Summertime day­dreams

Ah, sum­mer, the sea­son of the good life. The sea­son of ver­dant, rolling hills speck­led with lazily graz­ing cat­tle, of smoky back­yard burg­ers and grilled corn on the cob, of golden beaches re­plete with gig­gling chil­dren, bronzed skin and the tangy bou­quet

Flying - - Contents - By Sam Weigel

I hope you en­joyed the sum­mer just passed as much as I did — the months of supremely peace­ful early morn­ing day­breaks, list­less af­ter­noons in blaz­ing sun­shine and smoth­er­ing hu­mid­ity, and sub­lime cool, breezy evenings that last and last, un­til fi­nally cli­max­ing in a crescendo of crick­ets and fire­flies. For pilots, this is the sea­son of the dawn pa­trol, and of bumpy af­ter­noons spent dodg­ing tow­er­ing lines of thun­der­storms. For sailors like Dawn and me, it is hur­ri­cane sea­son. In June, we and Wind­bird hop­scotched our way up the At­lantic seaboard, ducked into the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and found our sum­mer refuge in a well-pro­tected creek east of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. We worked on the boat, pre­par­ing her for our re­turn to the win­ter isles, while I flew my tail off to re­plen­ish the cruis­ing kitty. Lately I’ve been tak­ing the Boe­ing 767 to London quite a bit. This was my sum­mer of red dou­ble-decker buses, long walks along the Thames and con­vivial wood-pan­eled pubs.

London is where I’m headed again to­day, or rather tonight. Be­fore to­mor­row’s fran­tic thrum of Heathrow traf­fic, though, be­fore join­ing the nightly mi­gra­tion across the North At­lantic Tracks, be­fore will­ing 406,000 pounds of alu­minum and jet fuel and as­sorted hu­man­ity into the air with the light­est touch of my fin­ger­tips, I must get my­self from DCA to At­lanta on one of my air­line’s new Air­bus A321s. It’s a pretty easy com­mute, as com­mutes go, but nev­er­the­less I am suited up, packed and leav­ing the boat a full seven hours be­fore sign-in time. I set­tle into the pas­sen­ger seat of our truck, Dawn at the wheel, as we crunch out of the ma­rina park­ing lot and onto the bridge across the creek. Out of habit, I glance right, where a beau­ti­fully man­i­cured pri­vate grass strip sits tucked among tall trees. My pulse quick­ens. “Stop!” I ex­claim. Dawn brakes to a halt and I watch the shim­mer­ing ap­pari­tion on the far side of the airstrip as it draws closer. The tail comes up, and a beau­ti­ful, gleam­ing Cessna 195

takes to the air just as the first throbs of glo­ri­ous ra­dial-en­gine mu­sic reach our ears.

And just like that, I’m no longer sit­ting in our truck, or in my uni­form, or on my way to work. I’m in the left seat of my dream air­plane, the big Ja­cobs ra­dial thrum­ming in my lap. I ca­ress the sculpted con­trol wheel, and the large oak tree at the end of the airstrip slides harm­lessly down the right side of the bulging dim­pled cowl. Bridge and creek, boats and masts pass un­der the old gal’s beefy can­tilever wings as I bank over our home ma­rina. The count­less rivers, bays, creeks and sloughs of the Ch­e­sa­peake un­fold them­selves be­fore us as the big pol­ished pro­pel­ler claws for alti­tude in the muggy sum­mer air. It’s a per­fect day for fly­ing. Where to go? This is an air­plane im­prob­a­bly built for busi­ness travel 10 years after art deco was cool, and she shows a de­cent turn of speed for a clas­sic tail­drag­ger.

“Was that a Cessna 190?” Dawn asks as the last notes fade and she starts for­ward again. I shouldn’t be sur­prised that she rec­og­nized it — Lord knows I’ve dragged her to those rows at Oshkosh enough times. Per­haps she just saw me drool­ing.

“Close. A 195, I think. God, I love that air­plane.” Or maybe it’s lust.

“They’re pretty … just not ter­ri­bly prac­ti­cal,” she says. Dawn purses her lips. “I know I couldn’t get my li­cense in one.” She has a point. I wouldn’t dare take our 195 out on any day in which the cross­wind might ex­ceed 15 knots. I doubt I’d have the heart to crank that Jake in any tem­per­a­ture un­der 40 de­grees. My friend Jeff Sk­iles, hav­ing nursed a beau­ti­ful Waco cabin bi­plane along for sev­eral years, for­swore own­ing round en­gines for­ever and re­placed his dream air­plane with a util­i­tar­ian Cessna 185. Dawn seems to read my thoughts. “You know,” she says coyly, “a 195 doesn’t need to be our very next air­plane. …”

A new vi­sion presents it­self. Dawn is in the left seat, not of our truck but our next air­plane. It’s ev­i­dently a Piper Chero­kee, but the in­di­cated air­speed and the deeper thrum of the de­tuned Ly­coming O-540 sug­gest that it’s a 235 model. This is no train­ing flight — I’ve been around long enough to know that spouses make ter­ri­ble flight in­struc­tors and worse stu­dents. No, Dawn has her li­cense now, and I’m kick­ing back as she leads the way on our lat­est cross-coun­try ad­ven­ture. I watch her fid­dle with the trim, gen­tly nudge the plane onto course, fuss with the mix­ture, and in a mis­placed burst of pride I flat­ter my­self that she’s been watch­ing me all these years. Deep down, though, I know she fig­ures these things out for her­self much quicker than I ever did. From tak­ing her mo­tor­cy­cle to Alaska and back as a brand-new rider to stand­ing the mid­night watch while mak­ing off­shore pas­sages on Wind­bird, Dawn has picked up com­plex skills with far greater speed than she ever gives her­self credit for. I have no doubt she’ll make a fan­tas­tic pilot should she choose to pur­sue it.

And yet, the ex­pe­ri­ence of own­ing and sail­ing Wind­bird has awak­ened dor­mant ca­pa­bil­i­ties and de­sires in my­self as well. Against all odds

I have be­come a tin­kerer, a prob­lem solver, a handyman who rolls up his sleeves and dives in no mat­ter how daunt­ing the task. I think back to the hand­ful of days that I helped my friend Joe Cor­ag­gio with his Long-ez build. I re­ally en­joyed that. I see my­self in my very own shop, cold beer in the fridge and clas­sic rock on the ra­dio, build­ing ribs and weld­ing steel and dop­ing fab­ric. Days turn into weeks and weeks into years; as the sea­sons change I see parts be­come assem­blies that be­come a rec­og­niz­able air­frame — maybe a four-place Bearhawk, or maybe one of those fire-breath­ing Su­per Cub knock­offs. I see her rolling out of the hangar for the first time, the en­gine runs and taxi tests, the breath­less first flight as the prod­uct of my se­cret toils be­comes an air­plane, uniquely and for­ever my own. I see her on floats, I see us splash­ing into Alaskan back­coun­try lakes sel­dom wit­nessed by hu­man eyes. I see her scoot­ing fast across the Mid­west plains, and can’t re­sist the urge to pull up into a zoom­ing chan­delle, and then a joy­ful aileron roll. …

Aw, darn. I’ve con­flated a cou­ple of my fa­vorite aerial fan­tasies here. Be­cause on those oc­ca­sions when I con­vince my­self I’m ac­tu­ally ca­pa­ble of shep­herd­ing such a project to fruition in any­thing less than a decade’s time, I dither on the prospec­tive prod­uct of my labors: a kick-ass back­coun­try bush ma­chine, or a sleek lit­tle Van’s RV-8. Mind you, I’ve never ac­tu­ally flown an RV-8, but I have flown my friend Bob Collins’ beau­ti­ful RV-7A, and I pre­sume the -8 is more of the same but with tan­dem seat­ing to in­dulge those P-51 fan­tasies we all har­bor. The “RV grin” isn’t just mar­ket­ing hype. It re­ally is one of the nicest-fly­ing planes I’ve been around, a real fin­ger­tip air­plane, le­gal for gen­tle­man’s aer­o­bat­ics, and fast and ef­fi­cient and com­fort­able enough to make it a ca­pa­ble cross-coun­try ma­chine as well. Enough mere mor­tals have built one to sug­gest that I’m ca­pa­ble of do­ing so my­self.

There is, how­ever, one last air­plane on my fan­tasy list. I have only 25 hours in it, and last flew it 15 years ago, but I still con­sider the Beechcraft Baron 58 to be the best-fly­ing air­plane I’ve ever laid my hands on, bet­ter even than Bob’s RV-7. Beech ab­so­lutely nailed the con­trol har­mony; it’s so smooth, so per­fectly cou­pled, so nat­u­ral-feel­ing. It flies pre­cisely like you think it should. The famed build qual­ity is pal­pa­ble in a way I’ve never felt in any other air­plane. It has gobs of per­for­mance, and even sin­gle-en­gine ops are not nearly so mar­ginal as with lesser twins. Known ice ca­pa­bil­ity is a game changer for win­ter ops. If the Baron lacks the fighter-pilot-fan­tasy el­e­ment of the RV-8, it is a far more ca­pa­ble cross-coun­try plat­form, al­beit at a noted pre­mium both in pur­chase price and op­er­at­ing costs.

Alas, I don’t ex­pect to be­come in­de­pen­dently wealthy any­time soon, and thus own­ing a Baron is con­sid­er­ably less likely than a home­built, a Chero­kee 235 or even a Cessna 195. That’s OK. What­ever itch the Baron would scratch is al­ready largely ful­filled by my day job fly­ing the Boe­ing 757 and es­pe­cially the 767. Les Abend raved about both air­planes in these pages for years be­fore he went to the 777, and I fi­nally un­der­stand his en­thu­si­asm. When I trans­ferred into my air­line’s 757/767 fleet, it was partly due to an in­fat­u­a­tion I’ve had with the lithe, sexy B757-200 since I was 10 years old. It’s in­deed a great air­plane, with ab­so­lutely un­matched per­for­mance. And yet I’ve come to ap­pre­ci­ate the chunky, ag­ing B767-300ER even more. An ad­di­tional set of ailerons makes it ev­ery bit the fin­ger­tip air­plane that the Baron is, with sim­i­larly bal­anced con­trol har­mony. For all the re­cent head­lines about air­line pilots for­get­ting ba­sic fly­ing skills, there’s a sur­pris­ing amount of hand-fly­ing on the 767 fleet be­cause it’s so darned plea­sur­able.

Back to re­al­ity. The Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment and Capi­tol build­ing are in view, and in the dis­tance I see a 737 bank­ing sharply over the Po­tomac on the River Visual to Runway 19 at DCA. Both Dawn and I miss gen­eral avi­a­tion fly­ing, but we’re re­ally en­joy­ing our boat­ing life­style and are look­ing for­ward to cruis­ing the Caribbean this win­ter. We’re still fairly young, and we know there will be some cool air­planes in our fu­ture. In the mean­time, it’s fun to day­dream my­self into the left seat of a few of my fan­tasy air­planes — and back here in re­al­ity, find my­self in the right seat of an­other.

Against all odds I have be­come a tin­kerer, a prob­lem solver, a handyman who rolls up his sleeves and dives in no mat­ter how daunt­ing the task.

There’s noth­ing like see­ing your beau­ti­ful wife in the chrome of a Cessna 195’s prop.

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