Autumn is Up in the Air

Piper Cub at Sackman Field

Autumn brings about many beautiful things, one of which, not all may associate with the season, is a gaggle of vintage aircraft gathered at a small airport.

Recently, on a gorgeous October morning full of sun and bright blue skies devoid of clouds, I attended the Columbia Aero Club open house at Sackman Field (H49) in Columbia, IL.

About 30 to 40 planes from around the St. Louis region attended the event, which also featured classic cars and motorcycles, a food truck, music and plenty of conversation. While there I ran into my certified flight instructor, Tammy and a few others from the airport in Greenville. I was able to reconnect with some passionate pilots I haven’t seen in a few months and that felt good.

Though, it was hard to gauge precisely how many people were there, it was easily 150 to 200. A good turnout as many local airports hold their annual fly-in this time of year. These are the type of general aviation events you find throughout the country bringing pilots and non-pilots, young and old together in a community for a fun gathering to share their love of flying.

I brought my young daughter along to expose her to the vintage airplanes collected and have a look around at one of the few airports in the St. Louis area that has stuck to the roots of general aviation. She has enjoyed our trips to local airports like KCPS (Cahokia) and KGRE (Greenville) before and I thought this would be another opportunity to expand her horizons on the world of aviation. She enjoyed looking at the different planes and picked out her favorites and we took pictures. Her curious mind asked several questions, many of which I was able to answer.

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Reawakening my five senses in relation to airplanes

Now that I have spent a few hours to try to re-acclimate myself to flying a general aviation aircraft, I’ve noticed that my aviation senses have begun to reawaken. I seem to pick up on little things again. Things I haven’t seen or felt in over 20 years.

The beautiful Model 35 V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza
The beautiful Model 35 V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza

Let’s take the sense of sight first. While I’ve not done any research studies on this, for me personally I seem to notice something new to my life through sight first. Whether it be a pretty landscape, a cool motorcycle or an attractive woman, my eyes are the first ones on the scene. Regarding aviation, I began looking at a lot of pictures of vintage general aviation aircraft again via the internet. Many people, even non-pilots, can pick certain aircraft out of the bunch – a Cessna 172, a Piper J-3 Cub or a Model 35 V-tail Beechcraft Bonanza are a few famous general aviation designs. At the airport you don’t see too many airplanes sitting outside, especially in the Midwest during the winter months, so it’s hard to see too many in person. Therefore, I searched airplanes for sale on Trade-A-Plane or Barnstormers. This stirred the knowledge I already had accumulated about general aviation aircraft. By reading the ads, I could further add to my knowledge of terms I needed to know and get a read on the used aircraft market at the same time. A win-win for sure!

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Public perception of general aviation different than reality

To many in the general public there is an adversion to general aviation and small aircraft.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone about a general aviation aircraft? Many people will say they fly the airlines to get to their vacation or business destination, but never want to go near a Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft.

Thursday, March 5, there were two well-publicized accidents in U.S. aviation. First, Delta flight at LGA skidded off the runway into a fence in snowy conditions. Second, actor Harrison Ford crashed his 1942 Ryan Aeronautical ST3KR (or a PT-22 Recruit) onto a fairway of Penmar Golf Course after an engine failure after take off from Santa Monica Municipal Airport. (A side note: Ryan was the company that developed Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis.)

Harrison Ford’s 1942 Ryan crashed in California on March 5, 2015

Both accidents were obviously dangerous situations, but both well-trained pilots avoided fatalities on the planes and on the ground. Damage to both aircraft is regrettable, but repairable; loss of human life is permanent.

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Join Together – EAA Chapter 1382

When I first discussed details about finishing my Private Pilot’s License with Troy Walker, the Greenville Airport manger, he told me about the Greenville Pilot’s Association, the local EAA chapter 1382. They hold monthly meetings, host a fly-in each Fall at the airport, introduce kids to aviation through a Young Eagles program and members enjoy free use of the flight simulator.

I decided if I was going to throttle up for this flying endeavor that this organization would be a good opportunity to make some contacts and get to know some of the people I’ll see around the airport. Maybe even get invited on a ride along sometime in the future.

The best way to learn about news going around the airport locally or regionally is by talking to those connected to the local general aviation network. You might see some chatter on social media if you get to be friends with other pilots, but it seems to me the best source of information is through the time-honored mode of communication — conversation.

Via email, I’ve found that being a part of this group also allows access to find out which members have items for sale, activities at the airport or other local fields, or if a flying club has an opening for a new member. I was able to attend the delicious yearly appreciation pot luck breakfast in January, which was a treat in itself. There were about 60 people in attendance and a great spread of breakfast foods to feed the whole lot of us.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to attend one of the other regular meetings since I joined the chapter in December. I will say that I am likely one of the youngest people there. However, that demographic might change as the weather gets a little better. The best aspect is that the other active pilots all have much more experience than I do. Since aviation is a friendly, sharing hobby most pilots are more than willing to share their knowledge and wisdom; a real benefit indeed. 

Combien de temps?

What’s next?

In the days after my first flight, I began to think about the next step in my training and possible benchmarks for the future. That right there is exciting enough in itself to write.

While I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, of course, I want to at least brainstorm some potential future accomplishments. Even though I’m 40-something I want to be positive and have the mindset that, like any pilot, training is never really finished.

To know what you do not want can be just as important as what you do want, and there are some certificates and ratings I know I can rule out. First, I can rule out that I don’t want to try to become an airline transport pilot or work as a company pilot. Second, I’m definitely too old for the military. Third, I don’t need the light sport certificate or recreational certificate since I’m working toward my Private Pilot’s License. Finally, I don’t see myself doing a lot of high altitude flying, but for now I will hold short of saying never.

However, there are other ratings and endorsements that I know for certain I want to undertake – tailwheel and seaplane, for example. Both only require a few hours of instruction and here I can focus on my love for antique or vintage aircraft. Further, there are at least a few possible goals that I’d research thoroughly before summarily tossing out as rubbish. Do I need an instrument rating or a commercial or flight instructor certificate? Finally, other goals go hand-in-hand like multi-engine and complex or even high performance.

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You’re in the Air

Post flight, N8866S sits on the tarmac at Greenville Airport. (Photo by Scott Allen)
Post flight, N8866S sits on the tarmac at Greenville Airport. (Photo by Scott Allen)

I flew my first flight in 22 and a-half years on Monday morning, January 19.

I met my instructor, Tammy, at Greenville Airport in Greenville, IL about 8 a.m. We sat down across from each other and discussed the plan for the day. Temperatures were in the 30s on their way to the 50s for a high. The sky was a gorgeous blue without any clouds. A Midwestern winter is very unpredictable at times, you just never know what you’re going to get, but this was a perfect day to fly.

Tammy had reserved the airplane, a Cessna 150 – N8866S, and arranged to have it fueled the night before then placed in the heated hangar to avoid a need to pre-heat the airplane in the morning.

She guided me through the pre-start checklist as we performed the pre-flight inspection together. As we walked around checking the condition of this nearly 50 year old rental plane, I used a checklist created specifically for the aircraft – a good idea for any bird rather than using the basic one located in the owner’s manual.

Next, we lifted the hangar door. The cold January air rushed into the heated hangar. After a check of clearances around the aircraft we pulled the plane out onto the asphalt between the rows of hangars careful to position it with enough space to start and taxi easily.

We both climbed in the plane, closed the doors and opened the windows. Seated side by side, we adjusted our seats and fastened our seat belts. Be assured – this is not an easy process in a two seater. Tammy had to help me with my seatbelt as I wasn’t accustomed to using a five-point harness. Once we were safely fastened in it was time for headsets. We mic checked the levels so we could clearly hear each other. Finally, we were ready to begin the fun part of the lesson.

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Feeling Gravity’s Pull

A page from my pilot logbook.
A page from my pilot logbook.

Over half of my life has elapsed since I last piloted an aircraft.

Any way you read it that is a big statement. First off, how am I that old to begin with?! But, there it is clearly printed in my own handwriting in black and white. The last entry in my pilot logbook is dated June 27, 1992; approximately one month after I graduated from high school. Somehow grown adults thought it was perfectly fine to allow me to pilot an aircraft – on my own no less!

I remember that I was at least a passenger in a general aviation aircraft after my last logbook entry because I know I attended an EAA show in Oshkosh once or twice after that with my dad, but the summer of 1992 must have been the last time I actually flew a plane as part of my training.

Read the scene where gravity is pulling me around
Peel back the mountains peel back the sky
Stomp gravity into the floor
It’s a Man Ray kind of sky
Let me show you what I can do with it
Time and distance are out of place here

“Feeling Gravity’s Pull” – R.E.M.

In December 2014, after a tumultuous couple of years in my personal life, I began to think it was time to set some goals for the future. I felt it was important to start to think about what I wanted to accomplish and therefore give myself more self-confidence and a sense of happiness.

Over the past year, I got into motorcycles for the first time in my life, which was both exhilarating and gave a rush of freedom away from the pressures of everyday life and the constant pull of our electronic devices. Any activity that requires your utmost concentration, while still giving you pleasure, seems somewhat rare in this age of multitasking. These types of pursuits stimulate your brain in body in ways that are hard to measure, but surely give you happiness and a sense of accomplishment. My brain, allowed to rest from everyday stress and focus completely on an activity, awoke my senses to precisely tune into each movement and decisions seemed sharper.

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