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Travel Delights in a Challenger E-LSA

By Robert P. Vichas, EAA 822943, for Light Plane World

Challenger

“Harlan traffic. Silver Challenger experimental about 10 miles to the southeast. Inbound. Request travel advisories.” Pause. Nothing. Silence. Radio and headphones working? Should be charged okay. Maybe FBO unattended. Hmm, no horizon for most of three days in swirling dust. Heat rising from plowed fields painfully tortured my 500-pound light-sport aircraft (LSA). And me, well, close to 900 pounds including me, luggage, maps, and a quarter tank of fuel: truly a helpless butterfly in a fierce wind.

This was my third day out from DeLand, Florida (KDED), near Daytona Beach on my way to northern Alaska and the Arctic Ocean. Seven grueling hours had flown by (a pun?) since departing Malden, Missouri, this morning. A windy and turbulent fuel-lunch stop in Macon prompted a telephone inquiry to the automated surface observing system (ASOS) in Harlan, Iowa. I heard, “…Winds 190 at five with gusts to 25…” Did I hear right? Two more times the same message repeated. Strange country out here. I can handle a 5-knot crosswind. Right? The tricky part is to land between gusts.

A second try: “Harlan unicom. Challenger experimental. Inbound about 5 miles to the southeast. Over.”

“Challenger experimental. Advise against landing. We got 35-knot winds.”

Uh-oh. That ASOS transmission I listened to in Macon wasn’t only garbled, but wind conditions had worsened. It’s too late now. Then I radioed, “Experimental. Gotta land. Need fuel.” No response. My appeal wasn’t wholly truthful. Although my initial plan called for a fuel and pit stop in Harlan, Iowa, there was enough gasoline, with reserve, and adequate bladder space, without reserve, to make another airport without declaring an emergency on either option. But would another airport be different? I’d entered a low pressure system over flat, featureless farmland.

No clear horizon, blowing dust, and I wasn’t predisposed to surrender the only human contact I’d had in the last two or three hours. Nope. I’m landing. Why worry about a little breeze in a plane with a 10-knot crosswind component? Again I radioed. “Not sure exactly where I am. Don’t see anything below to identify other than an occasional farmhouse. They all look alike.” My confidence in the Garmin 296 was favorable but cautious. That longtime adage, “Trust your instruments,” is the best option in solid IFR, but in VFR, it’s “Keep your options open.”

“Do you see a lake to your right?”

“Looks like a large pond. I see it.”

“It’s a lake,” he insisted. “Has several fingers in different directions. Keep going. We’re straight ahead. Can you land on 1200 feet?”

“No problem.”

“Some of the locals land on the grass. It’s more direct into the wind if you want to try it.”

Both asphalt and turf runways promised a substantial blast from the 35-knot crosswind. “I’ll take it!” I shouted above the noise into a microphone glued to my lips. He followed with a description of the location of the grassy area. Anything more complicated than my present load wasn’t absorbable. Both feet restlessly (no wonder I have restless legs at night) adjusted the rudders, the stick demanded constant attention, and my eyes scanned the terrain in search of a small strip of asphalt amid acres of noncontrasting agricultural plains stretching endlessly—or as far as eyes might see, which wasn’t far, given blowing dust, haze, and late afternoon sun. No concern about watching for other traffic. No other experimental light-sport aircraft (E-LSA) on their way to Canada. “Not sure I’ll be able to identify the grassy area.”

“I’ll drive my pickup to the area.” Pilots always seem ready to help fellow pilots. Wonderful people!

I reported, “Airport in sight.” I circled over the airport. No pickup, no planes on the ground, no visible windsock, nothing except two buildings. As I came around in a circling left turn the Challenger lined up perfectly for the turf runway. My ego overran all rationality; the landing setup seemed too ideal to abort. Then a flash of reality suggested I look once more for the pickup. There he was, heading for the grassy area between runways.

A second time I circled to the left at 800 feet AGL, but 90 degrees into the turn the wind exercised its own will. The helpless butterfly flew sideways over a farmhouse and barn. I wondered what the cows imagined. Finally I managed completion of about half of the intended 360-degree odd-shaped circle when the wind caught the Lexan panel that enclosed my cabin. The panels on the right comprised a removable large door plus a permanent small door for ease of entry into the cockpit.

The large door blew out about a foot, held only by a 5-inch bungee cord looped over a metal hook; I had attached a second bungee from left to right panels for safety. (A few years ago a pilot’s Lexan panel, torn off by strong wind, flew into the propeller of his Challenger, which resulted in his crash and death. I had reasons for concern.) Out of instinct I stretched my arm outside into the relentless gust and grasped the bottom side of the panel, a useless gesture. So close to the ground in this wind I couldn’t expect the BRS safety parachute to save my act. With this new emergency, my three feet, four hands, and five sides of my brain were in overload as I struggled to turn the nose toward the pickup, which by now was departing the area. I lined up on final. The wind was so strong I could have landed the Challenger a half dozen times on the same 1200-foot runway with length to spare.

The airport fuel pump was located on the windward side of the hangar. “Stay in the plane,” airport manager Olie Pash shouted above the wind as he struggled with the strut in an effort to hold down the right wing. My fuel tank is accessed inside behind the rear seat.

Finally, he said, “I can’t fuel your plane. Stay in it, and I’ll try to push it to the side of the hangar. Only two planes have landed here today. Yours and a King Air on its way to New Orleans.” Wow! That declaration put me into a rare class of one pilot and one contender on the same day at one airport. Somehow we managed to hangar it. My anxiety of high-wind landings in an E-LSA became history. The airport courtesy vehicle was a former police car. As I drove the several windblown miles into the small town of Harlan, I thought of the Blues Brothers in their carelessly kept performance police car.

Truck
The lifesaving pickup truck (photo taken the next morning in front of the municipal airport office) in Harlan, Iowa

At dinner I met another man in his mid-80s, retired farmer and well-known leader of a traveling polka band. I complained about the wind. His prognosis was, “Out here, either the wind blows, or it doesn’t.” With that piece of wisdom I slept peacefully, and the next morning I was ready for a calmer flight toward the Northwest.

Before departure Olie showed me his RV that he had commenced building at age 77 and finished at age 80. His numerical tail number reflected this information as well as other data. Parked nearby was a Pitts that he had given to his seldom-flying son. Olie had flown aerobatic shows for 29 years, but now, in his mid-80s, activities were more ground oriented: managing the municipal airport, mowing the airport grass with his tractor-mower—a full-time summer task—helping an occasional light-sport pilot negotiate a difficult landing, and sometimes giving flight instruction or flying his RV. I took off that morning just behind a state patrolman, recalling that another patrolman, who became chief of the Virginia State Police, had trained me for my instrument rating many years ago.

As previously indicated, I was attempting an E-LSA flight from central Florida and the Atlantic Ocean to northern Alaska and the Arctic Ocean. So far, challenging weather made completion of the record flight problematic. The flight across Alabama on my first day out, southeast to northwest, after departure from Albany, Georgia, included a fuel and food pause, all of which became a contest between my bones and muscles and the bumps and grinds my body hoped to endure. I was bounced around like a basketball by undefeated champions with frequent throws at a hoop, causing me at one point to utter aloud, “Robert, what have you got yourself into? Let’s cancel and return.”

My GPS misguided me several miles to the north of the airport in Hamilton, Alabama, my intended overnight and fuel stop. I reprimanded it by punching in the “nearest” button and recycling the beast, then turned back toward my destination after it self-corrected.

Unfortunately Hamilton Airport, isolated, didn’t operate on weekends, my cell phone was fully discharged, my body was exhausted and aching after 10 hours of contortions that even bodybuilders didn’t endure, local businesses near the airport were closed on Sunday evening, and like the night before Christmas not a creature was stirring. So I resorted to my God-given gifts and hoofed it down a deserted road, dragging small luggage. Then the heavens either smiled or took pity, and little more than half a mile later, a Days Inn hotel, with vacancies, appeared as magnificent as the first star on a clear night. Well, this was Alabama; there must be “Stars Over Alabama.”

I slept late that morning because the gas pump wasn’t self-serve and the airport didn’t open until 8 (CDT). With greatly improved mood, my mind was prepared for crossing the flooded Mississippi River despite not carrying a life preserver. (Oh, yes, sometimes I’m a worrier.) My next landing at Malden Municipal Airport was another memorable experience where I met extraordinary people.
 
After use of the very clean courtesy van and a heavy home-cooked-style lunch, the airport manager invited me to sleep for a while on the leather sofa in the pilot lounge. Then Joe Thelkeld turned up at the airport office. He’s a former agriculture crop duster and farmer, and now in his mid-80s, owner of a Grumman Yankee. He urged me to stay at the only local motel. With midafternoon 105-degree temperatures, high-density altitude, and deteriorating climb performance of an aircraft at maximum weight, I yielded and accepted the offer of a free T-hangar and courtesy car. That day’s added rest sharpened my mind for the next day’s harrowing landing at Harlan.

Miniatures
Two World War I miniatures in front of the military museum in the airport office - Malden, Missouri

After Harlan, I crossed the flooded Missouri River, flying over Sioux City and I-29, when after getting me on my way toward Yankton, South Dakota, the Minneapolis Center flooded my ears with weather reports filled with dire predictions. The flight from Sioux City to Yankton was a repeat of the Alabama rock and roll, haze, and a very strong desire to be on the ground to end this torture. Yankton held its own surprises, however, with reported 32-knot winds from the North.  

But after Harlan, 32 knots was a piece of cake. Or famous last words: Who me? Worry? I landed on runway 31. Only the next day did I learn about my audience watching the drama through floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows in the FBO, holding their breaths, so they said. I speculated they were really making bets. One of my better landings!

Fueled, after my uneventful high-wind landing, I taxied back to the Yankton FBO office for an overdue pit stop. As I hopped out, the wind caught the small Lexan door, ripped a chunk out of the plastic, and lifted the windscreen from the cowling. An expletive followed. However, management was prepared. Management of the Yankton Municipal Airport, the Carlson family, comprised a husband-wife team and two sons. The father instructed a son on how to repair the Lexan, a C-172 was towed to the Executive Hangar to make room for me in the repair shop, which resulted in no overnight hangar fees (a savings of $20), and the Best Western hotel promptly picked me up and gave me the airport executive rate.

Carlson
Young Carlson mechanic at Yankton who repaired the Lexan

The repair work was excellent; the installed aluminum over the hole in the Lexan appeared like a normal part of the plane. Extra ties would hold the windscreen in place. Because the lower part of the Lexan screen had come unglued I was concerned that wind might force itself underneath. I suggested sealing it with duct tape. (The silver duct tape matched the airplane color and wasn’t noticeable.) If that had been a certificated aircraft, I might still be in Yankton waiting for FAA-approved parts. E-LSA are slow, but repairs are fast and relatively cheap with duct tape, bungees, and noncertified portables as the standard for repairs and avionics.

From Yankton I journeyed to Minot, North Dakota, received the blessings from the Department of Homeland Security in Washington to leave the United States, obtained the unique transponder code for border crossing after some effort, called Canadian customs, and filed the mandatory VFR flight plan. (Would an F-16 from the nearby Air Force base really have shot me down if I hadn’t received official blessings?) I had already purchased the required $27.50 U.S. Customs decal - no longer available at the border but only by establishing an account via Internet, a three-step, user-unfriendly process. Who knows what dire consequences would befall those who didn’t have that little red decal? By the way, it was never checked.

The trip to Regina, Saskatchewan, was like flying over 200 miles of a shallow ocean due to record rainfall and extensive flooding. Again, no life preserver, but I had my Spot personal emergency locator, plus search-and-rescue insurance and the more-or-less watchful eye of Transport Canada. There were more inclement weather layovers at various stops in Canada. Finally, I arrived at Cooking Lake, near Edmonton, Alberta, but the torrential rain, fog, and low clouds - either in Edmonton or at my next destination, Whitecourt—grounded me. So I watched America’s favorite TV drama, the Casey Anthony trial. Time ran out.

Cooking Lake
Looks like another night in the hangar - Cooking Lake, Alberta (near Edmonton).

Not knowing what further weather delays to anticipate and after more than a week of sleeping in motels and a hangar at Cooking Lake (owned by Terry Allen of Speedy Bumpers), I had to return to Florida. I held a nonrefundable air ticket to Europe out of Fort Lauderdale. (By the way, that trip, too, turned out to be one of extensive delays - not my best year for trouble-free flying.)

Entering and departing Canada required only a couple of brief telephone calls plus filing a mandatory flight plan. A couple of years ago I had paid a five-year fee to be entered into the CanPass system (which requested only minimal personal information). Customs/immigration almost instantly brought up the CanPass registration, followed by a few questions about weapons, alcohol, and the like via telephone (a free 800 number when calling from the United States) before border crossing. Cleared via telephone, I entered Canada without personal customs or immigration inspection, and on my return flight, I talked to no one when departing the North for the United States, except for weather and VFR filing. (Canada can no longer accept “Advise Customs” on the VFR flight plan for flights into the United States since 9/11, although you may have read otherwise.)

Leaving and returning to the United States required not minutes but hours, paperwork, several international telephone calls (no free 800 numbers), Internet time (my thanks to helpful FBOs), radio calls, life history kept in some permanent file, and a penetrating customs inspection of my airplane, small carry-on luggage, emergency equipment and supplies, and more paperwork. The customs/immigration officer said he had no objection to inspecting after normal work hours (although I had arrived during the day) because he was “paid very well for overtime.” Inadvertently I had flown into a temporary flight restriction (TFR) because downtown Minot was flooded, in some places to second floors. The military busily performed rescue and security.

Nevertheless, I had arrived at Minot with a discrete transponder code from Minneapolis Center and under control of the Class D tower 20 miles out. No problem, except the Lockheed weather briefer was a little excited about my TFR penetration when I telephoned for departure weather. The tower required me to depart Minot at low altitude skirting the town.

Everywhere I visited the United States and Canada, people talked about unusual weather such as winds and flooding, the worst in 100 years or more. Crop planting was postponed, diverted, or avoided. This was the year I chose for my adventure. Well, lots of luck, Robert.

Robert Vichas
Dr. Robert P. Vichas in the hangar at DeLand, Florida, preparing for the trip

After a seven-hour day from Regina, plus the stress of border crossing, I overnighted in Mobridge, South Dakota, not far from North Dakota, where the Missouri River forms Lake Oahe, home for some mighty walleyed pike. I stayed two nights due to weather - no surprises here. Departing on a beautiful morning, the next leg consumed nearly four hours to Yankton, again more marginal weather. To smooth out my flight, I flew above scattered clouds at 7500 feet, which turned into broken clouds. (I can always descend, can’t I?) As I neared Yankton, solid overcast prevailed. (No problem. I’ll find a hole somewhere, won’t I? ) Ten miles from Yankton: no holes. Now what? Or did I just see some green through a few thin clouds? Okay - now or never. I reduced power, switched on carb heat (actually an electrically heated probe), maintained a steady descent in a 15- to 20-degree bank until I broke out at 1200 feet AGL.

At Yankton, firmly tied down with my own ropes that I’d purchased at Bass Shops in Fort Lauderdale and after an oversized Chinese buffet lunch, it was back to the Best Western due to uncooperative weather. The next morning, I noticed that the C-172 parked next to me had blown sideways. I’d secured the Challenger in a three-way tiedown and chocked both mains. Despite vicious overnight winds and storms, my little experimental remained in place with wings still attached.

The next segment, an eight-hour day to Malden, Missouri, was followed by six hours to Moton Field, Alabama (home of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site). After a night at Tuskegee University, one homeward-bound day remained. Or so I imagined. The next stop for fuel, Valdosta, Georgia, stretched into three hours due to marginal weather, accompanied by a noonday nap on the sofa in the pilot lounge.

Finally back to Florida with an unintended stop at Keystone, 4 1/2 hours from Moton Field, I was a mere 75 miles from DeLand, Florida, my home base. Alas, home was not meant to be. My emergency stop at Keystone, under ominous dark clouds forming a solid overcast, heavy rain, shifting winds, and low visibility, was mistakenly downwind, the landing consuming nearly all of the runway and punctuated by heart-pounding moments. In fitful sleep, I stayed the night on a recliner at the FBO. My best option the next morning seemed to call for checking the weather the old-fashioned way: I looked out the window. By 7 a.m., clouds appeared to have lifted enough to the east to venture takeoff. When I flipped on the carb heat while taxiing, the cylinder head temperature gauge showed 700, then 800, then 1000 degrees. I shut down, phoned Dennis Carley of U-Fly-It Light Sport Aircraft in DeLand, and he said, “Climb out of the airplane and see if you have a pile of melted aluminum on the ground. If not, put your hands above the cylinders to see if you feel any significant heat difference.” There wasn’t. I didn’t.

For the third occasion on my return, I climbed above the clouds, now broken, which quickly deteriorated into an unforgiving overcast before I would reach Palatka - only 25 miles east of Keystone and 50 miles from destination. Where are the occasional holes through the clouds? There were no towers in the immediate vicinity, only the power plant cooling stack to the southwest, so I executed a spiraling descent, broke out at 600 feet AGL 3 miles south of the Palatka Airport, and landed. The FBO office hosted other grounded aviators busily munching sweet rolls with in-house brewed coffee, soulful eyes peering toward the heavens.

A fellow pilot in his 80s took me to a late breakfast at a diner in downtown Palatka. The establishment was built in 1932 out of a passenger train car. Stools and counter looked original 1930s. A jukebox from the early 1960s brought back romantic memories. Only the waitresses had been modernized. Good food. Good company. Finally better, but not good weather.

I managed to stay under the clouds at 1200 to 1500 AGL for the final 50 miles to DeLand and landed at noon about an hour ahead of thunderstorms and lightning out of the west. Well, the trip was a good idea, and I confirmed the old adage: “With time to spare, go by air.” But, low and slow is enjoyable. Also, unknown to me, Jeanna Carley (DeLand) had created a Facebook entry, using information from my Spot personal GPS for Google map tracking. After my return, she told me that up to 500 people a day viewed my progress. So, Alaska, I’ll see you in 2012! After that, who knows? The North Pole? Europe? Why not? A Challenger is simply a small, fun airplane.
 
Dr. Robert P. Vichas owns N26LY, a Quad City Challenger II Special, assembled by U-Fly-It of DeLand, Florida. The engine is an HKS 700E; fuel consumption of 2.6 gallons/hour at 90 percent power; metal fuel tank with 17-gallon capacity; cruising speed 70 mph; and stall speed fully loaded 37 mph. He holds private and commercial certificates for single-engine land, private for single-engine sea, instrument rated, and inspection for the designated E-LSA plane. His total time is 700 hours with 200 hours in LSA. He has authored several business books, mostly published by Prentice-Hall, Inc. Also he organized and established a management training center in Panevezys, Lithuania, to train post-Soviet business persons in American enterprise methodologies.

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