Sunday, November 23, 2008

Devoted to the cause

A couple of days ago, I was slightly shocked to realize that the calendar had yet again rolled through to the three-weeks-with-no-flying phase of the moon without my having really noticed it. The days are short now, and there's just no time for an evening flight before dark anymore. I don't enjoy night flying, so all that's left of the weekly available flying days is limited to the weekend days, which through their unfortunate scarcity are particularly susceptible to falling prey to bad weather or conflicting time demands. I can make it through three weeks easily enough, but at the three week point I start to get twitchy about my currency. Luckily for me, I had both a free morning and clear (but brisk!) weather in the forecast.

Co-pilot Rick checked in as available for a breakfast hop to Urbana. Winter is notable for the change it has on my choice of destination; when the weather gets too cold for stomping around on a walk-about, it becomes all about the food. Urbana is nice and close, and while avgas prices are starting to recede, they're only down to $4.69 at MadCo, and Urbana is still working their way through a $5.60-ish load. In other words, distance still matters and close is better than far. Economics meshed with mission as we departed on a "three landings for currency, cheapest-available-gas for the wallet" trip to Ubana via MadCo.

This was to be our first cold weather flight of this winter, but lessons past learned about warm attire vs. limited cabin space were well remembered. Long gone are the days when we'd both both arrive wearing bulky coats only to find that while we were comfortably warm, we couldn't both fit into the airplane. The proper way to dress for a cold weather RV flight is in layers. To keep my legs and feet warm I had on two layers of long underwear, two pairs of socks, and loose jeans. For the top I had a long underwear t-shirt, a long sleeve regular t-shirt, and a hoody sweatshirt. That's protects me enough to at least get through a pre-flight and out to the runway without freezing, but it wouldn't be enough for a hike or photo tour. Bigger jackets could be carried in the back, of course. The biggest risk, as far as I'm concerned, is the one that keeps me from drinking any coffee or tea before departure: I'm not sure I'm quite man enough to work my way through three layers of underwear and a pair of jeans should I need to utilize a urinal.

Don't pity me, we all have our crosses to bear.

The cross we all bear as airplane owners, though, is the devotion that is required to the cause. An airplane doesn't need constant attention, but neither can it brook negligence. Airplanes do not thrive on extended inactivity and need to be exercised regularly. It's not just my personal level of competency alone that starts nagging at me right around the three week mark; I start to worry about the health of Papa at about that time too.

In the summer I worry about the humid air rusting his engine from the inside out. In the winter I worry about the battery dying and/or the mechanical brutality of the cold-weather engine starts. The latter is usually mitigated by using an oil pre-heater, which is nothing more than an electric heating pad glued to the bottom of the oil sump. It's easy-peasy and works great at keeping the oil at least somewhat warm and ready to flow when I start cranking the starter.

Easy-peasy, that is, as along as you remember to plug it in. I don't like to leave it plugged in all the time because I've read/heard that keeping the oil hot for all that time will 'coke' it. I don't know what 'coking' is, but it doesn't seem to be a benefit in the context of the statements mentioning it, so I avoid doing it out of conservatism. Besides which, the Miata was using the extension cord for its new trickle charger and I figured I'd just go swap the plugs whenever I needed to.

Not surprisingly, I forgot to go over to the hangar and do it. Forgot, that is, until 2:00 in the morning while I was mid way through the labyrinthine path between me and the bathroom that winds its way around all of the spots on the floor that are likely to contain a sleeping Brave Sir Hogarth. If he's not too deeply asleep he'll let out a mournful warning moan to let me know where he is, much like a fog horn on a lighthouse, but it's best not to count on that. I follow the path. Halfway through, I was hit right between the eyes with a stunning bolt of lucidity: it was then that I remembered that I hadn't plugged in the pre-heater.

And here it was: a test of my devotion to the cause. I could go back to my nice, warm bed, get up early and go plug the heater in, and just hope that an hour or two of heat would be enough. Or I could brave the cold 0200 weather (140 degrees Sled Dog)* and go plug it in. It was no decision, really. The thoughts of the damage I could to by starting Papa with 20F oil would keep me awake anyway. I grabbed the Walmartts(tm), cranked the Subie seat heater to FULL, and headed to the airport. It was 0215 by that time, a time that roughly coincides with the government-mandated closing hour for our bars. In other words, any cars on the road should be assumed to being driven by a drunk. There was only one other car on the road, though, and it appeared rock steady. In fact, he was probably more worried about the guy in jammies and Walmartts yawning like Sleepy the Disney dwarf. It only took a few seconds to swap the plugs and I was on my way home.

After all that, the rest of the morning went easily. The co-pilot maintained his strong reputation for consistent and precise punctuality, and worries about the health of the battery were unfounded. Papa started on the first blade after a generous four stroke priming. He never fails to impress! The winds were nearly right down the runway but light enough for their direction to not really matter. The ambient pressure was high, the temps were low, and we were light on fuel - the very recipe for a strong takeoff and climb. The takeoff run exhibited the symptoms of a three week layoff, though, with a bit of swerving as the tail came up and a tendency on my right foot's part to unintentionally apply a little brake when we needed it least.

The air was very calm and clear, but it was hard not to notice that the verdant green fields and vivid orange forests of the last two seasons have given way to the brown corduroy look of winter:

The landing at MadCo was nothing to write home about. It was a nice flare and touchdown, but again I had a little work to do to maintain directional control. It's always amazing to me how narrow rural runways look when I haven't used one in awhile. The roll-out also had quite a bit of the "mechanical" bounce that I get when I forget to relieve some of the back stick pressure that I held through the flare. MadCo is self-serve at the pump now, and today was a good day for me to lament that fact. I would have been perfectly content to wait in the office while someone else did the pumping, but those days are gone. Truth be told, I always stood out there chattering with the guy as he pumped anyway; perhaps it is that that I miss.

It's only a short hop from MadCo to Urbana, although with the additional 130 pounds of fuel in the wings Papa wasn't the same airplane we had departed Bolton in. With the full weight of the new fuel he was much more reluctant to climb, and equally averse to accelerating to cruising speed once sufficient altitude was gained. It seemed that we had no sooner built up a nice Bucket 'O Inertia when it was time to start slowing for the approach into Urbana.

There was very little traffic in the pattern upon our arrival and that's always a treat. The landing was better than that at MadCo, although there was still a little of the bouncing, and I had also exhibited an inability to remember if I was landing on runway 22 or 20 while making position reports. '20' is the correct number, but I think I kept lapsing back to '22'. That's no surprise: I've known for years now that one of the competencies that erodes quickly with a lay off is ATC comms.

Papa looked good in the crisp, winter light while we ate breakfast:

The air was still clear and calm as we headed back towards Bolton. On the way, we saw these guys working on we thought was a pretty late start on the harvest. It certainly looked like it would be done by the end of the day, though:

Back at Bolton I made a middling good landing. I think that of the three landings, each was better in some way than the one the preceded it. And I successfully purchased avgas at less than $5 per! I think that's enough to declare today's two-purpose mission a success.

Oh, and I left the pre-heater plugged in: I'm off work all of next week and I am sure about two things: I will want to fly, and I will not want to go to the hangar at 0200 to make it possible.

* You know that the multiplier to convert degrees Fahrenheit to degrees Sled Dog is the same as converting people years to dog years (7), right?

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