The Pilot's Lounge #123: A Special Airplane From Special People

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The Pilot's Lounge

It was late when I got into the Pilot's Lounge at the virtual airport. I'd airlined into the big airport and driven about an hour here, as I wanted to drop off some things in my hangar and then see if I could locate a back issue of a magazine in the Lounge before going on home. The airport was quiet, the pilot-controlled lighting dark, and only the green and white flash of the rotating beacon gave notice to the night sky that there was a safe, earthly refuge here. I had been gone a week and had spent much of it flying a very special airplane. It had performed nearly perfectly and the weather had been the sort one dreams of here in the gray Great Lakes during the winter. It had been a very busy week and I was tired, existing in autopilot mode, focused on these last couple of errands and then getting home. I found the magazine and, as I went to snap the lights off, I glanced at the bulletin board and saw that there was a folded piece of paper tacked there with my name on it. Opening it, I saw that it was from Everett, owner of the flight school. All it said was, "You missed a good evening, Thursday, but we saved a little for you. Usual spot." I smiled to myself and walked down the hall to Everett's office. In the upper left storage cabinet I found a small glass with some cling-wrap over the top. Inside was about an inch of a deep, tan liquid. Removing the wrap, I sniffed gently and confirmed it was what I thought it might be: an excellent, single-malt scotch. From time to time Everett gets together with some friends of his to splurge on a little outstanding single malt. I try to contribute and am usually rewarded by having them save my share if I miss a gathering. The sniff had changed my entire orientation and perception of the late evening; the autopilot was off and I went into the "Let's take some time to savor this" mode.

A Week of Joy

I went back into the silent Lounge, thinking it to be the perfect place to appreciate this gift and let the airline-travel-induced-stress flow out of my system. I sat in one of the big, old, threadbare recliners and held the glass between my hands, letting body heat slowly raise the temperature of the nectar. Looking out at the silent ramp, my thoughts gradually returned to the events of the week until I was again in the left seat of an immaculate Cessna 207, high above the desert of southeastern California. I was remembering that moment when the airplane went from being an inanimate object whose speeds, systems and performance I had learned reasonably well, to a living creature of flight with whom I had an understanding, whose behavior I could predict and who flew rather than just barged along through the sky. Almost every pilot has such a moment with an unfamiliar airplane. After working through the stage of mechanically moving controls and sorting out that "x force in y direction for z duration will generate a roll rate of a certain number of degrees per second or onset a given G-load," there comes an instant when the airplane agrees that the pilot can probably be trusted and so softens and adjusts the seat to the pilot's contours and lets it be known that fingertips are all that are needed on the control wheel. The aircraft telegraphs its intent to move up or down or left or right in the next bump in the air, so that the pilot can catch and correct before anyone else in the airplane even is aware that there is a disturbance. It is a very good feeling. I had been hoping it would happen with this 207. For a number of reasons, I wasn't sure it would, for not only had its previous owner personalized it in many ways, and not only had that owner flown it completely around the world, but he had died suddenly in the crash of another airplane and this one had been sitting, unflown, for nearly three years. I wondered whether its personality would allow it to accept anyone else.

Devoted Owner and Pilot

Theo Gund, Rick Durden, George Gund III and George Gund IV.

This Cessna 207 had been owned by the late Greg Gund. Much of the time he had owned it, he kept it in San Jose, Costa Rica, at one of the more interesting airports on the planet. Pavas exists in a high altitude, sloping bowl among mountains. It is almost constantly blasted by strong winds funneled through a venturi between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, so takeoffs are into the face of much turbulence and rising terrain, and landing approaches seem to last for weeks as the groundspeed hovers near single digits. Greg had fallen under the captivating spell of the natural world of Costa Rica, especially the Osa Peninsula, home to a stunningly high percentage of all the species of life on earth. He had seen what was being done illegally by those who did not care for the beauty of that country and he made use of his airplane to help protect the bounty of the country's natural resources. Having a sense of adventure that would not quit, he also meticulously planned, and then carried out, a flight around the world in the 207. Tragically, Greg was killed in an accident in the summer of 2005. His Cessna 207 was ferried to northern California, where it was stored in airworthy condition by his family. Over the next few years his family wondered what was the right thing to do with the airplane that had been a part of Greg's passion for life and his work for conservation. In 2007 they approached LightHawk -- an environmental aviation organization whose volunteer pilots have been flying in support of conservation matters throughout the U.S. and Central America for nearly 30 years -- to see if it might be able to make use of Greg's airplane. LightHawk's response was a hugely enthusiastic "Yes!" For the last 20 years volunteer pilots had been flying LightHawk's Cessna 206 throughout Central America. I had been one of them, often using my vacation time to volunteer for some very intensive flying in Belize or Costa Rica to do everything from the annual manatee count in Belize to tracking Harpy eagles that had been released into the wild to spotting illegal incursions into protected areas of the rain forests of Belize and Costa Rica. LightHawk's volunteer pilots had put thousands of hours on its 206 and LightHawk was facing the reality that the cost to renovate it to get it back to top condition was probably going to exceed the value of the airplane. The idea of having a 207, an even more capable airplane for its work, was enough to get people to start thinking about magic wands and miracles. Sorting out the vagaries of donating an airplane owned by an estate to a not-for-profit organization was not an easy exercise, but it finally came to fruition on Feb. 4, 2008. Because I had once-upon-a-time flown Cessna 207s, I was lucky enough to be the volunteer pilot for LightHawk who accepted the airplane on the organization's behalf. I was hugely fortunate to meet Greg Gund's parents and his brother, to learn a little more about him, and to be able to express my thanks to them for donating the airplane to LightHawk. They said that it was the best way they could think of for the airplane to continue doing what Greg had started. I could not have agreed more, and suddenly could see the airplane once again at Pavas Airport, and elsewhere in Central America, in the years to come. Dedicated volunteer pilots will fly it over the jungles, coasts, interior highlands and vast savannahs with teams of scientists, researchers or local villagers aboard. Sometimes donations have a very far-reaching impact. LightHawk's now-retired 206 flew thousands of people millions of miles on flights that helped protect immensely valuable natural resources in more than a score of countries; Greg Gund's 207 will do the same thing and more in the years to come.

Back In The Air

I felt the scotch warming between my hands and thought of the week of flying the 207. Once the quiet donation ceremony was over and all of the formalities of the paperwork associated with transferring ownership of an airplane had been completed, I made a flight in the local area to see how happy the 207 would be to return to the sky after nearly three years. All went as perfectly as a flight can go. The systems were checked and found to each work perfectly. Every light bulb lit on request and the engine ran flawlessly, both rich and lean of peak, with CHTs staying comfortably cool and the engine purring during lean-of-peak operations. I said a silent thank you to Mike McClellan of Reid-Hillview Airport, who had cared for the airplane much of the time Greg Gund had owned it, faithfully kept it ready to fly in the years following his death, and then tweaked everything carefully before it was donated to its new owner. The rest of the week involved checking out some LightHawk volunteer pilots in various locations as I worked my way to Socorro, N.M., where LightHawk volunteer Jerry Hoogerwerf would also be checked out in the airplane and use his A&P skills to install some final touches before the airplane would go southward. There were stops in Santa Maria, Chino and Tucson, each with weather so good that I wondered how long I'd have to pay low-ceiling-and-icing dues to compensate once I got home to Michigan. Volunteer pilots with whom I flew and who had long flown LightHawk's 206 marveled at how nearly identical the 207 was in handling and performance, and expressed their wonder at the things that Greg Gund had done to the airplane to make it so very capable.

Sussing Out the Details

Greg Gund's C207

I thought back to the first landings I had made that week in the 207 as I went through the formal introduction phase to a new airplane, the airplane and I each on our best behavior. I explored the slow-speed end of the performance envelope, curious as to whether the vortex generators had been installed correctly and how they would affect handling and stall behavior. Together, airplane and I slowed to 50 knots indicated with full flaps and I found that the 207 was utterly solid. Even though we weren't all that far from gross weight, there was still lots of power available in level flight. Turns could be made easily, with fingertip touches, and the longer fuselage of the 207 over the 206 meant that less rudder was needed when making speed and configuration changes than in a 206. Power off, with full flaps, I saw the airspeed needle work its way down to 41 knots indicated before there was the mildest of breaks to announce that the stall had indeed been reached. The 207 was every bit the purebred, stalling straight ahead, not even threatening to drop a wing, and recovering smartly and immediately once back-pressure on the wheel was reduced. Adding power arrested the descent quickly, and going from the full 30 degrees of flaps to 20 meant that we were almost immediately climbing away from terra firma. I was pleased to see that the vortex generators provided the slow-speed benefits of a STOL kit for the airplane without the associated weight, and I thought of the 1,700-foot runway at Belize City Municipal Airport, where it is a point of pride to be able to land and make the mid-field turnoff without heavy braking. As I explored landings in the 207, I realized that flying short final at 1.3 Vso would mean just over 53 knots. Recognizing that there was some degree of airspeed-indicator error at the 41-knot indicated stall speed I had seen, I decided to try flaring for landing at 60 KIAS, power off. It worked well, meaning that the 207 will be quite happy on short runways. In fact, entering the flare at much over 60 knots generated a significant amount of float down the runway, something to be noted, and the correct speed in the flare to be respected. I was reminded that the manner in which the nose of the Cessna 206 was stretched in the process of making the 207 meant the top of the cowling of the 207 was higher. Therefore, on landing, the nose completely covered the horizon when raised high enough to keep the nosewheel above the runway as the mains touched. It meant finding the right spot to look prior to touchdown to assure that the airplane was not drifting to one side, as not all runways are 150-feet wide.

Paying Attention to the Countryside

As the week progressed, I had the joy of flying over a part of our country that I had previously only seen from airliners. As the formal stage of the relationship with the 207 evolved into a mutually trusting friendship, I enjoyed seeing many sights new to me. The airplane and I viewed Santa Barbara out off to our right, Palm Springs and Blythe to our left, and the rugged desolation of southern Arizona and New Mexico spread out in all directions. By the time we reached Socorro, the 207 and I were on a first name basis and I was beginning to comprehend a degree of Greg Gund's affection for this vessel of flight. It had no bad habits at all and it rewarded a pilot's efforts at precision crisply. As we slid down the nighttime final approach to Socorro, we together sensed the left crosswind, lowered the left wing, touched enough right rudder to line up, then flared nose-high and felt the left wheel begin to roll on the runway. Progressively more left yoke let us continue to roll on one wheel for a while before the right main and then the nosewheel settled to the ground and we coasted up the gently sloping runway toward the lighted ramp area. It was a perfect way to end the early days of what I hope is a long relationship. Sitting back in the big old recliner, the scotch had warmed to near body temperature and I thought again of the Gund family and how I wished I had been able to get to know Greg. I raised the small glass in a toast to Greg and his family and to their generosity that will allow one airplane to benefit the lives of so many. Thank you. And if you have 1,000 hours as PIC and would like to volunteer for LightHawk and perhaps fly the 207, visit their Web site for more information. See you next month.

Want to read more from Rick Durden? Check out the rest of his columns.