Friday, July 31, 2009

Oshkosh: Day 5: See Spot Run, Sea Plane Fly

Today was the day! My first time ever in a sea plane! My appointment for the flight was at 0900 so we made sure to get an early start on the morning commute. The weather looked perfect, but the morning temperature looked more amenable to jeans and a long sleeve T-shirt than the normal summer garb. Besides which I hoped to be flying at 100mph with the canopy open in just a few short hours. After having been caught in flagrante delicto with my pants down during a clothing change just a couple of days ago, I decided that the jeans would have to see me through the day and the sleeves could always be rolled up if it got too hot.

The Weather-out-the-Windshield(tm) forecast indicated that we would have what can only be called perfect flying weather:

We made good time up the highway, but my planning had failed to account for the increased crowd at Oshkosh brought out by the Chamber of Commerce weather and the end of the work week. The line for parking was longer and slower than that to which I had become accustomed and I soon made the first of what was ultimately be many worried glances at my watch. We got the car parked and arrived at the shuttle bus pick-up point just a couple of minutes after 0800, the scheduled departure time for the first bus. Egg took the opportunity to protect herself against the strong sun:

The bus finally arrived just before 0825 which should have left us plenty of time, but the combination of a passenger that exhibited incredible difficulty in accomplishing the complex task of counting out three dollar bills and the most timid bus driver on the surface of the planet extended the time of the trip such that we arrived with only five minutes remaining before the appointed hour. I was a nervous wreck by then.

We hustled down the trail to the seaplane base only to find the SeaRey table empty. A few minutes later a company representative arrived and told me that they were running late due to some demos of a competing company's new plane. Phew, was that a relief! That gave Egg and I a few minutes to wander around enjoying the pleasant weather and scenery:

My turn to fly came around about a half hour later and I waded out to the plane with the demo pilot, who also turns out to be the guy that designed the plane in the first place. How cool is that? I found it a lot easier to climb into the plane than I did the last time, the previous experience having taught me how not to do it. The pilot started up the Rotax engine and I quickly adjusted to the higher RPM that the Rotax turns as compared to my Lycoming. It was interesting to hear the sound of the engine coming from the back of the plane rather than the front, but that too quickly began to feel normal.

We taxied out from the beach a wee bit and then it was full steam ahead. I was again aware of the screamingly high RPM of the Rotax, but even more exotic was the incredible sensation of speed as we raced across the water accelerating to takeoff speed. You sit right down on the water in a SeaRey, almost as low as in my kayak. The only time I remember having a similar feeling of moving way too fast in the RV-6 is when I haven't flown for awhile and have lost my acclimation to the pace at which things happen. After a relatively short takeoff roll run, we briskly climbed out in a right turn around a corner of the coast. I pulled the canopy fully open to get an idea of how much breeze there would be (which was about the same as I get on the highway in the Miata with the top down) and how pictures would look without a layer of plexiglass interfering.

Canopy closed:

Canopy open:

Pretty good, I'd say. I tried to sneak a cameo of the pilot, but he caught me:

Not wanting to play the tourist for the entire ride, I set down the camera for a few minutes and asked if I could get a feel for the controls. Now, I ask that you keep in mind that my regular ride is by no means a fair basis of comparison due to its very responsive controls, but it's all I have to go on. With that in mind, I would describe the roll control to be a bit more ponderous that the RV's. It takes much more stick travel to generate much less roll, in other words. But the funny thing is that I didn't feel like that was a fault with the plane. On the contrary, it felt very solid, it stayed where I put it, and I could see where it would be quite an appropriate and welcome thing for doing aerial photography.

That said, I noticed that it seemed to require much more elevator back force to hold altitude in the turn than I would have expected. As I experimented with it some more, I developed the impression that it is not all that responsive in pitch. This opinion is based on just a handful of minutes at the stick and should only be given the credence deserved of an initial impression, but I think I would have liked just a bit more response. I also have to caveat this with the statement that I don't think we were going very fast. I think the flaps were at 10 or 20 degrees and we were loafing along at 70-ish mph. That would certainly make a difference.

I also felt that a bank angle of 45 degrees made the wing want to continue into the roll and that I was having to hold some opposite aileron to keep it from doing so. I tried the same thing later when we had the flaps up and were going faster and found that that feeling went away. I suspect that it is something you would just get used to.

I also tried the rudder response in flight and found that I could control the airplane in the roll axis solely with rudder input if I wanted to.

I relinquished control back to the pilot and let him demonstrate a stall. That was a complete non-event. Again compared to the RV, it was a very benign stall that arrived at the laughably slow speed of 35-ish mph.

We then spent some time down low, often below treetop height, cruising along the banks of the lake. That was simply one of the most incredible things I've ever done in an airplane! We flew low enough that people in boats could wave at us as we zipped by. One of the closest wavers was what looked to be a rather attractive and aviation-enthused woman on a boat. I commented to the pilot that learning that SeaRey's were Babe Magnets came as a pleasant surprise, but that it wasn't necessarily a feature that would sway the Co-owner. He replied that down in Florida it's not all that uncommon for the women to remove their tops and flash him as he flew by.

That reminded me to ask him how well the plane performed in slow flight.

Quite well, as it turns out. With just a little power you can float along at 40mph to your heart's (and libido's) content.

Our half hour was regrettably coming to and end. As we headed back to base I asked a few questions about speeds and fuel burns and found them to be typical for a Rotax powered LSA, albeit with a notable speed cost due to the dragginess of the landing gear and pillar-mounted engine. All aircraft designs require trade-offs and the trade of 20mph for the opportunity to see naked boaters land on water seems reasonable.

The landing was again something new and unique to me. Sitting so low to the water while we flared for the landing presented a sight picture that is known only to seaplane pilots and those guys that forget to put their landing gear down before landing their Mooney or Bonanza. The sense of immense speed was again something only familiar to me when I'm making my first landing after a lengthy layoff from flying.

There was quite a crowd watching our return. I felt almost like Harrison Ford when he lands at Oshkosh to meet an adoring crowd:

Of course it was the plane that they came to see, but the feeling was the same. I was worried that I'd trip on the way out of the plane and make an ignominious splashdown in front of the crowd, but managed to simply make an ungainly but non-humorous exit.

I was famished after all that excitement, and because I had skipped breakfast. They're trying to sell those SeaReys, after all, and who would want to buy one if the thing was covered with someone else's breakfast?

Which reminds me. Apropos of nothing, I admit, but I'm wondering if Oshkosh can develop some kind of Port-O-Let etiquette guide. Inviolable Rule Number One: close the damn toilet lid. No one wants to see that!

Anyway, the food is much better at the Seaplane base than it is at the homogeneous corporate concessions over at the main show, so Egg got herself a hot fudge sundae and I got a black (or red, I guess) Angus shredded beef sandwich. It was fantastic:

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around with Wingman Ted and/or his lovely wife looking at the Classic planes and touring the Aeroshell square. I'll share just a handful of pictures:

We're back at the West Bend Data Center now where Co-pilot Egg is taking a much deserved nap. We're going to pack up the car tonight and hit the rode at roughly 0300 in the morning. We're both anxious to get home, and I'm holding a probably futile and naive hope that we can get through the Chicago bottleneck relatively easily at 0600 on a Saturday morning. This has been the best Oshkosh experience I've ever had, but that's not going to keep me for surpassing it next time, whenever that may be.

Oh, and did I mention that I simply must have a SeaRey?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Oshkosh: Day 4 - Fun That Sticks to Your Ribs

The wonderful weather was too good to last. Here's today's Weather-out-the-Windshield&trade to give you an idea of what Wisconsin summer weather had in store for us today:

Fortunately Egg works indoors at the booth and I had saved a couple of sheltered events in reserve for just such an eventuality. I had also thought ahead far enough while packing for the trip to bring not just one but two water resistant jackets. Of course, by the time I took this picture about halfway through our morning commute to Wittman Field, both jackets were safe and dry hanging in the closet back in the hotel room. My only hope was that we'd get through the worst of the weather before arriving at the airfield.

And yet again the fundamental truth that Hope is not a strategy was proven true. The weather remained every bit as cruddy throughout the remainder of the drive. We had umbrellas in the car so all was not lost, although Egg's favorite pass time of spinning her umbrella and drenching me with the resulting horizontal rain ensured that I was wet and cold by the time I dropped her off at work.

It was 0825 by that time and my special "dry" activity for the morning started at 0830 so I had to boogie on over to the Workshop area to get there in time for the start of the Gas Welding program. As I was just about the last to arrive, the best I could get was a seat that was only 78% under shelter. Some is better than none, so I counted my blessings (final answer: 12.3) and endured the discomfort. It helped that gas welding is a completely new endeavor for me and was therefore engrossing enough to at least partially (roughly 61%) distract me from the cold rain dripping down my back.

The lecture was scheduled to take an hour but was needlessly slowed by the "there's one in every class" jackass that wanted to spend our time arguing with the presenter on the topic of whether (or 'weather'? No, @tendancer, I'll avoid the temptation) or not oxygen - propane welding is as suited to the task of airplane building as oxygen - acetylene welding. Happily the argument was ended when the pompous jerk stormed (heh, I couldn't help that one) off in disgust.

Once the lecture was completed, it was time for the hands-on portion of the class. We worked through the ins and outs of properly lighting the torch and how to "run a bead" on a piece of scrap metal. When my turn came, the older guy tutoring me felt that I was having a hard time holding the welding torch still because I was too tense. He said that I was so tense that my hands were shaking. I had to point out that stress had nothing to do with it - my hands were shaking because I was freezing! Figuring that a quality welding experience was a lost cause under the conditions, I apologized and beat a hasty face-saving retreat to the EAA merchandise building where I hoped to procure an appropriate outer garment for the inclement conditions.

As luck would have it I found a nice nylon zipper jacket with a hood and an embroidered EAA logo on sale marked down $20. Even at the reduced price it was still fairly expensive, so I had to forgo a purchase of an EAA sun hat that I had hoped to make. Maybe next year. As I was paying the nice lady at the cash register I was unable to resist pointing out the lack of retail acumen on display in the store. It's Business 101, really. When it's cold and rainy outside, you mark the price of water resistant jackets up, not down. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. The jacket made all the difference and I ended up wearing it for the rest of the day.

As I was heading back to the gas welding workshop, I realized that I didn't really want to try again. Unlike my positive experience with fabric covering, I realized that I simply didn't have a burning (really, I can't help it!) desire to weld. Maybe I'll feel differently if I ever get a chance to try it again under better conditions, but for now I'm going to forget about it.

I reached this conclusion just as I was passing the Adult Rib Workshop. The 'adult' in this case is not to be taken in the same sense as, say, Adult Bookstore. What it refers to in this context is that it is not the same wing rib workshop as the one where kids are allowed to play along. This one is restricted to age 13+ (and really, one could argue that a 13 year old is still a kid) with the further restriction that only those 16 and above may operate the power belt sanders. Building a wooden wing rib seemed like a fun thing to do and I thought Egg might be interested in participating as well.

We had a great time cutting lengths of wood and arranging them into the proper arrangement using the templates provided by EAA. We used T-88 epoxy to glue the joints, then glued gussets on top of each joint to add strength. It was still cold, so the epoxy was slower than usual to set up. With the glue still sticky, we couldn't use the power sanders to sand off the overhanging gusset material so these still look pretty rough:

It was fun. It was relaxing. And you know what's coming next... I simply must build a wooden airplane. Fortunately, wooden airplanes are fabric covered so it's not a matter of shifting priorities yet again.

Being at Oshkosh has a very distinct advantage in this kind of scenario. No matter what idea comes into your head, it's a simply matter to search out a solution. In this case it was the Fisher Flying Products booth. FFP sells complete kits for all-wood, fairly low cost airplanes. I particularly like The Youngster:

Here's an example of the typical wing construction technique:

The cost? $8,500 for the kit, about $4,000 for a VW engine conversion. Not bad!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Oshkosh: Day 3: The other Oshkosh

I often hear it said that Oshkosh has drifted from its roots. I don't go far enough back to have a firm opinion on the topic, but even in the decade that I've been going I've noticed that it is becoming more and more commercial. Major sponsors like John Deere, Ford, and Honda are ubiquitous. The Experimentals, Classics, and Warbirds are still there, but are geographically placed on the fringes of the show. Center stage is chock full of factory builts like Cessna, Cirrus, Mooney, Piper, and many others. Airplanes of interest are often layered five rows deep in spectators and tire kickers, often making it nearly impossible to gather any meaningful information. The kit plane dealers are relegated to an area well past the main drag. Hungry and thirsty patrons line up for 45 minutes for the privilege of paying $2.75 for a bottle of water and $3.50 for a hot dog.

There's benefit to this, of course, in the form of ever-improving amenities on the airport grounds. But something has been lost as well. That's not entirely true; it hasn't been lost, but it's been pushed to the rear. What's missing in the majority of the Oshkosh experience is the relaxed atmosphere and the tight focus on the sport facet of aviation. There is, however, one remaining outpost of sanity: the seaplane base. Or, as I call it, The Other Oshkosh.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Today's Weather-out-the-Window&trade forecast is brought to you by Co-pilot Egg. She's been craving some behind the wheel time on our commutes to and from Oshkosh and today was her first chance:

With her driving, I was able to unclench my white knuckles just long enough to grab today's forecast:

Very, very nice! Perfect weather in all aspects. Well, prefect right up until the time it mattered most, but I'll get to that later.

Our first stop was, as usual, dropping her at the Girls With Wings booth for another day of volunteer work. We stopped at the front gate for a commemorative photo:

Then it was through the gates. I have perfected what I've taken to calling the Oshkosh Salute. That's where you briskly raise your arm in a half salute to disply your wrist band to the folks guarding the admission gates. I tried to get Egg to so it in synch with me but she says it's embarrassing. The net result of that will be pretty much what you'd expect: I'm going to use an even more dramatic flourish now.

I snapped a picture of this sign as I walked by:

As if!! I can only wish that were true!

Egg gets a kick out of the Butt Cans, presumably because she's still in the age group that thinks anything involving the word 'butt' is funny. She didn't immediately grasp what they were for, so I told her they were stools that you could sit and rest on. She didn't believe. It would appear that those halcyon days of easy gullibility are long lost. Or, perhaps in this case it's because even the most cursory examination of the device would show how distinctly uncomfortable such a seating arrangement would be. Either way, I took the picture because I liked the old guy sitting there out of the heavy traffic zones planning out his day:

Once I had dropped her off at work, I backtracked back to the shuttle bus area to catch a ride to the seaplane base. It's probably obvious to you all that seaplanes are far more functional when they are on or near water, and it should come as no surprise that water (other than the pricey potable $2.75 stuff) is not very abundant on the Oshkosh airport grounds. Instead they have a spot over on the banks of Lake Winnebago that they use for the seaplanes. It's only a 10 minute ride, but it's like rolling back the clock 30 or more years. The bus drops you at the foot of a nice nature trail that ambles down through the woods to the edge of the lake. And by 'nature', I mean all of it. Up to and including wonderful flora such as poison ivy. The EAA has conscientiously gone to great effort to alert city folk to the danger:

I was at the lead of the 30 or so people walking down the trail, so I courteously stepped aside in order to take this picture. As I was standing on the side of the trail, I had to take a few steps backwards to stay out of the way. As is my wont, I took one step too many. I stepped right into the patch of poison ivy on the other side of the trail. Brilliant! Hopefully my shower tonight will be soon enough to wash the poison ivy oil off before it takes hold. Or not. Time will tell.

Once I got down to the edge of the lake, I was quite taken with the laid back atmosphere and the pleasant aesthetics of the whole thing. I wandered around just soaking it all up and taking pictures:

Up at the far end of the bank, there was a dock where they were loading folks onto pontoon boats for a tour around the harbor. That looked like a great opportunity to soak up (you see what I'm doing here, right? Soak? Water? Heh.) even more of the ambiance so I leapt at the chance. The guy driving the boat was very gregarious and did some of the standard tour guide schtick such as "Where's everyone from?" and the old stand-by, "Who's from the furthest away?"

"Lake Tahoe," from a guy up near the bow.

"New Zealand," from the bearded guy right across from me.

"Well, I think we have a winner!" said the boat driver.

Me, adopting my best faux Aussie accent: "Wait a minute! North or South New Zealand?"

That cracked them all up!

Tell me that this isn't just the quaintest thing you've seen today:

Ok, here's an easy one. Look at this and see if you can guess what my reaction was:

Yep. I simply must have a seaplane. Now I know what you're thinking: just yesterday I simply had to have a fabric covered plane. Well, it's possible to do both:

That's a Sea Rey. It has an aluminum frame, fiberglass hull, and fabric covered wings and tail surfaces. It's an LSA plane, and it's available either already factory built or as a kit. They were offering (for a price) demo rides and I signed up for one as soon as I could get my Visa out of my pocket. I figured that I've never been in a seaplane and a half hour ride around Oshkosh in one would be just the coolest thing ever! I squeezed onto the schedule for a 2:30 ride. That was perfect as it gave me time to go back to the airport and have lunch with Egg.

As I was waiting for the shuttle bus, a sky writer started creating a message in the azure sky above. It started well enough:

But then he followed it with this:

Look, as much as I admire the guy's moxie, persistence, courage, and tenacity in trying to overcome his affliction, sky writing is just not a good career choice for a dyslexic. I never did figure out what he was trying to write.

As long as we're looking skyward, I got a few better pictures of the big RV formation today:

After lunch, I bussed my way back over to the lake for my ride. It wasn't to be, though, as the winds had kicked up and made the water too choppy for a comfortable flight. The last thing a plane vendor wants to do is give you and unsafe and/or uncomfortable ride, so they had to cancel on me. They were very apologetic but as I told them, I'm no stranger to wind-related cancellations! I do have an RV-6, after all.

But because this is the other Oshkosh, we filled the half hour sitting on the side of an inflatable boat shooting the breeze (so to speak). It was the most relaxing half hour that I've ever spent at Oshkosh.

All this picture needs is a bottle of Corona&trade:

Oh, and I got to sit in the plane too:

It's very, very comfortable. And the pilot says you can open those big sliding canopies in flight! How tremendously cool is that?? Well, hopefully I'll be able to answer that on Friday after I've had my rescheduled ride.

It was getting late and it was time to go retrieve Egg from work. I treated her to some delicious Wisconsin ice cream on the way home (these people really know their dairy products!!) and later we picked up some cheese curds. For those unfamiliar, 'curds' sound horrible. People seem to equate 'curd' with 'cod liver oil' or something equally unpalatable. Nothing could be further from the truth; curds are cheese at its freshest.

Unfortunately, they come in a sealed bag that is very difficult to open without scissors and we. of course, haven't a pair. Egg asked me how we were going to get the bag open without having scissors.

I, sage and wise old man that I am, replied, "Well, where there's a curd, there's a whey!"

To which she said, "Huh?"

Oh well, at least I have "North or South" to my credit!