So, how does one go about talking about the number-one thing in his life? I can say that now. I’m not married anymore. Of course, the boys rank pretty high on the scale of things in my life—but at the moment, at least, they’ve outgrown me.
N102RE is another story. She talks to me when I show up at the airport. She chastises me when I do something dumb like shrinking the tail/elevator cover so it doesn’t fit anymore. But she loves to take me flying, can’t wait to get in the air.
She was two years old this past January; just over 300 hours in airplane years. She was the second of the customer Two Weeks To Taxi planes, and the first to actually make it through in two weeks! With the masterful help of the builder team, she rolled out for taxi on the 13th day; and actually taxied in the dusk of October 21, 2006.
Little did I know that evening that the adventure was just beginning. Still, I had some waiting to do.
And then the Washington winter set in. The shipping of N102RE was supposed to take a week; but rains and the “learning curve” of shipping a shrink-wrapped airplane took a bit longer. She actually didn’t make it to Chino Airport in Southern California until November 1. Re-assembly, FAA paperwork, waiting on the DAR’s final sign-off (like waiting for the doctor to say you can take your newborn home from the hospital) and dealing with some unusual Southern California weather problems took another three weeks. But on November 22, N102RE made her first flight.
Two months confined to the flight-test area—she was released on January 20, 2007—was followed by the “undoing.” Yes, paint. The tear-down and preparation for her new colors were pure agony. No sooner was she in the paint shop than a series of Southern California Santa Ana winds started blowing down off the desert—carrying dust and grit and all the things that make painting an airplane a “no-no.” Virtually all of February passed, and it wasn’t until the 25th of March that she was finally out of the paint shop, reassembled, high-speed taxied for control continuity, and ready to fly again. It was an agonizing period for both of us.
Finally, the rewards. There was a business need to visit Flagstaff; and then go on to Dallas. It was one of those absolutely gorgeous days for flying—right up until we caught up with the storm that had passed through Southern California two days earlier. And that was, of course, at Flagstaff. With a solid front moving in from the northwest, N102RE snaked through a line of white puffy clouds to the south to make her way up to the airport; landing as a cell started dropping freezing rain on the runway. The lesson learned here came the following morning when it was time to leave; $75 to put the plane in a hanger warm enough to de-ice her; and it took the better part of 90 minutes.
The plan was to go from Flagstaff to Albuquerque for fuel; then on to Dallas. That front didn’t move all that fast, and not wanting to test her ability to carry ice on the first cross country, we deviated south when we came up against the back side of the front. South, and further south, and even further—and finally opted for Phoenix where the intent was to get a commercial flight to Dallas in time for my meeting the following morning. Short answer: I couldn’t find a flight; only one was available and it went through Atlanta. So back to N102RE and with full fuel tanks, we set off to deviate even further South through Midland, Texas, where we arrived after dark. After 7 hours of flying plus 5 hours of wandering around the Phoenix airport trying to find a commercial flight—and the storm sitting right over the top of Dallas, I opted to overnight. The folks at Midlands International, Avion Flight Center specifically, set me up in the pilots lounge (which included a full-size bed) and provided a car to go get a meal—all included in the price of refueling my plane. Another lesson learned; there are airports with pilot lounges that can, if necessary, provide a spot to sleep!
We were off the ground by 5:15 a.m. and into DFW general aviation ramp at 7:05. My associate flew commercially from Santa Ana the night before and, due to the weather, didn’t actually arrive until 11. For the record, my associate and I both walked out of the DFW Hyatt headed for Orange County at the same time. Her commercial flight was via Phoenix. Our respective en route times (i.e., our personal traveling time including my associate’s need to arrive early for check-in and connection time in Phoenix) were within 30 minutes of each other—and N102RE was actually earlier! It doesn’t always happen that way, but any time a commercial flight has an enroute stop on a 1000 to 1200-mile travel pair or non-stop at half that range, the enroute times and convenience of flying oneself tend to justify the general aviation solution
Two months later, the teenager and I were off on another adventure: The 2007 GlaStar/Sportsman sojourn to Alaska. Lesson number one on this trip happened in Mackenzie, British Columbia, on what amounted to the second day of the trip—the first day with everybody flying together.
Three planes departed Arlington, Washington, around 10 a.m. Dave Prizio was flying his Sportsman trike with Tom Bordon aboard; Jeff Mitchell was flying his Glastar taildragger with Frank Miskelly onboard; and I was alone in my Sportsman taildragger. We stopped at Canadian Customs in Abbortsford, BC; then stopped to meet up with Peter Cattoni and Werner Schneider flying Peter’s GlaStar trike in William Lake, BC. Our next stop was Mackenzie to refuel for our trip through the Trench—and buy food for our meals that night and the following morning at the remote Terminus Mountain airstrip—our final destination for the day.
N102RE, being the only plane with a glass panel, was the subject of some interest. After parking the plane, I showed it off for a few in the group who had not seen it. Then we set off for downtown Mackenzie to buy food. While it was light late into the evenings in that part of the world, we were beginning to get marginal on flying time if we were to make it to Terminus Mountain before dark (essential, since the airstrip is without lights in the middle of the wilderness). So we sort-of rush back to the planes and pile in.
Everybody starts up—but N102RE’s EFIS doesn’t come up. It won’t display anything correctly. No flight instruments—no engine instruments—just squiggly lines. I alert the others. Everybody shuts down. We counsel. I try again. More squiggly lines! They make plans to go on; and I begin to worry about how to get this thing fixed in Mackenzie—which itself, is a pretty rural spot. In desperation, I try my cell. What Sprint is doing with service to Mackenzie, I’ll never know.
But I get through to Rob Hickman at Advanced Flight Systems at 5:30 p.m. Rob walks me through a couple of re-starts. Nothing! Rob then hands me to one of the techies—who talks me through a complete reboot of the system! Viola! Just as the others are getting re-started to launch for Terminus Mountain without me—my EFIS comes to life!
A couple of sub-lessons here. Sub-lesson one, if you’re flying a glass panel, it makes good sense to know how to re-boot from back-up internal memory; or if there isn’t internal memory—to keep a flash card memory chip in the airplane so that you can restore your system in a raw start-up if necessary.
Sub-lesson two is if you have a back-up battery that also serves your EFIS, be sure to turn the EFIS off before you walk away from the airplane. I had manually turned my unit on using the EFIS’s backup battery. I forgot to turn the unit off when we sent shipping and ran the back-up battery down. When the system ran out of power from the back-up battery the unit did not shut down correctly. It just stopped working. That little problem has been fixed by AFS. But that does not excuse the pilot error aspect.
Lesson number two came on departure from Terminus Mountain. It’s a simple one. The Terminus Mountain airstrip is rocky. The lesson is, when departing with a group of planes and you’re not “number one” to go—do not depart too close behind a fellow plane because the rocks have not yet settled back to the ground yet. Even with my taildragger configuration, I apparently picked up a bouncing rock on a prop tip—and put a major nick in it. Another ten seconds and that would not likely have happened.
Lesson number three came as the result of using black electrical tape inappropriately. Before heading for Alaska, I’d installed rubber guards on the elevators (which worked very well). But as a neophyte in doing that kind of work “artfully,” I had left a few ragged edges. So I used black electrical tap to sort of cover up my “lack of skill.” By the time we reached Bettles, the black tape was coming off, dragging on the dirt runway. The safety hazard was that the loose tape might become entangled in the rudder or elevator hinges. Also, the peeling tape caused N102RE to “whistle” at me in different landing configurations—a young lady’s frustration with the “old man” again. The offending tape got replaced in Bettles; and finally, came off in Homer. It now has 3M Polyurethane Protective tape covering up my lack of cutting skills; tape designed for the specific purpose of providing protection.
Lesson number four came at Galena, AK, with the astute observation and help of Buck Buchannan, our host. I had been having trouble with tail-wheel oscillation on some landings; and the oscillation was wearing the tailwheel badly. Wear on the tailwheel before we left was bad enough that I’d brought an extra tailwheel with me. The group of us was discussing this after my now maturing young lady had given me a real shake on landing at Galena. So our host, Buck walks over to see if he can diagnose the problem. One look, and he says, “Your problem is the king bolt.”
Now remember, my first experience with anything to do with the mechanical things on an airplane was at the TWTT program less than six months earlier. So, what the heck is the king bolt? They showed me. We tightened the king bolt and I’ve not had a problem since. Besides the fact that there was something on the plane that I had not yet come to understand (i.e., for those of us that short-cut the building process, there is still a whole lot to learn) there is also the issue that the tailwheel unit, which came as an already complete unit ready to bolt on, was in fact, not ready to bolt on. The loose king bolt had never been touched since it left the Alaskan Bushwheel assembly line. Accepting the oscillation as “quasi-normal” because others had experienced similar problems on occasion was wrong on my part. I should have had it looked at much, much sooner.
Lesson five wasn’t so much a “lesson” as a great experience for N102RE. It was landing and taking off from the Songlo Vista remote airstrip. This strip was probably the most “authentic” bush strip we flew into on this trip—relatively narrow, a meaningful slope, rocky with a tree protruding out onto one side of the runway, and comparatively short. The Terminus Mountain lesson learned, no nicks were added to N102RE. In fact, she was on and off with plenty of room to spare—not once, but four times. She loved it. And she found herself on that airstrip.
Lesson six was Lake Hood, a dirt strip that adjoins Anchorage International. We diverted there when the engine instrument display panel in Dave’s plane went on the fritz. The exciting part of that experience was (a) seeing all the bush planes hunkered down around this dirt strip surrounded by multiple runways serving a flock of incoming and departing large jet aircraft; and (b) the taxiways that wind around the airport with “drop-down” gates that keep cars from crossing the taxiway when airplanes are using it—just like train-crossings! That’s was a chuckle, and not something I’d ever seen at any other airport.
Flying N102RE since that trip has continued to be a learning experience. We’ve visited Shelter Cove, Placerville, and Oakland in Northern California, Las Vegas and Reno in Nevada, and have flown all over Southern California including Paso Robles, Lancaster, Apple Valley on the high desert regularly (grandchildren live there), Palm Springs and Bermuda Dunes on the low desert, San Diego, Fallbrook, Catalina Island (an interesting airport due to drop-offs at both ends and only about half the runway visible at touchdown or take-off from either end); Big Bear Airport at 6752 feet above sea level regularly (cheap fuel there, and great for reminding one about the impact of high altitude airports when the temperatures get in the 80 degree Fahrenheit range). And even LAX to drop a friend catching a flight.
And of course, any weekend that my now mature young lady airplane is not flying me someplace on business or to visit friends, we shuttle out to Chino airport where I continue my “learning curve” working with Dave Prizio and Ed Zaleski as they build their Legend Cub, maintain their Sportsman, and help me learn new ways to maintain and keep N102RE looking and flying like the great filly she is.
Now I could go on and on about this airplane. It fits exactly what I was seeking when I decided to get back into flying—a comparatively fast airplane that allows me to travel cross-country in reasonable time; a very capable short field plane that allows me to visit the remote places that I enjoy for recreation; and a comfortable platform that allows me to fly 8 to 10 hours without tiring. There are faster planes, more expensive planes, cheaper planes and slower planes—but I cannot think of a better plane suited to serve real multi-purpose needs than the Sportsman!
Ed. note: This story was first published in the 1st quarter 2009 GlaStar & Sportsman Flyer.