Sunday, January 16, 2005

I Fly the Frosty Skies

Finally got back in the skies today after a month-long hiatus, which is about the longest I've played groundhog in the last nine years. It's a Bad Thing for airplanes to sit around without flying; regular use prevents corrosion on all those expensive, important engine parts. It's a bad thing for pilots, too; there is something about the skills and disciplines of flying that deteriorates without use, from student pilots to airline captains. Pilot certificates never expire; but it's illegal for a pilot to take passengers aloft if they are not current, with strict definitions for recent experience.

Flying small airplanes in winter conditions requires some extra care, too. Just getting the things out of a frozen hangar onto an icy taxiway is a chore; and the lightweight batteries and starters often require a preheat to even start the engine. In the air, piston engines are susceptible to carburetor ice; and ice can build up on the airframe, which has no built-in deicing equipment like jet airliners.

But today the elements were overcome easily enough; I chipped away at the ice in front of the hangar and pulled my plane out. 02P laughed off the -10C weather like any good Pennsylvania native, and started smartly on the first crank.

There was a fly-out to Lancaster scheduled by my local airport pilots' association, but I had gotten there too late to make the appointed meeting time. I was just going to fly locally, but two of the guys turned up and said they were heading for Sussex, NJ, so I decided to tag along. Sussex is about a 45-minute flight; it's a friendly, ramshackle little airport that houses a fair gaggle of light planes and an aerobatic flight school. (And has a cafe nearby, naturally!) It was the home of Leo Loudenslager, 7-time U.S. and one-time World aerobatic champion. I used to go to the small Sussex airshow every summer to see the best of the aerobatic world show off in Leo's backyard; but none could ever match the smooth, polished perfection of Leo's routines. When he did a point roll, you could measure the angles with a t-square; and I remember watching him land his tiny 1100-pound aerobatic plane in a blustery crosswind that had almost blown a B-25 bomber off the runway.

On the way back, I was just five minutes from my home when I hit a lowering wall of clouds; I ducked under and found just enough room underneath to press on. Light snow was falling, but the runway was just ahead and I slipped in with no trouble. Felt good to knock the rust off.