Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The 41st day

After what seemed like a biblical 40 days and 40 nights of rain, we had some pretty nice weather today. Low 80s, if that, and clear air all the way up to the stratosphere. Light winds thrown into the bargain at no extra charge. But... all of that rain had an effect on the grass - mowing couldn't really be put off any longer. Luckily I have help in that domain now - it's a shared duty with Co-pilot Egg. My part comes first; I trim around the fence so she doesn't drive into any of the posts. Naturally I plowed right into one myself last week, which to an appreciable degree moots that entire line of logic, but still... it seems prudent. Once she took over the wheel, I jumped in the Miata and headed to the airport.

Papa hadn't been flown for a couple of weeks, and he was still two hours worth light on gas. I figured a quick hop to MadCo was in order. Just a couple of blades swung by before the engine caught, yet again making me appreciate the enthusiasm and willingness that my engine consistently demonstrates to the task of pulling Papa and me along. The winds being calm, the temps being low, the pressure being high, and the tanks being light, we fairly leapt from the runway and made a climbing turn to the west. 2,500' was plenty of altitude for the short ride out to MadCo.

I figured that it would be a good idea to practice a few landings after the debacle out in Indy, then we'd tank up and head home. A plan like that is only as good as the first landing, as it turns out. It was a greaser, and at $5.28 a gallon a result like that one on the first try makes ensuing attempts both an expensive luxury and an opportunity to only do worse. We made a full stop.

Tonight was my first time pumping my own gas at MadCo since they went self-service in the spring. If you remember, I was kind of put off by the removal of the gas pumping guy's job, right up until he spilled fuel all over my left wing. At that point I figured that I might be better off pumping it myself after all. Well, guess what. Spilling fuel on the wing turns out to be pretty easy to do! Now, I'm not saying that I was careless enough to spill a large quantity of very expensive fossil fuel all over my left wing. Nope, not saying that at all. I do also have a right wing, though, if you recall. I don't want to talk about that one.

I loafed along back to Bolton at a leisurely and economical 2000 RPM which, with the slight tailwind from the west, gave me a ground speed of 130 knots. It was nice and quiet, too. Having greased the landing on the skinny runway at MadCo, I was sure that the big, fat runway at Bolton would skew my perception to the degree that I mangled the landing there. 'Twas not to be: another greaser! And no, of course there were no witnesses. Things just don't work that way for me. You'll simply have to take my word for it.

Taxing back in, I stopped to chat with a fellow student from the A&P school as he was preflighting his plane for the return trip home. As we were talking, another guy came up and asked me what kind of plane Papa is. As you know, the only thing I enjoy talking about more than the subject of me is the subject of Papa. I gave him the particulars and answered the questions he had regarding performance, etc. I particularly like the performance questions since most pilots are astounded to learn that I can get 155 knots out of a 150hp engine.

As we were talking, I noticed that he was wearing some kind of ID badge. It turns out that he has one of the coolest jobs I can imagine: he's the pilot for the local NBC affiliate's news helicopter.

Helicopters are wonderful machines, but because of their high cost and relatively slow speeds, they really aren't suited for pleasure flying. I've only ridden in one once, having begged a ride in an Army UH-1 Huey while on a National Guard summer deployment. I've always wanted to try flying a chopper but they're prohibitively expensive. You have to really need their unique flying abilities to justify the cost.

That said, if I was ever going to buy myself a flying vacation, I think getting five hours or so of instruction in a Robinson R22 would be one of my first choices. I've thought about buying a P51 ride, but while it would be fun and interesting, at the end of the day it would be exactly that: a ride. I'm more of a hands-on guy. I thought about doing a three day course to get a second-in-command rating on the venerable DC-3, and while noted that it would definitely be hands-on, maybe to the point of being a bit more hands-on than I really wanted (they're notoriously physical in their handling, at least according to novels and conventional pilot wisdom), that idea carries with it the requirement that I have a multi-engine rating. Which would be a luxury to have in and of itself. I haven't got one.

I'm guessing that five hours in a Robinson would be enough to learn how to hover, and you get right down to it, that's all I really want to do. I get plenty of straight & level flight already, but rare are my chances to hover. Non-existent, truth be told. Completely devoid of hovering opportunities, am I. And I figure that hovering a helicopter has to be one of the coolest things you can do in an aircraft. I visualize it as feeling like trying to maintain your balance while perched on a rocking chair that is in turn balancing on the end of a broom stick. Said broomstick balancing on top of a bowling ball.

The control stick (technical name: cyclic) is used to stay level, but the collective control in your left hand also gives you freedom to move up and down. Said movements in the vertical plane coming at a cost, though: climbing and descending change the torque being imposed on the airframe by the rotor, which causes a change in the counteracting thrust provided by the tail rotor. So, if you move the collective control up or down with your left hand, you then have to compensate against a pivoting caused by the change in torque by the use of your feet, which are used to operate what appear to be rudder pedals. The use of which will probably cause some roll or pitch that needs to be addressed by the cyclic. Which itself cause an elevation change that might have to be compensated for with collective. Are you starting to see a pattern here?

All of this stirring around of the controls eventually becomes nearly automatic on the part of the pilot, or so I hear. I think being able to do that would be one of the more intense man/machine synergies ever. I get a feeling somewhat like that sometimes in the RV when we roll into a tight turn. I just think "turn," and without any more conscious thought I move my left hand a half inch or an inch (the distance depending on the pilot's mood, the passenger list, and/or the number of degrees of heading change to be performed) in the direction of the turn. The resisting force of the stick caused by the ailerons, them being way out there on the wing and being pressed on by the wind stream, feels juuusssst right, it being firm enough to give you a good sense of involvement in the process but light enough to not feel like you're imposing yourself.

The response to the stick movement is instantaneous, and the tightening that I get in my shoulders when I roll into a steep bank feels like what I imagine it would feel like to actually have my own wings. I think in hovering a helicopter, the feedback from the controls and the immediacy of the response (I assume) combined with the freedom to maneuver in all three dimensions would result in an even stronger feeling of control and rapport with the machine. I'll bet it's one of those things that prompted the advent of the term "being in the zone." Concentration required, but not unpleasantly so. Thoughts and instincts unconsciously and instantly responded to with muscles that know what to do, giving the pilot a feeling of individual and unassisted flight as it must be felt by birds. Well, hummingbirds anyway.

After all that, you won't be surprised when I say that I think the idea of flying a helicopter around to gather video for ongoing news stories seems like an incredible day job. Somehow, sitting at a computer all day doesn't seem to stack up very well in the adventure dept. compared to a job like that. Oh well, it's all good since lack of adventure aside, it gives me the tremendous opportunity to share beautiful summer evenings loafing around the skies with Papa. Ah, what a great way to spend the 41st evening! Still a helluva bargain, even at $5.28 per.

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