Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mongoose



Mike and I rode Alabama Girl north in the general direction of Oshkosh, suffering a slight quartering headwind and churning through skies as clear as a glass of sunshine. We were bound for Bloomington, Indiana to meet up with another CJ-6 owned and flown by a friend of ours whose call-sign was Mongoose. 

Mongoose is a “lead or get the hell out of the way” type of guy who mostly doesn’t wait for you to get out of the way. His ego cuts a swath so wide the moon holds to let him by. His persistence sometimes casts him into caustic skirmishes with similar swaggering characters, of which there were many where we were going. Having known him for 25 years, served with him in wartime, sparred with him in dogfights, and listened for hours on end to his ideas, his aspirations and his dreams, I know enough to stay aside and watch with amusement as he dictates his resolve on old friends and unsuspecting strangers alike. There are those who call him a prima donna, but Mongoose consistently cashes the checks his ego writes. Prima donnas can’t do that. And that is why I have remained his friend for so long.

I was headed for my first solo landing in the ‘Chang (you’ll recall from the last post that, while Mike—the guy in my back pit owned the plane—he was not yet a pilot). The
This guy does not appear
 to be missing the B-767
Bloomington tower cleared us for a straight-in to runway 35, a nice long one. About two miles out, just as I was about to reach for the gear handle, I heard an airport truck tell the tower he was on the runway to pick up a piece of debris. The tower controller immediately cancelled my landing clearance and in the same breath asked if I could accept runway 24, which was almost perpendicular to 35 and lay on my side of the airport—very close to my position. Additionally, it was short, about 3500 feet.

A careful pilot, or one whose bladder was not full, would have told the tower “unable” and executed a missed approach. I was neither that day. I accepted the clearance to 24 and immediately turned onto a left downwind. By then we were very close (laterally) to the runway and I began canvassing my memory on the accidents I had read about. CJ-6s were notoriously unforgiving of pilots over-shooting final approach and correcting with excessive bank and top rudder. I sensed a learning opportunity for Mike and began telling him about the trap being set for us and how we must be diligent to avoid it. This lecture lasted to the base turn where I suddenly realized the gear was still up. Damn! One “teachable moment” (don’t you hate that phrase?) created another. I put the gear down, looked over the landing checklist and monitored the close-in final turn carefully. A head wind helped avoid an overshoot.

We got down safely and the tower man thanked us profusely. I taxied to the pumps and shut down. We had plenty of gas, but a top-off wouldn’t hurt, especially knowing where we were headed—the world’s busiest airport for one week of the year, and this was that week. After lunch I completed flight planning for the run up to Oshkosh, preparing to lead the flight of two, if necessary, or go single-ship if the Mongoose didn’t show up.   

An hour later he landed, annoyed that we had beaten him there, yet smugly satisfied that he had executed the role of respected, debonair late-comer. Even before jumping down from his wing he informed me of his plan to lead the flight into OSH. It was okay with me. He would now do the most work; I would be the humble happy wingman. Mongoose’s plan was to stay low both to minimize headwinds and stay out of the way of O’Hare arrival and departure traffic. We took off and headed northeast. He checked us in with ATC for flight following with the usual call: “Red Star Flight, Check.”

I responded as required: “Red Star Two.”

The controller, apparently unaccustomed to formation protocol, blocked my response, thinking Mongoose’s call was for him: “Aircraft calling Indianapolis Approach, say again.”

Because Mongoose is an astute—damn near perfect formation leader—he made the check-in call again to insure I was on the frequency. Again the controller blocked me, asking who was calling him and for what.

Mongoose said, “Indianapolis, standby-by I’m trying to check my flight in.”

The controller was obviously agitated: “Aircraft on Indianapolis frequency go to another. You are interfering.”

I could see the ire turning Mongoose’s helmet red. His voice volume went up:  “Indianapolis, I am trying to check my flight in on your frequency and then I will ask you for radar service!”

The controller, still not getting it, retorted, “Okay, but if you need to tell your wingman to keep quiet.”

I knew a lecture was coming from Mongoose: “Having the flight check-in is perfectly normal and necessary, now are you going to give us flight following to Oshkosh or not?”

The controller, not about to relinquish the high ground, denied the request. Mongoose switched us to air-to-air frequency and we didn’t talk to another radar facility from that point.

The countryside across Illinois and southern Wisconsin was
Flying loose on Mongoose's wing with Mike and I in the mirror
uncommonly beautiful in the lowering sun. Barns, silos and wind turbines cast long shadows across brilliantly colorful fields of corn and wheat. It was wonderful flying. You could get about as low as you dared; the only threats were birds and towers. Mongoose had state-of-the-art electronics in his cockpit to alert him for obstacles, and he was an awesome master at spotting both birds and nearby aircraft. He could do it even when he was on the wing.

As we neared OSH, tired but happily anticipating parking our birds in the warbird area, meeting old buddies and have a grand dinner, we saw an ominous cloud formation in front. Mongoose, being the perfectionist he is, already knew there was a rain shower in the area of the airport—in fact the only thundercloud in the whole lower 48 states that afternoon sat over the busiest airport. Our perfect weather run-up from the Deep South was to terminate with—with what?

Fon du Lac had just passed under our bellies. It was stuffed with airplanes that had either not wanted to challenge that thunderstorm, or simply planned to land there and take a bus to the big show, as many pilots preferred. That opportunity was behind us now, but still choosable, and maybe preferable to the cloud ahead. The closer we got the darker that thing got. It was right over OSH. Mongoose had IFR capability in his plane but Alabama Girl did not. He waggled his wings—the signal for me to close it up tightly. I moved in. Mongoose contacted the OSH tower and got permission to land on 36L. We couldn’t see it for the rain shaft. The turbulence increased, but I held tight. Mongoose bore straight for the monster. “Two take spacing!” he called. I dropped back, but not far. I needed to keep him in sight. I saw his gear go out. I threw ours out. At about a mile out we saw the numbers: 36L. The center-line stripes raced at us. BAM! I drove Mike’s Chang onto the runway, checked-up with brakes and closed up behind Mongoose.

It was then, with the stress off, that I suddenly realized there were no other aircraft on the OSH tower frequency. We were the only ones! I laughed. Mike said, "No other idiots would attempt this!"

We fell in trail behind the “Follow-Me” truck and were met by marshallers parking us on the grass in the warbird corral. We hurriedly exited and closed our canopies because of rain. Mongoose walked up, drenched, grinning like a fool and slapped our shoulders.

“Cheated death again,” Mike shouted.

Mike grabbed his camping gear and separated in search of friends. Mongoose and I headed into town on the airshow shuttle bus for rooms at the college and then on to Kelly’s Bar, the airshow pilot hangout, not knowing that we were about to “cheat death” for real--at Kelly’s.  


video
 Wingng our way to Oshkosh.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Flyin' Miss Daisy



I feel jumpy taxiing out to the end of the grass runway at Windward air park, 60 miles west of my home patch. The mount under me—a Nanchang CJ-6—is new to me. I have only an hour’s instruction in it. It feels big. Heavy. The monstrous nose out in front, with its sides painted with a half-naked Daisy Duke under the bright red moniker of “Alabama Girl,” dominates the view ahead. The runway is so narrow I lean my head side to side to keep the edges in sight. On the left, trees; on the right, more trees, plus a house that sat only a wingspan to the side.

The ’chang is loaded to the gills with gas and gear. The backseater, Mike, weighs in at about 220 pounds and the day is already getting hot. Density altitude is building and the wind is forcing me to takeoff in a direction I do not want to go. I have only a little over 2500 feet of runway awaiting and high tension power lines crossing the departure end. This takeoff will be interesting.

Mike owns the beast but is not a pilot. He has been taking lessons in a Cessna and aspires one day to pilot the Chang for himself. Thus Mike is a basically a passenger. A mechanic himself, he knows the Chang’s innards very well, but the flying part of this deal is all up to me.

I turn the Chang around in a hollowed-out area of heavy timber at the north end and look ahead. Two thirds of the way down the runway takes a dogleg of a few degrees to the right. The trees give way to open field about half way down and houses and hangars of air park residents sit back to the right. I can clearly see the orange balls on the power lines at the far end, and on the other side of them sits a big multi-story house right smack in the departure path.

I go through the pre-takeoff checklist meticulously, ask Mike if he is ready and get a whooping rebel yell on the interphone, “ARRIGAH! LET’S GO TO OSHKOSH!” I swallow hard, push up the power and check the engine gauges again. This isn’t the 360 horses I'm accustomed to in the Yak-52; this beast—bigger and heavier—has only 285 ponies. Those orange balls seem to be moving toward me and I haven’t even released the breaks yet.

As the Chang rumbles in the grass slowly—and I mean slowly—picking up energy, a brief but profound thought flashes through my churning gray matter. Why am I doing this? I could have easily taken my nimble little RV-6 to Oshkosh, comfortably ensconced in an airframe that had proven it was safe, reliable and had an awesome power reserve under its petite cowl. But here I am, once again, riding a Communist built military beast testing the edges of sanity, hoping its engine won’t falter until I get over those balls. Why am I doing it? I know why. I like adrenalin. Give me some, but not too much. Just enough to keep life interesting.

The airspeed needle seems a long time coming alive. "Interesting?" Am I kidding myself? Isn’t flying anything to Oshkosh interesting enough? Now the needle is through 50 knots. The Chang’s wheels bang heavily against the clumps and bumps. How interesting is interesting supposed to be? I feel my teeth clinch up when we go through the “gap.” The gap is the runway’s narrowest part. Scrub brush and small trees come within inches of the Chang’s wingtips. Then the house on the left flashes by close enough paint it. I can’t rotate till 60 knots but want to, badly. At 55 the airspeed seems to hesitate and I want to apply back pressure. The orange balls are growing. This is not interesting; it’s nuts.

Then 60. A little back pressure. But not too much, lest the induced drag build too rapidly and retard what puny acceleration I've got. I need to climb when I get off this grass. I need energy. Suddenly we are at the dogleg. I apply a bit of right rudder just as an asphalt road, slightly elevated, hits the wheels. It ramps us into the air.

My left hand moves with a quickness I didn’t even know I had to the gear handle. Got to get rid of that drag. The balls are still a good 40 feet above the arc of the prop and racing at us. I feel the Chang accelerate at last. I’m still headed straight for the living room door on that nice house ahead, but I’ve got airspeed building now. What relief. The balls no longer hold sway with me. I’m breathing again. Before I reach the wires I've got 80 knots, going on 90. I bank Alabama Girl to the left and start a big turn to the north. I'm trying not to think about coming back here to land.

We deviate slightly after crossing the wide blue Tennessee River to pass over Mike's girlfriend's workplace. She knows we're coming, and we see her waving arms in the parking lot. He's excited. He visualizes him in the front and her in the back headed to Oshkosh themselves, maybe next year. I hit the smoke switch and see the shadow of our smoke trail crossing the ground. The tension of a few minutes before has melted and I'm feeling good.

We turn north. The day is splendid, the skies bursting with blue and stretching to the beyond-world, and Mike and I are headed for aviator’s ecstasy—AirVenture. We damn near break into song. Now, for the first time since I walked away from the big iron, I can go forth and not give the slightest thought as to when I must return. Mike has a business to run; he can’t stay away forever, but he’s flexible. We’ll come back when we feel like coming back. 

Like the long airline career, the testy takeoff is behind me and we need only to ride the Chang north. Can’t wait to get there. People to see, things to do. Oshkosh, look out. Alabama Girl is coming with Mike and me clinging to her with our hair on fire. It’ll be interesting.


video
Ride Squatch's back seat in his Yak-52  as he shoots 
the gap and leaps off of the Windward runway.

If you read the first post of Three Mike Five ("The Place") and wondered what was to come, stand by. First I need to catch up on what's been happening since I hung up my 767 spurs. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Place



“Hey, how about riding with me in the back seat and helping me polish my barrel rolls? I have a tendency to dish out.”

...a tendency to dish out.

...a tendency to dish...

...a tendency...to....

Never ending echoes in the dark and dim hangar of my memory.

 
Pity the person who spends his or her entire life without feeling at least one stunning revelation; one jaw-dropping, eye-bulging, head turning tap on the shoulder, like a profound whisper echoing through the strands of the soul. My propeller had hardly stopped when I heard the whisper.

This is the place.

I slid the canopy back and took off my headset, feeling a fresh, woodsy breeze on my face, along with a growing smile. I looked aside at Ellie, seeing her taking her headset off and attempting to restore the smooth flow of her now tangled hair. She hated headsets.

She saw the smile. I nodded to her, my eyebrows arched. “This is the place!”

“It is?” she asked with a wrinkled brow beaming with subtle cynicism.

“Oh yeah.”

Before we even got out of the plane, a tall aged man appeared near the left wing, ball cap perched atop his head, hands thrust into khaki pockets, eyes sweeping across the Grumman's sleek profile, then settling on me. His smile reassured me. I wasn't sure what kind of reception we would get at this rural aviation outpost.

“Welcome to Moontown,” he said.

I got out and shook his hand. “Jay Hargrove. I look after things around here,” he said, his eyes still studying the Grumman. “Never seen one of these in here.” He nodded to Ellie, then looked back at me.

“What brings you in?”

I told him how we were thinking of moving to the Huntsville area and were flying around checking out the city and the lay of the land. If we decided to move here we would need a new home airport to base the Grumman.

We had seen the main airport—the “Jetplex” as it was called. With its pair of 10,000 foot runways, construction projects and its vying to become an airline mecca, it had no time for sport aviation. It was definitely not the place.

We had also checked out the smaller airport at Meridianville, just north of Huntsville. It too aspired to grow and cater to the money-making side of aviation—servicing and pandering to airplanes that burn kerosene. Still, a lot of small planes resided there. It was a potential base, but it had no character. No culture.

Our Grumman-American AA-5 would be needing a home. But not one of those. It had been based at airports like those. Never again, I hoped.

“Home base? Well, you've found it!” Jay said.

We took leave of Jay and strolled, looking around. A vast expanse of burning blue sky swept overhead and dropped toward the green rolling ridges. Moontown's flight pattern was on the north side of its east-west runway. And for good reason. The terrain to the south rose hundreds of feet above the field. The grass strip, bounded by forest on the north and the hangars to the south—and oh, so soft to the touch of the Grumman's wheels—lay alongside our path as we walked.

“Isn't it beautiful?” I asked El, expecting an affirmation.

“Well, I like the grass and the hills, but—” Her voice trailed off, knowing she was about to cloud up my dreamy skies.

“But?” I asked, turning to her. “But what?”

“It looks like a shanty town.”

I looked askance at her.

We walked past a long row of open hangar ports composed of rusty tin roofs supported by old timbers. Tired, aged, paint-flecked planes lurked back in the dark, musty recesses, ropes tethering them to a red clay floor. Birds chirped and fluttered through the overhead areas of the hangars, pausing to deposit creamy white calling cards on the sleeping aluminum and fabric machines below. Here and there, weeds grew, uncut, near the front of the hangars where the sun could get in. An unsightly assortment of items shared the spaces with the planes—dilapidated cars, a tractor, junk lawn mowers, and an old lathe that must have weighted a ton.

“You sure you want to keep the plane here?” she asked.

I looked out at the idyllic grass strip. “Oh yeah!” I said, undaunted by the shabby structures. She shrugged.

Jay invited us into the airport office. Over the door sat a sign that said “Moontown Airport (3M5), elevation 639.” I knew 3M5 was the three-letter identifier the FAA had assigned the airport, but I had no inkling of how embedded in my being that letter, flanked by those two numbers would become.

We sat with cold drinks and looked around at walls studded with pictures of planes and pilots, and the ragged, scissor-cut-off shirt tails of those who made their first solo flight from the airfield's grassy runway.

Jay proceeded to educate us. It was a privately owned airport, he said. One of the few left. But it was open to public use. No, not his airport, he chuckled. He just looked after it. Didn't even get paid. Retired now, he needed something to keep him out of trouble and let him stay close by the planes and pilots. He didn't fly much anymore, though.

I marveled at that name: Moontown.

Huntsville, Alabama was the birthplace of America's space program. The Apollo moon missions began here in the minds of some profound thinkers. So fitting, I thought. Then Jay poured coffee, sat and shattered my lofty expectations. “No,” he said, shaking his head. He, himself, had worked for NASA. “The airport was named after that road out yonder that runs back toward that mountain and just ends up there by a farm—Moontown Road.”

But, surely the road was named after the space program, I pressed. He chuckled again, shaking his head. “Nobody knows.”

We bade him goodbye, fired up the Grumman and took off. I circled the field, still smiling. Ellie was right. The rusted, ragged multi-colored tops of the hangars and buildings did indeed look like a shanty town. Yet it was the place. I knew it. After two decades of pushing jet fighters, transports, and airliners, I was about to find an abundant table to nourish my flying crave.

But the discovery would be a bitter-sweet one that would bring me unexpected and unbounded joy, salted with rancid servings of sorrow—and one gut-wrenching, tearful ration of anguish. The “Place” at the table would have its price.

 “I have a tendency to...”

“I have a...”

“I have...”