Saturday, April 30, 2011

Barnstormer Anonymous - Chapter 3

Chapter 3
Flying a new airplane is like a first date and the one with Old Bess was blind. Although she wasn’t quite as advertised, I had no choice but to get to know her.  Jeff, the previous owner, was there to make sure of it. They say no matter how great a plane is, someone somewhere is tired of putting up with her shit. Fortunately that someone was around to answer questions; any that would ensure we left together.
As John strapped in up front, Jeff stood by the hangar shuffling his feet and checking his watch. When I caught neither of them looking, I put my hand on Old Bess and quietly whispered, “I’ll take care of you old girl”. In my mind, I was trying let her know she could trust me and that she should act accordingly.
“How many shots of prime do you giver her” I asked, standing with one foot on the trailing edge. “She likes the prime, saaay five to seven; more if she won’t start” was the answer. Looking like a guy mounting his first horse, I grabbed the handle added to assist passengers, pulled myself up, awkwardly swung my right leg into the cockpit and onto the seat, gingerly grabbed the windshield frame, brought my left leg in, eased my hands down to her combing, and hesitantly slid my butt into the seat.
When I was learning to fly in the family Champ, there were days just climbing in made me feel stupid. Often I would hit my head, miss the step, or end up with both legs left or right of the stick. At times it felt like there was nothing I could do right. Months later though it was common for me to discover myself strapped in, seat belt locked, and the spring loaded clank of impulse couplings marking time. By then, so comfortable was I that minutes would disappear like those on a familiar road home; I couldn’t even tell a person how to climb in. I had to demonstrate it.
Studying the Stearman’s panel while fumbling the belt through the harness, my mind drifted to an ideal future where once again I might find myself sitting there, prop swinging, harness buckled, and no knowledge of how it happened. As my right hand grabbed the latch and swung it into place, the ball bearings locked in with a snap and I came back to reality.
“You ready?” “Yeah” said John. “Ok, here we go.”
One twist on the knob and five shots of prime later, I nervously shuffled my butt in the seat, lifted the switch guard, and hit start. NNEeeerrr, eeeerrr eeerr eeerr eeerr went the starter meshing on gears as I counted through ten blades and rotated the mag switch to both. Nothing happened. In that short time the starter had engaged to gears, they had driven spark from the mags, the oil pump pushed crude through the galleys, valves labored against springs to breath, and the crank encouraged pistons in and out of position. These are among many things you take for granted when your ears hear the starter and your eyes see propeller spin. Unfortunately, when the engine doesn’t start it’s hard to know which one to blame. Turning my head to look at Jeff, I saw he was already pumping his arm and mouthing “MORE PRIME.” This time I gave her 8 shots and ran the drill again.
Throttle cracked, mixture rich, everyone ready, CLEAR PROP! NNEeeeer eeeerrr eeerr eeerr eeerr went the powerplant; each eeerrr announcing the approach of top dead center. As the right number of blades swung by, my hand moved briefly from the throttle to flip the switch.
A radial engine creates a music so distinct, writers have been trying to pen its score for decades with no success. To me it has always seemed like an orchestra of one lung engines playing the same mechanical song as a round. Think Row Row Row your boat sung to the lyrics of one combustion cycle. Gears whine, a carburetor breathes, valves click, fuel explodes, and gas rumbles out the exhaust. As each cylinder completes a round, another cylinder enters the chorus midstream the next. And so it goes until all are firing a rhythm best described as enchanting. Spellbound by this sound, I was caught in the moment as she came to life. Unfortunately, it was not the best time to be daydreaming.
Coming out of my trance, I could hear her heartbeat slowing; she was about to die. Grabbing the throttle with a few quick jabs, my goal was to catch a rhythm. By the time we would get home, this act would be instinctive.  That day it felt like CPR. Fortunately, I was lucky and a few sputters later Old Bess was ready to go. There was only one question left to answer; now what?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

What Am I Going To Do?

Be honest; you’ve asked yourself this very question haven’t you? If you have a pilot’s license, own an airplane, or have any interest in aviation what so ever, you know what I’m talking about. There you are just going about your day when BOOM, the thought of seven dollar Avgas, $500 hangar rent, $2500 annuals, registration fees, taxes, and TSA restrictions to liberty flash through your head like that feeling when you realize you’ve left your wallet or purse on the gas station counter. Panic jolts the senses, a sick feeling comes over you, and until you have that wallet in your possession, nothing else matters. You know what I’m talking about. You just haven’t had the nerve to say it out loud because you know that when you say it it takes on substance. Maybe to you it’s like telling your family you lost your job right after getting a mortgage on a new home. Whatever the case, “what am I going to do” is the question that makes everything else irrelevant.
Fortunately, there are things you can to do offset this feeling of hopelessness and despair. Most of them involve accepting reality, banishing irrational beliefs, and making more of your time with flight. If you are willing and able to do these things, life will not be so bad.
First, it is time to accept the reality your airplane is not an investment.  Except for a very few years where things got out of hand with easy mortgages and speculating, aircraft have not made good investments.  Yes they do hold some value over time but the primary value they hold is similar to that of a core exchange.  This may be hard for many people to understand and having lived through the good years of aviation many will dispute this completely.  In the real world though, there is now a much bigger ratio of old planes to people who want them than ever before.  Therefore, the thing you have to decide is if you are in this machine because you love flying.  If not, then you need to get out of the airplane you own and invest those funds somewhere else.  Your conscience will love you for it.  Rules of thumb for this decision:  If you aren’t flying your own plane or a rental at least once every two weeks you aren’t in it for the right reasons or you can’t afford it.  If you aren’t flying it because you truly can’t afford to, you need to sell your plane immediately and let reality come into your life.  If you aren’t flying because you can’t afford a rental, then you need to find additional streams of revenue because have you succeeded beyond your pay grade.
Second, it is time for everyone to banish their irrational beliefs. If you own a Champ that burns five gallons an hour, at $4 per gallon that is twenty dollars. If fuel then goes up to $6 dollars per gallon, that means your fuel costs only ten additional dollars. Now I know every penny counts but if you can afford twenty you can afford thirty. And yeah it’s an old argument but it is also a true argument that you likely waste that much money every other day as it is. If you don’t believe that, then perhaps that is how you ended up in a plane you cannot afford. You must be willing to face reality and you must be able to do the math. Then take those numbers to do battle with the irrational belief the extra ten dollars makes your flying too expensive. If nothing else, find a friend that would like to fly with you for a percentage of the gas expense. This is a great way to get more people involved in flying and it will help you feel better about the money your spending despite the fact you can afford it; right?

Oh wait, there is more to part two. Since I know there will be people who say yeah but what about my plane that burns twelve gallons an hour, I feel I must continue drawing it out. If this person is you, that means you are spending $48 dollars an hours; for all practical purposes $50. With the rise in prices you now have an hourly fuel cost of $72. Yes, I agree, that looks like quite a bit when typed out but it is only $24 additional dollars. Now do not get me wrong, I know every dollar counts. That’s why all our engines are described with two numbers instead of three. But again, if you can afford $50 an hour, you can afford $72. If, like most people, you fly 25 hours a year, that’s only $600 extra dollars. I say “only” because what do you think the average price is of a plane that burns twelve gallons per hour? There is no way of figuring this out for sure but a rough guess, judging by the known values of the cheapest to most expensive planes in this category, would have it somewhere around $75,000. Can you honestly name one person who can afford, truly afford, a $75,000 airplane that can’t afford an extra $24 dollars per hour? This doesn’t mean that I’m not ticked off about high prices. It means your fear of gas prices is irrational unless you are in a plane you cannot truly afford. If that’s the case, see the first topic above. Your conscience will love you for it. Rule of thumb for identifying this issue: If you believe you will not be able to do any flying this Summer or you have already written of flying to some events this year because of fuel prices, you are either being highly irrational or you are in a plane you truly cannot afford to have sitting around. Your conscience is trying to tell you something.
Finally, make the most of your flying. If you have historically gone up and tooled around once a week and felt like nobody else was out flying, then this is your chance to change your flying habits. It could even make your time in the air more fun despite the fuel prices. How do you do this? Well, what you do is save your flying for an event or a trip to a restaurant with other pilots. Do a little basic planning, find an event or a restaurant you would all like to visit, and fly there together. Airplanes, like motorcycles, are infinitely more fun when there are more planes and people involved and by doing this you will find those extra dollars spent are better utilized and possibly not even noticed. A bonus is that you will also be helping out the larger aviation community by supporting the places that support flying. Rule of thumb for this issue: If you find you feel like you are the last person on the planet who flys their airplane, you need to find new friends or put forth the effort to get them together to go flying.

So, let’s review.
A plane is not an investment. You should have a plane and or be a pilot because you love flying. At the point you begin to think of any part of it as an investment, you are heading down the wrong path and you should re-evaluate your priorities.
Rising fuel prices do not devastate the bottom line as your brain would have you believe. If you can afford four dollars a gallon, you can afford six dollars a gallon. If you can’t afford six you can’t afford four and it is time to sell the airplane, find a different hobby, or get someone to share the fuel expenses with you.
Make the most of your flying. Yes it would be nice to fly an hour every day but you might find it is infinitely more fun flying as part of a gaggle to an event where even more fun awaits.
Take these tips to heart and you will find your worries about gas prices are relieved. Yes times are tough and fuel prices are going up. But, if you are in aviation because you love it, there is no reason for you to be losing sleep. Do an honest evaluation of your situation, make rational decisions over emotional, and learn to enjoy what you have.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Barnstormer Anonymous - Chapter 2

Chapter 2
I remember the first time I flew a plane, actually working the controls. Up front my brother, twisted and bent, strained to get “the shot”. Below us a county park baseball game spun like a pinwheel. If I flew the turn properly, the action would stay in place and he would use me again as his pilot. That was my challenge. Yet in my mind what I was doing didn’t feel that hard. These thoughts were verified when I rolled wings level in the direction of home. John, my senior by seven years, told me I had done a good job and that I seemed to know just what to do.
Arriving in Old Bess’ hometown, Oakdale, California, my mind went back to that day above the park. When I set out to start a biplane ride business, I never dreamed it would fall together so quickly. The right place at the right time fits the situation. For some perplexing reason, everything seemed to appear right when I needed it; sometimes even, just before. Old Bess was no different.
Wanting to make a business of “hopping rides”, earning a profit would be important. It would also made my decision easy. Despite everything I had been told it was clear a Stearman would offer the only chance of doing so. But, there was one critical detail; it had to hold two passengers. The day I realized this, John came home from a charter trip with magazine in hand. Inside was an ad offering, for sale, a rare approved “three-seater”. A short time later, in a dimly lit hangar, the question “Is this thing really mine?” went silently through my mind.
That word “thing” is important as there’s something about Old Bess I’ve kept a secret until now. I was almost sick when I first saw her. Earlier back at home, before exchanging borrowed money for a machine I’d never seen, I had decided a mechanics opinion was needed first. So, like every other person buying their first plane, I sent a friend to inspect it. This would be a teachable moment.
Steve, a mechanic and my roommate at the time, heard my situation and offered to do it for expenses. Being cheap and qualified, he got the job and off he went. Fortunately for my dream, his report came back good and the money was exchanged. There was no turning back. Yet very soon I would want to.
Stepping down into the hangar, that’s when it happened. Laying eyes on the plane for the very first time, I realized Steve’s report had been blurred by excitement. To make matters worse, this didn’t hit me until I was viewing the plane as its owner. There was no backing out but inside I tried. I was truly disappointed. Looking around in disgust everything seemed tainted, even the hangar.
Having spent many days as a kid in old garages, that hangar felt familiar. Much like those places, it had the scent of hard work. The floor, although solid, was of an unknown makeup. Decade’s worth of grease and overspray made sure of that. Heavy in the air, the scent of mineral spirits suggested repairs and random parts strewn on the floor covered oil spills thirty years old. In their day, garages were the waypoints of a new tomorrow. But like this hangar, by the 90’s they were the refuge of yesterday. For that reason, most people avoided them. Smart guys though knew a secret; often the best treasure is overlooked because of its cover. Was I making that mistake?
My mind was swirling. Inside I thought “Jesus Christ I just spent my friends money on a piece of junk.” Thankfully though, that thought was lessened as it competed with “This is not good, what am I going to do, I can’t take this home”. Yet on the outside I was cool; or so I thought.
Most of my family, my brother included, is afflicted with a genetically driven need to tell the truth, no matter how hard or upsetting that truth may be. So when my brother, nervously walking around, began to describe every part of the old girl as “This isn’t so bad”, I knew he could see the excitement leaving my face. To his credit, he was fighting instinct and winning. Or maybe he was driven by survival? He had, after all, committed to this trip a mere month into marriage. And from what I could gather, he couldn’t tolerate any delay that would keep him from his bride more than four days. Whatever the case was, his attempts to blow sunshine up my ass were growing old fast.  Fortunately, that’s when I remembered him telling me “you just seemed to know what to do”.  And he was right. From that point on, there was no looking back.  Old Bess made it easy.
Assumptions based on looks are among the most fallible. So often the dullest paint wins the race, ratty clothes drape intelligence, and sullen faces hide beautiful souls. Old Bess, as we would discover, had been ignored by those seeing only her cover. Thanks to them, I got a sweetheart of an airplane more capable than any stock Stearman I knew. Yeah, she didn’t look like much next to hangar queens. But, the more she spoke the more beautiful she became. My roommate was either lucky or good.