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AirVenture Oshkosh 2011 Diary, Part 2 - The Fun Begins

By Jerry "Engine" Anderson, EAA 351622, for Light Plane World

Jerry 'Engine' Anderson

Read Part 1

Monday, July 25, 2011: Opening morning

I woke up my customary three minutes before the alarm at 5:30. It was cool enough that long pants seemed appropriate for open cockpit flying. The Moody campground is so quiet before sunrise, other campers were stirring but they all kept a respectful silence. Just a nod and a smile were exchanged as greetings. I wiped the dew off of my bike seat and set out for the Barn. Since the whole ultralight area is called the Farm, it makes sense that headquarters is in the Barn.

In honor of announcer Frank Beagle, the iconic voice of the Farm for decades, I call the runway Beagle Field. The smell of coffee and the sound of happy chatter spilled out across the grass as I pedaled up. I have been playing out this ritual for many years, and it is still immensely satisfying. It's easy to imagine yourself in another time and place where a loose group of aviators gathered at dawn to plan a strategy for a day of sorties in aircraft as varied and unique as the pilots themselves. Leather flying helmets and white silk scarves would not be out of place here. A little light-hearted banter at the briefing could not disguise the fact that we were all committed to bringing everyone home safe at the end of the day. We all signed our waivers, swore allegiance, saluted, and headed out to our planes.

I toweled the dew off of FIFI's lovely curves and watched a powered paraglider launch into the light northeast wind. When he settled back to earth, FIFI and I were already at the velvet rope waiting for the bouncer to give us the nod. The rope dropped, but before I could escort my girl to the dance floor, a green vest caught my attention. He asked if we would step aside so the electric Lazair could take center stage.

The time warp works both ways at Oshkosh, and this was a vision of days to come. With both engines at full power the only sound was the propellers digging into the morning air, and when power was reduced for descent the props just stopped! Apparently battery endurance wasn't a concern, because he went around again and again smoothly and quietly. When the glass slipper retired to the charging station, FIFI and I were first in line for blast off. Thanks to her new brakes I was able to keep the Rotax 447 at a high idle without rolling onto the runway. When the flagger showed us the green side of the paddle, we were more than ready.

There are three sweet spots in FIFI's throttle: high idle, cruise power, and showtime! I selected number three. Due to an effect called "P-factor," at high power and low speed FIFI really likes to turn right, demands to turn right. I'm a little slow this early in the morning, so by the time I got my lazy sneaker all the way down on the left pedal we were pointed right at the announcer's platform. We weren't turning right anymore, but we weren't coming back to the left either. Fortunately FIFI has no patience with the ground, and we were off and climbing before we even reached the chalk line marking the edge of the runway. I'm off and climbing in the cool morning air and grinning like an idiot. Leaving the planet is the ultimate jailbreak. Not only are you free to move at whim in all three dimensions, but you are also free of all your cares and worries.

SH: "This is the true beauty of the ultralight experience, living in the air like you belong rather than beating it into submission with tons of metal and hundreds of horses."

Maximum angle takeoffs are a no-no on the Farm for safety reasons, but even at a relatively sane deck angle we arrived at the pattern altitude of 300 feet in a blink. Turning west I found the "cruise power" sweet spot, and FIFI sang a song. Most of the people in Camp Scholler were looking up, and many waved. I waved back. We danced through the familiar rectangular track over campgrounds and cornfields, leading an odd collection of gossamer wings.

Man and machine were one. When craning my neck to check for traffic I can see FIFI's strong wings. But in normal cruise I don't see any part of her at all, and I am not aware of the control inputs I make. I just think, "I'll fly over there," and over there I fly. It's natural, it's smooth, and it's completely magical, much like the serial dreams I had as a kid after seeing Disney's animated Peter Pan. This is the true beauty of the ultralight experience, living in the air like you belong rather than beating it into submission with tons of metal and hundreds of horses.

After a couple more euphoric circuits, we hit the exit ramp just as a Safari helicopter dropped into the field from the west. Small helicopters and gyros share the Farm with the ultralights. Another lap and another landing constituted our constitutional for this sunny summer Monday morning, and we left the ball with a bow and a curtsy.

With FIFI secured in her prime display spot, I checked in at the Barn and got my swag. The classic cow hat, the Ultralight Pilot ID pin, and the Showplane Participant mug are only given to the few hardy souls who carry, drag, or fly their magic carpets through the wormhole to planet Oshkosh, and I'm proud of mine.

One of the cool things about getting up before dawn to fly is once you're done there is still a whole day ahead of you. After breakfast Jim and I mounted our trusty bikes and plunged headlong into the Oshkosh experience. We coasted down Knapp Street Road to the bike corral at the center of the action excepting the occasional, "Hey, look at that!" Neither Jim nor I led this expedition, but inevitably we wound up at the Rans tent. Since we both fly Rans airplanes that we've built, we're considered part of the extended family. We catch up with all the cousins and inspect the hardware.

Huge kernels of cumulus popcorn floated in a brilliant blue sky as we caromed through the rows of homebuilt honeys parked near the flightline. Back at camp I dozed a little in the Yacht until the air show started. We don't hear the show public address down on the Farm, so Bob Carlton surprised us with his silent sailplane. I could see by the trails of smoke from the tips of the long wing that he had looped and rolled a few times before I looked up. His graceful figures didn't seem to cost him any altitude, but when he finally did get low he just fired up the little jet engine behind his cockpit canopy and zoomed back up.

After a quick snack we pedaled back down to show center for the REO concert. The Plaza was packed, and the weather was perfect with a few thousand happy campers swaying to hit after hit. With the classic synthesizer intro to "Ridin' the Storm Out" we started moving back toward the gate and were on the bikes when they finished up.

The ultralight pattern was switching from fixed wing to powered parachutes when we got home, and we watched them float around while our cheezy brats sizzled on the grill. The heat of the day headed west with the sun, and the mosquitoes went to bed early. So Jim and I stayed up and passed the guitar around.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011: More flying and a close encounter

The sound of my tarp flapping in the wind woke me about 8 a.m. But it wasn't another thunderstorm, so I just pulled up the sheet and went back to sleep. Two-stroke engines at full throttle finally got me out of bed, not from irritation but from curiosity. Beagle Field wasn't really busy, but there was enough traffic to keep us entertained while we made bacon and eggs. Gene Smith had his Backyard Flyer, Paul Mather was flying demos in his M-Squared two-seater, and a couple of Cub clones were making delightful one-wheel landings in the brisk crosswind. Breakfast was fuel for the body, the air action fuel for the soul.

The distinctive rumble of big radial engines drowned out the ultralights as a flock of T-28s arrived in formations of four and made crisp military breaks to enter the pattern for the big runway. I can imagine being a 19-year-old cadet standing in front of one of these huge, snarling beasts for the first time and swallowing my Adam's apple. As soon as they were all down, the time warp jumped 50 years ahead, and two F/A-18s came screaming down the sky and planted their massive aircraft carrier landing gear on the asphalt. One of them was Blue Angels Number 7 in honor of Naval Aviation's centennial.

I had to pump up my back tire again before we could embark on our daily expedition. We strolled through two more exhibition buildings and walked the Light-Sport Aircraft Mall. We happened to be near the flightline when the world's only flying B-29 Superfortress, FIFI, made her triumphant return to Oshkosh. I could feel the time warp shift, and I only had to squint a little to imagine myself on Tinian Island watching the Enola Gay land after changing the world forever. Ten thousand people cheered. It was an emotional moment. By the way, my girl FIFI did not take her name from this bird of war but from her model designation, Firefly.

Back at camp we iced the coolers and kicked back for the air show. The afternoon air show is like a tailgating party inside the stadium during the game, so Jim and I just snacked out and cheered the team on.

By 4:30 I was ready for a nap, but instead I rode back to the Barn for the evening briefing. All the pilots who did the morning brief were good for the day, so there were only a handful of folks in the tent and the air show thundered on outside. I signed the form and got my Tuesday paper bracelet, then sat under FIFI's wing for the rest of the air show. I gave her a loving inspection and pushed her up to the gate as the show smoke cleared and the FAA waiver expired. The breeze had a southern component, so we launched from the top of the hill and made right turns in the pattern. I used to dread flying this direction. My old Kolb Twinstar had a long wing, and her power-off glide angle was only a bit steeper than the slope of the runway. This and the tall cottonwood sentries at the approach end had me landing well down the runway on a number of occasions and using my Flintstones brakes to get stopped. Tough on the tennies! FIFI, on the other hand, has a petite wingspan, so when I pulled the power back she came right on down.

"Bogey at two o'clock, converging fast!"

The evening sun was filtered through light cirrus clouds and colors muted slightly. After a warm day on the ground the air pouring through the cockpit was cool and soothing. We danced and sang, landing whenever the approach was clear and launching again into FIFI's world. The Farm was busy, and it felt good to be a part of the larger swarm saluting the departing traffic jam back on earth. At the southwest corner of our (mostly) rectangular racetrack, I was jolted out of my reverie by a potential traffic jam of my own. Bogey at two o'clock, converging fast! In emergency mode the human mind is capable of amazing computational speed, and in a fraction of a second I had done the math and the physics and pushed the stick forward into the safest section of the air for this scenario. Fortunately the pilot of the bogey did the same math and pulled up. I could tell you my heart was pounding.

On the next lap a Thunder Gull entered the pattern from the west and caromed around the parade for a while till he got oriented and landed. The term "bumper cars" popped into my brain and I laughed out loud. As a way to press the reset button on all this craziness, I put my girl down and taxied her to the fuel shed for a drink. Standing back on the ground I watched the tribute to Bob Hoover pass over. The F-86 Sabre, the Shrike Commander, a P-51 Mustang, and a Sabreliner bizjet made formation passes to honor the man who flew them all brilliantly. When I climbed back in my girl and shared the air with them I was reminded that Oshkosh is an alternate universe. There seemed to be a lot of warbirds in the air as well, and though the rules kept us safely separated they were close enough to identify as friendly. Good thing too because we were running a little low on ammo back at the aerodrome. The Farmers Insurance Zeppelin was a plum target in the northwest sector. But my orders kept me out of range, so I focused on the local traffic. After the mission was complete, FIFI put her feet back in the grass, accepted adoring stares from the crowd at the fence, and curtsied politely as we glided back down the hill to her tiedowns. I tucked her in for the night and kissed her on the forehead.

The back tire was low again as I pedaled back to camp, and the wheel had a wobble. But my head was in the clouds, and all was right with the world. It got cool enough for a sweatshirt after dark and I was just thinking about retiring when a fellow camper dropped by for a chat. He introduced himself as Joe (Mapes) and said he was flying a Ridge Runner tonight and almost T-boned a yellow Kolb. My bogey! When I told him it was FIFI and me in his crosshairs he got real serious and explained the whole episode. Apparently a helicopter had departed our strip as he was passing by and stuck itself right under his Ridge Runner in the pattern. He was afraid the helicopter would climb to altitude at any moment and put him in the blender, so he was taking evasive measures and not paying much attention to anything else. I completely understood and reassured him that there were a million cubic yards of air out there and it wasn't that difficult for me to find one without him in it. In the end we both accepted it as a learning experience and vowed to be more careful because of it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011: Rain stopped the air show, but we flew anyway

I woke to the sound of rain on the roof, so I lay in bed for a long time savoring the fact that I wasn't in a leaky tent on the cold ground. It looked to us like an all-day soak, so we created an alternate plan and mounted Jim's Suburban for a shopping expedition; we took our time wandering back to camp. The grass road between the rows of campers had turned to slick black mud, and we slid into home about noon.

The rain suddenly stopped and the overcast lightened up. We took it as a sign and shifted back into Oshkosh mode. On the way back to our bicycles we stopped in the Barn and checked the radar. More rain was coming but slowly, and we thought we might spend some more time at show center. But big fat raindrops slapped our shoulders and persuaded us to turn for home instead.

Sprinkles continued off and on, but the air show started on time with a tribute to the Centennial of Naval Aviation. Very rare round engine warbirds thundered around under the overcast, all wearing Navy blue. A Douglas Dauntless dive bomber, a TBM Avenger, and two F4U Corsairs were escorted by a slightly younger T-28, and I took another time jump. I was a mechanic, standing in the sand of a Pacific island watching my friends fly off on another mission and hoping they came back. I waved my GI cap and wished them luck, but mostly I was wishing to be up there with them.

The whine of jet engines brought me back to the present, or at least closer to the present. An F-86 Sabre flashed by, followed closely by the Navy's version of this classic fighter. Beefed up for aircraft carrier operations, few were made, and this one is the only flying example left. Filling out the jet age roster was an F/A-18 Super Hornet. Three jet fighters at high speed and low altitude is like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. We were all wide eyed and grinning before we even got our fingers out of our ears. The clouds continued to press in, and the rest of the air show was canceled.

A bright flash followed by a percussion wave that hit me in the chest and moved the earth gave me my answer."

Ever the cockeyed optimist, I rode through sprinkles to take the afternoon briefing, and sure enough, the sky began to lighten. There is a flagpole on the spotter's riser near the top of the hill, and I watched the red flag as I wiped the rain from my girl's ample charms. We couldn't fly till the red banner came down and the green went up, and that could only be authorized by the FAA boys in the control tower. When the red came down I began to release the tiedowns, but before I was done, it went up again.

A bright flash followed by a percussion wave that hit me in the chest and moved the earth gave me my answer. Apparently "Pyro Kenny" had set up a monster finale for the air show that didn't happen, and he needed to light it off. It was quite impressive. Before the smoke cleared, the green flag was going up over Beagle Field, and my testosterone came flooding back.

We launched from the top of the hill and made right turns again, but the air was heavy and hazy. And it seemed like we were flying through a snow globe. Just after I waved at the Moody campground and turned into the pattern, the Grand Rapids EFIS blinked out. I knew the switches under my left knee were vulnerable to moisture after an all-day rain. The EFIS tells me all of the engine speeds and temps plus altitude and rate of climb but FIFI and I communicate on a higher level, so I just ignored the balky instrument. Even though the air was syrupy, it was still active, and we had to fight through the cottonwood blender for our first landing. There wasn't much traffic, so we were back in the sky quickly and lost in each other's arms. We danced to our heart's desire and retired satisfied. The breeze relaxed enough for the electric Lazair to close the show on silent wings as we burned some more tube steaks on the grill.

To be continued

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