Sunday, November 28, 2004

South Haven Sunset

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
28 Nov 2004 N21481 LWA (South Haven, MI) - Local 1.0 274.9

An evening flight after work.

A ragged layer of clouds had formed over South Haven near the Lake Michigan shoreline and I climbed above them to practice some air work (steep turns, etc).

Warrior 481 and I cruised along the shoreline, stretching our wings.

Turning directly into the sun, human eye and camera CCD both saturated, rendering the view in sepia.

As the sun settled closer to the horizon, a magical angle was reached at which the clouds radiated golden sunlight.

As the sun continued its downward trajectory in the heavens, I maneuvered Warrior 481 for a dusk landing at South Haven.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Evening Over South Haven

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
22 Nov 2004 N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI) - C91 (Dowagiac, MI) - 0D1 2.0 273.9

It was a calm evening in west Michigan.  Warrior 481 and I flew over to Dowagiac for some pattern work where I first soloed in a Cessna 150 three years previous.

When I returned to South Haven, an interesting confluence of cloud formations had formed over the Lake Michigan shoreline.  There was a high broken layer at 10,000 feet and a haze layer from ground level up to 3500 feet.  At the top of haze layer, a single cloud floated like an island in the haze.  The red spot near the center of frame is the evening sun reflecting off of the surface of Lake Michigan.

Rays of sunlight penetrated the high broken layer, creating an impressive sunbeam effect in the haze.  Beneath the sea of haze, the surface of Lake Michigan brightly reflects those few sunbeams directed earthward.  By now, Dave was in the air with the Decathlon (far right edge of the frame) and wanted to join up for some formation flight.

After Dave broke off and returned to the airport, I climbed around the edge of the cloud deck to 10,500'.  It was the highest I had ever flown an airplane.  I watched the sun set beneath the false horizon of the deck before spiraling back down to Earth.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Michigan, Coast to Coast and Back Again

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
18 Sep 2004 N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI) - D95 (Lapeer, MI) -
AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) - D95 - 0D1
5.5 249.3

I flew from the west side of Michigan to the east to pick up my mother and her friend Bruce for a trip to the Air Zoo.  Along the way, I captured two of my favorite pictures of all time.

The morning eastbound flight under a thin overcast layer revealed this quilt-like vista southwest of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Fall is an amazing time in farm country. For most of the year, fields tend to be the same color when viewed from above: white in winter, brown in spring, green during the summer. But the fall harvest brings out an amazing variety of color across the landscape. I suspect that the overhead cloud layer and low angle of the morning sun may have contributed a quality of light that accentuated the color differences more than usual.

This is Lansing Capital City Airport (LAN) in Lansing, MI.  Sure, I've never actually landed at Lansing, nor have I really ever wanted or needed to.  Positioned in the middle of Michigan, I pass over Lansing when flying from South Haven or Kalamazoo to visit family on the east side.  This photo shows a portion (ok...most of) of the airport that was taken looking north at 5500 feet.  The airport has an interesting, not-quite symmetrical design.

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

All Shook Up

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
01 Sep 2004 N21481 MKG (Muskegon, MI) - 0D1 (South Haven, MI) 0.6 239.0

Achilles Heel

The thrum of the Super Decathlon's engine occasionally intensified, reverberating through my skull with increased vigor whenever my headset made contact with the airplane's headliner.  Off my left shoulder, the high wing with its psuedo-Normandy stripes projected into a cobalt void; cerulean above and turquoise below where the waters of Lake Michigan met the cloudless sky at the horizon.  Below the starboard wing rolled a green expanse of shoreline, demarcated from the lake by a brilliant line of sandy beach that glowed under the evening sun.

Big Red and the pier at Holland, MI

I was an aeronautical hitchhiker, riding in the back of Dave's Decathlon on a thirty minute flight along the lakeshore from our home base in South Haven to Muskegon.  My Piper Warrior, purchased earlier that year, was ready to come home from Muskegon after a radio repair.

My airplane's avionics suite was a modest affair, primarily comprising a pair of Bendix/King KX-170B nav/com radios.  Though old - one of them was built before my wife was born - the words "reliable" and "bulletproof" are often used to describe these venerable units.  But they have an Achilles Heel, a delicate wafer switch integral to the tuner.  One of mine had cracked, leading to signal degradation on several frequencies.  The good folks at Hillview Avionics in Muskegon did the repair.  Though much cheaper than investing in new radios, this was nevertheless a costly venture.  I suspect that labor was a significant factor: the KX-170B is the size of a shoebox and packed to capacity with solid state circuitry.

Muskegon Approach handed Dave off to the tower and we were instructed to enter a left downwind for runway 24. As we rolled onto the pavement, I spotted my Warrior in its Matterhorn White and Fighter Blue color scheme parked close to Hillview's hangar.

Decathlon 68W on downwind for runway 24 at MKG
 Formed Up

With the Warrior's engine humming on the ramp, I listened to Muskegon's tower, approach, and ATIS frequencies.  All were clear as a bell and I concluded that the repair had been a success.  A few minutes later, I was climbing away from Muskegon and turning south along the shoreline.  Cruising at 3000' along Lake Michigan, I heard Dave check in with the departure controller who warned him that I was a few miles ahead.  There was surprisingly little air traffic that night and departure did not advise me of any airborne targets before terminating radar services at the usual spot near Holland.  I remained on departure frequency long enough to hear the controller drop Dave from the system, then I toggled to an air-to-air channel and waited.

"Warrior 481, are you on frequency?" came Dave's query.  I responded that I was.

"Mind if I form up?"  This was a common question whenever we flew together.  Dave had training and experience in formation flight.  I trusted him and was comfortable allowing the Decathlon into the little bubble of personal space surrounding my airplane.  Not having any formal formation training myself, I always flew in the lead position where it was my job to navigate, watch for traffic, and not make any abrupt, unexpected maneuvers.  It was Dave's job to park himself off my wing and focus most of his attention on the spacing between our aircraft.  I took my portion of this partnership very seriously.  One of our fellow pilots once deliberately passed too close to a tiny cloud with Dave on his wing, giving Dave a nasty surprise when he found himself in a cloud for a couple of seconds.  Indeed, I tried very hard not to surprise the guy flying close to my airplane.

Dave in the Decathlon in formation with Warrior 481 on April 14, 2004

"Absolutely," I responded and throttled back to allow the Decathlon to catch up.  Despite its more powerful engine, the Decathlon's airframe possessed more form drag than the Warrior such that we were well matched in cruise speed.

"Can you give me a gentle turn to the right?"  I clicked the microphone twice in acknowledgement and banked gradually toward the lake.  This would help him to complete the join up.  In my peripheral vision, I saw the Decathlon appear at my four-o-clock.  Though we had done this many times, I remained fascinated by the join up.  With both of our airplanes turning in tandem, the Decathlon moved into position off my starboard rear quarter.  The maneuver was so smooth, the relative motion so minor, it seemed as though the other airplane slid along a rail projecting rearward from my fuselage at a 45 degree angle.  With Dave tucked in close, the Lake Michigan shoreline reappeared under my nose and I leveled the wings to continue south.  The Decathlon moved in synchronicity as Dave executed a series of minor power and attitude adjustments to create the illusion that his aircraft was fixed to mine through a rigid, if intangible, beam.

Radio Silence
Formed up, we continued south along the shoreline for a couple of minutes before Dave called again, "want to do some shallow turns?"

"Ok.  Let me know when you're ready," I answered.

Radio silence persisted longer than I expected.  "Do you want to do some turns?" Dave repeated.  I echoed my previous response.  Another minute passed before I heard from Dave again.

"I am not receiving you.  I can hear traffic on Unicom, so I know that my receiver is working.  Can you hear me?"

Without thinking about it, I responded affirmatively on the radio as my glance swept the instrument panel.  Nothing appeared awry and I could still hear my voice amplified over the Warrior's intercom system.  Realizing that I probably had a transmitter problem and that Dave did not hear me, I looked over my shoulder and gave an exaggerated nod toward the Decathlon hovering a few yards away .  Formation flying experts often rely on hand signals to communicate with their wingmen, but I was not a formation flying expert and the only hand signals I knew would not have been productive in this scenario (if ever).

"Ok, I'm going to back off and give you more space, but we should head straight back to South Haven now."
I agreed, though verbalization at this point was obviously fruitless.  My mind immediately fixated on the work just completed by Hillview Avionics and I became certain that the repair must have caused some new problem.

Then the audio panel went crazy with marker beacon lights flashing randomly.  The cabin's overhead speaker kvetched loudly, emitting a series of loud crackling sounds punctuated with headache inducing squeals.  With the overhead speaker switched off at the audio panel, it should not have been making any noise at all.

Now I was angry.  What did those guys do to my airplane?

Fortunately,  I did not need a radio to land at South Haven.  This problem was a nuisance, not a catastrophe.  Just a few miles north of South Haven, I tuned to 122.80 and listened.  Student traffic at Allegan dominated the frequency, but I heard no transmissions from South Haven.  If there were any airplanes in the pattern there, they were just as radio silent as I was.

With the overhead speaker still voicing shrill complaints,  I entered the pattern at South Haven.  On final approach, my radio suddenly died entirely, right in the middle of a pilot broadcasting a bandwidth-wasting entreaty for any traffic in the pattern at Allegan to "please advise".

"Oh, that's f@#%ing terrific," I said aloud to no one.  But this time, I did not hear my words amplified back at me in the headset, which meant that the intercom was now offline.  I landed and cleared the runway, seething over what I was convinced to be a botched avionics repair.  Outside my hangar, I switched off the transponder and avionics master switch.  Moving to kill the strobe lights and beacon, I saw something that made me pause.

Alternate Causality

Any experienced pilot reading this account has no doubt already guessed what really happened.  It had nothing to do with the work done by Hillview Avionics.  In fact, as far as I can tell, their work was beyond reproach.

As I was shutting the airplane down, I glanced at the ammeter situated on the lower right side of the Warrior's instrument panel (left of the circuit breakers as shown in the photo below).  It was pegged at zero, indicating that the alternator was not providing current to support the electrical demand.  I did not have an avionics problem, the entire electrical system was dead.

Once the Warrior's cowling was removed, the cause of the failure was obvious.  Piper was using 1970s era Chrysler alternators in their production aircraft when N21481 rolled off the Vero Beach assembly line.  An integral part of my Chrysler alternator's cast aluminum housing that attached to the front of the engine had cracked off, obviously a victim of metal fatigue.  While the airplane logbooks describe the alternator being overhauled in the past, the housing was probably original.  After 25 years of abuse on the front of a vibrating airplane engine, it had obviously lost the will to live and literally shook itself to pieces.  The guts of the poor device were a mess.

With this understanding, the evening's events all fell into place.  I had probably launched into the Muskegon sky with a functional alternator - I believe this because I had checked the ammeter during engine run up.  At some point, however, the alternator gave up and the battery was on its own to support the power demands of radios, transponder, strobe lights, and other electrical devices.  Fortunately, all systems continued working while I was within Muskegon's airspace; I had two way radio contact with Muskegon departure and they were reading my transponder.

Without support from the alternator, the battery quickly discharged.  Requiring more power than any other device on board, the radio transmitter failed first as it greedily siphoned current from the failing battery.  From there, other systems shut down as battery power dwindled.  Had Dave and I not flown back to South Haven together in radio contact, I would have never known that my transmitter failed.
Upon discovery of the radio problem, I became so focused on its apparent correlation with the recent radio work that my brain disengaged from any further troubleshooting of the problem.  Had I simply looked at it, the ammeter would have told me all I needed to know. Although there is also an "ALT" annunciator  (idiot light) on the panel, its dim orange glow would have been washed-out by the ochre sunset spilling across the instruments at the time.

My panel as it looked on that day.

As often occurred during that first year of aircraft ownership, this incident imparted some valuable lessons.  I am far more careful about including the ammeter in my scan of the panel.  I suspect it knows that I have my eye on it; it has not demonstrated any aberrant behavior ever since.  My preflight tugs on the alternator belt are more aggressive and I always check the security of the ammeter itself by giving the housing a good shake.

Perhaps most importantly, I learned a lesson about fixating too quickly on a perceived root cause while ignoring the rest of the clues provided by the airplane.  Had I diagnosed an alternator failure while still aloft, I could have shut down non-essential electrical systems (e.g., intercom, strobes, transponder) and saved my radio for the landing at South Haven.

I remember learning in ground school how aircraft ignition systems received that altitude-critical spark from magnetos rather than the potentially fickle electrical system.  At the time, it seemed a very clever idea.  Now I am sure of it.  Magnetos might represent old technology, but I am a huge fan of them.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Take Your Coworkers to the Airport Day, 2004

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
  Aug 2004
N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI) - Local flights 2.4 232.5

Dave and I hosted a cookout at the airport for friends and coworkers to get a taste for airport life.  All photos on this page were provided by Cap'n Dave.

Headsets and intercoms can provide surprisingly endless entertainment, even on the ground.

A grill is critical to the success of any cookout.  "If you grill it, they will come."  But it helps if a good grillmaster is assigned to the task (which we discovered to our woe when Arjo did the cooking).  Cap'n Dave was assigned this duty thereafter.

For pilots and non-pilots alike, grading landings is an essential aspect of the airport experience.  Here, the group watches Dave three-point the Decathlon on the grass.  I don't remember what the score was, probably lower than he deserved.  You know, just because.

With a "mighty roar", the sound of Kent's departure preparations in two-seven-uniform officially signals that the party is drawing to a close.

 "There I was, 1000 feet up and inverted when the control stick snapped off in my hand..."
Mild exaggeration is par for the course when hangar flying at the end of the day.

Saturday, August 7, 2004

A Bridge Home

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
07 Aug 2004 N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI) - D95 (Lapeer, MI) - 
AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) - 0D1
4.8 225.7

My life is easily compartmentalized into tidy little boxes based on where I've lived over the years.  As a kid, I lived in the suburbs north (very north) of Detroit.  In college, I lived in Flint, MI.  Grad school was in southern Indiana.  After grad school, we moved to Kalamazoo MI.  Although Kalamazoo is in the same state where I lived most of my life, childhood friends, family, and familiar geography seemed far away.

The amazing thing about my airplane is that it can span the modest geographical distances between my current reality, my college life, and my childhood.  I departed South Haven bound for Lapeer to visit my Uncle Ron and Aunt Barb.  When I was young (prior to age 7), I spent a lot of time with them at their house on Lake Orion.  As I grew older and moved progressively farther away, it became harder to see them.  Over time, we grew apart.  My goal for the day was to reconnect, even if just a little bit.

On the way to Lapeer, I passed directly over Flint, MI.  From my perspective, I could even see the red brick used to pave Saginaw Street through downtown.  The campus of the University of Michigan - Flint can be seen along the south bank of the Flint River, starting in the center of the frame and moving toward the rightmost edge.  Though I left Flint and undergraduate life behind a decade earlier, the impact of my time there has been long lasting.

This spider-like junction of I-69 and I-475 is a dramatic departure from the traditional clover leaf.  The interchange is located southeast of downtown Flint.  From the ground, it seems like a mess; tentacles strewn every which way.  From the air, the grand design of the whole thing can finally be discerned.

As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan - Flint, I lived in an apartment in the East Village, the heavily wooded older neighborhood at the upper left of the frame.  That apartment had everything.  It was a mere five minute walk to campus.  Granted, I had to cross that overpass in the upper left-hand corner which was a bit brisk in the winter.  The apartment had low rent ($325 / mo, heat included, split two ways!).  And, finally, it had a built in alarm clock.  The woman upstairs would often wake us up at 7:00 am on the weekends playing George Michael's "Faith" album loud enough that we could clearly identify it.  Early morning vacuuming was another way to make sure we were up and at 'em earlier than we might otherwise have chosen.
    I landed at Lapeer and gave my uncle and aunt airplane rides over the home they were building north of the airport.  It was terrific to see them again and to give them a taste of flying in Warrior 481.  

    A spectacular cloudscape viewed from 8500 feet.  Portions of suburban Flint, MI are
    visible through the gaps between clouds.  Flint's Bishop Airport can be seen left of center.

    When my visit was done, I departed Lapeer and was almost immediately crossing back over Flint.  From early childhood to the college years in a few short minutes.  An hour later, I was on the ground in Kalamazoo and back to my adult life.  The airplane is, indeed, a bridge.

    And on a completely unrelated note...

    On the way back to South Haven, I circled Carpenter's Dairy Farm in Bangor to photograph their immense corn maze.  I later donated the photos to the family, who used them to make post cards advertising the attraction.  It's amazing what you can do with a tractor and a GPS!

    Sunday, July 25, 2004

    Ghost Squadron

    An advantage to living in Kalamazoo MI is that I don't have to travel much to see some incredible vintage aircraft; they more or less come to me.  The Commemorative Air Force's Ghost Squadron, based in Midland Texas, visited Kalamazoo during July 2004.  They arrived with Fifi, the only B-29 still flying in the world and Diamond 'Lil', a rare airworthy B-24 Liberator.

    Every summer, the CAF's B-24 (left) and B-29 (right) tour the country.  This year, the pair spent a week in Kalamazoo outside of the Air Zoo.  This shot was a lucky one; ATC vectored Dave (with me in the back seat of the Decathlon) over the museum right after takeoff in order to avoid a commercial jet on approach to the airport.

    Sunday, May 16, 2004


    Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
    16 May 2004 N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI) - 59M (Eastport, MI) - 3FM (Fremont, MI) - 0D1 4.3 193.1

    Fly-in breakfasts are a grand tradition in aviation; they are fundraisers, social gatherings, and -- most importantly -- excuses for pilots to fly somewhere.  Everyone has to eat sometime, right?  On the morning of May 16, I went to my first fly-in breakfast as an airplane owner.  Our destination was Torchport Airport, an airpark located between Torch Lake and Grand Traverse Bay in the northern part of Michigan's lower peninsula.

    Three pilots in three aircraft departed South Haven that morning; me in Warrior 481, Dave in his Decathlon, and Ron in his Cherokee 140.  On a northern heading, we fell into loose formation.  Before we reached Muskegon, a layer of scattered clouds formed below us.  I followed my friends with some trepidation.  I had never flown any great distance over clouds and worried about being trapped above them.  Fortunately, significant holes existed through which I could still see the ground.  I also took comfort in knowing that, with full fuel on board, I would be able to return to South Haven if the clouds were too thick to land at our destination.

    "I'm on the zipper," Ron announced.  This was Ron-Speak meaning that the little airplane avatar on his GPS display was superimposed on the dotted course line.  GPS was still relatively new to me; I did not fly with one until I bought Warrior 481.  Even with it, I took great comfort in tracking my progress on a current sectional chart.  Ron thought I was crazy or, at best, wasting my time.

    Ron in formation with Dave's Decathlon, taken September 17, 2003

    Dave, trained in formation flight, entertained himself by flying off of my starboard rear quarter for a while.  For variety, he pulled away and joined up with Ron's white Cherokee.   Radio chatter was minimal.  We simply flew over the clouds. I was awash in the experience of going someplace in my own airplane.

    The silence was suddenly broken by a surprised exclamation from Dave.  This was soon followed by Ron cackling on frequency.  While flying in formation, Dave focuses all of his attention on the spacing between himself and the other aircraft.  As a result, he depends entirely on the lead pilot for navigation.  Ron deliberately passed too close to a small cloud such that Dave momentarily found himself blind, engulfed in a white haze.  The unpleasant surprise only lasted a second; Dave blasted through the tiny cloud so quickly that he was already back in the clear before his brain could process what had happened.  Ron was very pleased with himself for this prank.  Dave decided to fly off of my wing for the remainder of the trip.

    South of Traverse City, the cloud layer vanished and we could see Grand Traverse Bay ahead.  The Torchport frequency was busy, but our arrival was late enough that we mostly heard departing traffic.  Still, I was nervous.  Fly-in breakfasts can get busy and I did not have a lot of experience flying near congested airports.

    Ron pulled ahead of us and broadcast our arrival on Unicom.  "Torchport traffic, flight of three, five miles south, inbound for landing, Torchport."  I had never been announced as part of a flight of three before.

    Torchport had two crossing turf runways.  Still a little nervous about landing at an unfamiliar, busy airport, I slowed down to let Ron and Dave go first.  As I turned on final, Dave was taxiing to parking on the edge of the inactive grass strip.  People walking along the active runway stopped to watch my approach and landing.  It was a good one and Warrior 481 settled gently to the ground.  Obviously, my time spent working on landings since bringing the Warrior home from Oklahoma was well-spent.  A man standing near my touchdown point smiled and gave me a thumbs up.

    Taxiing for parking, I made a newbie mistake and got stuck in a soft spot near the edge of the runway.  I switched off the engine and several pilots ran over to help me push Warrior 481 to an appropriate parking spot.  Pilots are great that way; they take care of each other.

    Breakfast was almost over, but there was still enough food and it was good.  We listened to a sales pitch (Torchport was soliciting buyers for various lots at the airpark), talked with other friendly pilots, and generally had a good time.  Impatient to be aloft, Ron departed ahead of Dave and me.  We wished him a pleasant trip home.  Our plan was to fly north to the mouth of Grand Traverse Bay, fly across it to the west, then follow the west coast of Michigan back to South Haven.

    As we flew across Grand Traverse Bay, we beheld some interesting colors in the water.  At first, I thought the color was caused by something in the water, but I later decided that the lighter colors were caused by shallow areas near shore.  Lake Michigan was incredibly clear that day. 

    This photo was taken looking south over Grand Traverse Bay.

    This photo was taken looking south near Northport, MI.  I don't know what was growing down there, but it made for an eye-catching vista. 

    Once back over land, Dave fell into formation off my starboard rear quarter again.  I was finally becoming comfortable with having the other airplane so close to mine.  In this shot, we are south of the Sleeping Bear Dunes.  South Manitou Island is visible above the spinner of the Decathlon's prop and North Manitou Island can be seen aft of the Decathlon's rudder.

    In the legend of the Sleeping Bear, a mother bear and two cubs set off across Lake Michigan from Wisconsin in search of food.  Exhausted, the two cubs drowned within sight of the Michigan shoreline.  Ojibway legend held that the large, humped dune on the shoreline represented the mother bear waiting in vain for her fallen cubs, staring out across the water at the two islands marking their final resting places.

    Just north of Muskegon, Dave announced that he needed fuel and we turned inland.  East of Muskegon, we flew above this mammoth manmade lake.  Our fuel stop was at Fremont, MI.  Nothing was happening at Fremont, but the folks at the FBO were friendly.

    From Fremont, we flew a southwest diagonal to rejoin Lake Michigan and, eventually, home base at South Haven.  The lake water was so clear that the undulations of the sandy bottom near shore were visible.

    Ron, of course, was already back at South Haven when we landed.  

    "Did you guys fly over Manistee?"

    Dave and I glanced at each other.  "Yeah," I responded, wondering where the conversation was going to take us.

    "I was getting fuel there and someone on the ramp pointed up and said, 'there's something you don't see every day, a Decathlon flying wing on a Cherokee'.  Figured it had to be you two."  He was right.

    It was a great morning that will not be soon forgotten: the image of the Decathlon hovering nearby, the cross country flight over a soft cumulus vista, the journey to someplace new.  A sampling of the possibilities open to a new aircraft owner.

    Where would this new found freedom take me in the coming years?

    Sunday, April 11, 2004


    Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
    11 Apr 2004 N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI), local flight 1.0 179.6

    Easter Sunday 2004, at the controls of my new (to me) airplane.  I entered a climbing spiral, twisting upward through a hole in the layer of scattered clouds.  It was my first time solo above the clouds.  Upon leveling off at 5500 feet, I was treated to the sight of Dave in Decathlon 68W performing a loop several miles away.

    Once he was done showing-off, Dave fell into formation off my left wing for a few moments before peeling off to refuel (above).

    This is one of my favorite photos; the dichotomy of a frozen instant in time that nevertheless conveys energy and motion.  Lucky shot, given digital camera shutter lag.  It was a memorable tribute to the fundamental physics of flight under the vast arched cathedral of the sky.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2004

    Kristy's First Ride in Her New Airplane

    Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
    07 Apr 2004 N21481 0D1 (South Haven, MI), local flight 0.7 178.6

    After enduring numerous rides in various rental aircraft, it was time for Kristy to get her first ride in Warrior 481.  Dave was trying to convince her that, though I chose, purchased, and flew Warrior 481, our new acquisition was in fact her airplane.

    We flew along the shoreline of Lake Michigan one evening with Dave in formation.  Arjo rode back seat with Dave and took all the photos of us in our new airplane.  I think the ride went well; blowing up the above photo will show that Kristy is actually smiling.  Whew...

    Here we are, southbound over Saugatuck, MI.  Even during that ride, I suspect Kristy had no idea how much a part of our lives Warrior 481 would eventually become.

    Thursday, April 1, 2004

    From Renter to Owner

    Learning the Way of the Warrior

    Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
    27 Feb 2004 N2515U 35D (Allegan, MI) - local flight 1.1 165.6

    "Allegan Traffic, Warrior One Five Uniform, left downwind one zero, Allegan."

    For only the fourth time in my life, I was flying left seat in a strange airplane with a new instructor at my side. I was comfortable at the controls of the Piper Warrior because it was a doppelganger of the Cherokee 180 out of Three Rivers in which I had already logged thirty hours. But I quickly learned that there were some subtle differences in the handling characteristics between Pipers bearing the constant chord (Hershey Bar) wing of the 180 versus the semi-tapered wing on the Warrior.

    Seven Zero Romeo, my introduction to flying low wing Pipers. September 21, 2003.

    Abeam the runway numbers, I reduced power and added 10° of flaps. Prior Cherokee experience suggested that this new configuration would cause the nose to drop and I automatically moved to increase nose-up trim.

    "You don't need to do that in this airplane," Ken interjected. He was right. As I reduced power and adjusted flap settings, the airplane remained in trim.

    Turning final approach, the Warrior exceeded my expectations again when Ken suggested I bring the throttle back to idle. In the Cherokee 180, I was accustomed to carrying power right down to the runway to avoid the high sink rate it exhibited at idle power. Following Ken's instructions, I pulled the Warrior's t-handle throttle back to idle and listened to the rumble of the engine die away. With the runway threshold still ahead of us, I was pleasantly surprised by how unlike a brick the Warrior continued to glide.

    Rolling down runway 10, I settled the flap lever back to the floor. As I leaned forward, my headset caught on the sun visor and pulled off of my head. I cleared the runway, stopped the airplane, and resettled my errant headgear.

    "Low headroom," I remarked to Ken.

    "I can fix that," he said with a grin and reached for a lever outside my field of vision that dropped my seat several inches.

    "Oh," I noted, chagrined. It never occurred to me that the Warrior's seat height would be adjustable. After all, the majority of my flying time was in a 1976 Cessna 150M. In that airplane, occupants essentially sat on the floor and vertical adjustment was accomplished by varying the number of pillows placed under the pilot's rear end.

    N2515U photographed at South Haven, July 4, 2005

    After an hour in N2515U, Ken endorsed me as "checked out" and qualified to fly a Warrior. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the aircraft handled; a low wing Piper with the visibility I liked, but with handling more like a Cessna. To my way of thinking, it was truly the best of both worlds.

    What compelled me to get checked out in a new airplane that February afternoon?

    Technically, it was an insurance company. Underlying that, however, was stagnation. N2515U was a stepping stone in a journey toward something better.

    A Pilot Certificate Is a Terrible Thing To Waste

    A few months prior to my February flight in Warrior 2515U, I came to a simple conclusion: stagnation is a dreadful thing.

    A year after earning my private pilot certificate, I came to realize that I was at a crossroads. I was still renting the same Cessna 150 that had served as my battered steed throughout flight training. Sometimes I made excursions in the nicer, faster - but pricier - Cherokee 180 also available for rent at Three Rivers (HAI). Being airborne still made me indescribably happy, but after a year with the rental fleet, I became frustrated.

    Seven Zero Romeo in Flushing, MI. October 6, 2003.

    Because they were rentals, people treated the aircraft with a rental mentality. The airplanes were often dirty, always in high demand, and sometimes returned late by careless renters. This latter point was brought home to me on September 2, 2003. I had rented the Cherokee 180 to ferry Dave to Ludington where poor weather had forced him and his wife to abandon their Super Decathlon the previous weekend. But another renter continued to fly the Cherokee for an hour beyond his scheduled time, leaving us waiting on the ground twiddling our thumbs rather than plying the skies above.

    "You need your own airplane," Dave grumbled as we sat earthbound beneath achingly beautiful cerulean heavens. Though offhand, Dave's comment stuck with me. When the other renter did return, he swaggered past us as though he'd just landed in an F-16 and was unrepentant about his thoughtlessness.

    Just as Dave and his wife flew to Ludington for a weekend getaway, I also wanted to take longer trips out of the area. I wanted to explore the world - or at least the continental United States - from the air. Though rental airplanes are usually priced as a function of flight time, longer trips usually invoke daily minimum charges whenever the airplane sits parked at the destination airport. This compensates the flight school for lost revenue while the airplane is unavailable, but adds significant cost for any renter taking an extended trip.

    As a result, I stayed close to Three Rivers whenever I rented an airplane. But it became difficult to justify the time and expense of renting an airplane just to bop around the same local airspace with landings at the same nearby airports. With nothing new to do, at least those landings became consistently good, but there was no adventure in it.

    Having a dream slowly devolve into expensive tedium seemed an unfortunate reward for anyone tenacious enough to earn a pilot certificate. 
    If I stayed on that path, I knew that I would become one of those pilots that never flew anymore. I needed something new to do. 

    I considered the option of an instrument rating. From my reading, however, I knew that an instrument ticket requires frequent practice to stay proficient. The instrument rating struck me as most useful for traveling pilots that need to minimize the impact of weather on their schedules. Because I did not expect to travel in rental airplanes, it was unlikely that I would use the skills of an instrument rating often enough for me to rely on them when actually needed. As a result, I saw no point in pursuing an instrument rating at this stage.

    Instead, I realized that Dave's casual comment in Three Rivers summed up the most logical next step for me: my own airplane. It would be there for me at a moment's notice, for as long as I wanted, and always in the same condition in which I left it. If I started using the airplane for travel, that would be a logical time to pursue an instrument rating. And if that was the case, I could do the training in my own airplane. Most importantly, with Dave as a role model, I knew that owning an airplane was entirely within my reach.


    I did my homework carefully. I talked with other owners, read articles about purchasing aircraft, and studied websites like VRef and ASO (Aircraft Shopper Online) over several months to get a feel for the cost of various types and configurations. I ran mortgage simulations and obtained on-line insurance quotes for various aircraft I was considering. By the end of 2003 I was leaning toward something in the Piper Cherokee line. From my experiences in renting both Piper and Cessna aircraft, I decided that I preferred the visibility out of the low-wing Piper, even if I preferred the Cessna's handling.

    Me, Pam, and my "new" airplane on May 2, 2004. Photo by Kristy.

    For Christmas of 2003, my sister-in-law Pam presented me with a timely gift: James Ellis' book, "Buying and Owning Your Own Airplane". The book crystallized many of the conclusions I had already drawn and was full of step-by-step advice on the purchasing process. After digesting the contents of the book, I felt like I was ready to start looking in earnest.

    Caveat Emptor

    Apprehensive about the logistics of purchasing an aircraft and knowing that distance would complicate matters further, I focused my search close to home: Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. After monitoring ASO and Trade-A-Plane for a couple of months, a good deal appeared on a 1978 Piper Warrior II in Ohio. Photographs displayed an aircraft with a well-equipped instrument panel, a beautiful new paint job, and a new leather interior. Best of all, the advertisement noted a recently overhauled engine. 

    It seemed too good to be true.

    Ready to pounce on it, I first called John. John is an aircraft mechanic and owns Conrad Aero, the FBO in Three Rivers where I learned to fly. I knew him well, liked him, and most importantly, trusted him. After listening carefully to his advice, I called the number in the newly-posted advertisement.

    Unfortunately, my telephone inquiry revealed a bait-and-switch. Despite claims of a recent overhaul, the airplane actually bore a middle aged, 1100 hour engine. The seller apologized for this "editorial error" and provided me with an appropriately reduced price. Though suspicious, I realized that the engine should still have some life in it and I continued to delve deeper.

    To my frustration, the seller was an aircraft broker with very little practical knowledge about the airplane she was selling. Independent research (the web is a wonderful thing) revealed that the "minor wingtip damage" noted in the ad was actually a significant encounter between the aircraft and a fence that had resulted in significant damage to the structural elements in the left wing.

    As my surfing revealed unadvertised airframe damage, John examined copies of the aircraft log books. This was a tremendous service he provided for me free of charge. He found some suspicious entries about an in-flight engine failure followed by a field overhaul in Mexico. Some of the overhaul work was repeated a year later by another mechanic, casting doubt on the quality of work done south of the border. The logs also revealed a recent engine fire severe enough that the owner apparently took the airplane to several different mechanics before finding one willing to sign it off as airworthy. John conceded that this might be a wonderful aircraft, but the log books did not inspire confidence.

    I agreed.

    When I terminated the deal, the broker resorted to shame and guilt. "You're not going to find an airplane of that age that doesn't have some history," she scolded. "I've ridden in the aircraft and it flies just fine." This did not impress me as a particularly rigorous or expert assessment of the ship's condition.

    The sharp-looking Warrior remained on the market for several more months. All of the discrepancies from the original advertisement remained unchanged in the listing. Eventually, the aircraft disappeared from the listings, presumably sold to someone less discriminating.

    Out of morbid curiosity, I searched on the tail number of that aircraft two years later. I found it available for auction from an aircraft salvager. It seems that the Warrior had succumbed to yet another engine fire. Photographs showed a blackened powerplant hung on the front of a Piper with a familiar paint scheme. Not knowing the cause of the fire, I have no idea what the ultimate moral of the story might be in this case. Nonetheless, it is difficult not to feel as though I dodged a bullet.


    Although my first experience with an aircraft seller was not positive, it was educational and I resumed searching with greater understanding and confidence. I also expanded the search to a wider area. In doing so, I found N21481, a 1979 Piper Warrior. The airplane had 60 hours on an overhauled engine with a recent paint job and interior. The price was competitive with comparable airplanes listed for sale at the same time. The new twist in this case was that the airplane was located in Guthrie, Oklahoma.

    My first thought was, Oklahoma? That's one of the big states somewhere in the middle, right? Despite my worries about the distance, I called the seller.

    N21481 as advertised in ASO. Photo by Bill S.

    The owner, Bill, and I played a couple rounds of phone tag before finally connecting in real time. Bill was refreshingly knowledgeable and frank about the airplane and its condition. After a lengthy phone interview and some follow-up discussion with John, I called Bill again and offered a deposit. Bill responded that I was first in line.


    Bill agreed to send copies of the log books for John to examine. He also promised to hold the airplane for me, but suggested that I refrain from sending a deposit until we examined the logs. That way, if we found something we did not like, we could stop the process without needing to exchange money again. This sounded like an excellent idea to me. The more I talked to Bill, the more I realized that he was a genuinely decent guy.

    Before long, John had copies of the books in his hands. His comments were generally positive. He noted that the airplane, with about 4400 total hours on it, had seen typical and appropriate care over the years. There is a puzzling lapse in logbook activity from the early 1980's to the early 1990's. However, the tachometer times on either side of the gap match perfectly such that it appears Warrior 481 spent the Reagan years sitting in a hangar. Time as a "hangar queen" can be a deal-breaker, raising major concerns about corrosion in an engine that sat idle for far too long. However, the first logbook entry following the gap describes a major overhaul for the engine which was then flown regularly for the several years leading up to the most recent overhaul in 2003.

    Finding nothing disagreeable in the logbooks, I agreed on the verbiage of a purchase agreement with Bill and wired a deposit to Oklahoma. The next step was a physical evaluation of the airplane. It would have been cost prohibitive to ferry John to the airplane and, likewise, costly to bring the airplane to John. Instead, I contracted a mechanic in Guthrie to do a pre-buy inspection under my supervision. This mechanic had no prior experience with Bill's airplane, which meant that I was likely to get a more objective assessment of its condition.

    The aircraft was due for an annual inspection at the end of March. Ideally, I would have had a trusted mechanic (i.e., John) perform a combined pre-buy / annual inspection. However, I decided to make my purchase decision based on the pre-buy inspection and John's review of the logbooks. If all went well, I would complete the deal and bring the airplane to John for an annual. This seemed like a good compromise between keeping my costs down while still minimizing the risk of purchasing a flying lemon.

    The next trick was getting to Guthrie. In the end, I was able to procure a one way car rental through Hertz for a reasonable price with a drop-off in nearby Edmond, Oklahoma. If the pre-buy did not go well, I would forgo the drop-off and simply return to Kalamazoo in the car.


    Despite my 30 hours in a Piper Cherokee 180, I could not obtain insurance coverage for the Warrior without logging an hour of dual instruction in one. With the Warrior being one of several variants in the Cherokee (PA-28) line, this irked me. I already knew how to fly a Cherokee and I assumed this to be the same airplane with slightly less horsepower (160 vs 180). Bowing to the insurance company's wishes, I found myself aloft over Allegan for a check out in N2515U on February 27, 2004. That hour of dual instruction was eye-opening and I was glad the insurance company had required a checkout, effectively saving me from my own naiveté. At the conclusion of the lesson, I purchased a Warrior II operator's handbook from the FBO in Allegan. I studied the manual carefully in preparation for a potential cross country flight in a new-to-me-airplane.

    "Oklahoma, Where the Wind Comes Sweeping Down the Plain"

    Scanned image of the sectional chart I took with me to Guthrie - back when
     people still did things like draw lines on paper charts.

    On Tuesday, March 9, 2004, I departed Kalamazoo at 6:30 am in darkness during a lake effect snow storm. I was delayed by futile attempts to understand why the rental Taurus' dome light would not extinguish. It was as though the car's simple brain was certain that one of the doors was open. No amount of opening and closing doors appeased the car.

    Because it was dark and snowing, the windscreen did a better job of reflecting the lit interior back at me than revealing what lay in the murk beyond the Taurus' hood. I made for the airport Hertz rental office to have them deal with it, holding my right hand over the dome light as I drove so I could see where I was going. Within a few miles, however, the car warmed up and the dome light extinguished on its own and stayed that way.

    I had a daunting 950 mile, 14 hour drive in front of me for the day. The only significant stop that I made was in Bloomington, IL to have lunch with Greg, my best friend from high school. Along the way I sipped from a bottle of water picked up at an Illinois rest stop and made periodic cell phone calls to check in with Kristy and my lender. Before nightfall, I set up the escrow, checked in with Kristy twice, and was driving within Oklahoma's borders. I knew that I was a stranger in a strange land when the route took me past numerous signs warning me not to drive into any smoke. The mystique of the Will Rogers Turnpike deepened further when I drove beneath a garish colossus straddling I-44 that claimed to be the world's largest McDonald's, as though such a thing was a noteworthy or enviable accomplishment.

    The final hour of the drive was spent straining to keep my eyes open. When I stumbled into the Guthrie Best Western, I was so tired that I did not notice when the counter clerk misspelled Kalamazoo as "Calmizu" on my invoice.

    The First Look

    Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
    10 Mar 2004 N21481 GOK (Guthrie, OK) - local flight0.5166.1

    After getting some sleep and a decent continental breakfast at the Best Western, I made my way to the Guthrie (GOK) airport. With the combination to Bill's hangar in hand, I unlocked the door and slipped inside to look upon N21481 for the first time. She was beautiful. Digital photographs can hide a lot of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) cosmetic defects. But she was gorgeous.

    N21481 instrument panel, July 1, 2004.

    I slipped into the pilot's seat, reached for the yoke and throttle, and made airplane noises.

    So far, so good.

    I resisted the urge to become too enamored with the airplane and prepared myself to walk away from it if the inspection revealed that to be necessary.

    N21481 prior to painting. Photo by Bill S.

    The mechanic began the pre-buy inspection as I watched. John was with me in spirit via the litany of items he wanted me to ensure were checked during the inspection. This was quite a learning experience for me and the mechanic did a good job of explaining everything he did.

    We found that the engine compression was good. The oil filter had some evidence of metal in it, but no more than expected for a recently-overhauled engine. I was a bit alarmed when, looking into the wing inspection panels, we observed what appeared to be a crack in the wing spar. Fortunately, the "crack" washed off with acetone, effectively rendering it a non-issue.

    During the inspection, the owner of the shop visited with us briefly while giving the airplane a critical eye. "Piper finally got it right with these tapered wing birds," he concluded. "Made 'em handle like Cessnas." Having learned this lesson already in Allegan, I could only nod in agreement.

    All in all, we compiled a short list of squawks, but they were minor issues for a 25 year old airplane. None of them affected airworthiness...until we reached the static RPM check. At full throttle, with the brakes locked, the engine RPM was below the range specified per the type certificate data sheet. We checked the tachometer and found it to be accurate. Given that low static RPM is an airworthiness issue, I notified Bill. He agreed to cover the costs of any required repair. After an inaccurate tachometer, the next most likely cause for low static RPM is a propeller pitched higher than certified for the Warrior.

    That evening, Bill and I launched in Warrior 481 on a test flight just as the sun was setting. The airplane climbed enthusiastically and flew straight and level hands-off. All instruments and radios were in good working condition. I was sure, at that point, that I would buy the airplane pending resolution of the static RPM issue. After the test flight, we removed the propeller for inspection by the local Prop Shop. That night, I had a pleasant dinner with Bill and his family.

    Best Phone Call Ever

    The next morning, "Marvin the Prop Guy" called to say that the prop was fine. The Guthrie mechanic continued to seek an explanation for low static RPM on an engine that otherwise appeared to be in excellent condition.

    Finally, he proposed that the valve timing was slightly off as a result of improper indexing of some gears when the engine was reassembled post-overhaul. According to Lycoming, the airplane could still be flown without risk to it or myself, but the issue needed to be fixed in order for 481 to pass her annual inspection in Three Rivers.

    The mechanic estimated the repair to cost about $900, but did not have time to do it for at least a week. After several conversations with Bill and John, we agreed that Bill would reduce the price by $1000 and that John would do the repair in Michigan during the annual. Bill was very proactive about redressing this unexpected mechanical problem and I was glad for the good fortune to be working with him.

    On March 11, I returned the rental car to a Hertz office in Edmond, OK. Bill drove me back to Guthrie and we closed on the airplane. Closing was a non-event, requiring a simple phone call from the ramp of the Guthrie airport that set everything in motion.

    The FBO at Guthrie offered overnight use of their beat-up Mercury Sable courtesy car with the caveat that I should not drive it any farther than I wanted to walk. Thus warned and with the steering wheel wobbling in my hands, I returned to the hotel in the early afternoon. The first thing I did was telephone my Dad. When he answered the phone, I said something to the effect of, "hi, I'm in Oklahoma and I just bought an airplane." Because this was the first time I ever mentioned buying an airplane to him, he was a bit stunned.

    Having exercised my flair for the dramatic, I slept the remainder of the afternoon. I was mentally and physically exhausted and needed the rest.

    The Flight Home

    Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
    12 Mar 2004 N21481 GOK (Guthrie, OK) - M17 (Bolivar, MO) -
    50I (Kentland, IN) - HAI (Three Rivers, MI)
    6.5 172.6

    On the morning of March 12, I awoke early and packed my bags. I spent 30 minutes on the phone with an outstanding briefer from the local Flight Service Station. He provided a very comprehensive view of what to expect from the weather across the entire route home. Simply put, the weather forecast was perfect for a long cross-country flight. Rain was moving into Oklahoma from Texas, but I would escape Guthrie before its arrival. Most of the route was forecast to be sunny and clear. A weather system was sprinkling snow over southwest Michigan, but that was expected to move out in the early afternoon.

    For the journey home, I planned a reasonably direct route that used airports as VFR landmarks (and pit stops!) while avoiding the several MOAs (military operation areas) in Missouri, southern Illinois and Indiana. There was no further planning left to do; it was time to fly home.

    The moment of truth came after shimmying back to the airport in the old Sable. I pulled the airplane out of Bill's hangar and attempted to start it for a taxi to the fuel pump. I energized the electrical system, activated the fuel pump, turned the magneto switch to "both" and pushed in the key to engage the starter. Immediately, the vigorous sound of the fuel pump diminished. The prop completed one labored revolution before the electrical system died entirely.

    Nothing quenches the excitement of starting your airplane for the first time like a dead battery. With help from the FBO, we jumpstarted the airplane. I ran it for a while to charge up the battery, then taxied to the gas pump and shut the engine back down. After topping off the tanks, the engine started without difficulty. I surmised that the inspection on the previous day overtaxed the battery, too much time spent with the electrical system energized without the alternator running to replenish charge.

    Within minutes, Guthrie was at my tail and I was on course for a 668 nautical mile journey back to Three Rivers (HAI). Prior to this, the longest straight line distance I ever flew was the 125 nautical miles between Three Rivers and Ludington(LDM) flown five months earlier. Manipulating the controls of my new airplane, I was awash with an unforgettable feeling of excitement and trepidation.

    I had logged 30 minutes total in this airplane and I was about to fly it halfway across the country.

    My approximate route home.

    I flew at 5500 feet for most of the way with the GPS showing a typical ground speed of 114 knots (131mph). Flying with GPS was novel unto itself. It was only my second time flying with a GPS and my first flight with this particular GPS, a Lowrance 100, that was a present from Kristy.

    The air was calm and clear and the airplane flew magnificently. I marveled at the sight of the Tulsa skyline protruding through a blanket of ground fog. I carried no camera, deciding that I should do without the distraction while at the controls of an unfamiliar aircraft.

    Two hours later, just as planned, I let down into Bolivar, Missouri (M17). It was a crummy landing. I flared too high and plunked her onto the pavement. The folks in Bolivar were extremely friendly, consistent with the favorable comments I read about them on AirNav. They were delighted that I chose to stop there on my long trip and happy to hear that the on-line community held their little restaurant in such high esteem. I had a great omelet with toast for lunch, deciding to forgo the daily special of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. I topped off the tanks and noted that the fuel burn was consistent with expectations. All was as it should have been.

    With one third of the journey complete, I left Bolivar and continued past my original intended stop near St. Louis. Leaving Missouri, I was amazed at the incredible flatness and general desolation of southern Illinois. I typically keep my eyes open for potential landing sites in the event of an engine failure. This was a challenging exercise while crossing the Ozarks, but upon reaching Illinois, I quickly realized that keeping a careful eye on the terrain was moot. I could have put Warrior 481 down just about anywhere.

    Three hours out of Bolivar, I crossed the border into west central Indiana and let down toward Kentland, (50I). Though still outside of my home territory, tuning Kentland's Unicom frequency of 122.80 MHz brought forth a cacophony of radio calls from familiar places like Porter County, Knox, and Plymouth. These airports, all located in northern Indiana, shared 122.80 MHz with Three Rivers and I often heard them on the radio from home.

    Although the the view outside did not look like home, the region was certainly beginning to sound like it.

    The Land of Kent

    I announced five miles out and inbound for landing at Kentland ("Sounds like a cool place," commented Kent when I recounted the story to him).

    The Unicom operator responded to my call with a report of 16 knot winds running down the runway. That did not sound so terrible. However, I became worried as the descent brought me into very turbulent air. On final, I fought to keep the unfamiliar airplane stable on approach. The windsock swung this way and that in a gusty, directionally variable wind. A wind gust that coincided with touchdown of the main gear resulted in a skip with the airplane momentarily going airborne again. Noting that I still had plenty of runway, I leveled the nose, waited for the Warrior to sink, and flared again. This time, the airplane stayed put on the asphalt and I taxied in toward the ramp.

    It was cold in Kentland, below freezing with a wind that stole my breath away. I was ill prepared for the weather after three days in balmy Oklahoma. I squirmed into a jacket, put my head down against the wind, and walked to the FBO.

    The older fellow manning the FBO commented that he liked my landing. "Both of 'em," he grinned toothily.

    My chariot into town was the airport courtesy car, an old Crown Vic still sporting the spotlight from its days as a police cruiser. I consumed an uninspired meal at Subway while trying to call Kristy with the cell phone. Unfortunately, all I managed to say was "I'm eating dinner at a Subway in Indiana…" when the battery died. But at least she knew I was alive.

    Back at the Kentland airport, my call to the Terre Haute Flight Service Station revealed that the weather did not move out of southwest Michigan as predicted. Although the briefer told me that Kalamazoo was under IFR conditions, I could not obtain more relevant information from him. He could not or would not provide me with data from the weather reporting station in Sturgis (IRS), which is about ten miles from Three Rivers. From the traffic calls on Unicom, I knew that airports in northern Indiana were VFR. Somewhere in between these known locations of acceptable and poor weather lay my destination in Three Rivers, its weather unknown. I decided to fly as far north as I could, stopping overnight in northern Indiana if necessary. I had planned for exactly this contingency already and knew which airports were conveniently located near hotels.

    I departed Kentland and pushed the airplane to climb for all it was worth to escape the low altitude turbulence. An hour later, I was just south of Elkhart (EKM), Indiana. Even this close to Three Rivers, the visibility remained excellent and I could see Elkhart's north-south runway with ease. If Three Rivers was socked-in, Elkhart would have been a good place to divert. The Class D airport was the one where I met the examiner for my private pilot checkride and, as a result, I was quite familiar with it.

    "Triumphant" Homecoming

    When I was finally able to receive the relatively weak ATIS broadcast out of Kalamazoo, my heart sank. Consistent with what the briefer told me back in Kentland, Kalamazoo was shrouded by low clouds and visibility was two miles in snow. When I tried the Sturgis AWOS, however, my attitude underwent a sudden reversal as I listened to a report of 10 mile visibility and clear skies. Suddenly, I realized that I could see the Monsanto plant in Constantine, within ten miles of my destination. In the distance, a dark line of ominous clouds could be seen north of Three Rivers.

    Joyfully, I tossed all of the information on Elkhart into the back seat. I was going to make it home after all and would not be needing it.

    Entering my old practice area, finally back in familiar airspace, I pulled the throttle back for a descent over Constantine. The setting sun perched on my left wingtip and I momentarily wished that I had brought a camera to capture the moment. For the first time that day, my radio call rolled out with smooth familiarity.

    "Three Rivers traffic, Warrior 21481 is five to the south, inbound for two seven. Three Rivers."


    I activated the pilot controlled runway lighting and made my best landing of the day on runway 27. After my longest cross country flight to date, no other runway ever looked so good as that one did that night.

    N21481 on the ramp at Three Rivers after her first night in Michigan.

    I was home with my new airplane! Did I expect my arrival to be announced by a trumpet fanfare? No, but I was disappointed to find the place completely deserted and locked up for the night. So much for a triumphant homecoming.

    I taxied to a tie-down, now almost in complete darkness. It was much colder in Three Rivers than in central Indiana. After fighting with a pay-phone that would not accept any change, I managed to reach Kristy to ask for a ride home. I returned to the ramp and pried frozen tie-down ropes up from the asphalt. My lack of expertise in knot tying was certainly not helped by the frozen rope, but I managed to secure the airplane to my satisfaction before Kristy arrived. When she arrived, I took her by the hand and dragged her out to the ramp to see the airplane and sit in it. She indulged me with good humor.

    N21481 at Three Rivers prior to annual.

    The next day, John found space in his hangar and my airplane (my airplane!) spent a week waiting for its annual inspection under the same roof as my favorite Cessna 150, N9327U.

    But the story of buying Warrior 481 does not end there.

    The Annual

    John and Greg at Three Rivers conducted a very thorough annual. In the process, they discovered that the low static RPM issue was not related to valve timing or any error in the assembly of the Warrior's O-320 powerplant. The timing appeared to be fine. Rather, the low static RPM resulted from a combination of issues. The carb heat was partially open continuously (we had observed this during the pre-buy) and the throttle did not open all the way (not noticed during the pre-buy). Both of these robbed the engine from developing maximum power.

    Surprisingly, the primary source of low static RPM was a propeller pitched incorrectly! How could that be?

    The Warrior is type-certified for two propeller pitches: 58" and 60". When John pulled the spinner off of the propeller's hub, it was stamped as a 62". This higher pitch made the prop more of a "cruise prop" than a "climb prop", but reduced the static RPM.

    I called the Guthrie mechanic and the Prop Shop that "okayed" the propeller and discovered by interviewing them that there was some poor communication on this issue during the pre-buy inspection. The question we really needed to answer back in Guthrie was whether or not the propeller was pitched appropriately for the airplane. Though he could have answered the question without ever removing the propeller from the airplane, the mechanic in Guthrie did not check the stamp on the prop. The Prop Shop physically measured the pitch of the blades to verify that they were consistent with the stamp and, finding this to be the case, gave it their seal of approval. The Prop Shop did not assess whether a 62" pitch was at all appropriate for the Warrior.

    Just as in science, reaching truth usually requires asking the correct question.

    In the course of the annual inspection, John found several other items that were missed during the pre-buy inspection. Most of them were minor. In the end, while the money I saved on the aircraft purchase price did not go toward a valve timing repair, it was still quickly consumed in the course of troubleshooting and correcting the low static RPM problem.

    A New Home for an Old Warrior

    Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
    01 Apr 2004 N21481 HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - 0D1 (South Haven, MI) 1.0 174.6

    N21481 outside my first hangar in South Haven, April 5, 2004.

    On April 1, John released the airplane from annual. He grimaced as he presented me with the invoice. "First annuals can be really expensive," he commented apologetically. Yup, it was expensive. Expensive as it was, nothing was going to dampen my enthusiasm.

    After paying the bill, I launched from Three Rivers and turned toward South Haven, Warrior 481's new home. Though Three Rivers was my home base throughout training, there were no hangars available there. Sadly, too many of them were mausoleums filled with dust-covered airplanes on flat tires that had not taken wing in years. As John lamented, "people learn to fly here, buy their airplanes, and have to keep them somewhere else." It certainly was not great for his business.

    A few weeks prior to buying Warrior 481, Dave came to the rescue by arranging for me to sublet a hangar at the South Haven Area Regional Airport (0D1). Though this was a 45 minute drive from home versus the 20 minutes to Three Rivers, South Haven was a nicer field with a much more active pilot community. In short order, I was proud to call South Haven home.

    Over Lake Michigan with Kristy on April 7, 2004. Photo by Arjo.

    Airplane ownership brought many challenges and learning experiences with it. The first challenge, simply, was to wrap my brain around the notion that I actually possessed my own airplane and could fly it whenever, wherever, I wanted.