Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

09 November 2017

Going Both Ways

Up in Brewster, Washington we had one of the driest summers ever. I mean, really, we had only one day that it rained, and there wasn't much at that. So none of the ships flew more than a couple of hours apiece. The boss was not happy.

The company really makes money when we fly, of course. The standby charges pay for the helicopters and the pilots with a little leftover. On the other hand, we surely did not have to burn (or buy) very much fuel.  And when you've got ten helicopters that each burn 50 gallons per hour, the potential for using a lot of fuel is real!  Normally, each season the ships get between fifty and 100 hours each.

So there was a lot of sitting around.

Ironically, this summer I got to fly more airplanes than ever before. You all know that I'm a helicopter guy, but I love flying airplanes too. A lot of helicopter pilots turn up their nose at airplanes. ”Boring,” they say. Perhaps. Helicopters keep you busy 100% of the time; if you let go of the controls the helicopter will try to turn itself upside down. In an airplane you can sit back and relax a bit because it's not always trying to crash itself. To me, it's all good.

My boss's friend Gene has a beautiful old Piper J-3 Cub – the quintessential airplane from the 1930's and '40s. It's yellow, OF COURSE because all real J-3 Cubs are yellow.

Gene is a 75 year-old frenetic fellow who's dying of cancer and simply cannot sit still. He knows his time is limited and wants to make the most of it while he's still in good health. He was visiting us one morning at our hangar in Brewster. With his first cup of coffee he was fidgety.  By the second he was bored. ”Let's go flying!” he boomed with perhaps too much enthusiasm in his voice if that's possible.

The Piper Cub is a small, two-seat, tandem (i.e. front and back) airplane designed for much smaller, skinnier young people who are more limber than this never-missed-a-meal 60-something guy. After a thorough preflight inspection, Gene coached and coaxed me through the contortions necessary to just get in the damn thing.  I cursed; he laughed.  I really need to lose some weight and do some exercise.

Gene's yellow J-3 Cub next to his red sport biplane next to our Cessna 182

For some, flying a Piper Cub is akin to a religious experience, given the history of the design. In truth, it flies just like every other airplane, only slower. It's got really long, thick wings which makes it unsporty in maneuvering. Those fat wings are really “draggy” and what with the limited horsepower of the engine you don't go anywhere very fast. But it is marvelous, basic airplane that is great at teaching students how to fly. I can't say that it was a religious experience for me, but it was a hell of a lot of fun!

Since we didn't fly helicopters a lot, the boss took pity on me and decided that we needed to go out flying in his seldom-used Cessna 182. The Skylane is an extremely capable four-seat airplane that Cessna has made forever, starting in 1956 and continuing with few changes to this very day. It's got a 230 horsepower engine (big for its class) and it can carry huge load. 

Like the Cub, the 182 is a relatively simple airplane. The landing gear does not retract; the downside of that is that it's not very fast. But it is the perfect for the family of four who want to go away on vacation and don't want to leave anything behind. The boss's 182 is a pristine example of a 1977 airplane that looks very much like a brand-new one. Things don't change much in aviation.

My boss's 1972 Cessna 182

Some time after that, we were having lunch at The Club in Okanogan with our friend Darrell Diebel, who owns a beautiful Cessna 177 Cardinal. I've flown a lot of Cessna models, but never the Cardinal, and I've always wanted to. It's a beautiful design. We got talking about his airplanes (he owns three) as we ate. Knowing that I've always wanted to fly the Cardinal he said, ”Let's go flying!” with as much enthusiasm as Gene had used about the Cub. Darrell is not dying of cancer but like most pilots he'll use any excuse at all to go flying.

In the mid-1960's, Cessna's basic four-seater, the model 172 Skyhawk had been around since 1956 and actually was just an updated, tricycle-gear version of the model 170, a taildragger that had its beginning back to 1948.

So in 1968 Cessna designed the model 177 as a replacement.  But it was...different. It used a new wing design that also sat further back (for better pilot visibility) and was cantilevered so that it didn't have the struts that are so common on single-engine Cessnas (see the pic of the 182). The landing gear was changed so that the plane sat low to the ground, making it easy to get in and out.  Because there were no struts, the cabin doors could be huge, and they opened wide, like a car. This was not always a good thing if you happened to park the plane with a ripping tailwind.

The new design brought along slightly different flying qualities that alienated some pilots because  it didn't feel conventional enough, especially during the landing. A Cessna is supposed to fly like a Cessna, and the Cardinal did not. Subsequently, sales of the 172 Skyhawk remained strong and the Cardinal did not summarily replace it. They're both great airplanes.  However, ironically the 177 Cardinal disappeared while the model 172 is still in production today.  Go figure.

Darrell's Cessna 177 Cardinal

The Cardinal was great fun to fly!  Yes, it lands a little "differently" than other Cessnas, but I did not find it super-challenging.  All my landings are equally bad in every airplane.

Speaking of bad landings...

Finally, the boss also owns a Cessna model T-50 Bobcat. This is a twin-engine, taildragger that was first produced in 1939. It is often confused with the Beechcraft model H-18 “Twin-Beech.” The Cessna was designed to be a trainer for the military and “lightweight” twin for personal civilian use although it is not exactly lightweight except compared to a DC-3 maybe.

My boss likes old airplanes and helicopters, if you can't tell. His T-50 is beautiful – lovingly maintained and always stored inside. Our task this day was to move it from the Brewster Airport up to another, smaller grass strip airport that he owns up the Okanogan River. The flight was short, so I didn't get to actually fly the T-50. But it was neat being in such a classy, vintage airplane. It gives you an idea of what flying was like back in the 1940's and '50's.

Nowadays airplanes, especially light twins are tiny and cramped, shrunk down for maximum efficiency and speed. But back in the 1940's flying was different. Airplanes had big cabins. Their wings and frames were made of wood and fabric and welded steel tubing. The interiors were plush, like expensive automobiles were at the time. Some airplanes even had roll-down windows. They weren't all that fast, but you sure traveled along in style!

The runway that the boss owns up the Okanogan is short - just 2,100 feet. He had never landed the twin Cessna there. As we came around, he had our “aim point” squarely on the very end closest to us - good. We would not be landing long; over-running would be bad.

The boss is pretty sharp, but just as we crossed the fence, I saw that he'd let the speed bleed off just a little too much – still good though. But when he raised the nose to stop the descent, the wing didn't have much extra energy (lift) and the big twin just fell through. We hit a little...let's say “ungracefully” and bounced once before plopping right back down for good. But the stout oleo shocks and big balloon tires were designed for just such airports and they absorbed the landing with no fuss. Without even using the brakes, we stopped and turned into the hangar area which is halfway up the runway. No sweat! We watched the video that the boss's son, Danny took. The landing looked much worse from the inside than the out. But it's always that way.

The boss's Cessna T-50 "Bamboo Bomber" after landing at his grass strip 

So...not much helicopter flying this past summer. But at least I still did get to have some fun. I like being able to fly airplanes and helicopters. It's good to go both ways.

1 comment:

Bob Barbanes: said...

I should explain.

In the text of the post I refer to my boss's T-50 as the "Bobcat," which was its official name. In the caption of the picture I call it the "Bamboo Bomber."

Confusingly, Cessna called the plane "T-50." The military designation for it was AT-17 because the military has to change everything. The Army Air Corps guys who flew it were slated to fly the bigger military planes...bombers, not fighters. They "affectionately" referred to the AT-17 as the "Bamboo Bomber," a name which sort of stuck. I'll tell you why.

The T-50 is not made of bamboo. But the wing spars and other bits are made of wood. At the time (1940 or so), planes were starting to be made completely of metal. So the poor T-50 was something of an anachronism. Thus, the "bamboo" appellation.