Sunday, April 22, 2012

Attend the Tale of Eight Two Fox

Sisters

Why is it that old airplanes present such unique personalities? Is it simply the cumulative total of unique experiences that fosters an individual temperament? If so, perhaps airplanes are more like human beings than many people realize.

As a student, I trained at a flight school with a "fleet" comprising two Cessna 150s. The two airplanes each possessed distinct personalities. The newer of the two was N9327U, a 1976 Cessna 150-M. She had a decent twenty-foot paint job and was tightly rigged. Most renters preferred Two Seven Uniform because of her wonderful handling; she was an airplane that you could wear. Besides, you simply cannot go wrong with a blue and white paint scheme (ask me how I know). Two Seven Uniform was the airplane in which I soloed, performed my solo cross country flights, and flew for my check ride.

June 29, 2003: With Two Seven Uniform at Jennison, MI. Photo by Scott.

Two Seven Uniform had an older sister at the flight school, N8082F. Eight Two Foxtrot was a 1966 Cessna 150-F that was often maligned by renters because her controls were not as tight as Two Seven Uniform's. This made her a little twitchier in winds, particularly for less experienced pilots (specifically, me). To my recollection, the orange 150 had two things over Two Seven Uniform: a nice directional gyro with very little tendency to precess and better cockpit glass (back when that actually referred to windows rather than the instrument panel). Otherwise, I associate Eight Two Fox with events like my first significant experience with spark plug fouling (following the transition from red 80 octane fuel to the ubiquitous blue 100LL) and the first time I truly frightened myself while at the controls of an airplane.

The Timid Student

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
01 Dec 2001 N8082F HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - local flight 1.0 35.1

I started off as a nervous student and, even though I soloed in September 2001, I did not attempt a solo training flight until December. I booked Two Seven Uniform, but she was down for unplanned maintenance and I was offered Eight Two Fox instead. I hesitated, but knew that I needed solo training time. The weather was fair and, though the winds were variable, they were also within my approved limits (10 knots or below).

October 2, 2003: The reservoir in Three Rivers that defined the downwind
leg for runway 23.

Eight Two Fox carried me into the sky over Three Rivers. I turned downwind for runway two three, flying over the middle of the reservoir (a wide spot in the St Joseph River). Final approach was a bit squirrely, but we wobbled our way down to the ground and managed a reasonable landing. As I flew, my confidence grew. Unfortunately, so did the wind.

On the eighth landing, I was ill prepared to correct for the wind. With my lack of prowess and the slop in Eight Two Fox's controls, I fought the airplane and myself every bit as much as the wind. I landed hard on the downwind wheel and the airplane darted for the edge of the sixty foot wide runway. My feet danced on the rudder pedals and I belatedly threw full aileron into the wind. Eight Two Fox swerved and her tires squawked at me in anger. With toes on brakes, I applied steady pressure without locking the wheels until I fought her to a graceless stop without departing the runway.

A beat passed and I realized that I was shaking. I had nearly lost control and wanted nothing more than to be out of the tiny cockpit and done for the day. But a little voice, deep down, shouted against taxiing Eight Two Fox back to the hangar in defeat. A part of me knew that if I walked away from the Three Rivers airport with that as my last landing, I might never come back.

Still shaking, I back-taxied to the departure end of the runway, turned around, took a deep calming breath as I studied the windsock, and launched back into the sky. The ensuing landing was much better. Having faced down my fear and won, I decided it was time to wrap up for the day.

My logbook describes this memorable flight with a matter of fact "pattern work". But the way I scrawled "N8082F" betrays how much my hand still shook when I wrote it.

Mutual Redemption

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
23 Apr 2003 N8082F HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - 3GM (Grand Haven, MI) -
0D1 (South Haven, MI) - HAI
2.3 124.3

Fast forward to April 23, 2003. I was a certificated pilot looking for a respite from work. Flying can be immensely therapeutic because ground based worries tend to stay below while one focuses on flying the airplane. Eight Two Fox was the only airplane available for rent that day. Though I had been actively flying in recent weeks, my logbook indicated that six months had elapsed since my last flight in that airplane.


That afternoon was one of my first photo flights and the first of many relaxing cruises along the shoreline of a Great Lake. We departed Three Rivers and flew northwest to intercept the Lake Michigan shoreline at South Haven.


I overflew the South Haven Area Regional Airport (0D1), which would later become my home base. The green grass runway stood out in contrast against nonexistent April foliage.


As a student, I never climbed above 3000'. For my flight west, I chose an altitude of 4500'. When I reached the shoreline, my "lofty" altitude revealed details that I had not observed before, like the plume of silt carried into Lake Michigan from the aptly named Black River.


With the shoreline as my guide, I explored northbound past Saugatuck. As I flew, my worries diminished and my sense of inner peace returned.


I continued past Holland's unique pier to Grand Haven, where I landed briefly for a rest before returning home

Eight Two Fox and I ended our wonderful flight by coming back to Earth gently. Though I returned to the same ground based worries that I had sought to escape, I brought back much of the inner peace imparted to me while aloft. I returned the airplane keys to the FBO, handing them directly to a student ready for some solo flight practice.


Walking to my car, I stopped for a moment to contemplate Eight Two Fox. Now that I know what I'm doing, she's not such a bad old airplane after all, I realized. Fixed in the very spot where that thought occurred to me, I took my first and only photograph of Eight Two Fox without even bothering to frame it properly or seek better light.

I assumed that there would be future opportunities.

Demise

Not long after, on a morning that I volunteered at the Air Zoo, I was talking with another pilot who had a managerial role there. As pictures scrolled past on his computer screen, I saw one that was taken through an airplane windshield featuring some distinctive and familiar defects.

"Were you flying Eight Two Foxtrot when you took that picture?"

"Yup," responded Dale. "Too bad about the accident, huh?"

"What accident?"

It was a ground-handling mishap. A student was rolling out from landing in Eight Two Fox, lost directional control, and departed the runway. Obstacles beyond the runway edge are few, mostly runway lights and an occasional sign low to the ground. The student had the ill fortune to hit a sign. Eight Two Fox abruptly stopped, her nose gear sheared off, and she somersaulted over the sign and onto her back.

Fortunately, the student was not physically injured, though I am certain that finding himself hanging upside down from his seat belt probably dealt a blow to his pride (well, that combined with wrecking an airplane). He was the very student to whom I had handed the keys at the conclusion of my shoreline cruise. The accident occurred within minutes of my departure from the airport.

Eight Two Fox was a complete loss. The last time I saw her, she was a mangled mess tucked into the back of a hangar. It was disquieting, staring at the wreckage of an airplane in which I had logged 22.2 hours and knowing that I was the last pilot to successfully bring her to back to Earth.

Poor old girl.

Reincarnation

A wrecked airplane usually experiences one of two different fates. It may become someone's pet project, to be reborn and rise into the sky once more. More often than not, it becomes an organ donor and the rest of the carcass finds its way to a scrap yard. The latter path appeared to be the most likely for Eight Two Fox, whose delightfully stable directional gyro was transplanted into Two Seven Uniform. One of her wings reportedly became a decoration in the bar across the street from the Kalamazoo / Battle Creek International Airport.

But Eight Two Fox was rescued from the scrap heap by an inventive soul who found a way for her to live on. In 2008, five years after the accident, I received the following unsolicited email to my website:
Chris,
Believe it or not, I have 82 Foxtrot in my den. At least, part of her. It's an interesting story.
Without further written explanation, the remaining tale of her unlikely resurrection was told by a series of pictures attached to the message.

Photo by Tom
Photo by Tom. At some point, the Cessna's original seats were replaced
with what looked like a seat out of a Piper Cherokee.
Photo by Tom.
Photo by Tom
And so, November Eight Zero Eight Two Foxtrot lives on, the remains of a real airplane plying virtual skies. Tom has since posted a number of YouTube videos about the project.

Pretty cool.

4 comments:

  1. What a cool story, albeit a tad sad that the 82F won't ever leave the ground again.

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    Replies
    1. A bit sad, but, hey, it beats being sent off to the "glue factory", right?

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  2. You're so lucky that you had your flight with November Eight Zero Eight Two Foxtrot safely. I feel sorry about the person whom you have handed the key. Good thing you had some pictures of it before it finally said goodbye. Great story Chris!

    James David teaches people how to buy single engine airplanes & has a passion for the Cessna 150

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  3. What a wonderful story. The memories recorded here are priceless. I feel like I was part of the journey.

    ReplyDelete