Saturday, April 19, 2014

Last Stearman NOT Last Stearman

A while back I wrote about the USAF Museum at Wright Patterson and their restoration of the last PT Stearman built.  The word on the street was that they were rapidly restoring it and removing some important history that came about due to it being the last one off the assembly line.  More important was the fact that the word on the street actually came from a USAF press release that said just that.
When I first read the release, I began fishing around for more information.  During my search I talked to several different people who did not deny what the press release said.  Additionally, when I suggested and practically begged them to preserve one important piece of it I received a curt, “we’ll think about it but not likely” response.  Soon after that I gave up, but not before noticing an interesting trend.
My initial conversations with the museum indicated this project was one of constant change.  When they were asked about something that didn’t seem quite right, a day later an answer would be produced to let me know that wasn’t going to be the case.  Up to the point of each response though, the point of each question was never denied.  This continued all the way to the end of the story, which I’ll get to in a minute.  It also implied one positive; they did not want bad press and were reacting in a favorable manner.
The final segment of this story now comes full circle.  Not long after my post I was contacted by the museum historian, Jeff Duford.  He wanted me to know the final disposition of the project and to clear up some inconsistencies published about the airplane for many years.  Apparently what he had found would resolve many of the things I had written about without anyone being the bad guy.  The perfect win win for a museum receiving terse questions. And you know what?  What he had to tell me actually did sort out decades of incorrect statements about the plane.  But again there is something telling about what was found and how.
As it turns out, Jeff was pleased to inform me the Stearman they were restoring was not actually the last airframe built.  Although prior to giving it to the museum Boeing had painted it up as the last one, the numbers on the plane in the factory celebration photo do not match the plane Boeing donated.  Therefore there was always a bit of a mystery surrounding it.  So, in the name of preservation and history, the organization began digging for more information.

Years of research later a critical discovery was made.  With the help of Stearman rebuild specialist Mike Porter, they were finally able to determine the plane they had was not in fact the last one built.  That’s great news, kind of.
As it turns out, the last one to roll off the line, serial # 42-17863, was actually wrecked at Randolph Field (Air Force) in 1948 and stricken from the inventory.  It therefore no longer exists.  The one at Wright Patterson, serial #42-17800, is therefore a very late construction but not the last one. This also means the museum's restoration did not desecrate the final example.

With that out of the way, Jeff also asked that I let people know the museum had decided to go completely original with the plane.  By taking it back to the day it rolled off the line; paint, color, props, instruments, everything, they were doing their best to honor its place in history as one of the last to roll out the doors.  That’s great news.
Unfortunately, the Stearman the museum has is not the last one built because that one is no more.  This also means the history they removed was history but not historically correct.  What’s confusing though is that I was told they didn’t think it was the last one built for a very long time and had been searching for documentation of this.  Yet oddly, up to the point I wrote about the status of the restoration, the mystery had never been solved.

Then by chance, as people from the vintage aviation community got a little steamed at them for doing what the USAF itself said it was doing, that changed.  The answer was discovered in short order.  That's very peculiar timing to me.  But what do I know?  So, in an effort to move on and look at this in a positive light, I can only say that when the vintage aviation community had concerns about about the restoration the museum rectified the situation.  I applaud them for that.
Thanks to Jeff Duford for his time and effort spent searching out the correct history on this plane.  And thanks to Mike Porter for assisting. 
Now let’s see if we can keep Swoose as Swoose.  What?  You haven’t heard?  Yes, the Swoose restoration plan has been delayed and when I asked how they were going to restore it there was a little bit of fishing around for an answer.  The official word is that they are going to research its history and make the tough decision as to what time in its history they feel would best serve their goals.  That does not sound very positive to me but I can tell you this; I think it’s an easy decision; keep it as Swoose. If you want to know more, click here and take special note of the last paragraph under "Move to Dayton".   You can also learn more about it by clicking here.  If it weren't for Kurtz, it would not have survived.
Trivia:  The actress Swoosie Kurtz is the daughter of Frank Kurtz and her name was derived from the name of his famous B-17.
I love the name and the caption, "The Swoose / It Flys".  As if those getting on board
needed some reassurance.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Airport Building Repairs

In that dumpster is a layer of ancient cedar shake shingles and the
 multiple layers of asphalt shingles which were applied by several previous owners. 
What's going on with rebuilding?

During the extremely cold winter every structure with plumbing had pipes freeze and burst. Most critical to keeping the field operating are the pipes in the airport house and the “outhouse” restroom.  Therefore, before mowing could begin we had to get them fixed.  Fortunately, we are pretty well versed in plumbing matters so that only took a day and a half.  And on the positive side, the picnic tables seemed to come through it all just fine.
Obviously, the hangar has yet to be rebuilt and work on it has been progressing slowly.  We ran out of energy last year due to many reasons, and since a thorough internal cleaning is required and it must be emptied before construction can begin, we decided to put it off until spring.  As the weather warms up, this should accelerate the process.
The good news, at least for us, is that repairs have begun on the red brick house at the north end of the runway.  This structure is believed to be the oldest building in the bottom.  Built in the 1800’s, it was once part of a community that held a population of over 5000 people! Today though it stands as a rare reminder to the substantial population which once called this bottom home.  And since our goal is to save and rebuild it, a few things had to be done to stop the deterioration which was accelerated by the storm.  The first part of that process required a new roof and the removal of some really poor additions.  Included here are some of the photos of the work.
When it comes to the house we once lived in, or “the airport house” as most people call it, we still are undecided which direction it will take.  Here are the three options.  One is to offer it as a place for aviators to spend the weekend, stay for a night on cross countries, or just have a quick get-a-way.  Another is to turn it into an airport club house/office.  And finally, it could be the perfect place for someone who wanted cheap rent in exchange for mowing and doing general airport work.   Personally, I prefer the later but finding a reliable person who can do the work might be difficult.  So, who knows what will happen?  If you like one idea or the other, let us know.
This gets us to the little log cabin.  When the tornado hit it it broke everything inside. It was very disheartening.  When you look at the exterior it appears mostly undamaged but in reality the storm grabbed it and shook it pretty hard.  A few boards pulled loose, the roof was damaged, and it moved off its foundation. Some of that damage has been already been fixed and the rest will be completed over the next few months. Meanwhile we're planning on doing something different with it.  Look for updates on that in the future.
That's pretty much it for the post winter structural updates.  With the warmer weather at hand, we hope everyone is ready to get out and fly. That's why the airport exists and we encourage you to get out and enjoy it.
Finally, there's that question everyone has been asking...

What Season Is It?

This isn't real.  It's just here for fun.
It’s mowing season.  Yes that’s right; over the past few weeks we’ve been getting ready for the first cutting of the year.   Although warmer weather took its time getting here, we knew it was right around the corner.  That meant lots of work had to be done.
These are just a fraction of the trees that had to be cut and then cut up for removal.
To start with, some friends helped us move trees further from the runway.  We do a little each year but in 2014 we really went after it.  For a full day two chainsaws filled the silence with 2 cycle screams and exhaust while a large loader hauled cuttings away.  When all was said and done, the south end was ready for the arrival of the B-17 (eventually someone will give in).  After that, another few days of chainsaw work were completed in an effort to clear out the tornado damaged trees and to begin the clean up of the area along the road.  Gradually we are doing more landscaping to lift the aesthetic appearance of the airport perimeter.  This clearing had to be done to accomplish that.
All tires will be purchased online and changed in house from here on out.
The next job in line for mowing season prep was the tractor and mower maintenance.  All the fluids and filters were changed on all the equipment.  When it comes to tractors, this can take a while.  The small tractor alone holds 7 gallons of hydraulic fluid and the big tractor has a total of seven filters.  So as you can imagine, it’s a full day’s work just doing these things.  After that came the mowing decks.
Our big concern this year was a heavy check for the primary mowing deck.  Mowing season arrived before we could finish it but the service will be finished between uses over the next month.  This will involve changing all the tires.  It has 14.  New blades will be fitted.  It has nine.  All universal joints will be serviced or replaced.  It has nine.  A good percentage of the belts will be changed.  It has six.  All gearboxes will have their oil changed.  There are four of them.  All high pressure hydraulic lines will be changed as they are rapidly approaching their life limits and potential failure.  It has eight of them.  And finally every grease point will be fully serviced.  It has almost 40.   And that’s just one mowing deck.
Only a part of all that was added and or changed.
Of course there’s the mowing.  Before it could be done the runway had to be inspected for anomalies.   This year the extended period of snow cover and severe cold was very tough on the turf.  It also insulated the critters instead of killing them.  And though they didn't make anything big enough to affect aircraft operations, they have made a lot of runs and killed a lot of grass.
This is one of the spikes that holds the runway markers in place.  It is sticking up 3"-4".  That's how
much the ground heaves in winter due to freezing.
Repairs will include bringing in top soil and mixing it with sand and grass seed.  The bad spots will be roughed up covered with this mixture which typically fills in rapidly with growth.  The rest will have to wait for fall when the budget and weather will be better suited for bringing in a trailer load of seed.  For now though, mowing must begin.
Taken during the first grass cutting of the year.
As you can see from this photo of the first cutting, the grass took a hit but it isn’t as bad as I may have made it sound.  In fact, it’s incredibly green isn’t it?  It’s also growing very fast.  You should come see it.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Crony Capitalism Aviation Style

It’s no secret the FAA plays for the other team.  They aren’t here to support aviation, only regulate it.  When they can’t find anything to regulate, there’s always something to be made theoretically safer.  And when all the proposed regulations are under construction and the mathematicians are busy creating formulas to locate minuscule safety improvements, the Feds are out looking for someone to violate.  After all, each of those things play a factor in job security.  Every pilot knows this.
The common knowledge of this punitive system creates a never ending search for far reaching solutions.  Aviation can’t sustain many more blows and everyone is out there looking for an answer to the riddle; how do we cut the chains on aviation but keep it from spinning out of control?  My answer of course is to set it free and let it be but that just doesn’t work here in a world obsessed with the notion of a rule for everything.  So, all that’s left are those solutions offered by others.
One of the most popular and potentially uplifting ideas is that of cutting GA lose from the FAA and letting an internal governing board keep it in line with the civilized planet.   And quite honestly, I like it.  There’s just one problem.
How many of you remember the dark ages of aviation?  You know what I’m talking about.  Remember?  Before formation clinic cards were required to fly formation in airshows things were bad; really really bad.  Formation was dangerous.  Planes fell from the sky like the colorful leaves of fall.  Collisions happened multiple times a day.  Pilots were dying at unparalleled rates.  Something had to be done!  Remember?  SOMETHING HAD TO BE DONE!!!!
If you really do remember those days, you know there were actually very few instances of planes running into each other while in formation.  Yes, there were a few high profile examples of stupid pilot tricks and airshow acts swapping paint but there certainly wasn’t enough for needing “certification”.  Yet, when it seemed inevitable aviation would be burdened with some sort of new regulation, theoretical improvement to safety, or a wave of violations under the guise of “careless and reckless”, our sport stepped up to the plate and offered a solution.  Aviation itself would develop and manage a program to sign off pilots for formation flying.  Yippee!!!  Hooray!!!!  We dodged a bullet on that one; right?  Actually, not so much. 
Back in the early days of required formation training, there were two competing courses that existed and one of them was by far the favorite.  Why there were two is important as to why the “not so much” comment.
Why were there two?   Having only one would have been logical and the lack of options would have restricted the Top Gun wannabes from making their own silly rules.  From two grew four and from that came the modern notion of an "approved" formation course for every model of aircraft.
Of course if you talk to one of the instructor “flight leads” from any of the model specific formation groups, they’ll give you perfectly logical sounding reasons why they needed their own course.  But if you stand there long enough and think it through, you’ll realize they’re full of crap.
Formation flying is the same whether it’s a Champ, a P-51, or a Sikorsky CH-37.  All that changes per each aircraft model are the visual cues for proper placement in each type of formation.  Those who fall within the vainest of formation groups will deny this using the claim the different power settings, configurations, and techniques for each plane demand a separate group.  That too is horse hockey.  If you are qualified to fly any given plane in formation, you can very easily do it with any other flying machine ever built.  All you need to dive right in is a very small list of tips.  Yes, I said they were tips.
These tips, or differences as some would call them, constitute the things you as pilot will observe during your first flight in a new model.  Things such as the shape of each aircraft, their powerplants, useful configurations, and helpful techniques are covered and should never consume more than one page printed in large font, unless of course you have drawings to go with them.

If you learned formation in a Champ and you’re now properly qualified to fly the P-51, these points of difference will get you up to speed quickly.  Of course with such a structure, a single program and an index of differences, there’d be no need to suffer through another formation clinic run by a different group of people who created the organization to make it more like the branch of the military from which they retired.  It may also save you from having to buy a flight suit and a helmet.  WAIT; WHAT?
Yes, some of these groups even dictate what you wear when flying formation.  And this is perhaps the best example of how silly it is to have more than one group.  Unfortunately, some major issues come with them also.
Let’s say you buy a plane that has its own specific formation group and you live on the East Coast and the group is based out West.  How do you get checked out?  More and more often the answer is paid training.  You either pay their instructors to come to you or you pay to go to them.  Of course, you need more than one plane to get checked out and that is why you have instructors with an s.
You could also put together a clinic in your area if there were enough owners who wanted to participate.  Unfortunately, that can be difficult.  Therefore what aviation often ends up with is a core group of people with that model of aircraft who are the only ones with the cards.  It’s crony capitalism for aviation and it is nothing but senselessly stupid.
Why not have one approved formation course and an online open source collection of differences.  A formation instructor could then teach in any plane and a "student" could do the same.  It would also open up another fun realm of aviation to a much larger group of people.
Yeah sure, you don’t have to have a card if you aren’t flying in airshows, but with one approved course and an open source for differences, airshow or not, everyone would be reading from the same page.  And isn’t that what we really want?  Some people not so much.
Everyday, as a collective, aviation moans about restrictions to entry being the greatest roadblocks to growing aviation.  Yet each and every day someone in aviation comes up with another restriction to entry for some part of the sport.  And let's be honest with ourselves, that’s what having more than one formation group constitutes; a restriction to entry.  So maybe before aviation goes demanding the government quit burdening us with more regulation, perhaps it needs to look inward at examples like this and do some housecleaning of its own.

Ultimately, this is the problem with the notion of aviation self-governance.  Although I'm all for it, the only positive I can see it generating is the opportunity to die by our own hands. One only has to look to the world of formation flying to catch a glimpse of the direction it most surely would take.

Note:  There is some good news.  If you've stayed away from flying formation because you don't have a plane with its own formation group, all hope is not lost.  As one good friend pointed out, "as far as the FAA is concerned, a guy with a Formation Flyers FAST wingman card can legally fly a P-51 leading a 20-ship through waivered airspace".  All those other groups are just generating copy in an effort to convince themselves, and you, that they are more professional, fly to higher standards, and are better at flying formation than some everyday guy in an worn out $18,000 Champ could ever hope to.   Like I said, that's horse crap.
Idea:  How about a weekend of formation training for "rejects"?  You know who I'm talking about. They're the people without Red Stars, Stars and Bars, or sliding canopies on their machines. They do though have a strong love of flying.  And who knows, maybe we could finally get our own airshow team.  I'm thinking Aerobats would be perfect the perfect steed.  One side would be painted in full airshow regalia and the other to look like an old flight school beater.   It might also help people realize you don't need a flashy new plane to learn how to fly.

Form Note:  If you work for the FAA, or have a friend or family member who works there, please don't send me nasty emails telling me how not all people at the FAA are bad, or how you know good people who work there.  I already know that.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why Our Leaders Fall Short?

Just like the members of every other group in the world, Average Joe and Jane Aviator spend a lot of time wondering why the leaders of their community never give 100%.  Most “executives” at the top say the things the group wants to hear, a large majority of them fly their own planes, and some of them seem to truly enjoy the sport, hobby, or profession they are tasked with heading.  So why then do they always seem to fall short on action and success?
I keep thinking about the search for AOPA’s latest president.  When word first came out about it there was a letter from the board that spoke about the kind of person they were looking for.   More specifically, there was one word in that communiqué that stood out; patriot.  AOPA was looking for a patriot.  Isn’t that interesting?
Of course, in today's politically charge world the word patriot is one of high amperage.  I’m sure it was chosen for that reason.  And yet, to ask for such a person to step forward without the offer of “cover” reveals the hollow nature in which it was used.  Without artillery to support a soldier’s advances, it’s makes their job akin to a suicide mission.  And that’s one reason I think we continue to get the talk without the walk.
Protection comes in many forms.
If AOPA, EAA, NBAA, or any of the other groups truly want a leader who’ll charge in and get things done, they’re going to have to offer that person protection.  But what form should they employee?  What could these groups offer a person to get them to put everything on the line?  Yes, everything?
Do you really believe you can put someone in charge of any of these groups if they are vulnerable and expect them to lead?  No, of course you can’t.  Could you expect a person who owned an aircraft modification shop that requires constant oversight and approvals from the FAA to step up and bloody the FAA’s nose?   What about a person who lives to fly?  Why would they get down in the dirt to fight user fees if the Feds are going to harass them and find a way, any way, to take their license?  You don’t think that could happen?  There has never been a time in the history of the United States where the government was so openly corrupt and abusive of power.  Do you really believe the FAA isn’t part of that?  And what if the person chosen to lead has been a successful business person and therefore has a few piles of money and multiple investments lying around?  Is the FAA above employing one of its fellow federal agencies to give them a bureaucratic kick to the groin?  The answers to these questions are uncomfortable aren’t they?  Now imagine you’re the leader of a group and you're employeed to attack these bastions of bureaucracy.  Without the insurance of cover, what would you do?
This begs the question, "What kind of insurance could a group could offer to get someone with teeth"?  A good start is a good paycheck as long as it has benchmarks tied to it that keep them from abusing the position.  Next, there should be contractual language that guarantees the best legal defenses possible to cover them for the ugly byproducts of the job; things such as political and bureaucratic blowback.  A “lost limbs” clause would also pay them for "losses" incurred by fighting for the group.  Combine these with incentives, which would reward them based on every good old fashioned knife fight won, and you might find yourself a winner.  At the very least, I'm guessing you might get a 90% effort in return.  Sure, it's not 100% but it's far greater than we've had in recent years. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Flying Season Mental Exercise

It’s that time of year.  Hangar doors are folding, the others are rolling, and spinning props stir the air.  Breaking free of the frozen calendar, people and their spirits are flying.  Life is reborn.
Unfortunately April is also home to crazy weather.  And since March was more like January, you could expect to see several month’s worth of random conditions in the next 30 days.  If rain and a rapidly changing atmosphere aren’t bad enough, they almost always also partner with aviation’s nemesis, wind.
All things considered, this spring, unlike any in a while, could be an exceptionally sketchy season for pilots.
Most aviators haven’t had a flying machine out in months, their skills are rusty, and the weather, oh the weather.  Even if it’s just a normal transition to summer, fans of flight everywhere should be careful.  The best pilots get soft without practice and they’ll be starting off in some of the worst weather.
With all that in mind, I wanted to discuss a video I saw online the other day.   It offered so many lessons I thought I’d share it.  Once we've all viewed it, we can discuss it in an effort to get us back in the game.  Here it is.
Ok, let’s do it.  What did you see?  Do you have any thoughts about it?
Here’s what I saw.  First, it is highly likely this person left the ground when they should not have.   Maybe it was to a place where he or she hadn’t checked the weather.  Or it is possible they went flying at their home airport without checking?  They could have even taken off from a base airport knowing the wind was bad but were unaware of the planes limitation or their own. Whatever the case, taking off was almost surely the root cause of near disaster.
Next, and this is the big one, the person flying this plane obviously suffers from one of the most common aviation diseases, runway tunnel vision.  Be it for the purpose of doing what they believe will keep them out of trouble with the Feds, landing on a runway because someone else used it before them, or just having never been taught the runway isn’t always your best option, insisting on putting their plane on that specific runway almost ended up in tragedy.
Is this you; Do you choose a runway by going with what the last person used or what the tower suggests?   Do you get close to the ground and find yourself doing everything possible to get it down?  Is it your belief your plane can’t be landed anywhere but on asphalt or something labeled “runway”?   And more importantly, do you have any idea how little runway you need to land your plane if you have a 15, 20, 25, or greater knot wind?
If the person in this video had the correct answers to these questions, despite taking off when they shouldn’t have, their flight could have had a much better turnout.  So, just in case there is any doubt about the correct responses, let’s go through them.
First and foremost, as PIC your runway decision is based primarily on winds.  They sky is always your friend unless you are on fire.  Even if you’re out of gas, the sky still works for you so use it as long as you can.  If you find yourself trying desperately to get on the ground and you’re not on fire and you still have gas, you need to climb back up to altitude, calm down, and decide on your best option. Most GA planes can be landed in many other places than that runway you’re obsessed with.  Consider them after climbing back up.  And finally, most single engine airplanes could be landed across a 150’ runway if they were in the winds shown in this video.  This means that those “other places” are often much better and safer options.   If by using them you can land into the wind, taxiways, large empty ramps, or areas of grass can save your bacon.  And who doesn’t love bacon?
Like I said, it’s flying season.  So get out there and enjoy.  But before you go airborne, make sure you’ve considered this video and the lessons contained within.  Thinking them through is good for all of us.  Never assume you’re above making the same mistakes.