Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Under the Wire Fly-In

When I was about 11, this guy named Robbie showed up at a fly-in with a Stearman biplane he'd restored. We got to know him, and when it came time to re-cover the fabric on our J-3 Cub in the winter of 1991, he got the job. That next fall, I went to my first fly-in at his little grass strip in Louise, Texas (T26).

The fly-in was called (jokingly at first) the Under the Wire Fly-In. This was because there was a powerline that went directly across the runway at midfield. I never really thought it was a challenge for my Uncle (I always rode to the fly-in with him in the Cub) or any of the other pilots---it was just interesting.

This past weekend, Alisa and I went to the 20th annual Under the Wire Fly-In. It really occurred to me on the flight over that so many things have changed over the years, yet so many things have stayed the same. And they're all important.

The wire has been gone for years now. I doubt that more than a handful of the attendees know why it's called "Under the Wire." Many fixtures of the southeast Texas aviation community are gone: Warren Ball and his airport (where I learned to fly) are now history, Glenn Jeffries, who kept Ball Airport and all our planes running, is gone, as is Robbie's dad, my grandmother Colleen, and so many others who used to turn out for stuff like this.

I've gone from being a once-a-month pilot to a professional flight instructor. And, for the past 6 years I've been bringing my fiancee/wife to the fly-in. My sister Amy has also added to the fly-in, bringing her guy Wesley at first as a wide-eyed spectator and now as a professional ag pilot.

Just as important as the changes are the things that have stayed the same. There are the people who you only see once a year at the fly-in. There are the airplanes that return year after year (sometimes even after changing owners). There's the same dedication to "old school" aviation. This may be the largest concentration of people who can hand-prop an airplane and land a taildragger in a crosswind to gather anywhere in our area. And, there's the same reinvigoration of why we care so much about aviation.

Life got in the way a few times, but I haven't missed many fly-ins. One of the more underrated blessings of my leaving Baylor is that I don't have to be on my way out of town to recruit "smarties" over the fly-in weekend. In fact, that was the only thing that was a negative about taking that job---I knew I wouldn't always be at the fly-in.

Some things are too important to miss. The Under the Wire Fly-In transcends all those changes and continues to hold a special place in the hearts of those of us who love to fly.

I have an album from the fly-in at http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2277219&id=9210527&l=8b4876891b. You can access it even if you're not a member of Facebook. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Teaching in the clouds (literally)

As we executed our assigned missed-approach procedures off of the VOR 17 approach at McGregor, the ground rapidly faded from view. Passing through 3,500 feet, we were now in actual IMC (for you non-pilots, we were in the clouds). This definitely wasn't my first time in IMC, but there was a difference. Now, I was in the right seat. I was the instructor.

As we climbed into the cloud, the day's convection gave us a couple of "spikes" on our Vertical Speed Indicator. In this situation, if you pay too much attention to this and too little attention to your Airspeed Indicator and Altimeter, you'll let yourself get fooled into thinking you're in a climb. Push the nose over, start building excessive airspeed and/or mistrusting your instruments, and you're in trouble.

I'll admit that as we got ready to go I was thinking about a colleague in Houston who got a little cocky and took an instrument student up in weather that was down to minimums on lesson #1. He was rewarded for his hubris with a case of the "leans" (where you basically don't know which was is up). They survived it, but I've seen the flightpath on flightaware.com and it wasn't pretty.

Shortly after entering the clouds, my student (who is, by the way, progressing well) had a moment of fixation on the VSI and I could tell he was beginning to get the leans. He didn't panic, but I think he got a little overwhelmed. It surprised me how quickly I was able to get the airplane straightened out and calm him down, all while keeping us on the assigned leg of the approach.

To be fair, he really didn't freak out on me---he stayed really calm, and although I knew he was pretty concerned and he admitted later that I'd taken over exactly when he needed me to, I think this was a good experience for him. He knows what fixation looks like in real-world flying, and what the leans feel like. The importance of the instrument scan never had a better demonstration. Maybe yesterday will keep him alive someday.

I'm not trying to make a big deal out of what really was a minor event. I've just always harbored this suspicion that my first time instructing in actual IMC would be some kind of defining moment for me as a pilot. And I think I was right.

I talked to a fellow instructor yesterday---I almost feel cheesy calling him a "fellow" instructor because he has 1800 hours in the right seat---who told me that at 1800 hours he's still trying to figure out what kind of instructor he is. I'm sure I'll be the same way. We always have to adapt to the student, the conditions, and the airplane. But moments like yesterday nudge me in the right direction, proving to me that I'm good at this and I'm meant to do this.

I'm flying with the same student again tomorrow, and I'm ready to go back into the clouds with him.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The true test of a job...

...is when you love it on your first day back from vacation. My job passed the test :).

Germany was awesome, as always. I think I got my Schnitzel, Wurst, and Bier quotas for the year filled (well, maybe not completely, but close). The weather was perfect, and it was great hanging out with Frank, Nat, and the girls.

Saw a few new towns and lots of old ones. We did get to go back to Munich, which has turned into a perennial haunt for Alisa and I, for a few days. The Marienplatz is still one of the coolest spots in the world. We got to hike around Lake Eibsee at the base of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. If anyone tells you it's just 4 miles around, they're lying to you. Look it up on Google Earth.

We ate dinner in a cafe in Garmisch and watched a massive herd of sheep walk down the Hauptstrasse (main street).

And of course, we went back to our favorite cafe in Eulenbis and visited the Stemlers (www.fewo-stemler.de). You won't find food or hospitality in Germany any better than this place.

Alisa tells a more complete story about the trip, if you're interested, with her photo album on her Facebook account, so I won't try to reinvent the wheel.

The one thing missing in Germany is general aviation. User fees have all but priced it out of existence, and we could suffer the same fate here if we let our guards down. Once again, general aviation has been a whipping boy of late of the media and some politicians. If you're a pilot or aviation enthusiast and you're not an AOPA member, you're not pulling your weight. 'Nuff said.

Good to be back home, and good to be back in the air!

PS: If you're not a fan of Waco Flight Training on Facebook, you need to be!