Two, Impromptu

Posted to the Fly Baby mailing list June, 2001

Flying a single-seat homebuilt is a solitary endeavor.

When you own a production aircraft, you are guaranteed at least one passenger seat.  Most homebuilts can support the pilot's social life, too.

But Fly Baby pilots fly alone.

I'm not complaining, mind you.  After about fifteen years of Fly Baby aviating, that may say something about me. But I guess I've always considered flying as a personal challenge; single combat against the law of gravity.  I'd just as soon there be no civilians caught in the tilt.  If the battle is lost, I'm the only casualty.

Still, there are times when Fly Baby pilots can have it both ways.  Take last month, for instance.

The Sunday was bright and mostly clear, with just a line of darkness on the western horizon to indicate that Seattle's typical spring weather was only temporarily in abeyance.  I launched out of Auburn and headed north.  A local Fly Baby builder was finishing his airplane in a hangar at Arlington, about seventy miles away, and I thought I'd drop in and check up on him.

Ben's airplane had been one reason the first several months of the year had been a downer for me.  Ben bought the partially-completed aircraft when he was fifteen years old. He's worked on the plane all through high school, scrounging the money and time, trying to get the plane flying before he has to leave for college in the fall.

The FAA signed the airplane off ready for flight back at the beginning of the year, and Ben invited me to take a look at it.  I found two bad problems with, the flying-wire attach strap on the axle as at the wrong angle, and two, his landing gear Vees were made out of plywood, instead of cross-laminated spruce.  Not Ben's fault:  the mistakes were the original builder's.  But now it was Ben's problem.

It *pained* me to break the news to Ben.  He would not only have to disassemble his gear and reweld some of it, he also needed two completely new landing-gear Vees.  He didn't have that much time left, and the money, as ever, was tight. I gave him one of the Vees Dave Munday had passed my way when I was repairing my own gear problem.

Ben's situation had depressed me all spring.  Imagine my joy, then, when I walked into his hangar that day and saw his plane sitting there.  On two brand-new gear legs.  With the attach strap at the proper angle.

Ben had built one gear leg from scratch and replaced both sets, in about a third of the time it took me to replace a SINGLE leg on mine!  Ah,
youth... :-)

Anyway, I had taxied up in front of Ben's hangar, and was standing there grinning at his gear legs.  A movement all the way across the airfield caught my eye.

It was a long way off, a half-mile or so, on the taxiway on the opposite side of the active.  But it was clearly Chris Brown, in HIS Fly Baby, rolling to the departure end of the runway.

Hot damn!  I'd flown with Chris several times; an excellent pilot and a devotee of formation flying.  If I could just make it to the runup pad before he took off....

SCRAMBLE!  I pelted for Moonraker.  I leapt onto the wing, slid into the seat, and rapidly started doing up the belts.  I was Robert Tuck, strapping into my Biggin Hill Spitfire.  I was Ginger Lacey, preparing to start my Hurricane in the billowing chalk-dust clouds of Manston.  I was...

I was sitting there, strapped in, with the keys still in my pocket.

Wiggle this way, trying to slip my right hand into my trouser pocket.  Wiggle that way.

No luck.  Unclip the belt, slide my back up the seat, and extract the key ring.  A few seconds later I was taxiing quickly toward the runup area.  I could see Chris, #1 for takeoff.

I was a Communicator in CAP, back when I was a Cadet in the '60s.  One thing that was pounded into me was to NOT use radios for chit-chat.  I still don't like making non-official calls on Unicom or CTAF (though I admit to an occasional "bon mot"), but figured I'd better let Chris know I was on the way to join him.  Otherwise, he'd take off, and I'd never catch up.

I punched the mike button.  "Chris...check ten o'clock."

Sunlight flashed from his goggles as his head snapped in my direction.  I'd reached the opposite side of the active from him.  "Fly Baby 848 crossing the departure end of the active," I called.  A Cessna 150 sat behind Chris, #2 to take off.

The Cessna pilot's voice came on the air, "Hey, go ahead of me and join your buddy!"

"Thanks much."  I rolled behind Chris.  He waved, and his voice on Unicom said, "Arlington Traffic, Fly Baby Three Zulu, flight of two, taking off from the grass."

He bumped onto the grass runway that parallels the concrete.  Dust stirred behind his tailwheel as the went throttle forward.  I gave him five seconds, then shoved went to full power.

He'd backed off a bit on the throttle shortly after liftoff.  We joined up at 300 feet about three-quarters of the way down the strip.  I tucked into formation to the right as we climbed out over the town.

"Go to 122.75," he said.

I switched over.  "848 is up."

"Hey, Ron, good to see you.  I'm flying to a friend's place, out on the Sound.  Come on along."


"Hey, you're sure looking good, out there."

"You, too."  I meant it.  Fly Babies look gorgeous in flight, and Chris has the absolutely NICEST Fly Baby I've ever seen.  An A&P, he'd rebuilt a wreck and gave it a bright red and black paint job.  He's won at least two trophies with it.  Even better, he's a tall drink o'water, and his plane (unlike mine) has scads of legroom.

We headed north, along a line of hills.  I kept a fairly loose formation...I've only had a few hours' practice, and like to keep far enough out that I can glance around to sightsee a bit.

Every pilot flies differently; I tend to blast up to a moderately high altitude.  No real reason, I guess, just force of habit.

Chris, on the other hand, likes to fly lower.  He keeps about 800 feet AGL, weaving about to pass the hills and crags that I normally would fly right over.  As we swung around one steep rocky hill, I spotted purple and white against the stones at the top.  A batch of rock-climbers were waving at us.

We neared the coastline after about twenty minutes.  His friend lives on an island just offshore in Puget Sound.    As we neared the island, Chris came up on the radio again.  "I'm not sure where he lives.  I was going to fly around the island."

I considered.  Chris probably didn't want to worry about turning into me on either side.  "I'll swing in behind.  Turn however you want, I'll keep clear of you."

I pulled back into trail formation.  We started to circumnavigate the island, seven hundred feet up, a few hundred feet off the coast.  I soon discovered that I had to turn opposite to him to maintain the distance, otherwise I'd cut him off on the turns.  So we circled the island in a sort of thatch weave.

With that, an ordinary formation flight turned into unsurpassing beauty.  One moment, Chris' red airplane flashed against the deep blue of the waters of the sound.  The next moment, our relative motion brought the island behind him instead, with the bright green of the pines, the sand and rocks of the shore, and the white foam of the surf.  The Puget Sound probably has the best scenery in the United States to start with; throw a gorgeous Fly Baby into the mix, it was even better.  I cursed not having a camera.

It took us about ten minutes to go all the way around.  Rocky beaches and steep cliffs gave way to low-lying areas and wide tidal flats.  Mossy shacks interspersed with expensive summer homes.  Sailboats tacked offshore.

Chris' voice:  "Looks like someone flashing me with a mirror down there.  I'm going to circle him."

"Rog," I responded.  "I'll clear out to the south and wait for you."  I stooged around for a couple of minutes, then saw the red dot coming my way.

I turned to head back to Arlington, with the throttle back and doing lazy S-turns to help Chris catch up.  As he got closer, I straightened out, watching him over my right shoulder.  I checked forward for traffic and examined the terrain ahead, then looked back again.  He was gone.

"Other side," said the voice in my headset.

And there he was, just fifty feet off, holding station with apparent ease.  Show off. :-)

We flew back to Arlington, two fragile assemblies of wood and fabric slipping though the warm spring air.  A few moments to chat on the ground, a bit of fuel into Moonraker's tank, and I was off for home.

Sure, I prefer to be the only one in the airplane.  Antisocial, some might call me.  But there are some things you just can't share.

It doesn't take a single-seat airplane to fly formation.  But there's a special feeling when you fly with another single-seat pilot.  As Ernie Gann put it, we're both in our own islands in the sky.  You're together, yet separated by more than a gulf of air.

Flying formation with another Fly Baby is like Christmas morning with your brother.  You can each share the joy of your toys while knowing full-well each gift is yours, all yours.

And an impromptu get-together like this is finding a present from Saint Nick on Arbor Day morning.

Hopefully, I'll get more gifts this summer!

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja.

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