It had been a lousy afternoon. Dealing with a case involving someone from the dregs of aviation always depresses me, but this one had been worse than usual. When everything was over for the day, the only thing I could think to do was to retreat to the pilot's lounge at the virtual airport. With the weather down and winter approaching, it would be a quiet place where I could try and sort things out.
The matter involved a pilot who got taken on an aircraft he'd purchased. On one level it was the usual thing that drives me nuts: A guy doesn't have a pre-purchase inspection done and later finds out his new acquisition is in pretty sad shape. This one was much worse. The seller was an A & P with various other certificates from the FAA, who had done the most recent annual inspection himself and had told the buyer what a great machine he was getting. The buyer figured he could rely on the word of an A & P who had personally signed off the annual. Of course, when the buyer got it home it had some problems that kept getting worse. When he took it into his local shop he learned it would cost more than it was worth to make it airworthy due to undocumented parts, automotive and tractor parts that were installed, parts that were from other aircraft but not approved for installation on this one, and other such joys.
My afternoon had consisted of listening to the seller lie through his teeth, claim more aviation experience than the Wright brothers, announce that he knew much more than the aircraft manufacturer -- so therefore he had put the parts on the aircraft that he knew were best for it and that the buyer should be thankful that he bought the aircraft from such an expert -- and of course he'd filed all the correct paperwork regarding his changes but the FAA had just lost it.
There are certain civilities we follow as a part of human interaction, but I'm afraid I just stared at the hand proffered to me by the mechanic after he finished testifying. The overwhelming feeling I had was that there are some people in aviation who just plain leave a stain on everything they touch, including, somehow, the sky. I didn't want to risk being unable to get my hand clean without boiling water and sandpaper.
Sitting in the pilot's lounge, in the ratty, comfortable old armchair, I was still angry. Right then I didn't have much love for aviation or the people in it. Even if it was by only one individual, the absolute absence of integrity I had spent the day observing cast an ugly pall over something I had enjoyed for most of my life and valued highly. Aviation in our country is based almost entirely on honesty. We cannot afford, nor does a free society want, an FAA inspector looking over our shoulder to critique every action we undertake with an aircraft. As a result, the system relies on honesty and integrity; it just won't work without it. A pilot cannot possibly perform an annual inspection on each airplane she rents before flying it. She has to rely on the signature of the person or persons who did those inspections. If I get in an airplane and see that the VOR check was performed three days ago, I rely on that and I will take that airplane into the clouds. When the ability to rely on the word -- on the honesty of others -- breaks down, people in our world die. Intelligent people have been in this business for well over 200 years, from the time the Montgolfier brothers flew in France, and in that time some very smart people have written down rules that we follow and which we rely on others to follow because we hope to die in bed. Perhaps that was why it was so disgusting to come into contact with a person whose aviation education and certificates had done nothing other than to create an ego so large that, despite having no background in aircraft design or engineering, he took it upon himself to make changes to an aircraft that were just plain dangerous, fake the paperwork and then foist it off on an innocent victim. Hearing him explain -- and maybe even believe -- that he knew more than those "idiot engineers" at the manufacturer, and then be unable to define some basic aviation terms, made me wonder why I was involved with something that would attract the likes of someone such as this person.
Sitting there, I realized, intellectually, that I was letting one person who probably had a personality disorder skew my entire perspective on general aviation and those who spend time with small airplanes, but, emotionally, I couldn't help but feel that his utter disregard for anyone who might be hurt by his actions offset much of the good I'd seen. It wasn't getting any better, so I left.
As if to prove that there are forces in the universe that counterbalance each other, I had a message on my phone when I got home. It was from one of my favorite people, Terri Watson asking that I confirm that I was going to be driving from Denver to Lander, Wyoming as part of a trip I had scheduled. Terri is the Executive Director of LightHawk, the largest of the nonprofit organizations that use general aviation aircraft to support environmental and conservation efforts. She is one of those folks who seem to make the world look better, and, even more important to me at the time, is the sort of person whose word is absolutely good. Terri spent years flying helos and fixed-wing aircraft in the Army, then did a little of everything in aviation from Part 135 charter, flight instruction, helo ops in Antarctica, fire spotting in the west and regularly flying one of those big, turbine helos off of a hospital roof to pick up accident victims in rural areas, day or night. I like flying with her because I learn and I want to emulate her combination of skill, foresight and judgment around aircraft.
My plan had been to go out to Denver a couple of days before a scheduled meeting so that I could drive to Lander and go over LightHawk business with Terri. Her phone message was an offer to pick me up and fly me back and forth to Lander as it would give her an excuse to fly the RV-6A she had recently purchased.
After a day in which the good in general aviation had been overshadowed by the bad, Terri's call caused me to think that there might be hope for my outlook after all.
Once I got hold of Terri, I realized that the Lander trip via RV would be a one-day event rather than a two-day ordeal in a car. The newly freed up day would give me time to go see a friend I hadn't seen in years, retired test pilot, Tom Wallis, who lives in Buena Vista, Colorado.
Maybe the philosophers who outlined the concept of yin and yang in the universe were correct. After spending an extraordinarily unpleasant day dealing with a person who provided the scum on the pond of aviation, I wound up having two nearly perfect days with those who represent what is right with little airplanes and those who fly them even though it was marred by seeing the results of yet another example of the dark side.
On Saturday, I drove from Denver southwest through the kind of scenery that makes a Midwesterner weep wondering why he continues to live where he does. I had known Tom Wallis when he was an experimental test pilot at Cessna's Pawnee Division, but had seen him only a few times after I left Cessna to go into the private practice of law. He and I had been on the same flight from Chicago to Wichita one night. He was carrying a long metal device so sinister looking that I wasn't sure I should approach him. It turned out to be a piece of equipment he was using as a part of a year and a half test program for Piaggo in Italy, mostly involving known icing certification. The metal wand was something that one stuck out of the airplane window when flying in icing conditions to collect and measure water droplet size in order to get detailed information on precisely what sort of ice was collecting on the airplane. As one who had spent his flying time around the Great Lakes doing what he could to avoid ice, and more than once being badly frightened by it, I was always morbidly fascinated by Tom's efforts over the years to seek out the stuff and fly in it. When he was the test pilot on Cessna's T303 there were a number of times he went aloft asking various Center controllers where the worst ice had been reported and would they vector him into it. I think he got a few laughs listening to the many incredulous responses and requests to "say again" his calls would elicit.
Driving to Buena Vista I reflected on why I enjoyed conversing with Tom. For me, he was always one of the true test pilots. They are the men and women who have repeatedly gone aloft to see whether all the number-crunching and graph-making was accurate. Over the years, Tom and those others had repeatedly found out that the vast majority of the time the predictions are accurate and all went as planned. But each of them has had that time, at least once, when things didn't go as predicted and things got very ugly, very fast and it was all they could do to get the airplane collected and back under control, or, to get out of the airplane either before it finished breaking up or hit the ground. For the good test pilots there is always that awareness that some of their colleagues had paid the last tuition payment involved with the expansion of human knowledge with their lives. That's why the truly good test pilots are quiet people, for they have had the bejabbers scared out of them and know things can go wrong. Conversation with them tends to be right to the heart of matters, because that is how they are. They have that special inner confidence that does not require any public accolades. They never seem to seek publicity, and tend to avoid the spotlight when it is pointed at them and heartily disdain those with the big public egos, particularly those who were given credit for firsts that were actually accomplished by someone else.
It was great to see Tom. Of course the first thing we did was go to the airport and into a hangar where two of his friends are building an RV-8 (Tom is, too, but one has to go to the airport, first.) In a hangar containing an RV-8 that appeared to be nearing completion, I was introduced to Larry Lechner and Larry Hardy, the owners of the flying-machine-to-be, and Jay Jones, another homebuilder and Reno Air Race competitor in his Formula I Cassutt Racer (one of those that pulls some staggering horsepower from a nominally 100 hp, Continental O-200 engine). The three of them were working on the RV-8 while carrying on conversation about the state of the world, which were the better airplanes at Reno and whether they'd get the RV-8 ready to fly by Christmas (they did not say which Christmas).
My professed reason for visiting Tom was to see if I would fit in an RV-8 because when I'd had a chance to fly an RV-4, even with all of the cushions removed, I couldn't do it. I just didn't fit in the front seat. Naturally, I was curious about the cockpit size in the RV-8. In the midst of work on the airplane, Larry Lechner dropped everything, installed the pilot seat (which had been removed), put cushions into place and invited me to climb in. It worked. The canopy was closed over my head. I fit. It was a good feeling. And, with the greatest of self-control, I avoided making airplane noises so that I didn't have to clean off the instrument panel and inside of the windshield.
I had not said anything to Larry Hardy about the fact he was sitting in a wheelchair with a large boot over one foot and lower leg. As we talked, however, I was handed a broken, wooden propeller. My first impression was that it had come to pieces on impact. As I looked, I was completely and utterly amazed to see an indication of a butt joint in one of the layers of wood, right at the point where the propeller had failed. I was speechless ... this propeller had failed in flight. A wooden propeller is a unique combination of applied science and a work of art. It must withstand amazing loads, so it is made by building up long strips of very high-quality wood until a block is formed. Then, all the parts that don't look like a propeller are whittled away. I'm not an expert, but to my knowledge, the strips of wood that are used are always continuous. They are never glued end-to-end, as the resulting joint makes a discontinuity in the structure of the wood as well changing the weight distribution, and creates a natural weak spot. Yet, clearly, the person who had made this prop had used one layer of wood that was not continuous and had butted two pieces together, hoping that the glue at the joint as well as against the layers on either side would hold things together. He must not have had much visceral understanding of the sheer magnitude of the inertial forces acting on a whirling prop. The prop in my hands had lasted 7 hours. Larry Hardy, as with Jay Jones, flies a Formula I racer at Reno. This year this brand new prop that Larry Hardy had bought for his racer -- relying completely on a builder's honesty and integrity -- catastrophically failed during the race. In the ensuing forced landing he was seriously injured and was still in a wheelchair when I saw him, with pins holding together many of the bones in his leg and foot.
I don't know who put that propeller together. But I certainly hope he moves on to fields of endeavor where integrity is not of the essence, and never builds another airplane propeller. I also hope he is caught and creatively punished. Perhaps he should have an opportunity to fly behind a similar prop, down low, over the rugged sagebrush terrain at Reno-Stead airport. If such a fate were good enough for Larry Hardy, why would it not be good enough for the person who made that prop?
Seeing Larry Hardy, the remains of that propeller and hearing the story of his landing not only brought out the deep, abiding level of fury I have toward the scoundrels in aviation, but frank admiration for people such as Larry who have the skill to survive that kind of assault against him, and who will come back and continue to fly simply because there is so much more enjoyment in the sky than there is foulness.
After time in the hangar, I went to Tom's house and was shown his RV-8. His immaculate workshop has adequate space for the fuselage as it sits on its gear, is heated and comfortable and is possessed of a view of pines and mountains that should require an admission fee. Because of his background in relatively sophisticated aircraft design and testing, Tom was retained and had some input into the current design of the RV-8. What's more, his is going to be a fully IFR equipped machine, with FADEC (full authority digital engine control), something I've not seen before on a homebuilt (or many factory built airplanes). Looking over the airplane lead to lunch in the workshop and another hour or so of the kind of conversation that rejuvenates a pilot.
A day traveling through the mountains combined with airplane conversation with capable, interesting individuals was precisely what the doctor ordered for easing the aggravations of everyday life.
To my surprise, things got better.
Early the next morning I met Terri Watson at the Boulder, Colorado airport. It was one of those days and airports we all dream about. Just driving into the airport provided thoughts of poetic justice, for adjacent to the airport is a prison. I thought that it would be more than appropriate to allow the mopes who pawn off dangerous airplanes on unsuspecting pilots to have the opportunity to spend a little time as a guest of the government at a prison where the view is of little airplanes engaging in acts of freedom.
The Boulder traffic pattern was busy with an assortment of airplanes. Gliders were operating from the grass parallel to the paved runway. The lineman who wrote up Terri's fuel ticket proved to be an example of the folks who frequented that airport: young, fascinated with all aspects of flight and doing everything he could to fly as much as possible. As I was admiring a polished metal Luscombe, I commented to Terri that it was one of the very rare few with wing flaps. The lineman smiled and allowed as how it was his airplane and he had recently finished getting it into the excellent shape that was drawing our somewhat envious looks.
The welcoming nature of the folks at Boulder set the tone for the entire day. There was quite a bit of snow being contained west of the Front Range but it looked as if VFR flight north and then west to Lander would work. Terri introduced me to her little speedster and asked if I minded a minor detour on the way to Lander. She had sold her Piper Pacer to get enough money to buy the RV-6A and the buyer for the Pacer was going to come to Casper, Wyoming (where it had had some minor work done) to pick it up. It sounded fine to me, plus I wanted to see her Pacer.
I have very little experience with homebuilt airplanes. I had heard good things about the RV-6A, but I wasn't prepared for the reality. After the preflight, which included unscrewing the tie down rings from the airframe because, as Terri put it, RV owners are fanatics about drag and speed, I did find that I fit inside. Okay, we had to remove the back cushion and substitute a very thin cushion for the normal seat cushion. Then Terri got the engine lit, we taxied out, made sure everything was working and departed.
I've sat behind a lot of 180 hp Lycomings on single-engine airplanes, but I've never looked at a continuous 1,300 fpm rate of climb from an airport that lives some 5,500 feet above sea level. Terri demonstrated a climb at Vy -- which was completely blind forward and generated on the order of 1,500 fpm upward -- before going to a pitch attitude that allowed seeing the world ahead and reduced the climb to a mere 1,300 fpm. I made appropriate gee-whiz noises. Leveling off at 10,500 feet, we generated a true airspeed of 164 knots, which took us north into Wyoming with some dispatch. I'd read about the history of southern Wyoming, but it was something else again to fly over a portion of the route the Union Pacific took when laying the first transcontinental railroad. A new and deeper feeling of respect for the engineers who selected the route through that vertical real estate and for the workers who graded it, built the bridges and laid the track, came over me as we flew along.
In Casper I learned that a short-wing hot rod doesn't have to come down final at the speed of heat nor demand the skill of a superhuman to put it on the ground and bring it to a stop. Even with the wind gusting to about 30 knots, Terri exhibited no excitement as she rolled the airplane onto the pavement.
Terri was kind enough to let me fly on the leg to Lander, which took all of 38 minutes. Much of that time I spent marveling at the responsiveness of the RV-6A and figuring that Van, the designer, had pretty well broken the code for the right combination of stability and responsiveness. No, it probably wouldn't meet the requirements under FAR Part 23 for certification because there is not much stick force per g and it's just a little short on stability; but for a personal hot-rod, my-oh-my. The rest of the time I was simply looking at the partially snow-covered landscape and being genuinely happy to be where I was and doing what I was doing. Interestingly enough, Terri remarked that the drive time between the two communities is about 3 hours. And we like airplanes because?
Work complete in Lander; Terri again let me fly on the leg to Boulder. The winds were stiff, but the responsiveness of the controls made the crosswind takeoff a nonevent. En route, I was again reminded of the phenomenal visibilities one often experiences in the west and which are best enjoyed through an airplane canopy. We were watching the snow squalls to the south of us, which remained hemmed in by the line of mountains southeast of Rawlings. Even though the mountains were well over 30 miles away, every cut and shoulder was clearly defined.
As we whistled along I also received an advanced lesson on mountain operations. I'd had a mountain-flying checkout many years ago, but from Terri I started learning how to really look at the sky and the world under it in three dimensions and consider the interactions taking place as the air moved through an area. As those who fly in the mountains know only too well, and we flatlanders don't truly understand (often at our peril), the wind blowing over the hills, buttes, mesas, ridges and valleys does indeed form very interesting waves. Having Terri politely suggest I might want to turn right another 10 degrees to fly directly over that ridge rather than a mile downwind of it started to make sense, especially when I realized that the cloud above us and a bit further downwind was a lenticular cloud, one of the more beautiful warnings of severe turbulence. The wind was so strong I could watch the cloud build continuously at the leading edge and dissipate at the trailing edge, causing it to remain over the same spot. I also began to learn that not only is lateral positioning important for dealing with the wind over the hills, but that because of the movement of the air vertically as well as horizontally, changing altitude by as little as 1,000 feet up or down may make all the difference in the world as to whether you are going to get positively hammered by turbulence or sail along with only an occasional bump. Terri started to teach me how to visualize what was going on in the atmosphere around me. It was a fascinating learning experience. I didn't want it to end.
Well before I was ready (okay, without a back cushion and with only thin lower cushion, I wasn't exactly comfortable) we arrived at Boulder and I landed the little speedster without causing myself too much embarrassment.
With Terri on her way home, I started down the interstate in my rental car, and thought about what she had said to me just before she closed the canopy and fired up: "This is what I dreamed of doing when I learned to fly in the first place. I've got an airplane that is affordable and goes fast. I've just spent the day in good company, running around doing things I need to do, but in a fun way, with friends. How come we make it all so complicated? The RV finally gives me everything I dreamed of when I started flying." She was so right; she captured the feelings I had so well.
It was then I realized that I was completely recharged. It was as if someone had given me an extra lung; the sky was bluer, the air fresher, and the colors more vivid. So long as there are people in aviation such as Terri Watson and Tom Wallis and his friends in Buena Vista and so long as there are little airplanes and the people who truly respect them, then somehow the fact that there are a sick few who are a blot on the sky, may be kept in perspective. And maybe those of us who really care will have the strength of character to stand up and do all we can to make sure the scumbags are neither tolerated nor rewarded.
May your December holidays be truly enjoyable, may you share them with those you care about the most and may the New Year bring you much pleasure in the sky. And may you find a way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of powered flight on December 14 (okay, the 17th, but Wilbur did it on the 14th and was just embarrassed about his landing) in a manner that brings joy to your heart.
See you next month.