Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Oshkosh and Back - The Flight

Note:  If you want a review of the show itself, skip over this and wait for one titled, OSH Review.
Our trip to Oshkosh 2017 would be difficult to accurately recount. However, it needs to be done for my own record. Therefore, to make it moderately readable to others, I’ll occasionally throw accuracy out the window and replace it with bravado or BS.
Oshkosh 2017 started, for us, a month early. Mid-June, the T-6’s radio gave up the smoke. That may seem like a problem but it really wasn’t. The real issue was government.
Getting a modern smokeless radio approved would require the repair shop to either put the aircraft type on their operating certificate, or get a 337 from the Louisville FSDO. We waited, and waited, and waited. Then it happened.
A 337 arrived in record time, from said FSDO. Unfortunately, it was then too close to chance taking the plane apart. Instead, we found an identical loaner radio, of the original full vapor type, and had a mechanic slide it home.  Hurrah! It worked.
The radio test flight went off without a hitch. The gear on the other hand, it decided to take vacation. Hours later our dog Ace became deathly ill. That was eight days from Oshkosh, and counting.
With no other reasonable options, we decided the put the plane on jacks, swing the gear, and sacrifice a chicken. That, and some hydraulic fluid, did the trick. Unfortunately, googling, “religious practices involving fowl,” put us another day behind, and we still had no idea what was wrong with the pup.
Thankfully, one visit to the doggie ER, and another the next day, left Ace in better shape; better, but not cured.  If anyone knows any methods for healing a dog that always gets sick, run over, or struck with an attitude before or during Oshkosh, please let us know.  We still need a solution. If you’re thinking a large stone, rumbling drums, and a chicken, don’t say it. I can tell you, from experience, twice in one week doesn’t work?
Yes, it was a messy week that ate up time. The remaining compressed schedule forced us to scratch a visit to the world famous “Third Thursday,” cancel a meeting, and have Glenn Frith do the mowing. Thanks to Glenn, we were finally able to leave, only four days late.
Watching the weather closely, Saturday the 22nd, we determined Sunday morning would work. That night weather would move through and the next day would be clear sailing. Naturally, Sunday morning brought thunder and rain. Despair set in, I laid back down, and slept an extra half hour I would initially regret.
Squinting at the radar through sleep filled eyes, we discovered our field had been on the northeast edge of some cells. Half an hour ago would have been much better. But, if we hurried we’d be able to beat it (safety Nazis are reading this as link number three or four). Grabbing all our things, including my phone with its new high tech nano coating, we put plan E into place. You know “Plan E,” right?
Plan E comes after A, B, C, & D and is the plan a very few Oshkosh attendees have used to get there. Personally, now that I think about it, we are only two of three people I know who ever got out on E – most using M through S.
New tie down ropes trailing behind, we rushed to the plane, loaded our bags, and fired up. It was extremely humid and gray outside, with engine temps in the green, when the prop went to fine pitch. A vivid corkscrew of condensation appeared and never quite went away.
Run-up complete, the throttle went forward and the plane went up. In the tanks was an hour thirty of fuel.
Seven miles away would be our first stop. Had I gotten gas the night before, as originally planned, we would not need it. That had been plan D.
Making some quick calculations, as we the wheels clunked into the wells, the navigator (Ginger) excitedly suggested we fly thirty minutes to Columbus.  There, we could also eat breakfast. Great idea. Also, an optimistic one.
We made it three miles past our original planned fuel stop, did a 180, and broke the chain. Sorry Mr. Ground School instructor; you won’t be showing a film about us.
Attempting a quick turn at the fuel pumps, our tanks were ten gallons short when lightning forced a halt. Beaten, we put on the cover and tied it down. At that point, all we could do was make the most of a frustrating situation.
Borrowing the courtesy car, we offered breakfast to the airport crew, and drove to town.  While ordering, Ginger noted, “You realize we’re close enough we could take them home and cook them breakfast?” Both of us laughed aloud.
Meanwhile, waiting out the weather, our plans to meet Nathan Hammond along the way would be modified. TEXT “Hey Nathan, it ain’t gonna happen.” RETURN TEXT “We’re going to OSH via Birmingham, Little Rock, and Kankakee – might still work.” TEXT “Weather looking better. May see you near Fisk.” That’s when I decided to serenade the lobby with an hour of nasal resonance.
When I woke, Ginger said the weather was definitely getting better and Plan G was in effect. If you’re keeping up, plan F was breakfast and fuel in Columbus.
Moving even faster, tie down ropes plunked the wing’s bottom as they slid through the loops. Once again, to the pumps we taxied. Another ten gallons and we were off. Note: Each successive plan letter gets faster and involves either fewer steps or items on the “must take” list. Do it enough and you end up sitting in an idling plane, empty of bags, at the end of the runway, waiting for a reason to push the throttle forward. That’s Z.
By this point, we were hoping to get new reports from Nathan that weather was still improving and that maybe he had turned the corner short of Birmingham.  It was a bright thought under dark skies.
Having a pilot/navigator, in any airplane, is a wonderful thing. It frees you up to focus on safely flying around towers, between homes, and under clotheslines. Like so many other trips before, it could not have been done without one.
Ginger and I were discussing options, and the IU towel wrapped around the leading edge, when we heard a garbled message over the radio. Were it not for him obviously being in control of his airplane, having a quality navigator, and an idea of where he was, the first transmission received from Nathan would have sounded eerily similar to Amelia’s last. “We’re on course to go by Kankakee and the weather is improving.” This was great news as we too were occasionally pointed that direction.
Unfortunately, the loaner radio sensed the growing optimism and began to fail. Yes, the radio was going out again. Ginger could talk to me but couldn’t transmit. Me, on the other hand, I had the only ability to transmit but couldn’t talk to anyone. Meanwhile, we were converging on our target, rapidly. What to do? Then, as if the bright light spoke to our radio on its deathbed, “It’s not your time,” it came back to life and worked perfectly.
Aggravatingly, this turned out to be a cycle that would happen many times.  In response, the three of us, Nathan, me, and some unexpected party on our line, whose voice I recognized but could not place, attempted to use the short bursts of our radio, and all our navigation equipment, to vector us to a meeting point. It came to be quite comical. When one of you suggests using smoke signals, you know options are getting thin.
That’s when I had an epiphany.  Running the logic of it all gave me an idea. “Pilot to Navigator, please report to the cockpit.” Ginger walked her headset, from the navigator’s desk, to the cockpit, and shoved it at me with the usual disgusted look. Plugging them in everything worked.
That was it. My trusty headset, the one I had worn for every rating I ever earned, the one with the cloth cap I wore when hopping rides in Old Bess, the one that had seen me through everything from an S1C to a 747, had finally given out. Offering them to Ginger for hearing protection, she rolled them over, saw the W120 stains, set them down, smartly pivoted around, and returned to her desk to plot our course. Did I mention my chart was in the belly and the GPS wasn’t working?
Thankfully, with full communication restored, we were finally able to coordinate an aerial crossroad, directly over 3KK, where the sky turned blue. There, Nathan would bid adieu to Greg (Koontz), whom he had stumbled across along the way, and the two of us would turn our machines toward Poplar Grove. I guess that extra half-hour of sleep wasn’t a waste after all.
Landing at the Grove in the middle of the day is always interesting. Add a hashed together plan, and grass closed to heavy rain, and it becomes more so. Traffic was everywhere.  Yet, our two planes managed to fit into the pattern and land without pissing off more than a handful of people. Not us, the planes.  Remember that.
The FBO building at Poplar Grove is something I’ve visited many times. I simply cannot cross over C77 without stopping. Steve and Tina are always extremely accommodating. Actually, allow me to rephrase that. They have saved my ass, figuratively, and possibly literally, more than a few times. That day they would do it again in three, two, one, “Can I borrow a headset?” Before I was done asking, and without asking why, Steve was handing me a set and Tina was giving me a hug. I love these people.
Crap. “Did I hear Nathan say something about weather,” I thought. Turning around, I saw everyone looking at a line of cells that had popped up north of the field. Really? More weather from nowhere?
Right then, an image filled my mind. A sultry woman, bathing in a tub of 100LL, saying, “Avgas, take me away.” It’s a reference youngsters won’t get. If that’s you, let’s just say I was ready for the day to be over.
Discussing it at length, we decided on a plan H and I. Furthermore, given the day’s performance, we’d follow Nathan through whatever hole he felt comfortable with. We also decided it was best to get another quick hug from Tina and blast off.
At this point it looked much worse than it would turn
 out to be.  Photo Credit - Ghost Writer Productions.  
It’s always great to fly with folks such as Nathan. When you can silently drive to the runway, take off in loose formation, and know what he is going to do, without asking, it makes everything much easier. Forming up, we aimed for a large hole and nudged the throttles. This would be the one somewhat relaxed moment of the day.
“Hey Nathan.  Doing anything special at the show?”  His response, “I’d like to find a second plane and play tic tac toe.”
Aviation is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?  Here we were skirting weather, in two old aircraft, discussing an atmospheric game of tic tac toe, as if it was no big deal.  It continued for several minutes.
Two rain showers later, and clear on the other side, I had a great laugh. “Hey Nathan, do you want to go in the regular way, or with me on the Warbird Arrival?” Nathan, “No, I think I’ll go straight in on the Airshow Arrival.” Remember that old joke about each successively higher and faster plane asking ATC for a speed check? Yeah, that also exists for Oshkosh arrivals. Moreover, on that day, Nathan had me beat.
Approaching the jump off point for the arrivals, I said “Seeya later.” Nathan said, “Good luck.” You know, thinking back, I’m not quite sure what he meant by that. Whatever the case, it had been great fun, we were almost to OSH, and therefore, with a great level of benevolence, I decided not to shoot him down.
Arriving over Fond u lac, the first point on the Warbird Arrival, we were about to call tower when we heard a controller say, “T-6 flight of 26…” Yes, he said 26.
Not wanting to be an egg at a scramble, we climbed higher than we knew any warbird folks would, and held. From there, we eventually made our way to Warbird Island, then to the field for an uneventful landing. Taxi in is where it gets eventful. 
No matter how many years they have done it, there are always volunteers who ride their escort scooters in such a way you cannot see them. Eventually I had to unbuckle my seat belt, stand up on my heels, and work the rudders with my toes. Alternatively, I could have trusted them explicitly. Not going to happen.
We parked, jumped out, and there were our friends Glenn and Piper. Before anything else I sent a text.
Having originally planned to park in Vintage, I had to get a message to our friend who convinced us to park in Warbirds. What I got in return made me chuckle. “I’m next to my Super Cub and you’re in Warbirds with a T-6. The world has ended.”
The day of departure flowed like a teenager’s text – highly abbreviated and to the point. We stopped briefly to say bye to some friends, and hiked to plane. There, a couple guys from Argentina asked if they could look around. One guy’s father had flown them in the AAF. Like so many others, as evidence, he had photos of his dad in the seat. Instead of looking around, I offered them a chance to climb in. They were both ecstatic.
Pay attention. This is important. Admittedly, I wasn’t in a hurry but I didn’t want delays either. It would have been much easier for us to let them look around while we got ready, as that alone would have made them happy. Instead, I asked myself if I thought those guys would ever have the chance again, if five minutes of my time was really that valuable, and if I really wanted to be the guy who could have let these guys in the plane and did not.  Any time this happens I always ask myself those questions and it always give me an opportunity to slow down and make new friends.
I’m writing this because I almost didn’t invite them in and therefore I hope you see that I fully understand how people become focused on something unimportant, or overwhelmed with people who want to see the plane, and end up not allowing others to experience it. Take these questions, ask them to yourself when it happens, and let people in the plane. If your time really is that valuable, then you should not be flying the plane.
Back to the departure.
Around this time our friends Roy Fox and his son Kyle showed up. Roy and his wife own our sister flying field, the Missions, in Australia. The similarities among our fields are striking. Of course, one interesting difference is that we have deer, and there they have “roos.” If you ever get a chance, please go visit. They are great people.
Saying our goodbyes, and absorbing their well wishes, I wondered why they too were wishing us good luck as we made an effort to fly away. Pondering the possibilities, I buckled in as Ginger made a point to tell me her headsets were working fine.
Finally, when the engine was running, I sent a text to a friend in Palwaukee, and headed to the runway. Another airborne rendezvous was in the making.
Taxiing in the Warbirds area can be tight. Keep that in mind if you are ever there. Taxiing around the west end of runway 09 is worse. Zig, zag, dodge the mud hole, and cringe as the three-foot lights and cones go under your three-foot one inch high wings. I’ve never been so happy to see a concrete and asphalt threshold. Like a carrier in the night, they offered safety in an unforgiving environment.
Ready for takeoff, the controllers put us in que. Man, they are good. I love working with such people. At big fields they call it pushing tin.  After watching them deal with some folks, they must call it pushing poo. Either way, they always keep good spirits and do a wonderful job. Because of this, when it’s my turn, I do my best to return the favor.
Remember that threshold?  When you launch off of runway 09, during Oshkosh, you end up over water – right back to the sea.  It is not a great feeling to be climbing to the middle of a big lake, but it’s the only option.  If you do it, you must keep an emergency water landing plan in the back of your head.
Remember “the A-team” TV show? I love it when a good plan comes together? Our effort to meet up with friends in Chicago worked wonderfully. The reward was a proper escort through hostile territory. Flying abeam another trusted pilot, it was impossible to ignore the absolute smoothness of the air; each plane seeming to twitch to the pulses of blood in our hands.
Clear of the killing fields of South Chicago, our friends dove away, and we headed for the corn. Soon thereafter, we were home. That's honestly how different it was.
More often than not, each flight to Oshkosh feels like an initiation. God and everyone wishes to know how bad you want to get there. Once you make it, the lights come on and you find out it really wasn't a goat.


Gayle Crowder said...

Love it! We had our own issues in the Navion. Flying to Oshkosh, everyone has a story, right? Wish we'd all had a chance to hook up, but the unexpected B-29 flight skewed things a bit! I did get to see Nathan Hammond at one of our rare appearances at our booth, so that was pretty cool.

Ken said...

Thanks Rich! Once again, you made me feel like I was along for the ride!

Mike Dean said...

So the was Nathan up there with the X's & O's. How many games did he win?

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