Sunday, January 27, 2013

Escape to Lock Haven

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
27 Jan 2013 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - LHV (Lock Haven, PA) - 5G0 2.5 1115.5

As an Upstate New York pilot in winter, I often feel trapped in Rochester.  I love to go places, particularly new places, but rarely do so in the winter months out of caution that unpredictable weather will prevent me from returning home.  However, with a consistent forecast for good weather on Sunday, I took to the sky and visited one of my favorite airports: Lock Haven, Pennsylvania.

A disintegrating ceiling hovered over Le Roy.  I flirted with its edge before climbing on top.

Below, the town of Le Roy lay in black and white winter doldrums.  Above, blue sky -- the kind that every Rochesterian hungers for in the winter -- reigned over a fluffy white undercast.  With good data showing Pennsylvanian skies to be clear, I turned south without hesitation.

Flying along in the smooth air above the clouds, I watched the specs of other airplanes, obviously (hopefully?) on IFR flight plans, skimming through the top of the stratus deck.  As I reached the state line, the ceiling crumbled, leaving the rough terrain below visible beneath a pronounced haze layer.

High, icy clouds above and, below, a blanket of earth tossed casually across the landscape.

North central Pennsylvania features some remarkable terrain. It is amazingly, verdantly, lush in the summer and beautiful in its austerity during the winter.

Eventually, the terrain gave way to a narrow, habitable plain bounded by the Susquehanna River to the north and a ridgeline to the south.  And in that narrow, flat valley, is the city of Lock Haven and the former home of Piper Aircraft.

I managed a lucky blind camera shot after establishing a stable final approach for runway 27R.  I have not landed my airplane often in the last several weeks, but the landing was an absolute greaser.

All was quiet on Unicom and there was no activity on the ramp.  As I walked toward the FBO, I wondered if anyone was there at all.  I opened the tinted glass door into the lobby and was startled to find several people inside.  Doug was ready and willing to give me a ride into town for lunch at Fox's Market House.  At the restaurant, I was seated at the counter which gave me a perfect view of the chaos that is restaurant work on a Sunday morning.

With the sun shining brightly and temperatures in the mid 30s, I was inspired to give my Vitamin D levels a boost by walking the mile or so back to the airport.  Instead of returning to my airplane, I visited the Piper Aviation Museum in the old Piper engineering building.  It was my first visit to the museum since June 2007, exactly five days before The Bear was born.

Except for the two women carrying out office duties, I had the entire facility to myself.  That suited me fine.  I took the time to read more of the displays than on my previous visit and I learned a lot about the company that conceived and built Warrior 481.

At the entrance of the hangar, I came nose to nose with a 1937 J-2 Cub, the airplane that really marked the beginning of William T Piper's influence on early aviation.  The story, like this blog post, began in Rochester, NY when Gordon and Clarence Taylor formed the Taylor Brothers Aircraft Corporation ("Buy your airplane Taylor made!").

Their offering was a two seat, side-by-side high wing monoplane called the Chummy.  The only example of a Chummy that I have ever seen hangs in the terminal of the Greater Rochester International Airport.  Perhaps these aircraft are scarce because they were not particularly popular.  Some time after Gordon was in a fatal crash of one of their designs, Clarence relocated the company to Bradford, PA.  The town offered him a factory at the airport and some $50,000 of investment funding.

One of those original investors was William Piper, who knew nothing about airplanes, but was a savvy businessman.  He and Clarence Taylor did not get along.  Piper argued that the Chummy was overpriced and underwhelming.  When Taylor designed the inexpensive E-2 Cub to be more competitive, Piper continually pressed him to make improvements.  While Taylor was home ill, Piper convinced Taylor's designer Walter Jamouneau to make improvements to the E-2 that resulted in the J-2 Cub.  Taylor left the company shortly thereafter and Piper eventually bought him out.  When the Bradford factory was destroyed in a 1937 fire, one of Piper's employees pitched his home town of Lock Haven where there was an abandoned silk mill that could house the aircraft company.

Piper moved operations to Lock Haven, renamed the company after himself, and in 1938, Jamouneau's next iteration of the Cub, the J-3, made its first flight.  It was the birth of an American aviation icon.

The Cub's famous yellow paint scheme traces its roots directly to William Piper's desire to promote safety by making the airplane highly visible.

Other aircraft on display in the Piper Museum represented some of Piper's successes, failures, and even some ideas that were ahead of their time.

This Aztec was built as a pressurized prototype.  Piper decided that the airframe was unsuitable for pressurization and donated the aircraft to the Flight Research Center at Mississippi State University where it was used for many years to conduct NASA flight research.  It was donated to the museum in 2000 by MSU with the agreement that it would not be flown again.

The PA-24 Comanche may be thought of as the forerunner to all Cherokees, which were built as simpler, less costly alternatives.

I always thought that the lines of the Comanche were quite elegant.  It's a shame that the Susquehanna River overrunning its banks in 1972 brought the Comanche era to a close.  Much of the tooling was destroyed in the flood and Piper chose not to recreate it.

In the early 1950's, Piper introduced its first tricycle gear airplane, the PA-22 Tri-Pacer.  By all accounts, these were good airplanes, though they sometimes go by unglamorous names like "the flying milkstool".  When I was just starting to consider buying an airplane, another South Haven pilot encouraged me to look closely at a Tri-Pacer for sale at a nearby airport.  Though I obviously passed on that deal, the Tri-Pacer was the first aircraft that I seriously investigated.

Yes, this photo is recycled from my 2007 blog post.  And...?

A gem of the collection is this 1947 PA-12 Super Cruiser, "The City of the Angels".  Together with sister ship "City of Washington", this simple tube and rag aircraft flew around the world from August 1947 to December 1947, covering 25,162 miles.  Because she was the first to land at the conclusion of the journey, "The City of the Angels" is credited as the first light aircraft to circumnavigate the globe.

"The City of the Angels" was purchased by Harry Mutter in 1997 and restored to its current, immaculate, state by Dave Liebegott.

Flags hand-painted along the side of the fuselage indicate the places visited by "The City of the Angels" during her 1947 worldwide odyssey.

One aspect of the museum that I found to be particularly interesting was learning about the aircraft that failed.  Many only exist as photographs: the Duck Amphibian, the twin-boomed Skycoupe, the single seat Skycycle, and the steerable gliding bomb or "glomb".  I viewed the failures as a sign of a healthy company; without failures, breakthroughs rarely occur.

Tangible, one of a kind artifacts include this 1942 Piper PT-1, intended as a military trainer.  It was Piper's first foray into building low wing aircraft.  This example, the only one ever built, was still undergoing restoration during my previous visit to the museum.

The tube and rag aircraft featured wooden wings and retractable gear.  The aircraft cruised at over 135 miles per hour on a 130 horsepower Franklin engine.

A birdcage canopy and dual instrument panels certainly gave the PT-1 a military trainer feel.  Though it looked the part, it was evidently not of interest to the military.

The wooden wings were remarkable - absolutely seamless.  I was reminded of the resin-impregnated plywood design of the Timm Tutor and wondered if Piper used a similar process for the PT-1.

I liked this elegant, if dated, logo on the PT-1 tail.

The final aircraft I examined was the one-of-a-kind Piper Papoose prototype.  Designed in the early 1960s as a two place trainer, the wings and fuselage were fiberglass.  Much like today's composites, the objective was to make an inexpensive, lightweight, and strong airframe.  

The airplane featured a sliding canopy and a flying tail like the one later implemented for Cherokees.

The wings, in a foreshadowing of modern composite designs, were constructed from 1/2 inch thick Kraft honeycomb paper impregnated with resin and sandwiched between layers of fiberglass cloth.  The museum cleverly lit the interior of the wing, revealing the honeycomb structure through the aircraft's plastic skin.

I have come face to face with the Link Trainer many times, starting with my days as a docent at the Air Zoo.  This was the first time I contemplated one since becoming an instrument student.  Given the amount of avgas I've burned droning around in holding patterns, I have finally come to appreciate the allure of simulators.

In 1984, Piper withdrew from the Lock Haven facility and consolidated operations in Vero Beach, FL.  Located in rural Pennsylvania, the company struggled to hire engineers willing to relocate there, town amenities were few for visiting customers seeking training, and, of course, winter really interferes with aeronautical endeavors (a state of affairs with which I am only too familiar).

After an hour in the museum, I strolled back to the FBO, walking atop the two-story high dike along the Susquehanna until I reached the William T Piper Memorial Airport (which is a mouthfull on Unicom, incidentally).

Though Piper may no longer operate in Lock Haven, there is no question that the oil man who bought his way into an aircraft company has made an indelible mark on the region.

Doug was surprised when I reappeared in the lobby.  "Did you walk back?"

"Sure," I responded.  "It's warm out, why not?"  At my use of the word "warm", Doug looked very dubious.

On departure, I flew parallel to the ridgeline south of the airport and out over town.  I followed the Susquehanna northwest back toward the terrain for an hour's cruise home.

The best emergency landing site in the region is the Palomino Airport, a private use airfield perched atop a hill 1260 feet above Lock Haven.  With that safety net bypassed within the first ten miles of the return flight, I trimmed the airplane for level cruise, programmed the GPS for Le Roy, and simply enjoyed looking out the window on the ride home.

As a post script: since I started IFR training, I have noticed that my VFR flying is considerably more precise than it used to be.  Not that I was ever particularly sloppy, but just look at those straight lines! 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Being a Good Neighbor

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
20 May 2010 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - local flight 1.0 808.5

It's a sadly familiar story.  Rural airport becomes surrounded by housing developments, new neighbors complain about noise, and the airport is lynched by its own community.  When relationships between airports and their neighbors sour, nobody is happy.

The situation that exists between the Buffalo-Lancaster Airport (BQR) and the surrounding community is a prime example of an adversarial relationship.  In a Buffalo News article from 2009, one neighbor critical of the airport claimed that aircraft were literally flying between people's homes. This strikes me as completely absurd, but is readily accepted by a non-flying public that stereotypes aviators as reckless.  The point of this example, however, is not to ridicule those opposing the airport, but to illustrate how significantly relations between airport and community have degraded.

In these situations, aviators are often left scratching their heads and a common response is, "the airport was here first, why did you move so close if the airplanes bother you?"  This is quite often true and a perfectly valid argument, but logic and facts are not always productive when the houses are already built and occupied.

Ray, the owner and operator of my home base in Le Roy, has taken a different approach with the community; a less adversarial stance that seems to work well.

Le Roy Airport in its previous incarnation, July 1, 2006.

In 2009, the runway at Le Roy was increased in length from 2640' to 3855', which brought the approach end of runway 28 significantly closer to some homes at the east end of the airport.  Thus, aircraft on final approach were passing over those homes at lower altitudes than before.

The call came to Ray in the spring of 2010.  A homeowner, let's call him "David", was outside with his family when a light twin passed over their house on final approach for runway 28.  Neither David nor his family had noticed the change in crossing altitude previously because the lengthened runway went into service in cold weather.  But, as they watched the aircraft pass overhead on a warm spring day, they were spooked by what they perceived to be an aircraft flying inappropriately low.

Runway extension in progress, June 24, 2009

David called Ray with his concerns.  To his credit, he did not rant about reckless pilots or make threats against the airport, he merely questioned the change and its potential impact on him and his family.  Ray invited David to visit the airport and fly with a local pilot to get perspective on what the pilots see and how pattern operations work.  Then, Ray called me and requested that I take David flying.

When David arrived at the airport, he was warmly greeted by Ray and given a bit of a tour.  I brought David into my hangar and explained about pattern operations: what the standard pattern is, how it is flown, and the safety reasons underlying the way that it is flown.  David was a nice guy, but very reserved and nearly unreadable as we talked.

September 25, 2009, shortly after the runway extension went into service

Next, I moved on to the airplane and described it and its capabilities.  When taking someone flying for the first time, I always try to gauge their comfort level.  During this discussion, David quietly revealed that he had once taken flying lessons at the Le Roy airport in a Cessna 150.  This was many years earlier and he had stopped before soloing.  He was clearly assured by the fact that my description of airport operations aligned with his memory of those long ago lessons.

I had become a credible source of information.

"Oh!"  I exclaimed at his revelation.  "Then you already know all about this stuff!  Are you ready to fly?"

September 25, 2009

David indicated that he was.  We launched into the sky over Le Roy and I flew what I considered to be a typical pattern for me.  As we crossed over the top of his house, David looked down and commented, "from this perspective, we don't look that low to me."

As we landed, I confessed that I tend to fly steeper approaches than the PAPI (precision approach indicator lights) would generally indicate.  We flew the pattern again.  This time, I flew the final approach so as to drag us in along the shallowest trajectory of the visual glideslope.  While David still felt that we cleared his house with a reasonable altitude margin (which is great), it actually made me uncomfortable.

The Le Roy Airport, July 1, 2011, from the east.  David's house is out of frame at the bottom of the picture.

"Nobody should be flying lower than that over your house," I commented.  "Besides, that big tree in the front yard that's taller than your house?  No one will want to hit that."  Having seen that tree slide under the nose from a pilot's perspective, David emphatically agreed.

On the third trip around the pattern, I pulled the throttle to idle and made a power-off landing as a demonstration that, even in the event of an engine failure, an overhead aircraft was unlikely to pancake straight down into his home.

We launched again, but this time, departed the pattern.  I offered David the opportunity to do some flying.  David accepted my offer and flew with a steady hand while executing several well-coordinated turns. As I have commented before, I am often surprised at how well kinesthetic memory lingers in lapsed flyers.

Back at the airport, David shook my hand warmly and thanked me for the flight.  I have not encountered him since.  That was nearly three years ago and Ray has received no more phone calls from the east end neighbors.  While it is inappropriate to generalize a clear set of lessons learned from a single case study, I think Ray's effort to make a human connection with David was spot on.

Here's why:

  • We demonstrated that we respected him and took his concerns seriously.  We accepted the burden of proof in demonstrating how flight operations actually work, rather than simply dismissing him as a complainer.
  • We put a human face on the airport and (at least one of) the airplanes passing over the top of David's house.  I think this is the most effective way to prevent the development of an "us versus them" mentality. 
  • We clearly demonstrated that he was welcome at the airport.  While many airports -- including Le Roy -- are surrounded by fences for the sake of safety or the illusion of security, these fences do us a disservice in that they segregate the airport from the surrounding community.  When the neighbors feel excluded by a group of people in their midst (in this case, pilots), "us versus them" sets in.  We showed that we were happy to have David visit; there's no class warfare at 5G0.
  • We were able to demonstrate the culture of safety that exists at the airport and within the pilot community, combating false stereotypes of reckless pilots.
  • And, finally, we gave our neighbor a memorable experience from the pilot perspective and this clearly defused his concerns.
It is well worth noting that the exercise worked both ways and that my perceptions were affected as well.  After flying with David, I am much more likely to think about how my actions impact others on the ground.  More specifically,when I fly over that house, I know that it belongs to David and I have no desire to trouble my neighbor unnecessarily.

I cannot help but wonder if some of the toxic relationships that exist between other communities and their airports might have taken a different path had those airports engaged with the neighbors differently.

Regardless, I would much rather have the neighbors think kindly of me as I fly overhead than grit their teeth.

This post was inspired by a similarly themed article on the iFLYblog from November 2012.  Thanks for the inspiration, Brent!