Sunday, March 29, 2009

March Madness: Replacing the Brake Pads

I don't get a lot of exercise. Sure, I play tennis, but only on the Wii. The same applies to golf and bowling: only the electronic variants meet both my inherent apathy and repulsive reaction to anything requiring physical effort. One thing I do like to do now and then, however, is to reach around and pat myself on the back when I benefit from my own often stunning prescience. After suitable stretching to limber up the atrophied muscles, of course. I've had plenty of occasion to celebrate my astuteness lately, what with the Rasmussen polls confirming everything that I believed we would see out of DC in the next four years, all compressed into less than 100 days. But, alas, this is a blog semi-devoted to my relationship with my RV-6, not my opinions on contemporaneous political shenanigans, no matter their import to the health and well-being of us all.

So, what exactly am I patting myself on the back for this weekend? Well, it is in response to my incredibly astute (if not financially efficacious) decision to keep Papa's annual inspection in the month of March, rather than move it two months further downstream to May as I legally could have. As in just about anything related to flying, it really comes down to weather management. There's nothing worse than a disassembled airplane right in the heart of flying season. As we all know, March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb, except when it doesn't. There's nothing lamb-like about the weather on this, the last weekend of March. In fact, this is the first time I think I've ever heard a weather phenomenon referred to as a "vigorous cold front." Cold fronts are never that fun, but "vigorous??" Oh my! That can't be good!

You may remember that one of the things I found during the inspection last week was a worn pair of brake pads on the right side. The left side was not as worn, but I decided to replace both sides this weekend. The aforementioned weather having left me no options other than to either stay home and make a nuisance of myself or go the hangar and do something productive, the choice was obvious. But, finding that making a nuisance of myself was not nearly as gratifying as I had hoped it would be, I ended up invoking option two.

Changing the brake pads is actually a very simple job, and I'm surprised that it isn't included in the list of things that store-bought airplane owners are permitted to do to their own airplanes as listed in Appendix A of Part 43 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. According to the regs, they're allowed to remove and replace safety wire and cotter pins, replace tires, and repack wheel bearings. Nothing is mentioned about the brakes. You have to remove at least one side of the brake calipers to get the wheel off to perform any of the allowable things listed above, so I'm not clear on the reasoning behind prohibiting the replacement of the pads as long as the calipers are off. It's really a quite simple operation, and interestingly does not even require the removal of the wheels.

With regards to safety wire and cotter pins, I should mention that the regulation specifically states the an airplane owner is permitted to "replace defective safety wire or cotter keys," so this may introduce a little bit of a Catch-22 unless there is no stipulation against the owner, you know, being the entity that rendered the safety wire or cotter pin defective in the first place. So as is usual with the FARs, the real rule is determined by enforcement cases rather than clear, unambiguous writing. Ambiguously crafted FARs are one of the crosses we bear as owners and pilots.

In any event, that kind of thing is moot for me since my airplane falls under the auspices of a much friendlier set of regulations. Section 1 of Part 43, paragraph (b) states that "This part does not apply to any aircraft for which an experimental airworthiness certificate has been issued, unless a different kind of airworthiness certificate had previously been issued for that aircraft." While that's not entirely a get-out-jail-free card, it is a get-out-of-paying-for-simple-work clause. And one of the simplest jobs on the airplane is replacing brake pads.

The first step in replacing the brake pads is to spend 10 minutes rifling through the toolbox looking for the special brake pad replacing tool. You see, the pads on an airplane brake are fastened to the calipers with rivets. It takes a special (but not overly expensive) tool to remove and replace the pads without incurring the risk of damage to the pads that you would have if you tried to manage the rivets with a hammer or other unsuitable blunt instrument. The problem with finding the tool is that there are a handful of removable pieces/parts that have a frustrating tendency to get separated from each other.

If you're clever, you stow the tool with all of those parts attached. As of today, I am clever. Last year? Not so much. It wasn't until this time, the fourth or fifth consecutive time that I've had to search for all of the parts, that I came across the brilliant (yet now, in retrospect, oh so obvious) idea of storing the tool as one unit. Better late than never, I suppose. Still, thinking back on all of those years of senseless, infuriating effort... Sigh.

If you follow that advice, the first step should be easy. You'll be happy to know that the second step is just as easy, albeit maybe a little bit shady in a strictly legal sense as detailed in my in-depth legal analysis above. Let you conscience be your guide. The second step is to willingly and deliberately cause the safety wire securing the brake caliper to become defective. This is accomplished by cutting it with a pair of wire cutters. Those are (or should be, anyway) easy to find, what with them being a single-piece tool. Just clip away the loops by the bolt heads and remove the wire. Just throw it away once you get it off of there since, from a legal point-of-view, it is now defective. Once the safety wire is gone, you can remove the two bolts that the wire was securing.

As you are removing the bolts, you will notice that the caliper feels loose, and you may be tempted to get all panicky and try to tighten it up. Don't panic; it's supposed to feel like that. The caliper slides on a pair of pins to allow it to snug up to the brake disk as the pads wear down. If the caliper wasn't sliding in the manner it's supposed to, you would have already had a mechanic look at your brakes because you would have been experiencing more pedal travel that you were used to. Note that you needn't remove the bolts entirely; they are threaded into the outside caliper half. You will want to make sure you're ready for the outside half to fall off when you remove the bolts. It's not the greatest picture, but you should be able to see the gap as the pad is moving away from the brake disk. I just leave the bolt heads flush and let the screw action push the pad away. If you choose to do that, though, you might have to alternate between loosening the top and bottom bolts every few turns so you don't put a lot of bending torque on the pad. You'll see what I mean.

Once the outside pad is removed, you can slide the remaining part of the caliper assembly off of the slide pins to remove the other pad. This should be done with great delicacy if your airplane, like mine, has rigid brake fluid lines. There are two very preferable things at play here: you would prefer not to break the brake fluid line, and you would also prefer to not remove the fitting. The ramifications of breaking the line should be obvious. The consequences of removing the fitting may be the need to later bleed any air introduced into the brake system back out of the system. If possible, it is best to just carefully move the caliper off of the pins and slide the inside pad off.

Once both of the pads are off, it is time to use the brake pad removal tool that you spent so much time looking for in the first step. In preparation for the rivet removal, take off all three of the pieces/parts that you installed if you are using my patented storage method. If you are still insisting on storing the parts separately in support of some kind of masochistic "thrill of the search" fetish, you are ready to move on to the next step. Find the pointy part and attach it to the end of the threaded rod. Leave the bottom hole open.

Put the tool in a vise and clamp it down. Place the brake pad into the 'C' part of the tool with the smushed up part of the rivets facing up. Slowly screw down the threaded rod until the pointy bit is nicely centered and seated on the rivet. Slowly screw down the threaded rod while holding the pad in place. The idea is to use the pointy part to push the old rivet out. As the rivet pushes out, you will feel a notable lessening of the resistance to the turning of the handle. You may also hear the old rivet fall out and hit the ground or workbench, but if not you can just reach up under there and remove it. You can keep screwing the threaded rod through after the rivet has popped out if you want to, but it's a bit of a waste of time. Now me, I was looking for an excuse to be out in the hangar for as long as possible, so a little wasted time was just fine by me. But even with that being the case, I thought it a silly thing to do, so I just backed out the rod and moved onto the next rivet. Again, if you aren't trying to kill time, go ahead and remove the pad from the other part of the caliper right away since you already have the tool configured for it.

Once both pads are removed, or if you are a linear thinker and prefer to dress in a one-sock-one-shoe process rather than a two-socks-then-two-shoes manner, you need to reconfigure the tool for putting the new rivets in the new pads. Just pull off the pointy bit and replace it with the conical thingy. The other part just drops down into the open hole at the bottom of the 'C'.

Line up the new pads on the caliper halves and drop new rivets down into the recessed holes in the pads. I put all three rivets in rather that doing them one at a time to ensure that I don't rivet a pad in crooked and find that I can't get the other rivets in. This is a bit tricky, though, because the pad has to be turned over to fit it into the tool. This can (and often does) result in anywhere between one and three rivets falling out. As you can surely imagine, this is not a desirable turn of events since rivets, much like the disparate parts of the brake tool, are absolute masters of camouflage. They look all bright and shiny and you'd think they'd be easy to find, but take my word for this: you do not want to drop them.

I usually start with pressing the center rivet. This lets me contort my fingers such that they are holding the other two rivets in place. What you're trying to do is get the bottom part of the tool to fit up into the recessed hole at the bottom of the pad while you screw down the conical thingy to press the rivet into place. I could write a thousand words about this, but I think these pictures might show it better:

Voilá! Snug them down tight, but not too tight. (Hey, I know that's ambiguous and arbitrary guidance, but I was reading Federal Regs just a few paragraphs ago - it's contagious!):

Now it's simply a matter of replacing the brake pieces back to where you found them.

And, of course, replacing the defective safety wire:

See? This was a lot easier than jacking the plane, rendering safety wire and cotter pins defective, removing the wheel, deflating the tire, splitting the wheel, removing, cleaning, and repacking the wheel bearings, and reassembling the whole mess. (In other words, the very things that the FAA has deigned to allow store-bought airplane owners to legally do by themselves.)

I know this to be true because I did all of that other stuff yesterday too. The brake work takes about half an hour per side. The removal and repacking of the bearings took at least an hour per side. I simply cannot understand why Part 43 allows one but not the other.

See what I mean?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Easiest annual inspection evah!

I'll skip the usual Weather-out-the-Window&trade report since quite frankly, I didn't even look. All I cared about today was that it would be warm enough to work in the hangar without having to resort to wearing the warm-but-bulky Walmartts©. Today's job was to replace all of the panels that I had removed earlier in the week in preparation for the annual inspection of the airplane by a licensed mechanic. The inspection went quite well this year, and will reset the bar for cheapest annual ever.

Even though I had taken the incredibly silly risk of challenging the mechanic by telling him that I thought it unlikely that we would find anything wrong at all, I got off pretty easy. He found a couple of rivets in the belly that could stand to be tightened up, a moist area on the right side brake caliper that could indicate a small brake fluid leak, and a little more brake fluid on the passenger side brake pedal, which is surely a matter of karmic retribution for having insisted that Co-pilot Rick taxi us to the end of the runway last week.

"Cheap" should not be confused with "easy," though. Just the work of removing the engine cowls and all of the inspection panels takes a couple of hours of crawling around on the dirty hangar floor with a screwdriver. Karma plays a role here, too. I had saved the removal of the prop spinner (the bright red thing at the very front of the plane) for last as it has traditionally the easiest thing to remove. This time, though, the second to last screw was rounded, and I couldn't get it our with a screwdriver. I was forced to use the inaptly named easy-out to remove it. The easy-out is every bit as poorly named as "safety wire," the wire that I manage to stab myself with to the degree that it draws blood every single time I work with it.

The easy-out requires drilling a hole down in the middle of the screw which then allows the easy-out (which looks like a tapered, reverse direction drill bit) to get a "bite" on the sides of the hole and thus allows you to remove the screw. This sounds easier that it is, particularly if, like me, your drill is an $8 piece of crap bought from Harbor Freight. Now don't get me wrong: I'm sure you can get a quite nice air drill from Harbor Freight. But I hereby contend that you cannot get a quality $8 air drill. Mine has apparently given me all of the drilling that it feels obligated to provide for $8 because it just quit working. No warning at all; it just quit. Fortunately, the guy that was working on his plane two hangars down recognized the symptoms of the ensuing spree of profanity and walked down to offer the use of his electric drill and I soon had the offending screw removed.

As I said, today's plan was primarily to replace the inspection panels and engine cowls. Replacing the cowls is a two man job, though, so I asked Co-pilot Rick to come down and help. I put him to work with the panels while I replaced the oil filter, filled up the engine with fresh oil, and prepared to remove the landing gear wheels in order to re-pack the wheel bearings with fresh grease. I have to remove the brake pads to get the wheel off the axle, so I planned on replacing the O-ring on the right side caliper while I was at it.

Any kind of work on the wheels requires the removal of the aerodynamic wheel fairings, but those were already off for the inspection. They're a bit of a pain to get on and off of the plane, so it makes sense to do as much as you can while they're off. Unfortunately, as I was taking off the right side brake pad, I could see that it was worn down to the point where it will soon need replacing. At that point, all plans for bearing repacking and the like were tossed aside until such time as I can procure new brake pads. That decision left us with nothing more to do than run the engine for a few minutes to check for fluid leaks and, assuming none were found, to replace the cowls.

We finished up at right around lunch time, and it was impossible not to see that a perfect flying day had developed while we were busy working. The annual is not actually due until the end of April, so there was nothing keeping us from flying off somewhere for lunch. There's no problem with just leaving the wheel fairings off for now, other than the loss of about 12 mph in flight. I figure I can afford that for awhile.

The control tower reported calm winds and nearly unlimited visibility under clear skies, so we decided a quick hop to Urbana would be the perfect end to our morning's tasks. I called home to relate that there had been a change of plans:

"We're done with the airplane work, so we're going to fly up to Urbana," I reported.

"Why?," the co-owner replied.

"What do you mean 'why'? For lunch, of course!"

She said, "I said pie, not why."

"Oh. OK. I never forget to bring pie!"

So, off we went. We were taxied out to runway 22, and after a run-up I told the tower that we were going to depart to the west. He cleared us for takeoff and we were soon climbing through the clear air, but finding it to be bumpier than we had expected. Just a few miles to the west of Bolton, we heard Cessna 172 'Four Six Quebec Foxtrot' check in "over Lilly Chapel, inbound for landing." The tower asked him to report a mid-field right downwind to 22, but failed to alert him to the fact that a departing RV-6 (us) was heading directly at him. I hate it when they don't alert opposing traffic to each other! Figuring that the guy in the 172 would angle himself towards the midfield while we were coming off the departure end, it seemed that turning a bit to the south would give us good clearance from him and expediting a climb to a higher altitude would put us above him. The problem is, "Over Lilly Chapel" doesn't always mean what it sounds like; it more often means "in the general vicinity of Lilly Chapel," and now and then means nothing more than being in the same zip code. I alerted Co-pilot Rick to be on the lookout.

Sure enough, we were close enough to Lilly Chapel after a few minutes to believe that surely he was past us when Rick saw him abeam and below us. In other words, he had to have been at least three or four miles away from the reporting point as he keyed the mike to alert the world that he was "over" it. Yeah, just like I'm "over" my crush on Valerie Bertinelli. I keyed the mike to report to the tower that "we're clear of Quebec Foxtrot," thinking that even if the tower didn't care, surely the other guy would want to know. I would have, had the positions been reversed.

The tower called back: "Four six six Papa Golf, frequency change approved." Now there's a non sequitur for you! He might as well have just said "So?" or, as teenagers like to say, "Whatever."

In another occurrence of close cohabitation of space, as we were nearing Urbana we heard a Piper Archer call in as being "10 miles southeast of the airport." As we too were approaching from the southeast, I took a quick glance at the miles remaining on the GPS: 10.2 miles. This was a little easier situation to resolve for a number of reasons. First, there's no way an Archer is going to hit us from behind, with or without my wheel fairings installed. The only real risk would be converging headings, or me descending down onto him if my view of him was blocked by my wings. I could see that he wasn't right in front of us, though, so all I had to do to clear up the situation was push the throttle in to boost our speed up to something completely out of the purview of the Archer family. That worked - we picked up a mile and a half on him by the time we hit the pattern.

The ramp was packed, (which is unfortunate because I bounced the landing) but I parked in a spot right in front of the ramp gate. This was quite courteous of me as it turned out, as it saved a lot of people a long walk to go over to look at Papa. He draws quite a crowd, particularly on a ramp populated almost entirely by the ubiquitous store-bought generic airplanes like Pipers and Cessnas. I had thought about trying the new Buffalo burger that I mentioned last week, but I chickened out (so to speak) and went with one of my favorites: grilled bologna. My hands were still kind of grimy from the preceding maintenance work, so I went to the Men's to wash up. It was there, while looking in the mirror, that I saw the number one problem of impromptu flights: I didn't have a hat with me. Now, most people think the hat is to keep the sun out of our eyes, but that isn't the primary function. No, the single most important thing that the hat does is protect against headset hair. Alas, I had it. I had it bad.

Knowing through painful experience that it is possible for the restaurant to run out of pie on busy days, I perused the selection as we were placing our lunch orders. I saw no sign of black raspberry, the co-owner's pie of choice. The waitress said that had plenty of crumb peach, and she would check in the kitchen to see if they had a hidden stash of the highly prized blackberry. I called home to see if the peach would suffice, and while I was still on the phone the waitress returned to share the propitious news that they did, in fact, have another slice of blackberry. I offered the co-owner the choice between the two, and received a rhetorical query in response.

"Why not both?"

To be perfectly honest, even after almost 18 years of marriage, it surprises me that I didn't see that one coming!

As we were taxiing back out to the runway for our departure back to Bolton, co-pilot Rick noticed that a spiffy new hangar had been built. As we traded theories as to its intended use, I surmised that it was owned by the buffalo ranch that provides the meat to the restaurant. "What would a buffalo ranch need a hangar for," you ask? Well, I figure, they use it as a place to keep the buffalo wings!

The flight back to Bolton was still a bit choppy, with strong enough bumps to occasionally bounce us hard enough to hit our heads against the canopy. It's not a long ride, though, so it wasn't long before I reported to Bolton tower that we were "over Darby Dan (we were!) inbound full stop." Co-pilot Rick and I had just discussed what clearance we would get, and we were unanimous in thinking we'd get "report two mile right base to runway 22."

The tower replied, "Four Six Six Papa Golf, report two mile right base to runway 4."

Again, I have to admit that I didn't see that one coming! This not being anywhere near my first time doing this, though, I knew that he had misspoken and replied, "Do you want right base to 4, or to 22?"

I swear, even from 8 miles out I could see that man cringe at his mistake! Still, it's better to be sure, and he did correct the clearance to runway 22. I made a pretty smooth landing to make up for the not-so-great landing at Urbana. We arrived back to the hangar, ascertained that none of the piece/parts we had replaced had fallen off in flight, and pushed Papa back into the hangar. It was a pretty good flight, considering that it had been completely impromptu. That's the beauty of general aviation, though.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Finally, I eat at Mansfield!

I've taken to calling it "The Mansfield Curse." For a few years now, it seems that every attempt to land at Mansfield-Lahm (KMFD) for breakfast has been stymied by weather, the restaurant being closed, or some other untoward event. This weekend looked as if it would be no different. The late week forecast predicted Sunday to be the day to fly, so I planned accordingly. Lo and behold, the forecast I looked at on Saturday night had a completed contrary opinion: low clouds scattered, slightly less low clouds overcast. Figuring that I'd have to eat anyway, I called Co-pilot Rick to see if he'd be interested in a ground transportation-based trip for morning victuals.

Forecasts are worth exactly what you pay for them, as it turns out. The morning dawned clear and blue. The updated forecast confirmed it: it was to be a good flying day. Having already arranged for a breakfast rendezvous, it was a simple matter to re-format the day to include a fly-out meal. Mansfield was back on the menu, so to speak.

We met at 0915 and I handed Rick his brief sheets. I had decided to give him the first leg, rather than the normal return leg. Papa was ready to go in just a few moments and I had Rick call the tower for taxi clearance. I usually do the taxiing, but I got to thinking that there's no real reason not to let him give it a try. It takes awhile to get used to the difference between taxiing a nosewheel plane and a tailwheel plane, but since we would be making the long trek out to runway 4, he had plenty of time to get the hang of it. There were no other planes flying yet, so I made a quick takeoff and handed the reins back to Rick for the rest of the flight.

Mansfield is a big airport, and we had it in sight 22 miles out. The ATIS reported that they were landing on runway 5, which set us up for a straight in approach. We were cruising at 5,500', so I had Rick start a descent down to 3,500 while we were still fairly far out. It was good that I did since the tower cleared us to land at a stunning 12 miles out from the airport! Long straight in approaches are normally tricky for me, but this one was even trickier because of the immense size of the runway. I ended up slowed to 100 mph while we were still 6 or 7 miles out, flying into a 10 knot head wind. It felt like we were going to be out there all flipping day, so I boosted us back up to a more efficacious 140 mph.

It was still no big deal to get slowed back down to 100 mph and gets the flaps hung out, and I nailed the landing on the big, huge number 5. We were able to easily make the first turn off, which of course was nearly a mile from the restaurant. Normally I would have simply landed further down the runway, but I wanted to pass by the C-130s parked on the ramp in order to snap a couple of pictures.

The ramp in front of the restaurant was deserted, so I was immediately concerned that we had yet again arrived only to find a closed restaurant. Such was not the case, though, and we were seated and perusing menus just minutes after landing. Story of my life, though: I ordered the #2: Center-cut ham, two eggs, and toast. Naturally they were out of that. It's amazing how often that happens to me. I went with my second choice, which was two pancakes and sausage. The menu selections and the food itself was just average, but having finally slain the Mansfield Curse made it special. And, in addition to the normal "outside looking in" picture, I was finally able to get an "inside looking out" picture.

After an uneventful return to Bolton, I made an appearance at home just long enough to change into "rolling around on the hangar floor" clothes and headed back to the airport to begin the process of the annual condition inspection. This entails removing the engine cowls, the inspection panels that allow access to some of the moving parts down inside the airplane, and the prop spinner. Everything went fine, at least for the first three hours.

Removing the prop spinner is the job that I usually save for last because it's pretty easy, but this time it turned out to be atypically irksome. At the point when I was two screws from being done, I ran into a rounded screw that I just could not get to budge. Thus began a comedy of tortuous events that included a dysfunctional air drill and other ignominious technical failures, but I eventually got the bad screw removed.

I had my scanner turned on to listen to the tower as he was working the four or five touch & go renters, and the occasional arrival or departure. There was one particular touch & go that was in the pattern for what must have been an hour and a half. Finally, long after all of the others had landed or returned to their home base, he was on his last landing. The radio traffic went something like this:

Tower: "Cessna 123, you outlasted them all!"

Cessna 123: "Yeah. Hey, good work on your part today."

Tower: "You know, we keep some forms down in the terminal at the base of the tower to gather feedback. You could fill one of those out for me. We could use the help; we had a guy fill one out last week that just raked us over the coals. He didn't know what he was doing and had a lot of problems following directions."

Cessna 123: "Yeah, I filled that one out. You were much better today."

Tower: " [dead, uncomfortable silence] "

Cessna 123: "I'll fill a nice one out today."

Me: "LOL!!"

Saturday, March 14, 2009

In search of pie

What with today being Pi day (March 14th, or 3.14), it seemed that a trip to Urbana for breakfast and pie would be a great way to commemorate the event. Always looking to kill two birds with one well-aimed throw, I thought it would be a good idea to have my Twitter friend ou_flyer join me for the ride. He works for the FBO at Bolton and would be the perfect person to be able to run over to my hangar to top up Papa's tanks should I ever need that done in preparation for a trip, but he would need a little familiarization with how to move the airplane in and out of the hangar first. It's not quite the same as moving a nosewheel plane around, after all. What better way to do that than to have him ride along for breakfast too? All that time working at Bolton and he had never had the opportunity to fly up to Urbana for their famous pie.

The Weather-out-the-Window™ forecast sometimes looks very promising but turns out to have some disqualifying feature like high winds or approaching crudiness once I take an "official" look at it, and sometimes the Weather-out-the-Window™ looks really dank and nasty but ultimately turns out to be flyable. Today was an example of the latter. I'm loath to traduce the flying qualities of any given day, but the fact is that at first glance, it looked horrible. Further research indicated that the general mediocrity of the weather turned out to simply be the combination of a high overcast and the abnormal gloominess we get for a few weeks after the clocks "spring forward," though.

The temperature, while technically meeting the empirical definition of "above freezing" at 35° F, was still chilly enough to necessitate the layered approach to dressing required to maintain personal warmth without causing over crowding in the cramped quarters of an RV cockpit. The winds were manageable at 4 or 5 knots. The visibility was said to be greater than 10 miles, but the Weather-out-the-Window™ observation made that look somewhat optimistic. Good enough, though. Good enough.

While our rendezvous was scheduled for 0900 at the hangar, I wanted to get out there a bit earlier. Nothing saps the faith and confidence of a first-time rider in a homebuilt airplane like a slow start on the engine, so I thought I'd get out there early enough for a good preflight and to make sure the engine was going to give me the alacritous start that I normally can expect. Why take chances, right? I've found that any worries over the quality and trustworthiness of an Experimental airplane often dissolve immediately with the coruscation of a quick, robust engine start, and I do like to give first time riders as much of a low-stress experience as possible.

Eric showed up right on time and we were soon lowering the canopy for yet another on-time departure. The winds had been forecasted to be generally out of the north which almost always means a long taxi down to runway 4, but they were still light enough to allow for the more convenient and expedient departure from 22. There weren't any other planes waiting for the runway (although there were at least two in the preparation stage), so we were in the air after a short end-of-runway check. With the ambient pressure being somewhat above 30 inches, the cool temperatures, and somewhere around half empty tanks, we climbed out at an impressive 1,500 fpm and an indicated speed of 120 mph.

Whenever I fly for the first time with a licensed pilot, I like to have a thousand feet of air under the wings before I relinquish control of the stick, mostly because many tend to over control for the first few seconds. There are few commonly available store-bought planes that enjoy the responsiveness of the RV, and the shift from yoke to stick also sometimes causes them to be a little frisky on the first try. Eric gave me just a little wobble and settled into the type of relaxed control movements that work best with the RV very quickly. By the time we had reached 3,500', he had the straight & level thing nailed, so I encouraged him to explore the control envelope a little further. A few steep turns later, he commented on the tremendous visibility provided by the bubble canopy. Usually it's at that point that I know that I've gotten another one hooked on RVs. The 168 knot ground speed (13 of which was the contribution of a generous tailwind) was simply icing on the cake.

I took over for a series of more aggressive aerial maneuvers, mostly just to get my own flying muscles limbered up. The air was smooth, and was therefore receptive to the type of flying that I prefer to do before breakfast. After I had worked out the tension of the work week, we pointed the nose back towards Urbana. We arrived to an empty pattern - that's always an unexpected treat on a weekend morning arrival at I74. The northerly winds were favoring a landing on runway 2, so we crossed over midfield for a left downwind. I had slowed us down early in the approach, so even at midfield downwind we were already slowed to flap extension speed. I always like to have other pilots follow the pressures on the stick as I deploy the flaps as it is routinely eye-opening for them to feel the relatively heavy nose down pitch the RV-6 develops as the barn doors are lowered into the wind.

The landing was nice and smooth, and if it hadn't been for the gear chatter that I get from the spring steel landing gear rods, I would have graded it as near perfect. My favorite parking spot right in front of the restaurant was available, and offered the perfect opportunity to show off the amazing ground handling benefits of a tailwheel airplane. As we pivoted into our parking spot and shut down the engine, I saw that a couple of fathers and their kids were watching us attentively. I knew for sure that I'd get the "what kind of airplane is that?" question, and I did. It always feels somewhat wrong to bask in the glow of that kind of attention, but I have to confess that it is one of my more guilty pleasures.

The restaurant was fairly crowded, but as usual there were open stools at the counter. I don't know why more people don't sit at the counter; I actually prefer it. The coffee comes early and often when you're sitting basically in the shadow of the coffee maker. Another benefit is that the famous pie is right there in front of you, thus reducing the risk that you will forget to procure a slice to take home as a peace offering to those left at home. I ordered the mega-omelet which contains just about every edible item in the kitchen to go with my coffee.

The waitress asked if it we would prefer one check or two, and Eric and I both said, "One, please." I know when both my partner and I answer that question simultaneously and with the same response that we are headed directly into the traditional battle over who gets to pay. I've learned sneaky techniques over the years to win that battle with nefarious and diabolical schemes, but I've also learned that it's insulting to the passenger to do so. My strategy in these cases is now to just acquiesce to their desire to have some kind of pecuniary participation in the day, and I just pick up the tip. Oh, and I insist on buying my own pie.

We enjoyed a nice leisurely conversation while we ate, which is itself another benefit of sitting at the counter: you don't feel pressured to finish up your food and vacate your spot by the folks out in the lobby waiting for a table or booth. It was today that I noticed for the first time that the diner has expanded their menu with an entirely new barnyard animal: Buffalo. I've had buffalo before and it is true that it tastes different than cow. It's not something I can describe, nor is it something that I can say I like better or not than the traditional beef. I think I'll have to look for an opportunity to head back to Urbana for a dinner some time to give it a try. Co-pilot Rick might be up for that.

As we were headed out to the end or runway 2 for our departure back to Bolton, we counted no fewer than five deer on the inside of the "wildlife control" fence, thus confusing me as to what exactly it is that the fence is supposed to accomplish. All five were far enough away from the runway and ostensibly concerned enough with their own well-being to give the runway a wide berth, though, so they weren't really a factor. As we departed from the airport, I saw a huge-ish cloud of smoke off to the east. Eric was flying at that point, so I had him fly us over for a closer look. As he was flying the plane quite ably enough for me to be comfortable with a momentary distraction, I grabbed the camera and took some pictures.

It appears to be a deliberate field burn, but I didn't think that was commonly done anymore. I'm not sure what it was supposed accomplish, but since there were no fire engines on scene to battle the blaze I can only assume that the conflagration was intentional.

We continued back to Bolton where again we were lucky enough to find an empty pattern. The tower had shifted operations to runway 4 in our absence, so I had Eric point as at the midpoint of the airport to set us up for an easy entry into the left downwind. Landing on runway 4 is nice because I welcome the opportunity to overfly my house, but it does entail deliberately landing long to avoid a mile-long taxi back to parking. I aim for a touchdown spot far enough down the runway to allow me to reach taxi speed at the Alpha 4 turnoff. I nailed it today with both a smooth landing and a perfect roll out, but the tower threw me a curve and instructed me to exit at the next taxiway down, Alpha 3. Still, it counts as a good landing.

Once we were parked back at the hangar I finally got around to demonstrating the proper way to push/pull the plane into and out of the hangar. We parted ways and I headed home to share with the Twitter world that we had had returned, and that "a good time was survived by all." It was only as I was making that posting that it struck me:

Eric had forgotten to buy himself a slice of pie.

He did get a nice souvenir picture, though:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Another article to submit

I'm going to send this one to AOPA Pilot:

One of the challenges that all of us who are passionate about flying face is finding ways to share the experience with our loved ones that possibly are not quite as enamored with the experience. In my case, it is my wife that does not share my love of flying simply for the sake of flying. She does, however, recognize that the airplane provides an efficient means of squeezing interesting trips that would take an entire weekend to accomplish with a car into a single day. With that in mind, I am always on the lookout for destinations that fulfill the following criteria:

  • Close enough to an airport to allow for easy transportation to and from the destination without incurring the additional expense of renting a car or paying for a taxi;
  • Interesting to visit for those that do not consider an aviation museum, fly-in, or $100 hamburger sufficient justification for a trip;
  • Within an hour or so of flying time from home.

Additionally, I require a solid forecast for pleasant flying conditions for the entire day. Too much heat and/or turbulence causes nausea, diversions around threatening looking weather cause anxiety, and strong winds bring stressful takeoffs and landings in our tailwheel RV-6. As you can imagine, the occasions when I have a suitable destination, prefect flying weather, and a lucky symmetry of our time availability are relatively rare.

We recently had just such an occasion, though, and it is this most recent experience that I wish to share with you. I had heard through various sources that a trip to French Lick, Indiana might be just the kind of destination that I look for. The rumor mill had it that easy transportation to and from the airport was provided (gratis!) by the Hotel/Casino in town. A brief internet search confirmed that rumor as fact, and also provided enough of a description of the area to entice me to make the trip at the first opportunity.

The Weather-out-the-Windowtm forecast on the morning of our proposed departure looked eminently flyable, and an ensuing consultation with a higher authority (DUATS) confirmed that the conditions were not only prime for the trip out, but also that they would remain that way for the balance of the day. Looking at the winds and distances involved showed a travel time of 1+15 in the RV-6. While that estimate was right on the border of acceptability, it appeared quite favorable when compared to the 4+20 it would take to go by car. I have learned through 17 years of marriage that when justifying the cost of a plane trip, the wise pilot always stresses the amazing time savings inherent in travel by air.

The wise pilot also remembers to caution his passenger about the risk of drinking too much morning tea prior to departure in a small airplane, and in that task I failed completely. One could argue that the incumbent discomfort she felt during the latter half of the flight presented the perfect opportunity to argue in favor of a faster airplane, but discretion being the better part of valor, I decided against it. Fortunately all turned out well, but I do not plan on making it a habit to arrive in the airport pattern at a blistering 160 knots as I did on that fateful day.

The FBO was kind enough to phone the French Lick Resort to ask that we be picked up at the airport, and just a few minutes later we were loaded up and on the way to town in their plush Buick minivan. The driver of the van was quite cheerful and we enjoyed his descriptions of the local area on the 10 minute drive to the hotel. We also took the opportunity to ask what is probably the most asked question he receives: what in the world does French Lick mean? While I could share the answer with you, I think I will leave it unanswered as an enticement for you to make the trip yourself to find out.

As it turns out, there are two hotels that comprise the Resort: the West Baden Springs Hotel and the French Lick Springs Hotel. After inquiring as to what it is we wished to do while in town, the driver advised that since we weren’t interested in going to the casino, we should start with a visit to the West Baden Hotel. Listed as a National Historic Landmark, the West Baden Springs Hotel was rebuilt in 1902 after a fire destroyed the original facility in 1901. It is a very unique structure with its huge, 200’ diameter domed atrium.

While it had fallen into disrepair over the years, it is now in extremely good condition after a full renovation that was completed in May, 2007. After walking around the atrium enjoying the beautiful architecture, we went outside to stroll around the grounds. The weather was perfect for a long walk in the European-style gardens and a few minutes spent sitting by the large garden fountain relaxing to the sound of the water.

After lunch at Sinclair’s, the West Baden’s fine restaurant (named after Lee W. Sinclair who was the man credited with creating the hotel into a world-class property after the 1901 fire), we boarded the shuttle bus for a trip over to the French Lick Springs Hotel. The French Lick has an equally storied history and has weather many of the same challenges and restorations as its sister hotel. It was originally built in 1845 as a place to lodge travelers that were coming to French Lick to partake in the natural sulphur springs and famous Pluto mineral water.

As with the West Baden Hotel, the French Lick Hotel also succumbed to a fire in 1897. It was rebuilt through the efforts of U.S. Senator Thomas Taggert who went on to bring casino gambling to the resort, despite the fact that gambling was illegal at the time. As such, the hotel became the go-to place for gamblers, politicians, gangsters, and entertainers. In that way, the French Lick Casino of the 1920’s was the precursor to cities like Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Regular daily train service from Chicago made it a simple matter to travel to French Lick.

While there is a good-sized casino there, gambling is no longer the only reason to travel to French Lick. There is now a Pete Dye designed golf course that will open this year and will host the PGA Championship event in 2010 to accompany the original Don Ross course that first opened in 1917. The Don Ross course hosted the PGA Championship, won by the legendary Walter Hagan, in 1924. Spa, specialty shops, a pool complex, and 443 rooms/suites round out the offerings.

There are also plenty of restaurant opportunities to be enjoyed at the French Lick Hotel. While we were nowhere near ready for another meal, we did walk around to see the various options for future reference. There is a buffet that looks like an attractive option for a return trip if we would like to try a weekend brunch, and there is a small pub called the Power Plant Lounge that looked like a good place to while away an evening should we ever make on overnight trip of it. The lounge inhabits the space that formerly served as the control room to manage the old power plant that used to provide heat and electricity for the entire hotel complex. One full wall is still covered in the switches, levers, and gauges that the operators used to keep things running.

It was getting late, so we decided that we had better start heading back towards the airport for our flight home. It can take a little longer to get back to the airport in the afternoons as a lot more of the resort patrons are up and about, and many of them are shuttling back and forth between the two hotels. The driver was eventually able to find a large enough gap in the traffic flow to make the trek out to the airport. I mentioned that there is no charge for the shuttle service, but we were so pleased with the pleasant, informative drivers that we left generous tips after each ride.

The weather had help up every bit as well as the forecast had indicated that it would, and had even gone so far as to provide a generous tailwind for our return trip. Having learned a valuable lesson regarding the issues surrounding over exuberant beverage drinking and travel by small plane, we didn’t have a recurrence of the discomfort endured by the co-owner on the outward bound leg of the trip no the return leg. The ride was smooth at 7,500’ and the few clouds that we saw were non-threatening. We landed at just about eight hours after we had left, or put another way, in less time than it would have taken to drive to and from French Lick non-stop.

I think she was impressed.


Watch for it in a magazine near you!

For those of you that may be following my attempts to complete one of the items on my bucket list ('get an article published in a magazine'), here's an update:

You may recall that EAA Sport Aviation had responded to my submission of the formation clinic article with a request to shorten it up a bit. I did so and re-submitted the article. In their most recent communication, they said that the 2nd draft was still a bit too long, but that it was close enough that they could do the final edits themselves. Once they have done so and gained my approval of the edits, they said that they would schedule the article for publication.


On very rare occasions...

It is a rare occasion indeed for me to see a trailer for a movie that I simply must see. This is one of those occasions:

Unfortunately, it is a German film and has not been released (and may never be) in the US.

Just. My. Luck!


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Since I can't afford an autopilot....

We had some nice looking but still somewhat brisk weather this afternoon, as evidenced by the morally uplifting Weather-out-the-Windshield&trade forecast available during my afternoon commute across town combined with the rapidity with which Brave Sir Hogarth completed his afternoon duties outside. I can't complain too much about the cold considering that the sun was more than willing to provide heat if you were to find yourself encased in a clear, transparent bubble like, say, an RV-6 canopy. It still gets dark fairly early, but there was certainly enough time for a quick jaunt around the local area.

Co-pilot Egg was available and interested in riding along, so we took the opportunity to embark on her first flying "lesson." I have to put 'lesson' in quotes since I'm not a certified flight instructor and as such cannot give her official lessons towards a pilot's license, but I can still teach her how to help with the preflight, navigation, and enroute portions of the flying. You know, two-thirds of the things an autopilot would do for me. Being able to participate in the actual flying will also have the benefit of making the actual flying part of trips much more fun for her.

It was chilly enough today that we didn't spend any more time than necessary on the preflight; she shivered in the hangar while I did the poking and prodding required to ensure that Papa was up to the task. I also performed the engine start and tower communications without any explanation at all as to what I was doing. We'll circle back on concentrate more fully on that stuff later.

The winds were reported as "calm" by the tower, and I had no occasion to doubt the veracity of that report. We were soon off the runway and climbing towards the southwest on a straight out departure. I usually opt for a departure to the west, but an Ercoupe had departed just in front of us and was heading out west. Those things are so slow that I feared we'd run into him if we were to lose sight of him flying directly into the setting sun. Since we weren't headed anywhere in particular, it was "six of a dozen, half of one another" to me and southwest was just as good as west.

During the climb we reviewed basics like how to read the altimeter, what the vertical velocity gauge was showing her, and how to tell what direction we were going. At 3,500' I let her take the stick and we practiced straight and level flight. The sun was glaring in her eyes while we were heading southwest, so we practiced a turn to the east. I wanted to give Rickenbacker a wide berth, so we only flew on the easterly course for a few minutes before I had her head turn to the south. We're going to have to spend some time talking about compass directions before we fly again, though, as she struggles to figure out things like "if we're headed east and want to go south, which way do we turn?" Other than that, she did great at straight and level, and showed tremendous patience in her turns. She's very gentle on the stick in turns, but somewhat abrupt in pitch corrections. I also had to coach her to avoid fixating on the instruments, but I think that is very, very common in student just beginning their training.

I showed her how to select destinations out of the favorites list on the Garmin, how to turn onto course, and how to keep the CDI centered. We working our way out to the west until we were over Lilly Chapel, the west-side reporting point for an arrival back into Bolton. I took over from there since the Ercoupe had reported in as "over Lilly Chapel" just as we arrived. Fortunately for my ulcers, he included a report of his altitude too. I love it when other pilots do that! He was down at 2,500' and we were still at 3,500', so it was a far less stressful few seconds than it would have been had he not told the tower where he was.

I reported in right after him, and the tower spent a handful of transmissions getting the situation clear in his head. I think he was a new guy and didn't know that I have an RV-6 (I call in as "Experimental") because he seemed to be working out a way to put me behind the Ercoupe. Ercoupes do about 80mph straight down, and we were cooking along at 150 knots, so I didn't really want to get put in line behind him. It all became clear to him when we reported our respective GPS distances from the airport and he could see that I had already put the Ercoupe a mile behind us.

The landing was an absolute greaser, for which I give great thanks to the gods that control these things. Egg's analysis was that it was "pretty good," which is high praise indeed. She can't yet see over the engine while we're taxiing, so I drove us back to the hangar. That's another aspect of the flying that will probably have to wait awhile. All in all, I was very happy with Egg's flying and hope that we get a chance for another "lesson" soon. I want to sit her down with a sectional chart next time and plan out a short flight somewhere, teach her how to plug a destination into the GPS, and fly us there.

Oh, and here's a picture of the intrepid birdgirl: