Saturday, September 20, 2008

Reflections on the Voyage

An ultralight airplane is an airplane. Like any airplane, it has capabilities and limitations and, like any airplane, it must be maintained and flown properly. Unlike a certified airplane it may be made out of any kind of parts, with any kind of engine, and maintained by anyone. Unexplained engine failures are far more common than with certified airplanes. I am almost surprised that one did not occur during our trip.

A lot of people would not take a little airplane like this on a 1600 nm international trip. I have experience not with long-distance ultralight flying, but with making long trips in little steps. I am always amused by responses like, "you can't get there by bicycle" or "it's too far to bike" when I ask people for directions to places within their own city. If you push the pedals, the wheels will go around. It works the same way two hundred kilometres from home as it does in your driveway. That was my view on the airplane.

Maybe it would be most sensible to take off and do simple flights in the vicinity of the home aerodrome for the first fifty hours or so of the shakedown of a new airplane. It would definitely be sensible to be very attentive to the break-in period. But the airplane, you see, does not know where it is. The airframe 'knows' that it took off, made some turns, flew level, made some more turns and landed. It can't tell whether it returned to its origin or not.

The engine can not tell that the first leg of our journey did not end where it began. It only knows that it was warmed up, given full power, reduced to climb and then to continuous cruise power for a couple of hours, before being reduced to approach power, and finally to idle and shut down. It 'knows' that this routine was repeated twice a day for a few days. It was always warmed up, never shock cooled, never run at take-off power for an excessive period nor allowed to become too hot during climb. It always had sufficient coolant and the proper level of clean oil. Perhaps it 'noticed' that the outside air temperature dropped steadily over the five day journey, but it never encountered temperatures it wasn't designed for.

The riskiest part of the trip was not the risk of crashing into the American countryside, but the risk of being stranded partway through the trip by a mechanical problem or by weather, with both of us needing to go back to work. A small mechanical problem would have been quite repairable, at the technological level offered by people who repair tractors and bicycles, but had we lost as much as half a day to such a problem, it's likely the hurricane would have caught us and we'd have to beg hangar space to hide in. The advantage there is that the little airplane could be secured in a hangar that was already 'full' of conventional airplanes. It could be tucked underneath and in between where other airplanes wouldn't ever fit.

I would not recommend a trip like this to anyone under time pressure as we were. It would have been a walk in the park had we the time to zigzag for destinations with interesting things to see, prearrange with people on the ground to meet us at the airport for food and fuel, and not done it during hurricane season. A chase vehicle would have been very advantageous, someone who would drop us off at the airport and then start driving and meet us at the destination. The airplane is not a lot faster than a car. Getting mogas took longer than expected. Advance time spent in research in advance on mogas availability would not be wasted. You wouldn't want to do it if you were not comfortable making decisions like "this part of the airplane needs to be cut off with a saw to avoid interference with the rudder cables." You have to be able to call the game when it needs to be called. I should emphasize that we were really lucky. We had no non-trivial mechanical issues. The sum total of our weather delays was five hours, one for convective activity and four for fog on two different mornings. Neither of us got sick or injured. No one ran over our tiny airplane while it was parked on the apron. I wouldn't bet money on flying eleven legs in the airplane I normally fly at work without a mechanical delay. I might bet against it. You must have time in your schedule to recover from delays. But if you do, and if you and your airplane can fly one three and a half hour leg into an unfamiliar airport, then you can do it again and again until you get to where you are going. That is what airplanes do.

I really recommend you don't do it during hurricane season, though.


david said...

Great post! So far, my flying has mostly been restricted to my personal VFR, single-leg limit of 4.5 hours. I'd love to find time to make a multi-day trip up to the Arctic Ocean or out to the Rockies some day.

Blake said...

So.. if someone else asked you to do the same thing, would you agree to it?

zenflyer said...

There's an interesting contrast between your early statement:
"Unexplained engine failures are far more common than with certified airplanes. I am almost surprised that one did not occur during our trip."

And this later conclusion:
"I wouldn't bet money on flying eleven legs in the airplane I normally fly at work without a mechanical delay."

I'm not sure which Rotax you were flying, but the Rotax 912 has an excellent reliability record and it "doesn't know" whether it's installed in an ultra-light, an amateur-built, or a certified aircraft. Rotax 912s have powered ultra-light and "homebuilt" aircraft in globe-circling adventures more than once.

The irony of today's aviation environment is that most innovations are being expressed in the world of ultra-light and amateur-built aircraft. The costs of bringing a new "certified" aircraft to market are astronomical - not to mention the liability issues. So we are still paying huge prices for "brand new" 1950's aircraft, built by Cessna and Piper.

The new Light Sport Aviation field may help change this in the US at least. But the manufacturers early off the mark with products in this niche are those who came up through the amateur-built/experimental pathway. (i.e. Zenairs, RVs, etc.)

Interesting flight - thanks for sharing your insights and adventures!

Aviatrix said...

The airplane I fly for work is much more complex, and decades older, so there's much more to potentially go wrong.

It's very easy to find accounts of ultralight engines that just quit. The only people I know who have experienced multiple engine failures in their careers fly ultralights. A friend has been bitten multiple times by Rotax engines. I know a flight instructor who gets teased by Transport Canada that he has experienced more real engine failures than everyone at TC put together: he flies ultralights. Lite Flyer's own instructor had an accident when what I believe was a new Rotax engine quit immediately after take-off.

I do agree that the constraint to systems that can be certified stifles innovation in certified airplanes, and that there are some marvellous, innovative ultralights, but the certification standards do serve a purpose.

I still hope Lite Flyer absorbed my obsession with knowing where to land, and that she receives excellent instruction in forced approaches before she gets her licence.

zenflyer said...

Rotax 2 cycle engines are most notorious for quitting unexpectedly. And of course part of the 'issue' with non-certified aviation is that the service tasks and intervals are also less well regulated.

I always tell people before flying in my aircraft that I'm the manufacturer and they can't trust the 'guvament' to ensure this plane is safe. "So, how much do you trust me?"

That's why amateur built aircraft are supposed to have a big warning for passengers to tell them that the aircraft DOES NOT have a certificate of airworthiness in the same sense as does a certified model. (However it's usually worded in such a way as to just cause confusion for a non-aviator).

Thanks again.

Powerin said...

Thanks for recounting your adventure and giving us snapshots of America in words and pics!

But I had a little chuckle at the tractor and bicycle repair comment. The level of technology needed to repair most tractors these days is probably far more than needed to repair most GA aircraft.

Our tractor has an electronic fuel injected common rail turbo diesel driving an infinitely variable computer controlled transmission. Both are continually adjusted by the computer to give the optimal fuel burn. All tractor functions are under electronic control which I can monitor and adjust from an LCD screen. I can even program in timed sequences of actions and functions that can happen at the press of one button. Many tractors these days have GPS guided auto steering. So our tractor mechanic uses a laptop nearly as often as he uses a wrench.

I say all this to make myself feel better about driving a tractor...I'd much rather be flying a plane! :-)

Aviatrix said...

That's an impressive set of tractor specs! I had in mind tractors of the sort we use to tow airplanes: bristling with levers and gears, but the only electrical features would be ignition and starter.

And Blake, I probably would do that again, but I'd want more buffer.

Mike said...

The 912 100hp is more reliable than the 80hp and of course both are more reliable than the 2 strokes.

It is worth doing the burping job when checking the oil however. One day taking an a/c that had just landed I turned the prop to burp it, only to find that at a certain point the prop refused to move. The dreaded crankcase problem had occurred and the engine was removed and sent off for work.

I always fly with one eye on the nearest landing options and climb to cross tiger country.

As Reason said chronic unease is the price of safety.

What a great trip and so brilliantly told.



Wild Blue said...

It was great reading about your trip up the east coast - thanks for keeping up with the blogging.

For those who are interested in this kind of long trip in a slow airplane, there is a good book called "Cannibal Queen" by Steven Coonts. It's about a trip he took in a Stearman around the United States, stopping in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. It reads well and is engaging.

Dr. J said...

That's fabulous!! If you don't know about it, I suggest looking into the American cross-country trip of the Vin Fiz! It's quite an adventure from the annuls of aviation history!

traveller42 said...

Contact me if you ever need someone to drive chase on a similar endeavour.

My father and I started flying as glider pilots. Keeping a landing location in mind is second nature because you are always in an "engine out" scenario.

I knew a couple in Iowa who rode across the US on a tandem bicycle in 1938 or so. Took about 4 months, but they made it from sea to sea. They even dipped the front tire in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.