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Early on a misty, overcast morning in McMinnville, Oregon, my parents, my wife Janet and I, along with Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, arrived by taxi at the airport. We'd flown in from Seattle the night before in my club's A36 Bonanza. After a restful and enjoyable night's stay at a nearby hotel we'd come to visit the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, right across the road from the airport. We were greeted by Jennifer, who with her husband runs Cirrus Aviation.

"Heading to the museum today?" she asked.

"Yes!" I answered. "We've been meaning come for a long time and it finally worked out."

"I can dog-sit for you while you're there," Jennifer offered. "Can he get treats?" she asked. Eddie Pippin gazed up at her expectantly.

"Sure, but he has to work for 'em!" Janet answered. She and Jennifer discussed the Wonder Pom's training and temperament and quickly had a plan. Jennifer's dog-savvy was immediately apparent.

As I paid for our fuel and bought a couple of spare quarts of oil, a young lineman came in from a flight lesson, followed by his instructor.

"The Cessna outside needs a top-off," Jennifer told him.

"I'm on it," he replied, putting away his headset and heading outside.

The scene was typical of the way general aviation used to be at small airports all over the country. A pilot and his instructor were sitting at a small table reviewing a flight plan. In the back room, another student was taking the oral exam portion of her Private Pilot checkride. I even bumped into another pilot I know from San Jose who'd flown his Mooney in and was having it worked on. Jennifer called the museum to ask for the shuttle to pick us up and then drove me and our gear out to the airplane in a golf cart so I could pack it away for our planned afternoon departure.

The museum was amazing. As I described in last week's post, the incredible Hughes H-4 Flying Boat, better known as the "Spruce Goose," by itself made the trip worthwhile, but there were many other beautiful airplanes to admire. Our three hours there went by far too fast. We'll be back.

By the time we returned to the airport, the morning overcast had lifted and it was a fine, warm, late-Summer day. The aerobatic instructor taxied out and took off in his Yak-52. A helicopter was doing circuits of the field. Janet and Jennifer were talking dogs and soon were plotting some aerobatic training for me. There was a steady traffic of pilots and instructors coming in and out of the office and several just sitting around doing some "hangar flying" while I got a weather briefing on the office computer.

Finally, after Jennifer's help ferrying my parents out to the airplane in the golf cart, we took off and headed up the Columbia Gorge on our way to The Dalles. Reflecting on the day I felt a twinge of sadness, knowing that the time-honored aviation rituals and traditions we'd seen at McMinnville, which used to be the rule at GA airports, are getting harder and harder to find. Still, it did my heart good to know there are still places where those traditions are alive and well and where people like Jennifer and her crew are seeing to it that they continue.

"What a wonderful day!" said Janet as we watched the great river slide past underneath us.

"Amen, sister," I said. It's a day I won't soon forget.

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79 feet in height. 319 feet from wingtip to wingtip. 11,430 square feet of wing area. 400,000 pounds' maximum takeoff weight. Eight 3,000 horsepower engines swinging 17-foot propellers. The specifications of Howard Hughes's gargantuan H-4 flying boat, dubbed the "Spruce Goose" by the 1940's press, strain the imagination. We had to see it for ourselves. My parents, my wife Janet, and I flew into McMinnville, Oregon in my club's A36 Bonanza late one evening in early September to visit the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. The museum is located right across the road from the airport, which was just a few minutes from our hotel. Early the next morning we got a taxi back to the airport and caught a shuttle over to the museum.

Once inside, we gazed up at the massive airplane, comfortably ensconced in the vast building constructed especially to house it. Now that I was finally seeing it in person, its scale still didn't quite register in my brain. Even the gorgeous, polished-aluminum DC-3 parked under the H-4's left wing, dwarfed by its enormous neighbor, was not quite enough to convey the scale of what I was looking at.

Certainly the airplane's sheer size is its most immediately striking feature. Like a great colossus of the ancient world, it inspires a kind of awe. But ultimately, it's the magnitude of the accomplishment it represents, not its physical size, that most impresses me. The Hughes engineers tackled and solved countless daunting technical challenges. The airplane had the world's first artificial-feel control system, which amplified control inputs over 200 times, making it physically possible for a human being to fly it. The laminated birch (not spruce) from which the airframe is constructed is stronger and lighter than aluminum. The airplane carried 12,500 gallons of fuel in many tanks, requiring an incredibly complex fuel system.

And on November 2, 1947, with Howard Hughes at the controls, it flew—only about a mile and at an altitude of 70 feet—but it flew. And it never flew again. With the second world war long over, the airplane had no mission. That one flight cost the American taxpayers $18 million in 1940's dollars. It cost Hughes himself an additional $7 million.

But it flew.

As we toured the museum, we admired the dozens of meticulously restored aircraft arrayed under and around the H-4. Finally, the tour took us up a flight of stairs and inside the cavernous airplane itself. The docent told the history of the ship and how it had finally come to McMinnville, an epic tale in its own right. At last, Janet, my mom, and I took the extra-cost tour of the airplane's enormous cockpit, which has more square footage than our apartment. Sitting in the pilot's seat, I surveyed the instrument panel, trying to figure out what everything was. It was impossible, but it felt comfortable, just as an airplane cockpit should.

Over a pizza dinner at our hotel that evening we talked about all the beautiful airplanes we'd seen that day, but my mom kept coming back to the H-4.

"Man, that airplane is something else!" she said. "It's one of those things that just had to be built. It had to be built."

Building the Empire State. Climbing Mount Everest. Going to the Moon. These were things that made no practical sense, and yet in the same way, they had to be done. The same can be said of any of the crazy, senseless things we human beings long to do. Things like learning to fly. GA airplanes have never been the most practical form of personal transportation. Flying is difficult and it's really expensive. Unless you plan to fly for a living, learning to fly doesn't really make any sense at all. But for those who know they want to fly, who know they need to, it's something that has to be done. It's just part of what it means to be human.

After my parents retired for the evening, I sat quietly and thought about our visit to the cockpit, and the eight slender throttle levers with their knurled knobs that had fit so comfortably in my hand. They had once commanded 24,000 horsepower. Those wings, 13 feet tall at the root, had once lifted over 300,000 pounds into the air. I thought of the view from the pilot's seat, looking down several stories onto the museum floor below.

That airplane may have been a rich man's folly, a pork-barrel boondoggle, an albatross. But my mom was right.

It had to be built.

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We were climbing on course in my club's A36 Bonanza at the start of our family's week-long vacation to the Pacific Northwest. My parents were in the back, my wife Janet was in the right seat, and Eddie Pippin, Canine Aviator, was in her lap. We'd just departed Ukiah, California, and I had circled to climb up through a hole in the scattered cloud layer before crossing the six and seven thousand foot peaks to the East. As we turned on course, I kept climbing.

It was a warm day, which was typical for that part of the world in early September, so as we climbed higher, our climb performance fell off noticeably. George (the autopilot) was flying as I tended to leaning the mixture, adjusting the flow of oxygen for myself and my passengers, and scanning for traffic. Our autopilot is a 1970's model with limited capabilities. Modern units can climb at a specified airspeed or climb rate, level off at a preselected altitude, and even fly GPS courses and holding patterns. Ours can only maintain a given attitude or altitude and fly a bugged heading or track the CDI according to the selected OBS course. It can also fly a coupled ILS approach if you set it up right.

I had been rolling the autopilot's pitch wheel back to maintain a 500 feet per minute climb. After a couple of minutes dividing my attention between the oxygen bottle, scanning outside for traffic, and an occasional glance at the instrument panel, I noticed the groundspeed readout on the GPS. It read 67 knots.

"Whoa!" I thought to myself, and quickly checked the airspeed indicator, which read about the same. Just at that moment, the stall warning horn blared. I quickly rolled the pitch wheel forward to get the nose down. The airplane lurched forward, jostling my passengers, as the airspeed built back up.

"Sorry about that," I said. "Gotta pay closer attention!" I resumed the climb at a more leisurely rate and a safe airspeed. It had been a long time since my last real trip in the Bonanza, so I hadn't used the autopilot much in a while. The incident was a sharp reminder of the importance of maintaining a good scan, especially when George is at the controls.

My re-familiarization with the autopilot continued a couple of days later as we were approaching Seattle's Boeing Field on an IFR clearance when Seattle Approach began vectoring us for the airport. I noticed that George was flying a heading a few degrees to the right of the heading bug. Cross-checking our heading against the magnetic compass, I adjusted the bug until we were flying the assigned vector.

By the time we were bound for home, George and I were working better together. As we approached the high terrain East of Mount Shasta along Victor 25, I knew we had a 10 to 15 knot headwind, so I was on the lookout for downdrafts. We were at 11,000 feet, above the MEA, so I knew we had at least 2,000 feet of terrain clearance. Sure enough, I noticed a series of slow fluctuations in airspeed as we approached each ridge, indicating that George was having to climb just to hold altitude. The airspeed excursions were never large enough to worry me, but I was glad that I noticed them.

Of all the trip's lessons about using the autopilot, though, maybe the most important was getting clear on when not to use it. Especially towards the end of a VFR descent when nearing our destination, heading changes became more frequent and the dance of twist the bug, roll the wheel, enrich the mixture, and roll back the throttle required increasing contortions. It was time to give George a rest and just fly the airplane. In these flight regimes I found the autopilot to be more trouble than it's worth, and when moderately loaded, the Bonanza is a very pleasant airplane to hand-fly.

Besides, I didn't become a pilot just so George could have all the fun.

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The airspeed needle was bouncing up and down. The wings were rocking side-to-side. The furball dog on my wife's lap was squirming and fussing. We were on final approach to Little River, California in our club's A36 Bonanza and were getting knocked around pretty good. In other words, it was a typical approach into the coastal airport, where the sea breeze usually combines with the surrounding hills to make things interesting.

"Gas, undercarriage—three green lights—mixture, prop," I called out while trying to keep lined up with the runway centerline and minimize excursions from the glide path. We were going to meet my parents for lunch and maybe take them for a short flight in preparation for a long trip we're planning. As I flared the airplane and milked back the throttle, a right crosswind gust pushed us left of the centerline. I rolled in more right slip to arrest the drift and made a surprisingly smooth touchdown and rollout.

"Very nice!" Janet commented.

"Thanks!" I said. "That was a little trickier than usual. I'm starting to wonder about the wisdom of taking my folks up today." We tied down the airplane and walked over to the small office where my folks were waiting.

"Great to see you!" my mom said, giving us a hug.

"That's a good looking airplane!" my dad said. It had been awhile since he'd seen it.

"Thanks! We're very proud of it," I replied.

At lunch, we caught up a bit and talked about our plans to visit friends and family in the Seattle area and then continue on to the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. My dad has back trouble and finds it painful to sit for long periods, so we wanted to get him in the airplane and find a combination of cushions to make him as comfortable as possible. As it is, I'm planning our trip in short hops to allow him to get out and move around frequently. My folks had never flown with me in the Bonanza, so we wanted to do a little test flight to get them acquainted with it before the long trip.

The wind was generally light and a bit off runway heading when we got back to the airport, but the occasional gusts were pretty strong. I did a quick walk-around and we got my dad situated in one of the rear seats. As we did so, the gusts started to pick up and I started getting an "I'm not so sure about this" feeling. I climbed in next, followed closely by my mom, and we got her settled in the right seat. I started running the checklist and started the engine.

"Wind variable between 300 and 340 at 17, gusts 22. Crosswind. Wind shear," reported the AWOS. This was a bad idea.

"The wind's getting worse," I told my parents. "I don't think this is a good day for your first flight in this airplane. I want you to have the best possible experience. Let's plan for a short flight the day before our trip."

"Sure, that'll be fine," my mom replied.

"You don't want to scare the hell out of us the first time out, eh?" my dad asked.

I chuckled and said, "Yeah, that's considered bad form. We'll pick a friendlier day."

I shut down the airplane and we chatted a bit more about the trip. I noticed that the omnipresent fog was now visible off shore, so it wouldn't be long until it pushed inland. Janet and I said our good-byes and got the airplane ready to go.

There was a gusty crosswind as I started the takeoff roll with the yoke fully to the right. As we picked up speed, I slowly moved the yoke towards level. A gust started to pick up the right wing just before liftoff, so I compensated, let the speed build a bit more, and then rotated into a right crab. As we climbed out, we were hit by a series of wing-rocking gusts and up- and down-drafts, with the airspeed needle fluctuating by ten knots, so I kept our speed up. At about 1,500 feet AGL the air finally smoothed out and we turned downwind, heading for home.

"Good call not taking your folks up today," Janet said.

"Indeed!" I replied. "There's always next time."

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The hunt was on. My instructor Jim and I were on a training flight in a glider and we were searching for a usable thermal to gain some altitude. We were finding lots of sink and plenty of light turbulence everywhere, but the lift was eluding us. As we slowly lost altitude, I headed in the direction of the gliderport to keep us in gliding range.

"Let's try the house thermal," Jim suggested, referring to the spot just West of the gliderport where afternoon thermals often form. It's sort of a last resort before admitting defeat and returning for a landing.

"OK," I replied and made for it. On the way, as we rode through the bumps, I was doing my best to correct the attitude excursions, but it seemed most of my control movements were too big, too little, or too late.

After a little while, Jim said, "You really don't need to react to every little bump like that. Here, let me show you. I have the glider."

"Your glider," I confirmed.

Miraculously, the air smoothed out immediately! I chuckled quietly to myself. I had just learned about "pilot-induced turbulence." In my earnest desire to control the glider's path, I had been over-controlling.

"See, the glider does just fine with a few bumps. The pitch trim and the wing's dihedral help keep the glider stable," Jim explained.

This experience was an early hint at some of the subtleties involved in flying an aircraft. When I first started flying, I think I heard terms like "flight controls" and "pilot in command" and misinterpreted their meaning. I took them to mean that the pilot controls the aircraft—that flying was all about making the aircraft do exactly what you want it to do when you want it to do it. The flight environment, however, is extremely dynamic and unpredictable. We can't know from moment to moment what the air around us, the weather, other traffic, and countless other variables are going to do. In truth, there's precious little that we control with any certainty.

On the other hand, we have enormous influence, especially when we learn to pay close attention to what the aircraft, the environment, and all our senses are telling us. That little patch of haze might be the precursor to a cumulus cloud; there's probably a thermal over there. The ripples on the lake below indicate a strong Westerly wind; there's almost certainly bad sink just to the East of that ridge. The turbulence is light, well within the ability of the aircraft to right itself; there's no need for more than an occasional nudge on the controls. An awareness of details like these informs our actions, making them much more effective. That's why I've come to think of the phrase "pilot in command" as meaning not just the pilot who's responsible for the flight, but also a pilot with a command of the skills, knowledge, and judgment needed to fly an aircraft safely and well—not one who commands the aircraft with an iron fist.

"You have the glider," Jim said. "Try a light touch."

"I have the glider," I confirmed, handling the controls as gently as I could. After a few moments, I felt a slight bobble in the stick indicating a thermal under the right wing. I quickly rolled into a steep right turn and the variometer confirmed the lift. After a couple of turns I had the thermal centered and we were climbing at a modest but consistent 100 to 200 feet per minute.

"Wow, that was really subtle!" I commented to Jim. "I would never have noticed that thermal if I'd been fighting the bumps."

Jim just smiled. "How about that?" he said.

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