Look Ma’ No Engines


October is a great time for flying in my area. The foliage colors are in full swing and quite a sight from a few thousand feet. After trying to take my fiance up and having to cancel because of weather and maintenance I was running out of time. I had a random day off of work so I figured I should give something new a try. I have always heard that flying gliders makes you a better pilot. I happen to be lucky enough to have two great soaring airports nearby. Wurtsboro airport and Blairstown airport are each about an hour from my house.

Wurtsboro Airport claims to be one of the oldest operating glider ports in the country. It sits in a valley not far from Ellenville which is a popular hang gliding and paragliding spot. What makes this area great for soaring is the large ridge that cuts through it. The wind hits the ridge and creates a lot of lift which takes your glider up and up. At least that is how it should work once you know what you are doing. I for one had no idea what I was doing.

When I walked into the office to start my lesson I was greeted by the airport operator and head CFI Warren. Also hanging out was the airport dog, Dick the WWII veteran tow pilot, and Dan the airport mechanic. Right away I felt like this was one of those hometown airports I always hear about. A place people go just to hangar talk and hang around. My airport is a corporate airport for the most part and has no personality at all.

After some quick paper work it was time to head out and fly. Warren walked me through everything and what to expect. Our glider for the day was a classic Schweizer SGS 2-33 one of the most popular gliders ever produced in the United States. The Schweizer Aircraft company was actually based not too far away in Elmira, NY.

Once we maneuvered the glider up to the tow area we hooked up the tow line. Gliding is bit of a group activity because it takes quite a few people to make it work. You need a tow pilot, a wing walker, and of course a flight instructor. Once we gave the signal to start the flight we were off. After only a few seconds the glider pops off the ground. Since we actually start flying before the tow plane you have to push the nose back down. Otherwise you might pull the tow plane right off the ground and then all sorts of bad things happen. Within a few more seconds we were off the ground and slowly climbing. This is the part that really surprised me. I had no idea the tow ride was so ‘exciting’ we were constantly moving the stick and rudders all over to stay in the right place behind the tow plane. It seems like this is going to be the hardest part to get the hang of.

Once we were about 2,200ft above the ground I pulled the tow line release. All of a sudden it was real quiet. Coming from a powered plane background it was quite strange. We didn’t have to wear headsets and you could just speak normally to the instructor. It was really quite cool. After I got a feel for the controls and did a few turns we headed back for the airport. Even though the glider was a decades old design it still has a glide ratio of about 22:1. Which means for 22 feet forward for every foot it descends. Quite impressive considering my usual Cessna 172 glides about 9:1.

The whole site picture and everything will take some getting used to. It seemed like there was no way we would make the runway flying a full left pattern. Not only did we make it but we had to bleed off altitude with the spoilers to get it coming down. The whole flight only lasted about 10-15min but was really fun. I was running low on time so I couldn’t get another flight in. I think once spring comes I will head up there and take a few more flights to see if it is something I want to pursue. So far it was a blast and I recommend fellow powered pilots to give it a try some time.

Flying the Legendary P-51 Mustang

On Memorial Day weekend I checked a major item off my bucket list. Thanks to a gift from my fiance and parents I flew a P-51 Mustang. I searched online for dual control P-51 rides and came across an outfit based in Kissimmee, FL called Stallion 51. We all had to head down to Florida anyway for a friend’s wedding so it seemed like a great match.

The four of us arrived at Kissimmee Gateway airport Friday morning for the fun. The Stallion 51 facility is basically every pilot’s wet dream. Their hangar houses three TF-51 Mustangs, a T-6 Texan, an Aero L-39 Albatros, and large office space. We were greeted by the office manager Julia and our pilot Steve Larmore. I say our pilot because I decided it would be a great opportunity to surprise my father for his birthday. So I booked a 30min flight for him in the T-6.

Stallion 51 HangarSteve directed us to the briefing room where we went over what to expect for the Mustang flight. He made it very clear from the beginning that this would be a hands on flight. Excluding the obvious challenges like take off and landing I would be able to fly the maneuvers as much or as little as I wanted to. He also explained that we would be flying formation with another Mustang and the L-39 on the way to and from the practice area. We would take lead on the way out and I would get to fly right wing on the way back.

DSCN3685Once the briefing was over we walked down to the spotless hangar and got to check out the plane. To say the plane was beautiful is an understatement. It is completely spotless and perfect in every way. There was not a single worn piece of equipment or even dust for that matter. My particular Mustang would be Crazy Horse 2 aka N351DT. For a detailed history of this particular airframe click here.

After wiping the drool from my face we began the process of being inserted into the plane. I say inserted because you really do wear this thing. I honestly have no idea how a bigger guy would even fit back there but I fit just right. I buckled the parachute first followed by the aircraft harness. After putting on the helmet I was instantly transformed to fighter pilot bad-ass (in my head at least). The three planes were towed out of the hangar and after some warmup and waiting we taxied down to the active runway.

DSCN3734We took our position right of center line with the other Mustang on our left. After a few more quick checks the throttle came forward and the massive 1,700HP Merlin engine starting screaming. Even though I was only following along for the take off I could feel the immense power of the plane. It really wanted to break loose and do anything but track a straight line but Steve’s experience kept it straight and smooth. We were airborne in what felt like no time and on our way to the practice area in formation with me on the controls. Within minutes of taking control I knew why pilots love this plane. As heavy as it is (~8,000lbs) it is very responsive. It wants to fly and it has the excess power to handle any maneuver you can probably throw at it.

mustang-takeoffAfter flying out from under the bravo airspace and separating from the other two aircraft we started our maneuvers. The first thing we did was get a feel for the plane and work on some level flight followed by steep turns, slow flight, and stalls. What is strange about the Mustang is the site picture in level flight. The nose is actually below the horizon so it takes some getting used to to maintain altitude with outside references. As big and powerful as the plane is it wasn’t too hard to feel out and get through those basic maneuvers. But because of it’s shear size when you lose altitude you lose it VERY quickly. Just by accidentally dropping the nose a bit in a steep turn we were down 400′. On my first stall I think we lost almost 1,000ft because I didn’t keep everything tidy. The second stall was much more benign.

Now it was time for the real fun. I have never been upside down in an airplane before so what a great way to loose my acro virginity than a Mustang. First we worked on some wing overs in each direction. The entry speed for wing overs and aileron rolls was 210kts. Which is funny because I have never even flown a plane in level flight that fast before let alone aerobatics. For the first aileron roll I pushed the stick all the way to my left knee and the world rolled around me in that bubble canopy. It was simply fantastic. We did a few more aileron rolls and then finished our acro with a barrel roll. Entry speed for the barrel roll was 240kts. We pulled the nose real high and then started the rolling.

mustang-upsidedownWhile the acro was tons of fun at this point my insides started disagreeing with the rest of me. We called it quits and started our way back to meet up and fly formation back to the field. Flying formation was very hard. Steve was definitely helping me out on the controls. I always assumed it took a lot of precision but it was really surprising just how much you have to constantly tweak the stick and rudders. Even the slightest over-correction and we were 40ft farther away than we wanted to be.

mustang-formationYet another great thing about Stallion 51 is that they have a good relationship with the control tower. We flew formation inbound and over the field then did an overhead break to landing. Morristown (MMU) would probably call the feds just for asking for such a thing! I had the plane all the way down to short final as Steve worked the landing gear and flaps. We flew a long sweeping left turn down to final approach. It really looked like we were way too high but Steve warned me about that beforehand. Once we put in some more flaps and slowed down even more the plane started coming down like a rock. We were moving at about 110kts and right above the runway Steve took full controls and stuck a sweet wheel landing.

Once we landed and got out of the plane we went back to the room to watch the video and go over what we did. Steve filled out my certificate and log book. My top speed for the day was 290kts! As you can see it was an amazing experience and I highly recommend you try it at least once. But be careful now, it is quite addictive. If I had some money burning a hole in my pocket I would have probably stayed an entire week!

So thank you Anca, Mom, and Dad! You guys gave me a ride I will never forget. And of course many thanks to the crew at Stallion 51, you run a top notch operation.

A Windy Proposal

Spring is finally here and hopefully I will get some more flying in. This blog has been pretty empty because of the bad winter weather we had here in Northern New Jersey. On top of the bad weather I have had too many busy weekends that also took away from available flying time. This past March I was fortunate enough to squeeze in a quick flight that deserves a blog post. On the surface, a 20min flight beginning and ending at my home airport would be a non event. However on this flight I managed to propose to my girlfriend.

I spent 3 hours the previous night making huge 7ft letters out of poster board and duct tape. The plan was to have my buddies lay out the letters on a baseball field in my hometown. I picked the field because it is near a huge cemetery and easy to spot from the air. I would then just fly over it, girlfriend would read it, and voila proposal complete.

The wind however disagreed with this simple plan. After waking up that morning and checking the METARs/TAFs I was contemplating calling it off. While the wind was mostly down the runway it was gusting a lot and was going to make it pretty bumpy up there. It was still within my personal limits so I decided to not scrub the flight and check once again after driving to the airport. I received the ‘all clear’ text message from my ground crew that the sign was setup and ready to go.

After hopping in the plane we lined up and took off. It was gusting quite a bit and I immediately realized this might make today more interesting than I had planned. The baseball field is only about a 10min flight from my home airport. As I approached the field and told my girlfriend to look I noticed that there was quite a problem on the ground. Apparently just minutes before I flew overhead the wind completely blew all of the letters all over the field. The guys were scrambling around to try and fix everything. Instead of it saying ‘Marry me, Anca?’ it just looked like the local fire department was practicing some sort of disaster exercise with red stretchers.

I started laughing and basically had to make her guess what it ‘might’ have said. After a few seconds she figured it out and started cracking up too. The whole time she just thought this was a typical $100 hamburger flight.  After all of the laughing and crying was over I was able to get an audible ‘Yes’ out of her. After circling around a few times the guys managed to fix some letters but wind picked up even more and I decided flight needed to come to an end. I made a decent landing back at MMU runway 23 and the rest is history.