Monday, March 11, 2024

The Fateful Call

Twenty years ago today, I bought an airplane

The first picture I ever captured of N21481, taken at Three Rivers, Dr. Haines Municipal Airport (KHAI) on 13 March 2004, the day after I flew her home from Guthrie, OK.

My first official act as an aircraft owner was cold calling Dad. "Hi Dad! I'm in Oklahoma and I just bought an airplane." It was a cocky way to blindside him with new information, but I had just conquered Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as an early 30-something and needed to crow about it. After all, I was now the proud master of a "private aircraft", a beautiful, gleaming, (twenty-six year old) Piper Warrior II, a PA-28-161. (Or, to decode Piper's designation, Piper Aircraft design #28, 160 horsepower, semi-tapered wing.) Compared to the tired, 100 horsepower, 2-seat Cessna I did my training in, this airplane was a veritable beast and it had a great paintjob, too.

Less ostentatious, my first experience as a new aircraft owner was immersion into the glamorous world of rural airport courtesy cars. While Westchester County Airport in metropolitan New York has fancy Mercedes loaner cars, that is definitely not the case out in the sticks. In Guthrie, OK, I was privileged to helm the world's shakiest Ford Taurus from the airport to the local Best Western. "Don't drive it any farther than you want to walk," advised FBO owner Glen Crabtree. He was not kidding. Maintaining that wobbly sedan along a true course was a recipe for repetitive stress injury. But in the end, it served the need, the price was right, and I was grateful that I did not need to hoof it between airport and hotel.

Did you know that Guthrie was the original state capital of Oklahoma? Every local I encountered  boasted of that glorious sliver of time from 1907 to 1910, though little was mentioned about anything of note happening since. Guthrie's replacement as capital by Oklahoma City in a 1910 vote was surely a boon to elementary students everywhere facing that dreaded state capitals quiz.

My favorite new airplane accessory was a warped mutant of a tow bar, slightly bent with opposite ends twisted out of coplanarity and the prongs reattached by welds resembling the inflamed finger joints of an arthritic. It was a veteran tow bar. A survivor. (Barely.) Prior owner Bill was reticent to admit owning that deviant thing, but it served its purpose for ground handling during stops on the long flight home. After my first solo Warrior landing in Bolivar, MO (M17), I used it to pull the Warrior toward the fuel pump and nearly ran the left wingtip into a chain link fence. It was evidence that high wing pilots who buy low wing airplanes need to process their surroundings in a different way.

"Don't tell anyone I gave you that tow bar!" Bill admonished out of embarrassment. Where I was going, no one had ever heard of him and his secret shame was safe. Until now, I suppose. Surely we are beyond the statute of limitations for embarrassing tow bars. I bought a new one sometime in 2004, but kept Bill's as a trophy of sorts.

N21481's primitive instrument panel with a "high tech" handheld GPS velcroed to the yoke, 01 July 2004. Five of the instruments in this photo are now desk ornaments, but I still have that headset.

When I received the keys from Bill, they were accompanied by a tarnished brass disk embossed with "21481" and a hole punched through it for attachment to a keyring. It obviously predated Bill's ownership of the airplane and I wondered if it was a carryover from the Warrior's time on a flight line when keys to the entire training fleet would have hung together on a pegboard. Decades later, that round tag is still on my keyring.

Year one of ownership was enriched with an abundance of "learning opportunities". These began with the first time I engaged the Warrior's starter as owner. A rapidly diminishing groan came from the Warrior’s snout and the prop lurched through a half-hearted partial arc before stopping. The lessons? Too long with the master switch left on during a pre-purchase inspection can really kill a battery. Also, weak batteries cannot start airplanes. Quinn from Crabtree Aviation helped me jump start the plane, which I ran for a time to restore some oomph to the battery before shutting down at Guthrie's fuel pump. I had never personally fueled an airplane previously because the pumps in Three Rivers, MI (KHAI) were full serve only. It was a morning of many firsts. 

When I was ready to make my escape from balmy Guthrie for much colder Three Rivers, I was relieved that the starter turned the engine over without struggling. With March being one of those "you never know what you're going to get" months in the wintry north, I found myself creeping forward, state to state, VFR only, and hypervigilant of weather conditions. These were days before the proliferation of AWOS/ASOS stations and the advent of ADS-B (FIS-B) weather displayed on a tablet in the cockpit. (A tablet? What's that?) It was only my second time using GPS in an airplane, with credit to Kristy for realizing that it would be a useful cross country navigation tool before the thought occurred to me. That aerial journey home was six times longer than my longest flight to date and was made at the controls of an airplane in which I only had an hour in type. Given my minimal experience at the time, I am not sure if this made me intrepid or stupid beyond the actual fact of a successful outcome.

07 April 2004: Kristy got her first ride in our airplane. Photo by Arjo from Dave's Decathlon.

Knowing how to jump start the plane was a valuable skill, especially the first time Kristy and I flew to Dalton Airport (3DA) in Flushing, MI to visit my in-laws. Giddy to show off my beautiful airplane, I skimmed too quickly through the shut down checklist and left the master switch on over lunch. This reinforced the lesson about weak batteries being unable to start airplanes, but now I was well versed in jump starting the Warrior. Because of this incident, Penny suggested naming the plane "Charger", but the 1970s Chrysler OEM alternator in the plane was as close as I wanted to associate with the Dodge brand. (Appropriately enough, I later learned that the alternator was definitely a bit "dodgy".)

Warrior 481 at Dalton Airport with Terry about to get his first flight, 24 April 2004, photo by Kristy?

Leaving the master switch on is one of those actions accompanied by such mortifying embarrassment that it only happens once. Another comparable example from the "lack of attention to detail" bucket is starting an airplane and attempting to taxi out of a parking spot while still chocked, something that I have also done exactly once. Because it happened on a crowded ramp in front of a popular fly-in restaurant in St Mary's, PA (KOYM), I was guaranteed long lasting shame as a memory aid. Once is enough.

Kristy with Warrior 481 before embarking on our grand adventure to Florida in 2005.

On another flight to Dalton, we (i.e., Kristy) learned empirically that opening a tube of hand lotion at 5,500 feet can result in rapid self-dispensing. Because good science requires reproducibility, we (i.e., Kristy) demonstrated the same phenomenon in 2017 over the Smoky Mountains with a dip tube style water bottle. At least water eventually evaporates. Hand lotion is a messier problem.

Parked in front of my first hangar in South Haven, 05 April 2004. Nose strut inflation is a little low.

When I first brought the airplane home to her new hangar at the South Haven Area Regional Airport (0D1/KLWA), I was immediately faced with a geometric challenge. I needed to push an airplane with a 35 foot wingspan through an opening that was 40 feet wide. While the numbers certainly indicate that the goal was achievable, perspective can be a funny thing and those wingtips seemed awfully close to the sides of the hangar as I anxiously pushed the airplane inside with Bill's misshapen tow bar. 

Out darn (oil) spot! Soiled hangar floor visible at the South Haven Airport, 25 September 2004.

During that first year of ownership, my mentor Dave encouraged me to take control of my own maintenance and worked with me to accomplish my first oil change. Unlike the Lycoming O-360 in his Super Decathlon, the Warrior's oil pan did not possess a quick drain valve on the right side. These valves allow for clean and easy voiding of used oil from the engine through a hose and into a container. With my airplane apparently lacking such a convenience, we rigged a funnel in the mouth of a jug to catch the oil after removing a plug from the oil pan. This resulted in permanent recoloration of the hangar's concrete floor because the oil pan drained more quickly than the funnel, which overflowed almost immediately. In this case, the funnel was what we chemists call the "rate limiting step". 

To add further insult, while cleaning up the resulting mess, I noticed that there was a quick drain valve installed on the left side of my oil pan. Oil change padawan that I was, I revealed this to my chagrined Jedi Master and we both learned something useful about making assumptions across engine models. Despite crunching over kitty litter on the hangar floor for the next couple of weeks, a discernable localized stain persists to this day. At least all future oil changes went smoothly via the newly discovered quick drain.

When you have friends trained in the art of formation flying, they always want to practice. Whenever our airplanes were in the air together, Dave was always parked off my wing. 22 August 2004.

Another aerial incident emphasized the importance of an instrument scan that goes beyond the basic six pack of primary flight instruments. While flying southbound over the Lake Michigan shoreline with Dave in his Decathlon flying in close formation off my starboard wing, I lost transmitter capability. This was quickly followed by horrific screeching on the intercom and eventual loss of radio reception. Confused and annoyed, I returned to base at South Haven. While grumpily snapping off switches during the shut down flow, I reached for the avionics master switch and noticed for the first time that the ship's ammeter was pegged at zero. This meant that the alternator was no longer providing any current to the electrical system and that everything was powered on borrowed time until the battery gave up. Alternator failure was the natural outcome of my 1970s Chrysler alternator breaking loose from its mounting on the front of the engine and shaking around until its internal components disintegrated. (See? I said it was dodgy.) These kinds of events change a pilot's behavior. How many pilots grab the housing of their alternator to give it a good shake on every preflight? I've been doing that consistently for 20 years as a result of the Alternator Incident. Additionally, though it may be inconveniently placed on the lower right portion of the instrument panel, that ammeter remains in my scan all these years later.

Cell phone photo by Ross W from Dave's Decathlon in formation with Mark in 33P and me in Warrior 481 over South Haven, MI, 30 July 2005. Fun fact: Ross' grandfather Irving had been in aviation for so long that his 1926 pilot certificate was signed by Orville Wright. This photo was taken just nine days after Dave and I were laid off from "UberCo" along with 500 other scientists.

When I first took possession of Warrior 481, it quickly became obvious that my landing skills needed refinement. According to the official Cherokee Warrior II Information Manual, the recommended approach speed with full flaps is 63 knots. However, on the flight home from Guthrie, I made my approach at exactly 63 knots to the Kentland Municipal Airport (50I) in the midst of a windswept Indiana cornfield. When the wheels made contact, the airplane gently went airborne again before settling a second time. It was less of a bounce and more of a skip. "I liked your landing," said the old timer working the airport while grinning toothily. "Both of 'em!" When I reflect on meeting the fellow 20 years ago, all I remember is white hair and teeth.

To my frustration, this kept happening, but only when I was flying solo. Realizing that 63 knots was intended for the airplane at its maximum gross weight, I started backing off on my landing speed when lightly loaded. Eventually, I settled for a fence crossing airspeed of 55 knots when solo, 60 knots when carrying one passenger, and 63 knots when loaded near maximum gross. Given the Warrior's propensity to float at higher approach speeds, these adjustments made my landings softer, shorter, smoother, and more consistent. This was affirmed by a total stranger one day at the Mason County Airport (KLDM) in Ludington, MI. Right after I touched down, a pilot waiting to depart was so moved by the grace of my refined landing technique that he offered this unsolicited commentary on the radio: "That was a really nice short landing for a Warrior!" It wasn't just the rando in Ludington who validated my technique, it has also withstood the scrutiny of many flight instructors over the years.

17 September 2003: riding back seat with Dave and looking down South Haven's grass runway 14.

With normal landings figured out, the next challenge was landing on South Haven's turf runway 32 that was normally favored by the wind off Lake Michigan. Although 3,260 feet is plenty of length to land a Cherokee, this was complicated by high trees on the approach end and an undesirably gopher infested surface for the latter half of the runway. Flying a steep approach while cranked around sideways in a full forward slip became the norm to get down and stopped before the runway midpoint. Just above the ground, all three axes of flight needed to be fixed before touchdown: wings leveled, rudder used to align the airplane with the runway, and a gentle pull on the elevator to ensure settling the airplane on its main gear. During one instance, we were hosting a cookout at Dave's hangar. I performed this landing maneuver in front of a large audience of other pilots while making all three attitude corrections in one fluid motion and settling to the grass light as a feather. It was pure poetry; all these years later I still remember exactly how that landing felt. Taxiing off the runway to run a gauntlet of witnesses, I was appalled to see Mark hold up a big sign with the number "6" on it. Once he knew that I'd seen it, he laughed and inverted the sign to read "9", then dropped the sign altogether and picked up another that read "10". Behind him, the others held up both hands with all fingers splayed, a perfect 10 from every judge and a welcome confidence boost for a newbie aviator.

The Bear on the controls for the first time. 1 September 2012.

Obviously, more learnings were to come. Increasingly longer cross country flights and the need to manage weather. Achievement of an instrument rating and the need to manage weather in a completely different way. Flying with first an infant, then a toddler ("Me fly in the Daddy airplane?"), and eventually a precocious youngster to whom I regrettably described the function of the Course Deviation Indicator ("Daddy, you're off course again.").

In Cortland, NY, 08 September 2014.

A house is a house and a car is a car, but buying an airplane in 2004 literally changed the course of my life. One new engine and several avionics upgrades later, she is still going strong. I have logged 2571.8 hours at her controls, we have visited 263 airports in 29 states and provinces together, and travelled a total distance of approximately 340,000 statue miles. I have seen many beautiful vistas, enjoyed wonderful adventures, happily shared the experience with others, stayed connected with far flung friends and family, and learned much along the way. It is often said that the cockpit is a poor classroom. While I agree with the sentiment underpinning this, airplanes and aviation are nonetheless excellent teachers.

Stagnation was the main motivation for venturing down the ownership pathway. By the end of 2003, I ran out of worthwhile adventures in the rental aircraft available to me in Three Rivers, MI. I was getting bored and I needed something new to do or else I would have stopped flying altogether. With Dave as a role model and concrete example that it was possible, I bought an airplane 20 years ago and never looked back. 

I guess the strategy worked, because here we are.

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