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Fifi's Big Adventure at AirVenture 2010, Part 3 Conclusion

By Jerry “Engine” Anderson, EAA 351622

Part 1 | Part 2

Jerry Anderson

Thursday, July 29, 2010. The air was definitely cooler when I crawled out of the Hilton into the morning sun. I decided that afternoon briefings were far more civilized than getting up before dawn and a leisurely morning pace suited gentlemen of a certain age. The powered para-boys had been flying and the fixed-wing boys were taking the field. The pattern was running south so after breakfast Jim Batzli and I strolled up to the north end of the campground to get a better view of takeoffs and landings.

Across the runway we saw Mike Garret and Paul Rickert push the pretty red and white Kolb Mark III through the gate. Mike had spent a lot of time rebuilding this plane after a crash and with a new motor, new paint, and new glass the plane looked beautiful. Paul's friend and flight instructor Dana was elected to take the first dance in the grand ballroom and they slipped the surly bonds with ease. We readied our cameras as they came around to land but they passed through the trees onto short final with a little excess speed and floated down the sloping runway. I started chanting, “Go around, go around, GO AROUND!” but Dana persisted, plopped the plane down on the last quarter of mowed grass, and applied the brakes firmly. He taxied back up the hill and shut it down.

The next time the plane fired up Mikey was in the left seat and Dana in the right. They left the pattern by the Waupun Road departure and flew out to take a closer look at the wind farm across the lake. When they returned Mike did an excellent landing and we got pictures to prove it. That pretty Kolb stayed busy the rest of the morning and the pattern was busy too. Frank Beagle was at the top of his game keeping track of all the traffic for the avid fans at the fence and in the bleachers. The magic show continued and the sun beat down.

Back at camp we sat in the shade and watched a C-17 Globemaster make a full dress arrival ending with a ridiculously short short-field landing. The thought that this performance was being used every day in real-world missions in Iraq and Afghanistan was sobering. It was soon time for the start of the air show. The unlimited aerobats always amaze with their complex routines of violent twists and flips and their frantic pace.

Inevitably someone will ask, “How do you make an airplane do that?” to which I will always respond, “More importantly, how do you make it stop doing that?” In stark contrast Matt Younkin did a most graceful show of airmanship in his Beech 18. A mini DC-3 with twin round engines and twin tails, the Beechcraft was never intended for aerobatics but in the hands of a master she can really dance. Slow, smooth loops, rolls, and Cuban eights left twin smoke trails on the summer sky with the sensual throb of powerful radial engines for a soundtrack. .

I decided to bring my camera along for the evening ultralight dance so I spent some time rehearsing on the ground. I put my fanny pack on backward and practiced getting the wrist loop on before pulling out the camera with the control stick in my other hand. In an open aircraft with the propeller behind it's very important that everything you put in the flight deck stays there! It's also important to make sure you can remain a pilot while pretending to be a photographer.

Jerry's wristbands
Jerry’s wristbands showing all the flying briefings he attended.

Fifi lifted us effortlessly in to the cool evening air and we danced cheek to cheek for a whole lap before I remembered the camera. The snapshots I took wouldn't mean much to the average viewer but I knew they would transport me back through time and space during the long winter to come. After a half-dozen circuits and two sweet landings we glided to the gate but I took a bunch of pictures of the action before leaving the ballroom.
Paul had spent several hours on the road to bring his kids for the day and they were nice
company in camp. We were pretty used to a sky full of action by this time but seeing the wonder in their eyes reminded us how lucky we are.

Rick Jacobsen came by in his golf cart and said quietly that one of our pilots had made an off-airport landing and he was rounding up a crew to lend assistance. The cart was full so I followed on my bike. A mile or so down Knapp we saw the Falcon ultralight in the freshly harvested bean field. The pilot had already removed his wing tip rudders and we helped him pull the wings and carry them to the road where a trailer waited.

Apparently something came loose on his starter, so he killed the motor to avoid being flayed by the rope whipping around the flight deck. He had made a nice landing and the Falcon was back flying the next day none the worse for wear. While this was going on an immense C-5 Galaxy and a C-130 Hercules made several show passes and landed, adding to the military presence at Aeroshell Square.

Friday, July 30, 2010
Now fully invested in the afternoon briefing concept I languished in bed for 20 minutes after the powered parachutes launched. I listened to them cruise over and occasionally one would take the perfect path to cast a moment of shadow across my windows. Jim and I feasted on bacon sandwiches while we watched Mikey's Kolb join the dozen or so other early risers in the fixed-wing crowd. I recognized a new arrival as a former Dragonfly student of mine. Rich Mattson, like Jim, owes his current ride to the generosity of an aunt and his Titan Tornado actually has a picture of Aunt Sally on the nose cone. He greased the landing and I puffed out my chest like Foghorn Leghorn: “That's mah - I say, that's mah BOY, son!”

Jim brought his camera for our daily tour and just about every time he aimed it he said, “I think I already have this picture.” We drooled over the luxurious interiors of the antique and classics and studied the framed photos and remarks of the restoration process propped up in the grass. These treasured chariots are truly labors of love and the owners are rightly proud - not that I ever met an airplane owner who wasn't proud.

We knew the days were numbered for the festivities so we went straight back to the middle of the action. The parking area for the all-metal Van’s RV aircraft is not on the way to anything, so we hadn't paid them a visit. We walked the rows of colorful birds admiring each builder's personal touches and tastes until we found ourselves near the north end of Knapp Street.

 A flock of World War I-replica aircraft sat at the roadside and we saw Dick and Sharon Starks loading wings and things onto a trailer. Dick writes about the adventures of the “Missouri Dawn Patrol” in Kitplanes magazine and every story leaves me in stitches. He refers to his group as “trailer weenies” for their habit of arriving at fly-ins safely on the ground. I fully support the tactic. Since we were near the forums plaza we decided to sit in on a welding presentation.

The Lincoln Electric folks were upbeat and informative and they gave us each a nice cloth bag to carry away their brochures. Our next few stops were various welding displays and Jim started to seriously rationalize a purchase. Though not actively farming, he still lives on the farm with farm equipment including an old stick welder, but it's, well, old. Hey, he convinced me.

The dark bottoms of the clouds were starting to rub together so we retired to our comfortable camp and put our feet up. The air show began with massive formations of military planes including a couple of passes by four B-17 bombers. They thundered down the runway with bomb bay doors open as huge pyrotechnic displays simulated the ordinance hitting the ground. We could feel the concussion and the heat. Black smoke billowed skyward, occasionally forming a sinister smoke ring.

The air show continued through light rain as Mikey's dad, Chuck Garrett, rolled into camp. A happy reunion commenced and beers were cracked but I took a pass. Fifi and I had spent some time together in the friendly skies every day so far and I wanted to continue the streak. As the air show wound down the clouds quit leaking and I went to the evening briefing.

There was a fresh breeze from the south but the air was surprisingly smooth as I lost myself in the plane. It was nice to see the airplane parking areas filled up all over the grounds as we glided around the ballroom. On approach for our second landing I saw the T-Bird ahead of us abort his landing and climb back into the pattern. I assumed he was waved off but continued the approach knowing I could always go around, too.

When we slipped around the trees for a look I saw the problem. Doug Greenfield was on the runway removing some bit of debris so I goosed Fifi and it lifted us back to altitude with ease. After a few more sweet laps and another smooth landing we left the field. Rick Hayes met us at the gate and said, “Nice three pointer.” Any form of the phrase “good landing” is the highest compliment one pilot can give another but I shrugged it off with, “Aw, you know it's impossible to make a bad landing in a Kolb.” A gang of spectators surrounded us and peppered me with questions about Fifi so I pointed to Rick and said, “He's the expert.” I never saw him again. Sorry Rick.

Back at the bivouac we whipped up a huge feast that had all the grills going at once.

Unneeded in the kitchen I pulled out the electric guitar and serenaded the cooks through my little battery amp. Later we sat at the picnic table stuffing our faces and enjoying the spirited interplay between Mike and his dad. Always the quiet one, Paul took it all in and gave us a look that said, “They're always like this.”

After dinner the helicopter pilot across the way strolled over with his girlfriend and another rotor jock, so we sat in the Coleman light and talked technicalities until Jim's eyes glazed over. Lanterns glowed all over the campground and happy chatter was music in the air as I wandered around in the dark savoring the atmosphere. A three-quarter moon peeked out for only a moment before pulling the covers over her head so I decided to do the same.

Saturday, July 31, 2010 – The Last Day
Morning never really happened; it was so socked in even the sun couldn't make an impression on Beagle Field. The quiet was unreal; nothing was flying anywhere. It probably wasn't hard for the “deadstick takeoff” guy to talk his way into a ground demonstration. He taxied onto the field with the tail wheel dangling in the air and for the next 10 or 15 minutes it never touched the ground. Balanced on huge tundra tires like a Segway on steroids the Highlander spun and twirled and did every dance but the moonwalk before a small but appreciative crowd. I bet his brakes got pretty warm.

Around noon the haze pulled back just enough to let the rotorcraft fly. Mikey got a ride in our neighbor's Rotorway Exec helicopter and we watched a gyroplane with magic landing gear drop straight down from 10 or 15 feet to a feather soft landing. Amazing technology - I need that gear on Miss Chaos! I borrowed Mikey's little Yamaha for a trip across the freeway and when I got back Tennessee Tom was just getting off his crotch rocket.

After 300 miles in motorcycle racer position he was a little stiff. Tom had spent the whole week with us the last couple of years and though he was busy at work this year, he couldn't resist a quick trip to the magic kingdom on the weekend. Jim took him for a guided tour and I went to check on Fifi. Standing on the high ground with my plane I got a great view when the C-17 Globemaster took off and made a few showy passes before disappearing to the south.

Lots of aircraft were departing on the last full day of the schedule and I saw many grass
shadows when I took a long walk down the flightline. The low scud was breaking as I weaved through the thousands of fans setting up lawn chairs for the Saturday show. On the way back I stopped at the Barn for a look at the radar and saw two mature thunderstorms rolling through the Dakotas. It occurred to me that if I were flying home I'd leave now but I wanted one more dance in the grand ballroom. Back at Moody Campground I said the same to campground hosts Rick and Nancy Jacobson and Rick popped my bubble: “You're not flying tonight. Everybody is at the ultralight party and the field is closed.” That slammed the door on my goal to fly Fifi every day of the show so I sat down and thought about my options. Packing up this flying circus on a warm Saturday afternoon would be preferable to doing it on a rainy Sunday morning but I would miss some cool stuff. Asleep at the Wheel would be playing at Theater in the Woods followed by the night air show.

I did a mental coin toss; tails won so I started pulling stakes. By the time Jim and Tom got back I had the tarp folded and the bike stashed. Surprise! Your roommate's moving out and he's taking the living room. I gave Nancy a big hug at the gate and a promise to bring Fifi back next year. The Hilton groaned a little as it got its sea legs back but we navigated lot U for the trailer and delivered it to the barn. Jim and Tom helped me escort Fifi to its coach and make sure it was comfortable for the long ride home. Paul and Mikey came by and Doug pulled up with his whole family on a Gator.

Fifi at Oshkosh 2010
Fifi loaded on its trailer for the trip home

Handshakes and good wishes were exchanged and for a moment I felt more like I was leaving home than going home. Dan Grunloh, editor of EAA's Light Plane World electronic newsletter, introduced himself and said he had some good pictures he might use in a future issue. Only a few weeks old and Fifi was already famous.

We rolled out of the Barn gate at 7:30 and set a course for home. Traffic was light and the air was still as we left the grand banquet with full bellies and the miles slid under our wheels. Six hours later the Hilton decided its right rear tire had had enough and my smug grin faded momentarily but fortune smiled. I swear if I could bottle my luck I'd be a billionaire. Most of the last 200 miles were dark, lonely two-lane blacktop with minimal shoulders but when the tire blew I was in the middle of Ashland.

I swung off the road through the first gap in the curb and found myself in a cute little park with one picnic table under a bright security light. It took as long to change my shorts for jeans as it did to change the tire and we were rolling again before you could sing a chorus of “Fortunate Son.” I wasn't drowsy at all but the city lights of the twin ports made me feel a little spacey and I was happy to cross the Lester River and shift back into dark highway mode.

The moon, our constant companion, laid a sparkling road across the big lake to guide us home. I unlocked the gate at Helgeson Heaven about 4 a.m and backed the trailer into the hangar. When I got out my jack to lift the tongue off the hitch I realized it was the most important tool of the whole adventure. That's a fact, Jack! I could hear my bed calling when I got home but I took the time to empty the coolers and was rewarded by a magnificent sunrise over Marble Lake.

Marble Lake
Sunrise over Marble Lake

I took pictures and sorted the mail but I didn't want to go to bed because when I woke, Oshkosh would be over for another year. When I finally surrendered to the sheets I spun my mind one more time through all of the incredible sights, sounds, and sensations of the past 10 days. It was a kaleidoscope of wonder.  My last thought before collapsing into a well earned coma was of my new love. Fifi had given its all to me on a world stage and I was head over heels. Yes, the honeymoon was over, but the love story was just beginning.

Happy landings.

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