Tuesday, June 21, 2016

MIAO: Diversions

Ah, the diversion.  Pilots everywhere know the concept--things didn't work out exactly as planned, so you had to divert to an airport other than the intended destination.  Depending on the flight and circumstances, this might be a simple selection of predetermined options or it might mean some serious thinking on your feet. 

As it turns out, aircraft maintenance projects operate in a fairly similar manner.  You start down one path, figure out that you can't complete the task, and then try to find something to do.  Your diversion might be caused by a lack of parts, a lack of documentation, changing schedules or priorities, or who-knows-what.  It's part of the process, albeit an occasionally frustrating one. 

Making "friends" with new and exciting chemicals is part of the process
A few weeks ago, I thought I would be covering the rudder the next weekend.  This was alternately exciting and terrifying, as it was the final control surface to be covered, but I was supposed to do it with minimal to no supervision.  Well, life happened and a repair to the lower trailing edge didn’t get made by the weekend.  That was disappointing but, it turns out, there is no shortage of work to be done when recovering the fuselage of a 70-year-old airplane.  Alternate plans were formulated and the weekend was spent prepping and priming both aluminum and steel parts.  All of the aluminum parts, save for the cowls, that could be primed at this point were, along with a majority of the steel parts. 

Rough baggage panels were cut (they’ll need to be custom-fitted to my quirky little Cub), parts were organized, more Scotch-Brite consumed, more MEK accidentally and regrettably inhaled.  All these things are important and better done now than when the excitement of getting ready to reassemble the airplane arrives, but you still miss visible and tangible progress.  Nevertheless, you keep plugging along and finding another project to divert your attention to, because any progress is better than no progress.

Some day this is going to pretty awesome.
The whole approach reminds me of one of the most frustrating trips I ever took by airplane.  It was March 2011 and I was taking a Super 18 down to Sun ‘n’ Fun, or, rather, I was trying mightily to.  Weather confounded us at every turn, with a massive tornado-producing system in front of us and a spring snow storm chasing us.  It was during this trip I learned the art of “airport appreciation time,” as we sat for full days at a time watching radar in FBO lobbies, napping on couches, and borrowing courtesy cars.  Every opportunity to move was taken, though we really only ended up where we planned about 20% of the time.  Every mile in the general direction of Florida and/or better weather was progress, however frustrating and slow it was.  And, just like poking along at minor airplane projects, there were bright spots to be found when you looked for them.  In the case of the ill-fated Sun ‘n’ Fun trip, it was finding great people, good food, and story-telling material.  In the case of the Oklahoma Kid’s ongoing fuselage recover, it’s sometimes being able to put away a primed part, knowing it will be ready to go when the time finally comes to make things yellow.  

As Tim Gunn would say, "Make it work!"  Or, in aircraft projects, "Make something--ANYTHING--happen!"
In sum, there’s a lot you can do and a lot you can learn when you’re forced to make a choice.  In flying slow, VFR-only airplanes, that can mean figuring out how to make 30 miles of progress at a time.  Suddenly you’ll arrive at your destination, and only because you were willing to figure out a plan of attack when Plan A didn’t pan out.  In aircraft restoration, it may mean finding some seemingly stupid little task to do just for the sake of putting some time into the airplane and getting something done. 

This approach has served me well so far, though it is definitely not always easy.  There is, however, a tremendous power in realizing you can figure some things out as you go, that when life doesn’t go according to plan, you can make a new plan.  There’s nothing in your today that dictates your tomorrow.  With that in mind, I launched off on another venture.  I’ve wanted to get some advanced spin training and learn basic aerobatics since I first started flying, but I always found something else to focus on.  First, there was getting my pilot’s license to start with, then there was college, and then there was work and trying to figure out adult life (full disclosure: I still haven’t figured that out yet).  Now I’m elbow-deep in an airplane project, and I realized there is no good time for just about anything.  Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, so you might as well dive in and make it happen.  With that said, I’ve been busy seeking out emergency maneuver training/aerobatic scholarships and crafting applications.  I’ve been researching ways to learn more and how to volunteer so I can see a new side of aviation and all of that determination is due to life taking its own winding course.  

Waiting to go yellow some day . . .
Necessity is the mother of invention, they say.  In my case, a fork in the road is the mother of decisions.  The choices are to not fly at all during the Cub rebuild process, or to find another way.  I don’t know what the outcome of the scholarship application process will be, but I’m a pretty persistent person.  I’ll find a way to fly one way or another, whether through scholarships or indentured servitude or possibly the sale of a kidney.  It may or may not be upside-down right away, but someday I’ll get to do that just like someday I’ll get to open the hangar door to see my yellow magic carpet again. 

P.S.  If you have any good aviation reading suggestions, I’m all ears, especially if it is something pertaining to learning aerobatics or Cub restoration.  I have spare time in the evenings now that I used to spend flying . . .


Friday, May 20, 2016

MIAO: Kicked Out of the Nest!

Fly, little birdie, FLY!

Pilots: Do you remember your first solo?  Of course you do.  It became a turning point in your aviation story.  For the first time, you were totally in control.  For better or worse, the safe completion of the flight was wholly your responsibility, without the safety net of your instructor sitting next to (or behind) you. 

The funny thing is, you might be solo but you're never alone.  It's a lot like those insurance commercials that have been making the rounds on the radio.  Sure, you're technically the only person in the airplane, but those tidbits of advice stick with you.  I can still hear my instructors, Steve and Kandace, repeating "baaaaaack . . . baaaack . . . back . . . back, back, back-back-back-back" as I fumbled through learning to flare.  Those voices don't go away with time.  I remember how they'd alter the cadence (and occasionally urgency) as I unceremoniously plopped the Cub on the ground.  As I grew in my fledgling abilities, they got quieter and quieter, until the fateful day when Kandace turned around and said, "So, the only question now is, do I get out here or do I make you take me to the hangar to drop me off?"  I'm told my expression suitably resembled a deer in the headlights. 

The feeling of responsibility, coupled with that unique elation of "Look mom!  No instructor!," is a sensation closely linked to experiences where you have gained some knowledge, have some excitement, but have not yet stepped into that brave new world of self-sufficiency.  I'm about to get a whole new taste of that this weekend.

I hear this part is sort of important--and it looks like I'm going to have to remember how to string rib stitches together!  I'm looking forward to getting the Cub's freshly covered rudder signed by friends and family just like I did before I peeled the fabric off in January. 

Before my travel whirlwind started in March, the Oklahoma Kid's new ($$$) stabilizers were covered.  Her elevators needed some repair, which was accomplished last weekend, which meant they were ready to cover.  Mark at Dakota Cub had to spend some time reminding me what step was next as I had forgotten some of it over the six weeks the project had lain dormant.  It was, however, encouraging and exciting to see how the process of covering the elevators went more smoothly than covering the stabilizers.  The actions required were just a little more familiar--just enough so, it seems, that Mark has decided it's my job to cover the rudder without his hovering.

Yes, I'm getting kicked out of the nest!  I'm alternately excited and nervous about putting all of the things he has taught me into practice.  I suppose you can always cut your mistakes off and start over if it's bad enough--and if not, it will be good for a story when the Oklahoma Kid is out flying again.  I'm headed out to Dakota Cub tonight to get started . . . stay tuned.


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Other Airplanes or: Why You Need More Than One

I last flew the Oklahoma Kid on December 17th, 2015, when I ferried her a short ways from home (South St. Paul – Fleming Field) to a nearby airport to have her wings and engine removed.  Progress has been made but it’s been stymied here and there as projects are.  Most recently, I was on a back-to-back (to back to back . . .) round of travel that took me east to Washington, DC, and Florida, west to Shanghai, and a few places in-between.  Unfortunately, the travel schedules and a few other life events lined up such that I haven’t been able to work on the airplane since the end of March. 

Things you should never have to do: Cut out a large (recognizable!) piece of your beloved airplane.  It's for the best, but it was painful. 
In the meantime, spring has decided to show up here in the upper Midwest, and it even seems like it’s here to stay for a while.  The combination of a busy travel schedule, other work responsibilities (that don’t take a holiday while you’re traveling), and life in general are enough to keep you busy just keeping your head above water, and everything else takes a back seat.  Then, suddenly, it’s 75 degrees out, sunny, with a light breeze straight down the runway and the familiar ache surfaces.  When you’re busy, it’s easy to forget or forego the things that bring you joy in favor of practical tasks like ensuring you have clean underwear.  It’s a part of life, and it’s fine until you get the reflective moment where you remember the pure and unadulterated joy of escaping the ground for a few laps around the pattern or a quick jaunt down the river—and then you realize you can’t have that.

The first stop of the whirlwind travel tour: Washington, DC at the peak of the cherry blossoms, though I only got a quick glimpse on my ride to and from the airport.
At least, you can’t have it right now.  That serves two purposes.  First, it lights a fire under your butt to want to do everything you can to get your magic carpet back in flying form.  Sometimes reality gets in the way of this timeline, whether in the shape of other obligations (like helping a parent get ready to sell their house, or getting car maintenance done, or myriad other things) or the financial requirements.  If you’re really lucky, you get to combine the other obligations with several other unplanned expenditures totaling in the thousands.  Anyways, the second impact is more complex.  Emotions always are.  You feel a longing to return to that previous life you had, where there was an airplane ready in the hangar.  You feel upset at yourself for not getting more done.  You feel depressed realizing the pure numbers involved (projects never do go according to plan), and wonder when you’ll be able to get your airplane back.  You feel generally cranky because, truth be told, a piece of you is missing. 

The most recent progress was at the end of March, covering the two new stabilizers I ordered.
This, of course, is why everyone should have more than one airplane.  In an ideal world, you could take one or even two down for maintenance and still have something to fly.  If you have found that ideal world, please let me know.  I’m available for adoption. 

Next stop: Florida (Round 1).  Lovely weather for a pasty Midwesterner to be outside ;)
I have to admit, I’m a bit of a one-trick pony.  The overwhelming majority of my time in the air is in some form of a Cub.  Sure, I should branch out more and fly other airplanes, but I don’t regret a single minute in the air in a Cub—even the uncomfortable ones.  I find myself fortunate to have fallen so deeply in love with an airplane and a way of life so early in my aviation involvement.  And sure, I recently stated that if all I ever had to fly was a humble Cessna 172, I would be happy because flying is flying—and that’s still true.  But there will never, in my mind, be any equal to the simple, unfiltered joy of flying a Cub. 

After two days at home, Florida (Round 2).  Improved weather, plus airplanes.
All that said, I love a lot of different airplanes and I’d love to fly a lot more.  However, if all I ever am is “nothing but a Cub pilot,” that’s ok too. 

Four and a half months after doing the dumbest thing of my life (dismantling my wonderful little airplane), I had the opportunity to go fly another yellow airplane, but not a Cub.  It was similar in form, a descendant of the Cub’s arch rival, and I was one lost and confused little Cub pilot.  Electrical systems, switches, boost pumps, props, radios, and gauges—it was all doable, things I was capable of managing, but it was one hell of a study in contrasts.  I think maybe differences are more pronounced when there is some expectation that items will be similar.  I wouldn’t step into a King Air expecting much to look comfortingly familiar, but a tandem, fabric-covered taildragger is a bit closer in nature, yet it’s quite nuanced in its differences. 

After another two days at home, hello, Shanghai! (No, that's not fog)

Same view at night.

Ok, this one might be partially fog

I should mention that there once was a time when I felt perfectly at home in a Cub or Cub variant.  I’m willing to admit that this might have been a false sense of security that comforted me, but I was accustomed to the airplane feeling like a well-worn sweatshirt.  It was familiar, a little musty-smelling perhaps, and welcoming.  I knew its quirks and personality traits, its starting tendencies and those little noises.  Now, however, is a different time.  Over the past few years, I have flown less.  First, I didn’t have an airplane, so I bought one, and now I keep taking it apart (someday I’ll learn).  I look forward to regaining that sense of belonging, but, for now, I’m conscious of the fact that I’m not as proficient as I once was.  I pay more attention to my state of mind, the weather, and the mechanical condition of the airplane.  That’s not a bad thing, but it is to say that I’m very aware of the rust collecting on my flying skills. 

After a whole week at home (the luxury!), this one was for fun :)
This degradation of my proficiency was fully evident to me as I clambered into a comparatively strange airplane.  I went out of my way to not assume I knew what was next, asked for clarification and direction, and generally tried not to screw it up too badly.  Everything felt different, and sometimes it was hard to tell if it was because I had forgotten how to fly an airplane or if I was actually picking up on some characteristics that distinguished the two airplane types.  “Why won’t you talk to me?” I wondered to the airplane.  “Why won’t you do what I want you to do?  Why do I have to think so much about this?”

After four days at home plus late-night unplanned car issues, it was up to Anchorage, Alaska, for the Great Alaska Aviation Gathering.  Landed back home at 5:40 Monday morning, caught a nap, and went back to work.  
Of course, the airplane was talking—I just hadn’t figured out how to listen to it.  I missed the sensation of feeling at ease and in control, not needing to think about minute tasks like setting the trim just so or where to find the oil temperature gauge.  But, with a little time, things became less clunky and forced.  I was still very aware of the variances between this airplane and my beloved Cubs, but it wasn’t quite so painful.  By the end of it all, I was even having fun and didn’t feel like a total floundering idiot. 

Yes, you read that correctly—I flew something other than a Cub and enjoyed it.  It is, in fact, possible.  All that said, you shouldn’t hold your breath on me going out of my way to fly other airplanes while mine is still in pieces.  Finances and time are, first and foremost, dedicated to getting Cubby back in one airworthy piece.  Once she is back in her home hangar and flyable, you’ll have a hard time convincing me to spend money or time on any airplane other than her—after all, we will have to make up for lost time! 

In the saga of unplanned expenses, this one is canine in nature.  Who knew doggy tooth extractions (necessitated by a tooth getting broken) could be more expensive than my unplanned car repairs, and on par with the excision of my abnormal mole?  In any case, I'm hoping we're done with expensive surprises for a while.
In the meantime when I can’t work on the Oklahoma Kid, I’ll occasionally slip into the Barnstormers trap and daydream about a second airplane.  Someday, I won’t have to go months without flying while my proficiency and confidence slowly seep away.  If you’re considering airplane ownership, I implore you to consider the insanity of multiple airplane ownership—sure, you’ll have more bills, but I think it might just beat the insanity of the pilot that can’t fly! 

More rebuild progress to ensue this weekend, and I can’t wait!


Monday, March 14, 2016

MIAO: The Pursuit of (Im)Perfection

In my experience, there's a lot of Scotch-Brite and solvents involved in aircraft ownership.

Starting an airplane project of any magnitude is an invitation for the peanut gallery to show up, usually with a proverbial bag of popcorn that they will drop all over your hangar floor while telling you—with a full mouth, of course—what you should do instead of whatever you’re doing.  It’s an entertaining, if occasionally progress-derailing, part of the process.  Sometimes, it even results in good ideas!*

*Definitely not always
Inevitably, what the commentary centers around is a million and one ways to make your airplane perfect.  This might mean making it faster, slower, lighter, more comfortable (heavier), prettier, or just about anything –er.  The folks behind these suggestions have pure intentions and no financial obligations to the project, so you’ll experience no end to the ideas.  The prospect of freedom from such social interactions might be enough to push your project across the finish line.  

Let me be clear that there are many good ideas to be gleaned from this kind of commentary and insight.  Your hangar visitors might notice things you’ve missed, inform you of an easier or more efficient way to accomplish something, loan you tools, or genuinely come up with a great feature to include.  They might even offer to help (they might also camp in your hangar and drink your beer, but there are risks to anything).  

People ask if I'm keeping the venturi.  So far the answer is yes, because I'm reusing the boot cowl and there are holes already in it.  It's a great time to make a new boot cowl, but I've decided that I'll live with my existing one for reasons of cost and time. 
When I bought the Oklahoma Kid, I knew I didn’t want a perfect airplane.  First and foremost, I could not afford one (I still can’t).  Perhaps more importantly, I wanted an airplane I wasn’t afraid to enjoy.  After all, it only took me two days to ding the wingtip bow on a hangar door for the first time.  Side note: It was a 60’ wide door that can fit a Caravan.  I still have no clue how I managed to hit the wing of a 35’ 6” wingspan Cub on that, but I’m guessing it took some level of skill.  

Even when presented with the option of having a perfect airplane over time, I’ve decided I don’t want the Oklahoma Kid to be one.  I appreciate them, and have great respect for their owners, who invest countless hours in the pursuit of impeccability.  At the end of the day, though, I’m far from a perfect person.  My desk is usually a disaster, and I’ve been known to do dumb things like fall asleep with the lights on while knowing better.  I’m the kind of person that will never have a perfect dwelling, or a perfect car, or a perfect hangar (ok, that one I will probably get a lot closer on).

I love this barb stripe.  It wasn't perfectly done but it was different than the norm and had some flair.  Peeling it off was pretty sad. 
I appreciate a little scruff in an airplane.  I like little imperfections that have stories.  They remind me that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of my airplane—it’s mine, and not theirs, for a reason. 
To all of you who want historically accurate airplanes down to the exact hardware manufacturers—that’s awesome.  I love looking at your work and seeing the history preserved.  To all of you who want the fastest airplane on your hangar row—keep it up.  I only ask that you not run me over in the pattern.  To all of you who want to sit on a sheet of cardboard to save a few ounces in your STOL beast—my hat is off to you.  I still think I want a cupholder.  To all of you who want your perfect airplane to be any combination of all the myriad options out there—good for you.  I hope you go out and get it.  

Every piece of green tape indicates something to be addressed.  The tube might get removed or replaced, or there might just need to be some cleanup done.  Either way, there is a lot of green.

For me, an imperfect airplane is the definition of perfect.  Each imperfection has a story, even if it’s as simple as “I’m an idiot and ran it into a door.”  As I go through the process of recovering the fuselage (don’t worry, there’s plenty of blog material there), many imperfections in the airplane are revealed.  I’m left with choices.  If it’s an airworthy issue, the imperfection will be fixed.  If it’s strictly cosmetic, there’s a bit of a debate.  How much time and expense will it add to the project?  What’s the gain?  

I’ll admit, there are some fuselage areas I look at and think, “Boy, this thing sure has a lot of splices.”  And it does—the Kid’s history includes the installation of a repaired fuselage done by an aerial application business.  “Pretty” and “cosmetically appealing” were not requirements on any work done.  The main request seemed to be “won’t fall apart.”  Looking at the repairs, I sometimes think it would be nice to not have so many present.  That’s strictly an aesthetic issue in most cases, and usually not even that, since you won’t see the splices when the airplane has been recovered.  But there’s still this internal debate where you think “Am I the only one who would leave these?  Am I being a poor airplane owner for not feeling these have to be addressed?”
Sometimes the pieces of green tape are big!

I pondered on this for a while and came to the realization, once again, that I don’t want a perfect airplane.  At least, I don’t want this airplane to be perfect right now.  In the future, maybe I’ll take the time to remove all of those blemishes, but right now, it’s more important to have a safe, airworthy, flying airplane to enjoy.  Moreover, as I scrubbed paint off of the cowl that I curse so much at oil change time, it all became clear.  I might have a perfect airplane someday, but the Kid will always be my favorite, and she’ll be my favorite because of all her imperfections.  She represents a time in my life where I am learning and stretching (both my knowledge and my wallet) and gaining the perspective of an airplane owner trying to scrap through the ownership experience.  Everything is new and I’m figuring out how to survive it all.  I’m riding the roller coaster of emotions, and lately there have been more downs than ups.  That’s how the ride goes sometimes.  

I still hate that cowl.  That’s one thing I will replace down the road, but who knows when.  Right now, sniffing paint stripper and keeping the thing in all of its hokey-ness gets me flying faster with less financial impact.  And in that light, I love that damn cowl.