Saturday, July 30, 2005

Oshkosh, by gosh!

The local weather thursday morning was actually worse that it had been on Wednesday morning, but was just good enough for me to launch towards Oshkosh. I was in the air by 7:30, spiralling up through a hole in the clouds to an altitude of 8,500'. That put me in clear air over a broken undercast.

The first leg of the flight was two hours. It was particularly uncomfortable since I had put one of the pieces of styrofoam that I had removed before back in the seat cushion, thinking that I might enjoy a tad more padding for the long-ish flight. This new position caused me to have to hunch over to keep from banging my head against the canopy, which made my back hurt within the first 20 minutes, so the arrival at the first stop was a big relief. I yanked the extra padding back out and from there, it was just an hour north to the town of Ripon, WI.

C09 was the intended fuel stop, but it turned out to be a welcome human factors stop as well, if you get my meaning.

Ripon is the starting point of the approach into Oshkosh. The idea is for everyone arriving over Ripon to get into a single file line following the railroad tracks into Fisk. From there, a controller on the ground will tell you which runway to head towards. Here's the rub: there are a lot of planes over Ripon, all jockeying for position in line. I started monitoring the ATC frequency at Fisk when I was still about 30 miles south of Ripon. The first thing I heard was, "No one come in from Ripon. Keep holding out there until the tower can handle more traffic." There was also a lot of admonishment for the people that couldn't seem to get in line or keep the required half mile spacing behing the plane they were following. This creates a real mess for the control tower, who prefers a nice, orderly, well spaced string of planes. A gaggle is most certainly not what they want, but apparently they had just received one.

I figured I'd slow down to 100 knots and loiter my way in to Ripon in the hopes that the tower would be accepting traffic by the time I got there. That wasn't the case. When I got to Ripon, there were at least 20, probably more, planes orbiting the town. By 'orbiting' I really mean meandering aimlessly. There was just no order to it at all. As I established myself in a counterclockwise holding pattern around the outside of the town, it looked like at least 1/3 of the pilots decided tht that the 2/3s of us that were doing it that way were wrong. Some of these guys seemed to have no plan at all, other than trying to avoid whatever plane they happened to be pointing towards at the moment. After a couple of times where I saw a plane coming my way intent on becoming more intimate than I like with a total stranger, I moved a little further out from the town and flew a wider orbit.

The whole thing eventually became a game of aerial musical chairs. As you come up to the railroad tracks that lead to Fisk, you start thinking "Let us come in now, let us come in now, let us come in now" so you can be one of the first in line. As you cross the tracks, you start thinking "don't let us come in now, don't let us come in now, don't let us come in now" becuase if they chose that moment to allow incoming traffic, you'd be at the tail end of the mamba line, dealing with the accordian effect of planes in front of you struggling to keep their spacing. Of course, it's really more like playing musical chairs where half of the players are cheating. In other words, it's not a fun game.

After about 30 minutes of this, with it getting more crowded all the while, I was just past the railroad tracks when they told us to start coming in. Rather than go all the way around, only to have them stop traffic again by the time I could get in line, I turned right, back towards the tracks. There was only one other plane near the tracks, and it was a slow high wing so a short burst of power got me easily in front of him. Finally, I was headed towards Fisk.

Being first in line meant I didn't have to worry about spacing behind the plane in front of me, so I bumped my speed up to 110 knots to try to help the guys behind from getting bunched up. If you get too close to the plane in front of you, the controllers will call you out and either have you orbit Rush lake, or return to Ripon. No one, and I mean no one, wants to return to Ripon!! It reminds me of a quote from a movie: "Are you over Ripon? No, I don't think I will ever get over Ripon."

The Fisk controller cleared me to land on 36 Left, but when I got there I could see that there were still a lot of planes on the runway, and a B-17 bomber was on short final. I questioned the controller about it, and he changed my clearance to land on 36 Right. Sounded good to me, except I couldn't see a 36 Right. All I could see was a taxiway next to 36 Left, with "36 R" painted chalked on it. Well, landing on a taxiway: that's no big deal. I've been landing on relatively narrow runways ever since I started flying the RV. I had another RV close in front of me, so I had to make a few S turns on final for spacing, while internalizing the directive from the controller to land on the second half of the runway. There would be another plane landing behind me on the first half. I also was a little distracted by S turning down final with a B-17 landing on the next runway over. I sure wish I could have devoted a little time to watching it land, but I was just too busy.

There was a long line of planes waiting to taxi to the parking area. The B-17 had landed, and there was another coming in right behind it. We all sat out there waiting until the two B-17s could be moved off to their parking area. That was about 15 sweaty minutes, but finally the paddle wavers marshalled me towards the Homebuilt parking area. As I was taxing along, I got a sudden jolt when I looked to the left and saw a guy there driving a golf cart right in front of my wing. I hadn't seen him before so I thought it pretty lucky that I didn't run him over.

My path to parking is in red. And yes, all of those tiny white dots are airplanes. Oh, and you can see how narrow the 'runway' was!

He puttered along at a leisurely pace, prompting me to wonder why in the hell he wouldn't pull over so I could get around him. He finally turned off, so I progressed up the taxiway until I found a row with an empty spot. You probably can't visualize this. There were 20 some rows of planes, each row having 15 or 20 planes in it. It was basically a sea of planes, most of them RVs. I pulled into a spot, shut down the engine, opened the canopy, and breathed a sigh of relief for getting in safely and without screwing up.

Well, well. Here comes my buddy in the golf cart! "Didn't you see me turn off??!!," says he.

"Uh, yes."

"You were supposed to follow me!!"


Oh well.

I got out and tied down the plane, and it was off to the show!

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