Pilot Culture Archive

Taildragging fun in Tennessee

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Do taildragger pilots have more fun? Well, yes, that’s pretty much a given. So, put together a bunch of tailwheel pilots and you’re in for an  especially good time.

Savannah-Hardin County Airport in Savannah, Tenn., hosted this year’s Ladies Love Taildraggers fly-in, held June 1-3, and boy, do these folks know how to throw a party. Airport manager Montille Warren must have been an event planner in another life, because she pulled all the stops for the event: a fuel discount, a huge hangar that served as a dining hall and later a stage for a country band; and a huge Southern-style spread each day. Organizer Judy Birchler (the driving force behind Ladies Love Taildraggers and the proud owner of a bright-yellow Rans) and her crew of volunteers rounded up door prizes, freebies like keychains (and you know how pilots love freebies) and nightly entertainment.

 What kind of entertainment? Well, Friday featured a Zumba class and a comedic poem by Kelly Jeffries about the trials and tribulations of building an airplane with her pilot-husband. Saturday was capped with performances by cowboy poet Woody Woodruff and country singer Ash Bowers.

Amazingly, there was no registration fee for the event. Judy and crew took donations–but 100 percent of the money collected was designated for Operation Homefront, a nonprofit that supports the families of service members and wounded warriors. AOPA Regional Manager Bob Minter told the crowd Friday night, “I’ve organized a lot of events, but I’ve never seen one like this one that had no registration fee and is entirely volunteer run.” The group ponied up more than $4,000, I was told.

Airplanes? Aeronca Champ; Taylorcraft; Cessna 140; Cessna 188; Bellanca Cruiseair; Super Decathlon; Citabria; Luscombe; Twin Beech; Cessna 195, Piper Super Cubs (at least three); Maule M5, Stearman, and a few I have yet to identify. (If you were there and I didn’t mention yours, apologies!)

The Homebuilt/Experimental category was well represented with several RVs, a Sonex, and a few I couldn’t identify. There were some 25 or 30 airplanes on the field for the event, and they came from 23 states. My trek from Maryland was a spin around the pattern compared to the trips by Kelly Jeffries, who brought her RV8 from New Hampshire; Cathy Page, who piloted her RV6 from Arizona; and Anne-Marie LaPointe, who rode a motorcycle from Ontario, Canada.

The variety of taildraggers was mouth-watering. There were some tricycle gear aircraft, too. (I imagine the pilot of a King Air that arrived mid-afternoon Saturday was scratching his head just a bit.) While it was definitely a taildragger-oriented event, Judy purposefully opened it to all lady pilots “and their friends,” so all of us could appreciate them. And I am very glad she did. I’ve been a fan of tailwheel airplanes since getting some stick time in an Aeronca Champ. There’s just no better way to fly low and slow, but if you want to fly far and fast, a tailwheel airplane can do that for you, too. Just ask Kelly and Cathy.

Ladies who love taildraggers at the LLT fly-in at Savannah, Tenn.


Discovery, from alpha to omega

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

The space shuttle Discovery arrives in Washington, D.C.

I was among the thousands of people who flocked to the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Annex at Washington Dulles International Airport on Tuesday to see the arrival of the space shuttle Discovery.

For many of them, it was a bittersweet experience, and understandably so. It’s hard to imagine NASA without a space shuttle; for a couple of generations, the winged, reusable vehicle has represented the space program. But for me it also represented a first, and last, chance to see the veteran orbiter in flight–albeit on the back of a jumbo jet.

Back in 1984, as a newspaper photographer in Florida, I was credentialed for the launch of mission STS 41D: Discovery’s maiden flight. We set up remote cameras in the swamps near launch pad 39A (NASA mandated a buddy system for setting up remotes, to prevent local wildlife–particularly alligators–from creeping up on an unwary photographer). I even managed to snag a pass for the Fire Tower, then the closest that civilians were allowed during a launch (it ceased to be a media option after the Challenger disaster). I was standing on that tower on a hazy, humid Florida morning, squinting at the pad through an 800-mm lens, when the countdown was halted and the launch scrubbed.

I recall driving back down to Kennedy Space Center a week or two later for a second scheduled launch, which also was postponed. When 41D finally lifted off, I was out of state and missed the event. Later, I did get to see a shuttle launch, and it’s an experience I will always remember–the vibration as the shock waves slowly roll over you, so long after liftoff that it almost takes you by surprise. That wasn’t Discovery, however; the orbiter eluded me until its very last flight.

Carlos Rodriguez awaits Discovery’s arrival.

Carlos Rodriguez, decked out in a red, white, and blue jacket and hat, also was waiting for Discovery at Dulles Airport. He had traveled from Virginia to Florida, twice, to see Discovery lift off–and he, too, was stood up both times. Eventually he did get to see Endeavour launch, but he still wanted to see Discovery fly, and welcome the orbiter to its new home.

Short final to Runway 1 Right at Washington Dulles.

Discovery’s delivery to the National Air and Space Museum was uneventful, but as the spacecraft was landing, there was a little drama for those who brought along an aviation receiver. As the Boeing 747 shuttle transporter glided down the ILS to Runway 1 Right at Dulles, the pilot not flying radioed the tower controller that its NASA T-38 escort was fuel critical. Not missing a beat, the controller very professionally worked the jet past a row of news helicopters hovering just east of the airport, and brought it around for an expedited landing. We all appreciated the safe outcome, as well as the controller’s helpful updates on the orbiter’s location.

Behind the B-25 photo shoot

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Mike's pre-dawn aerial shot.

Some events are just, well, so cool and rare that you’ll do whatever it takes to capture the moment and pray that you can at least convey a glimpse of the magic to those who couldn’t be there in person. The timed departure of 20 World War II bombers from the Grimes Gathering of B-25s is one of those events.

We received permission to do an aerial shoot during the takeoff and briefed the intended flight path and altitude with the event organizers the day before the mass departure. We worked with Mad River Air, a flight school on the field, to set up their Cessna 172 as a photo platform for AOPA photographer Mike Fizer and go over the route with the school’s chief pilot, Aaron Coleman, who would fly the mission.

Then, we set our alarm clocks for the 4 a.m. hour.

Admittedly, getting up at 4:40 a.m. wasn’t that bad. As if my shower didn’t wake me up, our hotel fire alarm went off at 5 a.m., ushering us and many veterans and guests visiting for the B-25 gathering outside in the dark (I’ve never seen so many bomber jackets at that hour). I grabbed my work laptop, headset, and purse. AOPA’s videographer Paul Harrop started evaluating what order to evacuate his video equipment, and Mike came out with all of his photo equipment. Thankfully it was a false alarm. But, by that time, we were loaded and ready to head to the airport; then the fire trucks pulled in. Paul directed us through the only narrow exit the fire trucks left open.

Getting ready for B-25 morning photo shootAt 5:30 a.m., we were getting the Cessna 172 ready while the B-25 crews performed their preflight inspections. Mike and Aaron needed to be wheels up by 6 a.m. to not disturb the ceremony set to take place before the B-25s started up. While they orbited the airport, Aaron had to dodge other GA traffic making last-minute approaches to the airport to witness the mass exodus. Paul and I took video and photos on the ground. The organizers sent an escort with us so that we could move to different locations instead of staying corralled with the rest of the media. After hitting one bump before crossing a taxiway, Paul nearly fell off the back of the golf cart…thankfully he regained his balance—and grip. Our friend Collis Wagner thought he was going to have to scrape him off the taxiway.

Paul Harrop

Paul Harrop captures video.

Aaron and Mike orbited the airport for two hours, from dark through sunrise to daylight, until the last B-25 took off. We booked it back to the hotel about five minutes away. I started writing in the car while Paul took side streets to avoid the traffic (dozens of people had lined the airport to watch from the side of the road). Less than two hours after leaving the airport, we had our story and video back to our team at Frederick, and photos for a slide show followed shortly (thankfully, Mike was able to work with the photos I shot from the ground).

Cessna 172

Aaron Coleman is a proud AOPA member.

Then it was back to the airport to finish some more assignments and on to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton for some information gathering about the Doolittle Tokyo Raiders. We’ll have the chance Wednesday to briefly interview the five remaining raiders. We hope you’ll enjoy the sights, sounds, and history of the B-25 gathering and Doolittle Tokyo Raider’s seventieth reunion.

Taxiing for takeoff.

Bucket lists, new adventures

Monday, March 12th, 2012

On March 10, I had the opportunity to fly in my first aviation event geared toward taking as many as possible on their first general aviation flight. Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland (AOPA’s home base) can get busy, but it’s not often that I see six aircraft waiting to take off. That’s the way it was for much of the day as pilots volunteered to take girls and women aloft in aircraft ranging from Experimentals to helicopters to twins. The effort was part of Women of Aviation Week’s Fly it Forward Day.

My first passenger was Martine, whose curiosity in airplanes and my piloting credentials kept me on my toes for answers and explanations.Fly it Forward event I let Martine know that I was a flight instructor before loading her into the left seat. Even though Martine knew many aviation terms, much of the experience was new, including learning that a Cessna 172 is steered on the ground by our feet. With so many people in the traffic pattern, it gave us the perfect opportunity to discuss radio communications and point out aircraft in the sky.

By the time we took off and leveled at 2,500 feet msl, she was ready to try her hand at straight and level. By the time we landed, she was ready to learn to fly! Martine promptly picked up a flight training packet at the flight school on the field, and I gave her a couple of CFI recommendations after I made her first entry in the logbook she had just purchased.

A few hours after the flight Martine had her husband, Bill, come out to the airport. He wants to learn to fly too. Apparently, learning to fly is on their “bucket list,” and they want to accomplish their dream while they still have time to enjoy flying. He had many of the same questions as Martine, which she proudly answered to prove she remembered much of our conversation during flight.

Martine and Bill’s enthusiasm for aviation matched that of two of my other passengers that day–Brownie Troop girls young enough to be their grandchildren. Each of the girls shared bonding time with her mom while looking over the patchwork farmland below. They were equally thrilled when their moms got to “drive” in the air. One girl was so excited she just started giggling after takeoff. (That’s such a precious sound to hear coming through the intercom!)

I hope the new adventure for these girls will leave a lasting impression and inspire them to learn to fly. And, I hope Martine and Bill get “pilot certificate” checked off their bucket list so they can travel together by GA.

The return of Microsoft Flight Sim?

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Microsoft reentered the flight sim market Wednesday with the launch of Microsoft Flight. The new product features the still-in-development Icon A5 Light Sport amphibian…and the game itself is free. Of course, add-ons are available; a North American P-51 Mustang is $7.99, a Maule M-7-260C is $14.99, and a Hawaiian adventure pack–with a Vans RV-6A–is $19.99. The website promises that more aircraft and terrain will be coming.

Fans of the previous Microsoft Flight Simulator product line, which ended almost a decade ago with the release of Flight Simulator X, should keep in mind that this new product is being marketed more as a game–it is a new product, not an evolution of what existed before. Initial user comments emphasize the entertainment focus of Flight.

Some enterprising student pilots–and instructors–used the previous Flight Simulator to enhance and accelerate flight training. Will Microsoft Flight be able to do the same? I don’t know; I haven’t had a chance to try it yet. Have you?

What would you do for a Thunderbird flight?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

They’re sleek. They’re fast. They’re precise. Their airshow performances put pilots in awe. They’re the Air Force Thunderbirds. After watching a show, who hasn’t thought of what it would be like to be in the cockpit during one of those routines?

I’m hoping to find out what it’s really like. I’ve been fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to apply for a media flight in the Thunderbird No. 8 fighter during Sun ‘n Fun. My chances aren’t bad either. The Air Force accepted five applications for two media flights.USAF Thunderbirds Media Ride Forms

The application process wasn’t difficult, but it was a little, well, revealing. The Air Force now knows more about my physical dimensions than my friends and family. Age, height, and weight weren’t enough. I also had to provide my waist and thigh sizes, measured from the largest point, and my butt-to-knee and butt-to-head measurements. The measurements had to be precise because, if I am lucky enough to be selected for the ride, the aircrew flight equipment must fit properly or my chance is gone. The Air Force was so exact that they provided a diagram about how to take the measurements. Needless to say, getting my butt-to-knee and butt-to-head measurements with the help of a coworker one morning in my cubicle made for some interesting conversation with the rest of my group!

The requirements didn’t stop there. I also had to provide my jacket, pant, and shoe size … in men’s sizes. So, I made a quick trip to Walmart one evening to try on clothes. I must admit, I felt rather odd shopping in the men’s section and then going to the women’s fitting room to ask to try on the clothes.

Even though the application was rather detailed on my measurements and medical history (certifying that I have no heart or back problems), it’s actually you, our members, who were most important. Part of the purpose of the media flight is to increase the Air Force’s exposure. AOPA’s 400,000 members pack power on Capitol Hill, and I’m hoping that strength in numbers will also help me get in the cockpit of the Thunderbird No. 8 jet.

Still, I wanted to add a note that if I didn’t meet their specifications, I would do anything in my power to meet their requirements by the March 30 flight. Lose weight, gain weight, add muscle—anything that I could control. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a spot for begging on the application.

If you had the chance to fly with the Thunderbirds, what would you be willing to do to make it happen?

No prop? No problem!

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

A pilot friend shared this video, in which a Mexican pilot successfully lands a Cessna 172 on a highway–after the propeller departed the aircraft in flight.

My Spanish is rusty…very rusty…and the audio isn’t very good, but the pilot appears to do an excellent job of keeping his cool, choosing a place to set down, and then landing. The latter might have been a challenge in itself, as video from after the landing shows traffic on what appears to be a rather busy road. It even appeared that he unlatched the aircraft door shortly before touchdown (do you remember that step from your emergency-landing checklist?).

The accompanying article doesn’t provide any detail as to who the pilot was, or when this occurred. I’d like to know more of the back story. Regardless, a tip of the hat for an emergency landing well done!



Overdue recognition for the Tuskegee Airmen

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen are receiving well-deserved attention this month, following the release of George Lucas’ movie Red Tails. Here’s a short video well worth viewing, produced for the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I had the privilege of working with Patrick Anderson’s video crew while telling the story of Matt and Tina Quy’s original Tuskegee Stearman (see “Honoring the Tuskegee Airmen,” December 2011 AOPA Pilot). The plane is now on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, and will move to the National Museum of African American History and Culture when the new museum is finished in 2015.

Yes, I’m the Mike Collins listed in the credits, but all I did was share a camera ship I had arranged. And I may have offered a few tips on air-to-air photography to fellow journalists who’d never done this specialized type of photography that we almost take for granted sometimes. And while I do appear very briefly in the video, I’m confident that has nothing to do with the credit line.

Icy fuselage vs. survival hut and machete

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Sleeping in an icy fuselage during winter survival clinic

Photo by Cameron Lawson

When you’re in an iced-over Beechcraft Musketeer fuselage at night in the Montana wilderness, you have a lot of time to think. There’s really not much else to do.

Rocky Mountain College student pilot Donne Rossow and I had known each other about two hours before we (voluntarily) found ourselves shoulder to shoulder in the fuselage, which creaked and crackled every time we moved and had a door that refused to latch shut. We didn’t talk much because we were trying to stay warm and sleep—conditions that aren’t really conducive to girl talk—but it sure was nice to have another person with me. We were participating in the Surratt Winter Survival Clinic in Marion, Mont.

While I was trying to get to sleep, I kept thinking about the frosted metal structure against my left side and feet (all of the seats had been removed from the aircraft) and the words of wisdom “Mike” shared on my previous blog post, “Don’t take shelter in the airplane, it’s too large a space to heat.”Frost inside the fuselage I also contemplated what aircraft I would rather crash in, based solely on the physical comfort it would provide as a shelter. I chose a very specific one: AOPA’s Sweepstakes Cessna 182 that we gave away in September. I picked it for a very specific reason, too: padding and insulation. The Cessna 182 had a tremendous amount of padding and insulation to help with noise reduction. In my state of mind that night, I reasoned that it would be a little warmer too. (Or, I could have thought about it because it was work related and work was the reason I was sleeping in the frozen fuselage.)

I actually didn’t get too cold, thanks to several layers of clothes and my mummy sleeping bag, but I was glad when morning came. It didn’t take Donne or me long to pack our stuff and head to the bunk house to meet the other 30-plus participants (who slept indoors) and instructors for breakfast. My thoughts on the night echo Donne’s description, “cold…and I really hope I never have to sleep in one again. At least we’re going to know what to expect [if it happens for real]—a poor, cold night’s sleep.”

winter survival shelterThe second night, I slept in a survival hut that fellow pilot Mary Lemons and I made from tarps, rope, and pine branches. We built it near the aircraft because I knew that if my shelter didn’t work, I could survive in the fuselage. Physically, I was warmer and much more comfortable than I was in the fuselage, but mentally I was more stressed. I was alone; my only “friends” close beside me were my machete and a fire that I built. Even though the instructors and other participants were camping in huts 50 yards away, I felt like I was the only soul for miles. My shelter perfectly protected me from the howling wind and snow (who knew tiny flakes could sound like grains of sand hitting a tarp?), but I couldn’t sleep. To occupy my mind, I recorded a video blog on my camera, prayed, and thought about an interview that I did last year with aerobatic pilot Sean Tucker. He’s so optimistic and enthusiastic and, believe me, I needed some of both!

After 10 hours in my hut, I decided it was time to be “rescued” (if only it could work that way in real aircraft accident situations). I trudged back to the bunk house in the dark to be pleasantly surprised that I was just in time for 7 a.m. breakfast—I had survived the entire night!

I learned several things about myself those two nights outdoors. I need to keep my mind occupied; I need to have my back or side against a solid structure for security (either the cold fuselage or the pine branches on the side of my survival hut); I don’t like to be alone; but most importantly, I CAN SURVIVE. I have the will, and thanks to the clinic, now I have basic survival knowledge.

I’ll be sharing more about the survival clinic in upcoming stories on AOPA Online and in AOPA Pilot, so stay tuned!

Now for the machete

Friday, January 13th, 2012

Alyssa's survival gear

Treasuring the last of the warmth of being indoors before heading to the Surratt Winter Survival Clinic this afternoon. Thankfully all of my survival gear that I checked at Dulles made it to Kalispell, and I’ve consolidated my packing to be able to carry as much of it as possible on my person.

My backpack is stuffed with two changes of clothes, extra socks, food, knife, Leatherman, two flashlights (including one that flashes like a beacon), utility rope, fire starter (it definitely creates sparks), mirror (signaling device), water filter and water bottle, thermos, hand and foot warmers, and first aid kits. I rolled my emergency weather blanket and tarp in a thermal mat, and packed more food, cotton balls (for starting a fire), another medical kit in my sleeping bag pack. All told, I just have to carry three items, and if I can attach the thermal mat to my backpack, I’ll knock that down to two.

I also need to attach my sauce pan and another water bottle to my backpack and buy a lighter and machete. Now, I just need to figure out where to pack/attach the machete.