AOPA Sweepstakes 2012 – Tougher Than a Tornado

August 15th, 2012

Tornado Husky at undisclosed California location

Originally published on


The AOPA Sweepstakes Tougher Than A Tornado Husky is tucked away at an undisclosed location in Southern California and will remain there until being awarded to its winner at AOPA Aviation Summit Oct. 11 to 13 at Palm Springs, Calif.

The Husky flew to the West Coast at the conclusion of EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., with a stop at its birthplace, Aviat Aircraft in Afton, Wyo. There, the craftsmen who build the rugged bush plane by hand gave the Tornado Husky a thorough looking over and a new annual inspection.

During an adventure-filled year, the Tornado Husky has brought attention to the promise, challenge, and excitement of flying off the beaten path, and it has dropped in at places as far flung as Bar Harbor, Maine; Key West, Fla.; Kalispell, Mont.; and now Palm Springs. But even though it has traveled far and wide, the total time on the Tornado Husky’s airframe and engine are right around 200 hours—and the annual inspection confirmed this frisky young pup is just entering the prime of its life.

“It’s in great shape to provide many years of reliable service,” said Steve Hastings, an Aviat mechanic and IA who performed the annual inspection. “Engine compression is excellent in all cylinders (77, 78, 78, 78), and you can’t get much better than that. We cleaned and gapped the spark plugs and replaced normal wear-and-tear items such as brake pads. But it’s obvious this airplane is in terrific shape.”

Aviat performs Husky annuals in Afton that can resemble NASCAR pit stops.

When the Tornado Husky rolled to a stop on the factory ramp, company technicians pushed it into their maintenance hangar and got right to work. After the engine compression check, they drained the oil, replaced the filter, examined the screens, replaced a misfiring ELT, repaired minor blemishes on the right aileron, and hoisted the airplane off the ground with a chain that they attached to two metal lift hooks on the top wing. The 29-inch Alaskan Bushwheel tires were removed and the wheel bearings cleaned and greased.

Even the treadless tires seem to be holding up well. Whenever possible, AOPA pilots land the Tornado Husky on grass surfaces instead of concrete in an effort to preserve the specialized tires. But since the Tornado Husky has been hangared at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland (where there are no turf runways) all year and flown to and from similarly hard-surface airports, the tires have spent most of their time on concrete and asphalt.

The annual inspection at Afton was completed in a single day.

“If there are no complications and we can keep two guys on it, we can often complete an annual inspection in a day like this,” said Hastings, who was assisted by Aviat technician Val Swenson. “This time, the stars all aligned in our favor.”

SweepsThat’s been a consistent theme throughout the year. After the hard-luck Husky was battered by the Sun ‘n Fun Tornado in March 2011, its fortunes seem to have improved. Everywhere it goes, the Tornado Husky is greeted by people who appreciate its unique history and the limitless possibilities for adventure it offers. (But the airplane’s reputation for attracting wild weather also held true with a strong thunderstorm at EAA AirVenture, and wind and hail in Wyoming.)

And even though it’s not the world’s fastest airplane (105 knots at cruise), it goes places. On its westbound journey, the Tornado Husky flew 6.5 hours (with one fuel stop in Ohio) to Oshkosh where it joined a line of other aircraft on the Fisk Arrival to Runway 27. The day after EAA AirVenture ended, it logged 10.5 hours (with stops in Minnesota and South Dakota). From there, it headed almost straight south to St. George, Utah, and then hooked right into Southern California where it rode a rare tailwind westbound across the desert.

The airplane ran beautifully throughout the transcontinental flight, but stormy weather in Chicago meant crossing the blue middle of Lake Michigan, and headwinds and wilting high temperatures (and density altitudes) across the Great Plains demanded much—and the Tornado Husky delivered.

Aviat pilots Steve Anderson and Owen Genzlinger were ferrying two brand-new Huskys to Afton after EAA AirVenture, and AOPA President Craig Fuller joined their caravan in his personal Husky, and photographer George Kounis and I came in the Tornado Husky. The pack of four Huskys encountered 30-knot headwinds in western Wisconsin and Minnesota, jarring turbulence and haze and smoke from wildfires in South Dakota, and climbed as high as 11,500 feet crossing the Big Horn Mountains of northern Wyoming. During the final hour of the marathon trip, we dropped into loose formation and followed the Snake River along the base of the Grand Tetons and through the canyons to a sublime sunset arrival at Alpine Airpark. There are 14 Huskys based at Alpine, and the four new arrivals seemed to fit right in.

When the Tornado Husky’s annual inspection was complete, Aviat test pilot Anderson took the airplane up for a post-maintenance flight around Afton. He then made a few minor adjustments by reducing the engine idle RPM to 675, double-checked the elevator trim tension, and lubricated the tailwheel to get rid of an occasional shimmy.

“When an airplane leaves here, we make sure everything on it is right,” he said. “I’m satisfied that everything on the Tornado Husky is right. It flies like a Husky—and that’s the best compliment I can give any airplane.”

Bruce’s Custom Cover for Tornado Husky!

May 11th, 2012

Thanks to Bruce’s Custom Covers, the AOPA 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than a Tornado” Husky has some added protection from the elements.

A customized aircraft cover that perfectly matches the Tornado Husky’s paint scheme (and carries the Tornado Husky Logo) will shield the young airplane from sun, blowing sand, rain and anything else it might encounter on future adventures.

The canvas cover just arrived at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Md., this week. It has a retail value of more than $600, and AOPA (as well as the future winner who will be named at the AOPA Summit in Palm Springs, Calif., Oct. 11 to 13) appreciate the thoughtful donation!

Rosen Visor for Tornado Husky

April 25th, 2012

Rosen Visor will keep the Sweeps winner from squinting on those beautiful sunny days.The winner of the AOPA 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than a Tornado” Husky won’t have to worry about glare or haze.

Rosen Sunvisor Systems has provided an optically perfect, swing-out visor that cuts glare and protects the pilot’s eyes like a great pair of sunglasses. With summer ahead and temperatures rising, Rosen’s timing is perfect.

The STC’d visor is easy to install, and the Rosen kit is absolutely complete. The company even sends the appropriate Allen wrenches (as well as the hardware, grease, and required aircraft logbook entries) to complete the task. Rosen also provided a pair of extremely lightweight sunshades that attach to the Tornado Husky skylight with suction cups to cool the cockpit on hot days. Those are sure to come in handy when the Tornado Husky is on display at EAA Airventure in Oshkosh, Wisc., this summer — as well as AOPA Summit in Palm Springs, Calif., in October where it will be awarded to its lucky winner.

SNF Tornado Husky Update

March 23rd, 2012
The yellow paint of the Sweepstakes Husky shines like a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

The yellow paint of the Sweepstakes Husky shines like a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.

The AOPA’s 2012 “Tougher Than A Tornado” Sweepstakes Husky will have traveled to all four corners of the United States by the time it is awarded to its winner in Palm Springs, California in the fall.

It’s already been to western Montana and coastal Maine. But returning to Lakeland, Florida, where it was tossed about by the infamous Sun ’n Fun tornado in 2011 (and earned its “tougher than a tornado” monicker) was perhaps the most challenging outing from a weather standpoint.

The 2012 Sun ’n Fun Fly-In brought with it a gorgeous weather forecast of sunshine for almost the entire week of the event. But getting there in advance from AOPA’s home base in the mid-Atlantic in a VFR-only airplane required making lots of “over, under, or around” decisions regarding the low ceilings and rain that can almost always be found on the 750-nm route in early spring.

This year, a persistent overcast in Maryland and Virginia, rain showers in North Carolina, thunderstorms South Carolina, and headwinds and turbulence in Florida, made the south-bound trip especially challenging from a weather standpoint—but still safely doable with the Tornado Husky’s capable tools.

The Tornado Husky’s instrument panel has a Garmin GPSMAP 696 linked to graphical XM Satellite Weather that allows pilots to make informed choices about conditions well beyond what they can see through the windshield. The Doppler radar displays as well as METARs and TAFs proved especially handy this year as weather came into play throughout the trip which began on an overcast afternoon in Maryland.

Follow the leader. Dave Hirschman sticks to the six of Craig Fuller.

Follow the leader. Dave Hirschman sticks to the six of Craig Fuller.

Instead of making the trip solo, this year AOPA President Craig Fuller accompanied the Tornado Husky in his own airplane, a 1999 Husky A-1A that he was bringing to Sun ‘n Fun for the week. (Huskys run in packs!)

Leaving Maryland, we crept along under the overcast, flew through the well-known notch in the mountains at Harpers Ferry, the historic town where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, and continued southwest through Virginia’s scenic Shenandoah Valley.

We finally happened upon our first blue sky there and climbed to 6,500 feet where we easily topped the low clouds. We had planned to fly to the Atlanta, Georgia, area but a building line of rain and thunderstorms seen on the XM Weather display along that route convinced us to make a left turn toward the coast instead. In addition to being more direct, it also has much lower elevations and, on this day, fewer clouds.

We refueled in Danville, Virginia, then set our sights on Beaufort County Airport (a.k.a. “Frogmore International”) and expected to arrive a few minutes after sunset. Having elected to go over the clouds on the first leg of the trip, we went around them on the second, but still managed to get good and wet at the edges of a few downpours in the carolinas.

Paul Harrop, a videographer who recently joined AOPA and was traveling in the Tornado Husky with me and making his first cross-country trip in a GA airplane. I guess I felt compelled to reassure him about the weather many times during the journey, and the laconic Oklahoman eventually tired of my frequent (and false) pronouncements that each line of showers we went around would be the last before a “straight shot” to our destination.

“You don’t need to keep saying that,“ he told me. “I’ll panic when you panic—and not before.”

For the record, no one in our traveling party ever panicked. But I did push the power on the Tornado Husky’s 180-horsepower Lycoming engine up and had the three-blade MT prop singing at 2,500 rpm for the final dash into Beaufort.

AOPA President Craig Fuller flying his personal Husky over Hilton Head, S.C.

AOPA President Craig Fuller flying his personal Husky over Hilton Head, S.C.

(My wingman, whose 13-year-old Husky is equipped with normal-sized tires instead of the Tornado Husky’s 29-inch Alaskan Bushwheels, had no trouble keeping up.)

We arrived a few minutes after sunset and landed on the east-facing Runway 7 with the powerful LED landing lights on the Tornado Husky’s left wing putting out a beam powerful enough to stun the swarms of sand flies that call the marsh home.

The Husky team starts Thursday off right with a beautiful morning in Beaufort, S.C., ready to take off.

The Husky team starts Thursday off right with a beautiful morning in Beaufort, S.C., ready to take off.

The next morning brought patchy fog and rain, but conditions improved enough by mid-morning to get underway. We hugged the east coast as a flight of two until Savannah, Georgia, then turned inland and flew under the clouds for a time, then over them, to Cross City, our final refueling point and a time-honored stop for many fliers on the way to or from Sun ’n Fun.

The last leg to central Florida involved a stiff headwind and air lumpy enough to convince Paul to put down his video camera. And the Tornado Husky, which got a few good baths on the way south from the passing rain, sparkled in the Florida sunshine as it prepared to greet Sun ’n Fun visitors—one of whom may even get to take it home from AOPA Summit 2012.

Tornado Husky’s First Annual Inspection

February 2nd, 2012

Pilot/Mechanic Kevin Holloway gave the Tornado Husky its first annual inspection.

You’ll be pleased to know that your 2012 AOPA Sweepstakes “Tougher Than A Tornado” Husky breezed through its first annual inspection this month.
The bill for new parts came to just $20, and most of that was a replacement air filter.
The fact that the airplane is in top mechanical condition shouldn’t come as a surprise since it’s just one year old and has only 130 hours on the Hobbs meter.
Kevin Holloway, an A&P mechanic and commercial pilot, performed the inspection at Landmark Aviation in Frederick, Maryland, and stood behind his work by flying in the airplane aferward. Holloway, a Cessna 140 owner, came away from his first Husky flight impressed with the design, build quality, and performance of the rugged aircraft.
“I enjoyed working on the Tornado Husky because it’s very well thought-out, and it’s built with maintenance considerations in mind,” he said. “A lot of airplanes aren’t built to be worked on, but this one really is.”
Holloway tightened the aileron cables, rerouted some air ducts to avoid chafing, tightened rocker covers and generally provided as much TLC and preventive maintenance as possible. A “cold” engine compression check showed all four cylinders on the Lycoming O-360 held 76/80 psi or above.
“It looks as good on the inside as it does on the outside,” Holloway said. “And it flies as good as it looks.”

Water Dog

December 9th, 2011

The Tornado has a factory installed float kit that makes it relatively easy for the AOPA 2012 Sweepstakes winner to install straight or amphibious floats.

To get an idea of the adventures open to the pilot of float-equipped Husky — and learn what it takes to qualify for a seaplane rating — I recently went to Ryan Aviation at Flagler County Airport in central Florida for two exciting, strenuous, and thoroughly enjoyable days of training with CFI Dan Nichols and DPE Tripp Wacker.

Now I understand why seaplane pilots so love their unique combination of the nautical and aeronautical.

The Tornado Husky winner will be getting a fine airplane that, with a couple of high-tech floats, also can be a world-class seaplane.

Stay tuned to AOPA Pilot for more detailed stories and videos.

Seaplane training with Ryan Aviation at Flagler County Airport

“I Came For This”

November 7th, 2011

The date for this often-postponed flight to spread my stepfather’s ashes above the Statue of Liberty was finally set for Sunday, Nov. 6. — but that morning, as every time before — brought a complication.

Previous trips had been scrubbed for weather, TFRs, and so many seemingly pre-ordained last-minute glitches that I was beginning to question whether it would ever take place.

But this time, the forecast was perfect with a golden fall day and sunshine throughout the region; no TFRs, the AOPA’s 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than a Tornado” Husky ready to go; and my mom, Wilma Melville, on a visit from her home in California, and willing to make the actual drop from the Husky’s back seat.

The problem was me.

A stubborn head cold had kept my ears plugged for several days, and no amount of chicken soup, hot tea, orange juice or nasal spray seemed to make any difference. The night before, grasping at straws, I had come up with what I hoped was a reasonable compromise: A much shorter flight to Annapolis, Maryland, where we could spread the ashes over the Chesapeake Bay near the U.S. Naval Academy. My stepfather, John Melville, was a Navy veteran of World War II and took great pride in his wartime service. Was that good enough?

Early Sunday morning, I ran the idea by my wife, Martha, and she wisely rejected it out of hand.

Preparing for flight

“Look, John was a New Yorker,” she said. “He grew up on the east side. He went to Columbia. He ran the New York Marathon. It’s got to be the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor or nothing. Nowhere else has that kind of connection to him and his life.”

She didn’t say it, but other questions (to which the answers were plainly obvious) also sprang to mind: Would your stepfather have made an extra effort for you? Would he have been willing to tolerate some physical discomfort on your behalf? And haven’t you learned from him, by now, to do things right or not at all?

I took a double dose of Afrin and waited for my mom, who was still on Pacific Time, to wake up. The Tornado Husky could fly the entire route below 2,500 feet msl, so the relatively low altitudes would make flying tolerable, even for my plugged ears.

Mom met the rest of us in the kitchen at 8 a.m. wearing jeans and a warm jacket.

She’s 78 years old, about five feet tall, pragmatic, unsentimental, and an absolute force of nature. She’s a planner, and although she realizes that plans must sometimes change, she doesn’t bend easily.

“So, are we going to do this thing or not?” she asked in her customary, no-nonsense way. “If we’re going to go, we should go soon so it doesn’t eat up the entire day.”

I told her to collect her things, then slipped a small wooden box that contained the ashes of her husband of 33 years into my flight gear.

On the short drive to Frederick Municipal Airport (KFDK), I called flight service to confirm no TFRs had popped up. None had.

Mom, an instrument-rated private pilot, wanted to discuss the logistics of the ash drop. What were our airspeed and altitude going to be? How did the Tornado Husky’s window open and close? And how could she make sure the ashes got out without giving her a face full of dust?

These were just the sort of practical matters that my stepfather, an aeronautical engineer with a cutting sense of humor, would have loved. When my brothers and I were kids, he came back from a tough day of work at a California defense contractor and asked me to pour him a frosty glass of beer.

Evidently, John and his coworkers had been trying for months to perfect a fighter weapons delivery system and, after many failed attempts, finally got it right on the test range. The pilot of the test aircraft was so elated he spontaneously performed a “victory roll” at low altitude, misjudged, and plunged into the ground in a fatal fireball.

“All that data is gone,” John, a lapsed Catholic, moaned in disbelief. “I’d like to propose a toast to the patron saint of lost data, for Chrissakes.”

Unanimous dislike
My mom was a divorced public school physical education teacher with four young sons when she and John met in the early 1970s.

The box containing John Melville's ashes.

My brothers and I were unanimous in our dislike for him at first. Part of the rejection was loyalty to our “real” dad. The rest was made easy by the fact John was strict, sarcastic, and had a ridiculous New York accent. But his love for our mom was total, and that – over time – outweighed our own misgivings.

Mom was already a private pilot when they met, and she and John built a Rutan-designed VariEze together in the late 1970s. Later, they had a partnership in a Bonanza. She flew and he did the navigation and maintenance, and he was always amused that the vast majority of the people they met assumed he was the pilot.

A child of the Great Depression, John never had the luxury of indulging in athletics during his youth. But when he retired, he pursued endurance sports with astonishing results. He completed his first Ironman triathlon at age 65 and his last in Kona, Hawaii, at age 74. He also set age group records in distance swimming and the 50-mile run. While other athletes monitored their diets closely, he munched Twinkies and Oreos and drank beer.

He was totally supportive of his stepsons’ flying ambitions, and was never more proud than the day he pinned on my younger brother Harry’s Navy wings.

John died of cancer nine years ago at 82, and family members were all given decorative boxes containing some of his ashes. I had kept mine in an out-of-the-way dresser drawer ever since. I took the box on several flying trips thinking that I’d drop the contents over the Statue of Liberty, but fate always conspired to prevent it – until now.

A thankless job
Mom strapped into the back seat of the Tornado Husky, propped up on an extra cushion, and I handed her a Garmin GPSMAP 696 on a kneeboard to keep her busy during the 90-minute flight to New York City.

Target for today

She stowed the box of ashes within easy reach in the front seatback. “Sometimes you want to hold onto them and sometimes you want to let them go,” she said a few minutes after we took off. “Personally, I wanted them gone a long time ago. I spread them in the garden at home.”

Another brother distributed his share in Hawaii, site of John’s Ironman struggles and triumphs. Between New York, California, and Hawaii, the key places in his life would all be represented.

Mom had the New York Terminal Area Chart spread out on her lap as we approached the city’s towering skyline. I had been concerned that air traffic on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon would be high, but it turned out to be quite manageable.

We flew north over the VZ bridge, USS Intrepid, and other landmarks, all the way to the George Washington Bridge before making a 180-degree turn to the south.

“The Freedom Tower looks incredible,” my mom said as we went by with the upper floors still under construction above us. “John would really like seeing that, although he’d wonder why the hell it’s taken so long.”

Approaching the Statue of Liberty

On our way south, we overflew Ellis Island, the place where John’s ancestors (as well as ours), first landed in the United States. At 1,000 feet over the Statue of Liberty, a cool, swirling wind indicated Mom had slid the Tornado Husky’s left side window open. A moment later, we both said a silent prayer as she released the ashes.

As the ashes fanned out in the slipstream and dropped to the surface of the bustling, windswept harbor, I imagine that John would have been touched by our gesture. Perhaps it was his Irish ancestry that gave him a lifelong soft spot for ceremony and remembrance. And the combination of freedom and flying that the Statue of Liberty and the Tornado Husky represent would have been irresistible to him.

Being a stepdad is surely one of the most difficult and thankless jobs ever invented. My brothers and I did our best to make sure John’s assignment was as complicated and strenuous as possible.

It had taken a needlessly long time for me to deliver his ashes to this place where they belong. But I suspect that he’d agree that, finally, Mom and I had done it right. Like the rising tower at Ground Zero, the result, we hope, was worth the wait.

When we landed back in Maryland and pushed the Tornado Husky back in its hangar, I hugged Mom and thanked her for participating in this special delivery. What a lucky coincidence that she had been in Maryland visiting her grandkids when all the variables finally came together.

She smiled wryly and told me it hadn’t been a coincidence at all. Planning made it happen.

It turns out Ms. Pragmatism had traveled all the way across the country for the sole purpose of taking part in this final salute. She would fly home on an airliner the very next day.

“You know, I came for this,” she said. “Visiting you and your family is a bonus – but I actually came here for this.”

The Statue of Liberty

Maine Event

October 27th, 2011

The Boss comes along . . .
By Dave Hirschman 

Flying with The Boss.

Flying with The Boss.

Of all the places the AOPA 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than A Tornado” Husky was scheduled to travel, I anticipated that our planned autumn flight to Maine would be the highlight.

The natural splendor of fall in New England, and the rugged Maine coast, would make dramatic backdrops for aerial photography. And backcountry airstrips, camping, eating lobster, and visiting an aviation mentor—Steve Collins of Biplanes Over Acadia—had me looking forward to these four days in October months in advance.

But as the time approached, two complications made the trip uncertain.

First, high winds and rain blew into the East Coast with a low pressure system centered on New England. That was a regrettable but straightforward fact of life for any pilot of a VFR airplane. I consulted with the other members of our AOPA team—photographer Chris Rose, videographer Bob Knill, and pilot Mark Evans—and we thought it wise to postpone our departure by one day. The forecast showed sunny skies for several days after the fast-moving front went by, so we took the delay in stride.

The second complication was more nerve wracking. AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller, owner of a recently acquired 1998 Husky A-1A, also planned to come along on the trip in his own airplane. None of us other than Evans had ever traveled with The Boss before.

AOPA President Craig Fuller and his Husky.

AOPA President Craig Fuller and his Husky.

I’d coached him through his tailwheel endorsement, and I knew he was looking forward to taking his airplane on their first long road trip together. But was this the right one?

AOPA photo missions require getting up before dawn to be airborne at first light; going to remote locations; being in close proximity to other airplanes in flight; and sometimes staying airborne well after sunset for optimum light angles. On this trip, it would also mean camping at a grass strip and sleeping under the wings of our airplanes on nights when the temperatures were forecast to be at or below freezing.

All these aspects are part of the attraction for those of us who absolutely live for such assignments. But not everyone would regard what we do as the best way to spend a three-day weekend. And for Fuller, a former high-level White House staffer and corporate executive, such a trip would be a total departure from his normal routine.

The Boss assured us he was game, however, and asked for no special treatment. He wanted to get to know his airplane in the conditions for which it was built, and he genuinely looked forward to the flying challenges that awaited us.

We left our home base in Frederick, Maryland, as a flight of three airplanes. I led with Rose in the Tornado Husky, Evans and Knill followed in a PA-28 Archer that also carried extra photo and video gear, and Fuller flew solo in his Husky. We stayed in a loose, cross-country formation a few hundred feet apart all the way to New York City. There, we spread out about one mile in trail, descended to 1,100 feet, and slid through the Hudson River Corridor northbound by the Statue of Liberty, USS Intrepid, George Washington Bridge and other Big Apple landmarks. The skies were clear but bumpy as a west wind was blowing about 15 knots on the surface.

Once clear of the corridor, we made a right turn and landed at Hartford-Brainard Airport (KHFD), site of last month’s AOPA Summit. METARs showed light winds aligned with the runway all morning, but shortly before we arrived they were gusting to 16 knots and variable in direction: a real challenge for Huskies with a maximum demonstrated crosswind capability of 15 knots.

Once on the ground at Hartford, we refueled and resumed our trip north as a flight of three. There was no weather reporting at our destination, Old Acton Airfield (02ME) in southern Maine, but nearby airports, and smokestacks and lakes along the route, showed a gusty west wind and the turbulence at 3,500 feet was light but continuous.

I had never been to Old Acton, a private strip owned by John and Ann Marie Nadeau of the Recreational Aviation Foundation, but I knew it was plenty long enough for our airplanes. What I didn’t realize until seeing it, however, is that that the approach requires descending through a notch in tall trees, and the turf strip is quite narrow with a hangar on one side and a rock quarry on the other.

There were strong downdrafts approaching the field, but the wind was mostly calm below the tops of the 60-foot trees. We all made it in safely, and I breathed a sigh of relief that the first transportation portion of the trip had gone well. Now, it was time to get to work.

We set up camp, and I dove into my sleeping bag early that night in preparation for a big day of flying along the Maine coast beginning the next morning. The stars were out in vast numbers, and that—plus a favorable weather forecast—convinced me that we’d have great photo light at dawn. 

Campfire on a frosty morning.

Campfire on a frosty morning.

The Coast
I felt cheated when I crawled out of the tent at dawn to see solid overcast and slate gray clouds blanketing the sky. The ceiling was high and the visibility excellent, but the conditions were atrocious for aerial photography.

Rose and Knill made lots of ground photos of frosty airplanes and coffee brewing over the campfire. But there was no point in launching early. We finally took off just after 8 a.m. and flew to Wiscasset (KIWI), a jewel of a GA airport on the Maine Coast. There, we met Lisa Reece, president of the Maine Aeronautical Association, and went out with a group of local pilots to a hearty breakfast. Afterward, we flew north along Maine’s incomparable coastline to Bar Harbor Airport (KBHB). There, we met Collins, owner of a wildly successful rides business, and a man who had provided me with the best weekend job in Atlanta, Georgia, during the years I was there, flying a North American A/T-6, Stearman PT-17, and Waco YMF-5. Collins and local Maine pilot Mike Allen showed us their fleet of Wacos, a glider, and a Cessna 182 that they use to introduce hundreds of people each year to GA in a classy, exciting, and positive way.

On the flight back to southern Maine, we saw a few breaks in the clouds producing shafts of golden light off the coast. We chased some, but the mirages seemed to close just prior to our arrival each time. Aerial photography is awfully fickle, and so many variables have to align for everything to work right. All the ingredients were there for us, except good light.

We built a roaring campfire that night, and shared hamburgers and stories with the Nadeaus and fellow aviators Bob Burley and Andy Rowe. But although the forecast for the next day was favorable, no stars were visible when I zipped up my sleeping bag and shut my eyes for the night. 

The Lakes

Dawn at our Maine campsite.

Dawn at our Maine campsite.

We awoke to a pastel red sunrise and still air, and it was obvious that this was our big chance for the kinds of aerial photos we had hoped for.

We scraped the frost off aircraft windshields, wings, and control surfaces, and Rose and Evans bundled up in their warmest clothes. They would be flying in the doorless photo airplane with a biting wind swirling through it.

Fuller and I cranked the Huskies and allowed plenty of idling time for the oil to warm up. But I was desperate to get in the air so as not to miss the perfect but fleeting conditions. Fuller took off first, and his airplane leapt skyward in the cold, dry, dense morning air. I followed and could hardly believe our good fortune.

A golden carpet of autumn leaves seemed to stretch for miles in all directions, and white sinews of fog spread out in the river valleys. As soon as the photo airplane was airborne, I tucked in next to it and we headed for the nearby lakes. The hardest part was picking out where to go because the photo possibilities in all directions looked terrific.

Tornado Husky and fall colors

Tornado Husky and fall colors.

Fuller and I took turns flying next to the photo bird, and at times we flew the two Huskies together for Rose’s camera.

Conditions couldn’t have been any better, the airplanes performed flawlessly. Each participant applied himself with energy and purpose.

In less than an hour of flying, we were done.

Fuller, with an engagement in the Washington, D.C., area that afternoon, flew straight home by himself with a stop at Dutchess County Airport (KPOU) in New York. The rest of us returned to Old Acton Airfield to break camp, load our gear, and say goodbye to our hosts.

It had been a shorter trip than we had anticipated, but a thoroughly successful one.

We made new friends, collected some spectacular aerial images that are likely to pop up in AOPA publications for many months to come, and safeguarded the Tornado Husky for its eventual winner.
Along the way, Fuller logged some quality tailwheel time in quite demanding conditions. And unlike the rest of us, he never complained about the early launches, bad coffee, or brisk temperatures.

Hopefully, we’ll all be seeing him on more Husky trips in the future …

Morning fog over a lake.

Morning fog over a lake.

A Wounded Warrior and the Tornado Husky

October 6th, 2011

The old saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover is especially true for pilots – and prospective pilots.

Some who seem shy and retiring are tigers in the air, while others who are bold and brash on the ground are timid and meek above it.

When U.S. Marine Sgt. (retired) Adam Kisielewski came by AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, on Oct. 5 for a flight in the AOPA 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than A Tornado” Husky, I tried to keep an open mind about what to expect on our upcoming flight.

It turns out that Kisielewski, 28, has been through many trials in his young life. In 2005, he was entering a building in Fallujah, Iraq, where he was blasted by a powerful explosive that tore off his left arm and severed his right leg.

Last year, I was privileged to have been among the AOPA staff members who had helped train another wounded warrior, U.S. Marine Sgt. Michael Blair, to become a sport pilot. So Charles Stites, founder of Able Flight, a North Carolina charity that helps the disabled become sport pilots, asked me to fly with Kisielweski – a candidate for an Able Flight scholarship – and share my impressions.

Stites informed me that Kisielewski is an avid motorcyclist, and that got my attention. I once worked for agricultural flying service whose owner who was convinced that riding a motorcycle and flying an airplane drew on the same brain power (or lack of it) – and anyone good at one of those activities would instinctively do just fine at the other. Kisielewski has no ambitions of being a cropduster, but it made me feel good about his chances for becoming a sport pilot.

Then Kisielewski showed up at AOPA driving a new Dodge Charger. I’m not impressed by muscle cars, but this one told me the guy likes powerful, fast machines, and is comfortable operating them. And he was right on time, which showed me he was considerate, and eager to fly.

He moved so well and strode so confidently that I wouldn’t have guessed he wore a prosthetic on his right leg. (His leg amputation is below the knee.) But there was no getting around the fact that his left arm was missing at the shoulder.

“This isn’t a formal evaluation,” Stites told both of us. “There aren’t any grades, or a pass/fail. I just want you to get in the airplane, see what the experience of flying it is like, and find out what kind of strategy will best help you accomplish your goals.”

Kisielewski nodded, and said he was ready to get started immediately.

The day was sunny and clear but breezy with a gusty 15 knots out of the northwest. Our flight was sure to be bumpy, and a good measure of Kisielewski’s desire to fly and comfort in the air.

He had flown in a variety of military aircraft, and he’d sat up front in several general aviation airplanes, but he hadn’t had any ground school or formal flight instruction. I asked him whether he had flown in many Marine helicopters or V-22 tilt-rotors, and he answered that he was primarily a “boat Marine,” and had spent much of his time on ships, as well as nearby Camp David providing security for President George W. Bush.

I introduced him to the Husky and the rugged backcountry aircraft and oversized Tundra tires appealed to him right away.

The Husky is an especially difficult airplane to climb in and out of. It stands high on its 29-inch tires, and boarding it requires lifting yourself on the steel tube frame and pulling your legs to your chest to get them through the clamshell door and over the stick. I use two hands, but Kisielweski, by necessity, managed easily with one. He was in the process of fastening the five-point seatbelt harness one-handed when I reached in to help and inadvertently knocked one of the lap belts to the floor.

Kisielewski had to release all the belts, shift in the seat, and reach around his body with his right hand to retrieve the fallen belt on the left side of the cockpit.

“They can be a bit tricky and easy to drop,” I said.

“Yes, but you’re the one who dropped it, sir,” he pointed out, chuckling. “We’re all about accountability, right?”

I climbed into the back seat, and Kisielewski closed the door and window and turned the key to start the airplane. As we taxied, I asked him to make almost constant S-turns on the ramp to clear the way ahead and, predictably, his left turns were fine but his right turns, using the artificial leg where he had no sensation, weren’t. His left ankle flexed and he could apply the left brake – but not the right.

He pointed out the shortcoming matter-of-factly and proposed a solution.

“It’ll be easy to modify the prosthetic so that I can apply the right brake,” he said. “It’s a simple mechanical fix.”

After engine run-up, he aligned the airplane with Runway 30, and I advanced the power and performed the takeoff. Once airborne, I handed over the stick and rudder and told him to keep his eyes outside. Despite the bumpy air, he did just fine, turned crosswind, downwind, and out of the pattern to the northeast.

“There’s a cement plant with a group of tall buildings 10 miles to the northeast,” I said. “Level off at this altitude and let me know when you see it. Then take us there.”

“I see it now at our 11 o’clock,” he answered, making a slight left turn to put us directly on course.

There was obviously nothing wrong with his vision, and he seemed relaxed while keeping his eyes outside the airplane, just as I had asked. Kisielewsi mentioned that he had recently moved with his wife and 2-year-old child to Libertytown, a small community nearby. I asked him to find and overfly his home.

“Well, there’s Highway 26,” he said, making a slight right turn. “There’s the subdivision, and my house is behind those trees. You’ll be able to see it in just a minute.”

He overflew his home, circled to the left, and looked down on it.

“Is yours the one with the American flag out front?” I asked. The flag was attached to a thick, stand-alone pole in the center of what appeared a recently poured circle of concrete.

“That’s it.”

We had been flying less than 20 minutes, but I had seen all I needed to see.

“Take us back to the airport,” I said without providing a direction to steer. “Overfly it at our current altitude, and I’ll take over when we pass overhead.”

He turned toward the airport, and when we were directly above it, I handled the controls but asked him to leave his hand on the stick and feet on the pedals as we landed. Then he taxied back to the hangar and shut the engine down.

Kisielewski is vice president of Operation Second Chance, a non-profit that helps wounded combat veterans and their families – a job that keeps him extraordinarily busy. He’s also a husband and father.

It hasn’t been determined whether he’ll receive an Able Flight scholarship, or if he does, whether he’ll have time to pursue full-time flight training. But I have no doubt that he’ll succeed if he does dedicate himself to it, and I’m certain that he can contribute greatly to the strength of our flying community.

I told him what a privilege it was to meet with him and fly with him, and I thanked him for his incalculable sacrifices. He said he appreciates the gratitude, but it really isn’t necessary.

“Believe me when I say that I’m the lucky one,” he said. “I had one bad day, but the truth is I’ve received much more from my country than I’ve given.”

I once heard a veteran FAA examiner claim that he could tell the outcome of any checkride by the time a candidate starts the airplane and taxies to the runway for departure. I’m sure that’s true for checkrides, but the people I fly with constantly surprise me.

And sometimes, as with Kisielewski, those unexpected moments are humbling, inspiring, and unforgettable.

Tornado Husky and the Big Apple

September 27th, 2011

I’ve long had a special reason to fly the Hudson River VFR corridor in New York, but for a variety of reasons – usually weather – it had never happened.

Then, last week offered what seemed the perfect chance.

Flying the AOPA 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than a Tornado” Husky from Frederick, Md., to AOPA Aviation Summit in Hartford, Conn., required going right by New York City. And the weather was gorgeous on the day AOPA colleague Alyssa Miller and I planned to make the trip.

A presidential TFR in New York was going to shut down the corridor and virtually all other VFR traffic late in the day, but we could still make our transit with an hour to spare.

I loaded my special cargo – a small engraved box — into the Tornado Husky with our other gear for the week and studied the New York Terminal Area Chart to review the Hudson River Corridor procedures and reporting points. Alyssa would fly the airplane from the front seat, and I’d look out the window and handle the communications from the back.

Also, the Husky has a sliding window on the left side that seemed perfect for my purpose, which involved dropping something from the airplane in flight. That’s where the contents of the engraved box come in. You see, the ashes of my late step-father, John Melville, a New York City native, former aerospace engineer, and the person who made so many of our family’s dreams of flight come true, have resided in that box since his death in 2003. I wanted to honor him by spreading his ashes near the Statue of Liberty, a place close to the heart of freedom-loving people worldwide.

I loaded the airplane and was making final weather and TFR checks when the Lockheed briefer gave me the bad news. A United Nations TFR extended into the Hudson River Corridor shutting down all north-bound flights.

Reluctantly, I scrubbed the corridor mission that day.

We flew a nearly direct course to Hartford, and when we crossed the Hudson River 40 miles northwest of the city, the weather was so crystal clear we could easily make out the imposing skyline in the distance.

I hoped to have another opportunity to spread the ashes on Sunday, Sept. 25, the day after AOPA Aviation Summit ended when we planned to make our return flight to Frederick.

But a stubbornly slow low-pressure system had settled over the East Coast during Summit and refused to leave. The weather forecast called for rain and patchy low clouds along most of the route. So once again, I abandoned the idea of a Hudson River run and packed the well-traveled ashes in my backpack. Then I made the mistake of loading the backpack into another AOPA aircraft bound for headquarters.

Alyssa flew the return trip to Maryland from the front seat of the Husky, and the ceiling was high and visibility excellent coming out of Hartford. The cloud bases stayed elevated as we continued southwest toward home, and the XM Satellite weather display on the Garmin 696 showed the way was clear.

The Hudson River came into view from a distance of more than 20 miles, and on this day there were no TFRs. Alyssa said she was game for a north-south run down the river, so when we got to the Hudson, we made a hard left turn, descended to 1,100 feet msl, and followed the waterway southward.

I was kicking myself for putting my step-dad’s ashes in another aircraft, so there was no way to deliver them on this day. But I thought of him throughout our 100-knot tour of the city where he was raised in an Irish immigrant neighborhood during the Great Depression and went to college (Columbia University) graduating in 1940.

A swarm of helicopters plied the area around “the lady,” as New York pilots refer to the iconic statue in the harbor.

The Tornado Husky, an airplane made for the wilderness, hardly seemed out of place overflying New York City landmarks including the George Washington Bridge, USS Intrepid, and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Fortunately, the Tornado Husky is scheduled to pass through the Big Apple again in the fall. And when it does, I’ll deliver the last remains of a remarkable man to the place that defined him.

And when those ashes fall to the water, I’ll remember how my step-dad did one of the world’s most difficult and thankless jobs – being a step-parent to four troublesome, quarrelsome boys – with steadiness and humor that my brothers and I can only strive to emulate with our own children.

Before he died at age 82, in one of our last conversations, I spoke with him about his many accomplishments. He summed up his record of achievement with a shrug, a wry smile, and a characteristically dismissive one-liner:

“Not bad for some jerk from New York.”