Cindy's First Flight (my first passenger)
January 17, 2010, today I flew with my first passenger in my Northwing Apache Sport X2. I earned my Sport Pilot rating in November of 2009 but the weather in November and December was not very good so I hadn't flown much at all and so I hadn't flown anyone in my aircraft yet. Finally, after having Cabin Fever already in early Winter, the Good Lord provided a reasonable day for open-air Winter flying. The temperature was about 26 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind was calm when I checked the Automated Weather Observing System (AWOS) at Luverne Quentin Aanenson Airport.
My wife, Cindy and I were headed home from church when I called my son Matt and asked him if he wanted to go flying today. Matt said he wasn't quite ready to go flying just yet. I'm not sure anyone ever wants to be the first to fly in an ultralight aircraft with a novice pilot so I understood completely. Cindy and I continued home, and I was still planning to go flying, passenger or not. All of a sudden and in her most reluctant voice, Cindy said" Oh I'll go with you." I was super surprised because she had always said she wouldn't be the first to fly with me, especially on a cold wintry day in January. Winters in South Dakota and Minnesota are typically very cold and since there was snow on the ground this day would be no exception.
When we arrived home we started getting Cindy's winter clothes together for her big adventure. She regularly helps me clear the snow from around our house and garage so she had snow pants, a warm down jacket, head sock, boots, gloves and mittens. A number of years ago when I was recovering from a back surgery, Cindy's Dad helped her purchase us a new snow blower. He made sure she was decked out with cold weather gear before he taught her how to use it. Between her and Matt they kept our place clear of snow all that winter long.
Having found enough warm clothes for her to wear, we headed for the hangar. The ride to the hangar usually takes me about 35 minutes. I run through my mind exactly what my plan will be for flight that day. I usually ride with the radio off, concentrating on what I am going to do first, what my goals for the flight will be, what I hope to learn and to what location I might fly. Today's drive was quite a bit different for me having Cindy ride with me and knowing that she would be my passenger in the aircraft as well. The ride was very quiet as we made our way to Luverne. I was thinking to myself that this was the first time that I had anyone in the backseat of any aircraft where I was Pilot In Charge (PIC) and the passenger wasn't a Certified Flight Instructor or an experienced trike pilot like my friend Darrel from Rapid City, South Dakota. You may have read my blog about flying with Darrel the day before this flight, at Sturgis, South Dakota, around Bear Butte.
I was actually becoming a little nervous and anxious about this flight when I broke the ice by saying to Cindy "you can back out before we get to the hangar." She said she knew that but was going to go through with it. When we finally arrived at the hangar, she sat in the car and stayed warm as I pre-flighted the aircraft. When I had finished, I pushed the aircraft outside of the hangar and demonstrated to Cindy how to ingress the aircraft. She easily got herself into the seat even though she had all of these winter clothes on. We positioned and fastened her helmet and seatbelts. I closed the hangar and climbed onboard myself. Entering and exiting a weight shift controlled aircraft is the hardest part of the entire experience. I fastened my belts and hooked up the intercom and radio cords. I told Cindy that maybe the aircraft wouldn't start and then she wouldn't have to fly today. She told me " it better start, I'm here now."
I had been having a problem keeping the gel battery charged since sometimes it was a long time between flights during the winter. The last time I flew the aircraft, it turned over fine but didn't fire right away. When I had tried it the second time the engine wouldn't turn over. I unbuckled myself from the aircraft and pulled the engine over with the hand pull starter and then the electric starter worked fine.
Sure enough, today the same thing happened. The starter spun the engine over the first time but didn't fire. When I tried the second time, the starter didn't engage. I unbuckled my belts, egressed the aircraft and pulled the hand starter. I had turned the mag switches off when I egressed the aircraft so that the aircraft wouldn't start when I pulled the starter. I then reached inside the aircraft and toggled the electric starter and it spun the engine and prop again. I ingressed the aircraft again, and refastened the belts and now when I initiated the starter, the Rotax 582 engine started.
As the aircraft warmed up, I gave Cindy a short briefing on the sequence of events that were going to happen from the time we would taxi the aircraft through takeoff. It takes about 7 minutes or so to get this water-cooled engine properly warmed up. Taking off too soon would damage the engine internally. Finally, it was time to taxi to the runway. After completing our brake check and magneto checks, I announced on the radio that we were going to back-taxi runway three-six since the wind was out of the North. When we arrived at the South end of the runway run-up-pad, we double checked our helmet fasteners and seat belts before takeoff. I ran the engine up to about 3500 rpms while holding the aircraft in place with the brakes on to ensure the engine was ready to be fully accelerated. Then I moved the control bar and wing in all directions to ensure the wing had full movement. As I went through the movement of the wing I pointed in the directions that I wanted Cindy to look for other aircraft on the ground and in the sky. The passenger becomes a crew member from the moment you start taxiing and provides you with a second set of eyes for Safety's sake. I announced on the radio that we were departing runway three-six and staying in the pattern.
We positioned ourself on the runway and began to accelerate this great little aircraft. It wasn't long and we were up to speed and I pushed the bar out and we were now airborne. Cindy exclaimed a surprised "Oh!" as we took to the air. I asked if she was all right and she said she was but was surprised that we would jump off the runway like that. Now I know for the past 2 years I have told her everything that I have ever experienced during my training in trikes, so I know that I told her that the aircraft would leap off the ground quickly, especially in the winter, but I hadn't told her again today. She must have forgotten that tidbit of information as if she really needed to retain it. When we are at home, as soon as I start talking about flying trikes, she tunes me out and just hears "blah, blah, blah."
I usually like to make a landing at my airport before I fly off to some exotic place located in Minnesota, South Dakota or Iowa, especially if I haven't flown in awhile. I also had thought to myself a long time ago that when I was finally allowed to fly with passengers, that I would demonstrate a safe take off and landing right at the beginning of the flight to hopefully ease the mind of a new or nervous passenger. An instructor told me once that he does the same thing to check out his landing gear. He felt if the landing gear was going to present a problem, he would rather be at his home airport than at another location
We flew the pattern like normal, announcing our downwind, base and final legs as we went. I decided to land with power on to make the landing as smooth as possible. As we touched down the main wheels on the runway, I put them down as smooth as I ever had, I "greased it in" as they say. This was the first time that I had landed the aircraft with a passenger except when I had purchased it back in July of 2009. The aircraft flew smoother and landed better with a passenger as I had read that it would be. When I finally pulled the control bar in, to set the front wheel down, it kind of went BUMP. Not hard, but harder than my passenger expected, and again she exclaimed"Oh!" Again I asked if she was okay and she said she was but hadn't anticipated that hard of a landing. She didn't know that the rear wheels had been on the ground for a little while prior to me putting the nose wheel down and finalizing the landing. The landing taught me to be more gentle when I put the nose wheel down in the future.
I then applied full power and made our second take off. This time Cindy wasn't surprised and I think enjoyed it better. We flew north of the airport and climbed to about 600 feet above ground level (AGL) and crossed over the power lines that parallel Interstate 90. As we flew on the Northwest edge of the city of Luverne, I noticed a snowmobiler enjoying the day out in the middle of a field. I pointed him out but Cindy couldn't see him very well, so I descended a couple hundred feet so that she could see him better. I'll bet he thought how crazy we must be, to be flying on a day like this. Little did he know that we were dressed very similar to him.
We flew a little farther North and I tried to point out a field that I had made a forced landing in, about 2 years ago. I was flying my ultralight trike, a Flight Designs Jetwing, when my engine quit all of a sudden. I'll write that story in a future article, but I called Cindy's Dad and my friend Mark to come with my trailer to retrieve my trike and me with my bruised pride. Because of that incident and my training to become a Sport Pilot, I started practicing forced or emergency landings every time I flew my aircraft, and today would be no exception. I told Cindy that we would practice this landing and described it and let her know that I do this almost every flight.
These aircraft are designed to land without power since they are basically just a hang glider, with an attached carriage for the passengers, landing gear and powerplant. We land more times than not with power reduced to idle, so that's exactly what we did. I selected a field that I thought would be suitable and I reduced the foot throttle to idle. At about 300 feet I pulled the control bar in just like I would making a normal landing at an airstrip or hard surfaced runway. When we were about 50 feet from the ground and I was convinced that I could make a safe landing, I applied full throttle and we began to climb again very quickly. Since I had described the whole scenario to Cindy before hand, she wasn't alarmed or concerned, at least that I could tell. When we had ascended to about 300 feet again she said her hands and throat were getting cold.
I told her that we would return to the airport before we got too cold. My head and throat were getting cool as well. Cindy was not wearing the warmest gloves. She had on knit gloves covered by knit mittens. I told her to place her hands between my back and the back of my seat and that helped keep them warm. The wind also sneaks in around the helmet and faceshield besides underneath even though we had headsocks that covered our necks. I will have to perfect that piece of clothing for the future.
We did a 180 degree turn and ascended to about 500 feet to clear the power lines again. I announced our intentions of entering a left downwind on a 45 degree angle shortly after crossing the interstate and power lines again. About half way through the downwind we spotted a group of snowmobliers on the ground. I don't know if they stopped to look at us or not, but just as we flew over them, they took off like they were having a drag race for four. That sure looked like fun.
I asked Cindy if she was too cold to make a couple of touch-n-go landings and she said that would be fine. I announced base and final turns and made another smooth landing with no surprise this time. Shortly after landing, again I applied power and we made another take off. After one more complete pattern, consisting of our downwind, base and final legs we landed the aircraft for the third time. We taxied back to the hangar and put the aircraft away after our great adventure.
I was so proud and thankful that Cindy would fly with me today. None of my flying experience, training and ownership would have been possible without the great support by her. They say behind every great man there is a great woman. I don't know about the great man part in my case, but I can tell you that she is truly a great woman! Thanks so much Cindy, you make so many of my dreams possible. And I told her on the ride home in the car, "Thanks for flying Larry Air."