Monday, July 31, 2006

VINTAGE AT SUNPORT

The Ingram Foster Biplane hanging from the ceiling at ABQ International Airport


The Foster-Ingram biplane with the information board underneath


I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico on the 10th of July. Primarily my job was to visit the Eclipse 500 VLJ (Very Light Jet) design and manufacturing center located there. I did write about the VLJ earlier. Just a quick note again, a VLJ is like a really small personal jet that some companies are also thinking of using as an air taxi service. The entire concept is new and it remains to be seen whether it makes business sense to operate a VLJ as anything other than a personal toy. The Eclipse 500 has some worthy competition in the form of the Cessna Mustang, and Embraer Phenom.

I was on my way out of Albuquerque and was at the ABQ Airport (Sunport as it is called fondly) and proceeding towards security and the gates; I came across a large hall. Hanging from the ceiling is an old biplane. The aviation department of ABQ has set up an information board underneath the hanging biplane. I was early and had plenty of time to hang around and read the stuff, take notes and gaze at the display. Unluckily, I had left the camera in my checked in bag and there’s no way of retrieving it. Luckily I had a camera phone. Saved the day although that’s probably not the best tool for better photography.

The hanging airplane is a real one, constructed in the year 1914, from original materials. The model is a 1914 Ingram-Foster Biplane based on a popular Curtiss Biplane. It is mounted with a Roberts engine rated at 100 HP. The airplane is constructed out of wood, fabric, metal and bamboo.

Jay Ingram, a Ford car dealer those days based at Decatur, Texas, met Charles A. Foster who had been flying a Curtiss Pusher Bi-plane and using the same design, made their own airplane and called it the Ingram-Foster Biplane. The present one was also manufactured by them and kept in a box until it was sold from a private owner to the ABQ Museum and Department of Aviation in 1987. The ABQ Department painstakingly put the Airplane together and has now displayed it.

Glen Curtiss, the original designer of the Curtiss Airplane was the main rival for the Wright Brothers between 1909 and 1911 and his models were copied by many others. Curtiss Airplanes made a lot of historical records in Aviation.

1908 – Glen Curtiss won $2,500 from Scientific American to fly an “officially witnessed” flight of 1 kilometer (0.62 Miles).

1911 – Eugene Ely with a Curtiss Pusher was the first to take off from the deck of a ship. In the same year, with a similar type of Airplane, Lincoln Beachey was the first to fly an airplane upside down. He also set the altitude record of 11,642 feet.

1913 – Again Lincoln Beachey was the first to loop the airplane.

In the year 1911, a Curtiss pusher, delivered from the factory at Hammondsport, New York, costed $4500-$6,000 depending on the size of the engine. Today’s value would approximate $78,000 for the upper end model. The engines were 4, 6 and 8 cylinder ones. The last one was required to fly the Airplane out of hot and high airfields such as ABQ.

All this information can be found beneath the hanging Ingram-Foster biplane. The one thing I found wanting, is that there were no brochures or printed information leaflets, that one could have carried home. The next time one of you go to ABQ Airport, look it up, take some pictures and be nice, pass them to me, for posting!

Monday, July 17, 2006

FROM 39,000 FEET

For a change, I don’t have to sit up front in the cockpit and fly. For a change I am sitting in the passenger cabin of a mid sized corporate jet. The airplane we are flying is a Raytheon Hawker 800XP, taking off early from Van Nuys near LA across the USA to Little Rock, Arkansas. My seat is a plush lateral and side tracking (means that the seat can swivel around in all directions), work table, phone, electrical outlet for my laptop, remote control audio and video. I get to eat fresh strawberries, cookies, muffins etc while someone else flies the plane. The airshow monitor shows that we are doing 499 MPH at 39,000 feet and the outside air temperature is -58 degrees. Why am I doing this trip? We are going to Little Rock (home of President Clinton-no we are not visiting him) where Raytheon Hawker has their new Aircraft completion center. We are half way there already, time remaining 1 Hour and 10 minutes. Total flying time is 3 Hours and 15 minutes with some headwinds coming our way. That’s not too shabby for an airplane this size.
Chuck, Boss and me in the back of the executive jet

We are flying in a 2002 model and going to see some new ones with options, all at the manufacturers cost. It does feel funny to be sitting back here instead of the familiar environment of the cockpit, wearing a full shirt, corporate style trousers, feeling like a millions bucks. But, I’ll take it! I did visit the cockpit, chatted with Capt. Errol, who is flying the airplane and talked about India. He thinks India is a growing economy and is surprised at the number of airplanes that Indian companies are buying. I agreed with him, of course. I am a part of that acquisition action at the moment anyway. I look behind me and three guys including Chuck Smith, Doug (from hawker) and my boss in an animated conversation about airplanes.


Me writing this blog from 39,000 feet

The boss does not profess to be computer literate, although he has a very sharp mind and can do basic stuff like e-mail. He is a smart operator, excellent with marketing the product and is averaging nearly double the hourly utilization in the World charter market and that’s not shabby either. Nice guy to work with, we take turns calling each other as “boss”, confusing everyone around us as to who is actually the boss. We are more like colleagues but he writes the checks and that’s good! That’s the way it is supposed to work, I fly the plane and he pays the checks, how much more fun can it get? I do lots of other interesting stuff on the side and that’s OK by him and the company and hey, I got nothing to complain.

I did not start this way, though. I have gone through trials and tribulations on and off, getting experience as I went from place to place flying around 22 different types of airplanes of all types, working for peanuts and trying hard not to turn into a monkey. Seems to me that I have indeed arrived, sitting in plush comfort with a bunch of people worth millions sitting around me. At the end of the day, I’d still like to get back to my familiar environment and take the controls.

We are coming up on Norman, Oklahoma as I write. That’s the same place where about 17 years back, I trained and obtained a Flight Instructor license that allowed me to teach people to fly airplanes and get their commercial pilot licenses. That was a fun gig too, didn’t pay much, but fun anyway. My wife always told me that I was a good instructor, probably because I talked so much, constantly. Norman also has the National tornado research center. Anyone who has seen the movie “twister”, this is where the storm chasers are based at and this is in the heart of the tornado belt in the United States.


Boss and me, notice Indian flag flying high in Little Rock, Arkansas

We are turning towards Little Rock now and time to close my computer, we will be descending soon. We are flying back the same afternoon, after enjoying some lunch at their facility and looking at various Aircraft at different levels of completion. We taxi into the Raytheon Hawker facility, a large complex with a private terminal and get off the airplane. There’s some of the top brass waiting to receive us and the best part is that they are flying the Indian flag on their flag pole as a sign of welcome! We have arrived indeed. My Birthday gift came early, a day early actually, I’ll still take it.

Friday, July 14, 2006

THE MIGHTY MUSTANG

Thats me, the not so legendary guy, on the legendary WW II Fighter
Aviation buffs and history buffs will like this one. We are talking about the Second World War and the flying machines that did the Germans and the Japanese in. I had written about North American Aviation designed and produced WW II trainer called the T-28 Trojan in my earlier post and had also mentioned that the same company had designed and built the most successful fighter Aircraft of World war II that surpassed even the legendary Spitfire and that was called as the P51 Mustang. This piece is about the P51 Mustang.

I am still due to write about the T-28 flight but I’ll do that after my little side trip to Reno, Nevada in a B200 turboprop this weekend, followed by a Hawker 400XP executive jet day trip all the way across the US and back the same day on Monday. I still have a lot to blog about my trips to three different cities scattered across the US in the preceding four days and two of these cities have aviation historical background that I found interesting. That’s coming up next.

The P51D Mustang sitting in Chuck's hangar at Camarillo

Meanwhile, there are very few flying P51 Mustangs in the World and two of the best pieces happen to be here in Camarillo, California, where yours truly has landed up, exhausted, after all the other trips. How fun is that! To have one P51 sold to a guy in Sweden by Chuck Smith of C&J Aircraft sales (I had written about him and what he does, in my T-28 Trojan article) and that airplane parked in Chuck’s hangar for us to see, up close, real close!

Vidya had written in a comment on my article “out of Scotland” that my trip read more like the legendary fictional World War II fighter pilot called Biggles and there were a series of books on him. I guess Biggles flew the Spitfire alongside the allies the Americans flying the P51 Mustangs. The engines used were the Rolls Royce - Packard Merlin, so the Brits can claim proudly that their engine had good success on the American airframe. This Airplane out flew everything the Germans and the Italians and whoever were a part of the Axis powers had, in fact they destroyed 4,950 enemy Aircraft over Europe during the War. The 12-Cylinder Vee engines developed 1695 HP and the Aircraft top speed was 437 Miles per hour! That’s fast, by the way.

It’s a treat to be around such vintage Aircraft. These are the same airplanes that we, as kids read about in those commando comics borrowed from the neighborhood library for 25 Paisa per day, I think, and fantasized about flying those machines. If I had been stuck in one place in India, I’d never have had this opportunity but luckily I have been fortunate to be able to roam around the World and be able to see, feel and maybe even fly those magnificent flying machines.

Lots more coming up …

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

PART 5: TRIBUTE TO THE NORTH ATLANTIC PILOTS

Nuuk Runway, nuuk, Greenland

Nuuk at last

Three and half hours after flying over the ice cap without incident except for some freezing of our controls, the mountains started to look greenish, and we could see Nuuk, on the seaside. Diving into from our altitude to about 300 feet above sea level to the airport area, we landed smoothly on a regular runway that juts into the sea. Again, Nuuk has steep cliffs on one side and the ocean on the other. For those misinformed Mysoreans who think Chamundi Hill is an obstruction for airplanes landing at Mysore Mandakalli Airport, check out Nuuk with 10,000 feet mountains and the airport a sheer cliff down to near sea level and the runway being less than 3,500 feet long, lesser than Mandakalli.

As we taxied in, an Air Greenland De-Havilland Dash 7, a four engine turboprop fifty seat Aircraft, also known for it’s capability as a short take of and landing Aircraft (STOL), swung by on the taxiway on its way to the runway, heading for destinations further north. The pilots in the dash 7 waved to us and gave a smart salute, either for our bravery for crossing the ice cap or for our plain luck that we tried something stupid and lived to tell the tale!

Parking the Airplane, Fritz and I were in the mood to celebrate and wanted to go to town. We went to the Control Tower, where a pretty lady controller greeted us, allowed us to use the phone to call home to India and talk to my wife. She was indeed happy we had made it. The tower girl also called the taxi for us and we went hotel hunting, only to realize that there were few options and all were full. Some one suggested that we meet the Greenland Tourism Authority, yup, there’s one, and maybe they would be able to help out.


Nuuk harbor

We went looking for them, Copi sleeping in the back of the cab. I remember it was a Sunday and they were closed. A note stuck on their window gave a private number to call on holidays and we did. Sooner than we could say “polar bear”, a lady turned up, the tourism representative and told us that in Nuuk, due to the shortage of hotel rooms, one could stay at a private residence. It seems that a lot of people move to Denmark for long periods of time for educational and other purposes and leave their homes, fully furnished, in the hands of the tourism authorities to rent them out.

Cabby drove us to the house, with the tourism lady and Fritz and I shared the cost of the rent, no more than the hotel rooms were going to cost! We settled in nicely and a bit later went to town, ordered drinks and Pizza, everything else either too costly or too alien to eat. Nuuk is a small town and we could explore every place by foot. I don’t really know why anyone would want to come there for a holiday but I guess someone did and that’s why they had such an efficient Tourism Authority.


Canada finally

A good night sleep and we were off the next day for our take off on the last leg of our Polar Route, Nuuk to Iqualuit Nunavut (Frobisher Bay) in extreme northern Canada. For aviation buffs, this was the same place that they tested the Airbus A380 super Jumbo Aircraft for cold weather take off and landings and icing equipment checks. Now that should tell you something. If Iceland was cold, and Greenland was cold, we hadn’t seen anything yet. The flight to Iqualuit was equally daunting, flying over frozen seas; there were areas that we could see more ice than water. They call this the Greenland Ice shelf, copi called it scary, just plain scary.

Iqualuit (a Nunavut word pronounced as Ikaloueet) was colder than anything we had experienced. It was summer and the ground was frozen and there was ice all around. The wind was robust and cutting us to the bone, this in spite of the wet suit, the jacket underneath, the sweater underneath the jacket, the shirt underneath the sweater and the vest underneath the shirt! Copi refused to come out of the airplane to help me help Fritz pour engine oil into his two engines that needed to be topped off.

We made it to the Air Traffic Service of NavCanada where they helped us to fill out the forms for arrival and file another flight plan out of there. We did not want to spend any more time in this tundra. We wanted to go south as soon as we could, like birds migrating South-now we know why! We had to wait for the fuel to come, in drums, to be pumped by a portable electric pump into our tanks and we finally left the place, cold and miserable and copi asleep in the cockpit once again! I still had lots more miles across Canada to deliver the Airplane in Western Canada but that’s another story for another day.

One thing I could not figure out. Iceland is not named correctly, it is quite green, at least in summer. Greenland on the other hand also suffers from this misnomer. Very few places in Greenland are actually green. It is mostly ice and white throughout the year. Somebody having fun at the World’s expense.

This ferry flight was a fun experience, in making the stops that we normally don’t on long range Aircraft. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, I’d say yes, the practical side of me on the other hand says why re-do something that you’ve already done? Relive it through your blog; hope others enjoy the trip with you.

The next time one of my readers cross the North Atlantic in comfort, on an Airliner, pray for those adventurous ferry pilots flying several thousand feet below you, for their safe passage across the drink. Look below you and if you spot a small airplane, lights on, going real slow, ask for good champagne on board, raise your glass in a toast, for their success. The North Atlantic has claimed the lives of many such pilots. It goes with the territory of being a ferry pilot.

End of series.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

PART 4: GREENLAND CROSSING

By the way, I’ll stop calling this series as a trilogy because in this blog format, the whole story appears too lengthy and on suggestions from some of my well wishers, I have split the “trilogy” into more parts …

Greenland Ho …

South Air called and said the weather was going to clear up somewhat and this was the window of opportunity that we were all waiting for, piling into the van, we rode off to the Airport, a quick pre-flight inspection in the blustery weather, flight plans filed for all of us, weather maps printed out and we were all starting engines. Fritz leading the way, first to take off, followed by the Germans and us. The Germans were heading for the Southern Tip of Greenland and they would fly up to Nuuk, the Capital of Greenland. Fritz and we were to take the shorter route to Kulusuk, Eastern Greenland and do the’ Polar Ice cap hop’ across to Nuuk. The Germans thought we were crazy and they thought it was safer to go along the coast should something fail and we thought otherwise, that it was a waste of fuel.

(Above picture is of Ice filled North Atlantic Ocean between Iceland/Greenland/Canada in summer!)

Uneventful crossing, bidding the Germans farewell along the coast line when they made their turn South and Fritz having landed earlier at Kulusuk The weather by the time we got there half an hour later, was really closing in and we could not see the airport area well. Thick dark clouds obscured the peaks around the airport. Tower guy just gave us the clearance to land and not much else in terms of guidance. Too late to turn back and Fritz was on the ground guiding us in with his Aircraft’s radio, asking us to make one way turns to descend, the other side would have had us running smack into a mountain. The Airport has primitive landing systems and gravel-dirt runway leading to a concrete tarmac and small terminal. Fritz’s ground based visual reference was so good that he got us lined up for the runway.











(The Author with the plane, Kulusuk Airport, Greenland)

A couple of Eskimos came up to the Aircraft to re-fuel and while they did that, we visited the Control tower. The officer was a nice guy and he said” Welcome to Greenland, you guys chose a rather nice day to come into Kulusuk!” We thought he had gone mad. Looking out of the tower is Kulusuk runway with high mountains hugged by thick clouds that you see in the picture on one side and the cold Atlantic, on the other.

The Atlantic waters looked quite dark and there were lots of ice floes floating around, with an intense blue color reflecting off of them. To say that that was a pretty sight is an understatement. ATC guy said “We don’t expect ice today over the ice cap, so, go for it boys”. We took that as the gospel truth and jumped back in the Airplane, wet suit and all dragging in behind us. We must have looked funny to the Eskimos, Indian chaps wearing flaming red bulky suits. They had never seen Indians before and didn’t know of any that had come across their neck of the ice. Most ferry flight go through the South where the Germans were going, we just wanted to be a bit different.

(Glacier Ice picture taken at Glacier Lake, Iceland, by the Author) ----------->

Ice Clouds:

We took off and as we climbed, the weather on top did clear. We had to coax the old girl to climb to 11,000 feet, its maximum service ceiling. Since large part of the ice cap has mountains of 10,000 feet covered in ice, the minimum enroute altitude over the ice cap is 10,500 feet. So, we were scraping bottom, five hundred feet above the ice, looking absolutely blinding white. The landscape was desolate and as we crossed over the mountains, lost Kulusuk radio as well. Fritz kept sending back radio messages to us mentioning about the dismal icing conditions that he was encountering at 14,000 feet with Oxygen. He was going to come down to our altitude since the icing wasn’t so severe where we were. The tower guy had said no ice at any altitude!

When ice accumulates over the wings, it spoils the aerodynamic design of the wing and renders it un-flyable. It is capable of building up so much as to freeze the control surfaces and even cause imbalance. In other words, without wing de-ice equipment installed, we’d be pretty soon diving for the ice and hunted by Polar Bears for lunch. What we were encountering were thin wispy fog-cloud type that I had not seen before. These clouds were tiny crystals of ice and they were wrapping around our wing, tail surfaces and also on the spinning propeller.

Somehow, I wrestled with the airplane to keep her straight and level, with occasional “whump, whump” sound of ice lumps hitting the side of the airplane, thrown by the spinning propellers. Wasn’t a nice feeling, let me tell you. I kept my eyes on the ground, just five hundred feet below, looking always for an emergency place to land in case we had a real emergency. That’s what we are trained to do, anyway.

Copi was busy, confident that I was flying the airplane and all he had to do was work the portable GPS to get a precise location of our Aircraft. What I saw, bang in the middle of Greenland, was a cluster of polar style domed buildings, all in white to blend with the surroundings. They were concrete structures and seemed that no one was around. This is where they keep the flying saucers fro outer space and imprison aliens, I thought as we flew slowly on top. “Let’s keep this place in mind if we have to make a turn around, if we have an emergency”, I told Copi while he watched, saucer-eyed, the building pass below. In this strange environment, the engine sounded different to us or was it our mind playing games or was it a higher power setting at this altitude? Were we going to make it across without incident?

To be continued …