The antidote to aerial boredom is to add variety to your flying
A MINNESOTA AVIATION HOT DISH
As an enthusiastic proponent of general aviation, I tell anyone who’ll listen just how much fun flying small airplanes can be. The flip side to this, which gets talked about a lot less, is that flying can also become surprisingly boring after a while. Nobody thinks so when it’s fresh and new and mildly terrifying, but the road from competence to comfort to boredom is a surprisingly straight, short and well-traveled path. Every lapsed GA pilot I’ve ever encountered has trod that sad road to its inevitable dead end. Many of my fellow airline pilots, meanwhile, consider aerial boredom to be a veritable hallmark of a professional pilot. Most enjoy their jobs, mind you, but they’ve flown variations on the same basic flight for the past 25 years and rightly take a certain amount of pride in providing that consistency. The downside is that relatively few exhibit much enthusiasm for the flying itself, as evidenced by the rarity of those who fly recreationally.
The proven antidote to aerial boredom is making a conscious choice to add variety to your flying. There are so many things that the adventurous aviator can do to get their kicks that there is little excuse to wear a hole in the same traffic pattern or repeat the same $200 hamburger run. Simply flying new places provides nearly limitless opportunities for adventure. You can fly a new airplane, or another type of aircraft entirely. You can take new passengers. You can make an effort to meet new pilots and take each other flying. Probably the very best way to add variety to your flying — and I can vouch for this one — is to write a monthly column for a widely read aviation periodical! I jest, but writing for Flying has provided fine motivation to go out and collect new flight experiences, and has also given me opportunities to meet and fly with readers and other writers.
Here’s a great example. Not to toot my own horn here, but last year the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame named me its 2017 Writer of the Year. I haven’t mentioned it in these pages mostly because I’m embarrassed that I stood them up at the awards ceremony. There was a good reason, mind you: Dawn and I were cruising the Bahamas aboard Windbird and weren’t in a place we could safely stash the boat and fly north for a weekend. My parents attended and accepted the award on my behalf, and they played a five-minute video I created to introduce myself and thank the organization for the honor. This is all just back story to how I met Jim Hanson. Besides being a Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame inductee (2005) and former Writer of the Year (2013) himself, Jim now sits on the board of directors.
Jim is basically who I want to be when I grow up. He’s the longtime FBO and airport manager at Minnesota’s Albert Lea Airport. He does corporate flying in a King Air. He has owned 499 aircraft in his lifetime and still owns 16. He has flown more than 330 aircraft types, and is active in the antique/classic, Experimental and warbird communities. He has flown to all 50 states, all Canadian provinces and territories, and six continents, including flights across the Atlantic to Europe and North Africa in GA aircraft. He writes prodigiously for both
Midwest Flyer and Minnesota Flyer magazines. He and the bride of his youth, Maryalice, travel extensively and entertain often. He seems to know everyone in Minnesota aviation, and just about everywhere else too. At 71, he seems to have twice the energy of most men half his age.
When I did my seaplane-rating check ride earlier this summer, I took a photo of one of Jack Brown’s Piper Cubs and posted it to Facebook. Within an hour, Jim had commented and invited me to come down to Albert Lea and fly his Lake LA-4 Buccaneer amphibian. How could I refuse an offer like that? Mind you, I hadn’t actually met Jim at this point; I only knew him from the Hall of Fame and social media. But that was all the more reason to take him up on it, because from reputation alone I figured he was somebody I wanted to meet.
Jim told me that Bob Wander is another guy I had to meet, and at his suggestion we invited Bob to our get-together at Albert Lea Airport. Bob is a soaring expert, evangelist and instructor, the best-selling glider author worldwide and an in-demand public speaker. Originally a classical musician, Bob took up soaring in 1979 and quickly realized that there was no good textbook for beginning glider students, so he wrote his own. That snowballed into a whole series of books he wrote, published and sold himself. Later, his publishing business added titles from several noted soaring and meteorology experts. For a number of years, Bob owned and operated the soaring school at the Faribault, Minnesota, airport (FBL). Germane to my interests (and rather typical of glider pilots), Bob is an avid sailor who owns boats in both fresh water (Lake Superior) and salt water (southwest Florida).
After one weather cancellation, our rescheduled mid-September day dawned bright and clear. Dawn and I drove to Albert Lea due to later land-based obligations, and found Jim in his new office in the recently completed terminal. He showed us around the airport and introduced each of his airplanes, from an ultralight that belonged to a late friend to a Kitfox he built himself to a classic Jet Commander he still flies every couple of years. His pride and joy is actually his very first airplane, a cream-puff Cessna 120 that he bought at the age of 16. Incredibly, the plane was delivered within six weeks of Jim’s birth and has spent almost its entire earthbound life within 4 miles of his birthplace. When he restored the C120, Jim decided not to repair the nose bowl that had been dented when the previous owner flipped the plane over while attempting a skiplane takeoff in deep snow. It gave the plane the character he’d known his entire adult life. I love that.
Bob flew in with his Cessna 150, and we all sat down for a freewheeling discussion on soaring; sailing; flight instructing; the writing process; the pilot shortage; how Bob taught himself publishing in the early days of the PC; how flight schools can be more welcoming; Jim’s flight to six continents, including Antarctica, in a Cessna Caravan with his friend; the late Buzz Kaplan; suffering an engine failure in that same Caravan and making an emergency landing at a half-completed Patagonian airport; and the upcoming “Daks Over Normandy” project, which will bring about 30 DC-3/C-47 Dakotas from around the globe together for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Bob gave me several of his books, which are indeed well-written (bobwander.com) and have increased my desire to get my glider rating next summer.
After a couple of hours, Bob had to get going, and Jim and I headed out to the Lake amphibian. This is the ninth Lake that Jim has owned, and, he says, the most watertight. Walking around it, I was impressed with the size and apparent beefiness of the airframe. The tail is huge. Once seated inside, however, you are quite low-slung — especially compared to float aircraft. There are a few peculiarities. The throttle and propeller controls extend from overhead, the elevator trim is hydraulic and takes
I TOOK A PHOTO OF ONE OF JACK BROWN’S PIPER CUBS AND POSTED IT TO FACEBOOK. WITHIN AN HOUR, JIM HAD COMMENTED AND INVITED ME TO COME DOWN TO ALBERT LEA AND FLY HIS LAKE LA-4 BUCCANEER AMPHIBIAN.
a bit of getting used to, and the nosewheel is free-castering. This is an easy transition for those who have flown Grumman singles, but I couldn’t help hearing my first flight instructor castigating me for dragging the brakes!
The hydraulic flaps have only two positions, up or down, and they are extended for all takeoffs and landings. The pitch force required for rotation is quite high, and liftoff somewhat abrupt due to the engine being mounted high atop a pylon. For the same reason, every power change results in a noticeable pitch moment, rather like the Boeing jets I fly for work but in the opposite direction. Though the engine is 200 hp, the weight and bulk of the airplane is such that performance is quite sedate. Decent nose-high landings are fairly easy, though the gear legs are noticeably stiff. Overall, if I were simply looking to purchase a complex single-engine landplane, the Lake would be fairly low on my list.
It is on water that the Lake truly shines. We moved a few miles southeast to Lake Albert Lea for landing practice. The sight picture looks insanely low compared to a floatplane, but becomes comfortable fairly quickly. Sitting in the water, you feel the first rap-rap-rap of the waves directly in your seat. On the step, the plane is quite maneuverable and is perfectly happy to cruise around the lake like a runabout all day.
Downwind turns are not the problem they are in a floatplane. One difference is that climbing onto the step requires much more neutral elevator than a typical floatplane. Another is that aileron deflection has fairly little to do with wind direction; it’s all about keeping the wings level so that the wing floats (sometimes called sponsons) don’t dig into the water. Overall, the Lake is a remarkably different animal from the Cub on floats in which I’d recently trained — “It should really be a separate rating,” says Jim — and I was a little frustrated at my ham-fistedness in flying it for the first time. Jim was patient though, and did his best not to show fright during some of my more dramatic antics. Despite the challenge of transition, flying the Lake on water is just stupid good fun. After we got back, Jim took Dawn for her first seaplane flight, and she came back with a wide grin on her face.
By the time you read this, Dawn and I will be back aboard Windbird, cruising down the Lesser Antilles. We love sailing and the cruising life, but one downside is being cut off from the stateside aviation community for seven months of the year.
The good news is that we’ll have plenty of time to plan a wide variety of aerial adventures with our many farflung flying friends for next summer — perhaps starting with that glider rating!
Earning a seaplane rating has opened the door to new aerial adventures.