Editoriali

 

2/2007

 

1.  Return To Flight, Part One

Sport Pilot Allows ANN Staffer To Take To Skies Again

Rob Finfrock, Aero-News, 3/2/2007

 

The morning of January 24, 2007 was a cloudy and cold one in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex... and I was concerned with just how low those clouds were. Fortunately, despite some ominous-looking wisps over my apartment in Addison, a call to the field AWOS told me the ceiling was considerably higher over Grand Prairie Municipal, 30 miles southwest... and that's all that mattered.

This was gonna happen. After 17 months stuck on the ground, except for several airline flights and a few demo rides, I was going to fly again.

Next up was a stop at Starbucks -- a preflight ritual of mine, dating back several years -- before I drove through rush hour to GPM, just south of DFW International. My heart was going a mile-a-minute... much faster than traffic was slogging along the Bush Turnpike.

Even with the traffic, I arrived at GPM a full 30 minutes before my lesson was scheduled to begin. When I walked into the office of Aviator Air, my instructor, Jay Hencken (below), was waiting for me.

 

 

"Ready to go?"

"Absolutely," I said, trying to temper my giddy enthusiasm and focus on the task at hand.

My chariot back into the skies is the Evektor SportStar SE, the first aircraft to be certified under the FAA's light-sport aircraft rules. The low-wing LSA follows the light sport guidelines to the letter: two-seats, gross weight less than 1,320 lbs, Rotax 100-hp engine.

From the beginning of my stop-and-start flight training (darn economics) four years ago, the kind of flying allowed under sport pilot rules has been the kind of flying I prefer. I'm among the minority of ANN staffers who aren't concerned as much about the destination, or how fast their plane can scoot through the skies.

 

 

Instead, I'm content with puttering through the air, always reasonably close to an airport, just sitting back and enjoying the simple fact that "hey, I'm flying." IFR training doesn't hold very much appeal to me, at least for now, and nighttime is for sleep.

That puts me in a distinct minority among the pilot community, and that's fine by me. Although for the moment I'm relegated to sport pilot by default -- more on that later -- truth be told, I've always been a sport pilot, even when I didn't know it. And it appears I'm not the only one.

N676EV is but the first of two SportStars my flight school is set to receive. Another one should be flying within a couple months -- good thing, too, as 6EV is already booked at least one week in advance. The school is one of only a few -- you can count them on one hand -- in the entire DFW metroplex currently offering sport-pilot training. Jay tells me all but one of his current students are working towards their sport licenses. It's clear the market is there... it's just waiting for more schools to offer the option.

 

 

The Flight

Preflighting the Evektor is just a tad different than preflighting a Skyhawk, but the basics are there. If you follow the checklist, you'll be fine. I was taken aback a bit by the all-in-one pitot/static tube on the underside of the SportStar's left wingtip (above), as well as the need to check the engine coolant level (below) on the Rotax powerplant.

 

 

As I'd discovered at Sebring 2007, climbing into the SportStar is fairly simple... a big consideration, as I'm not as thin as I used to be. Once inside, I was again impressed with the amount of room available. That big canopy also gives you plenty of shoulder room... and the view out is incredible.

After a thorough review of the SportStar's cockpit and controls, it was time to get underway. Jay instructed me to flip the fuel tank selector to the left position, and crank the Rotax the same as I would start my car -- be ready for a quick start, and keep the throttle at idle. The lightweight powerplant turned over instantly.

Taxiing the SportStar was a nonevent. I was awed by the fantastic view over the nose; the proximity to the ground helped me line up on the centerline much easier than in the Cessna 172s I have flown before.

 

 

The preflight run-up is pretty much the same as the Skyhawk... except for the different control locations. The split-flaps are controlled by a Johnson bar between the seats, not via a panel-mounted electrical switch (on this plane, anyway; electric flaps are an option). Carb heat is a (very) small, somewhat-flimsy lever on the left side of the panel, not the center as in several other planes. And speaking of that... the mixture knob? Not needed on the Rotax. A very welcome absence, if you ask me.

Also on the subject of "missing" equipment... where's the directional gyro? In keeping with 6EV's strictly-VFR mission in life, heading information is provided solely by a magnetic compass at the top of the panel. The only gee-whiz aspect in this SportStar's cockpit is a Garmin 396, secured in a panel-mounted bracket at top-center.

With the runup complete, we taxied to the end of runway 35 and scanned for traffic in the pattern. Grand Prairie Muni is also home to American Eurocopter; one whirlybird was on downwind.

 

 

"What is our rotation speed?" I asked Jay after we received clearance from the tower.

"For this takeoff, don't think about that," he replied. "Feel the plane tell you through the stick when it's ready to takeoff."

For the record, that speed comes at 52 KIAS... but the plane felt ready and eager to fly well before that. With only the slightest backpressure, 6EV lifted off the runway, with the nose oriented with the horizon in the proper climb attitude. At 500' AGL, we banked right, and departed to the south on the downwind. Despite the SportStar's considerably lighter weight, the ride was just slightly bumpier than I remember in the Skyhawk.

The practice area south of GPM is a busy place. In addition to the big jets flying overhead on approach to DFW, one must also keep an eye out for traffic from Arlington Airport, just seven miles southwest of Grand Prairie.We also had a Chinook helicopter from a nearby base cross underneath. I wish I'd brought my camera. But that would have taken away from the purpose of this flight.

 

 

"Climb to 2,500 feet ... okay, make a left turn to 090 down to 1,500 feet," Jay instructed me. "Take us back to 2,000 feet, and right to 270."

Compared to a Skyhawk, the SportStar is a highly responsive aircraft. It feels much faster than its actual speed belies, a sense heightened by the panoramic canopy. More importantly, it is also an easy plane to fly reasonably well; from the start of our maneuvers, the SportStar responded to my control inputs like a faithful steed, going exactly where I pointed it.

Maybe there wasn't as much rust on my negligible skills as I'd thought... or maybe, the SportStar tries its darnedest to make its pilot look good. The only aspect I found slightly difficult -- more of a nuisance, again given this plane's VFR-only mandate -- is the lag from the plane's magnetic compass. Turning out to an exact heading is less a science, more of an approximation.

Next up, Jay demonstrated power-off and power-on stalls, and then had me fly a series. I've never liked stalls; in fact, I flat-out hate them. Always have. The SportStar didn't change my mind on this... but surprisingly, stalls in the SportStar didn't unnerve me like they used to in the Skyhawk. In fact, they were almost... well, not fun, but rather enjoyably challenging. I again surprised myself by looking -- and feeling -- like I knew what I was doing.

With stalls completed, we headed back to the airport. I'd lost track of the time (except for the half-hour mark ,when we changed fuel tanks... another difference from the high-wing Skyhawk.) The 95-knot trip back to the airport gave me ample time to go over the flight in my mind.

Being in the air again felt like home. I couldn't believe it had been so long since I'd last been at the controls of an aircraft for an extended period of time... I had to pause to remember my last solo flight was June 2005.

All in all, it was a much better day than it had been exactly one year ago: January 24, 2006. A Tuesday... the first of many I'd never look at the same way again.

****

"It looks like cancer," the radiologist had told me that day, one year ago. "We're recommending surgery immediately."

They say time slows in moments like that... and it does. But my mind raced. I was only 30, and had recently started a "dream job" at Aero-News; in fact, my life had become something of a storybook in the past three months, and I was more content than I could remember being in quite some time.

One reason for that was I also looking forward to resuming flight lessons; in fact, as I awaited the results of the test, I had calmed myself by mentally flying the pattern at my local airport.

Cancer. It wasn't fair... but then again, what is?

The surgery was one week later, also on a Tuesday. My mom drove down to stay with me. The days that followed would bring more good news than bad. The tumor didn't look like it had spread... and the doctor felt there was no reason to go through chemo. Monthly observation checkups would tell us if we needed to alter that game plan.

I was -- I am -- lucky. The form of cancer I was struck with, although voracious in its appetite, is also relatively easy to kill. It depletes its energy in spreading... not with sticking around. Others have shown -- quite successfully -- it was possible to beat it back, and live not just normal lives... but highly successful ones, as well.

For the moment, however... no flying. And I cursed my luck for that one reason, above all others. Fortunately, it wouldn't last.

****

 

 

As Jay and I flew over the marina on the north edge of Joe Pool Lake -- conveniently inline with the end of the runway at GPM -- we called the tower, and received clearance to fly a straight-in approach to 35. The wind was straight down the runway.

Two notches of flaps (30 degrees) set us up for a nominal descent. We crossed the threshold at 60 KIAS, and I set the plane down in a smooth, albeit three-point landing.

"You'll have to get used to flaring higher than you would in the Skyhawk," Jay told me, "but apart from that, nice job!" I'd been at the controls the entire time, except when Jay demonstrated the stalls.

During the post-flight briefing, Jay set out a game-plan for earning my sport-pilot ticket. I already have the hours required for a sport pilot license -- several times over, in fact, the result of that stop-and-start training -- so the next few lessons would continue to be "check-out" flights ahead of soloing. "You shouldn't take very long," he told me, and I agreed. Everything on the first flight had felt natural to me.

 

 

We set up the next lesson for the following Tuesday, I paid my bill for the one hour flight($30 less than a comparable lesson in a C172, I noted... hey, every little bit helps) and that was that.

As I walked back to my car, I could feel my emotions starting to get the better of me. I had to make one phone call before heading for home.

"Mom, your son is flying again," I said.

Next Week... Steep Turns, And Strong Winds!

E-I-C Note: The Aviation World lives off of one inspirational miracle after another... but of all the little miracles that I've ever been a part of, this "ANN Thing" has been my favorite. This project has touched and involved more people in more ways than I can possibly count and every new way that ANN manifests itself as something cool or special in a flyer's life is truly the delight of my life. And some more than others...

Rob's odyssey since coming onboard at ANN is something we take great pleasure in. He has a "no prisoners" attitude toward every task that is put before him, and when his "Big C" scare came about, I really wasn't that worried for his mortality... as he is not the kind of guy to be stopped by simple matters of mere biology... not when there's flying to be done. I had every confidence that he would beat that challenge and look forward to seeing him earn his SP ticket in the not too distant future and joining the ranks of aviators throughout the world... although, make no mistake about it, the guy has been an aviator, with ticket or not, since the day I met him...  -- Jim Campbell, E-I-C