Sunday, July 5, 2015

An Australian goes to Washington (-or- An Aviation Pilgrimage) ...Part 1

Some of these blog posts are easy to write - I book/organise/get invited/plan some sort of act of aviation.  I can then tell you about it pretty easily - I just imagine I'm talking to you, telling you about it.

This post has been hard.

Hard to get started.  Not because I don't want to - it's just that so much awesome stuff happened on a recent trip that I find it hard to get my thoughts in order about it - let alone try to express my amazement/delight/avgeekiness without descending into ever-increasing use of fluffy adjectives.  I think it is important to try - so try I will.  Please excuse me if I do sound like an Energizer Bunny.

I recently went to America.  (Hmm...That wasn't so hard, after all.)  It all came about when my work (AvPlan EFB) needed an extra person to travel to Florida and assist Bevan with manning a booth at Sun 'n Fun, among the larger of the many airshows/pilot gatherings. I had heard of this event in previous years through the magic of podcasting, and was honoured to be selected to go.  During the planning process Bevan mentioned that if I wanted to tack on some personal travel before or after the show that would be fine with them.

I began thinking about things to do.  I've technically stood on US soil before, but a US Air Force Base in Japan probably doesn't really count, so visiting places like New Orleans or New York is definitely on my to do list, however I'd decided that this trip was going to be aviation-themed. At the top of my avgeek list was seeing some flight museums.    There are some aviation museums in Florida, however I had three aircraft in particular I wanted to see:

1. SR-71 Blackbird
2. Concorde
3. Space Shuttle

Anything else was going to be a bonus.

After doing some googling, it was apparent the best place for the above list in one hit was none other than Washington DC - more specifically, the National Air and Space Museum (part of the Smithsonian network of museums).  Excellent. I had a destination.

The simple act of travelling to America was going to be an avgeek's delight, for it turns out that United Airlines offers a MEL - LA direct service flying the Boeing 787-9.  An aircraft that is incredibly advanced, but not without its development hiccups.  The -9 model is the second and slightly longer version of the original -8, that had all the famous battery troubles.  This aircraft seems to have polarised the avgeek community, they either love it or hate it.  I was prepared to reserve judgement until I had actually flown on it.

The morning of departure dawned clear and cold.  I had splurged the extra $10 over the projected cost of the taxi and booked a limousine service.  Unfortunately, it didn't turn out so great.  Standing at the end of my driveway in the dark, fifteen minutes after my booking I was informed that my driver had slept in and another car was being scrambled - but won't be there for another 20 minutes or so.  Not such a great start, so I ended up phoning and going in a taxi anyway.  The car company was very apologetic - but that doesn't get me to the airport.
Arriving at the airport, I checked my luggage and happened to walk past the doors leading to the old observation deck.  It was sad to see the lights off and a big closed sign in the door windows. Thinking of number of aviation fans and potential young avgeeks missing out on an amazing view of the micro-city that is a modern international airport dragged me down a little.  But, before long I was through security and found myself (at 6:15 AM I might add) perusing the single malt scotch on offer in the Duty Free shops. One shop assistant even insisted I try one that I expressed curiosity in. I wasn't driving anywhere, so what the hey! That helped me forget the sad locked doors.

Roll up, roll up!


Our chariot for this ride - the Boeing 787-9,  registration N19951.
I made my way to the departure lounge and was there early enough to watch the 787 pull into the gate.  It looked so big - and yet so small at the same time.  The sleek features were easy to spot - the four segment windscreen, the chevrons at the rear of the GEnx engines, and those raked wingtips. Getting on board, it struck me that the interior still had that 'new plane smell'.  We all took our seats - both myself and the lady I was sharing a row with were hoping the empty seat between us would stay that way. We both breathed a sigh of relief when it did.

From my window seat, just behind the starboard wing leading edge, I had a good view of the cargo being loaded on to the aircraft.  I started to get curious when all other activity around the aircraft had died down, yet the loading machine wasn't detaching and moving away.  Then the flight crew announced over the PA that there was some cargo that was delayed getting released from customs.  Aaah....That's why.  I watched the last couple of pallets get lifted up and sent into the hold - by this time we were a little over 30 minutes past our scheduled departure time.  The captain got back on the PA and assured us that "This is a fast airplane, we have some extra fuel so we're going to keep the speed up and we'll most likely have an on time arrival at LAX".

Eventually we pushed back and made the long taxi down to the end of runway 34.  I couldn't see it until we held short, but we were number 2 to the Qantas A380, who was also heading to LAX direct. I was thrilled to have an almost front-row view of the initial takeoff roll. It struck me then how awesome the really large windows are in the 787.  They go much higher, so when on the ground there's no need to crane one's neck in order to see other aircraft movements like you do on other aircraft where the window is designed to look down during flight - not look along the horizon.

After a suitable pause to allow the preceding Super's vortices to dissipate, it was our turn.  I kept a close eye on those wingtips as they loomed up by the more and more lift being generated.  They really do bend!

Wing bend on the ground versus in the air.

We turned right and departed out over Gippsland.  For a fleeting moment I was treated to an awesome view of Melbourne city as we climbed out.  After only a short time, we hit the cloud base - I didn't see any more of Victoria after that. When we punched out on top the sun was super bright, so I instantly made use of the electrochromatic window glass. Perfect!  Just like having transitions lenses for your window.  I could dim the brightness, but still be able to keep an eye out for traffic! At the darker levels, though, I did notice quite a green/blue tint to the glass...but that's not a deal breaker.

Initially climbing to FL023 (23,000 feet), we departed Victoria and headed out over the water. It struck me at that moment that we wouldn't be over land again for another 14 hours. As we burned off fuel and became lighter, the crew step-climbed to higher levels. True to their word, they kept the speed up.  We were now cruising at .86 mach (86% of the speed of sound).

Somewhere north of New Zealand I noticed a white dot in the sky that was moving - but not very fast.  After watching it for some time I realised that it was the A380 that had departed ahead of us, now on a parallel track. We were slowly but surely catching up to them, as the now clearly white/red dot was now passing behind our wingtip we were leaving them behind in our wake! It IS a fast plane!

Most of the cabin went to sleep after the 'lunch' (it was 9:30 AM).  The cabin went from bright light to a twilight colour scheme, then finally to a dark theme.  I was too excited to sleep, so I kept a keen eye out for storms as we passed through the Intra-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). It is a region where the two main parts of the equatorial tropical air flow from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres meet. Always good cause for numerous isolated, yet powerful storms. I didn't see much lightning action, but I did see some impressive Towering Cumulus topping out well above our altitude.

We were already fairly high by this stage - this Towering Cumulus was higher still, though!

As we were heading straight towards it, night fast approached.  I didn't see much during that time because the cabin crew had completely dimmed the entire cabin's windows - which I wasn't all that happy about. I tried to doze.  At some point, about half way between Hawaii and the mainland USA, I realised that we were now a loooong way from anywhere. I hoped those GE engines kept turnin' through the night!

My first glimpse of the USA in the early morning light.
The crew kept their word during the night - kept the speed up the entire trip. We were given a straight in approach to LAX, and arrived at the Tom Bradley International Terminal gate three minutes early! I got off the plane, and in the process started talking to another Australian bloke, Glen - who had saved all his money and was going to travel South America for six months.  We were both flying to Texas before heading on to our final destinations, so we grabbed our bags and headed through Customs.  If you really want to confuse Customs officials, wear a shirt bearing the name 'Rusty's Floatplanes - Alaska' while holding up an Australian passport and heading to Florida.  The shirt was a gift my 'folks-in-law brought me back from their trip, and it was a perfect garment to wear on the long flight.  It just happened to make this bloke's head explode slightly....but he stamped my passport, so that was a relief!

Rounding the corner to exit the international terminal, my new friend and I were told that our next flight had been cancelled.  A quick check of the weather RADAR showed why... Massive frontal storms throughout Texas.  Bummer.  To a small, but slowly moving line we were directed to be re-booked on other flights.  When I finally got to speak with the booking agent, she typed, and typed, and typed....(three minutes later)....and typed, until finally she said "I'm sorry, the only way I can get you to Tampa today is via Washington... Otherwise it wouldn't be until tomorrow." I replied that it would be ok.  My new flight wasn't leaving for another couple of hours, so it was time to settle into the departure lounge (not enough time to explore outside the airport and return).  My new friend Glen  bid me goodbye, for his re-booking process was going to take much longer than mine - with no guarantee he'd make it to his flight to South America.

LAX
Strolling down the airport footpath to the other terminals, I heard a familiar sound... "The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers...There's no parking in the white zone."  I giggled with delight - Airplane! (or Flying High, as it was titled down here) had it down pat!

My next adventure was the TSA security check to enter the domestic terminal. I'd heard a lot about these over the years.  I strolled up to the beginning of the lines.  The TSA agent tapped the screen of an iPad mounted on a pedestal, where I briefly saw the words "TSA Randomizer" before it flashed up "RIGHT" in large letters.  The agent then gestured for me to not go to the left where everybody else was lining up, but skip that and go over to the other, mirror image setup 30 metres away. ...With no one lining up!  I went straight through and was done in seconds.  Thanks Randomizer!

After a burger, some Facebook piss-farting around and some window shopping it was time to board the flight to Washington Dulles.  This was another first for me - a Boeing 757.  We departed LAX over the water, then turned and departed on a left downwind.  Giving me a glimpse of the airport and some of LA.  I only was able to see part of California - I was struck by the sheer number of airports I could spot. They seemed to be everywhere.  After that, we climbed through the overcast that persisted for almost the rest of the flight.  So much for seeing the country!

Turning downwind for departure.  That's LAX in the centre.
Santa Monica Airport
My view for *almost* the entire remainder of the flight.


By the time the flight arrived at Dulles, it was already dark.  I had to walk briskly to the next departure gate.  Better than a couple of people that really had to sprint from one to the other because of the design of the terminal.  I made it with a couple of minutes to spare.  It was hilarious seeing everyone try to cram their exceedingly large and heavy carry-on items into the overhead bins - especially the latecomers.  It made me glad I decided to travel light in the cabin and only have a small backpack that could easily fit under the seat.

I generally like to pay attention to the flight attendants' safety demonstration (like a good little avgeek).  This was my first flight on a Boeing 737-900 model (yet another first!), so I thought I should at least pay some attention.  My sleepiness had other ideas.  I ended up having microsleeps through the entire demonstration.  I felt bad, but I couldn't keep my eyes open through a wave of tiredness that had swept over me!

I didn't see much for that flight - it was dark and I was in the middle seat.  Arriving in Tampa at 12:45 AM local time (original plan was 7PM), I worked out that I had been in transit for around 25 hours!  The longest Friday I'd ever had!  I was so fatigued, I couldn't work out how to properly use the hotel's strange mixer tap in the shower - so I simply had a cold shower.  There was no markings on it at all.  In the morning I realised that one must turn it through about 270 degrees to get the hot water. Duh!

Bevan arrived the next afternoon at about three, where we'd meet up, grab a rental car and head to our hotel for the week long show.  Walking to the car, I was saying to myself "I won't walk to the wrong side of the car...I won't walk to the wrong side of the car...I won't walk to the wrong side of the car..." After loading our luggage in the boot, I found myself (out of habit) on the same side as Bevan, making us both very confused for a microsecond!  Another duh moment!

We had a day up our sleeve before the show started, so Bevan offered to take he and I to the Kennedy Space Center over at Cape Canaveral. My aviation museum geekery would start early! It was an easy drive almost directly East along the highway. Figuring "how often would you get the chance to come here?", we shelled out some extra money for a bus tour of the facility - which included getting fairly close to some of the launch sites.

Our chariot at the first stop on our bus tour.

The famous Crawler that brings the spacecraft from the assembly facility to the launch pad. Massive!

Launch Complex 31A, where the Space Shuttle and Gemini spacecraft launched.
The Vehicle Assembly Building - the largest single story structure in the world. Built in the '60s to assemble the massive Saturn V rocket, each star on that flag is over six feet across!

The bus tour ends with a fleeting trip to the Shuttle Landing Facility (basically a big long cement runway in between swampy bushland) and finally it drops us off at the Saturn V display.  This hall has an introduction theatre, then opens out to reveal the massive rocket sitting on its side (lifted up slightly on poles, though).  Those five F1 rocket engines tower above you as you enter the room.

The view of the Saturn V and its five massive F1 rocket engines as you enter the building.

When the Shuttle launched, there was a two mile exclusion zone around the launch complex, due to the noise.  When the Saturn V launched, that zone was doubled to 4 miles!

The Command and Service Modules (foreground).

There was also some other impressive pieces on display:

The actual Apollo 14 Command Module.
Moon rock!

After a spot of lunch, it was time to head back to the main display, Rocket Garden and to see Space Shuttle Atlantis!  I was going to see not one but two Shuttles on this trip!

The Kennedy Space Center's Rocket Garden.

Atlantis is presented as if it is in orbit; wheels up, rolled to the left slightly, with the payload bay open and Canadarm deployed.  There is a mezzanine level that means you can look down into the payload bay.  The dark theme that the interior of the building is painted in mimics the look of space.  Pretty cool, actually.

The display also includes a Space Shuttle Launch simulator, which was a bit of fun.  They'd have you believe you're being tilted up to 90˚, but I'm sure we were closer to 30˚ nose up.  Some big thumping subwoofers and vibrations happening under the 'ride'.  One of the best parts was lining up to go into the sim, they play interviews of astronauts that have flown on Atlantis and they give their personal thoughts and observations about the experience.

The whole experience of Kennedy was very cool.  Seeing for real all these places I'd only ever seen on TV or in books.  The sheer scale of the overall facility is mind boggling.  Add to that, it is a protected wildlife area as well!

We drove back to the hotel and later Bevan went and picked up our third team member for the show, Clay.  He's a very highly trained gene scientist and has forgotten more about science than I'll ever know!  On top of that, he is building his own Zenith aircraft. We got along famously, which is lucky because we were sharing a hotel room!  Over the next week, he'd teach me American 'stuff'.

The Exhibitor credentials for Sun 'n Fun looked to me rather like a fun run participation award!

Before long it was time to head over to Lakeland Regional Airport and Sun 'n Fun, set up the display and start talking to American pilots.  Bevan and Clay had the advantage of having seen the finished display at least once before... I was flying blind.  After a little while we had it sorted.  On one side of us was two cool guys selling electronic hearing protection/enhancement, and on the other was a company that sells telescopic flagpoles.  Apparently, both us and them had been in the same positions last year. Bevan warned me about the 'click...click...click' of the poles going up and down all day.  He was right.

It was often very hot in the temporarily re-purposed hangar that the display booths were housed.  There was no air conditioning, so each vendor brought their own fans to bring some relief from the heat and humidity.  In the afternoon the air show would start, causing numbers in the halls to drop considerably.  This gave us time to go for a walk and see some of the other displays.

There were some amazing aircraft on display:
A Pitts with a radial engine.
The almost shark-like Piaggio Avanti II.
The Discovery 201 twin utility aircraft. Apparently, these are very popular in Africa.
The Lancair Legacy - a kit built pressurised turboprop.
B17 bomber "Alminum Overcast".  I had the pleasure of hearing it arrive overhead at Lakeland.
A Mitsubishi Zero.
B24 Liberator "Diamond Lil".
A-10 Tank Killer.  I made a model of one of these when I was a young kid.  It was great to finally see one for real!
F22 Raptor.

Strolling around the aircraft on static display - almost all of them had no protective fence around them.  With the exception of the F22 and the Zero (I'm guessing because one is still highly classified and the other is extremely rare), you could walk up to, under, around, look in open bays etc. Something you'd never get at Australian air shows.  The teams displaying their aircraft loved talking about them.
Oooooh....Is THAT what they are?! Time for a spot of lunch.
An unusual mode of land transport!


A DC-3 with a turboprop conversion!
A full-scale mockup of the new Mooney M10J aircraft.

Sun 'n Fun was amazing. I got to speak at length with many pilots - all with fascinating stories to tell. The most memorable was speaking to an ex-F-111 pilot.  He obviously didn't realise that Australia had them for many years, because he was amazed that I knew all about them.

After several hot days, it was time to pack up the stand and head our separate ways.  Bevan had headed off a day early to attend important business meetings, so it was up to Clay and myself to put it all back in the boxes.  The moment all the personal fans were switched off in the display hangar, the temperature soared.  Everyone was a sweaty mess that afternoon!

Somehow, we eventually fitted the gear back in the protective cases and figured out the paperwork to have it all shipped to OshKosh.  After all of that sweating I was ready for a coooooold beer!  Clay asked what I'd like to have as my last dinner in Florida. "Bearing in mind, I can have American food any time I want!", he'd say.  I had a hankering for some ribs, so I opted for the southern bbq place. Our waitress brought out a tall frosty mug of beer (Budweiser - eh, it was cold and there. No craft beer at this place!).  She placed it down in front of me and turned away to place a starter on an opposite table. Only a second or two later, she turned back around, to find me holding an empty glass - pointing at the base. In my most Aussie accent I could muster: "I think this one is faulty!"  She laughed so hard, she almost dropped the glass after I handed it to her.  We could hear her laughing all the way back to the drinks station. Good to know I made someone's day!

Those famous ribs at Sonny's BBQ.
Our waitress came back with an even bigger beer in a plastic cup.  It wasn't the same as a frosty glass mug.

The next day, Clay and I headed to Tampa airport.  He was heading home, but I was only just beginning the second phase of my trip:  Washington DC.  

To be continued.....

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Another List Item - Completed! Flight to YLTV.



Saturday was a huge day of flying.  Heading down to La Trobe Valley airport by air to visit my parents had always been a hope of mine. I grew up in a little town not too far from this airport.  I'd managed to get half way there previously; to meet at Tyabb airport and have lunch with my Dad, who flew across from West Sale airport.

This time it was my Mother's birthday.  I booked the Tecnam for the whole day and called Dad to tell him.  He was excited and booked a lunch at a winery in the foothills only a few minutes' drive from the airport. It was to be a surprise for Mum.  I kept an eye on the weather forecasts for the week leading up; the worst was to be Saturday evening into Sunday morning.  I figured if I could get there and back fairly quickly, I should be ok.

I awoke Saturday morning to a high overcast and light winds.  It was looking good so far!  The rain RADAR was showing showers in the far Northwest of the State, associated with a large cold front. If I was going to make this happen, there was no time to waste.  My wife Mel was coming with me this time, so we got up early and headed to the airport.  I offered to preflight the aircraft while Mel sat in the relative comfort of the Aero Club lounge.  Lots of the club members were there this day because it was the annual 'Cops and Kids' day (a wonderful event organised by a local policeman, ill children have a chance to ride in a police car, a prime mover and/or an aeroplane; plus jumping castles, fun foods, crafts, etc.).  The aircraft were all out on the tarmac lined up perfectly.  I apologised to them that I'd be spoiling their perfect line.

I fuelled the aircraft (assisted by another club member) and completed the daily inspection.  There was a cool breeze by this stage, which Mel didn't appreciate too much as I packed our stuff in behind the seats.  She was thankful when I finally got in and closed the canopy.  I fired up the aircraft and went through the pre-flight checks - also sending a tracking link to Dad, so he could follow our live progress on his phone.  I'd considered going past Melbourne and via the Coastal Route, but it was fairly gloomy towards the city and I was hoping to make the trip as comfortable and smooth as possible - so I decided to go around the South of Port Phillip Bay instead.  It only adds 9 or 10 miles to the trip, and the airspace is much less crowded which would allow more freedom to climb and cruise at higher (and hopefully smoother) altitudes.

Preparing to go. (Photo by Mel)

Departing Ballarat was straightforward.  I cruise-climbed to 5500 feet and above 3500' it was as smooth as silk.  'If only it could be like this the whole way!' I thought.  It didn't last too long, because as we approached Geelong, there was a thin band of stratocumulus cloud that from a distance looked to be not broken enough to go 'VFR on top', so I descended below them.  Almost straight away the bumps returned - thankfully, Mel isn't bothered by them.

Our route to La Trobe Valley

Negotiating around the parachute drop aircraft on one side and the warbird adventure flight on the other, we threaded the eye of the needle between Barwon Heads and Torquay airports.  By the time we had crossed the heads (otherwise known as 'The Rip'), I was over the bumps and started looking closely at the cloud formations.

It turned out that when viewed from a much closer angle, the gaps between the clouds were quite large.  I then made the decision to climb above them and do something that was a first for me - VFR on top.

On top it was once again smooth as silk - and visibility was much better, too.  There was plenty of gaps in the cloud that I could recognise the towns as we flew over them.  I'd planned to fly straight over French Island and directly to the airport, however when I looked towards La Trobe Valley I saw that the cloud was thicker closer to the coast.  To my relief it stayed broken further inland, so I made my way up to the Princes Freeway at Packenham and followed it all the way.

Planned route vs. actual route.

I found a nice, long gap in the clouds and descended through it.  At the same time, I switched the radio to the airport's Common Traffic Advisory Frequency.  At first it sounded pretty straightforward.  Two already in the circuit, with one overhead the field and joining from the dead side.  Good so far.  Then, one after the other four helicopters reported they were on a long final of varying lengths for the runway we were all using.  There was suddenly so many, I lost track of all the callsigns and where exactly everybody was.  I decided to do a little orbit, because my original plan of joining mid-field crosswind didn't seem to be panning out with the traffic.  After the orbit, I saw my chance - join regular crosswind and tuck in behind a 172 that had just turned from crosswind to downwind.

Once established on downwind, I watched the helicopters stream in.  By the time we'd be on final they'd be all out of the way.  The landing was uneventful - I had memories of flying that exact same approach with Dad in his friends' Jabiru 170 a couple of years earlier.  I could barely believe that I was now landing a plane that brought me from the other side of the State!

I pulled the aircraft up out the front of the Aero Club - which was absolutely brimming with people.  I got out to ask someone where I could park that wouldn't be in the way.  Noticing the 172 that was ahead of us in the circuit, I went over and talked to the instructor that had just got out.  I introduced myself to Webb, telling him of our plans, who then offered to move his aircraft out of the way so we could park and tie down in his spot.  He even pushed ours into position!  The tie-downs were actually chains with a clip on the end - easy (although they were usually designed for high-wing aircraft, so I had to loop it around to shorten it for my little low-wing).

All tied down.  The extra loop of chain is visible hanging down under the wing.

Mum and Dad picked us up and we headed to the Narkoojee Winery.  Mum was very happy to see us - Dad had kept the plans a surprise.  The lunch was lovely, but we couldn't stay.  In the back of my mind the whole time was the predicted showers and possible storms building in the afternoon.  The last thing we wanted to do was get stuck somewhere, but at the same time it was nice to know that there were plenty of places to stop along the way if things got bad.  Mel and I ordered quickly made meals and ate them without delay.   We booked a taxi and thanked the helpful staff for assisting with our timely departure.  Saying goodbye to everyone after such a fleeting visit was tough, but necessary for the success of the flight.

Arriving back at the airport, the club was now much quieter.  I got a chance to chat to Webb about our return journey plans.  I topped up the tanks with a couple of litres of Avgas, just to have a nice buffer.   A big shout-out to the La Trobe Valley Aero Club.  Everyone was welcoming, and nothing was too much trouble to help us out!

YLTV - the clouds had lifted as the day progressed.
A quick pre-departure selfie by Mel.

Departing the airport, I turned and tracked for Moe, while missing Yallourn power station on our right and the rising ground to our left.  There was the a tiny thin band of showers hovering over Drouin; passing under them only resulted in about 15 drops of rain, so it was nothing to fear.  Once clear, I climbed up to a nice cruising altitude of 6500 feet.

Return journey - much more direct this time.

Approaching Port Phillip Bay once again.

About to overfly Tyabb (YTYA) Airport.
Maintaining this height gave us excellent views of the Heads and Avalon Airport.  A bonus of this height was that the parachute ops over Barwon Heads airport were now only from 5000 feet - well below us!  As I turned the final corner to point back towards Ballarat, I could easily make out the shape of Mount Buninyong in the distance.  This was a good sign, as home was only a couple of miles the other side of it.

As we approached the top of descent into Ballarat, I noticed a rain squall off to our left sitting over Lake Burrumbeet.  I watched it like a hawk as we made our way closer to the city of Ballarat - the last thing we needed was to get so close and have a shower move in over the airport.  Thankfully, I could see it tracking more to the South.  I had heard someone in the circuit minutes before, but they were now on the ground.  I elected to take the runway with the shortest circuit and taxi time to reduce the chance of getting rained on in the process - this also meant taking the crosswind too, which was steady at about 9 or 10 knots crosswind component.

Mel hadn't experienced a crosswind landing before, so I made sure I didn't do anything too extreme. I crabbed it in for most of final (nose pointing slightly into wind), then transitioned to a wing-low approach at about 150 feet AGL (nose now pointed down the runway, a small amount of lift is tilted into the wind).  Touching down was a controlled one wheel at a time landing - awesome!

As no one else was around, I backtracked to the club and shut down.  Mel got out and I invited her to chill out in the club lounge while I sorted out the aircraft and helped the instructor and duty pilot put them all away.  By this time, the Cops and Kids had long packed up and gone.  Taking a few minutes once back inside the club to sort out the post-flight paperwork, I gathered up our stuff and headed towards the door.  Just as I did that, we heard a rumble, then saw the sky absolutely open up!

We'd made it back with some time to spare - but not much!  Dad rang to see if we made it back before the rain.  He'd been watching the approaching front on his rain RADAR app.  I assured him that we'd made a successful return.  I was very glad at this moment that we hadn't prolonged lunch too much!

The front, making its way to the South East.

As I was walking to the car, I heard an aeroplane engine amongst the heavy rain and thunder.  It was a Cessna completing a bad-weather circuit.  I was glad to not be in his shoes!

I learned a lot this trip, and I even considered pulling the pin at several points during the flight.  But, this time, I decided to expand my margins a little and take some slightly more calculated risks - but maintaining many outs at the same time.  I doubt I'll ever reach an over-confidence level, but it's nice to expand my confidence in a step-by-step fashion.  I'm very glad Mel could come and share this very worthwhile trip with me.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Flying Without Wings



I received a text one Friday afternoon that made me very excited.  No, it wasn't the Nigerian Prince needing my help, nor was it winning the UK lottery - but wen't something like this:

"I'm flying at Bacchus Marsh on Sunday morning...You around and wanting to come for a fly?"

It was none other than Grant McHerron - balloonatic and podcasting mogul.  I've been a listener and a follower of his work (along with Steve Visscher) on the Plane Crazy Down Under podcast for some years now.  I'd been a ground crew for Grant twice before, and really enjoyed it. I thought about it for at least a microsecond and replied:

"Count me in!"

The next task was to find another passenger to share the experience with.  Mel wasn't keen on the uber-early start, so I thought I'd ask my new aviation keen friend Albert.  Mel had met Albert while completing a leadership course together - she saw our similar interests and insisted I get in touch with him to go for a fly.  Not long after, I took Albert up in the high wing Tecnam Bravo to have a quick look at the new runway down in Lethbridge - a fun afternoon!  I think Albert must have been equally keen about the balloon flight because his reply was just as quick.   The details were sorted, and the only thing to do was to make sure I went to bed early before the "crazy o'clock" wake up.

Conditions on the Sunday morning were perfect.  It was a clear, moonless night with very little wind at all.  Albert arrived at my place: "It's faaar too early for food!", he said shaking his head. I needed something, so I opted for an Up and Go breakfast drink.  I said goodbye to a sleepy Mel and we made our way down the Western Highway to an equally sleepy Bacchus Marsh.  We were even too early for McDonald's breakfast!

After a few minutes of waiting, the vehicles arrived at the assigned meeting place - a shopping precinct parking lot.  I peered into the dark and saw a few familiar faces, including Grant, but also Lu and her son James, who are an experienced ground crew team and I crewed with the last couple of times.

After meeting the teams for the two other balloons, Grant wasted no time in releasing a helium balloon with a red LED hanging off it.  It rose up into the still black sky with all pilots watching it intensely, looking for movement left or right as it moved through the various wind layers.  Using this information, the flight plan was formulated.  We were to drive over to the neighbouring town of Myrniong (a few kilometres NW), launch from a recreation reserve and we'd fly SE over the Werribee Gorge State Park to land on the open grass areas at Bacchus Marsh airfield.  With everyone in agreement with the plan, we jumped in the back of Grant's troop carrier and we headed up the highway.

One by one, the vehicles entered the reserve and found a spot to set up their balloons.  There would be three aircraft this flight.

Readying the basket for flight.

 It wasn't long before the silence of the now slightly sunlit morning was shattered by the roar of three cold-inflation fans.  I was surprised at how much colder it was here in Myrniong - only to be made worse by a powerful fan blowing cold air at high speed!  In ballooning, all members of the team are put to use - even the passengers.  After laying the limp and lifeless balloon (known as an 'envelope'), it was mine and Albert's job to hold the opening up and out so the cold air could be blown in.

Albert, shivering a little bit at his 'action station'. 

Grant, inspecting the various inner workings of the envelope prior to hot air inflation.

Grant, giving the envelope some heat - much to Albert's relief!  The fan visible in the foreground.

Standing Up
Almost ready to depart.

Grant gave us a thorough passenger brief (landing positions, emergency procedures, etc) and ensured the communications with the ground crew were working.  Moments later we got the "OK, get in..." instruction.  The basket was roomier than I thought - although Grant organised to lift one gas bottle out once the initial setup and fill was complete.  This gave us even more room!  With a quick wave to Lu and James, Grant put a large amount of heat in the envelope and tugged on our ground tether rope. We were free and rising - silently, straight up.  It was quite amazing - we'd taken off, were thirty or forty feet in the air, and we could still talk with the teams on the ground.  I made sure I gave them a wave.  At this point, I became aware of the audience that had turned out to see what all the commotion was.  Young children in their dressing gowns and slippers stood with their bleary-eyed parents as they watched these brightly coloured spheres took to the sky in turn.  A wave was quickly returned by almost all ground-based humans.  I was happy to be a part of the spectacle!

Rule number 1 in aviation: always wave to kids when moving about in aircraft.



Once we got above the treeline, the balloon stopped rising straight and the breeze began taking us to the South East - just as planned.  Grant kept a keen eye out for livestock and particularly horses, who can be easily spooked by the sound of the burners.

Grant keeping a keen eye out for livestock. Albert enjoys the panoramic view.
The views were just as amazing as I had imagined. The early morning sun lighting up the little patches of fog sitting in the low-lying areas; the trees casting long, diffused shadows.  I was awestruck by how quiet it was.  We were flying at anywhere from 200 to 1000 feet above the ground, and natural sounds around us could still be heard between burner blasts - trucks driving below us, flocks of sheep bleating.

Looking back towards Myrniong. Mount Blackwood visible in the background.

A curious flock of sheep follows the unusual flying contraptions. 


Flying over the Western Highway; looking SSE.

The group in the multi-coloured aircraft decided to do their own thing and headed off in the higher level winds.  They planned to land somewhere on the flat plains, do a passenger swap and keep on going.  In the yellow balloon was Steve and Ronald.  Steve was completing a Biennial Flight Review that Ronald (an experienced commercial balloon pilot) was overseeing.  As the other balloon sailed off into the distance, we tended to stay together.  We flew next to and above/below each other.

It was amazing to see how much control over our flightpath Grant actually had.  By popping up and down between the different wind layers we had quite a variety of 'steerage'.  Most of the time, there is absolutely no wind on your face when flying along - until the envelope passes through an inversion layer, and you feel the air movement for a brief moment while the basket catches up.


Ronald wanted some air-to-air pictures of the '77 with their new sponsor's logo on it.  We obliged.  Looking over towards the Werribee Gorge State Park.  
Grant in his element - enjoying some banter on the radio.  We could even hear the commercial crews operating in the Yarra Valley!
In flight catering was also provided by Grant - delicious lolly snakes!  "Brain food", Grant would call them as he reached into his bag.  We did some low flying in the valley, then it was time to start seriously thinking about the landing site.  It looked like we had plenty of options in terms of the winds, so Grant lifted us up above the level of the surrounding plains and into the slightly more speedy winds.  Up until this stage, we had been trundling along at 2 to 5 knots - now we were up at a blistering 8 knots!

Bacchus Marsh Aerodrome.  Our intended landing site.  The You Yangs clearly visible in the distance.

Grant put away the snakes, stowed the radio and got fully into 'flying mode' ready for the approach. The intent was to land in the large open grassed area between the hangars and the runway intersection. He pulled some of the release vents and we started descending in a perfect line to the target.  As we got closer to the ground, the wind close to the surface shifted slightly and we started tracking to the South and over the runway.  This wasn't such a big deal; there was plenty of grass on the other side of the tarmac.  

Steve guiding his aircraft to his aim point. He got low to the ground and allowed the wind to take them over the fence. 

Grant guided us over the runway and perfectly on to the grass on the other side.  Unfortunately, in an effort to 'round out' and make a smooth landing he kept too much heat in the envelope and we touched the ground and went back up again.  Known as a touch and go in the powered aircraft parlance.  Grant had also done this the last time we were all here and I was ground crewing - so I made sure to give him a ribbing about it later while we were having breakfast.  For the moment, the focus was on getting the aircraft on the ground in an area readily accessible by the ground crew troopie.

Touching down.

When we went back up, the wind continued to push us to the South even more and it wasn't long before we were over an adjacent sheep paddock.  Ronald's advice over the radio was to land safely and worry about the recovery later.  The issue would be finding a way to get the 4WD into this paddock, which didn't seem to have any gates nearby.  Then, Grant had an idea - but he needed our help.  He pulled out a handling line and instructed us to guide the balloon back over the fence and on to the airfield grounds.  Lu and James were talking with the Gliding Club about gaining access to the internal roads.

Albert and I jumped out of the basket - making sure we held on to it so Grant didn't rocket back up in the sky with the sudden load reduction!  We took the long, rolled up handling line and unravelled it towards the fence.  Grant then put a little heat in - just enough to hover a few meters above the ground.  Albert and I took the end of the line and gently encouraged the aircraft back over the aerodrome perimeter fence.  

Safely on the ground - Grant and Albert preparing the envelope for packing, while I rolled up the handling line.

By this stage, Steve had jogged over to help and we could hear the troopie rumbling its way down the aerodrome access track.  As a team, we packed up the balloon and put it all on the trailer.  Next, was to head over to the other side of the aerodrome to pick up Ronald and the yellow balloon.  It didn't take long, as he'd managed to get everything sorted out by himself - we simply put that envelope on top of the other one and pushed the baskets behind one another on the trailer.  Everything was strapped down and we could go and retrieve the other vehicles back from the launch site.

Next order of business - breakfast!  A ballooning tradition. We went to a quaint little cafe in Bacchus Marsh and enjoyed a nice bacon and eggs breakfast with coffee.  It's also tradition for the pilot to shout breakfast for his/her ground crew.  

All in all, it was an amazing experience.  So different to flying powered fixed wing aircraft - yet there were similarities in the safety procedures.  We also fly in the same airspace, so almost all the same rules apply.  The difference was being much more in touch with your surroundings.  No perspex windshield, no headset, no roaring engine.  Time to look at things below.  Time to hear them and even smell them.  I was extremely worried that I'd drop my phone over the edge of the basket - thankfully not this time!  Thanks to Grant for kindly taking us up, and thanks to Lu and James for expertly delivering us to the departure point collecting us at the other end.  Would I do it again?

Absolutely.  

Any altitude is good altitude as far as I'm concerned.