Friday, June 26, 2009

Going Home: 21Y Returns to Lock Haven

Aviation has some of the most stunningly generous people you'll ever find. An opportunity to fly to the Sentimental Journey Piper fly-in in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, was presented to me. Unfortunately, my savings account was fairly exhausted from three weeks of having 21Y in Mankato, and I hadn't heard back on any of my job applications, so I turned the offer down reluctantly. A week or so later, Steve pulled me aside for a "serious moment." Somehow, some way, who and how shall remain unbeknownst to me, someone had come forward with a monetary donation to cover my expenses for the trip.

There are not words to effectively convey the emotions that come from receiving such a gift. It seems inexplicable that someone should feel so motivated as to make this opportunity a reality. When I think about it, each time I marvel at the generosity of this anonymous person. What makes me worthy of this gift?

I may never know. But I do know that I accepted it with the understanding that in the future I will help others be exposed to aviation, and help them to achieve their dreams and further their experience.

There's too many happenings to possibly include in one post, so here's the trip out.

We planned to be wheels up by 7:00 Monday (June 15th) in order to clear the area affected by a presidential TFR around Chicago. That meant Steve and I were meeting at the airport at 6:15 to load up the two Cubs and Sharon would meet us around 6:30.


We both ran a little late, and then packing the airplanes took longer than expected (I ended up carrying Sharon's bag in the front seat of 21Y after it became clear it wouldn't fit in the Cub Steve and Sharon were taking). As such, we left about ten minutes late but made good time and cleared the affected area with time to spare--thankfully saving us a half hour or so.

You're supposed to have tailwinds from west to east at this latitude. However, my luck struck again and we were bucking 15-20 knot headwinds the whole way. That made for a long day of flying into the sun, with the last 2.5 hour leg offering up some steady bumps. The entire day amounted to about 7.5 hours of flying to our overnight stop in New Castle, Pennsylvania, where we visited with a friend of Steve and Sharon's. Lack of sleep, lack of food, squinting all day, and several hours of getting bounced around produced one of the most horrendous headaches I've ever suffered. I spent most of the night hiding from light and sound but was recovered by the end of the night.

The next day we finished up the last leg to Lock Haven--21Y's home! Call me a sap if you want, but they don't call it Sentimental Journey for nothing. Sitting on the grass, surveying a field of Cubs, one couldn't help but soak in the history of the place. The constant drone of Cubs taking to the air and returning, combined with the sound of trains rolling by the railyard where they used to deliver engines, was strikingly emotional. 71 years after her birth, 21Y had returned home. She had a different tail, a new style skylight, and a different N-number, but she was home. The ground where we camped and flew from was where she took her first baby steps as an airplane. It was the site of test flights, triumphs, tragedies, hellos and goodbyes. It was abuzz with activity, and now, it is eerily silent. Ghosts linger in the form of the original Piper factory, now a warehouse facility (but still with the overhead fuselage rail transport system in place), Piper hangars, now used as maintenance and FBO facilities, a mostly empty railyard, houses, and of course, former Piper employees.

A clear day where we could see Chicago!

Cubs and airliners--Chicago's a busy place!

Cargo Cub--21Y hauling Sharon's bag as well as my cushion, pillow, overnight bag, tie downs, chocks, oil, paper towels, maps, GPS, spare headsets and intercom, handheld radio, and a veritable pantry of snacks stored on the hat shelf!

The two Cubs on the ground at our first fuel stop in Goshen, Indiana. A very long leg at 3.5 hours! There was an adorable beagle in the FBO named Trenton.

En route to our next stop in Tiffin, Ohio.

On the ground at Tiffin. Had a wonderful chat and visit with some people who had restored a few L-4s and were in the process of finishing up another beautiful L-4. Also met a very friendly standard poodle.

At some point in time, Piper Bear, my only traveling companion, appeared as though he had given up. Thankfully he did not fall completely as I had bungee-corded him in place.

The Goodyear blimp hangar in Akron, Ohio.

The definition of loneliness: alone in an airplane (I was unable to spot Steve and Sharon in the other Cub at this point in time) surrounded by nothing but trees and hills. Every time I looked down at that rather forbidding terrain, I subconsciously eased back on the stick.

You can see some of the summer haze that is apparently quite common in that area. It was the first time I had seen it and it certainly made me uneasy. The cloud cover was mostly overcast, and I couldn't detect where the haze ended and the clouds began. Since there is basically nowhere to go if you have to dodge weather in a hurry, I was slightly uncomfortable. It was an excellent experience to have under my belt, with Steve and Sharon watching over me from behind.

Finally made it and set up camp! Within minutes of my landing and parking, my airplane neighbors came over to offer to help me set up the tent!

There are many parts of the trip I didn't capture--seeing a C-47 parked on the ramp in Lansing, Illinois, as we flew past, Steve wandering south as he attempted to troubleshoot his new GPS, the embarrassing groundspeeds (once as low as 57 mph), massive towers in Ohio, and the New Castle, PA, airport (the only one without a dog!). It was such an amazing experience, it's difficult to sum it up adequately. It was, bluntly, one hell of an experience, especially in an airplane with a dishonest compass. Over the less-populated areas of Pennsylvania with no roads for reference, I would get misled by the direction of the ridges, using them as east/west indicators. It was a good idea in theory, except the ridges don't run directly east/west (or even close), so I would find myself continually and unintentionally drifting off course. I learned about my personal weather minimums and the importance of good guidance. I also learned that the intersection of dehydration, exhaustion, squinting, and hunger is not a pleasant place to be.

All in all, an incredibly fun, worthwhile trip. More later!


Sunday, June 14, 2009


A short article was published about A Flying Story in the June/July issue of Midwest Flyer. Hopefully it will bring a few more people here : )

I always welcome comments here or emailed to aflyingstory (at)!


Little Things

Some times small things make you stand up and take notice. A sunset, a smile, a simple "have a nice day." Recently I've had a lot of little things that have made me ponder and realize that life is, indeed, pretty good. Small things have given me pause to recognize how lucky I am, and that realization has once again brought me to the task of sharing the joy flying has brought me.

June 2nd: Al from the across the runway at Hartford cruises by in his Super Decathlon at sunset. He stops by Steve's hangar, pops the door open and gestures for a passenger. Steve volunteers me, and I'm thrilled to go! We climb to a safe altitude and do some loops and rolls, then Al asks me if I'd like to try some. I say I'd love to, but, being vertically challenged, I can barely reach the rudder pedals. He says " maybe next time" (I can go again?!?!), and then does another loop. He tells me to try one of those, which turns into three in a row. The view never gets old. Each time we crest the loop and I look up at the ground I've just cheated, I can't help but smile and laugh slightly. Life is good.

Al forgets I told him I couldn't reach the pedals very well and suggests an aileron roll. I try and find I can reach enough for what's needed. The first few are sloppy by my measure, but Al says they're not bad and we do some more. I get better and supposedly do a good job--nothing ever fell out of the seat pockets or floated up from the depths of the floor! I'm wary of over-rolling my welcome, but I could do this all day!

It is getting dark though. Al asks if I would like to land and I respond "Sure!," trying not to sound too overeager (but I am!). Trying to lose a healthy chunk of altitude, I extend the pattern a good deal and still end up floating halfway down the unlit grass runway (I was not quite gutsy enough to try the pavement). We end up going around on that approach. The second time seems much better, although I can't see any of the instruments from the back seat (but I'm used to that, from Cub flying). I can manage without the instruments, but as we approach the airport, the runway disappears completely and I end up drifting to the side. Al directs me more to the right and I bounce us spectacularly. He laughs and we just let the airplane finish bouncing with the stick locked back. Oh well. Can't grease 'em all!

Back by Steve's hangar, I disengage myself from the two seat belts holding the airplane on and hop out. I can feel the involuntary grin on my face and thank Al profusely. He gives me quite the compliment by telling Steve, "She's a hell of a stick . . . if I would've known she was that good, I would've put her in the front seat!" I still smile when I remember that, and when I remember the way the earth seemed to gently arc around the Decathlon.

It strikes me that this is precisely why I love flying, whether doing loops in a Decathlon or putt-putting around in the Cub. A simple variance in perspective changes everything. It's why we love flying. In the sky, we are different. We are above the petty cares of daily life. Some people elect not to fly because of the price--I say it never weighs on my mind for those glorious moments, and that's all that matters. I'll find a way to make it work, because those moments are worth it, when I feel completely at home and fulfilled.

Thanks Al : )

June 5th: I leave my house early (for once) to get to the airport, a 45-minute drive, by 8:30 to get checked out in Steve's Super Cruiser. I notice a funny noise and stop my car in the middle of the driveway. The left front tire is completely flat. I grumble, call my dad, and ask if he thinks the bead will survive the 1,000 foot trip to the gas station. He says to use the air compressor he recently loaned my brother. I drive across the lawn to no avail--I can't find the attachment to fill the tire.

Royally upset, I angrily get in my car and drive to the gas station at no more than 5 mph maximum, 4-ways flashing methodically as other drivers get mad at me. Somehow the bead survives this trip, and I breathe a sigh of relief as the tire fills with air. Then the air hose is removed, and the whooshing continues. The tire is deader than a doornail, with the ruptured steel belt protruding menacingly. So much for that idea.

The mechanics at the shop put my spare on for me (which was also flat, but thankfully held air)--despite the fact that I consider myself moderately automotively adept, I couldn't have broken the bolts without an air tool. I worry about the bill, having heard nothing back from the numerous businesses I submitted job applications to. I'm mad that things have gone very awry the one day I'm excited to have plans, and the one day I leave early.

I ask how much I owe the two mechanics who helped me. They both say not to worry about it. I thank them sincerely, make a mental note to bring them a gift, and hold back the tears that always want to come when I'm truly touched by an act of generosity.

I didn't get checked out in the Super Cruiser that day. I didn't get to make my lunch flight. I was so tired I didn't get much done at all. But as I drove on the roads less traveled to avoid high-speed traffic, I paused to realize what a gorgeous day it was, and what a beautiful place I was lucky enough to get to call home.

June 12th: I get to make that lunch flight. It's not in the Super Cruiser, but instead a darling 65 hp Cub that admittedly had to claw its way skyward on the way to our destination. I had good company, an absolutely stellar flying day, good landings on both ends (from the front seat!), and a really good pork chop! I got to see an airplane I've always wanted to see--a Cessna 165 Airmaster (I want one even more now!), added some time in the log book, and got a phone call to do some photos with EAA's chief photographer Jim Koepnick back down at Hartford. We returned and I cleaned 21Y so she could be a model again. Jim and I flew around for a few minutes, and then he got out to do some panning shots while I got to cropdust the grass runway for photo passes.

21Y at 68C

The Airmaster I lust mightily for

After that I chatted again with Joe and Phil, a student pilot and born-again pilot who was returning to flying after a 20-year break. They had flown all the way from Bakersfield, California in a Cessna 182 and declared Hartford the friendliest airport they had stopped at. Life is good.

June 13th: I take my black Lab Brandy to the airport. While we're playing ball, I spot five powered parachutes and an ultralight airplane heading for Hartford. I poke my head into the now-closed hangar and announce our visitors. Steve, Kandace, Jordan, and Paul congregate outside and we all watch the posse of parachutes fly low passes and perform touch-and-goes on a crystal clear, calm, warm day. The perfect stillness and low hum of the powered parachutes is memorable, and I count myself lucky to be able to experience this sort of grassroots, pure fun aviation. Life is good!

A great bunch of people I'm honored to know, simply enjoying an evening at the airport

A good day to be alive!

I'm fortunate enough to be able to experience these little moments on a regular basis, and most of you probably are too. However, there are many out there who don't get to see this side of aviation at all. It is because I know I'm so incredibly lucky that I want so much to share these moments with others. Some will get it. Some won't. But the ones that do, the ones with an insatiable appetite for the pure joy of flying, will make it all worthwhile.

Invite your neighbors and non-aviation friends to an evening out at the airport. Make a day of it. Fly to lunch, or just fly around. Cook out. Enjoy nature's big picture show and watch the sun slip away.

Host a small airport open house. Show your peers it's not all rich people and the toys they buy simply because. Show them the passionate community that aviation is, and open the doors to their involvement, even if it's not in a flying capacity.

Understand the beauty of aviation's ability to bring out the childish giddiness in all of us. And embrace it.

Life is, after all, quite good.

Jim Koepnick photo, (C) 2009


Monday, June 1, 2009

Pieces of the Past

I'm finally all settled in again back home. Getting back into the swing of things, and working really hard on my sport pilot CFI. I've done a bit of flying for it, getting used to the front seat of the Cub (funny, I didn't think you could get any more blind than you are in the back seat of a Cub, but it turns out the front seat is worse!), but a lot of practice tests using MSU's online Gleim test prep software.

One of the best things about being home is seeing my airport and EAA chapter friends. I made it out to my EAA Chapter 18 meeting for the first time since last June (yikes!). It was good to be back. Our presenter was Sean Elliot from EAA, who spoke about the history of B-17s and about EAA's B-17 Aluminum Overcast.

That night had a lot of history. From talking about grand old warplanes, we moved to a restaurant for some barbeque chicken wings and social time, in keeping with chapter tradition. As I sat there catching up with old friends, I was awed as I heard them talking about multiple airports I was unfamiliar with in the local area. It turns out they were closed, for the expansion of the city or convoluted political issues. Two were closed in my short life time.

Airports are unique. They are hugely capital-intensive, requiring massive investments with little to no payback (let alone a guaranteed one). Once an airport is closed, it is never reopened. It is redeveloped, sold off, or simply left to dry up due to incredible paperwork issues involved with reopening it.

The fact of the matter is, we are losing airports, and gaining none. The only new airport I've heard of in the past five years that I've been paying attention has been the new Branson Airport, targeted at commercial operations.

It's a frightening reality. While there is little we can do to halt urban sprawl, we are not required to sit idly by while our airports are being seized and made into shopping malls or municipal storage facilities.

Certain things catch my attention, and the dearth of airports is one. The United States is undeniably blessed with a wealth of airports, but that wealth is dwindling like an old family fortune. We have the unenviable tendency to ignore the problem until we're scraping the bottom of the barrel and coming up with nothing but slivers.

In other words: now is the time to start promoting good community-airport relationships. We must do all we can to make the airport indispensable to the community, in terms of either economic impact or intrinsic value.

Keep airports like Hales Corners, Rainbow, Aero Park, and Meigs Field in mind--that fate is not so far off for many airports we all know of. Reach out to the community through local schools and organizations--keep them involved and support their community service efforts as well.

It only takes one voice to ruin the airport's reputation, but it also only takes one positive voice to cement the airport's place in the community.

Just some things to ponder : )