Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 9)

We have a friend whose parents live on Camano Island. They have an older Gateway laptop that had over the years become sluggish. The computer had made several visits to the shop but the problem had never been resolved to their satisfaction. On it, they run Windows 2000, AOL 9.0 and every add-on AOL blocker / filter / spyware / autoconnect / dialer piece of software available, as well as Symantec 2005 Internet suite, and that is just the start-up.

Our friend suggested the family come up to visit with her, her eight year-old son, and her parents. They have a comfortable home on the west side of the island over looking the passage between Camano and Whidbey Islands. It was a warm October day; Sandra sat on the deck, soaked in the sun, and we all ate a lovely lunch. The kids played in the yard. The boys played pirates with wooden swords while the girls chased after them.

Meanwhile I worked on their laptop. It turns out the trouble is that it had “only” 128 MB of RAM. This is bad because just the startup process loads over 200 MB of programs. During the initial program load, the main memory fills, and it starts swapping programs out to the paging file, but many of those programs are vying for their slice of the CPU’s attention, and they are also swapping back in, delaying the loading of the next program. From power on to a useful state can take about 30 minutes.

I found another 128 MB of memory on ebay for $25. I also knew that my friend’s son had been hoping for an airplane ride, and there is a small airstrip on the island, so with a bit of coordination, I could fly up there, catch a ride to their house, install the memory. It would probably be faster to drive there than it would be to go to Paine Field, get a car-seat out of the truck, preflight the plane, put the car-seat into the plane, buckle in, taxi out, and fly, and then reverse the process at the other end. But if I flew the plane I could take my friend’s son for a ride.

The airstrip is the home of Steve Knopp, a respected pilot and mechanic. Steve built the engine that is in my plane. I use the term “airstrip” in this case with caution. If I were to rank the airports I’ve landed at by “most like what non-pilots think an airport is,” at the top, Camino is second from the bottom, just before a grass field in the mountains. The FAA list these specifications for the runway: 1750 feet long, 24 feet wide, 145 feet above sea level, asphalt in good condition. Yeaaaaah, riiiiight.

Imagine this: On the north side of the island there is a tide-flat up against 135 foot cliff covered with bushes and topped with trees. From this mass of brush and trees, a 75-foot wide notch has been cut, exposing a strip of asphalt perpendicular to the cliffs edge. The terrain and asphalt continues to slope up to the south. The persistent shade from the trees on both sides, the moisture of the Pacific Northwest sea air, and the northern exposure of the slope result in an excellent place for moss to grow. About the first third of the up sloping runway has a patchwork selection of this green, slippery, fuzzy moss shielding the asphalt.

From there the runway kind of levels out and then ends at the short barbed wire fence that separates the airport from the ditch on the edge of the east west road. Power-line poles stick up like goal posts the north end of the runway, where the power-line is diverted down underground for the width of the approach.

When you are landing to the south, you line up out over the water to fly towards the runway, reducing power and descending in to the face of the cliff. This alone is a bit troubling. As you approach the runway you have to keep the airplane above the trees at the cliffs edge, and then sink towards the unmarked threshold of the runway. Because the runway slopes up, you have to transition the airplane to not just descending but almost to a power off climb to keep the moss covered asphalt from jumping up and smacking the wheels of the plane.

Once contact has been made with the ground, applying the brakes can result in asymmetric braking on the patch of moss under one wheel and asphalt under the other, and 20 feet later the moss and asphalt trade sides. Using the brakes on this end of the runway varies from worthless to risky. I don’t use the breaks until I am past the moss.

This can leave precious little space to slow the airplane from 80 mph to stopped before encountering the fence, ditch, and road on the north end.

Landing from the other end has its challenges as well. Lining up to fly over the traffic on the road, between the power poles, over the short fence and on to the runway, and then stopping on the downward sloping slippery moss towards the cliff’s edge creates some excitement.

I don’t recommend this airstrip to new pilots. But with adequate understanding and planning, the challenges are converted into a rewarding accomplishment. Dozens of airplanes use this strip each week.

It has been foggy around here for about a week -- very odd. The fog finally broke making a chance for me to take the memory up to the island. I took the my boys and youngest daughter with me.

As we flew over the mouth of the Skagit River, my boys and I discussed the muddy fall waters flowing from the river into the Puget Sound. There was a distinct arcing line that separated the silt-laden waters of the river from the blue-green waters of the sound.

When we reached the airstrip a few moments later the winds were out of the southwest, meaning I would land to the south into the cliff and correct for the bit of crosswind at the same time.

My four year old daughter judged my landing as “Bad landing, dad!” Some how, assessing the quality of my landings became a family tradition. It had been a long time since one had been rated poorly, a trend I was quite proud of. But this time the judges robbed me. Considering the degree of difficulty and technical merit, I was thought the score was much too low.

The computer’s memory install went without a hitch. There was another error with a corrupted file that resulted in the need to uninstall and reinstall Symatec, but the short winter days forced me to head back to the plane before completing the task.

We all went back to the airstrip and the boys loaded in to the plane for the big ride. I taxied back to the north end of the runway and made my take off run up hill to the south. We were up by the middle of the runway and banking the plane so mom and grandpa could be seen out the right hand window, watching us depart.

I circled over the north coast of the island and followed it around to west side where their home is. I radioed Whidbey approach to let them know I would be maneuvering under their airspace, but planning to stay out of it. I did this for three reasons. First I wanted them to know I was there and to be aware of us, second I wanted to have established communication in case I inadvertently flew into their airspace, and last but most important if we had to make an off airport landing, my only choice during this high tide was the water, and I wanted to already be talking to the rescue team before the splash-down.

I stayed low below the Whidbey airspace. We circled their house a couple times and then dropped down to 500 feet for one last pass over the water in front of their deck. My friend’s son proclaimed he saw his Grandma on the deck. Our heading was reversed and we were pointed back at the airstrip flying north along the west side of the Island. We curved back around the shoreline to make a right-base entry into the pattern, and I stuck the plane back on the moss, and waited for the solid sections of asphalt before trying the brakes.

I swung the plane onto the taxi way and shut down the engine (oooh, another story there. In the plane our rule is that everybody’s seatbelt stays fastened until the propeller stops turning). My friend’s son bounced out of the plane ecstatic to have had the ride. He was talking several hundred words a minute to tell his mom every detail. His mom, being a pilot too, knowingly smiled and exclaimed “Tell me all about it!”

The words came from his mouth as fast as his tongue could form them and as picturesque as the vocabulary of eight year old could muster. The joy of this message was clear. He liked it, and would be looking for more in the future. His excitement was thanks enough for me.

After hugs for everyone, I loaded my family back into the plane. There was still a slight wind from the south, but after having already made two landings and one take off on this airstrip I was comfortable I could make my favorite departure. From the south end, I ran the engine up and released the brakes. Again about half way down we lifted off the asphalt. But instead of climbing, I kept the plane in ground effect and let the speed build up, following the slope of the runway down hill accelerating even more. As we reached the end, I lifted the nose of the plane enough to rise above the bushes and tree branches and we shot off the cliff between the trees and over the tide flats. This made me long for the days of open cockpits and the accompanying shouts of exhilaration.

Flying can be like crack or heroine -- it is addictive. And for those of us who are addicts, a clear day after a long series of foggy days is like our drug calling out our names. And I was not the only one hearing my name called. On the trip home, the sky was speckled with airplanes giving their respective pilots a fix of blue. On approach to Paine Field I ended up tucked between two other planes, both slightly ahead of me one to my right and one to my left. The pilot to my left decided there were too many planes headed back to the airport and he was going to fly around a bit more. He broke away to the east.

This left me to behind a slower airplane to my right. I slowed down to create space between us. And then I slowed down some more. And some more. I stretched the space out pretty well and was cleared to land behind him. As a precaution I slowed down some more, putting down 20 degrees of flaps to decrease speed and increase lift.

As I watched the airplane ahead land and make a long roll out, staying on the runway, I knew what was about to happen. As we got to about 200 feet above the ground, I was going to extend the flaps the rest of the way, but then I thought again. The pilot ahead was still on the runway, and the controller could not clear me to land as long as he was on it.

“Cessna one eight three five zulu, go around.” The controller instructed. I responded to the controller and pushed the power back in, climbing back into the sky.

I turned the plane crosswind and then downwind before getting another clearance to land. Seeing all the other planes in the pattern, I wanted to get down and clear as soon as practical, so when I was even with the end of the runway, I pulled the power off and made a gliding 180 degree turn down to the runway, stopped and off about a third of the way down the runway.

We were soon back home, safe and sound after another adventure.
Post a Comment