TAK­ING WING

A QUEST FOR FLIGHT ACROSS TWO CON­TI­NENTS

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Sam Weigel

A quest for flight across two con­ti­nents

Sum­mer, glo­ri­ous sum­mer! It snuck right up on me. Sail­ing the re­lent­lessly sunny Caribbean for seven months aboard Wind­bird, the pageantry of northern sea­sons played out dis­tantly across the flick­er­ing screens of muted beach-bar TVs: Hal­loween hor­ror flicks, ca­ble­news Snow­maged­dons, Yan­kees-Red Sox at Fen­way Park. So when Dawn and I hurricane-prepped and hauled

Wind­bird at a Puerto Ri­can boat­yard in June and flew home to Min­ne­sota, our abrupt re­turn to the land of sea­sons caught me a lit­tle flat-footed. Hav­ing sur­vived the long win­ter we elected to skip, friends and fam­ily were ex­cit­edly shak­ing off their win­ter dol­drums and bask­ing in the golden eu­pho­ria of a freshly blos­somed sum­mer.

The en­thu­si­asm was in­fec­tious, and I quickly estab­lished my sum­mer agenda. To wit, in as­cend­ing or­der of im­por­tance: re­turn to full-time line fly­ing and re­build the cruis­ing kitty (for which pur­pose I bid a sched­ule packed with good Euro­pean lay­overs); get the mo­tor­cy­cles run­ning and hit the road on a two-week Rocky Moun­tain tour; and most im­por­tant, get my­self back into the left seat of a sin­gle-en­gine air­plane. It had been nearly a year. It proved more dif­fi­cult than I an­tic­i­pated.

The prob­lem was my com­plete (and typ­i­cal) lack of plan­ning. So on the one gor­geous day I had free be­tween ar­rival at our sum­mer home and head­ing out on my first work trip, Dawn and I drove out to the lo­cal ru­ral air­port on a lark to see if there was any­thing to rent. We found three de­serted hangars and two yel­low crop-dusters tied down on the windswept ramp. Quite sur­pris­ingly, the air­port man­ager was in at­ten­dance, but he re­sponded to my query about rental air­craft about as in­cred­u­lously as if I had asked if he had a spare P-51 I could take for a spin around the pat­tern. “Shoot, you’d pro­lly have to go to Fargo for some­thing like that,” he said, stroking his chin. Fargo was 90 miles away.

No wor­ries, I didn’t re­ally want to fly the dusty plains any­way. What I wanted to do was splash around in some cool lakes and fin­ish up that float­plane train­ing I’d dab­bled with a cou­ple of years back. As luck would have it, my first trip back to work had two long Or­lando, Florida, lay­overs in be­tween hops to and from Am­s­ter­dam. It was a per­fect setup for Jack Brown’s two-day sea­plane course! I emailed them a few days ahead of time with my bril­liant plan, only to have my hopes dashed when they promptly replied that they’d be de­lighted to ac­com­mo­date me dur­ing their next open­ing — a full month dis­tant. I felt a lit­tle sheep­ish ex­plain­ing that my sum­mer was so full I ba­si­cally had to do this on lay­overs.

A cou­ple of days later, I found my­self in At­lanta with one day off be­tween work trips, not quite enough time to com­mute home but a per­fect in­ter­lude, I hoped, for some fun fly­ing. The day prior, I called every listed FBO and flight school within a 30-mile ra­dius of At­lanta. About a third of the places I called were out of busi­ness. The sur­vivors, how­ever, were ap­par­ently do­ing very good busi­ness. “You should have called a few days ago; we’re re­ally busy on the week­ends,” said one re­cep­tion­ist, not un­kindly. Oh, yeah — it’s Satur­day, isn’t it? “Next time, try schedul­ing a week or two out,” she sug­gested. Sev­eral other FBOs had con­verted to flight acad­e­mies. “Wait a minute, so you’re al­ready an air­line pilot … why are you call­ing us?” asked one ob­vi­ously confused

cor­re­spon­dent. “Be­cause you have Cessna 172s, and that is what I’d like to fly, with an in­struc­tor,” I re­sponded pa­tiently. “But we train peo­ple to be air­line pi­lots,” he replied, still mys­ti­fied. “Can’t you re­train air­line pi­lots to fly Cess­nas?” I queried. I think I broke his brain.

I’d just about given up, un­til my next trip when I landed at Frank­furt, Ger­many, on a truly bril­liant morn­ing. Gaz­ing down upon the rolling for­est hills, brood­ing river gorges, vine­yard-draped val­leys, ru­ined cas­tles and ram­bling vil­lages of the Rhineland dur­ing de­scent, I knew what I had to do. A lit­tle Googling at the lay­over ho­tel re­vealed Flug­platz MainzFinthen only 12 kilo­me­ters west; a quick walk to the Haupt­bahn­hof and a 20-minute bus ride got me close. Af­ter a short stroll past apart­ment blocks, a kinder­garten and an aban­doned fac­tory, I emerged from the woods to find a neat lit­tle sin­glerun­way field bor­dered by sev­eral rows of T-hangars, a few Quon­set huts and a squat con­trol tower with a restau­rant and bier­garten ter­race at its base. It looked like any of a thou­sand small air­ports in Amer­ica, ex­cept that be­sides the usual mix of Pipers, Cess­nas and Beechcrafts, there were some very un­fa­mil­iar-look­ing fly­ing machines scat­tered about.

There were three flight schools on the air­port: one for mi­cro­lights, one for gy­ro­copters and one for full-size air­planes. I tried that one, Schule für Pri­vat­pi­loten, first. An af­fa­ble long­haired guy about my age an­swered the door and in­tro­duced him­self as Freddy, the me­chanic. The school’s Piper Tom­a­hawk was down for main­te­nance, but they also had a four-place Fuji FA-200, a type I’d never seen in per­son be­fore. It looks a lot like a Mey­ers 200; I’m not sure if there’s any con­nec­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, the Fuji was booked un­til that night, and the owner/in­struc­tor was in another part of Ger­many. Per­haps on another FRA lay­over.

I con­sid­ered check­ing with the gy­ro­copter school be­cause I’ve never flown one and they look out­ra­geously fun, but de­cided to stick with my orig­i­nal goal for now. When I en­tered the mi­cro­light school, Flugschule Sky­dreamer, I found an older gen­tle­man man­ning the desk. He didn’t speak Eng­lish, and I fum­bled clum­sily with my sec­ond­hand “Deutschlish” to ex­plain that I was an air­line pilot on lay­over for 24 hours and would like to fly a small plane with an in­struc­tor, if pos­si­ble. “Ja, ja, kein prob­lem,” he said, ex­plain­ing that his son is an in­struc­tor, speaks Eng­lish and would be by shortly. In the mean­time I saun­tered out back to look over their air­craft: a white-and-yel­low high-wing de­sign with fabric cov­er­ing and gull-wing doors, a sleek-look­ing low-wing Breezer and a not-quite-com­pleted Mur­phy Rebel look-alike, which I later found out is an ULBI Wild Thing.

A few min­utes later, Tim Will­rich pulled into the park­ing lot and came out to in­tro­duce him­self. He had to work on the ULBI for a few hours, he said, but would then be able to go fly­ing with me in the high-winger, which he iden­ti­fied as an Ikarus C42. I passed the time walk­ing back into the vil­lage of Finthen for lunch, but re­turned a bit early to give the Ikarus a good go­ing-over. What the Ger­mans call mi­cro­lights or ul­tra­lights are what we in the United States know as light-sport air­craft, with very sim­i­lar op­er­at­ing rules, type cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, and pilot train­ing and li­cense re­quire­ments.

The C42 is an in­ter­est­ing de­sign. The fuse­lage is cov­ered by a hard­com­pos­ite shell, while the wings and tail have ul­tra­light-style sewn fabric en­velopes. Power is pro­vided by a 100 hp Ro­tax 912S turn­ing a three-blade prop. The bulging gull­wing doors pro­vide a sur­pris­ing amount of el­bow­room for the oc­cu­pants. Vis­i­bil­ity is ex­cel­lent through huge win­dows and over the low in­stru­ment panel and sloped cowl­ing. The con­trols are a bit non­tra­di­tional: There is a cen­ter-mounted stick with a sin­gle mo­tor­cy­cle-style hand brake at­tached, and twin linked throt­tles that pivot to slant be­tween the pi­lots’ legs. It looks very odd but feels fairly nat­u­ral.

Tim and I strapped in and started up. The liq­uid-cooled, fast­turn­ing Ro­tax sounded quite dif­fer­ent from the air-cooled, slow-turn­ing Con­ti­nen­tal O-200 with which I in­evitably com­pared it. Takeoff with 10 de­grees of flaps was brisk even at max gross weight (Euro­pean mi­cro­lights are legally lim­ited to 1,042 pounds MGTO\W but typ­i­cally de­signed for 1,320 pounds). Once air­borne, I was very pleas­antly sur­prised by the solid con­trol feel and sta­bil­ity of the air­plane. We were get­ting a fair bit of tur­bu­lence from wind spilling over the Taunus moun­tains across the Rhine River to the north, but the C42 was un­per­turbed, with small at­ti­tude ex­cur­sions eas­ily cor­rected with fin­ger­tip stick pres­sure. It felt like a big­ger air­plane than it is.

I climbed to 3,000 feet and

winged over to fol­low the Rhine as it me­an­dered to the north­west. Past Bin­gen, the hills rise high above the river on both sides; tidy vine­yards dot­ted with an­cient ru­ins line the val­ley walls. The river towns of Bacharach, Ober­we­sel and Sankt Goar slid be­neath, along with dozens of cas­tles erected by the sundry princes of the Holy Ro­man Em­pire to en­force var­i­ous river tolls. We passed the brood­ing, dec­i­mated ru­ins of the mighty Rhe­in­fels fortress and the re­stored hill­top cas­tle-cum-youth-hos­tel Burg Stahleck. These are places I know well from pre­vi­ous trav­els to Ger­many, but see­ing the area from above gave a fresh per­spec­tive on the Rhineland’s ge­og­ra­phy, his­tory and bi­ol­ogy.

The slant­ing late-af­ter­noon sun threw the rolling land­scape into sharp re­lief, golden ridges al­ter­nat­ing with vel­veteen hol­lows. We turned around short of Koblenz and cut across the east­ern Eifel moun­tains back to Bin­gen, where we left the Rhine to fol­low the Nahe River to Bad Kreuz­nach. This is another beau­ti­ful area — one I’m not fa­mil­iar with, but it was Tim’s child­hood back­yard, so he showed me var­i­ous his­tor­i­cal sites and nat­u­ral at­trac­tions: fuel for fu­ture lay­over ad­ven­tures. Fi­nally, I turned back north­east and made a 45-de­gree dog­leg to en­ter the down­wind for Run­way 26 at MainzFinthen. The wind was around 10 knots from the north, which in air­line pi­lotese trans­lates to “al­most noth­ing” but in such a light ma­chine re­quires a sig­nif­i­cant slip. I landed well to the left of cen­ter­line and at­tempted to flare at 30 feet to boot. Tim wisely kept his left hand on the stick for my first sin­gle-en­gine land­ing in a while, which is a lit­tle awk­ward in a sin­gle-stick air­craft. This stick had what’s best de­scribed as a “noodly ap­pendage” to give the in­struc­tor a sec­ond grip, but still, in a C42 it’s best for stu­dent and in­struc­tor to be on good terms!

It felt so good to be back in a small air­plane, even one I hadn’t flown be­fore and in an un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment. I should note that the ex­pe­ri­ence was sur­pris­ingly cheap, con­sid­er­ing that Europe is a no­to­ri­ously ex­pen­sive place to fly: only 127 eu­ros ($147) per hour dual. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Cessna 150 with in­struc­tor for $147 an hour in the States these days. I’m sure I’ll be back to Flug­platz Mainz-Finthen; I’d like to fly the Fuji and a gy­ro­copter … and Flugschule Sky­dreamer also has a mi­cro­light he­li­copter. Looks like I’d bet­ter bid more Frank­furt lay­overs this sum­mer!

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