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Trike Adventure to Lake Superior

By Kevin Szalapski, EAA 705840, for Light Plane World

Kevin Szalapski

My name is Kevin Szalapski from St. Paul, Minnesota. I have been a sport pilot for 6 years and currently fly an Airborne 912XT weight shift trike. Every year since 1985 my two friends Tom and Aaron and I have taken trips to Lake Superior in July or August with two personal watercraft to explore the miles of remote and wild shoreline of Lake Superior. The islands, bays, lighthouses, shipwrecks, and history kept bringing us back year after year.

In 2010 with 300 hours of flying in my logbook, we decided to include my trike in the annual Sea-Doo trip. We departed from Osceola, Wisconsin (KOEO), with Tom driving the car towing the Sea-Doos, and I flew the trike with Aaron in the backseat. The logistics came together fairly easy, and our home base was the cabin Tom owns on Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula where we could sleep, eat, and shower. Tom's cabin is located 17 miles from the Gogebic-Iron County Airport (KIWD) and near the city of Ironwood, Michigan, and I arranged with the airport manager to rent a hangar to store the trike. Having a hangar available was very good news because the thought of the trike outside during a severe thunderstorm with 30- or 40-mph winds wasn't a good idea.

The car, trike, and Sea-Doos ready for the trip
The car, trike, and Sea-Doos ready for the trip

Madeline Island is very close to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and not far from the Gogebic County Airport. Madeline Island has a small airport (4R5) close to town where I landed while Tom and Aaron rode the Sea-Doos and then met for lunch on the island. Another airport close by is in Ashland, Wisconsin (KASX), on Chequamegon Bay (pronounced Sha-Wam-A-Gon), and I liked the safety of having three airports to choose from in case of bad weather or engine problems. On the first day as I flew north of Hayward, Wisconsin (KHYR), I noticed all possible landing sites had disappeared and there were only woods and lakes. I visualized what my trike would look like descending into the forest with the BRS chute deployed and tried to imagine how someone gets a trike out of the trees, or worse case, out of the water. My worries were for nothing because the Rotax 912 ran perfectly during the entire trip. We had so much fun in 2010 that we went back in 2011 to spin it again with a few more people and a second trike owned by Karey Love, who keeps his trike in the hangar, with me in Osceola. The 2011 trip included six guys, two Sea-Doos, and two trikes, and we had great flying and boating weather. In the high summer months of July and August, the roaring winds and huge waves are scarce, and the lake is often very flat and calm.

Karey Love and his Mainair Blade 912 trike
Karey Love and his Mainair Blade 912 trike

Another of my hobbies for many years is video. We would always make a documentary of each annual trip. One challenge was to keep the video camera dry on the Sea-Doos, but we were always able to get some great high-speed riding shots and some humorous stuff on the shore. Aaron and Tom would assist during the trip with the camera work, and after the trip they would help to edit a very fun 15- to 20-minute video. Each year our other friends and family look forward to a party held at my home as the premiere showing of trip videos.

The Video Equipment

Now that flying would be part of the trip, I knew the aircraft needed a video system to capture the up-in-the-air part, and since my hands were needed on the control bar, I mounted cameras on the trike that I could control quite easily. I installed four small Sony lipstick cameras about the size of a cigar. Camera number one is mounted on the wingtip with a wide-angle lens that could capture the entire trike and some of the wing. Camera number two is mounted on the control bar that I can move in flight to look forward, backward, down, or at the pilot and passenger. Camera number three is mounted on the nose of the wing looking down at the pod and capturing the pilot, the passenger, the engine, and the propeller from above. Camera number four is mounted under the pod that captures the left and allows me to capture other aircraft that are flying alongside. The cameras have four wires each; two for power, two for video out, and they need 12 volts DC that are supplied by the trike. The video for each camera went to a small video switcher that has four selectable inputs and one output. The selected output went to the DV camcorder located under the pilot seat. I connected a LANC cable that controls the camera remotely which has off/on and pause/record modes all on one button with a LED that indicates what the camera is doing. The final video touch was to add a small LCD screen connected by a splitter to the video output of the video switcher so I could see exactly what the cameras are seeing. During one flight a bug was stuck on the lens of the wingtip camera, so I jokingly asked my passenger, Aaron, if he would climb out and clean the lens; of course we had to wait until we were on the ground. In this configuration I realized the audio captures only the engine noise, and what we really wanted was audio of the pilot, passenger, other trikes and planes, or the tower. I was able to do this by taking an output from the Lynx intercom system into the camera's audio input so all talking was recorded.

After the 2010 trip, I realized for safety reasons the passenger should work the video cameras and I should fly the aircraft 100 percent of the time. We moved the switcher and camera control to the backseat without much trouble, and the passenger could see over my shoulder to watch the monitor. We discovered that while flying over the Sea-Doos and with all of us moving at 60 mph, it was a challenge to get the best shots, and as we got better, we found the best way to make it work. With Aaron in the backseat, he would direct the flight, switch the point of view of the cameras, and he would say up, down, faster, or slower. I ignored the Sea-Doos and focused on placing the camera platform where he wanted it and at the right time, while I continued to monitor my Skydat display for the engine temperatures and pressures.

View of Kevin's trike from above
View of Kevin's trike from above

Timing is critical to get the perfect shots, and it was a challenge to fly because of the busyness. But it was all very worthwhile; the captured video made for great edited footage. Since we had two trikes in the air, we used our radios to communicate for safety. Karey flew his trike below or above mine during the shooting while making sure we announced our intended moves to each other. The Sea-Doos also had a handheld aviation radio in the storage compartment in case they needed to contact us in the air. Watch our 2010 video called Land, Sea, and Air, and the 2011 video will be available soon.

Up in the Air

Flying around Lake Superior is quite a thrill because there is so much to see. We flew parallel to the shoreline at 1,000 feet and saw 23 miles of water, rocks, cliffs, and sand beaches. Once in the air, you identify from above the exact features you have looked at over and over again on the maps of the area. We flew 5 feet over a flat sand beach at 70 mph where it sure looked easy to land. We flew up a river canyon and saw one waterfall after another flowing beautifully below. We saw kayakers in the rapids. The things you can see by air...flying above a ridge line that climbs 2,000 feet above the lake and a line of clouds running 30 miles to the east and appears stuck right on top of the ridge. You really feel like you are seeing the big picture, and you really do have the best seat in the house!

Sunset over Lake Superior
Sunset over Lake Superior

We flew over the harbors and could see the river flowing out past the breakwater into the big lake. The river makes its mark known as it flows with the currents of Lake Superior, which is so clear you can see the bottom of the lake down to 75 feet on a calm day. As we flew by all the people on the shoreline who were enjoying the warm summer day, they waved at our trikes as we cruised by low and slow. We watched the sun set into the lake and another day slip away. It was time to let gravity take over as we headed for the airport to beat the darkness. With the birds tucked away for the night, we really had a great day! I couldn't wait to get up the next day and do it all over again.

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