Monday, July 07, 2008

French Lick: Not what it sounds like!

My categorization of Saturday's weather as 'icky' received a challenge, but I'm sticking by it. The early forecast was for 3,000' ceilings all day, and with an accompanying promise for a level of humidity that would make a humidor proud, I figured any flying would have to be below the clouds and down in the sauna. It looked fine from the ground, though, so I took the opportunity to get a few chores done. I've been waiting for a couple of rain free days to get my crop dusting done (which sounds more fun that it is, although I do get a small pecuniary rush every time I spray my yard for weeds using a $20 gallon of concentrate rather that paying $160 to Scotts Lawn) and I've been back burner-ing the task of sanding the rusty spots off of the heavy steel cellar doors (I call them the Auntie Emm doors) and spreading on a coat of Rustoleum. Those completed, I considered pressing on with the miserable job of sweeping the insect detritus out of the stairwell covered by the Auntie Emm doors, but the natural extension of that would be to sweep up the even larger Blue Heron Boatworks, and the very thought of that brought on an insurmountable malaise.

Sunday's forecast was, well, more of the same. Except for an improvement in the ceiling, the promise being for no worse that 4,500' all day. 85/feels-like-85 on the temp/humidity discomfort scale, though, so the desired destination would/should be air conditioned. As I've been investigating opportunities in the next state over recently, I thought that it might be time to finally visit French Lick, Indiana. The name alone is intriguing, isn't it? Why, those wacky French and their tongues - it could mean anything! Google(the fun wrecker) cleared that up, though:

There are a number of colorful stories concerning the origin of the town’s name but the most widely-accepted theory came from its early settlers. French Lick got its name from the early French settlers and the “mineral licks.”

French traders came to the area and discovered the mineral springs bubbling from the ground in the vicinity of what is now French Lick. At the same time, they discovered the abundance of wildlife that flocked to them to lick the mineral deposits left on the ground and rocks.

Google, however, failed to turn up any of the alleged "colorful stories," but that may be because I keep the Google Safe Search setting turned on. But I did find out that Larry Bird was born there, so yet one more completely useless piece of trivia makes it to my blog. Now, I think that we can all agree that going to visit the birthplace of Larry Bird would be necessary and sufficient reason all by its lonesome to visit French Lick, but wait(!!), there's more!

The waters (or the name - I can't be sure) were a huge draw in the late nineteenth century, which was prior to the common importation of Evian ('Naive' spelled backwards - coincidence or in-your-face irony: you be the judge) to fill the populace's need for expensive water:

As many as 14 Pullman train cars a day pulled into town, traveling mainly down the Monon and Southern Railway systems. In 1907 a limestone passenger station was built and in 1929 a brick freighter station constructed to handle the influx of tourists, who didn’t only come to drink the water.

At the turn of the twentieth century, tourists particularly came for the casino gambling, although it was illegal. Until 1949, Taggart (National Democratic Committee Chairman Thomas Taggart - no comment) had all the right political connections to avoid prosecution and as a result thousands of dollars were dropped at gambling halls like the Elite Club and the Brown.

So, short story made long, there's some interesting history there. Still, there's history everywhere, so why fly to French Lick? Well, gambling is legal in Indiana now (as opposed to Ohio, where the state government holds firm rein on their gambling monopoly with the state lottery, while concurrently banning any other type of gambling because of their deeply held ethics. Snort.) and some of the old hotel/casinos have been revitalized. Specifically, the French Lick Hotel and Casino, and the West Baden Springs Hotel. The infusion of gambling dollars has allowed them to restore those old buildings to their original glory, and to install air conditioning.

All of which only matters if one can get to the hotel from the airport. It's the classic "last few miles" quandary that every pilot deals with eventually. As luck (and the typical high-end service that accompanies gambling establishments) would have it, the French Lick Hotel is well aware of two things: high rollers often have airplanes, and those flying in need transport to the hotel. The French Lick airport, despite being way out in the middle of nowhere and having a very small FBO, has a 5,500' runway. It's no coincidence that 5,500' is long enough to handle almost all business/luxury jets. Transportation reportedly would not be an issue.

With a destination in mind, the next step was to consult Sunday's Weather-out-the-Window(tm) forecast. Loyal readers know that I've been breaking in a new camcorder, and the idea struck me that my fancy new camcorder also acts as a still camera, albeit not to the high quality of my DSLR Olympus. But sometimes good enough is good enough, and only having to lug around one small camera versus the camcorder/Olympus combo-kit sounded like an idea worth investigating. I used the still camera function camcorder for this Weather-out-the-Window(tm):

Yep, looks like good enough is good enough.

Chief Videographer & Co-pilot Rick shares my belief in getting an early start, particularly on days that promise to provide hot, muggy, and bumpy flying conditions. We had agreed to a 0900 meeting at the airport gate, with takeoff scheduled for 0910. I'm up far earlier than that, so there was time for a shower (might as well at least start off smelling good, no matter what the end of the day brought) and a cup of "long-trip-with-no-potty" Espresso. Hard lessons learned and retained being the impetus for the latter, as you know. I got to the airport and did the preflight inspection, and the co-pilot arrived right on time. The weather was still very nice, clear skies and no wind to speak of promising to provide at least a nice morning flight. Mornings like that have a feeling, though, that foreshadows what the afternoon will bring.

Papa had full tanks, so there was nothing to prevent a non-stop trip to KFRH. I had to create a five waypoint route on the GPS to guide us around the Cincinnati Class B airspace and to thread the needle between a couple of MOAs in Indiana. You can fly through MOAs if you want to, but given that MOA stands for Military Operating Area, it doesn't seem prudent. One of them also has a Restricted area embedded in it, and as the name implies, you can't fly through those. The GPS makes short work of navigating around them, so there's no reason not to.

Avoiding the airspace. Note that the return leg is much wavier; we were avoiding the really tall clouds.

The ride was glass smooth and not yet hot, so we cruised down at 3,500'. Normally when heading to the west under VFR (visual flight rules), you would cruise at an even numbered altitude plus 500 feet, and at an odd number plus 500 feet when flying east. That rule only takes effect when flying higher than 3,000' above the ground, though, and at 3,500' on the altimeter we're actually only 2,500' above the Ohio landscape. So it pays to keep an eye open for traffic when you're down low. Which is hard to do when it's hazy and you can't see stuff very well. Not my favorite flying conditions, these. In any event, a cruise power setting of 2,300 rpm gave us a nice 143 knot cruise speed and a fuel burn later calculated to be just a tad over 7 gallons per hour. My nod to frugal flying, that.

The landing at French Lick was passably good, much to the relief of Co-pilot Rick who had endured the debacle at Eagle Creek just a few short weeks ago. As we taxied onto the parking ramp and parked next to the only other airplane there, the guy out on his mower immediately stopped his mowing and came over to the airplane to ask if we were headed to the casino. I thought he might be wanting to ask if we'd throw a coin in a slot machine for him, but his goal was far more service oriented: when Rick applied in the affirmative, he whipped out his cell phone and called the casino to have a shuttle bus sent out to pick us up. Fortunately, it would be ten minutes before it would arrive so I had time to visit the restroom. Yes, it was low-volume Espresso, but at the end of the day (or the flight), Espresso is still coffee, and all that that implies.

The shuttle picked us up and we enjoyed a nice ride through the rolling, rural hills of Indiana to the casino. The ride is gratis, but there is a well-positioned tip basket by the door, providing a hint to even the most financially obtuse. The driver shared a lot of local knowledge and provided entertaining conversation, so it was absolutely painless to toss some bills in the basket on the way out. Compared to other airport transportation situations, it was also dirt cheap. He told us that one of the shuttles would pick us up anywhere in French Lick and deposit us anywhere else we would want to be. That is what I call pilot friendly!

We stopped at the French Lick Hotel and Casino first, where we wandered about the old, well restored building:

We also had lunch in the old power plant control room, now converted into the Power Plant Lounge:

Yummm, cheeseburger. A bit steep at $8.50, though. I would have gone for the optional bacon had I known at ordering time that Co-pilot Rick was picking up the check.

After lunch, we flagged down the shuttle for a ride over to the West Baden Springs Hotel. This is the more luxurious of the two, and also the more architecturally intriguing. It's a round building (you'll see it from the air in the video), with a tremendously huge inner courtyard:

It was getting hot, and the clouds were building up. Knowing that it would only get worse, I started getting itchy to get back in the air and headed home. I want to go there again sometime when I can spend the night, though, and not feel the rush to get home or have the horrible restriction against having a beer at the Power Plant Lounge to go with my lunch.

On the way back to the airport, the shuttle driver stopped at the golf course for us to see. They are going to be building another course, the new one being designed by Pete Dye. They hope to have a PGA tour stop in 2010. The way I figure it, the airport alone will go a long way towards accomplishing that. If I learned nothing else during my years at NetJets, I learned how PGA golfers like to travel.

Back at the airport, I gassed up at a reasonable (given the current market) $4.80/gallon. Taking off with full tanks and a hot-ish day, every foot of the 5,500' runway was welcome. Not used, mind you, but welcome nonetheless. It's a bit unfriendly in the area surrounding the airport should an off-airport re-arrival be required, so having that mile long strip of concrete out in front of us was at least a mild comfort.

I had resigned myself to the long, hot, bumpy ride home under the clouds, but decided that I might as well try to get over them. I'd be looking for an odd numbered altitude, so 5,500, 7,500, or 9,500 were my choices. The lower the better, since the climbing takes a bit of time, and even at $4.80 per, time is (significant) money. Well, 5,500 didn't even get close, 7,500 wasn't much better, and 9,500 was marginal at best. We ended up at 11,500, which is the highest Papa and I have ever been. I know it's no more rational than being more afraid of swimming in the 18' deep pool than the 8' depth, but I get nervous up high like that. I'm not sure if it's the lower oxygen content causing some kind of tense reaction, or the way the airplane performs with the thinner air, or just a feeling of not belonging there, but for whatever reason it takes me awhile to get comfortable with it. It's worth doing, though, because that's where the clear, smooth, cool air hangs out, and it's much nicer to hang out with the cool air.

Even at 11.5, we were slaloming around some of the taller cloud build-ups. Just east of Cincinnati, I saw a very large gap in the clouds, and was thus presented with a dilemma: descend back down through that big hole and do the remaining 40+ miles down in the sludge, or hope that there would be another opportunity closer to home. Taking to mind the proverbial bird in the hand, down we went. Now here's a cool thing about the RV-6: we made a 2000 foot-per-minute descent without indicating any more than 140 mph on the speedometer. Normally I wouldn't be in such a hurry, but gaps are only as big as they are, and the far side might as well be a solid wall should I fly into it. Gotta get down while the gettings good, I always say. As a postscript, my ears didn't pop for three or four hours after I got home.

The Big Descent

As expected, we descended into bumpy, murky flying conditions which, were I to be honest, wouldn't exactly be the conditions I'd mention in a "Learn to Fly" brochure. In fact, I think I'd go to pains to not mention them. Icky, I think was the word I used on Saturday. It was the longest 40 miles of the day.

We arrived back at Bolton to a landing clearance of "number two behind the Cessna on downwind, and he's cleared for the option." There were thus to be two forces at play here: "The Option" indicates a student flying touch & goes (although it can also mean other things, as we will see) and a student flying touch & goes almost always indicates a landing pattern wide enough to land a 747. In that latter part, I was correct. By the time he turned base, I was well downwind of the airport. I gave him a little more room, slowed Papa down a bit more, and turned final behind him with what I thought to be more than enough room.

I was wrong. The Option selected by the fella in front of us was to stop in the middle of the runway and gather his thoughts, as was his right. Not the most courteous thing to do, mind you, but that kind of thought only comes with experience, and I was a student once too. I make concessions to that sort of thing. Which I say only because if you watch the video, you will hear me say "I wish he would GO!" just before you hear the tower instruct me to go around and try again. Because he didn't go, you see. Just sat there. As was his right, and I just want it known that I was observing, not criticizing. Even though it doesn't exactly sound like it.

But it was a day of things not being what they sound like, wasn't it?

And, by the way, I greased the landing.

The Video:


  1. Amy B, babybeeatthehive@hotmail.comAugust 14, 2008 at 11:05:00 PM EDT

    I'm very glad you enjoyed your trip to our little town! We moved here from Evansville and the one thing that I've noticed is that the people are definitely friendly and accomodating to visitors. Ask any one of the employees about the hotels and you'll be sure to hear something different and interesting each time.

    I agree with you that the burgers are overpriced, but I'll let you know you had the best the property has to offer (even better than 1875, the steakhouse). I suggest coming back when all of our renovations are complete in about a year and a half (right in time for that PGA Tour stop we were just approved for). ;)

  2. You'll also have brand new airport terminal by that time!