Sky Fever

Posted to the Fly Baby mailing list April, 2001

"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and sky..."
                   - John Masefield, "Sea Fever"

I've had a bear of a year, so far.  Nothing tragic; nothing worth rending my clothes and crying in the marketplace over.  But between leaving the job I've held for the last twenty years, the additional stress of a brand-new job, some low-grade health issues, and some airplane difficulties, I haven't enjoyed myself too much the last several months.

But like Masefield's poem, I guess all I needed was to go down to the "lonely sky."  Tuesday evening, Moonraker obliged, with one of the best Fly Baby evenings I've had for a while.

Oddly enough, my Fly Baby has been the source of much of my angst the past several months.  An odd striation in a landing gear leg led to a long, painful removal and replacement saga (soon to be posted to a Fly Baby home page near you).  A flight or two after getting the 'Baby back in the sky, I noticed a soot mark on the cowling.  My left exhaust pipe had rusted though, and upon close inspection the right one was also nearly ready to go.  What's more, disassembly stressed the carb/cabin heat muff to the point where *it* developed cracks in several of its welded seams.

The last time I'd had an exhaust pipe off, I was plagued by stripped-out studs and leakage past warped flanges.  It had taken me months to get things working right again, and I cringed at the thought of going through it again.  Nothing else to do, though.  The metal parts were delivered to the welder; patches were welded over the rust spots and the seams on the muff were re-welded.

To finish the job, I needed to coat the pipes with high-temperature paint.  However, the paint requires a high-temperature cure, either in a 650-degree oven or by running at operational temperature for an hour.  The cure had to happen within eight hours of application, so I needed a full day of nice weather to both paint the pipes and be able to fly to cure the paint.

Saturday morning dawned clear.  I finished the prep work in the morning, applied the paint at noon, and hauled them off to the airport to install.  The installation went about as smoothly as I expected, and by three o'clock, I was ready to fly.

One problem:  While the weather had stayed clear, the wind had picked up.  It was about 12 knots, gusting, and seventy degrees to the runway heading.

I've landed in that kind of wind.  But I hadn't enjoyed it, and didn't feel like risking my plane for the sake of some paint curing.  The wind generally drops in the evening; I'd come back to the airport 90 minutes prior to sunset and try get the flight in then.

I donned my flight gear anyway, fired up, and taxied to midfield.  There, I could see both the windsocks as well as the two of the local flagpoles.

The socks were still almost fully-extended, and still at about a seventy-degree angle to the runway.  The tail of the socks bobbed, and the direction would shift back and forth by about thirty degrees. Idling on the ramp, the plane rocked in the gusty winds.

I needed to fly the plane, to get the new paint good and hot.  Wafts of hot-paint odor swung across the cockpit as the gusty wind veered.  The takeoff probably would be fine...but the landing would be hairy, unless the wind dropped at sunset.  But if it didn't, I'd be landing in a beast of a gusting crosswind at twilight.

It was one of the harder decisions I've made.  I finally decided it wasn't worth the risk.  I sat in the cockpit for forty-five minutes, running up the engine, trying to get the exhaust hot enough to add some durability to the black paint coating the pipes.

When I put the plane away that night, I felt pretty low.  The paint was probably not going to stick, and the short, relatively-low running time wasn't enough to show whether the exhaust gaskets were going to seal properly.  I was about ready to get rid of the damn airplane, just to shed this black cloud that had seemed to follow me around all year.

Then came Tuesday.  Spring has finally come to Seattle.  The skies were clear, the air amazingly warm, the wind nearly non-existent.

What the heck, I thought as I left work.  I'll go flying tonight.  A local Fly Baby builder was coming by to pick up Dave Munday's extra gear leg, and I'd just have him meet me at the airport instead.

I caught a whiff or two of hot-paint smell as the engine turned up for takeoff.  We launched into the bright evening sunshine.

I climbed into a temperature inversion; the slipstream actually warming up as I climbed.  For the first time since last fall, the cockpit heat knob went to the "off" position.  The trapped ground haze dropped away as well, the Cascade Mountains and Mount Rainier standing sharp and clear to the east and south.  I reached forward and turned down the volume on the radio.  The ANR headset pushed the background to a dull rumble.

The air was glass smooth.  I leveled out at eighteen hundred feet.  On such a beautiful evening, the skies should have been choked with airplanes.  Nothing.  A mile overhead, airliners descended through the Class B airspace towards Sea-Tac, but otherwise I had the Enumclaw plateau to myself.  Forests and fields slid by below.  The plateau has several private sky parks with grass strips.  There's Evergreen Sky Ranch.  Not even a plane sitting outside the hangars.  South Prairie, Ditto.  Not only no planes aloft, but nobody apparently thinking of it this fine evening  I was momentarily tempted to perform a low pass over the runway.  But the Continental purred smoothly at 2300 RPM, and I was loathe to disturb it.  Another day, perhaps, with a landing to stop in to say "hi" to a friend at Evergreen.

Curve back north.  Arch past Lake Tapps, shining bright green from deposits in the glacial water.  Past the Adventist Academy, with its grass bush-pilot-training runway lying idle.

The idyll ended slowly.  A Cessna sat on the midfield taxiway at the Academy.  Couldn't tell if it was just parked there or was getting ready to fly.  Another Cessna, maneuvering a bit to the east.  Looks like a student doing turns-around-a-point.

The spell broken, I winged back home to shoot some touch-and-goes.  I had been three weeks since my last flight; and with the landing gear woes I hadn't had more than five hours in the last six months.  I needed to knock some of the rust off.

Up with radio volume.  The brilliant evening should have had the planes out in droves.  It didn't.  A few calls for Pierce County airport to the south, but the calls at home were rare.  I entered the pattern just as the only other local airplane full-stopped.

Turn onto the downwind.  Carb heat on, abeam of the numbers.  Smell the momentary swirl of over-rich mixture as the throttle comes back.  Turn a fairly tight base.  On the Base-to-Final turn, I find I'm looking down into the parking lot of a newly-opened Lowe's Hardware.  Throttle all the way back.  Moonraker glides on rails in the still evening.

The road flashes by underneath, then the park-and-ride.  The airport fence, with a few figures staring back over their shoulders  Blurs of faces pass under the wing.  Runway numbers flash below.  'Raker's fat new tires feel for the tarmac.

I usually wheel-land for better control, unless I'm feeling pretty sharp.  Tonight, despite the rust, I felt sharp.  I held us off, the sighing of the wires dying away.  Stick back all the way. Skipskip, and we're rolling.

Throttle in, carb heat off.  Stick forward, then ease back as speed comes up.  We're off again.

A little higher on approach this time.  Kick into a slip over the road, and stoop for the runway.  Fainter hearts scatter from the fence.  I keep the speed up this time, and roll into a smooth wheel-landing.  Not bad.

Kill the throttle all the way on base, this time.  Ghost by Lowe's, wires whirring through the warm air like a hot knife through butter, engine ticking over.  Hold off again.  Bit of a bounce this time, but we settled right in.

Nothing more I need to prove tonight.  I taxied in and shut down. The worries and concerns of the last several months had slipped away like a dawn fog, but they hovered at the edge of my mind as I squirmed out of the cockpit.

One was quickly put to rest.  The new paint still lay smooth over the pipes.  And the cream-colored cowling didn't show a speck of exhaust soot.  I just may have lucked out.

The capper came a few minutes later, when I greeted an airport friend.  "I was in the Lowe's parking lot when you came over," he said.  "People were just looking up, and *marvelling*.  That thing really looks cool and sounds neat!"

Not a bad night, after all.  Get Moonraker fully-operational again, prove that the rust hadn't settled too badly on my piloting skills, and amaze the groundlings with the sights (and sounds!) of a *real* airplane.

Everybody's familiar with the second line of Masefield's "Sea Fever":  "...And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by."  Fly Baby pilots can relate to that, in our own way.  But check out the next line:

"And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sails shaking..."

The feel of the control stick, the drumming of the fabric, and the song of the wind.  All lost in the cold, antiseptic Cessna or Piper cockpit.  Give me a Fly Baby any day....

" And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,
And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick is over."

Ron Wanttaja

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