge winds it’s way back to the Foster’s Mill loop trail.

which intersects with the Lake Johnson loop trail that takes you to, you guessed it, Lake Johnson. This is the smaller lake I didn’t get to see last time:

As I came around the lake I pretty much came out of the woods and encountered my first major gathering of humans around the boat ramps and picnic areas. I passed a couple of other hikers earlier, but aside from them, I had the place to myself, primate-wise. Of course, I really wasn’t alone out there.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take long to get back into the woods. I found a nice spot to stop for lunch along that trail. Just remember, everything is “to go” (leave nothing, take nothing):

Butterflies were much in evidence as the day warmed up:

I know I said “leave nothing, take nothing”, but it’s hard not to leave a few footprints, or take a few cobwebs that cross the path. This cobweb wasn’t hard to avoid. That it was bouncing in the gusting wind made it even easier to spot:

This area was used for army training back in WWII days, and there are frequent warnings to stick to the trails, as there may still be unexploded munitions laying around. This tree seemed to take exception to it’s role in holding up those signs:

Back to the other, larger, Lake Craig, where a few hardy canoeists were out in the wind:

With all the twists and turns, especially on the Rocky Ridge trail, I didn’t think a GPS track would come close to an accurate distance, but based on ded reckoning (my typical speed x time), I figure I covered about 14 miles during the almost 5 hours I spent in the woods. I’d call it time well spent, and a good sort of “tired”. And “hungry”…

A walk in the woods, pt. 1

I’m always up for a walk in the woods, but there’s not that many places nearby to really get out in the woods. I found one that’s not too far away, Croft State Park in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, United States. There are literally miles and miles of trails, plus a nice lake (there’s really two, but I only had a chance to see one on this trip):

I wandered around some and found myself following the Beech Tree Trail,


The trail was well marked, and there was even a native guide to make sure I saw the blaze:

Butterflies were all over the place too:

I even learned something about horses. Most all the trails are multi-use, and towards the end of my walk I encountered a couple groups of horses. I stepped aside for one pair, and was politely asked by the lead rider to step out from the bushes I had gotten behind. Seems horses don’t like that, as it looks like I’m trying to set up an ambush.

I’m impressed with the extensive network of trails, if I only had time to sample a small section. Even at that, it was the worth the $2 admission, and the staff I encountered (a fellow named Jay) was quite helpful and friendly. As you can see from the web site there’s a lot of other things there too.

If you’re going to be in the area for the solar eclipse later this year, you might want to add on a day or two and pay a visit.

Update: Here’s an overview of the park:

My little walk took me across the dam at the bottom of the larger lake (the lower right corner in this picture), and across the next valley, and along part way up the other side before looping back up to the lake.

Creature Feature 2017 #2

One of my familiars stops by the back yard (where the food is, of course):

The Ospreys were very active, cavorting in the air and working on their nest on top of the intake structure:

This is kind of interesting because it shows how their tip flight feathers splay and curve up to act as [what human aircraft designers call] winglets:

Of course, Osprey were using winglets long before humans produced the first inkling of aerodynamic lift.

Got a good look at this Heron from across a little inlet, who also got a good look at me, naturally:

A bit later, paddling out of the inlet, I reached for my camera to get a few more pictures of the Ospreys overhead, when I heard a floof floof floof right behind my starboard side. The heron passed within a paddle’s-length of me.

Ducks were hangin’ out:

and it was a good day for the Turtles to be out getting some sun:

Whenever I’ve become very familiar seeing something from one angle, like the spillway from the lake side:

I always find it interesting when I suddenly get a look at it from the other side. I was wandering around the Lake Rabon park below the dam when I suddenly realized “OH… This is where the spillway spills out!”:

It didn’t look like it had been used in a long time. If there were leaves on the trees, you could easily miss it entirely.

Creature Feature 2017 #1

I finally managed to get some outdoor time (and come up with something to blog about). There are signs of spring already, although most of them are subtle, mostly auditory. The calls I hear when I step outside early in the morning are definitely about spring and territories.
Buffleheads are winter residents here, and haven’t started to move north yet (I usually don’t fly close enough to water to create that good a reflection) (as usual, click on the picture for a full-res version):

but Kingfishers and Mallards are here all year round:


A Cormarant (ID based mainly on outline and beak shape) on early morning patrol:

I went down below the dam to look around and get a different prespective on the lake:

I spotted these Geese coming in low towards the dam, over wind-rippled water the same shade of blue as the clear sky…

…where they gathered, completely ignoring the signs that warn about people not being allowed on the dam:

That blue sky makes for blue water everywhere: