Sunday, July 31, 2011

Return from AirVenture 2011; FOD Re-Revisited

FOD and I are back from AirVenture Oshkosh 2011. The washing machine and dryer are humming away upstairs. The camping equipment is drying out on the porch. The memory cards are hemorrhaging their content onto several hard drives. The Airspeed crew vehicle still bears such dust and mud as has been able to stick to the vehicle over the course of the nine-hour drive yesterday.

This is the third year that we’ve hit the Russell Military Museum on the way to and/or from Oshkosh. And we’ve taken a picture of FOD outside the gas station at Exit 1A each year, obscuring one of the Os in “FOOD” to make “FOD.”

Airspeed correspondent Ron Klutts and photographer extraordinaire Jo Hunter got up for a flight in the new Remos model and I’ll have some content up from that ride shortly.

In the meantime, it’s now all about getting ready for principal photography for Acro Camp 2 at Ray Community Airport. It’s less than 30 days away and the real work begins now.

Look for maybe one more Airspeed episode before Acro Camp and possible some additional pictures and other content. And then there’ll be a content blitz during the actual camp!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Movie Ate My Podcast!

These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen to the show audio by clicking here: Better yet, subscribe to Airspeed through iTunes or your other favorite podcatcher. It’s all free!

By way of getting some content up into the feed, I though it might be a good time to sit down with Will Hawkins, director of A Pilot’s Story and talk about both his film and my film, Acro Camp. We’re each coming down to the final stages of editing our respective films and this conversation turned into a good discussion of what independent filmmaking is and can be. Especially when it’s independent filmmaking about aviation!

Check out A Pilot’s Story at Check out Will and Rico’s production company at

And, of course, follow progress on the Acro Camp films at!

Technical note: The mic on my headset didn’t connect properly, so my voice is being picked up by the built-in mic on my Mac. Not the best audio quality, but a good conversation nevertheless.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Firebase Airspeed - OSH 2011

It’s Friday here at Oshkosh and FOD and I have checked off several of our traditional activities. Most important is the annual Bell 47 helicopter ride from Pioneer Airport. This is FOD’s fifth AirVenture. I first brought him when he was five.

We like to get an aerial shot of the campground each year and mark the campsite in a photo like this. We’re again camping with the myTransponder crew and lots of other social media mavens from both hemispheres. I’m very grateful again this year to have access to Home Sweet Road, myTransponder’s Class A motor home, which is providing the electricity to power the laptop for this post and the air conditioning that makes conscious thought possible. We’re at Lindbergh and 48th this year, kitty-corner from the WiFi hut. If you’re so inclined, please stop by and say hello!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oshkosh Arrival; T-6B Texan II

We arrived yesterday at Oshkosh and hooked up with the myTransponder crew at Lindbergh and 48th. Thunderstorms and rain kept the skies pretty low and gray most of the day and the shooting was iffy at best. But that’s the beauty of Oshkosh. There’s something to do no matter the conditions. So I went strolling in the static area.

It’s not as though there aren’t a load of really fast and pointy aircraft on the ramp. There’s even a 9th RW T-38A from Beale. But I remain a sucker for the T-6 Texan II.

The copy on ramp yesterday was a B-model in the unmistakable Navy yellow. The Navy uses it for for Primary and Intermediate Joint Naval Flight Officer (NFO) training. It’s also a B model, which I hadn’t yet had the chance to see up close.

The airframe and powerplant are essentially the same as those in the T-6A. A Pratt & Whitney PT-6A-68 engine, downrated to 1,100 hp, provides all of the power you’ll need for maneuvering and the straightforward flying characteristics provide a platform that makes pilots out of pedestrians. The T-6A and B are both essentially Pilatus PC-9s with Martin-Baker ejection seats.

Lt Col Tom Priest is the Operations Officer at Training Wing Five at NAS Whiting Field in Florida. He brought the aircraft to OSH and was taking questions from the crowd. I asked him about the difference that make the B model what it is. A quick hop up onto the wing made it all pretty clear. Where the A model has an overwhelmingly round-gage cockpit, the B model is wall-to-wall glass.

Lt Col Priest says that the glass makes sense because most of the destination platforms for NFO trainees are either glass now or will be soon. The only downside of the automation of avionics and flight systems appears to affect NFO trainees who go on to helicopter platforms, where that automation is either not available in the airframe or of a kind that doesn’t really lend itself to automation in the first place. Just as we’re seeing in the GA fleet, glass is taking over cockpits.

There’s nothing wrong with anything else on the ramp. But I just keep coming back to the T-6A/B. It’s a go-kart in the sky that makes military pilots. It’s a blast to fly in the lower parts of the MOA and it has better power and performance than the Air Force had with the T-37 Tweet or the Navy’s T-34C Mentor. I look back very fondly on the 1.4 hours I got to log with the 559th FTS at Randolph AFB. And I’d climb back into one of these airframes any time.

If you’re headed for NFO/UPT, I envy you. You have a spectacular airframe to look forward to. Especially if it’s yellow like this one!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Shooting the MacGyver Six

These are the show notes to an audio episode. You can listen to the show audio by clicking here: Better yet, subscribe to Airspeed through iTunes or your other favorite podcatcher. It’s all free!

Many of us are used to the aircraft that we regularly fly. We know how the engine sounds during all phases of flight. We know where all the gages are. We know what kind of control pressures to expect. We know how all of the avionics work. And there’s a lot to be said about being familiar with your aircraft. You’re safer and more competent that way.

But sometimes it’s a good idea to break out of the familiar and go stretch the envelope a little. And not necessarily by flying upside down or pulling Gs. Anyone who’s listened to Airspeed for very long knows that I have an ongoing love of a certain Cessna 152, tail number N94891. Almost 10 years ago, I flew 891 on my first solo from Runway 5L at Willow Run Airport (KYIP) in southeast Michigan. 891 lives at Solo Aviation at Ann Arbor Municipal Airport (KARB) now. Two years ago, I tracked her down and got up with an instructor to get checked out in her. I did it mostly for the nostalgia of it.

But I realized that it’s also good every once in awhile to go fly an airplane that’s different from what you usually fly. I mostly fly Cessna 172s and 182s, and that’s mostly Civil Air Patrol aircraft when I’m out flying proficiency missions. Not that the C-172 or C-182 are huge aircraft, but they’re pretty stable for what they are. I noticed at Oshkosh two years ago when I was flying the Remos that it struck me at touchy at the controls and very susceptible to turbulence. Really, the Remos is fine. It’s just smaller and more responsive and I wasn’t used to that.

So I’ve made it a point to go get checked out in 891 or a similar aircraft every year as a way of flying something different and making sure that my skills continue to embrace a broader range of aircraft sizes and handling qualities. And, while I was at it, I realized that I could also turn the flight into an additional exercise.

Do you remember the TV series MacGuyver that ran on ABC from 1985 to 1992? Secret agent Angus MacGuyver would escape from the bad guys and save western civilization using only a sock, a flashlight, some clarinet reeds, and Scotch tape. To “MacGyver” is even a verb in certain circles.

891 was an IFR-capable aircraft when I first flew her, but she’s VFR only at this point. But she has a VOR head and everything else that one would need to shoot a basic VOR approach. There’s only one nav radio and no flip-flop switch, so it would be tough, but not impossible, to identify an intersection by re-tuning the VOR to a cross-radial.

But let’s make it more difficult. What else might you have in your flight bag? What about that Sporty’s handheld radio that has a VOR tuner and a primitive OBS display? What about that hunting and fishing GPS that you carry as a backup? Wouldn’t those and other knick-knacks be the ingredients for a simulated partial-everything emergency VOR 6 into Ann Arbor? The “MacGuyver 6?”

I arrived early and preflighted 891. About halfway though, Theresa Whiting arrived. Theresa is a CFI at Solo Aviation and is the 2010 Great Lakes Region CFI of the Year. She woulf conduct the checkout. I did my usual flow-based preflight without the checklist and then stood at the nose of the airplane with the checklist to go catch anything that I might have missed. We briefed the flight and I got points for my CAP-style brief format and flow. Then we started up and taxied out.

I had my hunting/fishing GPS in the pocket of my thermal vest and was wearing my headset that has the view-limiting device on it for IFR practice. I had the approach plate for the VOR 6 at Ann Arbor handy on my kneeboard. Shortly after the run-up, we were cleared to take off.

[Audio 01]

We went south of the airport, being careful to avoid the Detroit Class B to the east. Visibility was between four and six miles with haze and there was no horizon to speak of. I did the steep turns more or less on instruments with the occasional glance out the left window to track by progress around the compass. I got the burble of my own wake turbulence on both steep turns. I climbed a little on the second one, but got it back on track by the time we got back around to the initial point. Kind of like Chi Chi Rodriguez’s gold swing. It might be ugly at points, but it’s nearly perfect for that half-inch interval when he actually made contact with the ball.

Then the stall and the engine-out. Both went beautifully. Proof that training pays off. I hadn’t flown for four months before that day and it certainly wasn’t mad kinesthetic skills that caused me to fly that well. It was ingrained training. Doing the same thing the same way every time for hundreds of hours over the course of years. I might be a pretty good pilot someday! So I stretched the parameters a little by getting the ATIS, tuning the VOR, and setting up the approach.

[Audio 02]

Then the hood came down. To set the table, I’m going to fly the VOR 6 approach, which involves tracking in to Runway 6 on the 215 radial of the Salem VOR (SVM). I’m using the single VOR head in the airplane to track my inbound course. I need to identify HARTZ, the final approach fix at some point. I could technically do that by re-tuning the VOR to check a cross-radial, but there’s no flip-flop switch and only knobs to turn to set the frequency. The other way is to use the distance from the Salem VOR with either DME or an IFR GPS.

To add complications to this approach scenario, I assumed that the VOR cross-radial wouldn’t work and instead loaded in Salem on my little hunting GPS and put that in my lap to use for DME.

Remember, we’re VFR and there’s no actual emergency. But I wanted to see how I’d deal with an unfamiliar setup in the cockpit.

[Audio 03]

The instrument scan came back to me pretty quickly. Even though I mostly fly G1000 equipment when I’m IFR, I’ve made it a habit of shooting approaches in round-gage aircraft pretty frequently to keep that scan internalized. I’d never been in a C-152 under the hood before. It’s a lot more squirrely than even a C-152. I had to back off on the controls and fly with my fingertips to keep from over-commanding the aircraft. The attitude indicator was disagreeing with the turn coordinator and the DG. I let the panel vote and concluded that the Attitude indicator was goofy. Theresa confirmed it.

[Audio 04]

It got worse and I started getting the leans.

[Audio 05]

It continues to amaze me that, even though I know that the attitude indicator is goofy, I keep looking at it and I want in the worst way to fly based on what it says. I try focusing on the turn coordinator instead, but to little avail. Theresa found an instrument cover and I blocked out the attitude indicator. By that time, we were about 10 miles from the airport and it was time to call the tower.

[Audio 06]

We decided to go to the circling minimum of 1,540 MSL. Theresa would tell me when I got within visibility minimums for that approach and I’d do the landing just like I had descended from the mist.

[Audio 07]

So there I am, partial panel in an aircraft that I’d never flown under the hood before with a failed attitude indicator, a single VOR, and a hunting GPS in my lap. And the winds aloft are from the left at a pretty good clip. I’m taking big cuts at the approach course, but not doing too badly.

Not having things where I expected to see them really added to the workload. I think I had to work twice as hard to get the same result. Using the turn coordinator and DG for bank. Using the little GPS in my lap for DME. Managing altitude and airspeed in an airplane for which, if I ever had preferred power settings, I’ve since forgotten them. We hit the final approach fix and started down.

[Audio 08]

A few minutes later, the tower cleared us to land and Theresa called the airport in sight. The wind was more or less directly across the runway and the tower offered me either landing direction. I chose 24 out of force of habit. I came out from under the hood and kept the airplane in close.

[Audio 09]

One more GUMPS check and it’s time to get down.

[Audio 10]

We did a total of three takeoffs and landings. My approaches were pretty good. My touchdowns were not beautiful, but competent. On the last one, Theresa tried to compliment me, but the airplane immediately left the pavement again for a moment before settling back down.

So I’m checked out in the airplane for another year or so and I can go back to Ann Arbor and fly 891 whenever I like. And it was a good experience in other ways. It’s not that I know how I’d react and perform if systems really started crapping out in IMC. There’s no way to simulate the sweat and the pucker factor. But it’s a good exercise to change things up every once in awhile, add to your workload, and see how you respond. Unfamiliar airplane, failed attitude indicator, single VOR, and nonstandard DME were pretty good for this time.

I still need to get up and try out the VOR function on my Sporty’s radio. I think that that’d be at least interesting if not actually helpful as a training exercise.

If you’re flying the same airplane the same way all the time, you’re missing out on an opportunity to test your skills and become a better pilot.

I hope you never have to shoot the MacGyver 6. But if you ever had to, wouldn’t it be great if you had done something like it before on a nice VFR day with a competent safety pilot watching out for you?

More information about Solo Aviation:

801 Airport Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48108
Phone: 734.994.6651
Fax: 734.994.6671

Sunday, July 10, 2011

IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open Diary: Making Good on a Deal

The IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open has wrapped up and I left the field this afternoon with the second place plaque for the Primary category.

I started today in second place, where I've been since the first flight. On the second flight, first and third places swapped places and the lead widened to about 15 points (not much). So first place was within striking distance.

I walked the ramp mumbling to myself and doing the acro dance for which aerobatic pilots are sometimes known. I set up the cockpit just the way I wanted it (kidney-relocating tight). Then I flew the last sortie and left everything I had in the box.

I scored about as well as I had in the prior flights (and so did the other competitors) and thus ended up second. But I had much better situational awareness and my peripheral comprehension was a load better. I didn't do anything that would impress Mike Goulian, but I broke out of a plateau and began to better understand what I was doing up there.

There's something about an epiphany that comes to you when you're inverted on a 45-degree downline, timing the roll and pullout. Actually understanding what you're seeing over the nose and reacting to it in a businesslike and competent manner. Not as precisely as I'd like to, mind you. But, hanging in the straps a couple of thousand feet above the judges, I realized that this is a doable thing. I could get good at this. It is within my ability. It's not impossible. It's a simple matter of hard work.

When a thing that previously existed only in a dreamstate as some abstract thing suddenly becomes sharply possible with only hard work between here and there, it's an exceedingly rare and special thing. I got that this weekend.

I made a deal with myself not long ago. By going to Jackson and ramming the throttle forward in anger, I made good on that deal. Three flights. 18 minutes each from startup to shutdown. I flew aerobatics in anger.

I'm not Greg Koontz or Brett Hunter. I never will be. But now, when I stand there along the show line, I feel as though I have more right to be there. Because I took the next step beyond mere fanboy. Because I reached over the fence and tasted some small part of what happens in the box. And I'll keep reaching in there for the electric stuff that happens there.

I made a deal with myself. This weekend, I made good on that deal. And it feels good.

IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open Diary: Flying Aerobatics in Anger

“Steve Tupper, the box is yours. Have a good flight.”

These words have now been uttered twice on a discreet frequency in the skies near Jackson, Michigan. Each time, they have caused the occupant of the front seat of a growling Pitts S-2B circling at 3,800 MSL to hunch down behind the windshield, swallow hard, and think thoughts to the effect of, “Your damned right it is! Watch this!”

I have now flown aerobatics in anger.

I have sucked, mind you. In fact, I have sucked mightily. But I have flown acro in (or near) a box with judges looking up and giving scores.

For those just joining the story in progress, I’m flying in the Primary (easiest) category at the IAC Michigan Aerobatic open at Jackson County Reynolds Field (KJXN). I’m flying a Pitts S-2B with Don Weaver in the trunk as safety pilot. Don is as talkative and helpful as ever through takeoff, climb, and orbit until I wave into the box. Then he falls silent and says and does nothing until I finish and wave back out (or make a genuine attempt to kill us or ask for his help).

Three competitors are flying primary here at Jackson. After two of the three times flying the Primary sequence, I’m in second place and only 15 points out of the lead. First place is within reach and I’m going to make a real run at it tomorrow.

I have scored very consistently the first two flights. Within a few hundredths of a percent the same. I have screwed up slightly different things each time. I felt a lot better about the second flight. And I have a pretty good idea of what I need to do on the third one.

The thing that is getting to me is the second maneuver. The spin. I haven’t gotten good entries into the spin on either of the two competition flights thus far. And that affects my setup for the remaining maneuvers. If I can nail the spin, that might be enough to pull this out.

In any case, it’s late. I need to hit the sack so I can fly my best tomorrow. More when I get back to the keyboard.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open Diary: I SUCK!

The good news is that I’ve signed onto my very first FAA waiver. That’s the signature page right there. The FAA waiver allows a number of things, including the obvious items like being able to fly upside down in active Class D airspace. And some not-so-obvious things, such as being able to fly with less than the full fuel reserves (essential when you’re flying aerobatics and need the aircraft as light as possible – As long as you can glide to the runway when you’re done, you’re good to go).

The other good news is that the contest inspector teched out the aircraft, parachutes and pilots, so Don, I, the parachutes, and the Pitts are all good to go. Don and I flew back to Ray Community Airport (57D) in the Archer and then Don and I flew the Pitts back to Jackson (KJXN) to get teched out and to fly some practice sorties in the box. It was kind of nice to just fly the Pitts straight and level. In fact, I actually tracked the course pretty consistently from the front seat. There’s no GPS (or much of anything else) up there, so Don would call out the occasional heading correction and I’d pick a cloud or a lake or some other landmark and fly the course visually. I think that many pilots get goofed up by the instrument rating and forget how consistently one can fly by just picking landmarks and flying to them. I know that I’m one of those pilots.

We also got some formation in with the Archer during the first few minutes after departing Ray. Pierre shot some pictures of the Pitts from the Archer and I’m looking forward to seeing those.

Having declared good news, there’s bad news, too. I SUCK!

I flew the whole IAC 2011 primary with Don out above the farm fields this past Sunday and I was really happy with my performance. Don seemed to be happy with it, too. So I went into this practice session excited and optimistic.

That all evaporated as soon as I was about 500 feet up and climbing. I have studied the airport grounds using Google Maps and I know where the box is. Heck, I spent the morning out there staking out Tyvek to mark it. But everything went into a cocked hat when I got up there to fly the sequence. Box? What box? Where’s the damned box?

I had an awful time identifying where the box was. In my defense, the box is to the west of, and parallel to, Runway 6/24. It doesn’t line up with anything else. No roads, no section markers, no nothing. And it’s nearly impossible to see anything (much less the box markers) out of the front seat of a Pitts S-2B. But I ought to be able to get the general gist.

So, thus lacking situational awareness and really preoccupied with how disoriented I was, I flew for crap. I over-rotated on the spin and got disoriented on the pull-out. The Cuban was pinched at the top, I was shallow on the downline, and I didn’t hold it long enough. The loop was pinched at the top. My slow roll sucked as badly as it usually does. The second run through didn’t show much improvement. I got the spin stopped at the right point (even if I was cocked over with too much right rudder), but I forgot the aerobatic turn and even got turned around by 90 degrees, confused Runway 14/32 for Runway 6/24, and started heading out of the box to the east over the airport (a maneuver guaranteed to get the tower nervous, if not angry).

I knew that I’d probably have an outing like this the first time I tried to fly the sequence in a box. I knew that a certain amount of Sunday was dumb luck. But I didn’t expect to suck this badly. I absolutely stank up the joint.

But that is, in large part, why I’m here on Thursday and why I’m going to go practice a few times on Friday before competing Saturday and Sunday. I’m at least smart enough to know that I need to work on this stuff.

I have a lot to think about tonight and tomorrow morning. Really think about the box location. Really think about the maneuvers. Get a list of questions together for Don so that I can fully debrief the flight tomorrow morning.

And then get a little more comfortable in my office there in the front seat. When you boil my time down, I have something like 1.5 hours flying the Pitts aerobatically. And that’s in bits and pieces from five flights

And I suppose that I could add a couple of other items of good news. My takeoffs and landings are getting a lot better. Nowhere near perfect, mind you. But Don hasn’t had to intervene in five of my last six landings and I think I’m getting the feel of the airplane. I still have a way to go in getting my footwork right. I need to get the pitch attitude on takeoff more consistent. I need to round out a little more gracefully on the landings. But I’m getting it. I’ll probably move to the back seat after a the competition is over and I get in a few more flights. That’ll make things easier in terms of visibility.

And my acro tolerance is really improving. I had no nausea in the course of flying the sequence twice and doing some other maneuvering. That’s a real improvement. It’s hard to fly when you’re worried getting lunch all over what few instruments you have up there in the front seat. I’ve know for years that I can fly a fair amount of acro once I build up tolerance. And flying lots of short hops like this is a good way to build it. I have a weaker stomach than most people who fly acro. But I keep at it. I think that I get a certain amount of respect from people b ecause of that. I’m the dog who keeps chasing cars. Because, one day, I might catch one.

So tomorrow is another day and another series of sorties in the box. I have a LOT to work on. But I’ll keep at it. The goal for the competition is to complete the sequence with no safeties and no FAA violations. I have tomorrow to get to the point where I can do that. And I’m going to take that opportunity.

I have a deal to make good on, you see. And I intend to make good on that deal.

IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open Diary: Setting the Box Markers

I’m in Jackson for the IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open. Competition is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday and the aerobatic box is open for practice today and Friday. It’s being held at Jackson County Reynolds Field (KJXN).

That is, once the box gets marked.

I spent the morning driving around the airport and environs with the IAC crew setting up box markers. Basically, three-foot-wide rolls of Tyvek about 30 feet long. You stake out these sheets of Tyvek at the corners of the box, at the midpoints, and at the center.

The box is 3,000 feet by 3,000 feet and it goes 3,000 feet vertically from 1,500 AGL (about 2,500 MSL here) up to 4,500 AGL (5,500 MSL). The box sits to the west of the airport proper and it’s parallel with Runway 6/24. Because it’s aligned with a runway and not with any section lines or other intuitive landmarks, the box marking is particularly important here at Jackson.

Grab a couple of vehicles and a couple of airband radios, get clearance from the tower, and head out onto the airport nailing down Tyvek at all of the important points. We used GPS to precisely locate the points and then aligned them using a sighting device with a whiskey compass.

Not all of the places we needed to reach were accessible from the airport grounds themselves. At one point, we drove behind the local Sam’s Club and hopped the fence to lay out a marker in a little meadow just on the other side of the fence.

Although I’ve always known that something like this must necessarily precede an aerobatic contest or similar event, this is the first time that I’ve actually gone out and helped. A lot goes into the process.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Making Good on a Deal

This is a regular blog post. Looking for show notes or links to show audio or video? Keep scolling or check ou the archives in the sidebar. It’s all here!

On Sunday, I went to the Battle Creek Field of Flight Airshow and Balloon Festival in the more traditional sense. I spent Friday and Saturday at Hangar 1 on the field, embedded with The Hoppers, a civilian L-39 jet team, setting up cameras, offloading video, and riding on a couple of hops in the back seat. Sunday was about hanging out with the crowd and touching base with that element of the airshow experience.

I got to see Kent Pietsch fly his Interstate Cadet from the other end of the show line. It’s closer to the staging areas for the show aircraft and it’s a different view. Kent has long captured my imagination in much the same way that Greg Koontz or John Mohr have. In the “It’s not how fast, it’s how slow” vein of classic barnstorming. Hammerheads peaking at 200 AGL. Doing a steep turn at treetop level around the TACAN station. Picking up Tom Green from the top of a camper. Really wonderful control with light wing loading and low horsepower.

Then the F-15E Strike Eagle Demo. Cash and BUDA wringing out the jet in one of the best-orchestrated and executed single ship demos I think I’ve ever seen. This was the second show at which I’ve seen them fly and second, third, and fourth time I’ve seen the 2011 demo. It just gets better every time.

About the time the Eagle landed, my iPhone buzzed. It was a text message from Don Weaver saying that Don had the Berz Flight Training Pitts at Pontiac. Don and some others were practicing for next weekend’s IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open and, if I could get there, there was a slot for me to fly.

I had enough content from the Battle Creek show. And I had even handed off in-cockpit video of the Hopper flights to the local TV station. Mission, for all practical purposes, accomplished.

I packed up, headed through the trampled grass, said goodbye to the Battle Creek media chair, and pulled out of the parking area.

The world has more than its share of aviation enthusiasts. I know. I’m one of them. And I’m as competent an enthusiast as you’ll ever meet. Climbing in, on, and around jets with hot seats. Setting cameras, knowing the angles. Troubleshooting technical issues. Being a very-low-maintenance rider who needs only the safety brief and is never a distraction in the back seat. Being a guy who has a better than average chance of being able to land the jet if the front-seater ever took a nap.

But, at the end of the day, I’m something of a poser. I post gorgeous shots of myself looking stern and competent in the back of the jet. I look good. But the fact of the matter is that my hands are in my lap or holding one or more cameras. I purposely crop the shots so almost every shot leaves the shot ambiguous as to whether I might be flying the jet.

I don’t have a problem with that. And I’ll keep doing it. No shame there. But, driving home in the car all alone with myself, it’s hard not to think about the disconnect between the guy in the pictures and who I actually am and what I actually do. It’s not guilt, exactly. But there’s a sense that I spend this time basking in the glow of others and then hope that some of that residual glow makes it into the podcast or the blog.

But this year is a little different. This is the year that I put my skills where my mouth is. On Thursday, I go to Jackson (KJXN). I’m not going to be there looking for a ride with another pilot. I’m going to Jackson to fly.

The IAC Michigan Aerobatic Open is slated for Saturday and Sunday. And there will be practice times on Thursday and Friday. One of the entrants is flying the Primary sequence in a Pitts S-2B. That guy is me.

The Primary is not complicated. You can fly it in a minute or so. 45-degree upline to level, one-turn spin, half-Cuban, loop, 180-degree aerobatic turn, and slow roll. It is by no means anything that would impress even the average airshow crowd. But I will fly it. In a box. With people watching. Some of whom will be judges.

Don and I launched in the Pitts at about 7:30. The sun was low in the sky. We turned west toward Ray Community Airport, where we’d be dropping off the aircraft after the flight. About two thirds of the way there, I cleared the area, then flew the sequence. Good spin! Stopped right where it was supposed to. Even better Cuban. The loop needed work. The aerobatic turn was pure joy, performed (as I like them) with more G than is strictly necessary. The slow roll was a train wreck (as usual). I went over the maneuvers that needed work until I was reasonably satisfied with that session. Then we proceeded to Ray and got some dinner with Rod Rakic before flying back to Pontiac in Don’s Archer.

I’ll probably have at least two more practice sessions before I fly for the judges. I’ll be ready. For now, it was a good flight and a great evening. And a step along a path that I’m only just beginning to tread.

I’m flying in the competition for a number of reasons. I’m flying for the challenge against objective measures that has drawn me to ratings and endorsements. I’m flying because it’s a perfect next step in my evolution as a pilot.

But no reason is as important as this: I’m flying because it’s no longer acceptable to be a poser. Because it is no longer enough to show up for a military media/fam flight with the manual memorized. Because it’s no longer enough to know the vocabulary and pass in conversation as one of the bros.

Because it is time to take the controls with my hands and feet and do this above a field surrounded by upturned faces.

This weekend, I go find out.

It’s just the IAC primary. No one that I admire in the airshow community will be especially impressed that I flew the Primary, even if I fly it well.

But the guy who drives back from airshows all alone in the car will want to know about it. He’ll care. And he’ll look me in the eye and know that I took up this challenge, even when I could have avoided it for any of hundreds of reasons.

That’s because I made a deal with him. If I firewall the throttle, rotate, climb, fly my ass off, and leave everything I have up there in the box, he’ll no longer have reason to think that it’s all a veneer. He’ll know that I reached up into the wind for the real thing and either caught it or tried as well as I’m capable.

There are worse deals one could make.

I’m not Kent Pietsch. I’m not Greg Koontz. I’m not Dawg, Puck, Mildred, Skids, GH, Cash, BUDA, Bloke, Slick, or Snort.

But on Sunday, I expect to be, if only in the most basic sense, a competition aerobatic pilot. And no longer a poser.

See you this weekend. I have a deal to make good on.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Embedded with The Hoppers: Battle Creek 2011

If it's Independence Day weekend, you can be pretty sure that you'll find me in Battle Creek, Michigan for the Field of Flight Airshow and Balloon Festival.

This year is really special. Several months go, I made arrangements to embed for a couple of days as media guy with The Hoppers.

The Hoppers are a civilian L-39 formation team with members from all around the midwest. I've wanted for some time to rig cameras in multiple ships of a formation team and the Hoppers presented a perfect opportunity to do that.

I arrived hurt-early on Friday and spent the morning figuring out where to place cameras for the best effect. This was an ideal situation. The team flew two demo sorties on Friday and a show demo on Saturday. This allowed me to fly up to seven cameras in the aircraft to identify the best angles and wring out any technical issues, as well as get footage for both an Airspeed episode and a promo video for the team.

The team's members come from all over the midwest. Tim "Dawg" Brutsche is a longstanding pillar of the Battle Creek show. Tim flew lead for all three demo sorties and I placed a rearward-looking camera in his cockpit, as well as a forward-facing nose cam. I also hung a couple of cameras in the back seat to catch the two and three ships and wired Tim for sound so I could capture the communications. Three other cameras placed in the other three aircraft rounded out the tech setup.

Although I ended up facing some unexpected technical issues (e.g. fogging of the cameras due to the climate control in the aircraft), I got more than I need to come up with a great video.

And, of course, it's always good to fly the media guy. I rode along on two sorties. One around the airport practicing demo formations and the break for landing and the other further away and a lot higher to practice formation rejoins and other skills.

So I have loads of footage and I'm looking forward to really sitting down with it to put together exciting stuff for both Airspeed and the team. It's really late (actually, it's so late, it's early) and I'm about to fall over. But I wanted to get these shots up.

More soon!