Archive for June, 2009

Flying the Soldier

Monday, June 22nd, 2009
Sgt. Joshua Ben with the AOPA Sweeps Plane

Sgt. Joshua Ben with the AOPA Sweeps Plane

Paratroopers tend to regard airplanes as good for takeoffs only. So it was no surprise that Sgt. Joshua Ben, a youthful, former cavalry scout in the 82nd Airborne Division, cast a wary eye on AOPA’s 2009 Sweepstakes Let’s Go Flying SR22 before boarding it at Florida’s Orlando Executive Airport.

Ben, 22, an Afghanistan combat veteran, won a Bronze Star and Purple Heart there in 2007 after losing his right leg in an ambush. He’s in the process of moving from the U.S. Army’s Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., to Orlando where he’ll become a full-time student at the University of Central Florida in the fall. But on this warm June night, he needed to return to Walter Reed for some additional medical treatment—and that’s where the Let’s Go Flying SR22 came in.

The Veterans’ Airlift Command, a group founded to link general aviation volunteers with wounded veterans in need of transportation, put us together via the Internet. Ben and I met at the Showalter Aviation terminal, and I gave him a quick introduction to the Let’s Go Flying SR22.

“I’ve jumped out of C-130s and C-17s before, but I’ve never flown in anything quite like this,” he said.

When I told Ben that our aircraft was equipped with a ballistic parachute that could bring the entire aircraft down safely in an emergency, he warmed to the idea immediately.

Climbing up the step and onto the wing was no problem for the compact, square-jawed soldier with the athletic build, and he quickly eased his body into the right seat. Getting his prosthetic leg inside the airplane, however, required a trick that only a modern amputee would know. Ben pushed a button on his high-tech leg that allowed him to rotate the knee forward and fold it like a pocketknife. He was soon strapped in and we were taxiing to Runway 7 for departure on a marathon five-hour flight to Frederick, Md., AOPA’s headquarters (about 40 miles from Walter Reed).

It was already 9 p.m., and the sun had just disappeared as the Let’s Go Flying SR22 got off the ground.

Ben had flown in a Cessna 172 once as a young teen near his family’s home in Columbia, Mo. He asked a few questions about the futuristic, glass-panel SR22, and caught on to the GPS navigation system immediately. A moving map showed our route would take us over Jacksonville, Fla., and Savannah, Ga., then inland over the Carolinas and Virginia to Maryland.

Level at 11,000 feet and 160 KTAS with the engine using 11.4 gallons an hour, the Avidyne Entegra avionics system showed that we’d arrive at our destination with nearly two hours of fuel remaining, despite a 20-knot headwind.

“Once you take off, it looks like there’s not much to do until it’s time to land,” Ben said.

Even though not required by regulation, we strapped on the clear nose hoses from a portable, two-place Mountain High oxygen system. Ben had spent 12 months at high elevations in Afghanistan before being wounded in October 2007, and he said he was beginning to recognize the physiological effects: colors on the moving map were getting less vibrant, and the small numbers on the screen were blurry. The oxygen cleared that up right away.

We had originally planned to make the flight the following day—but a forecast calling for violent weather prodded us to move up our departure time. The XM Weather on the Avidyne multifunction display showed monstrous thunderstorms in the Ohio Valley, but we were scheduled to arrive at our Mid-Atlantic destination well before the nasty weather.

Ben plans to study forensic science in preparation for a law enforcement career. It’s a big change from military life, and one he didn’t plan for before being wounded.

While serving as a gunner atop an armored Humvee, Ben and his platoon were ambushed on a narrow road by scores, possibly hundreds, of Taliban fighters. A dozen U.S. soldiers including Ben were wounded in the attack. A rocket-propelled grenade penetrated the side of his vehicle and wrecked his right leg in an instant. It happened so fast, he said, that he felt no pain at the time. Ben’s body armor protected him from most of the bullets that struck him, but one pierced his abdomen. Fortunately, it didn’t damage any organs, and doctors were able to remove the bullet during surgery. Ben, the future forensic scientist, keeps the nearly perfectly preserved AK-47 round in a specimen jar at home.

Ben credits a pair of A-10 Thunderbolt pilots for helping save him and his fellow soldiers with well-timed strafing passes.

“The sound of those Gatling guns was like music to us,” he said. “No one who hears them that close ever forgets the sound.”

Ben reclined his seat and slept for parts of our marathon SR22 flight. I was a poor host with few snacks or beverages to offer. Ben declined everything but a half stick of Doublemint gum.

The flight was the Let’s Go Flying SR22’s first in actual darkness since its new Forward Vision infrared camera system was installed at Lancaster Avionics, and it worked beautifully. There was little to see at altitude except a few scattered clouds. But as we descended over the Catoctin Mountains, the image on the glareshield-mounted, pop-up screen clearly showed the Catoctin’s curvy contours.

And on an ILS approach to Runway 23 at Frederick with visibility reported as four miles in mist, the lone obstacles—a pair of grain silos a mile from the threshold—showed up as bright as daylight.

“Just like NVGs,” Ben said, referring to the night vision goggles U.S. soldiers commonly wear in the field.

We tied the airplane down on the vacant ramp and loaded our bags in my car. Ben spent what remained of that night in our guest room, and my wife and two kids, ages 10 and 13, were excited to meet him at breakfast. Ben gave my son a few skateboarding tips before we began the hour-long drive to Washington, D.C.

The drive turned out to be the scariest part of our entire trip as the storms we had avoided with our early departure finally caught up with us.

“I’m glad we’re not flying through this,” Ben said during a cloudburst on Interstate 270.

Ben guided me among the winding roads at Walter Reed and soon had us at Malogne House, the temporary home of America’s wounded warriors as they remake themselves for the next phases of their interrupted lives. It’s a place of indescribable tragedy and triumph, and Ben appeared instantly at home among his brave fellows there.

As a member of the GA community, it’s a privilege to use the mobility we so enjoy on behalf of a young man who has made such a terrible sacrifice for his country.

Home again in the sweeps SR22

Monday, June 1st, 2009

The Let’s Go Flying SR22 is tucked back in its hangar at Frederick, Md., after a coast-to-coast-to-coast journey that showed general aviation’s exciting new possibilities from the Chesapeake Bay to the Golden Gate and back again.

The two-week odyssey spanned the Appalachians, Great Lakes, Northern Plains, Rocky, Wasatch, and Sierra-Nevada, scorching Southwest and soggy Southeast. The airplane got a exterior makeover in Middleton, Wis., was on display at Watsonville, Calif., on the Monterey Bay, and stopped in Memphis, Tenn., on the banks of the Mississippi River, where AOPA Pilot staffers researched a magazine article and produced a video on a fascinating family of agricultural fliers there.

The cross-country portion of the trip included eight takeoffs and landings, six time zones, and about 34 total flight hours. The Let’s Go Flying SR22 flew at altitudes all the way up to its service ceiling of 17,000 feet topping the snow-capped Sierras near Mt. Whitney’s 14,505-foot summit, and its broad windows offered panoramic views of the Chicago skyline, Lake Michigan, Great Salt Lake, Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, and San Francisco Bay.

But now that it’s over, it’s easy to recognize that the most valuable and lasting part of the trip wasn’t the majestic scenery, America’s grandeur, or learning the nuances of the sleek, technologically advanced aircraft that some fortunate aviator is going to win in January (although those aspects were certainly enjoyable). The truly magical part of GA travel was the ability to connect with geographically far-flung family and friends and tend to some of the bonds that time, distance, and our ceaseless busyness erode.

In California, I got to share the cockpit with my sister-in-law Loree, a former U.S. Navy pilot. That was a treat in itself, as was seeing her amazement at the glass-panel revolution that has given modern GA airplanes navigational and collision-avoidance tools that surpass anything in the S-3 Viking and F/A-18 Hornet jets she used to fly.

I also spent most of an afternoon with an old friend whose feelings I had needlessly hurt years ago. She came along on a photo flight over the San Francisco Bay on a sparkling afternoon, and any bitterness or awkwardness from that long-ago period was vanquished by the time we landed. My mom, a private pilot since 1968, wanted (and got) a detailed explanation of the Let’s Go Flying SR22’s Avidyne Entegra avionics system on the ramp one evening; and my five- and seven-year-old niece and nephew got to explore every inch of the composite aircraft when it was on display at Palo Alto Airport.

In Memphis, I had the privilege of introducing AOPA colleagues, Tom Haines and Warren Morningstar, to the amazingly talented, resourceful, and lively group of GA pilots who helped me get started in flying when I lived there for 10 years ending in 1999. David Peeler hosted a cookout at Gen. DeWitt Spain Airport near downtown Memphis that brought together an uncommon assortment of agricultural, airline, aerobatic, and warbird pilots and families for an absolutely delightful evening.

Haines, editor in chief of AOPA publications, flew the Let’s Go Flying SR22 on the eastbound, transcontinental flight home. He had much to contend with in terms of changing weather, strong winds, and high terrain, and he used all the Let’s Go Flying SR22’s considerable tools to deal with ice over southern Nevada, thunderstorms across Arkansas, and powerful, shifting winds in the canyons of Arizona.

Haines owns and flies a GNS 530-equipped Bonanza, so he quickly mastered the dual GNS 430Ws that drive the Avidyne Entegra avionics system in the Let’s Go Flying SR22. He also flew simulated or actual IFR approaches at Sedona, Memphis, and Frederick.

The final 4.1-hour leg of the trip home took us up the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, but the craggy hills were invisibly draped beneath a thick blanket of clouds from Tennessee all the way to Maryland and beyond. I amused myself by snapping photos of some of the more dramatic cloud formations along our path. We arrived at our home field about 30 minutes before the first in a series of towering cumulus clouds brought more rain to a now-vibrantly green region.

Even though Tom and I were anxious to get home to our families, we lingered in the hangar for a time wiping the bugs and road grime off the Let’s Go Flying SR22 and getting the airplane fueled, oiled, and ready for its next adventure.

The Let’s Go Flying SR22 looks no worse for the wear after its long, sometimes challenging, and richly rewarding U.S. circuit. It’s an amazing aircraft that not only can carry people safely and comfortably across continents—but also brings us together.