Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Two Ways to Get Fuel

Wednesday morning the hotel clerk does not have as dire a view of the town's one cab as the airport manager, so to avoid having to impose on airport staff to pick us up, Lite Flyer calls him. The cab is clean and the driver is prompt and friendly. If you're ever in Union, SC, call Alpha & Omega Taxi Service on my recommendation. Service after 6 p.m. is only by special request, but he said he would have picked us up, no problem.

A flock of large birds is grazing (do bird graze?) on the grass by the apron when we arrive. We look and point and they run away. I speculate that they are wild turkeys, like the bourbon. The airport manager later verifies that they were, by our description. They're not in season right now, and they're very wily when they are. They seem to know, apparently.

The airport manager is also the manager of the local football stadium, and they are moving some games up to get them played before the hurricane hits. He has some preparation to do, but is generously offering his work crew to help with the fuelling operation. His work crew wears bright orange jumpsuits with the name of the county correctional facility on the back. He says they mostly pick up trash and do other cleaning at the stadium. Use of convict labour is quite common in the south, and I found a list of rules for working with them, on a bulletin board. Lite Flyer goes with the manager and crew to get gasoline while I do flight planning and check weather. The light mist in the vicinity of this airport is echoed to the north with IFR conditions in fog, forecast to persist for a couple of hours, so there's no great urgency to get anything done here. I chat to the airport manager's secretary and to another of the orange-jumpsuited work crew. I wasn't quite quick enough to get a photograph of Lite Flyer directing fuelling, outnumbered by convicts, but the image persists in my mind.

With the airplane fuelled and ready to go, we sit under the wings for a while with our respective computers, trying to get up-to-date on our blogging, and waiting for the weather to improve. Ordinarily I would have left here on the expectation of the fog clearing on schedule, and the knowledge that I could outfly the region of fog if necessary. But with an ultralight and a brand new engine--and only one engine--I'm treating every moment in the air as the one before the engine fails. It's almost a superstition. If I say, "it will be alright," I'm tempting fate.

Eventually the fog clears and we're good to go. Lite Flyer does the take-off and she does it beautifully, raising the tail to just the right attitude with just the right timing and then flying off the runway at a perfect 65 miles per hour. I don't have to say a word. Of course she's had eight hours of training before I met her, and that was also on a tailwheel, so I shouldn't be so surprised, nor take credit for setting a good example. I lavish praise and direct her through the on course turn.

I'm not worried about the late start this morning, because we have an ace up our sleeves. Our next point of landing has Mogas on the field, a fact that I've verified with a telephone call. We'll be able to fuel up and hop back in the air without messing with gas cans and borrowed cars. We have a list of US airports that supposedly have Mogas, but this is the first one that has worked with our route schedule.

South Carolina gives way to North Carolina, which looks exactly the same. I always wonder about the pairs of states with the same names. Did they divide an existing state for political reasons, or were they not original enough to come up with separate names for already separate jurisdictions. The green fields of North Carolina give way in turn to forests and fields of Virginia. There are a few more lakes here, some of which tempt me to do a touch and go, just because I can, and a higher tree to grass ratio. The land is more rolling too. There are still plenty of available fields. I choose uphill emergency landing sites as I watch out the window.

We've descended to circuit height and are both watching for our destination airport but we're almost on top of it before I spot it, and direct Lite Flyer to teardrop out in order to have room to establish a base and final. Boost pumps on, flaps set, gear confirmed down. We've been leaving it down because the difference in drag between up and down is negligible, and by leaving it extended we don't need to worry about any faults in the retraction/extension system. I worry a little bit about primacy for Lite Flyer not acquiring the habit of ensuring the gear is in the correct position, but we do use the checklists and she seems diligent at confirming both the green light and the visual gear position before landing.

I bully her through the circuit pattern, feeling badly that I've never sat down with pen and paper and explained the steps we're taking here. It's just that when we're not flying, it's always a higher priority to get food, fuel or sleep. She's picking it up anyway and has been flying fine approaches and handing it over to me for mediocre landings. She would probably do better landings herself, without the burden of knowing how to land dozens of other aircraft interfering with the low, low, flare that feels like landing on your butt and what would be the tips of your propellers in another airplane.

I don't remember if I had her remain on the controls for this particular landing, just that we rolled out on the narrow uphill runway and turned off at the apron. There were lots of people around and lots of airplanes, few of which were much bigger than ours and all of which were much older than ours. We parked near the pumps then checked them out and ground handled (i.e. dragged and pushed) the airplane close enough to fuel. There were two pumps, one avgas and one regular. The pumps themselves were old enough that the mechanical totalizers couldn't display the price of fuel sold at today's prices, so the price per gallon was written on a piece of paper taped to the front of the pump, and then there was a calculator there to work out the total owing based on the gallons pumped. A box was available to accept cash payment, just in case you came in when there was no one around.

We got a ride to an interesting Fast Food place just down the road. It was a chain that our host said was 'everywhere' but it was a first for us. The name, Sheetz, didn't make much sense to me, but it had pretty good food. The gimmick was that you ordered entirely from a touch screen, specifying your toppings and condiments by touching their pictures. I had a fajita and a fruit blend drink and Lite Flyer had a hamburger of some sort on a whole wheat bun. We took them back to the airport to eat, and learned a little about the character of the place. First off, it wasn't just an airport, it was an "Airport and Drag Strip," closed to aircraft two Sundays a month for car racing. it had been conceived and founded that way about 50 years previously, as the auto racing helps to pay the bills.

The guy whose name was on the flight school and repair facility was turning 85 within the month. They had some publicity posters up from some years earlier when he had flown around the circumference of the United States in a little Piper. It took him 28 days, and he had a chase van to help him get to hotels and food and the like at each stop. We wow respectfully at te feat, but I hope Lite Flyer is beginning to see what we're doing, in a slower, less robust airplane, trying to go from Florida--a state his trip skipped, right up to Halifax in only four and a half days, with no ground crew but the kindness of strangers. Fortunately, our route has no shortage of kind strangers. If we have any mechanical problems, I hope we end up at a place like this one. A place with experienced mechanics who are comfortable with the fix it yourself with whatever is at hand status of our little airplane. They look well equipped for major repairs. There are hoists and lots of tools and an airplane in the hangar for what I'll call extensive touch up paint. The whole place and all the people we met had a lot of character. I definitely would stop at W90 again. They only have Avgas and Mogas, no Jet, and the apron was pretty small, but if you're flying a small piston and want an interesting stop, go say hello.

I had been concerned for a couple of legs about contact between the left rudder cable and the rear of the fuselage. The fiberglass-kevlar hull had already clearly been cut and adjusted to accommodate the flying wires and the tailwheel retraction mechanism, so I didn't see any reason not to do another adjustment. I had mentioned it to Lite Flyer and spoken to the manufacturer about it and here was an environment where they would understand the occasional need to modify your airplane as you went along. They happily lent me a few sorts of cutters to see what kind would work best. I was lying on the pavement with the snippers poised to take a chunk out of the hull before it occurred to me, "Lite Flyer," I asked, using her real name of course, "Are you okay with me cutting a piece off your airplane? Would you rather do this yourself?"

She confirmed that the surgery was approved, but that she didn't want to do it, and I made a few snips. It didn't take much, and at some time in the future she might have access to something like a skill saw to make a more pleasing and symmetrical curve along the rear of the fuselage, but for now it would do the job. Cables shouldn't rub on anything. The splashguard persists in its attachment and all the fabric panels remain secure. I can't find anything else wrong, so we're good to go.

We start up on the apron at about the same time as an old Aztec that came in for fuel. I notice them still sitting there running while Lite Flyer carefully follows checklists. I can't see their tail number to address them, but I just key the mike and ask, "Is there room for you to squeeze by the amphib?" They confirm that there is, they were just waiting, not wanting to cut us off. We take our time to let everything warm up slowly, so we let them go first and then taxi uphill to the end of the runway.

I do the takeoff because the brakes don't hold all that well and the runway is narrow, so it might be a little tricky for Lite Flyer to get lined up and take off in one go, and still be confident of holding the centreline. Airborne, I admit to Lite Flyer that I'm glad I did a good takeoff because I didn't want to screw up in front of our new friends. And it turns out she was thinking the exact same thing. I give her control and we again turn north as we climb.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Ahh Sheetz.. I didn't know they had food services..

I've only used them for fuel when going on road trips to the states.

A groggy friend after 10 hours of driving over night!

dpierce said...

I didn't know they had food, either. I just thought it was a gas station.

Anonymous said...

3164 x 40' runway with a twin? Ya, that's narrow.

From the comments, your opinion prevails. Sounds like a great place to visit. And what a gorgeous clear blue sky. This is a job? Looks like a vacation!

Jim said...

With respect to your comment about flying over state lines.....

Apparently when a new astronaut (or cosmonaut, I suppose) flies in space, on the first day they identify the shapes of land and water and say "that's where I live, that's my city". Later it becomes "that's my country". And then it's "that's my planet."

And many admit to surprise, then embarrassment, when they look down for the first time and don't see lines - those artifical man-made things called political borders - across the landscape. Of course they are not there, but that's the landscape they've always seen on the map.

Scott Johnson said...

Shame there's the (understandable) need for such secrecy about the places. Virginia is my home state, and I have a feeling the guy whose name you don't mention is probably one of my idols ... I have flown in the right seat of a Cessna "Bird Dog" piloted by that man on half a dozen CAP search missions. He is one of the most amazingly talented mountain pilots I've ever had the privilege to know.

Anonymous said...

3164 x 40' runway with a twin? Ya, that's narrow.

If you consider that being able to keep the centerline between the main wheels is a basic level of piloting competency, 40 feet shoulld be plenty for an Aztec. With a 37 ft wingspan I'd estimate that the Track of an Aztec is probably 15 ft, when would puthte gear a comfortably long way from the edge with the centerline between the mains.

Aviatrix said...

I'm not being especially secretive about the places on this trip, just made the blog not likely to pop up too fast in a Google search for them. I gave the identifier of this particular airport and the name of the town. If the guy you're speaking of, Scott, lost an arm in a propeller strike accident then we met him.

Scott Johnson said...

That's the man (although he was still fully armed at the time I flew with him.) You met a real legend.

Albert said...

Sheetz is a chain of gas stations that also sell food. And yes, ordered through the computer screens. They are very common here in pennsylvania

Pilot said...

Sheetz is a gas station chain based in Altoona, Pennsylvania. (Tip: their onion rings are amazing)

They own and operate a Super King Air 200 based at Altoona Blair County airport (in Martinsburg, PA)