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.

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. 
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