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Fifi's Big Adventure at AirVenture 2010

By Jerry “Engine” Anderson, EAA 351622

Part 2 | Part 3

Jerry Anderson

This daily journal from EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2010, written for members of EAA Chapter 1128 in Two Harbors, Minnesota, captures the experience for everyone.

Pilots are a very small percentage of the general population. We sometimes fancy ourselves an exclusive, even elite group. Pilots who fly to Oshkosh for the annual EAA convention are a very small percentage of that exclusive group. This year, thanks to Fifi, my Kolb Firefly, I rejoined that happy crowd. My new girl slipped us past the velvet rope with a sexy wink and we danced the week away.

Back Story
In 1994 I flew my Kolb Twinstar to Oshkosh and we joined the ultralight pattern every day. The trip back had its ups and downs, and I vowed never to fly an ultralight vehicle that far again. For the next eight years I trailered her down every summer and flew above the bean fields and campers with a huge grin pasted on my face like a tattoo. Those were heydays on the farm when some evenings saw 50-plus aircraft in less than a square mile of airspace. “Dacron Overcast” was not a clever turn of phrase – it was a weather report. The Kolb (I had not yet evolved to the point where I knew she needed a proper name) carried me proudly and landed me softly time after time. I had found my place in the
biggest magic show on the planet.

As the years went by, my desire to build kindled to a flame, and in 2003 I finished Miss Chaos and flew her to the big dance. A Rans S-9, Miss Chaos is the airplane I always wanted, and she pleases me beyond words. But she is not happy on the farm. Calling her grand arrival a carrier landing would be charitable. I was so mortified I left her tied down at the barn all week. I flew her down again in 2008, but I really missed being part of the daily frolic.

When I met Fifi this spring, abandoned and forlorn in a dark trailer, I flashed back to those heady days and was smitten. Fifi is a Kolb Firefly, little sister to my former love the Twinstar and sharing the brilliant simplicity that Homer Kolb designed into
all of his children. Was it possible? Could Cinderella finish her chores, find a gown, and be my date at the ball?

Without benefit of magic wand or singing mice, I became fairy godfather for this transformation and savored every moment. In a week of 12-hour days, I reduced her to her smallest parts, examined each, and carefully reassembled her. Years of neglect had taken their toll, but as I nursed her back to health I touched her soul. The first test flight was just a confirmation of what we already knew about each other, and love bloomed.

Thursday, July 22, 2010
I got up early with a plan to have Fifi folded and loaded with plenty of time to come home, load the van, and begin the trek to the sovereign nation of “Oshkoshia.” Some plans are better than others. The first detour was repairing the wiring harness on the trailer. Dan Murphy was kind enough to loan me his very nice Avid Flyer trailer, and Fifi fit perfectly. But someone had caught the wires in the jack pivot and I had no right turn or brake light.

With that repaired, I set about loading my precious girl and found several more time-consuming detours. I even committed some amateur carpentry to make a brace for the ailerons. It’s a good thing EAA Chapter 1128’s Pietenpol project lives right next door; I borrowed the use of their chop saw and eight wood screws from a can on the bench. By the time I was satisfied that Fifi was secure and ready to travel, it was past dinnertime, so I left her in the hangar, bought two 10-pound blocks of ice, and went home.

With water on to boil for the last of my sweet corn, I poured a cocktail and sat down on the deck to watch the sunset. The moon was already up, and I remembered that it would be full during the convention, a good omen. By the time I crawled into bed the van was loaded with camping gear, tools, guitars, a bicycle, and enough clothes and personal care items to last a month in Tibet. I was ready!

Friday, July 23, 2010
I woke before the alarm with the same excitement I had when I was nine and going fishing with my dad. The freezer and fridge were basically emptied into my coolers, and I was on the road. My ’86 GMC van, the “Oshkosh Hilton,” just sits in my yard 51 weeks of the year and she’s starting to show her age. There’s always a little Jiminy Cricket in the back of my head whispering, “This old girl could just call it quits at any time you know.” I try to ignore him, but when we get to the airport, I find the rear suspension is so bad I cannot crank the trailer jack low enough to put the hitch on the ball. I have to use the jack from my van to lift the tongue while I fold the trailer’s jack, then lower it onto the ball. I’m glad I have that jack.

It was warm and sunny with a gusty west wind at 8:30 when we left the airport, and every gust had Fifi doing the Lambada in my rearview mirror. I was only a mile down the Valley roadwhen I decided I had to do something if I wanted to drive more than 30 mph the whole way. I examined the whole package and found a third axis of restraint. Another eight feet of rope and a half-dozen half hitches and she was solid as a rock. My confidence built as we coasted down the Homestead road, and soon I was watching the road ahead as much as my mirrors. We took the scenic highway so we could stop at the Lakewood treatment plant for 5 gallons of good Duluth city water. A huge bald eagle was sliding down the shore in search of breakfast and we fell into formation. I could see the color of his eyes, and I was amazed that even though I was going 45 mph and there was a headwind, he rarely needed to flap his wings to keep up. An escort and a good omen.
 
I gritted my teeth a little crossing the high bridge with a crosswind. But Fifi sat tight and the rest of the trip I only glanced in the mirrors. We ate Wisconsin in three big bites: northern forest, central lake country, and southern freeways. The second gas stop in Stevens Point hit me with a big déjà vu; the pumps were down. At this very station on the Hilton’s first trip back in the last century, she burned up a starter at two in the morning. The attendant was understanding, so I just crawled in the back and slept until the local Fleet Farm opened.

I’m such a lucky guy that even when things go bad they turn out good. The Fleet Farm was two blocks away, opened at seven, and had a whole shelf devoted to Chevy 350 starters. I had the new one installed, the core returned, and miles behind me by eight. This time I just shrugged, used the restroom, and the pumps suddenly rebooted when I got back out. Nice omen?

I had been watching the weather at Oshkosh for a week and knew they were getting wet, but I had no idea how wet. When we pulled into the barn driveway at 5:30, Lee Crevier said, “We can’t let you in. It’s just a mud hole.” Can’t let us in? This has never happened before. I was momentarily stunned, but Lee directed me to lot “U” where trailers and semis were parked for the duration. He told me the John K. Moody campground was under water, so I might as well get comfortable.

I rejected the first two entrances as quicksand, but up on Waupun road it looked negotiable. So I swung in and parked on the highest ground available. I was happy to see that Doug Greenfield and his band of volunteers had already rolled out their awning and lawn chairs, and as we visited I recognized and quickly fell into the accepted code of conduct in this enchanted land. Conditions were less than ideal, crappy actually, yet everyone was smiling. And not smiling like they had to but smiling like they couldn’t help it.

Shortly after returning to my spot, Jim pulled in and parked the “Chimegarden Suburban” next door. We had to offload some stone tables to make a slot for him to sleep, and we grunted and sweated and, well, smiled. Once the bikes were out we rode down to the John K. Moody ultralight campground to talk to Rick and Nancy. Rick had trenched all day; the standing water was receding, but the campground at large was still soup. At their suggestion we went up and staked ropes around the last 30 feet of fence space, and our flip-flops were under water the whole time.

Back in lot U, Fifi’s folded wing provided welcome shade as we caught up and laid out our plans for the week. The sun had fully set before we finished our brats and hash browns (camp cuisine), and the mosquitoes were out in force. The three-quarter moon smiled down through the haze as a firefly perched on my folding chair and sent her Morse code out across our muddy clover field. A firefly! Another good omen, I think.

Sometime during the night I woke to the patter of rain on my steel roof, and I felt very smug about my cozy perch until I remembered the van windows were wide open. There was a puddle in the passenger side foot well but no other harm done before I got the key on and the windows up. “That’s really all we need,” I thought. “More rain.”

Saturday, July 24, 2010
It was strange beginning the day in a parking lot, but we had bananas for breakfast and pedaled off to find coffee. At the breakfast trailer across from the barn entrance we watched the whitewater swirl through the ditch and marveled at the volume. I should have brought my kayak. After coffee there was nothing to do but recon, so we rode down to the main gate and took a stroll. All the vendors were in their usual last-minute setup mode including Jerry’s One Man Band. Jerry looked old to me the first time I saw him nearly 30 years ago, but he pulled out his accordions, speakers, and wind-up monkeys like it was his first gig. Oshkosh fever was now an epidemic.

Just past Jerry’s coveted corner spot we saw a unique rotorcraft. The “Dragonfly” had two large fuel tanks flanking the single seat but no motor. Upon close inspection we found the power was provided by two rockets, slightly larger than lipstick tubes and fastened to the tips of the rotor. The designer, builder, pilot, or press agent was constantly interrupted from his preparations by questions, but he seemed to enjoy the distraction. Heading north out of Aeroshell Square (center of the show) we were amazed at the expanse of empty grass usually filled with homebuilts, but I found Al White’s newly completed Dyke Delta and gave him a silent “attaboy” for the Perseverance Award lying on the glare shield.

It was very warm and muggy as we biked back to our makeshift camp, but the threatening clouds never delivered and we counted our blessings. While we snacked on smoked oysters and cheese, a fellow motored up on a two-wheeler and examined Fifi. We quickly fell into the kind of shorthand dialogue only seasoned ultralighters speak. He (I never got his name, sorry) had worked for Quicksilver during their halcyon years with people like M-Squared founder Paul Mather who, at the mention of his name, came walking around my van for an impromptu reunion. This kind of thing happens all the time in the kingdom of Oshkoshia. Our new friend had been asking about the prop extension Fifi wears on her gearbox and Paul had the answer.

“They had to move the engine forward for weight and balance considerations, and those Ivo props do flex under power,” he explained. “The 4-inch extension keeps the prop away from the ailerons.” I had been wondering about that and here I got the answer without even asking the question. After lunch Jim and I rode back down to the Moody campground and sloshed our way up to our spot on the fence. Sitting on the picnic table we had hauled over the day before, we watched the trickle of traffic arriving on runway 36.

The main reason we get to this spot two or three days before the official opening is to watch arrivals not only on the grass before us but also on Wittman Field’s 10,000-foot paved surface (36). In recent years the Bonanza owners group has numbered 250 or
more, and they all come at once landing three abreast in wave after wave. It is so impressive that Cessna, Piper, Stinson, and even Ercoupe fans have staged their own version of a mass arrival. We laughed out loud when this year’s Bonanza contingent turned out to be four airplanes in a ragged formation landing. Ten minutes later two more Bonanzas arrived together, and though neither of us pointed it out, we both chuckled and shook our heads.

Pilots are taught to be ever vigilant for the current conditions. But even the weather yesterday can affect your flight today, and Oshkosh Tower was sharply curtailing incoming airplanes just for lack of dry ground to park them. A nice-looking T-bird landed on our strip, and he wisely waited for the higher part of the runway before touching down safely.

Back at our bivouac we reloaded the stone tables, and Jim departed for the Chimegarden show in Appleton. He would spend the night there in a motel bed with no mud on his feet and peddle wind chimes and stone tables at the art show tomorrow with his sweetie, Dee-Ann. I sat down in the shade of Fifi’s wing and just watched the sky. Billowing cumulus held sway but never got too dark or covered all the blue.

About 5:30 the Cessna group appeared in four-ship formations, 20 planes in all over a 15-minute period. In sharp contrast to years past, nobody seemed to be in a hurry. I dug out the paperback novel I had packed for just such an occasion, but I couldn’t stop looking up long enough to read past the first page. When the T-28s came in, I put the book back in the van for the rest of the trip. Think of the coolest Harley-Davidson you ever heard. T-28s sound like that, only a little nastier. You also feel the sound when 15 or 20 of them thunder overhead. The only sense not getting stimulated is taste.

Oh yeah, taste, it must be dinnertime! I fired up the hibachi, and my dinner entertainment was watching trucks of all sizes get hopelessly stuck in the “Venus truck trap” called lot U. The sun got low and the mosquitoes were not bad, so I pulled out the nylon string guitar to serenade the stars. After a while Doug strolled over and we examined Fifi. He shared his Kolb building experience in an easy, conversational manner pointing to a part and saying, “When I built mine I did this.” And it was brilliant.

As an avid student of the craft, I just absorb that stuff like a sponge. Paul Mather came in from a late dinner and joined the conversation. After we conquered aeronautics, critiqued the EAA, and dissected the Gulf oil spill, talk turned to politics and we solved all of the world’s problems before retiring to our metal tents. As I swung the Oshkosh Hilton’s door closed I noticed that the humid atmosphere had created a perfect halo around the nearly full moon, and she wore it with grace.

Sunday, July 25, 2010
I slept until the van got too warm and found my sunglasses before venturing out. The shade from my usual setup was sorely missed, but I refused to put down stakes in a bog with no toilets, showers, dumpster, or drinking water. After my morning diabetic ritual I biked to the campground to use the plastic outhouse. The early sun was already brutal and the humidity didn’t help, but just being in my favorite place (the campground, not the privy) eased my mind. On my way out Rick mentioned that Paul was setting up his M-Squared Breese just inside the fence, so I investigated. I was immediately drafted into the crew. Mike Makepeace and I followed Paul’s instruction, and soon his trailer had disgorged enough parts to form a complete airplane.

Of course my hope was to do the same with Fifi, so I approached the gate guard. She insisted that it was against regulations, then gave me the cutest wink you ever saw. I pedaled quickly back to lot U and tossed everything in the van. That the Hilton and Fifi would actually be able to exit the Venus truck trap was not a sure thing, so I planned my exit strategy well. Traction and momentum were maintained, and soon Fifi and I entered the grand ballroom by the back door. Mike was as much help to me as he had been to Paul, but compared to that jigsaw puzzle, Fifi snapped together like Legos.

Fifi
Fifi rides to Oshkosh on this trailer but with the wings folded, of course.”

Once she was on the ground and airworthy, I pulled the trailer back to lot U and put the bike back together. I found Doug by the Barn and he assured me it would be all right to taxi to the north end of the strip. This was splendid news, because even though Fifi is trim as a supermodel, pushing her uphill through tall, wet grass on a muggy day would not be a picnic. I left my bike at Rick and Nancy’s trailer and led my girl between the green cones.

The dance floor at last! Ah, but the band was not playing and Fifi was reticent. I yanked her start rope at least 10 times and she moved forward a foot or so each time. Rick cracked, “You might as well pull her up there with the recoil!” Finally she sputtered
to life, and even though the prop blast was away from me, I cooled down. When she had warmed up I stepped into her arms and we sashayed forth. More like waddled – between the gopher holes and the muck, we made progress like a drunken mallard.

It may just be a man thing, but when I’m operating any kind of vehicle and things aren’t going the way I want, my first thought is “More power!” So the throttle went forward and Fifi perked right up. I kept her just below takeoff speed so her feet never left the grass. But the bumps disappeared and we glided around the perimeter and up the hill to the Barn. It was a fitting rehearsal for the big dance.

When she was tied down at the end of row J, I went into the Barn to register. Carla recognized me and set me up with the forms, a cool hat, and an “Oshkosh Pilot” pin. The Showplane Participant mug that I had been craving (it would be my 12th) had not yet been delivered, so I got the mug-shaped coupon and carefully stowed it in my pack.

I had not walked a hundred yards down Knapp Street road (yes, that’s what it is called) when Rick came cruising up in his golf cart, and I got a ride back to my bike at Moody campground. I went back to lot U and sat in the van for a while – it was the only shade. The couple who own Wag-Aero had parked their trailer next to me and they were working up a sweat transferring parts to their SUV. Some grade-A spruce planks, an aluminum rudder skeleton, and a steel engine mount were the larger parts of their varied inventory. And the sun beat down.

I rode back to the Barn and found Frank Beagle in his usual spot. He told me that this, his 30th year of volunteer service, would be his last. Frank’s rich baritone has informed and entertained the crowd at the farm with such dedication and professionalism that we should name the place after him. Seriously, calling it Beagle Field or Frank Beagle International Airpatch would be a fitting tribute to a founding father and true friend of ultralight aviation.

The vendor’s area was bustling compared to the last few years and I took the tour. I chatted with the “Windsok”guy for a bit, then strolled over to the Kolb display. Kolb had abandoned their spot here for the Light-Sport Mall four years ago and we had missed them. When I asked why they were back, the smooth southern drawl said, “Well, the EAA wanted $4,000 for a place up there or $800 for this spot. I did the math.” You can’t argue with that. Dick Rayhill’s famous yellow Firestar was on display, but I was told Dick would not be flying this year. I reassured them that there would be one yellow Kolb in the pattern anyway and they were happy to hear it.

Upon returning to the lot U truck trap, I witnessed the arrival of 26 T-6s in formations of four or six ships. The T-6 was the last trainer you flew as a WWII cadet before stepping into the frontline fighters like the P-51 or Hellcat. That there are even 26 airworthy examples left in the world 60-plus years later is amazing, but to see that many in one flight is a little miracle that could only happen here.

Restless for my permanent campsite I rolled back down to Rick and Nancy’s post. Mike
Makepeace had hand-carried all his camping gear to a relatively dry spot in the middle of the campground, and after walking the route dozens of times he decided he could drive it with his two-wheel-drive van. Up to this point Rick had only been allowing 4WDs in and they had carved deep ruts in the traditional road. Mike’s plan was to get a head of steam on the gravel by the entrance and avoid the traditional road altogether. It worked, so I immediately began plotting my own assault.

I strolled around until I found a path where no mud filled my sandals, and I would cross the ruts at 90 degrees just before arriving at the fence. I went back and pitched the plan to Rick and Nancy. They really didn’t want their campground becoming a jumble of mired vehicles, but finally Rick said, “Well, if you think you can make it…” and that’s all I needed to hear.

I pedaled back to lot U for the last time, packed the bike, and unhitched the empty trailer. The sky was more blue than white. And the humidity was high, so it was hot work. When we finally got our chance, the mud run was anticlimactic and the Hilton settled into her usual site with a sigh. For the first time since arriving two days ago, I felt like I’d arrived.

Jerry Anderson
Jerry “Engine” Anderson in the John K. Moody campground next to the ultralight runway

This was the spot I’d been waiting 51 weeks to occupy, and it was damp but sweet. Before I’d even pulled the coolers out I saw Paul Rickert ambling down Ripple road. Paul and his childhood friend Mike Garrett have been our campmates for years. We caught up quickly as he helped me pitch my tarp. His SUV was up in the famous U lot with Mikey’s Kolb on a trailer behind. Mike was on the road with the old dependable VW camper. Once there was shade, we got comfortable and chatted as the air traffic picked up.

Jim got back from Appleton about 7 and we wasted no time getting some meat on the grill. Country-style ribs and new potatoes would have been enough, but just as we sat down, the neighbor came over with three ears of steaming sweet corn. “We’ve eaten our fill,” he said. “You want these?” So our repast became a feast and our campsite became home.

A few more campers trickled in as the sun slid down the clearing sky, and Mikey drove in just after dark. Our party was complete and the party started. The full moon tried on Groucho eyebrows and various beards courtesy of passing scudclouds and smiled down on pilgrims from the far corners of the globe. No more omens were needed; the big show would start in the morning and it would be grand. I crawled into the Hilton early and set my Coleman lamp to beep at 5:30. I would not miss the first briefing and leave my girl a wallflower at the first dance.

Fifi’s Big Adventure will continue in the next issue.

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