Monday, July 8, 2019

Mongoose IV

I realize that writing a story in installments, as I’m doing, loses readers when I wait so long between posts. Apologies and promises to be more prompt. Here’s the continuation of Mongoose.


Twelve pilots took their seats for the briefing. Most of them had back-seat riders sitting in. Backseaters are not allowed in official airshow events, but since the show did not formally begin until 1pm we were allowed to take them. Mongoose would lead the flight on the annual veteran’s hospital memorial fly-over. He broke the group into two flights of six aircraft. He would lead at the point of the first six. I was number two on his wing. Alabama Girl’s owner, Mike, would go in my back seat. My friend Dave from Tucson would ride with Mongoose. The briefing lasted half an hour and then we went to mount up.

As I was strapping in, something happened that was damned near a déjà vu experience for me. A golf cart bearing a couple of AirVenture workers stopped and they yelled up to me. “Stand down. The airport is closed. We’ve had a crash.” I looked around and saw the other pilots dismounting.

I immediately remembered that day years ago at an airshow near Birmingham. We were mounting up for the opening fly-over—eight ships, with Mongoose leading. I was about to put on my helmet when I happened to look to my right just in time to see a departing Bonanza roll abruptly left and nose into the ground. I yelled to Mongoose who was mounting up that I had just seen a crash. We all dismounted and took our van to the air boss’ stage. He verified what I saw.

The Bonanza was one of several planes that had been flying passengers on short hops all morning. The passengers paid a small fee that went to a charity. The Bonanza pilot was trying to get in one last flight before the airshow started. Later, we learned he ran out of fuel. He kept his nose too high, his airspeed bled quickly and he stalled. He and his passengers—a dad and a youngster—were killed. The wife and mother saw it all.

The vision of the Bonanza going down has joined a sinister repertoire in my memories that replay from time to time, and I suppose I will never be rid of them. I was glad I didn’t see the crash at Oshkosh. A “Breezy” had crashed on runway 36R. Later we would learn it was fatal for its pilot, who inexplicably lost control while landing. This seems to be a common scenario at AirVenture. Pilots get so distracted by the world showcase airshow and all its glitter and busyness and forget to control their airspeed.

If you’ve seen a Breezy you know that there is no protection
Breezy
for the pilot in an impact because there is no cockpit. I once flew one. I was sitting far out on the front end of a long boom with only a few instruments clustered in front of me. The engine is a “pusher” mounted aft of the tandem seats. Even though I was strapped in, I was so scared to bank the plane I tended to skid it around turns with rudder. That very plane crashed a couple of years later killing its owner.

An hour later Oshkosh’s east-west parallel runways opened. 36R remained closed for the accident investigation. We mounted up. Taxiing out, we took the 12 Yaks and Nanchangs down “fighter row” with jets of many ages and makes parked just a few feet on either side of our wingtips. I thought a brake failure here would do some expensive damage to those parked jets. I watched my air pressure very closely.

We took off into a gloriously blue sky, joined up and headed northwest to the VA hospital complex. We made two passes over it with smoke. In the briefing we were told to look good because the fly-overs would be telecast throughout the hospital. After the fly-overs there would be no time for further play because the delay was pushing us against airshow time. Mongoose headed for home plate. Ten miles out we switched to tower frequency and got more bad news. Oshkosh airport was once again closed.

The tower was not clear in telling us why. Whether it had to do with the previous accident or a new one, we didn’t know, but I suspected something new had happened. Mongoose took us overhead the field and out over Lake Winnebago to wait out the closure.

The wait was too long. We burned deeply into our fuel circling the lake. Guys got tired and butt-sore. We were all in loose formation to minimize the fatigue. Mongoose called the tower about every ten minutes to get an update. Each time the tower told us he had no information. Each time the conversation between Mongoose and the tower got testier. It was clear that the frustration in both our leader and the tower was building.

After a few circuits my flight—the one Mongoose was leading—lapped the flight behind us and settled in behind them. Most of us had spread out a few hundred feet, but one guy in the flight out front was out about a quarter mile. This irked me because I had to constantly keep turning my head away from my leader in order to keep the roamer in sight. A guy who strayed that far out is liable to do anything—he bears watching.

As time and our fuel burned on I became more peeved at that guy and even at his flight leader for not ordering him back in. I tried to remember who he was. He might be that new guy who showed up. He was relatively young, and the questions he asked in the briefing revealed his newness to formation operations. Suddenly Mike yelled, from the back seat, “WHAT THE HELL IS HE DOING?”

I looked back toward the guy. His plane was in a steep bank away from the formation diving toward the water. I saw him get smaller and smaller, then disappear. Someone else in the formation told the front six leader that his number six had gone down.

A few long seconds later number Six came up on the radio, flustered. He had lost sight of the flight and broken out. We all knew he lost sight because he was too damned far out. Furthermore his breakout procedures were non-standard and dangerous. His flight lead coached him back in and told him to stay closer.

I took in a deep breath, shifted uncomfortably in my seat and told Mike, “I think we are in for a very interesting and hot de-briefing.”

But before our wheels touched terra firma—wherever that might be—more fit would hit the proverbial shan. Stay tuned.
Me in front and Mike in back of Alabama Girl, smoking up the Wisconsin skyscape.
Photo taken by Dave in Mongoose's back seat over the VA hospital.





 

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Mongoose III

Mongoose and I breakfasted at the college cafeteria, which was full of pilots and airshow attendees, then caught the shuttle to the field. I had an hour to kill before the briefing so I called some old buddies who I knew were floating around somewhere. Five guys from my pilot training class at Vance AFB (Class 73-06) were among the growing crowd of tens of thousands of people.

If you are familiar with the terminology, you know when I
graduated from flight training: 1973. The “73” in 73-06 was the year of graduation and the “06” was the sixth class to be graduated that year. The only time I felt old is when I flew on airline trips with guys whose class numbers were something like 06-06.

Mongoose scurried off to the briefing tent, since he was the honcho that day, and soon I was joined up with the old buds.
 
Pete, a retired career USAF officer with many years flying C-130s and C-141s, now ran an aviation technology school. He was the groomsman at my wedding. Then there was Mike. He did one tour as a tanker driver and went to Northwest Airlines, then retired as a Delta 747 captain. He was a loquacious extrovert, a soloist in his church choir and the kind of guy who could be happy anywhere, anytime. Later that night at Kelly's Bar, Mike, reacting to some crazy story being told, suddenly sprang up from the table and burst into song and dance, drawing applause from across the whole establishment.  

Another friend, John, flew C-130s and served 25 years active and reserve. He was retired from the FAA where he was assigned to oversee United Airlines—my airline. I remember once he came aboard the DC-10 I was flying as a first officer to give a no-notice check ride. He took one look at me, waved his hand and said, “Oh hell! I’m scared to get on this plane. I’m gone!” And he did—he recused himself. While in training John and I flew our T-37s cross country trip together. As soon as we parked our jets our instructors jumped out and hurried away to the club leaving us to secure the planes. As we walked away I elbowed John and pointed at his jet. "Your flaps are still down, bozo!" He looked at my Tweet, snickered and pointed. "Your speed brake is still down, idiot!"

Another welcome sight was Chip who had just retired from United as a 777 captain. Chip served one tour on active duty flying C-141s. Low-keyed and subtle-humored, Chip was the best instrument pilot in the class. After retiring he was content never to touch the controls of a plane again, but he loved just to be around them. 

The last guy was Ahmad, from Iran. In 1972 the U.S. and Iran were allies. Their king (they called him the Shah) sent his young men to the U.S. for pilot training, and so that’s how Ahmad came to be among us. We lost track of him after he left Vance. He was a Phantom pilot in the Iranian Air Force and we knew he would have been heavily involved in the 7-year Iran-Iraq war. None of us in 73-06 ever expected Ahmad to survive that. But he did. About 2005 he converted to Christianity and was threatened by the local mullahs. He came to the U.S. and got in touch with us. We helped him hire an attorney to file for status as a religious refugee. The U.S. government denied him refugee status but allowed him a green card after years of hellish red tape and incompetent bureaucratic bungling. He found a job and settled. Seeing Ahmad at Oshkosh with the other old friends was a special treat.

There was another friend there as well, apart from the 73-06 guys—Dave from Tucson. Dave is the guy who helped me get my RV-6. If you followed Decision Height, you might remember him from the Seven Sierra Whiskey series of posts. Dave met up with the rest of us and I was delighted to introduce him to the 73-06 gang and later to Mongoose. They all wanted to see Alabama Girl and so as we were all walking to the warbird corral I thought this day was one of the greatest in my life. So many memories and good times I had known with these guys, blended with the awesome place we were in, just damn near overwhelmed me. I was only two weeks into retirement, and I was enjoying one of the greatest times I had ever known. My cup was running over.

As we walked Dave told me he was planning a flight to Alaska in just two weeks in his Cessna 182. Was I interested in going along? I immediately used a question on him I had heard him say many times: “Does the sun rise in the east?” He grinned and we agreed to discuss the details after Oshkosh. As we approached the long rows of Yaks and CJs I thought, On top of all this, now I’m going to Alaska, low and slow—just what I had always dreamed of. What an incredible day this was becoming. And the flying had not even started yet!.

After I showed Alabama Girl to the gang we headed to the briefing tent where Mongoose was busily preparing to lead the 12-ship veterans memorial formation fly-over, scheduled to launch at 1000.

Replete with high-pressure adrenaline bursts, and a judicious ration of nerve-wracking, it was to be a flight I'll never forget.


Mongoose makes a point with Dave, who carries a big bomb around on his back.

Mongoose gets Dave squared away in the back cockpit for the Veterans Memorial Fly-over

John tries on Alabama Girl for size

No T-37 we ever flew looked that good

Mike tries on Alabama Girl
Ahmad takes five. Or ten.

    Pete preferred wing-walking            

Friday, June 14, 2019

Mongoose, Part II


You’ll recall from the first post on Mongoose that we had a dicey time getting our 2-ship of Chinese Communist war birds into Oshkosh because of the thunderstorm. I was flying a CJ-6 owned by Mike, a student pilot who split and went his own way after we landed.

Mongoose and I took the shuttle to the college and got our bare-bones dorm room. We changed and hurried to Kelly’s Bar on the edge of the campus. During airshow week Kelly’s becomes a pilot magnet, expanding into the parking lot with tables and an outdoor bar. The only separation between the outdoor bar/dining area and the street was a fence made of that orange plastic lattice-work that you can get at Home Depot. And there, at the outdoor bar, Mongoose and I planted ourselves, sipping beers and waiting for our dinner.

It was our first opportunity to get caught up. Mongoose was a Triple-7 captain at Delta. I had just retired, not two weeks before, from United. This trip to AirVenture was my retirement “break-out” trip. My original plan was to fly my RV-6 in and camp, but when Mike asked me to pilot his beautiful “Alabama Girl,” to Oshkosh, I jumped at it. In fact, Alabama Girl was formerly owned by the Mongoose himself. What a wild story: Mongoose had bought a brand new new CJ-6 (not Alabama Girl) that suffered a catastrophic engine failure just before takeoff. He had the wings taken off and hired a truck to take to the repair shop at another airport. On the way the truck ran off the road causing severe damage to the plane.

The plane was to be repaired by non-other than Mongoose’s very own aircraft repair facility. This was an enterprise he owned on the side of his regular job as an airline pilot. But his shop was busy with big jobs repairing and refurbishing L-39 jets. The restoration of the CJ-6 would have to be done as time allowed. Mongoose couldn’t wait it out. He bought another CJ to fly while waiting for his first one to be repaired. 

When finally the first plane was ready he sold the interim plane to Mike, and thus that is how Mike ended up with it. Mike renamed it Alabama Girl, painted a busty Daisy Duke on the nose, and asked Mongoose for a recommendation on someone to fly it to Oshkosh for him. That’s how I came into the story.

Mongoose and I sipped our beers and got out our phones. We brandished pictures of our grand kids; each had just had our first one. “Your’s is cute, but mine’s cutter!” We were two guys getting older and laughing about it.

Then, inevitably, we reminisced about the old days flying the Star Lizard in the Magnolia Militia. For about the 50th time I heard
Our favorite outlawed patch
the story about how he “saved my life.” I was flying a C-141 somewhere up on the east coast. He was in the co-pilot’s seat. Without any warning at all from ATC, a Cessna suddenly appeared in our windshield. The monster jet was on auto-pilot and I was heads-down. He grabbed the controls, clicked off the auto-pilot and hauled the nose up. The Cessna flashed underneath us. Indeed his sharp eye saved a possible collision. I let him reiterate his tale, and then reminded him how I, in turn, saved him. It was a far different story.    

I lost track of Mongoose when I retired from the Guard, but a few years later I went to the cockpit of a Delta MD-80 to ask the captain for the jump seat and, low and behold, there he was. We slapped shoulders and got re-acquainted. We swapped phone numbers promising to stay in touch.

A loquacious Manhattan Yankee who had taken up residence in the Deep South, Mongoose had spent years trying with limited success to fit in with us good ole boys. At times he flew off the handle when he was simply unable to absorb our subtle ways with humor and our often not-so-subtle unrefined revelry. But his attempts to adapt were for the most part acceptable to us and his unabashed honesty captured me into his friendship.

A year after the meeting in the MD-80 he called me. He had just retired from the Guard. Now he had a bunch of time on his hands. He didn’t like golf and fishing was too slow for him. He didn’t know what to do with himself. “What about those 'little airplanes' you fly?" he asked. “Maybe that’s something I can get interested in.”

The following Saturday he came to my airport to see my Yak-52. I put him in the front cockpit. He proceeded to tear the sky up.

In addition to C-141s, he had instructed in T-38s and had flown A-10s. The fighter-like performance of the Yak thrilled him and he flew the plane as if he were born in it. Later that day we joined up with two other Yaks and a CJ-6 and for the first time in decades he flew close formation. All day long this went on until I was green-in-the-gills sick. If he had been on the insurance papers I would gladly have gotten out and let him go with it. At the end of the day Mongoose partied with the gang and became as ensnared as a bass on a treble hook. He knew now what he would do with his life.

Within two weeks he had a Yak of his own. He later sold it to buy the new CJ-6. Then he got involved with jets, checking out in L-39s. Soon he bought a failing L-39 refurbishing facility and turned its business around. He flew L-39s to South America and Europe, delivering them to customers. He checked out in other civilianized jets as well. In his reflective moods—which was usually his second or  third scotch—he would tell me he owed it all to me for introducing him to his new world, and I would tell him it made us even for the Cessna that almost flew through our windshield that day.

And so after all we had been through together, near-misses, bad weather, missiles shot at us, engines quitting—you name it—Mongoose and I were lucky to be there at Kelly’s Bar, enjoying the old stories, when our mortality suddenly appeared in our faces like a menacing drill sergeant.

We heard an eerie, increasingly loud rush that sounded like locked tires sliding on the wet pavement. We looked up at the bartender. She had whirled around toward the sound. It got louder. WOOOOSH! BAM CRUNCH!  Air bags exploding.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. Things were tumbling. Big things. Pieces were flying. Mongoose and I flinched and jumped backward from our stools. People at the tables nearby dove out of their chairs. I saw a vehicle roll over and over, slinging pieces off, coming right at Kelly’s Bar.  

The car came to rest inches from the thin nylon netting. In a flash Mongoose was gone. I looked back at the car and saw him sprint to it and begin helping the occupants. Shortly a dozen others came alongside him and three teenage girls were soon free from the wreckage, standing crying. The second car was still upright in the middle of the intersection. Incredibly, no one was hurt.

Mongoose came back around the corner, spied his beer and grabbed it. We sat back down. I looked at him and said, “Now, what were you saying about that time we nearly got killed?” Shaking like quaking aspens, we burst out into laughter as police cars and EMTs pulled up only feet in front of us, strobes flashing.  

After dinner we headed back to the dorm room chuckling about yet another near miss, anticipating with relish the events of tomorrow. We would fly in Oshkosh—the world’s greatest airshow. I was to sleep little, due to his abominable snoring and thinking about the events of the day and those of the coming day, which would bring on yet another story that we would tell again and again.

AirVenture 2014—my retirement break-out trip—was to live up to its expectations as a fantastic milestone to start a new chapter in my life. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Following Mongoose Part I

Note to readers:


The next several posts originally appeared in a new blog I started shortly after I retired from United, and after I ended posting to Decision Height. That blog was titled "Three Mike Five." I am going to put that one to rest and migrate its posts into Decision Height. Forgive me if you read them on the other blog, but maybe they're worth a re-read. To fully understand an upcoming post I have planned about my accident flight, you will need to be familiar with this series about "Alabama Girl."

Mike and I rode Alabama Girl north in the general direction of Oshkosh, suffering a slight quartering headwind and churning through skies as clear as a glass of sunshine. We were bound for Bloomington, Indiana to meet up with another CJ-6 owned and flown by a friend of ours whose call-sign was "Mongoose."  

Rich "Mongoose" Hess
Mongoose is a “lead or get the hell out of the way” type of guy who mostly doesn’t wait for you to get out of the way. His ego cuts a swath so wide the moon holds to let him by. His persistence sometimes casts him into caustic skirmishes with similar swaggering characters, of which there were many where we were going. Having known him for 25 years, served with him in wartime, sparred with him in dogfights, and listened for hours on end to his ideas, his aspirations and his dreams, I know enough to stay aside and watch with amusement as he dictates his resolve on old friends and unsuspecting strangers alike. There are those who call him a prima donna, but Mongoose consistently cashes the checks his ego writes. Prima donnas can’t do that. And that is why I have remained his friend for so long.
 
I was headed for my first solo landing in the ‘Chang. You will recall from the last post that, while Mike—the guy in my back pit—owned the bird, he was not yet a pilot. The
Me agonizing over retirement
Bloomington tower cleared us for a straight-in to runway 35, a nice long one. About two miles out, just as I was about to reach for the gear handle, I heard an airport truck tell the tower he was on the runway to pick up a piece of debris. The tower controller immediately cancelled my landing clearance and in the same breath asked if I could accept runway 24, which was almost perpendicular to 35 and lay on my side of the airport—very close to my position. Additionally, it was short, about 3500 feet.

 
A careful pilot, or one whose bladder was not full, would have told the tower “unable” and executed a missed approach. I was neither that day. I accepted the clearance to 24 and immediately turned onto a left downwind. By then we were very close (laterally) to the runway and I began canvassing my memory on the accidents I had read about. CJ-6s were notoriously unforgiving of pilots over-shooting final approach and correcting with excessive bank and top rudder. I sensed a learning opportunity for Mike and began telling him about the trap being set for us and how we must be diligent to avoid it. This lecture lasted to the base turn where I suddenly realized the gear was still up. Damn! One “teachable moment” (don’t you hate that phrase?) created another. I put the gear down, looked over the landing checklist and monitored the close-in final turn carefully. A head wind helped avoid an overshoot.
 
We got down safely and the tower man thanked us profusely. I taxied to the pumps and shut down. We had plenty of gas, but a top-off wouldn’t hurt, especially knowing where we were headed—the world’s busiest airport for one week of the year, and this was that week. After lunch I completed flight planning for the run up to Oshkosh, preparing to lead the flight of two, if necessary, or go single-ship if the Mongoose didn’t show up.   

An hour later he landed, annoyed that we had beaten him there, yet smugly satisfied that he had executed the role of respected, debonair late-comer. Even before jumping down from his wing he informed me of his plan to lead the flight into OSH. It was okay with me. He would now do the most work; I would be the humble happy wingman. Mongoose’s plan was to stay low both to minimize headwinds and stay out of the way of O’Hare arrival and departure traffic. We took off and headed northwest. He checked us in with ATC for flight following with the usual call: “Red Star Flight, Check.”
 
I responded as required: “Red Star Two.”
 
The controller, apparently unaccustomed to formation protocol, blocked my response, thinking Mongoose’s call was for him: “Aircraft calling Indianapolis Approach, say again.”
 
Because Mongoose is an astute—damn near perfect—formation leader, he made the check-in call again to insure I was on the frequency. Again the controller blocked me, asking who was calling him and for what.
 
Mongoose said, “Indianapolis, standby-by I’m trying to check my flight in.”
 
The controller was obviously agitated: “Aircraft on Indianapolis frequency go to another. You are interfering.”
 
I could see the ire turning Mongoose’s helmet red. His voice volume went up:  “Indianapolis, I am trying to check my flight in on your frequency and then I will ask you for radar service!”
 
The controller, still not getting it, retorted, “Okay, but if you need to tell your wingman to keep quiet.”
 
I knew a lecture was coming from Mongoose: “Having the flight check-in is perfectly normal and necessary, now are you going to give us flight following to Oshkosh or not?”
 
The controller, not about to relinquish the high ground, denied the request. Mongoose switched us to air-to-air frequency and we didn’t talk to another radar facility from that point.
 
The countryside across Illinois and southern Wisconsin was
Flying loose on Mongoose's wing with Mike and I in the mirror
uncommonly beautiful in the lowering sun. Barns, silos and wind turbines cast long shadows across brilliantly colorful fields of corn and wheat. It was wonderful flying. You could get about as low as you dared; the only threats were birds and towers. Mongoose had state-of-the-art electronics in his cockpit to alert him for obstacles, and he was an awesome master at spotting both birds and nearby aircraft. He could do it even when he was on the wing.

 
As we neared OSH, tired but happily anticipating parking our birds in the warbird area, meeting old buddies and have a grand dinner, we saw an ominous cloud formation in front. Mongoose, being the perfectionist he is, already knew there was a rain shower in the area of the airport—in fact the only thundercloud in the whole lower 48 states that afternoon sat over the busiest airport. Our perfect weather run-up from the Deep South was to terminate with—with what?
 
Fon du Lac had just passed under our bellies. It was stuffed with airplanes that had either not wanted to challenge that thunderstorm, or simply planned to land there and take a bus to the big show, as many pilots preferred. That opportunity was behind us now, but still choosable, and maybe preferable to the cloud ahead. The closer we got the darker that thing got. It was right over OSH. Mongoose had IFR capability in his plane but Alabama Girl did not. He waggled his wings—the signal for me to close it up tightly. I moved in. Mongoose contacted the OSH tower and got permission to land on 36L. We couldn’t see it for the rain shaft. The turbulence increased, but I held tight. Mongoose bore straight for the monster. Then I saw his head nod and his gear doors open. I threw our rollers out. Runway 36L came swimming out of the drizzle and mist. The center-line stripes raced at us. BAM! I drove Mike’s Chang onto the runway, checked-up with brakes and fell in behind behind Mongoose.
 
It was then, with the stress off, that I suddenly realized there were no other aircraft on the OSH tower frequency. We were the only ones! I laughed. Mike said, "No other idiots would attempt this!"
 
We fell in trail behind the “Follow-Me” truck and were met by marshallers parking us on the grass in the warbird corral. We hopped out and closed our canopies because of rain. Mongoose walked up, drenched, grinning like a fool and slapped our shoulders.
 
“Cheated death again,” Mike shouted.

Mike grabbed his camping gear and separated in search of friends. Mongoose and I headed into town on the airshow shuttle bus for rooms at the college and then on to Kelly’s Bar, the airshow pilot hangout, not knowing that we were about to “cheat death” for real—at Kelly’s.




On Mongoose's wing headed for sport aviation mecca.



Sunday, May 26, 2019

Flying Miss Daisey

 

 

Note to readers:

The next several posts originally appeared in a new blog I started shortly after I retired from United, and after I ended posting to Decision Height. That blog was titled "Three Mike Five." I am going to put that one to rest and migrate its posts into Decision Height. Forgive me if you read them on the other blog, but maybe they're worth a re-read. To fully understand the post a I have planned about my accident, you will need to read this series.

 

 




(Written November 13, 2014)
 
I feel jumpy taxiing out to the end of the grass runway at Windward air park, 60 miles west of my home patch. The mount under me—a Nanchang CJ-6—is new to me. I have only an hour’s instruction in it. It feels big. Heavy. The monstrous nose out in front, with its sides painted with a half-naked Daisy Duke under the bright red moniker of “Alabama Girl,” dominates the view ahead. The runway is so narrow I lean my head side to side to keep the edges in sight. On the left, trees; on the right, more trees, plus a house that sits only a wingspan to the side.

The ’chang is loaded to the gills with gas and gear. The backseater, Mike, weighs in at about 220 pounds and the day is already getting hot. Density altitude is building and the wind is forcing me to takeoff in a direction I do not want to go. I have only a little over 2500 feet of runway awaiting and high tension power lines crossing the departure end. This takeoff will be interesting.

"Alabama Girl"
Mike owns the beast but is not a pilot. He has been taking lessons in a Cessna and aspires one day to pilot the Chang for himself. Thus Mike is a basically a passenger. A mechanic himself, he knows the Chang’s innards very well, but the flying part of this deal is all up to me.

I turn the Chang around in a hollowed-out area of heavy timber at the north end and look ahead. Two thirds of the way down, the runway takes a dogleg of a few degrees to the right. The trees give way to open field about half way down and houses and hangars of air park residents sit back to the right. I can clearly see the orange balls on the power lines at the far end, and on the other side of them sits a big multi-story house right smack in the departure path.

I go through the pre-takeoff checklist meticulously, ask Mike if he is ready and get a whooping rebel yell on the interphone, “ARRIGAH! LET’S GO TO OSHKOSH!” I swallow hard, push up the power and check the engine gauges again. This isn’t the 360 horses I'm accustomed to in the Yak-52; this beast—bigger and heavier—has only 285 ponies. Those orange balls seem to be moving toward me and I haven’t even released the breaks yet.

As the Chang rumbles in the grass slowly—and I mean slowly—picking up energy, a brief but profound thought flashes through my churning gray matter. Why am I doing this? I could have easily taken my nimble little RV-6 to Oshkosh, comfortably ensconced in an airframe that had proven it was safe, reliable and had an awesome power reserve under its petite cowl. But here I am, once again, riding a Communist built military beast testing the edges of sanity, hoping its engine won’t falter until I get over those balls. Why am I doing it? I know why. I like adrenalin. Give me some, but not too much. Just enough to keep life interesting.

The airspeed needle seems a long time coming alive. "Interesting?" Am I kidding myself? Isn’t flying anything to Oshkosh interesting enough? Now the needle is through 50 knots. The Chang’s wheels bang heavily against the clumps and bumps. How interesting is interesting supposed to be? I feel my teeth clinch up when we go through the “gap.” The gap is the runway’s narrowest part. A culvert runs under it at that point with a 10 foot near vertical drop-off so close the wing tips nearly pass over it. Then the house on the left flashes by close enough paint it. I can’t rotate till 60 knots but I want to, badly. At 55 the airspeed seems to hesitate and I want to apply back pressure. The orange balls are growing. This is not interesting; it’s nuts.

Then 60. A little back pressure. But not too much, lest the induced drag build too rapidly and retard what puny acceleration I've got. I need to climb when I get off this grass. I need energy. Suddenly we are at the dogleg. I apply a bit of right rudder just as an asphalt road, slightly elevated, hits the wheels. It ramps us into the air.

My left hand moves to the gear handle with a quickness I didn’t even know I had. Got to get rid of that drag. The balls are still a good 40 feet above the arc of the prop and racing at us. I feel the Chang accelerate at last. I’m still headed straight for the living room door on that nice house ahead, but I’ve got airspeed building now. What relief. The balls no longer hold sway with me. I’m breathing again. Before I reach the wires I've got 80 knots, going on 90. I bank Alabama Girl to the left and start a big turn to the north. I'm trying not to think about coming back here to land.
 
We deviate slightly after crossing the wide blue Tennessee River to pass over Mike's girlfriend's workplace. She knows we're coming, and we see her waving arms in the parking lot. He's excited. He visualizes him in the front and her in the back headed to Oshkosh themselves, maybe next year. I hit the smoke switch and see the shadow of our smoke trail crossing the ground. The tension of a few minutes before has melted and I'm feeling good.

We turn north. The day is splendid, the skies bursting with blue and stretching to the beyond-world, and Mike and I are headed for aviator’s ecstasy—AirVenture. We damn near break into song. Now, for the first time since I walked away from the big iron, I can go forth and not give the slightest thought as to when I must return. Mike has a business to run; he can’t stay away forever, but he’s flexible. We’ll come back when we feel like coming back. 
 
Like the long airline career, the testy takeoff is behind me and we need only to ride the Chang north. Can’t wait to get there. People to see, things to do. Oshkosh, look out. Alabama Girl is coming with Mike and me clinging to her with our hair on fire. It’ll be interesting.
 

Ride Squatch's back seat in his Yak-52  as he shoots 
the gap and leaps off of the Windward runway.