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The Gathering of Eagles 2011

By Paul D. Fiebich, EAA 577724, for Light Plane World

Airbike Ace
Paul D. Fiebich (aka Airbike Ace)  photo by Brent Boggs

All my stories are based on real experiences. However, some elements are slightly embellished, others are stretched a bit, while a few are outright lies. It is up to the reader to figure out which is which. It takes me so long to get anywhere in my Airbike that getting there is half the fun! Such was the case this past Father’s Day weekend as I planned my overnight trip to Gardner, Kansas (K34), to attend the Gathering of Eagles Fly-In sponsored by EAA Chapter 200.

The Beginning
Much of my small plane VFR flying depends upon the forecasted weather. It’s wise to heed all the data available from flight service when planning flights, especially if they are multi-day ones. Accepting the predicted 100°F temperatures as status quo for this time of year, I closely watched the developing storm predictions. They were saying, “Scattered thunderstorms, some severe for Friday night.” That ruled out my direct flight from Derby, Kansas, to Gardner and tying down the Airbike outside while I slept in a tent! The reason my Airbike has lasted 13 years and 870 flying hours is that I take care of it when traveling.

Plan B involved making the trip to Gardner with an overnight stop at Emporia (EMP) Friday, then continuing on Saturday morning. At 6 p.m. on Friday, my 342-pound Airbike was loaded to gross as it lumbered down the Selby Aerodrome’s 1,200-foot grass runway. Jabara (AAO) ASOS had earlier stated weather conditions of 100°F and density altitude of 4,000 feet. That didn’t have much meaning until reaching the runway’s 600-foot mark; I was still only fast taxiing instead of flying! At 800 feet the Airbike lifted off the sod – however, ever so slowly!

The plane just wasn’t much interested in flying! Clearing the runway’s end at 5 feet above ground level (AGL), I climbed through the crosswind turbulence created by trees bordering the runway. Then after passing through the opening in the row of windbreak trees 400 yards further, my next concern was to avoid the center pivot cornfield sprinkler. Slowly nursing the plane up, I cleared it by 30 feet and didn’t get any sprinkler spray. I now have a new respect for density altitude when the Airbike is loaded to gross! I have also established a new performance limit and later documented it in my logbook.

A front quartering headwind greeted me as I flew northeasterly along the I-35 turnpike and was consistently outdistanced by the traffic. Not an unusual situation. For 20 miles I chased a semitruck but couldn’t quite catch it. When I eventually did, my spirit broke when realizing it had been stopped at a rest area! I follow the turnpike because traveling cross-country over the Flint Hills could get ugly if I had to make an off-airport landing in that desolate cattle-grazing land. It would be years before some lonely cattle drovers would find my weather-beaten plane and bleached bones. Not a pretty sight!

Twenty miles north of the Matfield Green Service Center, I angled east into a direct headwind as my flight path took me across a portion of the uninhabited Flint Hills to Emporia Airport. Repeated radio calls from 10, 5, and 3 miles out seemed to take me forever to get closer. You don’t cover much ground at 45 mph. Listeners must have thought I was doing 360-degree turns, but I was going as fast as I could.

Area Storm at Emporia
Sometimes things work out just right. Circling the hangar and FBO area, I let out a stream of smoke to mark my position if my radio calls weren’t heard. I landed on the auxiliary unmarked grass runway that favored the wind. Taxiing up to the Emporia Airport hangar, airport manager Don Tevis waved me inside. He said, “There’s a storm a-comin’ this way.” His meaty handshake made me feel welcome. I had arrived too late for their monthly Friday night steak fry, but Don had saved me a plate full of food. Wow, what a nice supper and a considerate fellow! There was even a dessert!

An hour later we were swimming in his pool and chillin’out. I bunked down in the air-conditioned pilot lounge when the anticipated storm hit about an hour later. Then the power went out for about three hours. What a storm! Eventually I would learn that the same storm ripped through Gardner and shoved one plane into another, damaging both. I’m sure glad I was hangared that night!

Saturday’s Flight to Gardner
By 8 a.m., after refueling at the automated pumps, I had lifted off and was on the 70-mile leg to Gardner. What a beautiful morning! Air was clear and everything looked “washed.” But potential off-airport landing sites were severely reduced because of flooding and soggy fields. An in-flight breakfast of a nutrition bar and bottle of water would have to take the edge off my hunger pangs until reaching Gardner. Hint: Don't try to eat a chocolate-covered treat in 90-degree weather nor open a water bottle in the open cockpit’s cross flow of turbulent air! You’ll look like one of the Ink Spots singers who just got out of the pool! Don’t ask me how I know.

In-flight breakfast
Airbike Airlines now serves an in-flight breakfast, albeit a bit Spartan – nutrition bar and water.

Imagining myself as the full-blown WWI fighter ace (again), I spotted a target of opportunity approaching from my left. Pushing the stick forward and sideways, I began a descending turn. Lewis machine gun cocked, my warbird began its screaming dive toward a lumbering train. Its main cargo were three sets of twin flatbed rail cars on which were mounted airplane fuselages bound for a destination where they would get their wings. Pop! Pop! Pop! The Lewis gun rattled off a full belt of shells in its typical slow staccato fashion.
First the steam engine’s boiler blew, spiraling a pure white fountain skyward as the engineer and coal stoker jumped from the cab saving their lives. Flying down the row of train cars, I strafed and perforated everything in sight. That which didn’t catch fire, leaked liquid. The airplane fuselages were rendered useless. I thought to myself, since I fly a dinky little airplane, I need to have a colorful imagination! Leaving the smoking, leaking, and burning carnage on the tracks, I turned once again toward my destination of Gardner Municipal Airport.

By 9 a.m., Gardner’s three runways were in sight. Following my signature smoke pass down the runway show line, I landed and taxied to a parking place next to a Kansas City (KC) Dawn Patrol Nieuport and ate the traditional pilot breakfast in the picnic shelter. I hardly sat down with my food when the two fellows next to me struck up a conversation. Hey, it really feels nice to immediately be visiting with fellow pilots, I thought to myself. Some were old friends, others quickly became new ones.

Airbike on display
Paul’s Airbike on display at the Gathering of Eagles Fly-In.

The Gathering of Eagles Fly-In is known as the opportunity to display WWI airplane replicas and do lots of flying. There are no contests, no awards, no judging at this fly-in. It’s just plenty of small conversations centered on the pilots and builders discussing their planes with spectators. Additionally, someone was flying all the time. Three planes seemed to be about the maximum for avoiding congestion. Around and around the triangular-shaped runways they went. Some making slow passes, others blowing smoke, and still others flying in some type of loose formation. (But they all go the same direction.)

Flying for Fun at Gardner
Sharon Starks was in her Morane and husband, Dick, in his Nieuport flew in trail. After all these years of marriage, Dick is still chasing her tail! Soon they were joined by another flier. Over the course of the day almost every one of the 15 flyable scaled-down replica planes took to the air. It truly was a gathering of eagles: A SPAD, numerous Nieuports, Fokker Dr.I, Mariner amphibian, Siemens-Schuckert, two Airbikes, and several GA planes such as a Hummel UltraCruiser, Aeronca Champ, and a Sonex completed the number of most of those flying. On the ground were Fokker D.VII (with a working acetylene-powered audio system for its machine guns), Sopwith, Fokker D.VIII, and numerous planes in various stages of construction.

Dick Starks’ Nieuport up close. Dick is one of the original KC Dawn Patrol group of fliers and their most ardent proponent.

Low smoke pass
Dick Starks’ low smoke pass

3/4 scale Fokker Triplane
This 3/4-scale Fokker Triplane was recently completed by KC Dawn Patrol member Dick Lemons, and it’s a beauty!

Blue Pietenpol
Blue and yellow Pietenpol Aircamper shows that any plane can be used to get into the vintage warbird replica fun.

Mariner amphibian
Curtiss flying boat is actually a Mariner amphibian by Arnold Cleveland. Note the hat.

The Central Powers planes were outfitted with Spandau machine guns while the Allies used those made by Lewis. Each plane was painted in its national colors, representing France, Germany, Britain, and others. Powerplants included two- and four-cylinder VW engines, Rotec radial, Rotax, Generac, and one Suzuki automobile engine.

Weather conditions were similar to Friday’s. With about 5-1/2 gallons of fuel remaining in my wing tanks, I lightened my ship by removing all the traveling gear and 10 half-pint bottles of two-stroke oil. The Airbike engine warmed up; I waited in the grass for one of the circling planes to land. Soon Sharon brought her Morane down and taxied to her tie-down spot. I taxied out and began my demonstration flight. While taxiing, the Dr.I, piloted by Dick Lemons, landed, and a Dick Starks’ Nieuport made a low pass over me. Cool!

For the next 20 minutes, I circled the field, passing the show line in various Airbike show line configurations: high-speed pass, slow-speed pass (really not much noticeable difference), “knife-edge” (sort of) with smoke on, wing-wag, and some near formation passes with the Nieuport. It was fun. That is what we’re here for – flying for fun. I love this flying stuff!

Not all displays were aviation oriented. A military reenactment group showed off their Jeeps, Cushman, Harley and Suzuki motorcycles, and trucks and other vehicles pulling carts with bombs on them. All personnel were dressed in military garb and eagerly engaged conversations with spectators.

This is the place to learn about WWI airplanes. I met a fellow from Florida and another from Ohio who came specifically to see what others were doing with their replicas. Everyone has something different and unique about his aerial steeds; it could be a chain-saw starting motor, automotive engine with a redrive, paint scheme, construction method, detailed fairing, or simulated machine guns. Most planes had display panels describing them while offering business cards and other literature.

Sharon’s plane was a real popular display. Her Morane was an eye catcher with its paint scheme and low-rpm Generac motor. She’s an excellent ambassador for women fliers. And how lucky her husband, Dick, is that they both share the same activity. Sharon’s plane was used in Amelia – a movie about the famous aviatrix’s life and flying adventures.

Heading Home
By 4 p.m. I was refueled, had my flight plan filed, and was ready to go home. Taking runway 17, I was going to enjoy the 3,370-foot-long spread of sod in front of me. I kept the plane on the ground until its speed reached 45 mph (well past its normal 30-mph takeoff speed), then lifted off with authority and pointed the nose toward Emporia. A 10-mph tailwind helped push me along, but speed is relative when there are no cars below to use as a reference. I was flying diagonally across farmland; in Kansas most roads go north and south or east and west. I was, however, outpacing the combines gleaning wheat from the fields!

Having flown this route many times, I didn’t turn on the GPS. What a feeling of comfort to fly over familiar territory and not worrying if I was lost again. “But then, are you lost if you really don’t care where you are?” I thought to myself. The wind had picked up as I landed at Emporia, though. I didn’t know what lay ahead in the next 80 miles. I would soon find out and that would notch up the pucker factor. Refueling finished, I bought a cool Pepsi and watched the weather report on the FBO's TV – storms rapidly approaching my destination – gotta get going.

Storm Clouds and Wind
When filing my flight plan I noted two alternate airports in case I didn’t beat the approaching weather. One was El Dorado (EQA), and the other Augusta (3AU). Although I was in bright afternoon sunshine, I could see cumulus clouds building way off to my left front quarter. This caused me concern, and I firmed up the decision to use the alternates if necessary. Passing the Matfield Green Service Area on I-35, I noticed that I was going faster than the turnpike traffic. “Wow, that’s unusual,” I thought. I turned on the GPS, and it displayed my ground speed at 82 mph! “Yikes.” I was getting a good boost from that trailing wind.

Marking the cloud with a position on my aircraft, I could see that I was gaining on the storm. If things went well, I would arrive at Selby Aerodrome (35KS) before it did. That was comforting. Then things started getting even better. Near El Dorado Lake as I flew at 4,500 feet AGL, I turned on the GPS and discovered I was now traveling 96 mph! I would make the aerodrome ahead of the storm without a doubt, pucker factor relaxing considerably.

El Dorado Lake
El Dorado Lake. Going across a large body of water always makes me pucker. I even follow the bridge!

Zooming over Towanda and then the edge of Augusta Airport, the storm was now to my left and about 20 miles away. That was my minimum comfort zone. Swinging west of McConnell Air Force Base, I descended to 2,000 feet AGL and into turbulent air. Soon I skirted Derby on its east and south sides and crossed the Arkansas River. Then Selby Aerodrome came into view. Sighting the windsock as I flew directly over the runway’s midpoint, I thought the best landing direction appeared to be runway 35.

Descending further and entering the downwind and base legs brought me into more turbulence. I worried about the wind rotors coming off the tree line bordering the runway. Sure enough, on final and now down to 50 feet it was like rafting the Colorado River during spring thaw. Squirrelly doesn’t describe my flight attitude(s). If I had a machine gun and was shooting at a target, it would have been safe! Touching down just past the runway threshold, I pulled on the brakes (the Airbike has a hand brake on the stick) only enough to slow quickly but not enough to put the prop in the dirt. I needed to kill the airspeed fast, lest a gust of wind toss me airborne. It easily could have done so when my landing speed was only 30 mph.

The Ending
Taxiing to the hangar door, I shut the engine off, then rolled backwards a few feet when the thrust no longer equaled the ramp’s incline. Dropping my feet from the rudder pedals to the ramp, I sat there a few minutes to get my land legs back. I looked at the sky and said, “I’m glad to be down here looking up than up there wishing I was down here.” It was just a little more than 24 hours ago that I left this field. I thought, what a great experience I have had covering 320 air miles while flying a total of 5 hours. What marvelous activities this little airplane has exposed and taken me to. I’m satisfied for now – that is, until another neat fly-in pops up on my schedule. Fly for fun!

Paul D. Fiebich is a retired Cessna Aircraft engineer and former technical college teacher. His 1998 plans-built Airbike has flown over 870 hours, many on long cross-country trips. Paul is the president of EAA Chapter 88 of Wichita, Kansas. Learn more at Paul.Fiebich.org and on the East Tennessee Lonesome Buzzards Bulletin Board. Contact Paul at fiebichpv@aol.com or on Facebook.


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