Saturday, July 27, 2013

7SW (Seven Sierra Whiskey) III

(Continued from last post)

We had just leveled off at our first planned altitude of FL 280. As we burned down fuel we would incrementally increase our altitude up to FL 360 (with of course the permission of whichever controlling sector we were in). We had just bade sweet dreams to the relief pilot, who went back to take the first break. With the 767 pointed south and Sao Paulo 9 ½ hours in our future, I got out my company I-Pad to read up on the latest changes to the “pubs” (publications). 

When the I-Pad fired-up, a picture of my hoped-for RV-6 burst onto the screen. As soon as I wiped it away and opened the content locker, Wes, the guy in the right seat said, “Wait! What was that plane on your I-Pad?”

“It’s a Van’s RV-6. Familiar with it?”

Wes nodded and said, “Some. Tell me about it.”

I told him all I knew about the RV-6, which wasn’t really much, and went into detail about the trials and challenges I was going through to get it. He nodded and kept quiet, but intently listened. I didn’t know that he was reeling me in like trophy fish.

Wes was actually older than me—unusual for a first officer. He was due to retire in a few months. A retired USAF colonel, he had joined the airline 14 years ago after a zipping career flying F-16s and as a T-38 instructor pilot.

When I finished telling him all I knew about the “Six” he came clean. Wes was a nationally recognized RV expert. He had built several RVs, the models 4, 6, 7 and 8. He had even built for others. He presently owned an RV-8, which is a
fighter-like tandem cockpit model. Such was his expertise on the RV line of aircraft that he owned a business selling DVDs that showcased his RV building and operating techniques.

Wow! I had hit the jackpot. I had so many questions to ask him I wasn’t sure the long flight down to GRU and back, and the 36 hour layover, contained enough time for them. Wes was delighted to be paired with a captain who shared his interest and he dove into the guts of RV ownership. Like a hungry dog I devoured every word.

I handed my I-Pad over to him and he began scrolling through the pics I had taken on my first trip to Tucson to see the plane. He bragged on its clean, sleek appearance, but then I cringed when he uttered, “Uh oh!”

He pointed to the tail wheel assembly. “You’ve got a rocket rod. Get rid of that before you fly it!”

“Rocket rod?” I said. “What’s that?”

The rocket rod was a modification to the original design. Wes
went into a long discourse. “The closest time in my entire career that I came to crashing was flying an RV with that modification. It’s a bear to land the plane in a stiff crosswind with that.” He looked over at me. “Get rid of it. Get some original tail wheel parts from Van’s. Take them with you to Tucson and change them out.”

I was astounded. What if I had never met Wes? Would I have been flying a booby-trapped plane? I made plans to get the parts and took in all Wes had to say.

Fast forward a week. I’m sitting in the pilot lounge when an old friend, an ex-Navy Hornet driver named Karl drops by. Karl is in the process of building an RV-8. He asks to see my pictures and I open the I-Pad. He grins. “Beau-ti-ful!” he says. Congrats! You’re gonna love that!” Then he frowns. “Uh oh! You’ve got a rocket rod! I’d get rid of that.”

Karl reiterates what I already had been told and offers me a spare set of chains and springs to make the conversion back to the original design. I gratefully accept and he sends them to me in a few days.

Meanwhile, after calling a number of A&Ps in Tucson (licensed airframe & powerplant mechanics) I finally got a lead on one who could do the job. His fee was $500. But his experience with experimental aircraft was limited. At that point I was desperate for help. I booked him for July 8th. Hopefully, he could complete the inspection that day, sign the plane off, and I could arrange to fly with an instructor (or at least someone familiar with the plane) the next day.

My luck with that search was good. I connected with Phil, an Alaskan Airlines pilot who lived on the same airfield that Dave was on and owned an RV-6A. The difference was, his had a nosewheel rather than a tailwheel, but he explained that he had much experience in tailwheel aircraft and, for $50/hour he would check me out in my RV.

Whenever I thought about it, the words “my RV” seemed fleeting. It wasn’t my RV yet. I had only told an implusive, unpredictable, eccentric woman that I would buy it as soon as I got the cash together, and even then I had spoken through a third party (Dave). That’s all I had! I really didn’t have a plane at all. I feared I was chasing the wild goose, or maybe even a pig in a poke.

When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was pondering the tailwheel situation. I had not flown a tailwheel plane in years. I knew they were squirrelly and hard to handle. I remembered the embarrassing time I was checking out in the Mississippi Civil Air Patrol’s O-1 Bird Dog.

The O-1 is a Viet Nam era forward air controller plane with a
O-1 (USAF), L-19 (Army) "Bird Dog"
tailwheel. My instructor in the back seat weighed nearly 300 pounds. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t land that airplane. Every time the tailwheel touched down hell broke loose. We swerved side to side, each swerve getting more violent than the first until the speed got low enough to bring it under control.

We went over to Jackson’s big airport to practice, where the runways were long and wide. With a crosswind blowing and the big man in back I precisely flared the Bird Dog to a gentle 3-point landing, at which the world outside the windshield went dizzily wild. The control tower, hangars and passenger terminal whirled so violently it all blurred. The left wing went down dangerously close to the tarmac and the plane pivoted around its left landing gear 360 degrees or more before coming to a wing-rocking stop.

We both sat there trembling when the control tower came on the radio and in a calm voice said, “Bet that was a fun ride!”

I never did check out in that Bird Dog. My instructor was just too heavy. His weight moved the center-of-gravity so far aft that controlling the plane would have been a challenge for the most experienced combat veteran O-1 pilot.

Think about it this way: Ever pushed a tricycle backwards? (Think, single wheel in back, like a tailwheel plane.) It goes anywhere but where you want it to go. But push it frontwards (single wheel in front, a la nosewheel aircraft), it glides smoothly straight ahead because the center-of-gravity is forward of the main wheels, not aft. Despite its inherent unsteadiness on the ground the tailwheel airplane is still popular because it looks sleek and is generally faster because a nosewheel does not stick down into the wind.

All this weighed on my mind as I made more arrangements. The plane needed a pitot-static re-certification. Several shops in Tucson can do this but the one I wanted, recommended to me by Phil, (owned by a guy named Juan) was the cheapest ($295) and wouldn’t return my calls. I needed to schedule the check on July 9th after I had (hopefully) gotten familiar enough with the plane to fly it over to Ryan Field where Juan did business.

But at least I was making progress. The loan came through and I rushed to the bank to get a cashier’s check made out to the widow. I downloaded and printed a standard aircraft bill-of-sale and filled it out. It only needed her signature. I called Dave in Alaska. He said, “Express mail it immediately.” 

I went to the post office and paid for “next day” service. The postal clerk looked at the address. Delta Junction, Alaska. “It’ll be Monday before it gets there,” he said. (It was Wednesday.)

“But what about next day?” I demanded.

He chuckled and shrugged. “It’s Alaska, man!”

I texted Dave, knowing that while he was hunting or fishing he rarely tended e-mail or texting, but the response was quick. “Perfect! I’ll be back in town Monday. I’ll go see her then.”

I just hoped she would still be there.
(Continued next post) 

Many times on this quest I considered giving up and buying a boat.
But looking at this picture of 7SW sitting in Dave’s hangar waiting
for a new owner to rescue her from her loneliness reinvigorated me.

Friday, July 26, 2013

7SW (Seven Sierra Whiskey) II

(Continued from previous post)

When I got back from Buenos Aires I found an e-mail waiting from the guy in Atlanta. The Grumman had sold. That was a disappointment but no surprise. The same day another e-mail came from Dave in Tucson. The widow came off $5K from her price on the RV-6. Was I still interested?

This seemed the signal I was waiting for to pull the trigger, but I spent another few days pondering and canvassing the airplane market. I finally leveled the question at Eleanor that I had been avoiding all winter. “Do you want me to have another plane, or not?” She said yes, but—

But, she was afraid. George’s death was still fresh with both of us. It had hit closer to home than the loss of any of my many friends that crashes had taken. Still, she gave me the nod, and I called Dave. I wanted to go to Tucson right away and work with a local mechanic to get the plane’s inspection done. But Dave dealt my new-found enthusiasm for the plane a quick blow. He said that wouldn’t work until sometime in July (this was April). He needed to be there when I came, but he had trips abroad planned for business and pleasure.

I soon found out that the delay was exactly what I needed. It would take weeks to prepare for my trip to Tucson to fetch the plane. A mechanic needed to be lined-up to do the inspection. Same for a check pilot to help me get familiar with the plane. An avionics shop needed to be found to re-certify the pitot-static system. New parts needed to be ordered and sent to Dave’s place. The Garmin’s database needed updating. I needed to read up on the plane’s systems and equipment. There wouldn’t be time for that when I got there. And then there was the problem of actually buying the plane.

I paid my hundred bucks to a title agency and received the plane’s documents. The title was clean. It had two owners since its builder custom-built it for the first one. I tried to contact the builder. I had questions. But I couldn’t find him. Yet what was I going to ask him anyway? “Did you build that plane right?” “Did you take any shortcuts?” “Is it safe?” I realized I already knew his answers so I gave up on trying to find him.

Next was the problem of dealing with the widow. Dave knew her. He told me she was a nice person but impulsive and unpredictable. I worried about sending her a big bank check (she lived in Alaska) and hoping she would respond by sending me a bill-of-sale. It didn’t seem like a good way to do business. I called the title agency back and asked if they could arrange the deal using a safe escrow account. Sure, they could do that, for the tidy sum of $6,000. No way.

I pondered going to Alaska to see the lady face-to-face and make the exchange. Eleanor wisely suggested I let Dave do it, since he was already in Alaska fishing. Dave agreed, but he said I needed to send him the check fast because the woman was preparing to move back to the lower 48.

I wasn’t ready yet. I was financing the plane partially with a home equity loan and was waiting for that to come through. Plus I was having other problems.

I wanted to find an EAA “Tech Counselor” (TC) in Tucson who was familiar with RV aircraft to go over the plane with me when I got there. To find one, I e-mailed groups in Arizona asking for names. I got back a list and some personal recommendations. I began calling down the list. One by one, all the TCs got crossed off. It seems most of them were “Snowbirds.” They had gone back east for the summer. The others either did not want to do the job for various reasons, or didn’t return my calls. After a frustrating two weeks of this, I felt very alone with the little “6” sitting in the corner of Dave’s big hangar. July was approaching. I didn’t have the check ready. The woman was about to leave Alaska. I had made no progress in finding help with the plane in Tucson. The summer thunderstorm weather across Texas was setting in.

I was pondering all this during yet another trip into the Deep South when a source of both encouragement and troubling news unexpectedly emerged right across the Boeing 767’s cockpit from me.

 Sitting in this:

 Daydreaming about this:

What sense does it make?

Sunday, July 21, 2013

7SW (Seven Sierra Whiskey) 1

I spent last winter doing some serious soul-searching. After the loss of my Yak-52 in September and my close friend with it, I lost the stomach for sport flying. I wasn’t afraid of it—just not interested anymore. I wondered if I ever would be. I resolved to let time heal the wounds and then see if there was a new course to set out on. Maybe I’d buy a boat instead.

At times I felt ashamed that I was spending so much time and self-pity over material objects. My friend was dead. He didn’t take the plane with him to the here-after. There were more important things to ponder than machines. One of them was the question of, could I live a content life from now on without an airplane. Or boat, or whatever? If I could answer that honestly, then maybe the future would be clearer.  

I had had a wonderful run with sport aviation—years of the kind of flying most people literally only dreamed of. I reasoned I could be content with the rich repertoire of memories of flights and friends—plenty to fill a lifetime. Yes, I could be content. There were other things to do. Other ways to serve.

Just as I was getting used to the idea of putting light planes behind me an opportunity fell into my lap. Or was it just a shady temptation?

A beautiful RV-6 became available in Arizona. My old friend
Dave Vroom was keeping it in his hangar after the owner, who was a friend of his, had been killed in a crash in Alaska. Dave suggested I come and see it before the owner’s widow sold it to someone else. I put off the invitation for weeks. I didn’t have all the cash she wanted. Besides, there were hundreds of other planes on the market that I had enough cash to buy with the insurance settlement for the Yak. (Boats too.)


My interest level in the RV wasn’t high, but it was an opportunity to visit with Dave, which I enjoy doing. He always gives me a lift of spirit—exactly what a friend is for. So I went.

Dave and I spent a day looking over the “6”. We de-cowled it, ran the engine and pored over the logs and manuals. It was a fine machine—solidly built, beautifully painted and well equipped. It had less than 200 hours on airframe and engine. And it looked like it was doing 200 mph just sitting there. I couldn’t fly it because it had not had an annual condition inspection in three years. 

As Dave drove me back to the airport he said, “I thought this would be the perfect airplane for you, but now I’m not so sure.” I asked him what he meant. He said he didn’t see any eagerness in me. I thanked him, and he promised to try and hold the widow off until I made a decision. I came home more confused than before. I liked the RV but going to see it didn’t replenish the zest for flying that I hoped it would. I called Dave and opted out.

The winter turned to spring and my mood changed some. I began to see more planes fly in front of my house (I live on a hillside three flying miles from the field). Blue skies beckoned. Some days began to go by without thoughts of that awful day in September.

Finally I came to an epiphany of sorts. I decided I would not let George’s accident—horrible though it was—run me away from something that I knew I loved and had loved disproportionally to almost everything else since I was a teenager. I decided I would leave general aviation when I chose and on my own terms. That might be in a year or twenty, or whenever the Almighty sends the ultimate “stand down” order. But that sight of that Yak going down would not control my life. And, that’s the way George would want it, too. And as to the Almighty, he put the fire in me for flight when I was 13. Who was I to put it out?

I began searching Trade-a-Plane and Barnstormers. (I searched Boat Trader too.) A Cessna Skyhawk in Indiana
caught my eye. It was old but beautiful and affordable too. I showed the pics to Eleanor. She said I wouldn’t be happy with it. I e-mailed them to Pete. He said he couldn’t visualize me with it. I sent them to Dave. He said count him with the other two.

Then I found a very nice Grumman Cheetah just down the
road in Atlanta. It had new paint and interior, upgraded avionics, a low time engine, and I could buy it with cash left over. I called the guy and told him I would come see it the next week. I needed to fly a 4-day South America trip first. He said okay, but he couldn’t guarantee it would be there when I got back.

On the way down to Buenos Aires I pondered the Grumman over and over. And the Cessna. And the RV. Boats too. At times, that “ephipany” I had had would fade out and I’d just return that confused, indecisive state that I hate, but for which I find so easy to settle in to and await circumstances to take control. 

[to be continued]
I could get comfortable with this.

 "Life is what happens while you're busy making plans."
--John Lennon ("Beautiful Boy")