Monday, September 08, 2008

Why Are We Here?

The low cloud that dogged us on the Florida coast is gone, and we can get slightly better winds at a higher altitude, but I have to sell the higher altitude to Lite Flyer. The demo flights she took were all below a thousand feet, probably a combination of cloud avoidance, economy of time, and the manufacturers' desire to make the airplane seem faster. The lower you are to the ground, the faster it seems to go by. In the immediate vicinity of the factory, the demo pilot knows the terrain well, knows where all the wires and towers are and mainly wants to show the customer that she can land on the swamps as well as the runway. Apparently during Lite Flyer's checkout they buzzed a row of alligators sunning themselves by the swamp. When we add a few thousand feet, we can see further, but that visibility tapers off in the distance that wasn't there from low down, and in some places there is a bit of a haze layer. It gives her the impression that she doesn't have proper visibility. A low hours student pilot is very sensitive to the quality of the visible horizon. I respect that, and I don't want to break her most excellent habit of not flying unless she can see well. If this were purely a flight lesson I would not fly when the horizon was not sufficient for her comfort. But job number one is getting the airplane home, so I'm pushing her in ways I wouldn't normally push a student. I keep feeling the voice inside me saying "bad instructor!"

I'm hoping we can get to North Carolina on this leg, but we'll get there when we get there. She has an ambitious schedule, hoping to clear customs on Friday, when the person she has been dealing with over the import paperwork will be in the office. She has verified that we can still import the airplane on the weekend, and I expect that may happen. That cold front is still marching across the continent, still easily visible just from the precipitation and convective activity maps. We'll lose half a day to its passage. The weather should be clear behind it but there is also a low off the maritime coast (isn't there always?) and Hanna is still going strong. Everything has to go right for us to make this trip work.

Lite Flyer has another instructor who can fly the airplane, but he once ferried an airplane that was found to contain contraband, and is no longer allowed to enter the United States. There's an aspect of the preflight inspection that not every pilot thinks of. If we can get this critter across the Canadian border, then even if the worst case weather arrives and it has to be shut in a shed for two weeks, she can her husband to drive her and that flight instructor to the aircraft and eventually get it home. My goal is to get it across the border, with all else being gravy. But not that weird Georgia gravy.

We cross over an area of the chart that is marked "For Reasons of National Security, Pilots are Advised to Avoid Flight Below 2000' MSL" Interesting. Low flight is not explicitly prohibited, we're just 'advised.' We take the advice. I guess it's an area of nuclear power plants, as we see lots of cooling towers. We cross the border into South Carolina and exchange high-fives, establishing a border-crossing tradition. South Carolina looks pretty much like Georgia, Commenting on the physical similarity of one jurisdiction to the next seems to be almost an aviation tradition. I understand that the astronauts take it one further, as they can see half the globe at one and observe that there are no red lines on the globe, just one precious planet we all need to work towards keeping hospitable.

The engine runs smoothly, with all the gauges steady at numbers they established shortly after level-off. I teach Lite Flyer to pay attention to what those numbers are so she can recognize changes before they represent imminent engine failure. I also teach her to look around at the airplane during flight, to make sure that nothing she can see is torn, flapping, working it's way loose or otherwise damaging itself. The fabric of the wings is stitched and the stitched panels are held on by velcro. My inspections so far haven't shown anything that concerns me, but if something lets go half an hour after takeoff, I don't want it to flap in the wind for three hours before we notice it. This isn't anything special to ultralights. Any pilot who can see working parts of his or her airplane will check them visually in flight. It's nice to know before the sun goes down that the engine cowlings are not spewing oil.

This will be the longest leg we've flown so far, and we're still getting used to the correspondence between the fuel gauge, the fuel visible in the fuel tank, and the actual fuel on board. It would be three and a half hours flight time to our planned destination in North Carolina, equal to the total of the two flights we did this morning, but this one had more climbing and less low power maneuvering. I don't yet know the relative fuel burn of various power settings, so we decide to land short, in South Carolina. I call this game, "Eeny Meeny Miney Airport." We don't really know much about the airports other than safety information and whether they sell avgas, which we don't care about anyway. We pick one, I call flight services to check NOTAMs, just in case this airport is closed for resurfacing or something. It's not. We tune the Unicom and there is another experimental preparing for departure, a hopeful sign that it will be hospitable to our needs. We join and land. As we taxi off, the other "experimental" aircraft turns out to be a Cessna, presumably with some modification that hasn't been STCed. We wave cockpit to cockpit as we pass on the apron. There is a Skymaster and a Piper single also parked on the ramp, but we go over to a corner where there are tie-down ropes we can use.

We shut down and our routine has been established: I start the postflight inspection while Lite Flyer looks for transportation. I've only just checked the oil (down a bit) when she returns from the rather drab-looking airport building. She hands up the oil bottle and holds the oil cap while I top up the reservoir. "There's no courtesy car, nothing here, and no one around," she tells me.

"Maybe that experimental who took off will come back and we can mooch a ride," I suggest.

"There are no cars at all," she clarifies.

I put off making any progress in the "where do we sleep or eat?" question while I continue poking at bits of the airplane, making sure there is nothing untoward happening with the control rods and cables, and that nothing is working loose. The splashguards on the vertical stabilizer have not popped any more rivets. As I check over the fabric something strikes me. Or rather something has completely failed to strike me. We have flown today over Florida and Georgia, at some low altitudes in convective weather and we have not one bugstrike. The windshield is as clean as when we left the factory, and the leading edges of our wings are uncontaminated. I guess we're going so slowly the bugs can see us coming and get out of the way. I check the trailing edges of the ailerons to see if overtaking bugs have piled up there, instead. Lite Flyer has nicknamed her little raft "Bug," so perhaps the lack of splatters is a professional courtesy. There are a couple of other minor issues, very light scratches on an aileron push rod show that it is occasionally contacting the bolt in a strut. The latter will have to be filed down a bit. I'd like to re-lubricate some of the control surfaces, so well look for some lithium grease. "I hope this town has a Wal-Mart," I say. I know WalMart may be evil, but when you're in a strange town it's awfully nice to have all the aisles lined up just the way they are in every other town, and be able to buy the cheapest kind of anything that humans can make.

I come and try to help with the getting us out of here task. There's some 1-800 number you can call anywhere that's supposed to connect you to a local taxi company but one I don't recall the number right now and two this isn't the sort of town that would probably be part of such a service. I try a door on the off chance that it leads to a pilot room that might have a taxi number or a phone book inside. The door is locked, but as I try the doorknob I put my other had against the wall and it was occupied. I yell, "Ouch!" or something similar and Lite Flyer very quickly dispatches the large insect responsible for my cry of pain. On inspection of the insect and the wound we decide it is probably a giant South Carolina wasp of some sort and not deadly poisonous. But damn, that hurt. The airport manager's number is displayed in a window, without an area code, but there's another number for hangar rental inquiries that does have an area code, so I use the hangar rental area code and the manager's number and reach him just as he's coming in the door. I grovel that I know this is not his job, but we've just landed and are trying to get into town. Does he know the number of a taxi service?

He says there is a cab, but you don't want to take that cab, he'll come and get us. He gives us a tour of the town (i.e. the street). It includes some restaurants, a Wal-Mart and a Super-8, so we're set for the evening. He says his work crew will be in at 7:30 tomorrow and that he'll be able to help us get Mogas, too. We eat at a Chinese restaurant and my fortune tells me to be aware of gains and losses but not be too greedy and everything will work out. Headwinds, tailwinds, it all comes out in the wash. Wal-Mart doesn't have white grease, but we buy some window cleaner because we have some greasy fingerprints on our bugfree windows.

Everyone we speak to is friendly, curious, and wants to know, "Why are you here?" And then they ask us if we know there is a hurricane coming. It's supposed to be here on Thursday now, which gives us another day before it hits. That is, when we finally sleep, this is the end of Tuesday, the second day of our journey.


Wayne Conrad said...

What a great adventure! It is so nice of you to write so much, and so well after what must be very long duty days. Thank you.

dpierce said...

Wow. You should start a new career ferrying ultralights to their owners just for the adventure factor. The story is engrossing. Plus, your collection of motel soap probably rivals mine.

Any electric plant that uses steam to turn a turbine will have a cooling tower, whether that steam is generated by coal or nuclear reactor or otherwise. (But SC does have nuke plants.)

Scott Johnson said...

You saw Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle, which is indeed a nuclear power station.

Anonymous said...

"Why" indeed. For the ADVENTURE, of course. Or, Aventura. I am enjoying yours from afar. From the post sequence, I gather you've come unstuck in time. Maybe it's all over by now.

Anyway. I think a big part of aviation's appeal for me is the fact that each trip of mine is an adventure. Either because I don't bring an engine, or lately, as a SEL-student pilot. You just never know what's going to happen or what you will see. Unlike flying for a living, I suppose. Paying passengers tend to like boring trips. For the pilots, from what I hear, issues like job security, scheduling, union politics and such tend to overwhelm the joy of flight just a tad. Not to say I still don't envy the office view from the flight levels.

I'm glad you're enjoying the trip. Funny thing about the bugs - I almost always have to clean off the sailplane wings, having spent a good fraction of the time circling in uplifted air w/bugs. On balance though, I'd take bug washing over wasp squashing any day.


amulbunny's random thoughts said...

You would have heard me scream all the way in the Yukon had something that big came near me and bit me.
I hate flying things that bite.
Glad you are making progress towards the border.
I told my brother in MN and showed him the website and he's interested now. God save us all.

Aviatrix said...

Yes, my time with the Aventura is over. We tried but we couldn't blog fast enough to keep up and we were exhausted at the end of every day. I won't give away the actual ending, though.

With me it's motel pens. I leave the soap and just take the pens.

Thanks for the info on the cooling towers. Now I just need someone to step up and identify the insect. I'm afraid all the photos of it have the same poor focus.

dpierce said...

I'm think you've found the aptly classified polistes carolina, the Red Paper Wasp. It's captured in some detail in the above link ... maybe it's enough to help you make an ID.