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Fifi's Big Adventure at AirVenture 2010, Part 2 - The Flying Begins

By Jerry “Engine” Anderson, EAA 351622

Part 1 | Part 3

Jerry Anderson

Last month we brought you Part 1 of Jerry Anderson’s daily journal that he wrote for fellow EAA Chapter 1128 members in an effort to capture the experiences of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. He brought Fifi,his Kolb Firefly from Two Harbors, Minnesota. In Part 2 we join Jerry early in the morning on the first day of AirVenture 2010.

Monday, July 26, my eyes popped open at 5:09 and the sky was already light. I wasn’t surprised to see a few others stirring as I performed my usual morning routine. It was cool enough for jeans and a flannel shirt as I shouldered my pack and wiped the dew from my bike seat. Pedaling up Ripple Road in the predawn light was like a flashback. Many times I had made this trip to my field of dreams, and though I was fully in the moment, I was also outside the experience, looking in, remembering.

The Barn was faithful to my memories, smiling women behind the counter, a huge urn of coffee perking on the end, and enough sugar in the pastry tray to stun a flock of hummingbirds. I resisted the sugar and lit another smoke out front as the sun breached the horizon and threw long shadows across the lawn. I turned to shield my eyes from the glare, and there was Rick Hayes. Rick is a “repeat offender” in homebuilder speak; he has hand-crafted probably 20 aircraft, maybe more, and each is a work of art. We met nearly 20 years ago when I drove to Michigan to purchase one of his first beauties, the Kolb Twinstar that I remember so fondly. I’ve seen him here nearly every year since, and I feel like we’re good friends even though we have no contact the rest of the year.

I wasn’t surprised by the light attendance at the first pilot briefing, considering camping conditions. I was also not surprised by the information at the briefing. The traffic pattern and procedures hadn’t changed significantly from my first briefing in 1994. An official weather guru gave the forecast, then the pattern was laid out leg by leg with PowerPoint pictures and laser pointers. It was safety oriented and very professional. We went over our written copies of the rules, signed them, and got our wristbands. (Back in the last century we got an odd scrap of postcard paper with a different geometric shape stamped on it for each day.)

“My nose detected a delightful bouquet of aviation oils, hot coffee, and sizzling bacon.”
As I walked up through damp grass to Fifi’s tie-down spot, all of my senses ran full out. The sun warmed my face while the breeze, just starting to dance through the tops of the black walnut trees, kept me cool. Happy chatter at Boelter’s campground (just over the fence from Fifi) could still be heard over the growing rumble of early birds waiting to take off on the big runway. My nose detected a delightful bouquet of aviation oils, hot coffee, and sizzling bacon over the constant background odor of muddy farm field. I felt the flowing, sexy lines of my girl as I toweled off her shimmering coat of dew. When I looked up from my work, my eyes took in a magical kingdom with pennants flowing from tall tent spires and flying machines in neat lines on the grass.

Fifi lost about 30 pounds of water weight to my towel and another five of mud spatter from yesterday’s taxi dance. The sun climbed steadily, and by the time I finished a careful preflight inspection my flannel shirt was off; I was reconsidering the wisdom of long pants. Decorum prevailed. Cinderella’s gown was complete, and the prince was anxious. Strike up the orchestra!

Powered parachutes and powered paragliders are assigned the prime early morning and late evening hours. Held aloft by yards of precisely sewn cloth without benefit of spars or struts, they crave the calmest conditions. With the possible exception of balloons and blimps, they’re the slowest flying machines that wizards of this world have ever created. None were flying on that beautiful morning, so I walked up to the fence and spoke to the volunteer at the gate. He looked a little bored and was happy to grant my wish. I hurried back to Fifi and released her tie-down ropes.

I was overcome by déjà vu again as I pushed her up the hill by the prop hub and steered with a sideways push from my knee as I had done so many times before with her bigger sister, the Twinstar. At the top of the hill the rope dropped and we entered the ballroom. Fifi wagged her tail and I swear she curtsied. But she might have just stepped into a gopher hole. I was about to take her hand when I realized I was underdressed; I had forgotten my headset and goggles in my pack. I hurried back to the tie-downs, but when I returned, a yellow GT 400 was entering the field and preceded us to the dance floor. Oh well, the more the merrier.

After several hard tugs on the starter rope, the heart of my obsession began to beat and mine started to pound. I took a long deep breath and stepped into her waiting arms. The announcer’s stand is about midfield, and as we taxied past I snapped a crisp salute to the announcers Frank Beagle and Mark Lisitza. I wished I could have heard what they were telling the crowd, but I knew it was probably complimentary. When we reached the displaced threshold, I was grinning like a madman, but I remembered to check “controls free and clear” and note the altitude. This performance would be judged by the pros in the tower; to them, style was less important than precision, especially in altitude. The flagman kept the orange side of his paddle on us as he surveyed the sky, then flipped it to green. It’s time to leave the planet.

Finally, Flight With a Stumble and Then Bliss
The first small advance of throttle was met with hesitation as if she was asking, “Are you sure we’re ready?” But I kept moving the lever forward, so she took that as a yes and came alive, yanking us out onto the dance floor with all her strength. And her strength is considerable. Above and behind me her Rotax heart sang and pushed the high wing forward, expecting the rest of Fifi to follow. Her frisky tail came right up as usual, but with the added drag of tall, wet grass on muddy ground it continued to rise far higher than ever before. I remember looking straight out the windscreen at nothing but grass. I immediately abandoned my philosophy of smooth, measured control inputs and just yanked the stick back to my belly. Ever the cooperative dance partner, Fifi slammed her tail wheel back down and popped off the runway. We hadn’t quite reached flying speed, so she had to endure a humiliating skip before becoming properly airborne. I felt terrible about my ham-fisted blunder for about a second and a half, then all was bliss. The cool, humid Wisconsin morning air tumbled around the windscreen into my lap, and the madman grin returned. The farm retreated beneath us at an amazing rate and we began to dance. Just after turning onto the westbound leg of the pattern, I reduced power and leveled off at exactly 300 feet above the ground. We cut the northwest corner off of our normally square track to avoid the campers, and when we came parallel to highway 41 I realized I wasn’t issuing commands to my partner, just leading. The turn of a wrist, the point of a toe, she responded to each cue with a graceful flourish that made us both look good. As we turned back east, Lake Winnebago shimmered in the rising sun, the wind turbines beyond her far shore just ghosts in the summer haze.

What a way to start the day! Feeling very comfortable, we paraded past the runway and Fifi dipped a wing to our friends on the ground. The next circuit went quickly and we set up for a landing. It’s important to stay at 300 feet when turning out of the pattern so the ground crew knows you’re coming. From there it’s a fairly steep glide slope and two quick left turns around tall trees to catch sight of the runway. Throttle, stick, pedals, I don’t recall moving them at all. I just visualized where I wanted to be and Fifi put us there. We slipped onto the wet grass as smooth as white socks on a freshly waxed floor and immediately got in line to do it again.

This time when the green paddle was flashed I treated my girl with respect and used her enthusiasm with restraint. A properly dignified launch was the result. I could feel her gratitude as she lifted me toward the heavens and held me tight. We circled the ballroom again and again in the halo of new love and made another tender reunion with the earth. I knew she wanted to keep dancing, but I couldn’t handle anymore euphoria and coaxed her to the gate.

The crowd on the first day was fired up and full of questions as we strolled down the hill to Fifi’s spot. I felt kind of like a rock star, or more accurately, the rock star’s personal assistant. All the attention was on the petite yellow bird.

Fifi
Pushing Fifi back to her tie-down spot.

The ultralight frolic was going great guns behind our camp kitchen while Jim Batzli and I made a rough plan of attack for the main show. Contemporary and antique/classic parking areas were still lightly populated as we pedaled down Knapp Street Road. We locked our bikes together at the entrance and made for the shade of the exhibit buildings. In our efficient, well-practiced way we zig-zagged through the rows of vendors, and Jim began his usual collection of catalogs. We saw displays of airplane parts, airplane accessories, airplane tools and schools, plus the perennial favorite array of finely carved mahogany model airplanes from Southeast Asia. We knocked off the two giant buildings closest to the runways, then continued north with a bead on the Rans tent.

Rick Hayes had told me earlier at the Barn that he had become a Rans dealer, and in official shirt and cap he met us when we arrived. Being Rans owners, builders, and rabid fans, we peppered him with questions until Randy came to his rescue. Chief designer, test pilot, and company founder Randy Schlitter welcomed us like family and gave us his best answers. (Don’t you sometimes wish you could talk to the guy who designed your car?)

Back at camp with feet up and snacks at hand we watched 21 DC-3s thunder over in a loose formation to start the daily air show. First built in 1935 they’re the definition of Art  Deco with two big, round engines and an acre of silver wing. One of the endearing nicknames of the type is Sky Train, and it made perfect sense with a large group. They each hauled a boxcar worth of load and sounded like locomotives. The Liberty Parachute Team jumped from a DC-3 named Duggy. Team members were swinging red, white, and blue smoke canisters, a large POW/MIA flag, and an enormous Old Glory. The entire group was circled by the four AeroShell T-6s painting a giant slinky of white smoke on the blue sky.

The finest air show acts in the world followed almost nonstop, each with its own particular twist on the laws of physics. Since the whole airport was officially closed during the air show, some smart person at the Barn sent a volunteer out on a John Deere to mow the ultralight strip. No more stubbed toes for Fifi!

When the air show ended, we were standing on AeroShell Square with about 10,000 friends waiting for Chicago to take the stage. Convention chairman Tom Poberezny tried his best to whip up the crowd and he got a big hand when he left. From our vantage point it was difficult to even see the jumbotron, and the sound wasn’t the best. Yet the band rocked and the people loved it. And the sun beat down.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The moon was still above the western horizon as I pedaled to the Barn to watch the sun rise. The humidity was actually visible close to the ground, but the temperature was comfortable. I talked to Rick Hayes again before taking the short briefing and getting another wristband. The breeze was fresh from the south, so no powered parachutes came out. I wiped another load of dew from Fifi’s wings and escorted her to the ballroom. We rose together into a welcoming sky. Our path around the pattern was reversed from yesterday. But my girl trusted my lead, and everything I did she did backwards and in high heels. Approaching the north end of the strip is just as blind as the other way, and the runway doesn’t come into view until you scoot across Knapp Street Road about 20 feet high and turn a quick final. I was a little concerned about making a downhill landing with no brakes, but once again my partner made me look good.

There’s simply too much of AirVenture Oshkosh to see in one day of walking, or two, or a week, but from 300 feet above the farm, one can scan the whole enchilada. The EAA Museum is an imposing structure at the edge of the Nature Center with its trees and ponds and walkways. Behind all that sits Pioneer Airport, a re-creation of a 1930s airfield with a grass strip and vintage hangars full of vintage airplanes and vintage pilots. Further north is the North Forty airplane campground, and sweeping the eye east and south from there are Warbirds, homebuilt parking, AeroShell Square, and Theater in the Woods lined up along the runway. Antiques/classics and slightly younger classics fill the grass leading back to the Barn. That’s just the perimeter of AirVenture, but it’s all seen in a glance. Or a couple of glances – gotta watch for traffic.

Down in the Barn lot I saw that Mike Garrethad his Kolb unfolded and was getting ready to roll her off the trailer. Up in the pattern it was getting busy, so I waltzed my girl through a couple more circuits and swooped her in for another sweet landing. My attitude was set for the day. Imagine Snoopy dancing. That’s how I felt.

I got back to camp in time for scrambled eggs and sausage with a side order of ultralight action. Gene Smith made several feather-soft landings in his Backyard Flyer while Morry Hummel’s UltraCruiser was DC-3 retro with its smooth streamlining and bare metal finish. The yellow Highlander featured in the amazing dead stick takeoff video on YouTube was climbing over us when PaulRickert pointed out a jet taxiing for takeoff on the big runway. A privately owned L-39 wore the colors of Blue Angels’ number 7, and it was a perfect copy. Just another lucky pilot living his dream.

Already jaded by the relentless procession of unique flying machines, Jim and I mounted up and went exploring. We knocked off the other two huge commercial buildings and then just followed our feet; it’s impossible to make a wrong turn at Oshkosh. We saw an Italian design that wanted to be a car so bad it had a hatchback! Close to the runway a 1930s twin-engine biplane called Dragon Rapide had such a mirror finish on its blue and red fabric you could pluck your eyebrows. A pair of WWI fighters, an SE 5a and a Fokker triplane in Red Baron livery, sat just yards from WWII B-17s and C-47s in
AeroShell Square. A near perfect replica of the first airplane to cross the English Channel, the Bleriot XI stood proudly in a crowd of admiring onlookers. A cord of hand-carved spruce braced by a mile of fence wire, she was a most ungainly bird, but she did the job. We sat in the shade of the giant oak trees around the Theater in the Woods and rubbed our tired feet as two F-15s streaked down the runway seconds ahead of the thunderous roar from their afterburners. The sensory overload continues even when we try to relax!

Back on our bicycles, a stop at the Barn seemed in order and we cruised the ultralight vendor displays. Four long rows of tents and trailers on a gentle grassy slope offered every pilgrim something to drool over in a Renaissance fest atmosphere. I had intended to give Fifi another spin in the evening dance, but when the air show wound down and the green flag went up over Beagle Field the trees were doing the dancing. I watched the first takeoff of the session, and the poor trike pilot was just getting his butt kicked by the gusts as he climbed away. I think most pilots are fairly self-confident types, and I was sure we could handle the conditions. But I fly for fun, not for points. I decided it was cocktail time. We watched a few brave souls negotiate the course, and they all did fine.

Then it got quiet, too quiet. There was nothing flying anywhere, not a good sign. A passing flightline volunteer broke the news: “Jack Roush crashed his jet!” Paul grabbed a bike and pedaled off to investigate, but Jim and I decided a broken airplane wasn’t something we wanted to see. The mood at Moody campground was somber for a while, and I imagined all the campgrounds at the convention had the same feeling. When Paul got back, he said there was no fire and both occupants walked away from the scene, so we all felt a little better.

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

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