By lex, on January 13th, 2008
First impression: Good clean fun.
Couldn’t much sleep thinking about it, so I got up early yesterday, refreshed myself on the checklists, emergency procedures and airspace before toodling up the 5 on the bike. The boss had asked me to be there by 0930, and I left the house with plenty of time to spare. It was cool, clear morning and a beautiful ride up the coast, with light traffic. The throttle kept creeping up on its own, like, to the extent that I found myself kicking rocks in the parking lot at 0900, having beaten even the ground crew to work, not to mention my flight lead, employer and paying customers.
Eventually Dave showed up, one of the ground crew, and lacking anything more positive to contribute but full of restless energy I helped him push the Travelair 4000‘s out of the hangar and on to the flight line. I don’t have a taildragger endorsement on my license, but between those two wood and cloth beauties and the SNJ on the line, I know that if I hang around this place long enough, eventually I’m going to have to man up and get me one. Even if the words “ground loop” aren’t enough to chill the blood of a pilot who has never flown anything but tricycle-style landing gear.
Pre-briefed with a recently retired 30-year Marine Corps colonel, FA-18 pilot and a man whose friends are friends of mine and whom I therefore knew, even though I’ve only just met him. Our customers showed up, signed their paperwork, heard the brief and with their wives nervously laughing and snapping away with digital cameras, they manned up with us in the little Vargas.
The “mission” such as it is, is pretty straightforward: Have fun. Safely. The brief discusses what we’re going to do today, some brief background on 1v1 maneuvering – mostly in the horizontal plane – and safety of flight. The staff pilots are up front where all the buttons and knobs are, with the clients in the rear for to do the gunnery, when the time comes.
A formation take-off and transit to the working area, with time in between for some happy snaps. The flight breaks up for 10-15 minutes of flight control and handling characteristics familiarization time for the customers, most of whom have no general aviation experience. We stay low, out of the Class B airspace surrounding Lindberg Field – 2500 feet or so – and set a “hard deck” or floor of 2000. Five hundred feet of maneuvering space doesn’t sound like much, but these are not terribly powerful aircraft, not going particularly quickly and it’s well enough to dazzle people used to maneuvering only in two dimensions.
After the fam work is complete the staff pilots take control of the aircraft and set up a head-on merge for a two-circle demonstration engagement. One aircraft is designated a “target,” and the other a “shooter,” with the target remaining in a predictable 30 degree angle of bank, and the shooter using up to 60 degrees AOB and plus or minus 30 degrees of pitch to work out of plane. The Varga is rated at up to 4.4 g’s in the utility class, but I rarely saw as much as 3 yesterday and that’s really all anyone needed – the shooter quickly arrives in a firing position and with a call on the VHF radio, the target is called “dead.” Roles are reversed, with the shooter becoming predictable, and the new shooter cleared to maneuver. After the second kill, the flight breaks up again, regains altitude and turns back in for three head-on engagements – this time with the customers at the controls.
It’s hard at first talking the clients into pulling any g, but as the nose falls through the horizon at 60 degrees AOB it’s either that or bust the hard deck, resulting in a “rocks kill.” Some of the guys get greedy on their first turn and for a while it looks good for them, but ultimately they end up on the deck, out of airspeed and out of ideas while the more patient guy gets the angles back and eventually scores the kill. “Patiently aggressive” wins the two-circle fight nine times out of ten.
Back to the field after the third hack, with tower authorizing an overhead approach, your scribe flying wing like he was taught and a fan break to land. Taxiing in there are broad smiles from the chief pilot and ground crew, and kinds words about the formation flying which at first bemused your narrator: If you come from carrier aviation, about the only time you’ll hear any remarks about the formation is when it has deviated in some way from the perfect ideal. It’s funny what you can take for granted.
A quick debrief with the clients, all smiles and “gollies.” My man beckons me over after it’s done and presses a bill in my shirt pocket. I thank him for tip, genuinely pleased if surprised. Even more so after when he’s gone and I pull it out of my shirt to store with my wallet and see that it was a fifty he’d passed me.
I led the next sortie which went just as the first one did, with my backseater if anything more enthusiastic than his predecessor. I’m getting a feel for the rhythm of it now, how much to talk, what to say. I ask him how he’s holding up – two enthusiastic thumb’s up. We are instructed to break over the numbers, leading to a schwoopenhausen approach from on high to land. At the 90 degree position I call the tower for landing clearance, “Tower, Topdog 1, base, gear, stop.” I can hear the smile in her voice when she clears me to land. It puzzles me for a bit until I realize that the landing gear don’t come up in this aircraft. So I probably don’t have to tell her that they’re down.
The third go is led by the Marine again, and everything goes to form except for the fact that coastal fog is offering, leading us to fly inland between Lake Hodges and Black Mountain. I’m not as familiar with the course rules coming back to Palomar from this direction, but it seems to me that we should have been talking to tower by now – we’re very nearly on final approach course for a Class D airfield and although we don’t have any distance measuring gear, it looks like we’re inside 5 miles to me. Lead finally figures out that his transmitter is down and passes me the lead.
When I do check in with the Tower controller, it’s pretty clear right away that she’s in a snit: “Overhead disapproved, make a full stop landing, possible pilot deviation.”
Oh, that’s great: I’m back in the pilot-in-command game for a whole 2.2 hours and already I’m working on my first flight violation. Perfect.
I quickly explain that we’ve had an unplanned lead change due to radio failure. When we land and clear the runway I ask her for taxi clearance, and whether she’d like me to call her on the phone. “Disregard,” she replies. Whew.
I’m actually pretty whipped when it comes time for the fourth flight. My wingie loses his battery as we’re starting up, so we’ve got to wait while it gets replaced. I’m watching the sun arc lower on the horizon, seeing the coastal fog creep towards the runway’s departure end, think to myself that I’ve seen this movie before, and know how it ends: On a divert in a pure VFR aircraft to an alternate and unfamiliar field in mountainous terrain as the sun goes down. I get that tickle in the back of my head. I’m very relieved when the owner calls a knock-it-off. I’m very willing to play the non-hack card when I have to, but I much prefer to have “leadership” play it first.
A little cooler in the fog as I toodled back south. It was good day.