Saturday, June 20, 2020

Lousy Tenants

After my discovery a week prior that starlings had taken up residence in Warrior 481's engine compartment, I shooed the (living) birds out of the airplane and replaced the dislodged bucket intended to block the circular opening in the cowling. At the time, I had no way to further remedy the situation.

Kristy and I returned on the following Saturday to clean up the engine compartment. After all, someone needed to do it and when Ray has time to install the engine, I would rather he spent his effort on the technical work than cleaning up bird shit.

To be clear, starlings are awful tenants and sloppy engineers. Some of the nesting material -- twigs, dried grass, a few candy wrappers, and one cigar wrapper -- was actually incorporated into a nest, but much of it was simply scattered everywhere. There were two dead birds lying in the bottom of the cowling, one of them obviously a baby that had been pushed out of the nest. Bird droppings were everywhere, mostly on the lower bowl of the cowling, but also on the engine mounts and places sensitive to corrosion. A foul smell permeated the compartment.

I removed what I could manually, including the dead birds, then scrubbed everything down. The most satisfying moment came when I returned with a full bucket of clean water that I sluiced into the lower bowl, flushing the remaining hard to reach nesting materials out the bottom of the cowling (photo above). In its wake, everything was clean again.

By purging the mess I purged a little bit of the stress I have been carrying at the same time. Kristy spot cleaned bird droppings accumulated on the airframe while I blocked up all the holes in the cowling again. I stretched a bungee cord around the back of the bucket to prevent it from being knocked inside again.

Nesting season might be over, but I am taking no chances. Just say no to squatters.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

A Socially Distanced Fly-Out

Time Capsule

With the explosion of COVID-19 in the United States, our nation largely shut itself down in March. Per the CDC, there were 119,055 deaths attributed to COVID-19 as of 20 June 2020. I have been working from home since the second week of March while Kristy scrambled to teach band classes remotely and The Bear adjusted to a new paradigm of only seeing her classmates through tiled Zoom windows on a Chromebook. It has been a stressful time for everyone as social contact gave way to isolation, the US unemployment rate spiked to 14.7% in April 2020, and the economy tumbled into an abyss of uncertainty. As if our physical isolation was not enough, another massive spark was tossed into the dry kindling that are race relations in our country; an event that resulted in a collective outcry of "Why has this happened again?" 2020 has been an exhausting year to be a human being.

It has also been an interesting time to be a scientist and to observe the general public's varied reactions to a natural scourge. The resoundingly strident denial of inconvenient data reinforces that unbiased interpretation of information is not a natural human state, but rather a learned discipline. That lack of discipline is evident from the appalling politicization of the pandemic. One thing that can be said of the universe at large; it has no interest in politics or economics. It just is. But none of this is really news to anyone, is it? Just ask Galileo.

To put it mildly, a global pandemic makes for an interesting backdrop to chairing the Williamson Flying Club's Activities Committee. All but incidental in-person social interaction was halted. That included the flight training that is the club's lifeblood, member and Board of Directors meetings, and all activities. Those who continued to commit aviation did so following an SOP meant to curtail viral spread and they did it without any instructors on board. If they shared a cockpit with someone outside of their household, mask use was required. Although the ability to fly was generally unrestricted, there was simply nowhere to go with so many restaurants and other attractions closed.


With COVID-19 rates falling in New York state, we are experiencing something of a second spring. Not a free-for-all, per se, but an ability to loosen some of our protective isolation. The idea for our first COVID-era fly-out came from Brad and his sister Melodie. Why not fly somewhere for a socially-distanced picnic lunch? I put some structure around this idea, chose what I thought was an appropriately idyllic location (Piseco Airport, K09, in the Adirondacks), and pitched the idea to the WFC Board of Directors. After some back and forth with clarification on Board-required precautions, I sent an invitation for our first club fly-out activity since the disastrous March 7 trip to Dansville that left Warrior 481 stranded there for months.

The call to action was a simple one: grab an airplane, a picnic lunch, and a camp chair to enjoy a socially distanced event with fellow members. Have fun, but follow the Board-mandated COVID-19 rules; no arguments, no exceptions. The eighteen people who attended were a testament to the pent-up demand for this type of event.

With a borderline forecast in the mountains, we changed our plans that morning to fly west rather than east. I pitched the Perry Warsaw Airport (01G) knowing that there was a grassy picnic area shaded beneath a massive tree right on the edge of the turf runway. Like Piseco, Perry Warsaw is a generally quiet airport with adequate parking and a relatively small pilot population. It fit the bill for our event perfectly.

A Return to Activity

When it became apparent that Warrior 481 would not be back in the air in time for the event, Tom and Alicia offered to carry me as ballast with them in Archer Eight Five X-Ray.

Observing the mask use requirement in club aircraft, we nonetheless gave the camera our best COVID-19 smiles. Though the smiles are not actually visible, I like to think that they softened our eyes.

Eight aircraft launched from the Williamson Sodus Airport, the first mass departure in many months. As I watched the aircraft queue up for departure, my heart fluttered a bit with pride knowing that I had helped make this event happen.

Due to hangar availability, Paula's new-to-her airplane, Nine Four Romeo, was relegated to a tie down in our open hangar where it is generally open season on the aircraft during nesting season. With my hangar empty, I offered it to Paula so that Nine Four Romeo would be protected from the birds. The timing worked out well; Paula got a hangar of her own the same week that Penn Yan finished Warrior 481's engine.

Brad and Melodie in Two Mike Sierra photographed from Eight Five X-Ray

It was a bit of a shock to see the lush world below. For the first time in years, I had missed the transformation of brown to green.


The Perry Warsaw Airport (01G)

Perry Warsaw periodically plays host to skydiving activities, but Rochester Approach confirmed for us that no one was jumping that morning. During my years at Le Roy, Perry Warsaw was a common destination for me when I wanted crosswind landing practice. My last flight there was with The Bear to attend a 2014 pancake breakfast.

Downwind for runway 28 just north of Silver Lake in Perry, NY

As usual, we arrived as a gaggle, but did a good job of sequencing ourselves for landing.

As Tom parked Eight Five X-Ray on the edge of the ramp, a pair of local pilots in an open hangar cast puzzled glances our way as eight aircraft arrived out of the literal blue to invade their quiet airport.

Eric and Dawn arrived in One Delta Tango.

In the background, Ed parked his Archer II on the edge of the ramp.

Who is that masked pilot? It's Paula!

Greg and Dick arrived in Dick's Cherokee 140, an aircraft that once belonged to Joe, my first contact at the Williamson Flying Club.

Dan and his friend Tom arrived in Five Five Whiskey. This third time must have been the charm. On Dan's first fly-out with the club on 01 March 2020, a mag problem in one of the club Cherokees stranded him at St Marys until a replacement mag could be flown down to him. His second club fly-out was in Warrior 481 on March 7, the day my impulse coupling fell apart. (Many have commented on the commonality of Dan's presence and aircraft mag issues, but I know that the correlation is not causal.) I am happy to report that Dan's third flight with the club went exactly according to plan.

Brad and Melodie — "the instigators" — arrived in Two Mike Sierra. We owe the idea for our wonderful day to them.

Where's Yogi Bear?

All eighteen club members settled into a large circle in the grass to enjoy our lunches and each others' company for the first time in many months. Finally unmasked for lunch, we delighted in the fresh air. Though it was a sunny day in June, a cool breeze off of Lake Ontario necessitated light jackets for many of us.

Lesly relaxes in our large circle of club members, enjoying the conversation. Behind him are Ed's Archer and Denny's Comanche.

Dick, Greg, and Steve

If Tom and Alicia appear to be squinting here, it's because the sun was intense. I sunburned the left side of my face in the time required to eat a sandwich. Granted, it was an enormous sandwich.

Melodie, Brad, Gary, Paula, Dan, and Tom.

Panoramic taken by Dan of the full circle. Eric, Alicia, Tom, Ed, me, Marie, Denny, Melodie, Brad, Paula, Gary, Dan's chair, Tom, Dick, Greg, Steve, Lesly, and Dawn

With our change in airport came a new opportunity. We all decided to divert to Dansville on the way home to Sodus for hand-dipped ice cream from Ice Cream Island across the street from the airport.

Eric and Dawn preparing to depart in One Delta Tango

Nine Four Romeo, Five One November, Five Five Whiskey, and One Delta Tango from the cockpit of Eight Five X-Ray

Denny's Comanche (Four Eight Papa) and Ed's Archer II (Four Four Papa) from the cockpit of Eight Five X-Ray

Ice Cream Island

At Dansville, Tom rolled Eight Five X-Ray to a stop wingtip to wingtip with Warrior 481.

Inspection of the Warrior was not inspiring. The bucket plugging the front of the cowling was dislodged and the starlings had moved in, creating a foul tableau of nesting materials, bird droppings, and at least one dead baby bird. It was thoroughly depressing. I could not even bring myself to take a photo of my wounded Warrior.

Fortunately, I really enjoyed my Maine Wild Blueberry ice cream, kindly purchased for me by Lesly in thanks for a past flight together.

Warrior 481, Eight Five X-Ray, Nine Four Romeo, One Delta Tango, Four Eight Papa, Five One November, Four Four Papa, Five Five Whiskey, and Two Mike Sierra

I could not help but wonder how much time had passed since the Dansville ramp was last this full of airplanes; nine airplanes from the Williamson Flying Club, including Warrior 481 which had taken up an extended residency. The crowded ramp was a positive sign of things to come, I hope.

Lesly, Paula, and Steve with Nine Four Romeo

Dawn and Eric with One Delta Tango

Denny brought a friend! Marie and Denny with Four Eight Papa

Denny, of course, was my rescuer on March 7. As I stood frowning at the mess the birds had made of my airplane, he offered to fly me back to Dansville when the time came to bring Warrior 481 home. It would be a privilege to fly in his beautiful Comanche again.


Tom lines Eight Five X-Ray up on final approach for the Williamson Sodus Airport

During the inevitable gathering at the fuel pump that follows every mass return from a club fly-out, I received multiple heartfelt thanks from the participating members for organizing the event. Everyone, including me, has missed this. The fact that we were able to find an activity that satisfied the combined aeronautical and social cravings while still conforming to expectations around minimizing viral spread was like a balm to everyone's soul.

I owe a tremendous thanks to Tom and Alicia for bringing me along with them, even if doing so meant that everyone had to wear masks in the cockpit because of the mixed households present in close quarters.

As we chatted in the hangar, we began to plan for the next event. Penn's Cave in central Pennsylvania opened some weeks ago. Though appropriate COVID-19 precautions were in place, we were not eager to be tourists just yet. But by the end of June, we assume that the kinks will be worked out of the system.

Baby steps to normalcy.


(Cue the silly music.)

Eric demonstrated elements of the Williamson Flying Club's "Socially Distant Exercise Program for Aviators" by pulling One Delta Tango toward the fuel pump. He is working his way up to pulling the aircraft with his teeth like an old-timey strong man. Great work, Eric!

Man, have I missed this.

Theseus' Engine

Warrior 481's newly overhauled engine made its homecoming to the Williamson Sodus Airport on June 8, arriving home for the first time without an airplane wrapped around it. Ray brought the palletized power plant to Sodus in his van and set about reattaching the baffles, alternator, starter, primer lines, Reiff pre heater, and other accessories not needed by the folks at Penn Yan.

It almost seemed a shame to ensconce the pristine engine in the dirty (if functional) baffles that it wore for many years prior. With the engine ready for mounting on the airframe, completion of the project will simply be a matter of when Ray has time for the trek to Dansville.

I was reminded of an ages-old philosophical thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus, a concept generally attributed to Plutarch. (Or, minimally, Plutarch gets credit for having been the first to write it down.) The basic idea concerns the ongoing replacement of rotting timbers of a ship. As replacement progresses from the original ship with all of its original components to a vessel with 100% of those components replaced, is it still the same ship? If not, when did it become a new or different ship? With replacement of the first plank? When the final original component was removed?

The thought experiment actually becomes more deeply interesting when applied to human beings as we age and grow, as our cells die and are recycled into new cells, and as our opinions and appearance change over time. Memory and sentience are significant complicating factors. For aircraft and engines, the FAA legislates a simple answer to this philosophical conundrum with unambiguous bureaucratic efficacy: if it has the same data plate, then it is the same engine. Period. Even if the whole thing is essentially new.

And so, Warrior 481's engine, rebuilt almost entirely from new or different components, is considered to be the same engine by definition. I suspect that the FAA has no appreciation for uncertainty-ridden thought experiments.

Obviously, I am most excited about the addition of the SureFly Ignition Module replacing the left "magnetosaurus". Time will tell how much Warrior 481's performance will be affected.

In the meantime, the rest of Warrior 481 waits patiently for new life in Dansville, entertaining the birds and generating a modest income for the airport in parking fees.