Lite Flyer is right where she said she'd be, at the baggage carousel. She rents a car and we step out into the familiar hot muggy August summer weather (why can't anyone ever fly me to Florida in February?) and we drive to a hotel near the manufacturer's airport. We're glad to hear that hurricane Gustav is heading elsewhere, but everyone is holding their breath for poor New Orleans.
Next morning we're both on early schedules, so we're out of bed and getting dressed by the time the clock alarm sounds at 6:30. At first I thought it must have been Lite Flyer's cellphone because it's playing the a song from the Top Gun soundtrack. It just happens that the radio station it was tuned to was playing that song at that moment. Good omen? Maybe.
At breakfast, the TV news shows reporters at various locations along the Gulf Coast standing in the rain waiting gleefully for Gustav to create some havoc they can report on. We'll be feeling the effects too, as the hurricane reaches shore, with high gusting winds forecast for the north of the state, not to mention the fact that there are more tropical storms lined up ready to make landfall further ahead along our route. We have a couple of days to get clear, but I'm not in an airplane that will be in Canada tonight with one gas stop.
We drive to the manufacturer to check out in the airplane. I have Lite Flyer go first because it's her airplane, and because I expect the winds to pick up. If one of us is to check out in tough conditions it should be me, and I want to know my limits in this airplane. While she flies, I do a weight and balance and some route planning for the first leg. The fuel tanks and baggage are all sitting right at the C of G so there isn't much of a shift to worry about with fuel burn and loading. I'm hoping we can make it to St. Marys, Georgia, tonight, about three hours travel up the coast to the north, but while Gustav isn't going to flatten the Florida coast, its impact will bring so much moisture that the further we can get away from it, the better.
Lite Flyer returns from her checkout and we do a quick swap. She brings me my headset out of the truck of the rental car, and then goes to return it while I fly, to save some time.
The wind is blowing 12 to 15 knots straight across the little runway at the manufacturer's facility, and my takeoff is as squirrelly as .. as a rabid squirrel? I apply forward stick, but not being familiar with the proper attitude and how low the airplane really is to the ground sitting on its main wheels, I don't get the tail off enough, and it pops into the air below rotation speed, wallows for a bit while I fight with the rudder and then the extremely tactful instructor-CEO makes me put the nose down. Wow, the climb attitude is much more nose low than I was expecting. You can see where you're going in the climb.
I start with some maneuvering. I'm still hamfooted, but it's easy to hold my altitude and attitude. It's a very stable little airplane. I've been warned that the stall characteristics of an airplane like this are terrible, but the stall is a non-event. The airplane mushes back to cruise unprompted, or can be recovered easily. The high propeller does make the nose go down on power addition and pitch up on power reduction or loss, but you have to be paying attention to notice it. I did a go around on my first approach to the runway, after getting the approach profile wrong, and I didn't really have to think about pulling the nose up. I just set the climb attitude. There are often strange forces in a go around, what with trim and the configuration changing. The power out glide ratio <i>is</i> poor. You're not landing anywhere that isn't pretty much immediately under the nose.
We do a couple of take offs and landings on a swamp. They aren't too bad, but I'm not going to be doing water landings on the way home, so I want to concentrate on making sure I can handle this critter in whatever conditions arise on the runway. Crabbing down final into that still increasing direct crosswind, I ask what the crosswind landing technique is. It's crab to the flare then kick the rudder straight. Just great. Considering I haven't really learned what it's supposed to look like at touchdown yet, I'm supposed to get that instantly. I don't, finding it hard to remember exactly how close to the ground my butt is supposed to be in this thing. After a few wildly swerving landings I ask if there is a more into-wind runway where I can learn one thing at a time. We hop over to another airport where the crosswind is much less and I eventually get reasonable although far from beautiful results. My final landing back at the manufacturer's strip is safe, so I now know I can land in those conditions but will not plan to.
Meanwhile Lite Flyer has returned the rental car and brought sandwiches. She's finishing up purchase paperwork at a desk and I can see her bags by her feet. "Is my stuff under there too?" I ask. Obviously she knew it was still in the trunk of the rental car, as she has the keys, and she brought me my headset from there as I was getting into the airplane. But you know it. My bags containing not only my clothes, but my
computer, warfarin, nighttime prescription glasses, chargers, and assorted aviation electronics are
locked in the trunk of a rental car at the return lot. It's Labour Day, so the car rental place closes at one p.m. It's 12:59 by my watch, which may be a bit fast, because every time I change time zones I set it forward to the nearest minute.
There's a scramble for the rental paperwork, but the phone is not answered. The rental place is actually <i>in</i> a Sears so Lite Flyer gets the idea to call Sears and get them to talk to the person directly and plead on our behalf. The Sears number goes to a switchboard in Maryland and many phone calls and twenty minutes later we still are not talking to the guy who works in the Sears hardware department, ten steps from the Avis desk. The assistant at Aero Adventure very kindly drives us both back to the mall to see what we can do. If we have to wait until Avis opens tomorrow, we're going to be trapped here by the hurricane. On the way I explain that we are having an adventure, not a disaster. The assistant regales us with tales of "adventure" from her own life.
At Sears the car is still there--not immediately rented to someone else, nor ferried to some other location--good, but of course no one is around from Avis. The Sears automotive department is right there and I ask one of the mechanics if they repair Avis cars. He says yes. I know <i>my</i> mechanics have spare keys for our airplanes in their toolboxes, and that they know how to get in without keys. I tell him our tale. Now he has nothing to do with Avis. Lite Flyer bats her eyelashes, reads his name off his work coveralls, and asks him if he knows how to get into that car, but he's having none of it. The assistant calls another Avis office that hasn't closed early and they refuse to make it their problem. I call the Avis 24-hour roadside assistance number and
explain that we're locked out of a rental car, is there anything they can do to help us? She says to call a locksmith and that she will okay it if they have any qualms about breaking into the car for us. Thirty-five minutes and fifty-nine dollars later is the moment of reckoning. Did Avis clear the trunk and either store or steal the forgotten belongings before leaving. Trunk opens. Everything is there. Adventure complete. Oh except for the fact that at one point we were sitting on the curb, waiting for the locksmith and the assistant jumped up saying there were ants there, Ants? Turns out they were <fire</i>ants. Okay, that sounds painful. She tells a story of someone who woke up with fireants all over him and he called for help, but it was "too late."
"What do you mean it was too late?" I asked. "He died? From ants?"
Apparently ants can kill you in Florida. Hurricanes can kill you too, especially if you're flying a fabric winged airplane in one, so we'd better get going before one arrives.