In Search Of Airborne Connection
By Mary Grady
It's been clear for a long time that the pilot population is in decline, but the reasons why and the ways to change the trajectory seem to be somewhat less clear. Plenty of theories and proposals have been floated, and various advocacy groups have taken aim at the issue, but so far nothing seems to have had a huge impact. The latest focus seems to be on connection and community-building. It's not just about making it easier or cheaper or more efficient to learn to fly, this theory goes -- if we want to attract new pilots and keep them active, they need opportunities to interact with other aviators and have fun.
A few years ago, Radek Wyrzykowski came knocking on the door of our AVweb trailer at Oshkosh, to tell us about a new idea he had to launch something called the IMC Club. Based at a little airport outside Boston -- not the usual hub for GA activity -- his idea was simply to get pilots together to share their experiences with instrument flight. A few years later, the IMC Club has almost 50 active chapters, and more in the works. The Club's success certainly adds evidence to the argument that there's a need for community and connection among pilots.
AOPA launched a new initiative last year, the Center to Advance the Pilot Community, to encourage the development of flying clubs and keep pilots active and engaged. They've put a Flying Club Finder online to help pilots find a group nearby, and they've been highlighting and promoting clubs at their website and in their members' magazine. It's not yet clear how much impact this might have had, but AOPA says there's a growing "buzz" of support for flying-club growth.
SocialFlight is working a different angle, using a free mobile app to try to get pilots out to events and help them connect online. The app lists over 3,000 aviation events on an interactive map, and also has social features to help pilots make plans together. Within a few months of launch, more than 10,000 users had signed up, SocialFlight says. The product aims to "inspire us to fly more because it gives us that mission, that reason to get out there and make new friends, learn new things and remind ourselves why we fly," the company says.
EAA of course has been working on this whole community concept for years. Not only does their big show at Oshkosh attract more pilots than any other event in the world, but their chapters around the country provide a forum for members to get together and share their knowledge every month. If there's a downside to EAA's efforts, it's that the chapters tend to focus on the homebuilding aspect, which is great for the builders, but leaves out a lot of other pilots. Over the last few years, EAA has been working to become more all-inclusive -- it's challenging though, to widen the tent without alienating the core membership.
Will all of these efforts help to reverse the trends and grow the pilot community? It's too soon to tell for sure, but my own sense is that they can't hurt, and might help a little. But personally, I think the most likely turning point that will change the trajectory for the future will be when increasingly automated systems make it easier and safer to fly. I know that's an arrow to the heart of aviators who prize their hard-won skills and enjoyed every step of that journey. But a decade or two (or maybe three or four) down the road, when little airplanes are as easy to operate as cars and hopefully safer, today's community-building efforts should provide a healthy and robust root system to support all that new growth.
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NORDO No More
By Paul Bertorelli
I'm lucky to be here, I'll tell ya that. The other day, I just about fell out of the open door of the Cub, a mile south of the airport. For months, I've been fooling around trying to get a portable radio to work suitable for pattern communications, without success. I've been through two Icom VHF portables, various antenna connectors and finally, in desperation, a Sporty's SP400.
So I was testing it with a pattern entry call and a Baron 10 miles out10 miles!responded, asking if I'd be remaining in the pattern. I was so shocked I practically fell out of the door. Just to be sure, I called him back for a comm check. Loud and clear. Sounds great.
Having a working radio, I'm not ashamed to admit, makes for a better flying experience in the Cub. It's just more relaxing, if not necessarily for me, for those pilots who get nervous and irritated with a NORDO airplane in the pattern. NORDOs don't bother me in the slightest, but I understand why it makes others nervous, even if I think they're pretty high on the Aunt Jane scale. Throughout this long ordeal of sorting the radio, I could always listenand didonly to hear other pilots commenting about that &^%$#(@ Cub with no radio. Now, they're all sweetness and light. They're right, too. It's just a beat safer if everyone has and uses a radio in the pattern.
Just for the record, our Cub has a properly installed antenna, complete with a regulation size metal ground plane and the coax and connectors are in good shape. Why the Icoms didn't work with it is a mystery, but I think it has to do with them being older radios whose components are degraded. The SP400 really packs some punch and delivers good RF and audio. It did, by the way, break, due to a corroded battery compartment. Sporty's fixed it and returned it within a week.
So, with a powerful radio at my fingertipseven got a push-to-talk on the stickthe other pattern dwellers are paying the price. Over the weekend, I was flying touch and goes to the grass adjacent to runway 5, which has left traffic. For some reason that escapes me, another pilot was doing the same, but flying right traffic to the pavement. Maybe this is my Aunt Jane threshold, but I found this utterly unacceptable. So I asked him to switch to left traffic, which he did.
So there. You give a guy a radio, expect consequences.
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By Paul Bertorelli
Although it should be no surprise to me, Amazon found my number about three years ago and now knows that I read a lot of history, especially World War II history. So it pesters me with e-mails to buy books it knows I might like. And I do. Being an amateur student of the history of this period, I've noticed that many of the books carve out a chapter for something that loomed large during the war but is now all but forgotten: The vast money-burning program to build the B-29, the era's super weapon, a reputation cemented when Thomas Ferebee pickled Little Boy over Hiroshima in 1945. The B-29 has connections in many of these books and a personal one for me, too, which I'll get to a moment.
Books that treat the war in the Pacific connect the B-29 in various ways. Arthur Herman's Freedom's Forge is an extended essay on how U.S. industry retooled for war production and a couple of its chapters are devoted to what became known as the Battle of Kansas, a herculean remedial program to bail the B-29 out of the mess it had become. Proposed in 1939, the B-29 flew in 1942, but by the following year, it had so many problems that it was very nearly canceled. GM production genius William Knudsen oversaw an effort to fix it and didjust barely. Although he's known for another achievement, a guy named Paul Tibbets was instrumental in saving the B-29.
The airplane sputtered into service in late 1944, but didn't become combat effective until early 1945. Once it got rolling, however, the B-29 proved to be all but unstoppable.
In a little-known post-war incident, Laura Hillenbrand in Unbroken recounts a humanitarian role the B-29 played following VJ day. The book primarily describes Louis Zamperini's gripping tale of survival at sea following a B-24 ditching and years of deprivation in Japanese prison camps. Following capitulation, Curtis LeMay's formidable Superfortress force had no military targets to attack so within days, the B-29 crews were doing a different kind of bombing: They were showering the POW camps with relief supplies, including food, medicine and clothing. Such was the capacity to do this, that prisoners were being injured by the rain of largesse from the sky. They finally had to scratch messages in the dirt, begging the B-29s to stop.
In some ways, it was the airplane's finest hour, if not quite its last. But the B-29's principle career was short. By 1960, it was done and long before that, it was relegated to minor roles, having been displaced by the jet-powered B-47 and B-52. It ended its days as so many military aircraft do: as targets.
And, improbably, that's where my life intersected with the B-29. In my misspent youth, I lived a few miles from Aberdeen Proving Ground, in Maryland, where the Army busied itself blowing s^%t up and one of the things they were blowing up was surplus B-29s. The majestic old airframes were used to test the effects of all kinds of ordnance and aircraft survivability. Once the airplanes had been shot up, blown up and sawn in half with 20mm Gatling guns, they were just so much scrap. An Arizona company came into town and set up a field salvage yard near a rail siding in town. I got a job as cheap labor and it proved to be some of the most interesting work I've ever done. I think the year was 1967.
The airplanes arrived from APG in ragged pieces. Most were B-29s, but I suspect there were other types, too, including B-17s and maybe a fighter or two. I distinctly remember winching around a V-engine of some sort, possibly a Merlin from a Mustang or perhaps an Allison V-1710 from a P-38. As a 17-year-old high school kid, I didn't know my aircraft engines very well. What I most remember of that job was the smell: an astringent blend of leaked engine oil in standing, muddy puddles, hydraulic fluid, stale gasoline, burned insulation and the spewing drift of smoke from the on-site smelter we had.
The salvage managers, rough, foul-speaking guys, seemed to know just what they wanted from the wrecks. Engine accessories topped the list. I can't say whether these B-29s had the Wright R-3350 or the later Pratt R-4360 Wasp Major, but the engines were massive things we dragged around with big forklifts. The salvers wanted the magnetos for some reason, along with the ignition harnesses. On those engines, they're about the size of lawnmower engines and we were instructed to remove them, with all the harnesses. Same with the generators. The engine cores themselves seemed of less interest; we piled them roughly in an open gondola car on the rail siding. I can't remember how many airplanes we scrapped, but it must have been quite a few, because one gondola was full of nothing but engines.
We were also sent pawing through the wreckage to find some kind of electric-driven accumulator pump that must have been marketable. The cockpits and engineer's stations were in varying states of destruction. Some had been stripped of instruments, while others were relatively intact. The salvage company wanted pressure gauges and electrical instruments, but they tossed the airspeed indicators so I kept one as a souvenir. Had it until college, when I lost track of it. Another souvenir I kept was a huge heavy lead brick. In the airplanes we were scrappingand this may have been true of all B-29sthe bricks were piled on a little cart that ran the length of the bomb bay, if not a little more. It was on a lead screw mechanism and I took it to be a static trim system of some sort.
The airplanes were full of paper. Aircraft documentation, records, sometimes maps and technical pubs. During lunch breaks, we would peruse this stuff, sometimes piecing together the airplane's history. I don't think we ever found anything that suggested these airplanes were combat veterans. I did learn that the checklists were all printed in white ink on black paper; very readable. The checklists described something we could never figure out: a putt-putt. The crew was duly advised to secure the putt-putt before takeoff and engage it before engine start. Always check the putt-putt circuit breakers before start-up. Then, someone dragged a putt-putt out a bedraggled tail one day and the light went on, figuratively at least.
It was the APU.
I learned to use a cutting torch on that job and not your little homeshop brake-drum warmer either, but a big honking shipyard tool with a five-foot handle and a nozzle as big as your fist. We torched off all sorts of steel parts includinggaspengine mounts that might be worth their weight in gold today. In Herman's Freedom's Forge, the author describes how Henry J. Kaiser nearly went broke trying to manufacture magnesium in volume during the war, but it evidently wasn't of interest to the Arizona salvage company. I know this because the B-29's wheels were lavishly machined in magnesium and we had neither the tools nor the skill to dissemble the heavy gear components. So the company instructed us to torch the wheels off at the axles, then we could pull the parts they wanted from the gear assemblies and cut up the rest. On several occasions, this resulted in the wheel igniting. Ever see a magnesium fire? It's really quite some show, especially in a part as big as a barrel. Inevitably, the tire would also torch, making an awful mix of oily black smoke mixed with the white from the magnesium and just magnifying the general stench of the place. Dante had nothing on our salvage yard.
We spent a lot of time pulling steel parts and flammables out of the wing and tail assemblies so they could be shoved in big pieces into the smelter. We achieved varying degrees of success at this. There was always some hose assembly or steel part that wound up in the furnace. The flammables would gush into flames, emitting sparks and smoke. I think the steel parts were later picked out of a separation grate. One day when I was off, something caused a minor explosion in the smelter, disabling it for a couple of days. An errant AAA shell, perhaps missed by our unskilled crew? Salvage work isn't exactly as benign as being at the office.
At the end of this untidy, smelly process, the once most fearsome point of the World War II spear was reduced to a lumpy ingot in a muddy Maryland farm field, to be rolled into beer cans or maybe even Cessnas. And the cycle started anew.
Around the U.S., there are at least a couple of dozen B-29s in static display, including Tibbets' Enola Gay at the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport and Charles Sweeney's Bockscar at the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson in Dayton. There are a handful of other books on the B-29 program, all of interest to the casual reader. Reading them will give you a historical perspective on what was one of the most interesting airplanes ever produced, not so much for the airplane itself, but what it took to get it flying.
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Dodging A Bullet
By Russ Niles
Whenever there's an airliner accident, there's almost always a story the next day about the guy who was stuck in traffic or something like that and missed the flight and I always wondered what must be going through their heads.
I never expected to be standing on the taxiway of a small airport being confronted by that barrage of mixed emotions in the most visceral way possible. You see, the tardy airline passengers don't usually get to see the aircraft that was to take them away crash before their very eyes.
With all the talk of flying cars in the past few days I thought it was kind of deliciously ironic that I'd been able to arrange a flight in the Maverick, which is really just a giant powered parachute. The chassis is road-worthy however and by definition that makes the Maverick a flying car. The marketing slogan for the Florida-based company is The Flying Car That Does, a not-so-subtle dig at the seemingly perennially under-development dream vehicles out there.
Ray Seibring is one of the developers of the vehicle and he lives near my summer residence in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. He imported one of the vehicles on a one-year temporary permit to Canada and when he started flying it naturally got a lot of attention.
So we arranged to meet at the Vernon Airport, a non-towered GA facility where the airport supervisor helps Seibring get set up by loading parts of the Maverick into his truck and driving them to a quiet area of the airport to get set up.
Last Friday dawned cloudless with barely a breath of wind. Ideal for something like the Maverick. I had my AVweb CNN-in-a-backpack video gear and was quite looking forward to a few loops around the Vernon area in what is the only operational flying car so I could report back to our loyal readership. Flying car videos go off the scale in terms of YouTube clicks on our channel.
Seibring clearly decided to make efficient use of the flight window and invited someone who may have been an investor or potential investor for a familiarization flight. That worked out perfectly for me. I shot video of the set-up of the vehicle, the takeoff and first minute of flight and planned to use that as b-roll for my video report.
With the camera stowed, I watched as the Maverick turned base to come and get me. Because it was about a half mile away and the sound was delayed it's hard to put together what happened in my mind but I saw the fabric wing kind of slump ahead of the chassis. The aircraft then spun sharply to the left and dropped like a rocket-propelled stone. It dropped out of my line of sight, I heard the engine scream to full power and then the cracking sound of impact. A guy pulling his plane out of a hangar across the field yelled to another fellow: "They went in!" The airport supervisor also saw it and squealed rubber across the ramp as he raced to the scene.
Then, boy, was it quiet.
I assumed the worst. The Maverick has a light-weight carbon-fiber body and I didn't know how crash-worthy it is. I figured Seibring and his passenger must be dead.
I was on the other side of the field from my truck and Seibring had left his coat, hat and handheld with me. I did about the only thing I could do; bundled up my gear and his stuff and started walking. I got about halfway to the end of the runway before I heard the first siren, which was followed by a half dozen more. By the time I got to the truck, some local flying club members had already been to the scene and returned. "They're ok," said my old friend Barry, which was some of the best news I'd heard that day. My old flight instructor Chuck arrived a minute later and said: "I guess you heard." I told him that I was supposed to be the next up and he replied earnestly: "Go buy a lottery ticket."
I got in the truck and reached the crash site, on the edge of an elementary school playing field, just as the ambulances were taking the men away. The consensus among my many fellow rubberneckers was that they'd be fine and the back braces, neck splints and other first responder accoutrements were precautionary. It looked to me like the chainlink fence they plowed through absorbed the energy and allowed them to walk away. The Maverick looked remarkably intact for everything it had been through so I guess the crashworthiness point might be moot.
I introduced myself to the nearest Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and gave a statement. The first thing he asked me was how I felt, which seemed like an odd question at the time. I was to get used to it.
I gave seven media interviews that day as the guy who dodged the bullet. In every one I was asked if I would ever consider going up in the Maverick and I said truthfully it would depend on the outcome of the investigation (which will be helped by two onboard cameras and a flight data recorder that Seibring was using for the flight).
But the hardest question to answer was about how lucky I felt. And I guess the answer is that we all depend to a certain degree on chance to make it through every day. Most of the time, I suspect, we never know how close we come to being T-boned at an intersection or hit with a falling brick. As pilots we're used to accepting and managing risk every time we fly.
But having that palpable evidence of the fact that it isn't time to get your ticket punched feels pretty good actually.
What was better was seeing a bruised but oddly upbeat Seibring being interviewed outside the hospital and talking about finding out what went wrong and moving forward from there.
Clearly, this story didn't end at the schoolyard fence. Stay tuned for the rest of it.
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Flying Car Fatigue
By Paul Bertorelli
I was born in Texas and even by the tender age of 10, I knew what the oil-patch aphorism "big hat, no cattle" meant. If it was true in the 1950s, it's just as true now. I thought of it when our news columns lit up this week with yet another artist's conception of a flying car, this time from Terrafugia.
There's a dichotomy here. One branch of it leads to the daily working press which, on a slow news day, will pick up stories about flying cars and run them as though they're legitimate glimpses into the future, replete as they are with fantastic speeds and unparalleled capability and convenience. Daily news editors needn't be troubled by practical aerodynamics or physics because tomorrow they'll be covering Justin Bieber's hair in the same space.
The second branch leads to us, the professional aviation media and we are supposed to place aviation stories into the real world where aerodynamics and physics do come along to dope slap the dreamy-eyed flying car impresario, just as has been happening for, oh, 75 years or so. We didn't do that this week in our Terrafugia story. Played it as straight as an above-the-fold lead in the New York Times.
But really, shouldn't we occasionally just call bravo sierra on some of this stuff? Aren't we in danger here of a little bit of flying car fatigue? I certainly am. I appreciate the dingbat factor in these stories andwink-winkI get that readers generally understand that on the seriousness scale, they rank somewhere between Elvis sightings and Phil Swift flogging Flex Seal by the metric ton.
So I guess I'm in the mood to pipe up here. I'd like to see Terrafugia cease and desist on new concepts and bring what they've got to fruition. Or not. It's hard enough to drag one design to market without distracting yourself with yet more concepts. Prove to us once and for all whether a flying car will work. Or not.
I can stand only so much entertainment.
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