Archive for October, 2008

Let the journey begin!

Friday, October 31st, 2008

I’m a very lucky man. With Expo in San Jose this year, the 2008 Get Your Glass Sweepstakes Archer has to get from AOPA’s Frederick, Maryland, headquarters to the west coast. I get the privilege of making the journey.

The route will take me through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally California. With the advances in technology, you’ll be able to follow along like never before. I’ll be blogging on these pages over the next three days, and also giving immediate updates via Twitter.

Follow me at Twitter (ijtwombly) to see where the stops will be. It’s a good way to catch the sweepstakes airplane and get an up-close and personal tour. Happy trails.

Airlift airport closes: So long, Tempelhof

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Friday’s the last day for Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport. Sad thing, really.  Regional airliners and general aviation flights will now have to go to far away Schoenefeld Airport–about an hour’s drive, or subway ride, from Berlin’s city center. True, traffic at Tempelhof had slowed since the mid-1970s, when the major airlines left to go to Tegel, another Berlin airport. By the way, Tegel itself is scheduled to close in 2012 or 2013. Meanwhile, Schoenefeld (to be renamed Berlin-Brandenburg International, or BBI) is designated as Berlin’s sole airport. But it’s in no way prepared to handle the influx of new flights that would have used Tegel or Tempelhof.

So add one more to the growing list of the world’s shuttered downtown airports.

We’re covering the Tempelhof closing online, and hope you’ll check out the story and video of an ILS approach (in VFR conditions) that I made to runway 27L last year, as part of our anti-user-fees initiative. Even flew between those apartment buildings, just like the DC-3s and -4s that shot the same gap during the Airlift.

What do you think of this closure? Anybody out there ever flown into Tempelhof, flew in the famous Berlin Airlift to Tempelhof in 1948-49, or served there when it was an Air Force base?

Enjoy these three videos, testimony to a grand airport in world and aviation history.  

Click here if the video won’t play.

Click here if the video won’t play.

Click here if the video won’t play.


She ought to be in pictures

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

As a renter pilot, have you ever been disappointed to learn that one of your favorite airplanes had been sold, and was no longer on the rental line at your airport? Of course you have. But did you ever feel that way about an airplane you’ve never even flown?

It happened to me today.

There’s a Cessna 172, N505SP, that holds the title for airplane appearing most frequently in AOPA Flight Training. It was all a coincidence, really. The Skyhawk was purchased by a Wichita pilot for his daugher’s use in learning to fly. Our senior photographer, Mike Fizer, is based in Wichita, and 505SP’s availability allowed her image to make its way into the magazine. A lot.

So imagine my surprise when I opened an e-mail from a reader in Australia, who told me the airplane on Flight Training’s October cover (shown) was in a shipping container, en route to a flight school in Brisbane.

Fizer tells me the daughter earned her certificate, flew for a regional airline briefly, and now flies jets as a corporate pilot. Her dad’s moving up to a late-model Cessna 182, so 505SP was listed for sale. And it sounds like the Skyhawk is going to a good home; Gerry Dick says she’ll be used as a trainer and will share hangar space with a Super Decathlon and Citabria Adventure.

Even better, he’s encouraging me to visit. I may yet get to fly this Skyhawk the whole AOPA Flight Training staff has come to know so well.

An MFD on your knee (Garmin’s 696)

Thursday, October 30th, 2008

Unlike many of my flying friends, I’ve never felt the need to be the first to own the latest aviation gadget.

I waited a couple years before buying my first hand-held GPS. And while others quickly upgraded to color and better graphics, I stuck with Garmin’s Pilot III for many years because of its simplicity and utility.

But Garmin’s latest offering–the GPSMAP696–is a rare combination of powerful new capabilities and ease of use. And I’ve got the strong feeling it’s going to become a new standard for general aviation pilots flying everything from Champs to Gulfstreams. Since obtaining an advance copy of the 696 in October, I’ve flown with it on IFR and VFR trips in planes ranging from a Waco to a Citation. And it’s been worth its substantial weight (three pounds including mounting hardware) on every one.

In an open-cockpit biplane on an autumn trip across West Virginia and Ohio, the 696 showed the mountainous terrain in sharp relief. Sure, I knew the Minimum Safe Altitude for our route from the VFR sectional. But what if we inadvertently strayed from our planned course? The 696 showed the surrounding terrain in brilliant reds and yellow (similar to the actual fall colors), and a profile view of the topography let me know the exact height and distance of the oncoming obstacles long before they came into view.

On a 900-mile IFR trip along the East Coast in a Bonanza A36 a few weeks later, the 696 proved its utility in a far different environment. Instead of making cumbersome performance calculations with pen and paper, the 696 allowed me to accomplish those tasks faster and more accurately on its brilliant screen. And each time Air Traffic Control rerouted us (and it happened a lot) I programmed the new route into the 696 and viewed the course ahead far more simply and successfully than I could using the plane’s panel-mount avionics. The 696 was especially helpful during the single-pilot legs.

The Bonanza was equipped with an IFR-approved GNS480 (a user-hostile abomination) and MX200 multi-function display (MFD). But the 696 on my knee had a larger, clearer screen than either one, and unlocking the 696’s tremendous wealth of information was pleasant and intuitive. And I haven’t even mentioned the 696’s XM weather displays, which are exceptional (or its satellite radio, which I’ve yet to turn on).

The 696 is chunky and expensive ($3,295). But it’s a bargain compared to its panel-mount cousins. And for Part 91 operators (the vast majority of GA fliers), it enables us to leave the flight bag full of paper charts and approach plates at home. That in itself is a significant savings in weight and a paperwork reduction.

Troubling world economic conditions make this an especially perilous time for any company, even Garmin, to introduce a new, high-end product like the 696. But this one’s a real winner. And it’s formidable frame will likely serve as the technological foundation for many avionics enhancements to come.

We’re tracking NASCAR for you.

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

Guess which NASCAR drivers are also certificated pilots? Actually, no need to guess; we’ll have them all plus the wife of a NASCAR driver who is about to solo in an upcoming issue of AOPA Pilot. This past weekend research led me to Atlanta for the Pep Boys 500, where I spent hours waiting for a chance to talk with some of the drivers. Nonstop schedules to meet and greet the fans and especially the sponsors require every second of drivers’ time in the days leading up to the race, so I spent several hours sitting on an ice cooler in hopes of grabbing them. Next year sponsors will cut back some of their support and fans are reconsidering the average price, for the better seats, of $115 at Atlanta. The stands looked 65 percent full at last weekend’s Sprint Cup Chase race.

Here are some shots from my weekend in the garage area at Atlanta.

Time to be greedy?

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Economy’s in the Dumpster. Credit is tight. Fuel is expensive. Geez. Lousy time to buy an airplane, right? Maybe not. As Warren Buffet says, “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” Well, guess what. Others are fearful, so now is the time to be greedy.

If you’ve got the cash or access to credit, now might be a fine time to buy an airplane. Hull values are down because of all the airplanes on the market (meaning you have a big selection). Insurance rates are trending down. Fuel prices remain high, but they will probably trend downward soon–avgas always lags gasoline on the way back down just as it lagged gasoline on the way up (although it may not have felt that way). Plus, if you buy before the end of the year and use the airplane mostly for business, you can benefit from several tax incentives currently available.

I’ll be exploring this subject and providing some buying tips at AOPA Expo in my seminar, “Buying Your First Airplane,” which occurs at 3 p.m. Friday, November 7, in San Jose.

In the meantime, what do you think? Is this the buying season for airplanes? Time for you to be “greedy” and take advantage of the down market or time to sell? Let me know your thoughts.

Cannibal Queen

Friday, October 17th, 2008

Stephen Coonts, the author of Cannibal Queen (I’ll always remember him for Flight of the Intruder), writes nostalgically in this month’s AOPA Pilot about revisiting his old biplane. As Koonts points out, the Queen has been pressed into biplane ride service ever since he parted with her in the early 90s, but still looks good despite the hard duty.

Coonts’ story prompted some memories of my own about the old girl. I used to fly the Queen in my former weekend job as a scenic ride pilot/instructor in Atlanta–but my memories aren’t so fond. The Queen had much better performance than a stock Stearman. It’s engine and prop (a 300-hp Lycoming and constant speed prop) gave it a lot of pep compared to a standard 220-hp Continental and a fixed-pitch prop. But the Queen could be cantankerous. The engine sometimes refused to start on sultry Atlanta afternoons, and it had a tendency to backfire, run rough, and belch fire intermittently. On the ramp one evening, I watched an orange flame shoot about six feet out the single exhaust pipe. The backfire was a common occurrence, but the dark surroundings made this one particularly memorable.

The Queen always looked great with her raised turtle deck, sleek cowl, and wheel fairings–but she was never my favorite.

Steve Collins, the business owner, never shared my suspicions. He loved the Queen and flew her at every opportunity. When we’d fly to air shows or other events, he took the Queen, and I’d usually fly something else.

The Queen was also somewhat unusual for a Stearman in that it had a two-passenger front seat. But the passengers had better be friends because they’d have to sit awfully close. On one cross-country trip, two brawny guys had to share the front seat, and they were practically fused at the hip when it was finally time to get out . . .

Anyway, Coonts’ story brought back some fun memories, and I couldn’t resist sharing a few of them.

Flying car or pipe dream?

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Terrafugia Transition

Seriously, folks, do you think a “roadable” airplane is doable? Would you buy one? Will it be possible to overcome all of the issues relative to making a car that meets modern automotive safety standards that can also safely and practically fly?

It’s been tried for decades–and even certified in the form of the Aerocar, but never marketed in a serious way. As you may have seen at Oshkosh this year, Terrafugia has a prototype called “Transition” they are experimenting with and a way cool animation of the thing landing and taxiing to the garage. The wing is being load tested and the Rotax-powered drivetrain powered up. See all the details in a story we ran a while back in AOPA Pilot, including the animation. The Terrafugia Web site has a video report from Fox News. (Fox calls it “Chitty, Bang, Bang”!–Hey, fair and balanced, right?….)

If Terrafugia is able to bring this two-place roadable airplane to the market for something close to $150,000, would you buy it? Will anyone buy it? Let me know your thoughts.

Calling all Biker-Pilots!

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

Are you like me? Do you ride a motorcycle and fly small airplanes? If so, you’ve heard a variant of the following question from the unanointed:

“Are you crazy, flying that dinky airplane/riding that motorcycle? Don’t you know you can crack your skull open that way?”

Of course I know. And yet, I do it again and again. Why?

A new book, Bodies in Motion: Evolution and Experience in Motorcycling, by Steven L. Thompson, a good friend and former executive editor of AOPA Pilot, goes into the reasons why we pilots (and motorcycle drivers) are drawn to the kicks of our very special pursuits. And it’s not because we’re crazy. Rather, Thompson posits that our need for psychokinetic thrills is rooted in human evolution. In short, humans evolved from apes, which swung from trees and so became adapted to–and enjoyed the sensations that accompany–the g-forces, hand-eye coordination, and odd attitudes that attend this kind of body-motion. 

Fast-forward to modern man. What kid doesn’t like spinning around until he/she is so dizzy that he/she falls down? Or swinging on “monkey bars”? It’s the same thing when we get older, have a bit more money, and still want to live on the edge. Admit it, you like steep turns–in the air and on the ground. And aerobatics? ‘Nuff said.

Of course, social aspects also creep in, Thompson says. Just as some are drawn to Harleys, some to Suzukis, and some to BMWs, so are some pilots drawn to Bonanzas, Mooneys, Cessnas, or radial-engined classics. But Thompson makes an argument that pure physical sensations are at work, too. In Bodies in Motion, there’s an appendix that quantifies the vibration levels at the handlebars, seats, and foot pegs of various motorcycles. You could do the same study for airplanes, I suspect.

Different strokes for different folks. Whether you like the buzz of a crotch rocket, the purr of a Goldwing, the rumble of a radial, or the shriek of an MU-2, you’re bound to enjoy reading Thompson’s intellectual musings on why we do what we do. They don’t call them “ape-hangers” for nothing!

Check it out at Amazon or Aerostich. $19.95.

P.S. When I’m riding, I like to stick my head down so I can see past the fairing and watch the front wheel pump up and down as it takes the bumps. When flying, I like to look back and sneak a peek at the tail. Looks odd, in a leaving-things-behind kind of way. And takeoffs always give me a charge….


What’s going on with Swearingen?

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

It wasn’t easy to find an answer to the above question during a press conference in Orlando Oct. 5 at the National Business Aviation Association. I had questions, but Anthony Power of Emirates Investment and Development (which owns Emivest Aerospace) didn’t want to give answers without the boss present.

Sino Swearingen Aircraft is now called Emivest Aerospace since the Dubai-based company completed the deal in June. The aircraft shall hence be known as the Emivest Sj30.

A day later I had the chance to talk with the boss, Buti Saeed Al Ghandi (chairman of Emivest Aerospace), whose airplane had been 30 minutes late on Oct. 5, causing him to miss the press conference.

Al Ghandi said he will spend $700 million to $1 billion over the next four years to set up tooling, establish a support and sales network, and do all the other things a large jet company needs to do business. All sino Swearingen ever had was engineering tooling that was able to produce four aircraft, but never could have supported full production, he said.

The first customer delivery could occur in the first quarter of 2009. A report in that he planned to build 100 aircraft a year was incorrect, he said. No decision has been made on production rates, or even if there will be 100 copies of the first model. He implied there will be a second model with improvements to include increased range. Al Ghandi says he is not a pilot, and plays a key roll in a dozen companies, none of which are related to aviation. For example, he now regrets selling a fertilizer company that once was in his stable.