Building an airplane – leaving the nest, October 8, 2017

Unbelievably, it’s been almost six weeks since I made those first crow hops down the grass strip at the Verona Air Park (W19). First, I was away in Arizona for four weeks as a part of a sabbatical stay at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, where I’m working with colleagues in the Applied Meteorology program there to brainstorm meteorological applications of UAVs.  After my return, I was disappointed to learn that we still had not received the rocket for our BRS (ballistic recovery system) due to a licensing glitch with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

This meant that I would either have to continue waiting to fly the Zigolo to any significant altitude, or I would have to take my chances on the airplane we just built hanging together through whatever turbulence or moderately stressful maneuvers I might expose it to.

Not that there was any particular reason to expect a problem, but we had paid for the BRS, and the first couple of hours of flight of an amateur-built aircraft were when the odds of actually needing one  seemed highest.  Also, as a novice ultralight pilot, I knew I’d feel less vulnerable at altitude in the completely exposed seat if I had that red handle dangling reassuringly above me.

On Thursday, October 5, I got the message from BRS that the license logjam had finally been broken, and they said they could ship it on Friday.  But it would then arrive in the middle of the following week, and I would only a have a very short time before I needed to leave town again.  What if the weather didn’t cooperate?  I might not get to fly until Spring!

In the end, I spontaneously drove to St. Paul on Thursday evening (four hours one way), stayed in a cheap motel, picked up the rocket in person the following morning at 8am, and then was back in Madison by early afternoon Friday. It turned out to be the right decision, because I was able to install the rocket on Saturday, and Sunday was forecast to be the last truly nice-weather day for some time to come.

On my way home from the air strip on Saturday, I picked up a good supply of Castrol TTS two-stroke oil and also filled the five gallon canister with premium gas, no ethanol.

On Sunday, I stopped at a bike shop to pick up a convex mirror that I could mount so as to allow me to see the gas tank behind the pilot seat.  After I got to the hangar, I carefully measured out one gallon at a time of 40:1 gas-oil mix and added it to the tank, and I marked the level of each added gallon with a Sharpie (I had propped up the tail so that the tank would more or less be in the position expected during level flight).  I now had a crude fuel gauge that was, most likely, more accurate than any Cessna fuel gauge I ever worked with.

Shortly thereafter, Jonathan arrived, and we both went over the BRS installation and the airplane itself in the most thorough preflight I have ever given any airplane.  Bolt by bolt, cable by cable, strut by strut, we confirmed that every one of dozens and dozens of critical joints seemed secure.  I was particularly concerned about the control cable connections from the joystick to the elevator – if there was one control I did not want to lose in flight, it was the elevator!

Next, I improvised a temporary cardboard holder for the ICom AC-14 handheld aviation transceiver, using cable ties and electrical tape to secure it to the forward tube that sloped upward and rearward in front of my seat.  I used the velcro strap to attach the push-to-talk button to the same tube, just above my head where I could easily reach it.  In the meantime, Jonathan secured a Kestrel 5500 weather logger to the tip of the fuselage so we could record temperature, humidity, and pressure (it could technically also record wind, but the main wind it would see was the aircraft’s own airspeed, which was not meteorologically interesting).

At around 5pm, after it felt like the breeze was dying down, we wheeled the Zigolo out onto the grass,  and I primed and started the engine.  I plugged my David Clark headset into the radio, put on my motorcycle goggles and my new Comtronics Ultra-Pro helmet, and strapped myself in. Jonathan set up near the runway so that he could take photos and video.  He also had the other ICom radio so that I could talk to him on the multicom frequency (122.9 MHz).  We don’t yet have a ground station license, so he could only listen.

It had been weeks since I last taxied the plane, let alone flown it.  So I started cautiously, taxiing up and down the runway, getting a feel for the handling.  I then repeated my crow-hopping exercise of several weeks ago, accelerating to takeoff speed and then flying 10-20 feet above the runway until the far end loomed, and I put it down again.

After the first crow hop, I touched down fine, but suddenly the breeze caught the tail and swung it one side, and I found myself careening off the side of the runway through some tall grass before I regained control and came to a stop.  Lesson learned – I realized I needed to remember my training in an Aeronca Champ a year ago and pull the stick sharply back after touchdown to hold the steerable tailwheel firmly onto the ground for better control.   The Zigolo is, after all, a tailwheel airplane, unlike the Cessnas I’m used to flying.

The remaining crow hops went well, and I persuaded myself that once I left the field for real, I would manage to land again in one piece.

It proved surprisingly difficult to commit to taking off and flying away from the airport. I knew that once I did that, the safety net would be gone; I couldn’t just put it right back down on the runway again, because I’d be over trees for a bit.  And I’d still be at too low of an altitude for the BRS to do any good if I suddenly found myself in a pickle.  In a Cessna, I would have given little thought to these things, because I know that Cessnas are built and maintained by people who know what they’re doing.  Here, I was contemplating flying to several hundred feet altitude or more in a relatively flimsy flying machine that I, a novice,  had helped assemble from a crate full of random parts just weeks ago.

Google Earth view of the Verona Air Park (W19). The UW ultralight is kept in the white hangar at the northeast end of the row of three buildings.

The feeling I had was remarkably like that of standing on the edge of a pool full of chilly water and indefinitely postponing that moment when you take the plunge – both figuratively and literally –  into the unknown.

Finally, I made a somewhat garbled announcement over the radio to let other pilots who might be in the area know my intentions.  I didn’t know what to call myself.  Zigolo N13UW?  UW Ultralight? UW Zigolo?  I don’t know anymore what I actually said, and it probably didn’t matter anyway, because there were no other planes far and wide that evening.

I squeezed the throttle trigger on the stick, and within around 100 feet, I was airborne.  This time, instead of letting up on the power and cruising level just above the runway, I kept full power and held the nose up, watching the Hall airspeed indicator carefully to make sure I kept to around 30-35 mph and didn’t let the speed drop toward the stall speed of 25 mph.

I had also told myself on the ground that I would hold onto the red BRS handle with my left hand during climbout, but I completely forgot about that once I was on my takeoff roll.

Very quickly, I was over the tall trees, and I worried about where I would go if I suddenly lost power.  But shortly thereafter, I was back over open fields where the corn had already been harvested, and I allowed myself to breathe again.

The view of the farms and fields from above was stunning – the sun was on the verge of going down, and everything was illuminated by a deep golden light broken by long shadows from the trees.  I continued climbing until I guessed that I was at something approximating pattern altitude – I didn’t have an altimeter – and I made a gentle 180 degree turn to return to the air strip, and I descend to land in the opposite direction from my takeoff (there was no wind component along the runway).

Whew!  That went okay!  Now let’s try making an actual circuit around the pattern.   I returned to the southwest end of the runway, just below the elevated Highway 151, and took off a second time on runway 04, lifting off quickly and establishing a satisfactory climb over the trees on the far end.   Runway 04 has right traffic, so at a comfortable altitude, I turned crosswind to the southeast and then downwind to the southwest.  I was nervous about descending too low over the busy freeway, so I turned base early and made an uneventful midfield landing.

By this time, the sun was officially setting, and I decided to call it a day.

Postscript:  I later recovered the meteorological data from the Kestrel and determined from the pressure record that I had only climbed to about 270 feet above ground level.  It had felt so much higher in that open cockpit!  I resolved to buy an actual digital altimeter so I wouldn’t have to guess about that anymore.

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