Welcome to Newsletter 16 – we are happy to report on the Sun N Fun Airshow and the first two aircraft, a Sinus and Virus are now registered and flying in the USA – Also the Sport Pilot update and registration issues
Please read on…….
Click on the smaller photo to view the bigger one.
Sun-N-Fun has come and gone for another year and I can really say that the first two days were not that much fun!
It was unusually cold, rainy and windy, in fact even the locals were amazed at the change in weather, but fortunately it didn’t keep the crowds away and those well rugged up aviators spent some quality time with us, huddled in the tent or around the aircraft seeking shelter from the persistent wind.
This was the first showing for the Pipistrel Sinus and Virus aircraft in the USA and to say that visitors were impressed would be a gross understatement! Many had been following our newsletters for the past 12 months and seeing these people viewing the planes for the first time was like watching kids at Christmas. Some even memorized the specifications better than I did!
The single biggest compliment we kept hearing was regarding the quality of finish.
Visitors, including other manufacturers, could not believe the standard of finish on the aircraft. It is a real credit to Ivo and his team that these aircraft are finished so much better than other planes in the US markets. Many manufacturers provide special ‘demonstration’ quality aircraft finished to much higher standards than the normal product and many of our visitors were skeptical that our aircraft weren’t of the same mold. Our displayed aircraft however, aren’t specials or one off’s built specially for the show but they are, in fact, normal production aircraft finished to the same high standards as any standard customer order.
We are always intrigued by the actions of other manufacturers who wander around to check out their competition. They would first come and scout the area, then come back later that day or during the next day and then several times more during the event. We just wished Ivo and the team were there to receive the accolades and credit they deserved for turning out a world class product.
I must thank Robert Mudd, our dealer from Ohio, and Larry Geiger, from Nebraska, for their help before, during and after the event. I must also mention our Sting dealers Bob (a former secret agent to the Queen!!) and his wife Fiona, and Chad Hilbert for dropping by to lend a hand.
Our first Sinus and Virus were sold prior to the airshow to customers in Naples, Florida, and St George, Utah, which is about 1 hour north east of Las Vegas. Robert had the pleasure of flying some hours on the Virus in Florida, to introduce the new owner to the aircraft, whilst I had the pleasure (and adventure) of delivering the Sinus to its new home in Utah.
The team was kept busy throughout the show talking to the many hundreds of visitors.
The adventure of the trip for me was to fly the Sinus from Lakeland, Florida, to St George, Utah, after the event. Armed with two books of US aviation maps, a flight plan, a handheld VHF radio and a borrowed Garmin 196 GPS, I departed and headed north at about 1 pm in the afternoon after the show.
The airspace in the USA is quite different to what I am used to in Australia. Sure the air, wind and clouds are the same, but the maps and airspace are much more congested than in Australia. Of real concern are the restricted areas, the prohibited areas, the MOA’s (military operations areas) and the TFR (temporary flight restrictions) areas which are at times NO GO zones. In Australia we are fairly laid back about airspace incursions and an investigation usually follows the incident however following 9-11 in the US, if you fly in the wrong area, they WILL shoot you down!!
Armed with the advice of well wishers, and with sweaty palms, I left the security of the Lakeland control area and ventured north towards my first waypoint of Tallahassee and then west towards my first stop at Bogalusa. The first challenge was to navigate the minefield of controlled zones, restricted areas and MOA’s around Tindall, Eglin and Pensacola Air Force bases, which of course were active and doing battle during my transit. The fact that the Sinus was not fitted with a transponder, and the small handheld, with it’s internal aerial, didn’t seem to have enough power to talk to anyone, didn’t inspire me with confidence so a good lookout was kept at all times. I have also heard that the radar signature of Carbon planes like the Sinus is close to zero so this made me even more nervous.
With the worst of the control zones and MOA behind me it was a much more enjoyable and relaxed trip into the setting sun and the final calls joining circuit at Bogalusa Airport where I was greeted by the local FBO Farley Grantham. What a nice reception as Farley couldn’t do enough to assist me when I arrived. In fact, he had only just returned from Sun N Fun himself, having chosen to drive down and play some golf on the way. After refueling for an early departure the next morning, Farley not only drove me into town, but he also organized some really nice accommodation and then even offered to pick me up in the morning and get all the weather and information for my departure at 6.30. Talk about hospitality!!
The least I could do in the morning was to shout Farley some breakfast. There was no immediate rush because the area was fogged in and my 7am departure was not looking possible in VMC conditions.
Farley offered his local knowledge to go over my flight planning and he suggested a longer route that would keep me running due west for much of the trip and not over the higher Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon, which he feared would be in weather looking at the forecast.
The maps we had sourced at Sun-N-Fun were really good if you knew where you were going, but being bound the way they were it became really difficult to navigate over 40 or 50 maps instead of 8 sectionals. Fortunately Farley had a set of sectionals available which would take me to within 50 miles of St George so I purchased them and laid them out in his briefing room where he assisted on drawing a line to follow. He also marked in the places to stop for fuel and food and I really appreciated the time and local knowledge that Farley freely offered. If you’re ever passing through or near to Bogalusa, and need fuel, be sure to drop in and visit Farley. He looks after you so well that you might want to call the town home for more than 1 night!!
Finally the weather abated and, departing Bogalusa around 9am, my path was almost due west, passing the control airspace of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. There was serious weather ahead, with tornado warnings and thunderstorms, but I was assured they would move north and leave my track almost clear with only some light weather. How wrong was that forecast! The farther I traveled west, the worse it got. I was finally cruising at 8,500 feet above 6 octas of cloud. At around 12,000 there was another layer, then at around 20,000 plus feet another unbroken layer of cloud making the day rather miserable without the sun.
Short-cutting through the Warrior 2 MOA, and giving the Polk Air Force Base a wide berth, I thought I was seeing things. All of a sudden there was a black speck about 5 miles in front. It went from one layer of cloud to the other heading vertically straight down, then about 5 seconds later another black streak did exactly the same but it was heading straight up. I can remember saying to myself ‘What the hell was that’ when from the corner of my field of vision came a F15 fighter or similar straight over the top of me about 500 feet above. It did a 180 degree turn and headed back to where it came. I was already monitoring the frequency mentioned on the Polk AAF ATIS and I gave another transiting call, which again went unanswered even though there was a fair bit of military chatter on the channel. I scanned all directions for traffic and then caught two jets over flying again, doing the 180 degree turns and heading off again. It was almost like the first jet had gone to find his mate and bring him back for a look. I wobbled my wings to tell them I knew they were there and they responded by pulling vertically and disappearing into the gloom. What a thrill! I just hope I was meant to be there. I even managed to roll off a few photos but the planes are only specs in the distance.
Passing north of Houston, the weather was beginning to deteriorate and the NOAA weather channels were reporting really bad weather ahead so I started leapfrogging the hundreds of airfields which were within 10 miles of my course. The next challenge was George Bush’s home. There is a permanent Prohibited area around his ranch and another 60 mile restricted zone around that. All reports from Sun N Fun were to give this zone a wide berth because the guys protecting this area don’t play games, especially if the boss is home.
The weather really deteriorated quickly and I descended through the remaining holes to stay in visual contact with the ground. It was now time to land, as the ground speed on the GPS was indicating that I was flying into 45 knots of westerly wind and the row of lightning on the horizon meant trouble was brewing ahead. I called at 5 miles inbound to Georgetown where the AWOS was talking of 35 knots on the ground. I managed to land in around 20 knots and taxi to the tie-downs where I anchored the plane in rain, lightning and thunder and took shelter in the terminal building for the 90 minutes it took for the storm to move on. Fortunately the hail to 3 inches reported 10 miles to the north missed the airport and the same storm system went on to kill 11 people that evening when several tornadoes touched down near Chicago’s southern suburbs.
Taking off again at around 3pm in light haze, the air had calmed down significantly and at 6,500 feet I kept heading west, unfortunately still with around 25 knots of headwind. Over flying Junction the vegetation started to change from the heavily wooded and lowlands I had been over all day to the more open and sparsely vegetated area which would finally make way for desert. There were thousands of oil wells everywhere, all pumping oil from beneath the Texas desert.
About 40 miles out from Fort Stockton the weather was really nice, but then all of a sudden I hit massive turbulence. I initially thought I was flying through another aircraft’s wake turbulence as it was so sudden. There were large windmills below me, hundreds of them all producing electricity for the network, then I realized I must be on some sort of zone where the winds meet or run along a mountain range because in about 10 minutes the turbulence stopped as suddenly as it had started and I later found out the area is known as the Dew Line. Apparently it is the area where the desert meets the more fertile and greener areas and it’s very uncommon to get dew to the west of this line. The sun was getting low but I still had another 45 minutes left and I overflew Fort Stockton for my overnight stop at Pecos.
About 30 miles out from Pecos I overflew a point on the map called ‘proving ground’ which was once owned by a tire company. They used this remote area for testing tires and cars over a variety of tracks. The area is now abandoned and the desert is slowly reclaiming the facility with grass growing over the roads. Arriving at Pecos just before sunset, I managed to catch the fuel man just before he was heading home for the day. To say Pecos is remote is really an understatement, but again the people couldn’t be more hospitable. Where can I find a motel for the night was my question as I fuelled?…. The answer… Take the car over there and drive up the road to the Best Western. I said “you mean that car?”. He said “Sure. Just remember the left window is stuck in the down position and if it rains you will get a wet seat. Park her over there in the morning and the office will be open for all the weather and flight info”. Again, a complete stranger turning up at an airfield and the locals bend over backwards to offer assistance and anything else I required. Be sure to drop by and visit the FBO at Pecos if you’re traveling through that area.
A sunrise departure from Pecos proved the Dew Line theory correct because for the first time there was no moisture on the aircraft – it was bone dry. My flight out of Pecos had me transiting some of the remotest desert on the trip and as the first rays of sunlight came over the horizon and lit up the ground I thought with the lack of anything to hit I would stay low and try and keep out of the headwind. It was a real buzz to hoot across the desert at 50 to 100 feet for the next hour. The ground was slowly rising as I headed west and the sight of hundreds of windmills on the horizon on the Delaware Mountains led me to believe I was due for more turbulence again. The Delaware’s are just under 6,000 feet high and by Australian standards they are up there with our biggest mountain which is only 7309 feet. This was still not a pinch on what I was to cross later that morning though.
Skirting just North of El Paso, I was at all times aware that Mexico was just off my left wing and the penalties for drifting too far south were quite severe. There is almost an entire Air Force patrolling and protecting the border from drug runners and illegal immigrants. Let’s hope they don’t think the Aussie voice on the radio is a Mexican doing his best American impersonation! They are really serious about the drug problem and there is a network of balloons which are deployed with a cable up to 15,000 feet high fitted with radar to detect aircraft illegally entering the US.
I landed at Deming for a splash and dash and got talking to the FBO about the Black Hawks on the apron. These are used to chase the drug runners. If something fast tries to run, there is a Lear jet and, if that doesn’t work, they can also call on the fighters located at the many airbases scattered along the border regions. There is one weapon that’s faster than anything, according to the FBO, and that’s the radio. There is absolutely no way you will win against the military and border patrol.
Leaving Deming I was hit with the constant 25 to 35 knot headwind but the turbulence had started again. It was so bad that I was actually wishing I was on the ground. The seat belts were so tight I was having difficulty in breathing but that didn’t matter as there was comfort in being held so secure in these rough conditions. The mountains were getting much higher and I weaved around military areas looking for the best and most comfortable route. I finally decided to overfly the Jackal Low MOA and decided to track north west around the Flying J area but the turbulence was so bad while flying parallel to the range that I decided the quickest and easiest way over was straight over the top!!
Well this is one big hill and the highest point is 10,720 feet! I guessed I would need 12,500 to safely fly over the range. Flying through the rotor at about 80 knots indicated with arms and legs locked I finally made it to the peak, expecting it to calm down and the air to smooth out. Well it finally went dead clam and a look at the ALT and VSI showed I was at 12,900 feet in 3,500 fpm of lift without oxygen!! Panic stations! Without oxygen I preferred to not be in that sort of lift so I slowed the plane down to around 60 knots indicated, turned the engine off with the prop left course, and dropped full spoilers while executing a bit of a side slip. This got the VSI down to about 1,500 fpm upwards and I headed away from the lift towards the valley, overflying Fort Grant.
Well it certainly proved the wings on the Sinus are up for anything provided you’re sensible and don’t fly too fast at altitude. I can’t say the same for my shoulders as I released the seatbelts slightly to make breathing easier. The next range was only 7,500 feet high and, with the experience gained in the past 20 minutes, it was a breeze to fly over.
The military must get a little curious about our little ship flying around and through the MOA’s without a transponder because it wasn’t long before a turboprop twin in standard green colour came alongside about 500 meters off the right wing. After about 30 seconds it peeled off to the right and disappeared behind my field of view. Shortly after an Orion or similar aircraft with a big dome on top overflew and then departed off to the north. I was on the radio but couldn’t get much of a reply from them. I figured if I did the radio calls then I couldn’t go wrong. Another 45 minutes had me landing in Coolridge for another splash and dash and a chance to rest the body from the beating of the past few hours.
The next leg was a long one of more than 5 hours and again through massive turbulence as the sig met warnings for the area continued. Skirting the southern control zone for Phoenix it was important to avoid all the restricted and prohibited areas which make up more of the area than uncontrolled airspace. I was told by the locals at Coolridge that this is where they shot the Top Gun movie. On the horizon I could see the valley ahead where the Colorado River flowed and this was my course to Las Vegas. On the right, I could see the valleys where the Grand Canyon started. Turning the corner at Parker, I started to head more north than west and my ground speed picked up to 95 knots for the first time since leaving Lakeland in Florida.
Over flying the many airfields along the Colorado River, it wasn’t long before I was skirting the 30 mile mode C veil around Las Vegas, crossing Lake Mead and then after rounding Virgin Peak it was a straight but very bumpy run into St George. I guess the corner at Virgin Peak gave me a ¾ tailwind so for the last 30 minutes of the trip I had a ground speed of just over 140 knots – that figures, the first tailwind and only 30 minutes from home !!.
The airfield at St George is the worst I have EVER seen anywhere in the world. Picture it like this – the airfield is, from memory, 2,500 odd feet. The hills around it are 9,000 feet. There is a 4% grade on the runway. The runway is perched on top of a large Hill and is surrounded on 4 sides by a 45 to 60 degree slope at least 500 feet high. Then add another hill at one end, which is about 500 feet higher than the runway, again with a 45 to 60 degree slope, and you get the worst airport in the world. The AWOS inbound was telling me of a 25 to 28 knot 90 degree cross wind. Get the idea? This is one scary place.
The circuit for the airfield flies you over the town then straight at the second hill, turning for final about 50 meters from the hill and flying final parallel to the hill in massive rotor. To make it worse, the approach for the runway rises from the valley floor at 60 degrees and the mess of air and turbulence makes you really believe that you’re in a washing machine. When you finally make the threshold you can add the rotor from the hangers along the side of the runway and if you finally get it on the tarmac then you might have a chance of pulling up before the 600 foot drop at the end of the runway. Sure, on a good day this place might be alright, but on the days I was there it was certainly a challenge to test the toughest and most experienced pilot. One of the locals at the field who has flown in WW2 suggested that it’s harder than the biggest aircraft carrier in the roughest seas and I tend to agree with him. He only takes his immaculate Steerman for a run on perfect days.
Well that’s it – another happy customer takes delivery of his plane, I can add another 22.1 hours to the log book after traveling 2050.70 miles across the USA, and learning a lot more about the varied and different conditions that nature can throw at you to test you and the planes abilities. You never stop learning.