The Pilot's Lounge #25:
Beyond the $100 Hamburger

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What to do and where to go with your plane when you're tired of boring holes and have already visited all the interesting destinations within an hour or two of home plate? Why not expand your horizons a bit? Each weekend near you there are fly-ins, races and other events that offer good reasons to launch for a nearby airport. If that's not enough, why not start your own event? AVweb's Rick Durden shows you how.

Of Flight Breakfasts, Air Races and Roll Your Own Fly-Ins

The Pilots LoungeIt's August in the Pilot's Lounge. The heat shimmers off the asphalt, the trainers seem to sag into the air and the regulars in the big, easy chairs are out of sorts. Hack is complaining that he wants to go somewhere in the Super Cruiser but that he's hit every airport restaurant in a 150-mile radius, Sandy wants to travel in the Citabria but can't figure out anyplace new and Dave has his Husky all shined up but is out of ideas as to where to fly. I am suddenly reminded of August days as a kid when I'd wander into the house whining, "Mommy, what can I do?"

Our state's aeronautics department publishes a newsletter that lists the fly-in breakfasts, suppers and other aeronautical get-togethers, so I dragged it out and discovered that there were two fly-in breakfasts the very next morning. Neither was very far away. The rumblings died off as the pilots looked at the publication and started to make plans to attend one or the other, or both. I had to leave about that time, so I didn't get in on the details of the planning.

The next day I was at the airport about noon as several of the local airplanes started landing and taxiing to the gas pumps. Hack showed up in the Super Cruiser, shut down, crawled out and smiled. At least, I think that's what he did. It's so rare to see that expression on Hack that I had to look a second time. He was all excited about the flight breakfast he had just attended. He told me he had seen several classic Pipers, met the pilots who had restored them and gotten some ideas for what he wanted to do with his. The other pilots wandered up and began talking about how much they had enjoyed themselves by doing something other than simply going for the usual $100 hamburger. Dave had a trophy for winning a short-takeoff competition at the breakfast he attended and Sandy was smiling about the Extra 300 akro machine she'd drooled over while at the same breakfast.

A few weeks ago my wife, her father and I went to a fly-in breakfast at Lost Creek Airport (5Y4) near Luzerne, Mich. I never know what to expect at little fly-ins. They have varied from super-organized productions including a car that picked up my riders and me at the airplane and delivered us to the hangar where a high school band serenaded our arrival, through confused events where I helped cook my own breakfast. However, I admit I have yet to attend one I didn't enjoy.

The Lost Creek Airport turned out to be two nicely manicured grass runways cut out of the forests of rural Michigan. Luzerne, the nearest town, is quite small, so there isn't much of a population base to keep the airport alive, yet on that morning the place was vibrant. A helicopter was busy giving rides to a long line of eager passengers, while a two-horse hitch pulled a wagon for visitors who wanted a sedate way to see the area. Vendors were selling a variety of items, some interesting and some junk. On top of that, the pancakes turned out to be some of the best I'd ever had. While we were eating, a buddy I hadn't seen in a while joined us and we talked about his most recent flight to Alaska.

After the trip, I sat in one of the chairs here in the Lounge and thought about the little fly-ins I'd attended over the past 30 years or so. They nearly died out in the '80s as general aviation had its troubles, but the flight breakfast (and supper) fortunately made a comeback. They are delightful excuses to go flying and, while certainly not Oshkosh, provide a chance to see some interesting airplanes, talk with old friends and make new ones. For the pilot who has been renting and renting and renting, more than one aircraft purchase has occurred because of a chance observation of a for-sale sign at a small fly-in breakfast.

In my experience it's wise to keep in mind that pattern traffic gets heavy enough at fly-ins that I'm always a little concerned about a midair collision. There are a certain number of pilots who either won't use the radio to announce their position, as well as some who get on the radio and won't shut up. When you go, I strongly recommend that you brief your passengers so they can help you look for traffic. Also, resolve to fly a reasonable pattern (without extending your downwind into the middle of next week). You don't have to enter on a 45 to the downwind; however, busy fly-ins are not the place to do a long, straight-in approach, either. You might want to read John Deakin's excellent piece on the 45-degree zealots before you launch.

If the weather is less than wonderful VFR, an IFR arrival at a flight breakfast can give a person enough excitement to last an aeronautical lifetime. One of our regulars, Armando, shot the instrument approach to a flight breakfast when the ceiling was 1,200 feet and visibility six miles. Before he broke out of the clouds, ATC told him there were numerous targets in the area. That rather impersonal advice did not emotionally prepare him for slipping out of the clag and seeing about a dozen airplanes swarming around because they were sandwiched into the airspace below the clouds. You may want to consider going VFR on such a day, or shooting the approach into a less crowded airport nearby and then proceeding VFR toward your destination so that you don't suddenly pop out amongst a flock of airplanes.

As I talked to the folks who had just returned from their breakfast flights I heard some other outstanding ideas. One of our group had spaced himself well behind another airplane but had to make a go-around because the airplane ahead slowed to a crawl on the runway, and then passed up a taxiway. From the standpoint of etiquette and safety, clear the runway as expeditiously as possible after landing. There is no time to dawdle while making the mental transition from flight to ground. It is likely there is an airplane on short final behind you. On takeoff you taxi out in a line of airplanes and then get pressured to keep moving and take off without doing a runup or getting your collective act together. Resist that pressure. Make sure you don't skip the checklist. Find a spot where you can do a runup without blowing dirt all over people and airplanes, and do what you need to do to get ready for flight. Some of the takeoffs that I've hurried at flight breakfasts have resulted in my forgetting to set takeoff flaps, turn on the strobes (no, I don't run strobes on the ground when other airplanes are around) or activate the transponder. Looking back, I was simply lucky I didn't forget something more important as I went through the phase of allowing myself to be hurried on departure.

Air Races And Rallies

While we were talking in the Lounge we were joined by some of the pilots who compete in the various air races and rallies held around the country during the year. They started talking about those events and got the attention of the rest of us. I had had the good fortune to get to know the very impressive Marion Jayne a few years before her death. In those days she was entering and regularly winning various general aviation races. In 1989, she used the Cardinal my wife and I owned to win the Great Southern Air Race and finish fourth in the Air Race Classic. She spoke highly of such events and talked about the process of running full throttle, getting very accurate weather and wind information and choosing the airplane that had the best chance of exceeding its assigned handicap airspeed.

Races such as the Air Race Classic, the Great Southern, the race now named for Marion Jayne, and other, smaller ones are usually publicized in the aviation press. The rules are often fairly complex as there is a desire to make the chances of victory dependent on the pilot rather than the airplane. Airplanes are allowed only very minor modifications and are inspected by a technical committee prior to the race, then secured in some fashion to prevent changes being after the inspection and before the start of the race. Each airplane is assigned a basic or handicap speed based on the manufacturer's prediction of cruise speed. This worked pretty well for Cessnas. Unfortunately experience with some other manufacturers showed that they tended to be way too optimistic in publishing cruise speeds in handbooks. Over time the organizers of the races have done test flying and come up with some pretty realistic cruise speeds so they can set baseline or handicap speeds for the airplanes. The idea is to beat your handicap speed by the greatest margin during the race. Thus you don't have to have the bucks to run a P-51 Mustang as sheer speed is not rewarded in these events. In fact, Cessna 172s have done very well.

I've observed that most pilots who compete in these races enjoy themselves immensely. I've also heard some rather interesting stories as to how to cheat when you are flying with a judge to set the baseline speed for your airplane. The idea is to fly level at full power with the cowl flaps closed. Naturally, those who want to sandbag sneak the cowl flaps open, or don't quite have full power in, or climb two or three hundred feet during the course of the speed run. I like to think those folks will get their just rewards.

While I happen to think the races are great, I am very uncomfortable with two specific facts of current race life. The rules for many of the races encourage extremely low flying. Face it, climbing after takeoff costs time. There have been complaints by landowners. Some pilots are stupid enough not only to run at tree-top height, but brag about it. The FAA is aware of this and, I suspect, will start violating pilots. Just a word to the wise. One good tree or tower strike and we may find the races shut down. In addition, the races are supposed to be run under VFR weather conditions and pilots are supposed to comply with FARs on visibility and cloud separation. As with everything else, compliance is up to the integrity of the individual pilots. There are a number of overzealous types who have been known to punch into clouds during races. That is intolerable. The shortsighted desire to win at any cost could very well ruin this wonderful part of recreational GA flying in a big hurry. I think race organizers need to take a stronger stance against low flying and flying in clouds rather than the nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach that has prevailed at some locations.

Don't Want To Race? Then Rally

Another very good way to spend a weekend with airplanes and those who fly them is to enter one of the rallies that are scheduled around the country. Rather than being speed events they are proficiency competitions. The idea is to fly a given course, hitting the turn points exactly on a time based on your airplane's speed. Usually, navigation other than pilotage is prohibited. In most rallies, the navigation instruments on the airplane are covered with tamper-evident seals. (They can be removed if the team gets into a jam and needs the equipment.) The winner is the pilot/navigator team that has the minimum deviation from predicted times at turn points.

Because the rules are fairly flexible, when there are no "secret" checkpoints as there are in more sophisticated events, the winners often hit their turn points with zero error. To make things more challenging, some competitions add a fuel burn calculation to the rally to make things more interesting or, if possible, a "secret" checkpoint or two along the route so the teams have to be on time and on course throughout the event rather than just at the turn points. Some of the more challenging competitions add a spot or barrier landing for the pilot to perform after flying the task.

Races and rallies are run by volunteers. People who volunteer to do such things should be given sainthood now, not later, as they accomplish a lot and put up with even more. Some of the rallies and races are in danger of folding because of perceived lack of interest due to pilots who don't sign up until the last minute and because competitors can be so inconsiderate of the volunteers. If you want to compete, please sign up for these events as early as you can to let the organizers do some planning. If you want a weekend with good people but aren't able to fly, volunteer to help out. You'll enjoy it.

Wanna Play Some Cards?

One of the classic aviation events is the poker run. For some reason, the 99s are the most common sponsors. (Must be some sort of gambling streak in those pilots.) A poker run can take place over one weekend or may be set up so that those interested have a period of a few weeks to visit the required airports. The whole idea is to have an excuse to do some flying. Participants sign up and are given a list of airports to visit. On arrival the pilot goes to the FBO, announces he or she is a poker run participant and is given a sealed envelope containing a playing card. After visiting from five to nine airports the pilot takes the cards and puts together the best possible poker hand, then turns it in at an organized function or party. The winning hand results in some sort of prize. The event takes some serious volunteer work, but it does mean pilots get to do some flying and then get to go to a party with other pilots. I think it is a pretty good deal all around. (Stop me before I pun again.) And, if you need some proficiency flying, why not do the thing IFR and shoot instrument approaches at all of the airports?

Do It Yourself

Still not enough to do? Roll your own fly-in. Here at the Lounge we generally throw two homegrown fly-ins each year. In the winter, the regulars are invited to an airport where the FBO rents a Cub and a Super Cub on skis. We reserve a block of rooms at a resort that has winter sports. Families descend on the place on Friday afternoon and start flying or cross-country skiing or sledding or whatever looks like fun. Those of us who are instructors generally donate our time to either check out interested pilots or give rides.

The idea all started because I invited Lounge regular, Doc Walt, to come north from Louisiana and see what it was like to fly a Cub on skis. He had so much fun he agreed to come back when the Cubs were on floats and promised he would bring his wife. We decided to invite others that we thought might enjoy themselves. We worked with the FBO well ahead of time, reserved the airplanes and enough instructors and lined up examiners for those who wanted to get ratings and hoped for the best. We reserved a block of rooms in a motel that had a beach so we could operate the seaplanes with minimum hassle and gave it a try. It worked well, so we have made it an annual event.

Each summer a few folks get seaplane ratings and others get a chance to see what it's like to fly a seaplane. Winter or summer, we find that a lot of nonpilot spouses and children want a ride in a seaplane or a skiplane simply because it is different. Most all enjoy a 15-minute ride and a landing or two. There has proven to be a side-effect: the non-flying family members who are around for these weekends and who take a brief ride seem to be drawn closer to flying in general. One is planning to start flying lessons as soon as the kitchen remodeling is done.

Depending on personal budgets some of the pilots and families who come don't even fly, they just want to be around friends who have the same interests.

If more folks at the Lounge were into hot air balloons or gliders or aerobatics, we might organize a weekend around such a theme. What we have found is that the key seems to be to arrange to tie in the airplanes with other activities for the non-pilots so families can be together as much of the time as possible. In the summer some of the folks who come have boats, so they provide some water skiing and just zipping around the lake. The boats and the airplanes operate from the same set of docks and beach, so everyone is together. In the winter we make sure there is a car or two to run between the resort and the airport so that families can fly a little or ski a little as the weekend progresses.

We usually organize a dinner with everyone together on Saturday evening. We've found that it's best to keep it simple and modest as family budgets vary.

Finally, we are aware that we cannot get insurance beyond whatever the FBO has and individual renter's policies usually only cover land planes. As a result, we have learned to be very careful in inviting pilots that we feel won't do anything dumb and those of us who instruct fly extremely conservatively.

What we get is a weekend with people we enjoy, doing some flying most of us would never otherwise get to do.

Ok, there you have it. You are now officially out of excuses for being bored because you don't have anything to do. Get involved, go to a fly-in breakfast or supper, compete in a race or rally, volunteer at one of those events, or invite some friends to do some flying that is a little out of the ordinary.

See you next month.