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Just Fly AirVenture 2011 Experience

By Corey Cassavant, EAA 675051, for Light Plane World

Corey and his Quicksilver MXL II
Corey and his Quicksilver MXL II

As it turned out, this year was one of our most enjoyable times at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and also one of the worst. In case you haven’t heard the news, I’ll save you the suspense and spoil the ending. My airplane was damaged in a freak, unexpected microburst that struck Wittman AirportSaturday afternoon, July 30. At the end of it all, honestly, I’m not sure how to feel.    

On Wednesday we made a trip out to the airport just to wash and wax the airplane. I washed the big pieces while my wife, Marie, polished the tubes and detailed the more delicate parts. By the time we were done, the airplane seemed to glow even though it was past dusk. We gassed her up and made the final preparations for the following day.

The weather Thursday was unstable. I nervously watched the radar all morning, dreading having to make the no-go call. Around 11:30 I saw a break that looked like we could ride straight up to Oshkosh (OSH). The catch was that we would get stuck in the weather and not be able to complete the trip if we didn’t make it to OSH before the air show started. Our morning waiting game turned into a mad dash to get loaded, get out, and get up. We lifted off five minutes after the latest departure time I calculated would allow us to make the air show window. I kept the airplane at maximum continuous power for a while to see if we could make up some time. Unfortunately the ETA on the GPS said we were going to cut it too close for comfort. We decided to throttle back and make our originally planned rest stop at Hartford.

Checking the radar at Hartford showed that the rain had closed in around us. We pushed the Quicksilver into a friend’s hangar to keep her from getting water spots on our show finish while we waited out the weather. (Thanks to fellow chapter members Steve Magdic and Herb Benton.) Once I got over my “get-there-itis,” we actually had a nice time chatting with hangar residents and other weathered-in pilots in the few hours that the soft rain fell.

By the time the weather cleared, our OSH arrival window had closed. Rather than toss in the towel, we decided to take off and head north anyway to see if we could make Fond du Lac (FLD). It would be more convenient and fun to hitch a ride to OSH from there than to hitch a ride home from Hartford. We stayed low and slow this leg and enjoyed flying in true ultralight style. On the way up, we saw a couple of hawks circling at our altitude. I entered a steep turn to see if I could join them. We stayed together for a couple of orbits, and they seemed just as interested in us as we were in them. We got close enough to see the “control inputs” that the hawks were making with their feathers. How cool was that! Then we saw a whole flock of turkeys on the ground scuttling about. I flew a low circle to check them out as well. They started to run straight away from me and eventually lifted off and flew just underneath us. (It was nice to see the Quicksilver is faster than something in the air, even if it’s a turkey.)

As I turned back on course, I felt like I was about to be punished for my frivolous flying-for-the-fun-of-it. There was a dark, ominous-looking cloud line in front of us that looked like it would prevent us from reaching our destination. I dialed in the FLD ATIS, but all was still clear. Switching to the temporary tower frequency, I heard nothing. I checked the NOTAM several times to make sure I had the right frequency, but all seemed to be correct. There just happened to be no traffic in the area right then. After contacting the tower, we got a pleasant greeting and an immediate clearance to land. Parking volunteers marshaled us into an open spot in a very mixed lineup of airplanes. We were between an RV-8, a mint Aeronca, a Citabria, and a Mooney. It wasn’t the usual class segregation I’ve become accustomed to at OSH. The volunteers said we should win an award as the first ultralight they parked this season.

FDL parking
Parking at Fond du Lac. Photo by Corey Cassavant.

On the ground at FLD, we casually walked the rows of airplanes oohing and ahhing and chatting with pilots from all over. We met a recently minted private pilot who loaded his toddler and wife in a rented Cessna 172 and set off on his first “real” cross-country to the biggest fly-in in the world. His enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. As the post-air show arrival window approached, the whole airport sprang to life. Most of the pilots were planning to get into the holding patterns early enough that they had a chance to get in during the weather break. I was reminded how privileged we are to have our own direct arrival procedure on the ultralight runway. FLD was fun, and I may stop there again on our next AirVenture trip. The stop really helped us get in the OSH mood.

Once the radar had cleared to our liking, we lifted off toward our final destination. I’ve done it many times before, but my pulse always quickens as I make the turn at the quarry onto Highway 26 for the ultralight arrival. The storms had moved just north of the field, and we had a smooth, dry arrival. We didn’t hit one drop of rain in flight, and it actually was one of our most enjoyable flights ever.

Oshkosh arrival
Oshkosh arrival. Photo by Corey Cassavant.

I flew quite a bit in the ultralight pattern for the rest of the weekend. Flying in the Quicksilver exhibition Friday was neat, but not as cool as I thought it might be. I enjoyed flying the pattern with the full mix of pilots and aircraft even more. My Hobbs meter turned 200 hours in the ultralight pattern. Saturday morning, Marie and I took another magical ultralight flight. No headsets, no radios - just earplugs and sunglasses. We were low over tall corn, we checked out deer and cranes, and we had a blast. I parked the airplane not realizing it would be my last flight for a while. The weather was forecast to be calm and clear, but something told me not to be lazy and to put on the extra tiedowns.

Tied down at AirVenture
Tied down at AirVenture Oshkosh. Photo by Corey Cassavant.

We were up at show center when I noticed the really dark clouds bearing down from the north. Marie and some visiting friends started south toward camp, and I headed north to retrieve our car with open windows. I got as far as the exhibit hangars when the microburst hit. I didn’t realize the seriousness of it until I rounded the corner and could not see the other hangar due to the dust and debris. After being pelted with a few things, I took cover behind the hangar. The microburst only lasted a few minutes. I broke into a run toward the car, thinking it was still my fastest way back to the airplane and camp.

When I arrived, I was faced with gridlock traffic. That’s when I started getting phone calls that my plane already had been damaged. I started the long walk back south, but a volunteer picked me up in a Gator to get me there faster. As we drove around the barn, my heart sank. The airplane was in the same place it had been, but it looked like a trampled flower. The king post had snapped, the wings were down and badly twisted, and the rudder and elevator were bent. The tiedowns were bent but had held, and the tiedown bolts on the aircraft were also bent over. Apparently all of this damage was caused purely by the force of the 60- to 70-mph wind hitting it from the back. Before the storm even subsided, I had more offers of help than I could keep track of, much less accept. After we tied the wreckage down to prevent more storm damage, I just sat under my broken wings with my wife and shed a tear or two. This airplane was my pride and joy that I had spent countless hours building and pining over. Any of my students will attest to how careful I am with it. Now it lay broken in the mud.

Broken Quicksilver
Corey’s broken Quicksilver. Photo by Mike Ostrander.

After a while I realized that I had better get moving on a recovery effort. Incredibly, other pilots were way ahead of me. While I was still figuring out what to do next, our chapter president, Steve Magdic, pulled up with a borrowed trailer. I was worried that the swarm of well-meaning help might unintentionally do more harm than good in taking things apart. My fears turned out to be unfounded. Several fellow Quicksilver builders helped direct the process for those who weren’t as familiar with the nuances of the airplane type. (I was still reeling a bit and not giving the best directions.) Due to the help of EAA volunteers, pilots, friends, and some people I didn’t even know, we had the airplane disassembled and on a trailer before nightfall. The next morning, I drove a trailer load of mostly intact fuselage and tail parts back to my hangar. Fellow Quicksilver pilot Donny Rector transported the wings for me on top of his bus.

As of this writing, I haven’t been back to the hangar. Honestly, I’m not ready to embark on the rebuild just yet. There was nothing I did wrong or could have done better to prevent the damage to the aircraft. I guess that’s some consolation. No one got hurt, and the airplane is just an object. That’s much more consolation. Perhaps this fall I’ll don the builder’s cap again. Until then, I’ll be sitting right seat for a while.

Corey Cassavant is the editor of Microlite Flyer, newsletter of EAA Ultralight Chapter 1 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He wrote this article for his column to share his feelings about the experience with his fellow chapter members and kindly agreed to share it with a wider audience.

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