Thursday, August 15, 2013

7SW (Seven Sierra Whiskey) VI

(Continued from previous)
I saw tendrils of dust and dust devils flowing southeast across the cactus-studded desert. I looked ahead toward Tucson at a horizon obscured by ochre dust. Marana and its wide runway lay five miles to the right, the narrow LaCholla strip five miles left. Dave wanted to meet me at Marana. He didn’t think I should try LaCholla, where he lived, in these winds. I was too new to the plane. Its runway was thin; it was higher in elevation and nearby mountains regularly sent turbulent gusts across it. His plan was a total wimp-out, but it was safer. Yet deep down inside I knew all along what I was going to do. I turned left.

On downwind I saw LaCholla’s windsock standing nearly straight out and whipping side to side. I thought about the narrow runway and the curious tailwheel modification I had, called a rocket rod, which some pilots had told me made crosswind landings extremely dicey. My earlier practice at Marana had resulted in a few teeth-clinching swerves at tailwheel touch-down, but the runway was wide enough to contain my embarrassing veers. That margin-of-error was absent on the narrow strip ahead, and I had made only one acceptable landing there earlier in the day. But the winds were calm then.

At about 100 feet on final approach my speed was 90 knots and the RV didn’t want to slow. I was relieved—I had a good excuse to go around. I powered up climbed out. On the second approach the speed was good. I remembered what Phil had told me—that a wheel landing might be best for me. I tried his technique of flying just a foot off the runway and then let the plane settle. (You might remember that I am used to sitting some 30 feet in the air when my main wheels touch.) Concentrating on crosswind control input, I misjudged the height above the runway, slammed the main wheels down and bounced. I converted to a 3-point landing and settled on with all three. It bounced again, settled and swerved. I caught it with rudder, then opposite rudder when it reversed its swerve. It slowed and began tracking centerline. I yelled, “Hooah!”

I taxied it to Dave’s hangar, shut it down and texted him: “Am on ground at LaCholla.” Ten minutes later Dave drove up and congratulated me. Deep down inside, he said, he knew I would come here.

We were up before daylight next morning. Dave had a 7am departure to Chicago on Southwest. He walked me out to the hangar and opened it. We pushed the Six out and I loaded my gear. He had to go. He bade adios, closed the hangar up and drove away. I stood alone with the RV all loaded and gassed and thought about the 1428 miles and two fuel stops ahead. Would the RV be sitting snuggly in its hangar at its new Huntsville, Alabama base tonight, or stranded at some God-forsaken New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas or Mississippi airstrip waiting for weather, parts, or repair? Time to find out.

The O-360 engine sent its goodbyes cascading across the sleeping airpark’s residents and I turned east. The majestic 10,000 foot Mt. Lemon flowed by my right side as I climbed quickly up to 9,500. I checked in with Albuquerque Center for radar flight following, set in a course for the Newman VORTAC, just north of El Paso and watched the sun rise out of the desert right in front of me. The autopilot held a course exactly on the purple line on the GPS map screen and the altitude-hold nailed us at 9,500. I began to feel pretty good. 

Over Newman I set in a new course for Andrews, Texas, just north of Odessa. I chose Andrews because a little Google search the previous evening revealed that fuel was a dollar a gallon cheaper there than at the bigger airport at Odessa. In a quick 2.5 hours Andrews appeared out front, and I tensed up when I saw its windsock sticking out like a hitch-hiker’s thumb. But I managed a reasonably safe bumpy, bouncy, swerving landing, hoping no one on the adjacent golf course was watching.

Two corn dogs, a Mountain Dew and forty minutes later I took off and set a GPS course for Texarkana, Texas (or is it Arkansas?). Fort Worth Center shepherded me past the DFW airport, which I could clearly see off to my right. Despite having that gargantuan airport so close, the Center called my attention to only two nearby pieces of air traffic—one a Southwest 737 and the other, two F-35s which I never saw.

Feeling more confident than ever in the RV-6, I had planned this leg—the second of three—to be the longest, stretching my fuel down to a one-hour reserve. But as I began my let-down to Texarkana the fuel gauges started to do funny things. The left got so low the red Fuel Low warning light came on. That was curious. But the right tank still had more than

Still, I was passing airports that I could go in to. About 30 miles out I passed the last one and stared over in its direction. My mouth got dry when I saw the right tank gauge get uncomfortably low. It didn’t make sense. I knew how much fuel this engine burned per hour. I knew how much fuel the tanks held. It was simple math. I should have more than this gauge was telling me. Still—you probably know the feeling.

The tower told me to report left downwind.  The winds were light—that was certainly good news. But then I saw the left tank go to ZERO and the right tank to TWO GALONS! Holy smokes. Imagine what I thought when the tower told me to extend my downwind for three Apache helicopters on final
approach. “Can’t do it,” I said. The tower wanted to know if I was declaring an emergency. I dodged the question and said, “My fuel gauges are unreliable. I don’t know how much I’ve got left.” He cleared me to turn final at my discretion. I turned in close and my jaw about dropped open when I saw ahead the three Apaches were hover-taxiing down the runway—very slowly! I pressed the mic button: “Seven Sierra Whiskey cannot go around. I’ve got to have that runway!”

The Apaches did not wait for the tower to ask them to vacate the runway ASAP. They all simultaneously rotated 90 degrees and scurried off over the grass. Then the tower cleared me to land. I clinched up and swallowed hard—I knew what was coming. Now I wanted a crosswind and didn’t have one. I needed Mother Nature to clean off that runway.

Apaches are very powerful attack helicopters and that sudden 90 degree swivel they made and then their forward movement created unimaginable whirlwinds waltzing with each other, going up and down, sideways, spinning like tornados and just waiting for a little yellow RV-6 with a pair of eyes peering over its instrument panel like a scared Kilroy to come down through their unseen gauntlet. I knew I was in for one hell of a ride and maybe the ultimate test of my ability to keep from undoing the fine work the builder of this plane had done.

(Sorry. I thought I could finish the series with this one. Next time for sure.)
Why do digital cameras make your prop look like it has 50 blades? Cool, though.

Forgot to bring any CDs