Sunday morning found me running around the house trying to remember where I had plugged in all the electronic gizmos. Cellphone, portable radio, camera battery… and the floppy disks for the digital camera, where were those…? Seemed like every time I headed out to Morris I was taking more stuff along. This time I had my flight bag, my spare stuff bag, and now the camera bag in the trunk of the car.
Although I was going out there for flight training the weather was too nice not to bring a camera along. It was a perfect summer day, the forecast was for warm but not too hot, blue skies, gentle breezes, and sun. I was hyped, so hyped I actually was ready to go a half an hour before my planned departure time. After ten minutes of pacing and twitching around the house I thought, heck with it, just go, so I did.
One advantage to going early was that the traffic was light. Which meant I got there about 20 minutes quicker than usual, and since I had left early that meant I would be hanging around the flight school trailer/office. Oh, great, I could sit next to the runway and twitch.
As I pulled into the parking lot I noted several colorful dots overhead. I started digging through the trunk for the camera. Turn it on - wait for the boot up - check for a disk. OK - where were the airplanes? Found the handheld radio, good old trusty ICOM, and turned it on. Busy chatter, airplanes on crosswind, downwind, and base-turning-to-final. I look at the base-to-final point, spotted one of my targets, and started shooting.
It can be surprisingly hard to photograph a flying airplane. A telephoto lens might get you an image larger than a dot, but the darn things keep moving and if you lose your target you have to widen your focus to find the airplane again. Then, when they get closer to you, you have to lead the shot because not only do they keep moving, they keep moving at freeway speeds or faster. I have a lot of shots of the very front of an airplane’s nose, or the very back end of a rudder, with lots of empty runway before or behind and not much actual airplane.
I did get one good shot of the Stearman drifting down on final. Missed most of the powered parachutes coming in to land. They didn’t have radios, so I couldn’t listen in on chatter to narrow down where to look for them, and they don’t use the runways because they have to stay out of the way of the bigger airplanes. So they were landing behind the hangars from my perspective, on the ramps, next to the taxiways, and so forth. Powered parachutes are just that - parachutes, with a small engine and prop to provide enough power to go up as well as down. The two-seat versions have a wheeled framework around the pilots as their engines are a bit too big to strap on as a backpack, but the single-person versions always remind me of some sort of Saturday morning cartoon invention. The engines were hooked to small props that looked like oversized fans, and they were carried on the pilot’s back. The power chute guys were there for breakfast, mostly, their folded chutes and stowed engines lined up along the grass separating the restaurant from one of the taxiways.
After a few photos I put the camera back in the bag, went in to the office, and claimed the clipboard, paperwork, and hangar key for the Citabria. Time to get serious. Must switch from photographer to pilot mode.
Walking out to the hangar I saw a late-arriving two-seat 'chute coming in to land in front of the restaurant. Oh, darn, no time to get the camera out… nevermind. Walked up to the guys, said hi, made pleasent comments about their aircraft and asked about how they kept the lines fron tangling on the ground. The owner took in the headset I had in one hand and the clipboard in the other. “Pilot?”
“Yes. You fly things other than parachutes?”
“I’ve got time in a Citabria later.”
“Oh… neat…” which then launched into a discussion about tailwheels, Citabrias, and J, who Mr. Parachute was also going to be borrowing later in the afternoon. It wasn’t until a large blue and yellow biplane came roaring down the taxiway and towards the parking area in front of the restaurant that I realized some time had passed and maybe I should get moving a little faster towards my assigned airplane.
You don’t notice how big even a small airport is until you are walking from one end to the other. I found the proper door in the row of hangars, unlocked it, and stepped in. I hit the lights and the door switch, and then turned the lights off as sunlight flooded in.
It was an uncommonly messy pre-flight. Why, I’m not sure - I managed to spill avgas from wrist to elbow sumping the right fuel tank. Somewhere in checking the oil and the engine innards I managed to grease my arm up to the elbow - not really that difficult, given the tight spaces. Sumping under the carbeurator I spilled more gas on me, and got my legs and arms gritty crawling around under the airplane looking for the the belly sump.
I did note, however, that the tailwheel had been replaced since last time. At this point in the preflight it may have been cleaner than I was.
Got the airplane out, fueled, and got in while J was cleaning the windshield. He seems to like cleaning the windshield, and since at that point his hands were cleaner than mine it made more sense for him to do it - I’m sure I was leaving greasy handprints all over by that point. Airplane windshields are made of some sort of plastic that scratches if you so much as look at it funny, so the only thing we use on it is very, very, very clean water. Wiping my greasy, gritty hands over it would not have been a good thing to do.
Then it was time to saddle up. The camera went into its case then in the back of the airplane - I was here to fly, not photograph. We both climbed in, buckled up, taxied out to the ramp, did the run up, and all the other before-we-actually-fly stuff as usual. It was all getting quite routine by then.
J asked for two normal, plain-vanilla three-point landings “to see if you still remember how to do them”. The air was almost perfectly calm, so it should be easy enough - if I didn’t get too cocky and blow it. Which I didn’t - a very routine take off followed by a very routine traffic pattern followed by a very routine three-point landing. Rinse and repeat.
Remember, please, that two months prior I couldn’t manage even the take off without careening all over the place. Now - routine. Things are starting to come together.
Then it was back to wheel landings and getting still more finesse in that, reminders to the let the airplane land long if necessary since we had plenty of room, and all the little verbal nudges required to wrest peak performance out of my feet, fingers, and head. Traffic was lighter than it had been on the last couple days I had been at Morris, the air was calm, and for some inexplicable reason I was consistently coming in too high on final. Or maybe not so inexplicable - the day was also about 15-20 F degrees cooler than many other days this summer, and thus the airplane performed better. It climbed faster and stayed up better than on hotter, more humid days. Although I don’t have a problem with putting it into a hard slip to dive at the field - I found it fun, actually - I couldn’t help but think the average non-pilot passenger would not find it enjoyable. Must be coming right along, if I’m starting to think about carrying non-flyers along with me in this thing.
We didn’t run too long on this flight. Although much of this was getting routine J was really pushing me on the wheel landings, which were definitely some effort, and didn’t want me to get over tired. I made a very nice, controlled landing and J said to make it a full stop and pull off the runway. As a general rule, he does like to end the lesson with a good landing - it builds confidence and he had had something to say about “muscle memory”, about letting a proper and correct movement settle firmly into memory instead of immediately pushing on to another motion. So we decided to take a break and resume in a bit.
Going back to the parking area we couldn’t help but notice powered parachutes getting ready to take off. There were actually a lot of distractions around for me today, I was finding it harder than usual to stay focused, which is not good when operating heavy machinery in a busy area. I forced myself to pay attention.
Then J pointed out that one of the parachute guys - this one had a backpack motor and used his own feet for landing gear - had his canopy spread out on the grass, and he started talking about how they looked on take-off. Oh, yeah, my head swung around to look, then I forced myself to look where we were going, then back to the parachute, then – Like I said, distractions. I commented that while I’d seen the parachutes fly I’d never seen one actually take off and I’d like to. At which point J took over the airplane, parked it right there, told me to enjoy the show, and said be back at the airplane at 10:30 for more flying.
I did stop and watch the parachute guy take off. He aborted his first attempt - I’m not sure why. I didn’t want to bother him so I was watching from some distance away. All I could see was that he started his run, the 'chute rose up into the air, and he suddenly tottered to a stop. The engine and prop strapped to his back stopped and the parachute gracefully crumpled and dropped to the ground. At which point he started fussing over his equipment and straightening out ropes and so forth.
His second try was successful, and although I did have the camera out I didn’t get the picture - I decided to actually watch it. Again, he started up his small engine, ran forward, and the parachute rose up. As he continued forward and the parachute started to lift him upward his stride shortened and tuned almost into a tip toe hop before his feet left the ground a final time and he was airborne, slowly rising up into the sky.
Well, that had been interesting. I looked at my watch. Still some time to go until 10:30. Hmmm… what else to do? Too early to eat… not thirsty today, as it was much cooler so water wasn’t a priority.
Oh… look over there… pretty airplanes. One of them a biplane. Just sitting there. All alone.
Of course, I had to go over and keep them company.
The Decathalon - the aerobatic airplane they use to teach stunt flying - was somewhat interesting. I poked my head in briefly, it being conceivable that one day I’d be taking such lessons. I had been told it was, essentially, a slightly beefed up Citabria and from the standpoint of how the cockpit and instrument panel looked that was true enough. About the only new thing was the accelerometer, the “g meter” that measured acceleration forces in units of 1 Earth gravity. Not that much new here, folks, just move along.
The biplane, though - that was from another era of aviation entirely. A stock PT-17 Boeing-Stearman, primary trainer from the 1940’s. A lot of the heroic pilots of World War II had gotten their start in those airplanes, not to mention a fair number of civilians before and since.
So I found myself at the root of the left lower wing panel, regarding the multiple warning of “No Step” scattered about the surface of the wing. Half of the them had the look of being written by a very modern, 21st Century Sharpie permanent magic marker. OK, I identified the black strip of the “wing walk” that was the allowed part of the wing for feet. It seemed rather narrow. I walked around to the right side of the wings. An identical wing walk and profusion of “No Step” awaited me there. I guess it didn’t matter on which side one mounted this particular steed.
I went back to the left side. There were no steps, no stirrups, no little footrests to assist in going up. There was the wing, at about my hip height. I looked up. No handholds either.
A man came up as I was puzzling over this airplane and said that I was welcome to get up into it. The man was B, the owner’s husband, and we had met briefly once before. I said that was very kind and generous, to let me finger his wife’s airplane, but I was trying to figure out how to get into it without breaking my neck in the process, the cockpits being rather high up there above my head and me not being entirely sure how to get onto even the lower wing. B mentioned that they did use a step stool when giving rides to the general public, which took a lot of the mystery out of the process for old people, short people, children, and just folks in general. I said that was a great idea, but observed that said step stool was nowhere in sight at the moment.
It was that same old problem again - I’m shorter than the folks these airplanes were designed for.
Well, here’s how I did it, with a little verbal coaching from B: After getting my camera slung over my shoulder and settled on my back, out of the way, I reached waaaaay up with my right hand, and on tip toe I could just barely hook my hand over the rim of the rear cockpit (this really stretches out one’s muscles very nicely, from shoulder to ankle, although if you lose your grip your toes are going to get squashed under your weight and let you know they’re mad at you). After getting a grip on this beast, and with my hand helping to support some of my weight, I then raised my left foot up and put it on the airplane’s lower wing. Let me say that again - I raised up my left leg until my knee was almost under my chin and my foot was level with my hip. And this is why I was on the left side of the airplane, because my left leg is stronger and more flexible than my right, which has the bad knee. So, standing there with a folded up left leg and a very extended right, I pushed off with my right foot while hoisting with my right hand, then pushed down with my left leg. The legs and lower back muttered ominously about not being 20 years young anymore but managed it anyway without pulling, tearing, or ripping anything.
OK! Here I am, standing on the lower wing of a Stearman biplane, still with my right hand on the rim of the rear cockpit. I took a step forward on the narrow walk to the upper/front cockpit and grabbed both the rim of that and the handhold on the upper wing conveniently located nearby. The rim of the cockpit is, in this case, at slightly less than waist height for me. I hoisted my right leg over the edge and put my foot on the seat, which seems a typical entry method for miltary airplanes, at least at this airport. Pulled the other leg in and looked down. I wanted to see what I was about to step onto. I knew that some early airplanes had had cloth bottoms and while I didn’t think this one was that ancient I wanted to be sure.
It looked like an oversized rain gutter down there. Really. Just a wide pan of bent metal that started somewhere under the rudder pedals and ran under the seat. It had this interesting mixture of fluids trickling down it.
“Something wrong?” asked B.
“Is this, uh, water in the bottom of this thing, or oil, or what?”
"Well, it’s probably water. Probably some oil and grease, too. I think they hosed it out this morning.
OK… there was a place to put one’s feet to either side of the wide pan so I did that, keeping my feet out of the damp. Then I sat down on the seat.
And made a “YIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIE!” sound.
See, the seats are black leathery stuff. And it was sitting in the hot sun. And I was wearing shorts. And the back of my thighs were reporting outbreak of fire. Which I related to a very concerned B who was wondering at all the noise.
After a few seconds the searing pain dimished and I went back to investigating. B helpfully noted that one traditionally flew the Stearman solo from the rear seat.
Just like a Piper Cub.