Saturday, March 01, 2008

In like a lion...

March: In like a lion, out like a lamb. Or so they say. Weather-out-the-window didn't persuade either way: sunny, with some of those soft, fuzzy clouds that usually spell C-O-L-D floating around at around 3500', and trees swaying in a fairly stiff breeze, but just shy of qualifying as wind. Worth a look, thought I, but moot if I can't surmount the hangar ice wall that has kept Papa captive lo these many weeks.

Nothing for it but to reconnoiter, of course. I drove over at about 0830, and before I even got as far as the hangar I found a problem: those puddles from melted snow... weren't puddles at all. Black ice. Alaska tea. Slippery water, that is. Jeb, move away from there. Figuring that would be nothing but a delay, and not a bad one at that considering that I owed my engine at least a few hours worth of pre-heated oil, I pressed on to the hangar. The ice wall, while certainly not completely gone, had been reduced to a minor annoyance, almost Huckabee-like, if you will.

I plugged in the pre-heater, noted that the ambient light conditions in the hangar were, well, non-existent due to the burned out (presumably) hangar light, and headed back home to wait out the warming of both the pavement and the engine oil.

Figuring that by 1100 or so what's left of Al Gore's tattered Global Warming Crisis had had enough time to work its magic, I returned to the airport. At this point I was still not sure there would be any flying, mind you, as there were any number of concerns left. After all, the battery had been sitting fallow for more than a month through frigid weather and it was by no means a certainty that it would have enough life left to crank the engine. The trusty pilot had weathered this period as well, so there was also the question of aviation competence yet to be answered.

Again, naught to do but try, so I pulled Papa out of the stable and concentrated on the pre-flight inspection. A month spent in the hangar with constant temperature changes and a lot of precipitation, combined with the fact that his tanks were only half full (which presents a nice open expanse of condensation-friendly sheet metal to the elements), led to a lot of attention being paid to the condition of the fuel drained from the quick drains at the bottom of each tank. All was well with the fuel, but the cold temperatures and stiff breeze sure took a toll on the pilot!

I figured there was at least some probability that the ever-eager Papa would start, and I didn't want to have to shut him back down to go close the hangar door, so I placed a bet on success and decided to close the door before mounting up. As I was bringing the door down, I noticed how the breeze, which pushes its way between the hangars like forced air through a wind tunnel, was causing Papa to quiver in the way Brave Sir Hogarth does when he's all tensed up waiting for me to throw his ball for him. It was if Papa was thinking, "Finally, FINALLY, we get to go for a ride!" You just have to appreciate such devotion to cause and love of purpose, even if it takes a healthy dose of the anthropomorphizing of an inanimate machine to do it.

My bet paid off, because after five shots of primer and two blades cranked through (albeit just a tad reluctantly, it seemed), Papa responded with a roar of approval. We sat there for a few minutes while he stretched his neglected muscles and the oil heated to a degree that would allow it to work its way through all of the engine's innards, then made the call to the tower for taxi clearance. In my experience, one of the piloting skills that erodes the quickest is the ability to speak clearly and accurately to air traffic control, so it's always with some degree of trepidation that I make that first call to the tower after a long layoff. I never know what's going to come out of my mouth in these cases which, truth be told, is pretty much always the case anyway. Just in a different way. I seemed to make enough sense for the controller to understand me, so I got a taxi clearance to runway 22 from him. I also got a report on the wind conditions: 290 at 12. That's pretty much a direct crosswind, although anyone that remembers how to do trigonometry could easily make the case that the crosswind component would actually be more like 10 knots. Either way, there would be noticeable pressure from my right on takeoff and landing.

And, as predicted, it was noticeable. Not horribly, but in combination with the turmoil introduced by its passage through the stand of trees just west of the runway, it caused some momentary burbles during which my left hand struggled to come to grips (so to speak) with the response rate of the airplane (long forgotten after a month of inactivity) and the unpredictable gusts of wind, my left and right foot tried to lend a hand (so to speak) with the job of keeping us pointed in the right direction, and my right hang clung for dear life onto the throttle, hoping that the other three could do their jobs and make sure everything turned out well for all involved. This all took roughly 5 seconds as we accelerated to 100 mph, at which point my left hand eased the stick back and lifted us up into the smoother air 50' over the runway. Good on 'im.

I had my camera with me because I've been trying to work out a methodology that will result in better focused pictures, particularly on cloudy and/or bumpy days. Without a super bright sun to force the automatic configuration algorithm to arrive at a solution having a very fast shutter speed setting, I end up with a lot of motion blur. The other thing that happens is that the auto focus will often choose something inappropriate to focus on, again resulting in a less than optimal solution. Today I decided to try something different: rather than using the automatic mode, I would force the shutter speed to 1/500s of a second. That should be fast enough to counter any adverse movement of the camera. The down side is that by being forced to use the fast shutter speed, the camera would probably have to select an aperture setting (aka 'F-stop') that would make the focus ultra critical. My theory on that, though, is that it shouldn't really matter if I turn off the auto focus and just manually focus on DNI, or Damn Near Infinity. I'm typically thousands of feet away from what I'm photographing, after all. It seems to have worked pretty well:

Co-pilot Egg's School

Lake Madison

Prison just south of MadCo, a good entry point to left downwind, runway 27. Hopefully not Co-pilot Egg's next school.

After 20 minutes of stooging around letting the oil get hot enough to burn out some of the impurities that get into it after a long period of idleness, I decided more or less on a whim to stop by at MadCo for some gas, what with both tanks being half empty. (Or half full, depending on your outlook, which itself is probably very dependent on the risk to yourself of the tanks ever being fully empty.) The wind being mostly out of the west, and therefore almost directly down MadCo's runway 27, would offer a good opportunity to make my first landing in more than a month without having to deal with a crosswind, too. And, believe it or not (I didn't, for whatever it's worth), it worked out quite well. I scored a greaser!

As I was taxiing in to the pumps, I noticed something new: a self-service kiosk. I'm not a big fan of self-service fuel, so that wasn't a welcome sight. It's kind of funny, really. For years I wondered why grocery stores were paying an employee to stand there and do something as incredibly easy as dragging purchases over a bar code reader. It sure seemed like something I could just do for myself. Well, eventually the stores had the same thought, and we saw the mass adoption of self-service lines at the grocery stores. Which, to this day, I refuse to use. I just hate the damn things, and all indications are that they hate me right back. The self-service kiosks at the airports are even worse. They have instructions on them that sun fade within the first day or two of installation, or so it seems. I can then never figure out how to work them.

I was sharing this lament with the guy filling my tanks when he overfilled the right tank and spilled a few ounces of (expensive) gas down the wing. "Hmm," I thought, "that kind of thing wouldn't happen if I was pumping the gas myself. But that's not fair: I distracted him by yakking at him about the grocery store." I kept quiet as he filled the left tank. He overfilled that one too, and again spilled gas all over the wing. "Hmm," I thought, "I guess I could get used to this self-fueling thing after all." As I stood in the FBO waiting to pay for my gas while he was still outside fueling another plane, I came fully to terms with it. Viva la Progress.

The flying day was nearly complete at this point, with the only remaining challenge being the 12 (or 10, for you math wizards) knot crosswind back at Bolton. Forewarned is fore-armed, and I knew what to expect: a 15 degree bank to the right, into the wind, and a lot of left rudder to hold the nose straight down the runway. It worked out just like that, and I got a nice touch down. I got some of what I call "mechanical bouncing" after the touchdown, but I'm ok with that, all things considered.

And finally, FINALLY, I have something interesting to write about!


  1. Hooray for flying! I'm going up tomorrow in the 40's and sun. Not sure where yet, though. Mansfield, maybe for some late lunch dessert?

  2. So that's what a hangar looks like without 5 inches of ice holding the door down!

    Your hangar could be mine. Well except for the sofa. And the completed RV. And the fact yours doesn't have a skating rink in it.

  3. The story of the sofa is that I inherited it courtesy of Brave Sir Hogarth. There was another piece to it, which apparently he took to be a canine chew toy one night. By morning it looked like we had a foot of snow in the living room from all of the stuffing he had pulled out of it. That piece went to the curb, and the remainder went to the hangar.