Category Archives: Aviation

Anything involving not being on the ground.

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…

Pinnacle Mountain flight

A nice sharp clear fall Saturday morning, light wind out of the west, a brisk departure to the west off of Greenville’s runway 28. With a short flight planned, light on fuel, and we just about could have busted the class C airspace if we had a mind to.

By the time we leveled out at 4500′ I noticed we had a lot of headwind, and a groundspeed of only 89 knots, which helped to steepen that initial climb. We climbed up and circled the Pinnacle Mountain fire area, with due regard to the TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction).

For those who may not be aware, there’s been a fire burning in this area for almost two weeks now, and is reported to be the largest fire ever in Pickens County. Smoke does not make for good picture-taking conditions when you have to keep some distance, but you get the idea.

That’s actually a cloud on the right. There was a pretty good cloud deck to the north of the area. Unfortunately, they weren’t rain clouds.

Heading back east, we got the wind behind us and promptly hit 177 knots groundspeed. By the time we got back to the airport, that wind was mixing down to the surface, giving us winds gusting to 20 knots and not aligned with any runway. We managed to land without too much excitement, though, which is a good thing.

Connections, Creation

The other day I was hanging out with a friend and there was a Christian radio station playing. The music was good, but the stations tag line, something like “Music that makes you feel connected to God”, made me think. For me, it’s not so much music, but views like this (near Sugarloaf Mountain, NC, USA):

or this (mini creature feature, over Lake Hartwell, SC, USA):

that does it. This, to me, represents the direct handiwork of God, no translations, no interpretations, just the straight story of Creation.
As usual, click on the pictures for full-resolution versions.

Soggy weekend

Not a real good weekend for outdoor activities, but we did manage to sneak out into the air a bit under a ceiling that threatened to become a floor in places:

Duke Power maintains a hydro-electric facility called Bad Creek that, in part, operates like a big mechanical battery. During times when they have extra electricity, they pump water up into the reservoir. When demand cranks up, they let the water run back down to generate additional electricity. Those low ceilings didn’t leave room to get much closer than this.

Almost oddly, the sun did manage to find a hole here and there.

Update: Even though Sunday turned out to be overcast, drizzly with occasional rain, around 40F degrees, and a chilly northeast breeze, I couldn’t just sit around the house. I went out on the lake for a bit. One thing that I’ve noticed is the apparent indifference that a lot of the wildlife displays towards the weather. I’m sure they’re aware of the conditions, since it’s a matter of survival, but, also a matter of survival, they can’t just curl up somewhere. They have to get out and eat. It was a deadful day for trying to take pictures, but I caught this Kingfisher hangin’ around a fishing spot, getting a bit ruffled by the wind.

“The Annual” – done

That which was taken apart has been put back together again.

No major findings, just a couple of worn control surface bearings, which have been replaced and the aircraft is considered airworthy now.
It’s worth noting that airworthiness is as much as matter of paperwork as it is the condition of the machinery. The metal can be in pristine condition, but if the aircraft records don’t say it is, it ain’t airworthy.

“The Annual”

All US aircraft are required to undergo a comprehensive inspection every year. My own little airplane is no exception, and while many aircraft owners dread “the annual”, I look forward to this as an excuse to take some time off from the job that pays for all this and spend quality time with my torque wrenches, magneto synchronizer, compression tester, inspection mirrors, and other tools. I also like keeping my airplane well-maintained, and knowing that we have no secrets from each other.
So here’s what a small airplane looks like half way through an annual inspection:

The interior also gets opened up for inspection:

Which all means that right now I have something that looks more like a collection of airplane parts, rather than an airplane:

A lot of servicing also gets done at the same time. As long as we’re going to open up the oil filter and take an oil sample for analysis to look for signs of something coming undone in the engine, might as well put a fresh new filter on, change the oil, and clean the spark plugs, lubricate all the controls, etc… Really, the actual inspecting can be done in a small number of hours. It’s all the disassembly, servicing, reassembly, and checkout that takes days.

War birds

This weekend I had an opportunity to photograph some really special and rare “birds”. The Collings Foundation’s B-24 Liberator, B-17 Flying Fortress, and P-51 Mustang, all World War II war birds, were on tour at my home airport in Greenville, SC.

Watching these aircraft fly in and out of a modern-day 2013 airport with all the amenities, I can only imagine what it was like flying them out of what we would now call “unimproved” fields, carrying a full load of things designed and intended to blow up, during a war, knowing they’re going to be shot at.

However, there are people among us who do know, first-hand, what that was like. I encourage you to find a WWII veteran near you, and ask them what it was like. My Dad, an infantryman, has told me many stories that you will not find in history books. These are the stories that will tell you what that war was Really Like. Act now, this is a time-limited offer.

OK, now for the pictures (as usual, click on the pictures for a larger version)…

You can see some updated avionics in the cockpit of the B-24, which only makes sense. There have to be some updates in order for these aircraft to operate safely in our current airspace.

One thing that strikes me about the war craft of this era (I have no idea if it’s different now) is how cramped they seem to be. You could not be overweight, or claustrophobic, and spend any time in these aircraft, or the naval vessels I’ve visited.

When I visited the USS Yorktown, a WWII aircraft carrier, it actually gave me the willies a bit as I was squeezing around the cramped areas down in the bowels of the ship and thinking, “image now that someone is dropping bombs on this thing”.

Here the B-24 taxis out for takeoff:

with the B-17 not far behind:

The B-24 on its takeoff run while the B-17 prepares in the background:

And gets gone:

The B-17 starts its takeoff run:
You can see the B-24 in the distance near the top of the ’17′s tail.


They came back and made a pass over the airport. Here’s the B-24:

And the B-17:

Touchdown of the B-24:

And the B-17, about to return to Earth:

I didn’t see the P-51 flying much, but I did get this shot:

You can find the tour schedule for these aircraft at the Collings Foundation web site. Go out and see ‘em, and help support keeping this bit of history truly alive.

Ways to Travel

The recent loss of my Brother-in-Law (William A. Prall, 1943 – 2013) left me with a bit of a problem: How to get my 90-year-old Dad from South Carolina to Pennsylvania and back with an absolute minimum of wear-and-tear. I actually started thinking about this a couple months ago, knowing what was coming.

The obvious answer would be to take an airline, but this would require us to either make a connection(s) somewhere, possibly between concourses in separate zip codes, and/or drive to/from one of the major regional hubs multiple hours away. Then there’s all the standing in lines, security checks, parking lots that require GPS to navigate, cramped seats, and so on. I really did not want to subject my Dad to all that if I could at all avoid it.

I considered many options (I ruled out bicycle and kayaking right off). Near as I could tell, you just can’t get there from here by bus or train, and even getting close would take a good bit of time, as would just driving. For a variety of reasons, my own single engine airplane would not be a good choice. My Dad isn’t one to fly, and even being on a large airliner is a bit stressful.

I got to wondering what it would cost to charter a flight on something like a small turboprop. This might be a big enough airplane for my Dad to be reasonably comfortable, and would take out the entire “airline experience”. Since I know something about aviation, I knew it wouldn’t be cheap (there’s a saying that it takes two things to fly: airspeed and money, and airspeed is debatable), but then again, my research showed that short-notice airline travel would cost a small fortune anyway, even if we could get seats when we needed them.

One might wonder, “how does one go about chartering a flight?” It’s easy. Call up one or more charter operators (most larger airports, and many smaller ones, will have at least one), and tell ‘em what you need. These companies operate a lot like the big scheduled air carriers, but without the schedules and “established routes”. You go when you want to go and where you want to go, and a variety of aircraft are available. “On demand” and “air taxi” are terms that you may see. They’re governed by Federal Aviation Regulations part 135, which has many of the same requirements as the scheduled air carriers. There are, of course, differences to allow for flying anywhere and everywhere whenever with many different aircraft.

I’m sure any charter operator can help you figure out the best airports to use since they’ll fly to airports the airlines can’t use with their behemoth-sized aircraft, or just won’t bother with, but knowing what I know I was able to pick Allentown, PA as the best option. I considered Mt. Pocono airport, but it’s not all that much closer to where we needed to get to, and has no ILS approach. As it turned out, on the day we wanted to return home, Mt. Pocono was well below approach minimums in fog and basically unusable.

Anyway, I called around, and, yes, if short-notice airline travel would cost a small fortune, this would cost a modest fortune, but one that I could afford, if only once. We could go directly from the Greenville, SC right straight to Allentown, PA, non-stop, in a little over 2 hours. We could go and return when we wanted to. Cost is based on the actual cost of the flight, however long it takes, including any weather or ATC (Air Traffic Control) delays, and the “empty” trips for the aircraft to return to base and then come back to pick us up later, however the operators were happy to provide a “feasibility number”, and later when I got serious about doing this, a quote.

As an aside, I’ve had what I guess some might call a bucket list item to go out and do something like the “other half” does it. Do something and just not give a second (or even first) though about the cost. Go first class. Be “king for a day”. But I never really came across something I wanted to do that way. Get skybox tickets to a race or ball game? Meh…. limo ride out to dinner? Nah… Charter a flight to Pennsylvania, and maybe get to spend a little time up in the “front office” of something that’s a lot more airplane than my little Tiger? Bingo.

I called up Venture Aviation, an operator at Greenville Downtown, where I keep my own airplane, and got a real quote, which matched the rough number I was given previously. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the actual event to occur, which, as it turned out, was only a few days. A phone call and some Emailed paperwork got everything set up.

As it turned out, I have serious doubts we could have done this on an airline anyway. My Dad had an appointment on Monday afternoon that we really needed to keep, and couldn’t be moved up, and the first services for my Brother-in-law were on Tuesday evening. We’d have been hard-pressed to make it there on time. With the charter, we were able to have a normal breakfast at home in South Carolina, and be at my Sister’s home in Pennsylvania by lunchtime, with none of the frazzling that seems to accompany airline travel.

The pilots were professional, helpful, and accommodated my request to stick my beak up in the cockpit once we reached cruise flight in the King Air 200 on the way up:

and the King Air 90 on the way back:

Interestingly enough, I could at least identify everything in the cockpit. I might not know just how or when to use the thing, but I at least knew what it was or what it was telling me. Guess I picked up a few things in almost 40 years of fiddling around with airplanes. It was neat watching the pilots work together during the busy portions of the flight: teamwork in action.

The aircraft were impeccable: clean, comfortable (with just the two of us, we had more leg room than leg), and in good operating condition to my casual, but Airframe and-Powerplant-mechanic trained eye. This is personal service. While these flights had no cabin attendants (such service is, I’m sure, available on larger aircraft), the pilots provided safety information, kept us informed, and answered all questions. They also helped with our baggage (another advantage is that we could travel a bit “heavier” than had we taken an airline) and generally made sure we were treated well. It’s worth noting that these pilots are also responsible for all aspects of the aircraft, including tidying up and making sure the snacks and beverages are on board.

I also need to mention the line crews. These are the folks that work at an FBO and provide the
fuel and other services for the aircraft on the ground. They also help with baggage and ground transportation, and create a seamless experience for us passenger types. The FBO also handled having our rental car there when we arrived, and handled it’s return, making that easy as well.

There’s a lot written out there about tips for these kinds of operations. Y’all can use Google as well as I can, so I’ll just add that, to me, when to tip is a matter of personal service. If someone is going to directly look after me, tote my “stuff”, and personally see to it that I’m happy, that deserves some consideration.

All that said, I am unlikely to be a repeat charter customer, just because this is a bit “out of my league”. But in this case, this was the right choice: my Dad got his trip safely and expeditiously, and it all worked out splendidly.

It was a great trip, even if the reason for the trip wasn’t. The final bill came in a little under the quoted price, but having my Dad there for the family was priceless.

Should some similar circumstance come up again, I’ll re-do the decision making process, and, again, give due consideration to all available options. In the meantime, sigh, back to mowing my grass and doing my grocery shopping.

Upcoming activities

With emphasis on “active”.

TakeFlight5k

The Greenville Downtown Airport (KGMU) is building an aviation-themed community park where people can come watch the airplanes, with a playground for kids, etc… In order to raise money to continue the construction, they’re holding a 5k run/walk on 25-May-2013:
http://book-events.com/takeflight5k/
http://www.greenvilledowntownairport.com/RunOnTheRunway.html
The keynote feature is that the run will be on the airport itself, including a runway. I’m planning to participate, if only so I can run down the runway flapping my wing…er… arms.

I kinda like the sneaker-wearing airplane logo.

Flight of the Dove

No, I’m not talking about backyard birds, for once. Flight of the Dove is upstate South Carolina’s premier (IMHO) organized bicycle ride. The routes are great, support is great, No restroom lines at the start/finish (at the Presbyterian College stadium in Clinton, SC), and lunch is included. And on top of all that, the ride supports a great cause: Hospice of Laurens County. Mark your calendars: 24-Aug-2013.

http://www.bikelaurenscounty.com/flight-of-the-dove.html
http://www.hospiceoflaurenscounty.com/Flightofthedove.html

Ride for Raptors

As long as I’m here, I’ll also mention another ride I like to do, Ride for Raptors. This one is in the fall (no date set yet for 2013), leaves out of Pendleton, SC, and wanders through the hills of Pickens County. This one supports the Carolina Raptor Center. More later…

http://www.ride4raptors.org/home.htm
http://www.carolinaraptorcenter.org/