Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Fall Afternoon with The Bear

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
17 Nov 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - ROC (Rochester, NY) - DSV (Dansville, NY) - 5G0 1.9 1104.7

I have a Little Bear who likes to fly with me, but time and circumstance have prevented that from happening lately.

For Saturday, we agreed that any aeronautical adventure we pursued needed to involve pancakes.  My little girl loves her pancakes and I happened to know that the diner in Dansville, a twenty minute flight from Le Roy, served breakfast all day long.  Unfortunately, we were both famished before we ever reached the airport and decided to consume local pancakes, rather than defer gratification until Dansville.

While waiting for our food at the Gunsmoke Country Grill, we planned our flight.  Turns were definitely in order.  When I asked about turning to the right versus turning left, The Bear enthusiastically endorsed both directions.  We talked about how to pitch the airplane up and down and The Bear became very excited about trying her hand at that.  She also wanted to fly over the city and land at the "big airport" where all the jets landed (Rochester).  Working with air traffic control there would be good practice for me, too.

We embarked with great excitement (above).  After a run up, we held short of Runway 10 at Le Roy waiting for another aircraft to finish their practice on the VOR-alpha instrument approach.  The Bear asked more questions about previously unexplored instrumentation on the panel before her.  I asked The Bear to watch for an airplane crossing low over the airport at an angle from the southeast.  It would be coming from her side and she was better positioned to see it.  She spotted the Cherokee right away and we waited for it to turn onto the missed approach course before taking the runway.

"No sign of the mystery airplane," observed The Bear as we climbed into the sky.

"Mystery airplane?" I asked.

"Sure, we don't know who they were!" she answered, referring to the Cherokee practicing on the VOR-alpha approach earlier.

As we were still climbing, The Bear commented, "with all those pancakes I just ate, I'm not sure that I have room in my belly for pancakes from Dansville."

"We're not going to Dansville for pancakes, sweetie.  We decided to eat before we flew instead."  Clearly, we had a failure to communicate.  Understanding on The Bear's part was quickly followed by a complete meltdown.  Evidently, she REALLY wanted to go to Dansville.

Wings pointed toward the Earth always seem to cheer up The Bear.  I did a few steep turns in the hazy air northwest of Rochester.  Halfway through the first one, The Bear had already pulled herself out of her emotional nosedive.  When she had herself back under control, I suggested we fly into Rochester.

"Cool!" she said.

At this point, I became busy with an approach controller who was rather busy himself.  We were told to expect Runway 25 and asked to fly on a due east heading to pass north of downtown Rochester.

We were invited to enter a left base for Runway 25 as we crossed the Genesee River.  After verifying with the controller that he actually meant a right base, we turned southeast and crossed right over the middle of downtown at 2000'.  It was the closest I had ever flown to the city of Rochester.  Had we been just a little further west, we would have had a tremendous view of High Falls, but they passed unseen beneath the Warrior's belly.

The buildings seemed close enough to touch.  These photos were taken without optical zoom or cropping.

Over the heart of downtown, I had visual contact with the Cessna that we were supposed to follow to Runway 25.  As we turned final for Runway 25, we were closer behind the Cessna than I had originally intended.  I slowed the Warrior down as much as I dared just before Rochester Tower called.

"Cherokee 481, that Cessna will be full stop.  Runway 28 is available."  I turned to look.  The runway threshold was directly off my right wingtip and we were rather high.  I accepted the challenge and we were cleared to land.

We came in with power off, full flaps, and a bit of a slip.  The commercial terminal was ahead and to our right.  "Look, little Bear, we're landing at the big airport where the jets land."

The Bear did not respond.  She was sound asleep.

I knew we shouldn't have eaten before flying!

On short final for Runway 28, The Bear slumped over on top of me.  I flew the airplane with my left hand and maneuvered my unconscious daughter back into her seat with my right.  The landing was a greaser.

On the roll, we were told to make right traffic for Runway 28.  Abeam the threshold, Tower cleared us to land, then retracted the clearance and asked us to extend our downwind for traffic landing on Runway 22.

Just before we reached the river, Tower cleared us to turn right base at our discretion and to expect a landing clearance on final approach.  We did and it was another greaser.

Climbing away from Runway 28 again, Tower remained silent.  Just shy of pattern altitude, I decided to remind them of our presence.

"Cherokee 481 requesting one more touch and go and then we'll be direct Le Roy."

"Roger, November 481.  You can turn right or left, whatever you prefer.  In fact, no one is using 25 if you want to switch runways."

"481 will transition to a left downwind for Runway 25."

Tower approved.  We made a wide left turn to enter a downwind leg for Runway 25 just south of the Runway 4 threshold.

We negotiated the pattern, greased the wheels onto Runway 25, and launched again.  We were given a new squawk code, instructed to fly runway heading, and switched over to Departure.  Working with the tower was great practice for me after a few weeks of not flying, especially with the tower changing things up on me for each trip around the pattern.

As we flew back toward Le Roy, The Bear was still sound asleep.  I felt terrible that she had slept through the landings at Rochester.  She had been so excited for us to land where the "big" (it is Rochester, so, hence the quotes) jets land.  How could I make it up to her?

"Little Bear, are you awake?" I asked.

No response.  I put my hand on her leg and shook her lightly.  "I was thinking that we could go to Dansville and get some ice cream."  She made no verbal response, but nodded slightly.  The neurons in charge of ice cream never sleep.

And, so, we found ourselves in Dansville eating ice cream.  Refreshed from her nap and abuzz with the effects of the ice cream, The Bear was quite a handful for the rest of the evening.

I asked her if she wanted to use the restroom there or wait until we got "home" (Le Roy).

"Ask me like 'shoot him now, shoot him now'," she exclaimed in reference to the classic Bugs Bunny / Daffy Duck short Rabbit Seasoning.  I did; it was wacky.

"What are you doing?" I asked her as we buckled our seatbelts in preparation to fly home.

"Playing the guitar, silly!"  She thrummed her shoulder harness for emphasis (above).

On the way home, The Bear studied the instruments closely.  "You're off course," she informed me when the GPS-driven CDI deviated a half dot left of center.  As a kid, I used read the speedometer and point out to my parents when they were speeding.  What was I thinking when I taught her to read the CDI? 

Is it possible to be a "backseat navigator" from the front seat?

Back at Le Roy, with the airplane safely snoozing in her hangar, The Bear listened to me arrange dinner plans with Kristy.

"We're going to Bazil the restaurant?" she asked when I hung up the phone.

"Yes, as opposed to basil, the stuff we grow in the front window of the house."

"The restaurant's probably healthier than that basil," she opined.  The Bear loves fresh basil on her homemade pizzas and omelets.  Ergo, the yummy stuff was clearly unhealthy.

"Basil is way better for you than the ice cream you just ate," I informed her.

"Yeah, cream is... just so...great," she responded.  She is her father's daughter in so many ways.

"Do you want to go flying again soon?" I asked, somewhat hesitantly.

"YES!" she shouted.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Return to Service (Part III)

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
15 Nov 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - GVQ (Batavia, NY) - FZY (Fulton, NY) - 5G0 2.4 1102.8

On Sunday, a gorgeous November day peaking at 74°F, I pulled Warrior 481 out of the hangar in hopes of flying.  After a careful preflight, I boarded and ran through the engine start procedure.  All was going well until I reached the checklist item: "Starter...Engage".

Absolutely nothing happened; no movement, no sound.

This was a reasonable indication that my eight year old Gill G35 battery had finally shuffled off its mortal coil. Perhaps all that cranking at the time of the fire on top of old age was what did it in.  Considering that the shop in Columbia County had to charge the battery to start the airplane after the repairs, I am grateful that it clung to enough charge for one last start.  The final act of that heroic battery was to turn a cold Lycoming O-320 over at a remote airport so that the Warrior could finally come home.

With flying thwarted for the day, I removed the top portion of the vertical fin to inspect the VOR antenna in hopes of finding a logical reason for the Warrior's aberrant VOR reception.  I found the ground for the antenna to be completely detached.  That looked like a smoking gun to me.

Additionally, the carburetor heat control had become very stiff; collateral damage to the cable sheath from the fire.

And, still I wondered: why would the airplane not start while warm at Columbia County, the incident that snowballed into the eventual fire?

With all of these discrepancies adding up, it was time to call Jim for more help.

By Monday night, I had a new Concorde sealed battery installed.  That night, I gave the Warrior a much needed bath in the hangar as a storm raged outside.

On Thursday morning, we flew to the shop in Batavia.  The new battery spun the prop just fine, but the engine still seemed reluctant to catch.  By midday, the VOR antenna wiring was fixed, the carburetor heat cable lubricated, and the left magneto (the one with the induction coupling responsible for starting the engine) had a new coil.  The old coil was weak and, though resistance through it was within specification at room temperature, application of heat caused it to immediately climb beyond specification limits.

"And that's why your airplane wouldn't start when warm," Jim commented.

Warrior 481 now starts within a single blade, more crisply than I can recall her starting in a long time.  Clearly, coil performance had degraded slowly over time and I simply did not notice it was happening.

Although the landing light worked when I departed Le Roy that morning, I discovered on preflight that it had burned out sometime that morning.  That nasty little maintenance gremlin just had to get the last word in for the day.

After departure, we intercepted and tracked good ol' Victor 252 directly to the Geneseo VOR and the CDI indicated accurately the entire time.  I suspect that instrument training might be facilitated by accurately-reading navigation radios!

Satisfied that I finally had my airplane back, that training and pleasure flying could finally resume, I made a relaxing flight east to Oswego County for fuel and returned along the Lake Ontario shoreline.

It felt pretty darn good to have the airplane properly returned to service!

I am tremendously grateful to Jim and Brian at Boshart Enterprises for getting me into the shop on short notice to get 481 all fixed up.  These guys take great care of me and the events of the last three weeks have made me even more keenly aware of it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

...There's Ire (Part II)

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
6 Nov 2012 N21481 1B1 (Hudson, NY) - 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) 2.0 1100.4

Rescue at 85 Knots

Gently conveyed over a post-autumnal landscape by a smoothly purring 90 horsepower Continental, I pointed my camera outside and happily snapped photographs. For the first time in days, the gray gloom dissipated and a long absent sun drew forth brilliant colors from the terrain below. It was a tight fit for me in the back of Ed's 1957 Aeronca 7FC Tri-Champ, but it was a wonderfully idyllic journey. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than riding in the back seat of a well-maintained vintage airplane.

On October 22, Darrell and I experienced an induction system fire while starting the Warrior at Columbia County Airport (1B1) in southeast New York.  Fortunately, the fire proved to be mostly a non-issue and I was grateful - initially - that it happened on a field with a maintenance shop.

The repair plan was for my regular shop, Boshart Enterprises, to fix the carburetor heat airbox damaged in the fire and send it to Columbia County Airport for installation.  I was keen to recover the airplane before Hurricane Sandy made landfall.  Plan A was to fly the airbox down on Friday October 26, wait for it to be installed, then fly the airplane home.  Dan agreed to fly me down in his RV-7A.  Unfortunately, completion of the airbox repair took longer than I anticipated and the actual weather was not nearly so promising as the forecast, so I scrubbed the mission.  On the bright side, this meant that I was able to spend part of my morning at The Bear's school listening to the teachers there extol her virtues; not a bad trade at all.

I was assured that my airplane would remain safely inside during Sandy's landfall.  "We would never store an airplane outside while it is taken apart."  Awesome.  Sandy visited her considerable wrath on the eastern seaboard on Monday, knocking out  power as far away as my hometown north of Detroit.

On Tuesday, October 30, I received a voicemail from the shop in Columbia County stating that the airbox was reinstalled and that all was well.  Bill did not indicate anything about a collapsed hangar, flooding, or any damage to my airplane, contrary to the disaster-movie-caliber worst case scenarios I had imagined all week.  Knowledge that my Warrior survived Hurricane Sandy unscathed brought me a tremendous amount of relief.

Dissatisfied Customer

The very next day, Mike called from Columbia County.  "Hey guy, I just wanted to let you know that we think your starter is fried.  We couldn't get your airplane to start and I wanted to let you know because your bill is getting kind of high with labor and $50 a night hangar storage."

It was like a double punch to the gut.  I paused for a moment to keep from sputtering, purposefully focusing my thoughts on the most important issue first: the starter.  I questioned Mike about his diagnosis of the starter failure. A damaged starter struck me as a reasonable possibility.  I had cranked for a long time to ensure that the induction system fire was sucked back into the engine.  But was he sure that the starter was actually fried?  The data supporting his diagnosis were a bit soft.

When that conversational thread ended, I switched immediately to his mention of the previously undisclosed "storage fee", a concept that I found to be utterly flabbergasting from a maintenance shop.  "So, please help me airplane was in pieces and under your care for maintenance and you're charging me a storage fee?  Really?"

To his credit, Mike backpedaled.  "Well, you've been in there for nine days, but we can probably have that knocked down and just charge you for four."

Gee, thanks.

I hung up the phone, annoyed, and sat quietly for a moment as waves of frustration washed over me.  The fire, a week of worrying about my airplane abandoned in the path of the much ballyhooed "Frankenstorm", my frustration with the unhelpful and expensive shop in Columbia County, and even broader concerns about fuel prices and access to airspace all came together in a mountain of despair.  For the first time since buying Warrior 481 in April 2004, I seriously wondered if all the effort and expense were really worth it anymore.

I called my regular mechanic, Jim, and explained the situation.  Dubious that the starter was actually damaged, he provided some troubleshooting procedures that should take no more than a few minutes to try.  I relayed these to Mike, but he seemed uninterested in trying them.

Several hours later, I received another call from Mike explaining that the starter was fine and that the problem was, in fact, a weak battery.  This was also not a surprising outcome given the load I placed on it with all that fruitless cranking a week earlier.  I could not help but wonder why it took so long for a professional aircraft repair station to differentiate a battery problem from a bad starter.  Mike promised to charge the battery before I picked up the airplane.

"Do you want us to store the airplane inside or outside?" he asked me.  Still galled by the hidden storage fee, I pulled up the Weather Channel webpage, verified that no significant adverse weather was forecast for the region, and told him to tie it down outside.

Curses, Foiled Again...And Again...

I went back to watching for a suitable weather window.  For several days in a row, forecasts of sun would persist until late in the preceding day, then jump to the next day.  And then, the next.  Suitable weather remained tantalizingly out of reach.

Plan B was for Darrell and I to fly down Sunday, November 4.  I would be safety pilot for Darrell on the way down and Ed B would ride along to serve as Darrell's safety pilot on the return flight.  I called my friends in Groton and arranged another lunch gathering.  Sunday dawned dark and dreary in outright defiance of the forecast.  I cancelled with my friends again, feeling a bit like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown, and pushed the rescue mission to Monday.

Plan C, Monday, withered on the vine as Darrell, Ed, Darrell's youngest son, and I sat in the Le Roy terminal building watching snow - unforecast, dreadful snow - fall for half the day.  At 1:00 pm, I stood up, looked outside at the light snow and said, "ok, we're done, here.  How about tomorrow?" 

Darrell had to work on Tuesday, but Ed is retired and was happy to volunteer his time and airplane to the cause.  Plan D was born.

I left the airport and drove to Boshart Enterprises to thank Jim personally for all of his help.  I was reminded of Cheers as I stepped onto the shop floor.  Everyone welcomed me by name and asked if I had the airplane back home yet.  They all knew the tale of what had happened.  As I shook Jim's hand in thanks, he noted that he didn't charge me any labor on the airbox repair, saying "you're getting raked over the coals enough by those other guys."

Plan D

Ed is a wonderful, outgoing fellow with a booming voice and friendly manner who dearly loves flying his Champ around the local area.  Every year at the Geneseo Airshow ("The Greatest Show on Turf"), Ed flies the Tri-Champ during the flight of L-birds.  I do not know where the expression "pleased as punch" comes from, but when I hear it, I always picture the grin on Ed's face when he talks about flying in that airshow every year.

Sitting behind Ed in the Tri-Champ, I was reminded of years past and flying with Dave in his Super Decathlon.  My last flight in the Decathlon was in 2004 when Dave flew me to Muskegon, MI to retrieve the Warrior after an avionics repair.

The iFly 700 GPS on Ed's instrument panel, looking out of place amidst a collection of analog 1950s era instruments, indicated an average ground speed of 77 knots.  In level flight, the Champ showed an indicated airspeed of 85.  Our flight time to Columbia County would be close to three hours.

Downtown Canandaigua, NY

It is unusual for Ed to fly very high or far away from home.  Though well within his capability, our mission was a bit outside his typical operations envelope.  We skimmed low over Canandaigua on a southeast course.  Ed commented apologetically that we would not reach our destination very quickly and I explained that I was perfectly content to just ride along and look out the window.  It was a beautiful day.

"You're like me, then," he responded, adding how much fun he was having acting as safety pilot for Darrell.

Our course took us across most of the larger Finger Lakes, starting with Canandaigua.

Looking out the window, I saw an outdoor amphitheater that was easily identifiable as CMAC (it did not hurt that we were low enough for me to read "CMAC" on the side of the building).  Kristy and I went there with friends earlier this year to see Sarah McLachlan perform with backup from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Though we watched snow descend on Le Roy Monday morning, portions of the landscape still retained their harvest colors.

To our mutual delight, the sky cleared almost completely by the time we reached Seneca Lake.

As we crossed the massive lake near the north end, I asked Ed about how he came to buy the unusual Tri-Champ.  He responded that he bought it from an elderly pilot who had only racked up single digit hours annually for several years.

Holy corrosion, Batman!  "Yikes!  What was the condition of the engine when you bought it?"

Ed chuckled and told me that, in his first year of ownership, one of the pistons broke and the engine lost power.  He managed to land at his home airport without putting a scratch on the airplane, but it was a sudden plunge into the deep end of the airplane maintenance pool for him.  However, the incident occurred many years ago and, as we flew over the narrow lake, the rebuilt engine did not so much as hiccup.

A few minutes later we crossed Cayuga Lake which is The Bear's favorite Finger Lake.  "Because the name sounds like the noise made by an old-timey car horn," I explained.

Our flight path took us south of Owasco Lake.  By then, we were cruising at 4000 feet, unusually high for Ed and the Tri-Champ.

"Doesn't look like any summer camp I'd care to visit," I commented to Ed as we flew over the Cayuga Correctional Facility.  He agreed completely.

Harbingers of winter could be seen from miles away; a white rectangle here, frosted pine trees there.  Monday's snow still clung to the higher elevations south of Syracuse.

At times, neither Ed nor I spoke, both of us surveying the countryside.  During the silence, I worried about the condition of my airplane.  Would the engine be warm enough to start after sitting outside overnight?  Would it have hangar rash?  Did they even bother to lock it after pushing it outside?  Sadly, these dour thoughts were brought on by my lack of trust in the crew at Columbia County.

From the back seat of the Champ, I monitored our progress against visual waypoints.  As we crossed I-81, I knew that we were due south of Syracuse.

In time, the Catskill Mountains came into view, their peaks shrouded in light afternoon haze.

We passed north of the Catskills, avoiding turbulence from the northwesterly winds.

Crossing the Hudson River, we found ourselves in the home stretch.

Over the town of Hudson, we both struggled to locate the airport.  I saw it first, a single nondescript runway surrounded by trees that angled across the landscape.


Ed rolled his Champ onto the runway with graceful aplomb.

"Nice,"I complimented.

"Eh, I've seen better," responded Ed.  I smiled as I realized that I say nearly the same thing when complimented on a landing.

I found the Warrior tied down on a far corner of the ramp. A quick inspection found it to be dirty (from weather and greasy handprints) and unlocked, though nothing appeared to be missing from inside.  Opening the cowl, I discovered a foot-long white zip tie left lying on top of the engine.  Sloppy.  As part of a rigorous pre-flight inspection, I went over every screw in the cowling and all the airbox connections before satisfying myself that the airplane was ready to fly.

Inside the terminal building, another transient aviator pointed to Ed's airplane.  "Can you explain that to me?" he asked.  I grinned, explaining that it was a 1957 Tri-Champ, one of roughly 411 built (per Ed, Wikipedia claims 472) by Aerona with factory installed tricycle gear.

"Ed thinks that there are only about 17 of them still flying, so it's a relatively rare airplane," I added.

The grandmotherly woman at the counter handed me an envelope with my keys, logbook stickers, and invoice.  The total bill, which included eight hours of labor and five (not four) days of "hangar rent" was three times higher than what Jim had charged to rebuild the airbox and just shy of a four digit figure.

I grit my teeth and paid the bill, hoping to never have a mechanical issue in a high rent district ever again.

I helped Ed fuel his Champ, which burned a miserly ten gallons during our nearly three hour flight to Columbia County.

I was happy to find that the Warrior's engine had warmed to 45°F under the bright sun.  I predicted that a cold start would not be an issue and, indeed, the engine cranked right over and ran smoothly.

I took off from Columbia County and turned toward a line of mountains submerged below the haze layer.  Ed had a fifteen minute head start on me.   I looked for him along the GPS-direct course to Le Roy, hoping to at least get an aerial photo of his beloved tube and rag Champ, but never saw him (nor he me).

I settled in for the cruise home at 6500 feet with a ground speed of 115 knots.  It felt good to be back in the air and especially good to be back in my airplane.  I scanned the familiar panel and took comfort in the array of needles and instruments all indicating where they should.

The return flight took two hours with the sun setting while I was over Canandaigua Lake.  Immediately after I broadcast that I was five miles southeast of Le Roy, I heard Ed's voice on the radio.

"All right, Chris!"  Ed broadcast in a gruffly jubilant tone.  It was good to have my airplane home after the fire, the hurricane, and the frustrating maintenance experience.

"I'm right over the middle of Seneca Lake showing 45 minutes to Le Roy," Ed added.  

After landing, I did some minor work on the airplane (cleaning, winterization) as I waited for Ed to land.  Ed flies often at night and I was not particularly concerned about him, but nonetheless did not want to leave without knowing that he was back safely.

"That was a long flight," Ed said to me and Ray in the Le Roy terminal building as he sank into a chair.  "It was so smooth out there that, without anyone to talk to, I almost fell asleep!"  The twinkle in his eye suggested otherwise; he had loved every minute of it and would happily do it again.


One of the greatest things about the general aviation community is the way that aviators help each other.  Darrell, Ed B, Ed V, and Dan from Le Roy have all helped when I needed to retrieve my airplane from some other location.  At times in the past two weeks, I had more offers for help than I could actually use!  Likewise, I have flown others over the years to retrieve their airplanes.  This experience truly reinforced that notion of community for me. 

This spirit of community also extends to the mechanics I have worked with in the past.  John (Three Rivers, MI), Allen (South Haven, MI), everyone at Boshart Enterprises (Batavia, NY), and "Helicopter Ray" (Williamson, NY) have all provided prudent care of my airplane and sage advice.  With this past experience, perhaps it is not surprising that I was unprepared for a shop operating in a less benevolent mode.  

I suspect that the greatest difference between the shop on the field at Columbia County and the other shops in my experience is clientele.  The other mechanics focus on predominantly single engine piston aircraft and understand the delicate balance between running a profitable business and doing what they can to keep airplanes flying affordably and safely.  After all, if owners cannot afford to fly their airplanes, the maintenance business will cease to exist.  Columbia County, however, specializes in large turbine aircraft that operate on budgets inconceivable to owners like me.  I imagine that the economics of servicing private jet aircraft combined with the more onerous Part 135 regulations result in a very different operational model for a shop.

For me, the lesson is this: woe upon the owner of a lowly piston aircraft that breaks down in kerosene-burner territory.