First Flight: Wisconsin to Washington

Late June 2006

The bead of sweat worked its way down my neck and I could feel it roll down my back. Was it due to the hot and humid Wisconsin afternoon, or was it anxiety because I had just bought my first airplane?

In some ways, everything seemed right. The RF-5B had a beautiful shape. At least on paper, it made perfect sense - two place, economical, reasonable performance. It would provide a variety of flights that I would never get from a standard powered aircraft. Its construction was wood and fabric which seemed organic, vintage and modern all at once. There were many aspects of the motorglider's design that I really liked.

In some ways, everything seemed wrong. I had investigated two Cessna 172's before. I dutifully got records and showed them to an A&P. Each time, he found enough wrong to nix the deal. But this time, I had not found someone to check the logs with me. A prepurchase inspection is always important. But the RF-5B was so different, I couldn't find a local A&P who would do one. So, the previous owner said he would have his A&P do an annual. But when I got there, the A&P wouldn't charge me anything, saying that it had been a cursory check at best.

I had expected to take a day or so to check the aircraft as closely as I could. It turned out that we had a couple of hours to check the logs (which I was not qualified to do), go for a demo flight, then buy it or not - before the airport closed for an airshow. The owner said he had multiple people who wanted to pay him more than he had advertised, so at some level, he really didn't want me to buy it. I didn't know what to believe. But the purchase was not going the way it should go and I was feeling stupid and exposed.

The best thing going for me was that N99809 was being purchased for about the price of a new Volkswagen. So, I could end up looking stupid. But, the aircraft and its components were all reasonably priced and replaceable. If something wasn't right, I could rebuild or replace it without it killing the bank. I was trying to follow the old aut-racer's advice: don't race anything that's more expensive than you can total and walk away from.

Good decision: I was paying Dave McConeghey to ferry the glider back to Washington State, and to give me type-specific training along the way. Dave seemed pleasant and reasonable, so I guessed we would get along ok on our three-day trip.

Unexpected: while neither of us brought much, the combined amount still exceeded what the glider could carry. Alex, the former owner, graciously offered to pack our overflow in a box & ship it to Washington State. Well, we could at least get off the ground.

Unexpected: the darn thing didn't have an intercom! I never expected that a two-place, trainer aircraft with radios would not have an intercom. I could have brought a portable one if I had known. There was no place to buy one nearby. So, we'd be stuck with talking loud enough to be heard over the engine (which thankfully, was fairly quiet for an airplane).

We were warned that the airport was closing, we had to go. I was feeling overwhelmed. But, Dave was the ferry pilot, CFI-G, multi-thousand-hour ATP pilot….so, he was the one that needed to be fully together. I had loaded our route into my Garmin 295. We just needed to blast out of town.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
With Dave as PIC, we flew into the hot, humid, afternoon haze so common in the Midwest

Climbing would be good
We loaded up, took off and things just weren't right. We saw obstacles and rising terrain, but we were not climbing well. Heck, we were hardly climbing at all! I was in the rear seat, still mostly overwhelmed with the events of the day. The new concern was felt in the front seat as Dave had to plan to steer between obstacles and toward the lowest terrain. Bit by bit, it did climb. But it was not a good start.

I had forgotten the Midwest haze that comes with high temperatures and humidity. One good thing was that I had bought a couple of small sun shades with suction cups on the back. We could stick those to the inside of the canopy and move them as the sun moved.

Back to my childhood and going for rides in cars, one way to get a bit of air was to open the small window, cup my hand outside to swoosh a stream of air inward. The air on my arm and face felt good. But something else didn't feel good - my rear. After a very short time, the seats hurt! We only had thin, removeable pads on wooden seats whose curves seemed to push in all the wrong places I hadn't noticed this on my short demo flight. But the more time I had in the seat, the more squirming I did. One small blessing - I had anticipated that the seats might not be perfect for a long trip, so I brought a couple of small, inflatable camping pillows and was able to put them at the worst spots. Still uncomfortable, but now tolerable.

We flew westward toward Minnesota. Toward rising terrain. Toward the Rockies. And we were in a glider that could barely climb. Heck, there's nothing wrong with that picture.

At the first airport, Dave realized that we had taken off LaCrosse with the prop in coarse pitch, intended for cruising. It should have been in fine pitch, designed for climbing. So, in fact, our seeming poor climb was really quite respectable given that the prop was in cruise pitch. Neither of us will make that mistake again soon. With the prop in climb pitch, the glider climbed much more smartly out of the second airport. Whew. What a relief.

But there was another issue. Flying along at higher speeds with the prop in cruise pitch, we discovered that the glider still didn't climb smartly under power alone. At higher speeds, putting the prop in climb pitch mainly served to overheat the engine. So, we climbed the best we could in cruise pitch. As a glider, we (quite successfully) looked for sources of lift. Updrafts from wind reflecting off a ridge. Thermals from roads or dark patches of forest. But it was a continuing challenge. It would be almost a year before I discovered a combination of settings that could reliably get the glider to climb in hot weather without overheating the engine. But that wouldn't help on this trip.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
In Minnesota, we got the glider inside a hangar for the night, just as the rains came

It was summer in the west. Afternoon breezes were relatively stiff, mostly from the northwest, heading southeast. Of course, where were we headed? Northwest.

With the breezes stronger at higher altitudes, we tried to stay as low as we could. If the terrain was rough, we kept higher anyway, trying to make sure we had reasonable landing spots we could glide to. This aircraft was unknown to us. There was reason to believe it hadn't been flown much in recent years, so there was no telling what we might encounter on the way to Seattle.

Most of the time, flying into a headwind is something you note in your trip calculations. Legs of your trip take longer. You need to be careful to have enough fuel to reach your next stop. But occasionally, the effects of headwinds are disgustingly obvious.

Our route took us along the side of a highway for a while. I looked down. There beneath us was a U-Haul box truck. It was towing a trailer with a car on it. And it was going faster than we were.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
The Mayor of Wall, SD poses for a picture with Dave and me
Not far from the famous Wall Drug Store, he tends the airport in his spare time

By the second day, Dave had me fly front seat so I could start to get used to this thing that I had purchased. The first time I tried to shift from climb prop to cruise prop, I nearly ruined the hub and caused major problems. Dave and Alex had simply said, 'pull on the prop control and it will shift.' They never said how much to pull on it. So, I pulled on it…and pulled on it, almost shifting the prop into feather position, which would have damaged it. I quickly learned to only pull the control out an inch or so, just enough for the cogs inside the prop hub to shift, then gently release.

My first flight training had been at Iowa City, Iowa, one summer before I started graduate school. Most landings were crosswind landings. In fact it had been drummed into me that every landing is a crosswind landing, they just vary in degree. No problem. I thought I was pretty darn good at crosswind landings and takeoffs. Not in a tail dragger I wasn't. The crosswinds were strong. We bet that one was over 18 knots. I don't think I managed a single takeoff or landing on my way to Seattle that Dave didn't have to save us at one point or another. Dave says I'm exaggerating. I think he's being generous.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Canopies open at Sturgis, SD

I was pitifully behind the glider. Further, virtually all my previous flying had been in Piper's or Cessna's - that is, airplanes with yokes. Everyone rants about how much better and more natural flying is with a stick. Not if you've trained on a yoke. So, I was behind on the aircraft, almost none of my normal moves were right and almost everything about the RF-5B was foreign to me. So, by the time we got to Seattle, I was seriously concerned that I had made a big mistake and might not be able to fly this thing.

In perspective, realize that we stopped for fuel about 3 times each day. So, over the course of a day, I had three chances. Every place was different. Different layout. Different altitude. And I was in a tail dragger facing strong crosswinds. This was not an environment conducive to rapid learning. Once we got back to Seattle, even after one day at a local airport with light winds, I was doing pretty well. Whew! What a relief. But, I didn't know that in the heat and discomfort crossing the Great Plains.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
After another day of flying, we pull the glider into a rented hangar for the night

Know your avionics
I had used the Garmin 295 around the Seattle area. It helped me deal with the complex airspace. But I had never taken it on a long trip. Note to self: while it's great to put in a route, what if you have to change the route? Do you know how to modify an existing route or put in a new route 'on the fly'?

As we dealt with headwinds and rising terrain, we adjusted our route. My great routes that I had loaded into the 295 with route-planning software became useless. Not having used it for other kinds of navigation, I had never even used the DirectTo button. Yeh, it's stupid and simple. But I had expected to have my laptop with me that would have a copy of the Garmin instructions as well as nice planning software that I could use to load in a new route. But my laptop was in a box headed to Seattle. Hm-m-m. Another learning moment among so many learning moments.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Long white wings over Western badlands

Let's see that thing
One of the reasons our stops took longer than we planned, was that people were genuinely interested in the glider and had lots of questions - many of which I couldn't answer because I had just bought the thing. Guys wanted to chat. They wanted to get their pictures taken with the glider. Their interest was reinforcing. I didn't buy the glider to show off. But it was nice to see that others agreed it had nice lines and was interesting.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Soaring, prop feathered, near Ephrata, Washington

First soaring
Coming across Washington State, we neared Ephrata, surrounded by farmland. That area would probably be a desert if it weren't for well water and irrigation. As we approached Ephrata, at first glance, it looked a little hazy, but the haze looked brown…not white. Looking more closely, we could see 30-50 dust devils. They were everywhere! Dave loves to soar. He demanded that we stop this stupid straight line flying and drill some holes in the sky. So, for the first time, I was going to see what the RF-5B was like as a sailplane!

Oh, ya betcha it can soar. At about 2,000' we were cooling the engine as we were blasted by one thermal, then the next. I suppose you could have soared a grand piano that day if it weren't tied down. So, after days of one challenge after another, this was a bright spot. We were in strong lift, so I shut down the engine and feathered the prop. Dave coached me as I banked into the first thermal. This happened to be a strong, let's-be-kind-to-beginners thermal. Where many will try to through you out, by absolute, dumb beginner's luck, I seemed to nail the middle of the thermal and, crap! We were gaining altitude. The wind howled past the open window. In pretty short order, we were at 5,000'. We broke out of that thermal and headed in the general direction we wanted to go. We didn't go far before we caught the next one. I'm sure Dave was frustrated as I clumsily flew in and out of it. But we slowly gained more altitude. Before long, we were up to cloud base, at about 10,000'. We broke off and headed westward, catching lift as we went. In all, we probably flew 40 miles cross country without much more circling, just catching lift as we flew along.

Dave hinted that we could stay overnight and fly some more the next day. But I knew that I couldn't afford to pay him indefinitely and I couldn't reliably take off and land my own airplane. So, to his disappointment, I restarted the engine, having enjoyed a preview of soaring to come, and headed toward Seattle where I might have a chance to become proficient enough to get signed off before he had to leave (either due to his time or my limited funds).

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Cascade Mountains
The visibility out of an aircraft doesn't get much better than this!

Back to civilization
After long, hot, dusty days in places where I'd never live voluntarily, it was such a relief to fly into the Cascade Mountains. This, I recognized. The mountains, the water and the islands were the songs that drew me to this part of the country in the first place. Again, the climb was challenging. But now the air was a little cooler. The glider performed a little better. I was better at identifying areas of lift along the way, so we got through the passes without trouble.

On the west side of the mountains, we came out of the passes to a bright afternoon sun. While it was warm, it was also dry and cool compared to what we had come from. Puget Sound glittered in the late afternoon sun. I entered the pattern of the airport where I was going to base the glider. I had flown out of there for several years as a member of a local flying club. The landing pattern, the angles, the views, the smells - all seemed like home. Was I glad to be back!

As we pulled up to the fuel pumps, my wife greeted us. It was great to see her.

Then came the reality of trying to taxi. Even with the wings folded, the outriggers were still beyond the edge of the taxiway. Dave suggested I taxi with the main wheel close to the edge of the taxiway. That would allow at least one of the outriggers to ride on the pavement. A good idea, but after the second time a taxiway light punctured a wing near the root, I decided that having the main wheel in the center kept the wings as high as possible near the lights.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
First motorglider solo, Arlington, WA

Over the next few days, we focused on my gaining proficiency in air and ground handling. As it turns out, the rudder cables were not adjusted correctly, which made some of the ground handling a lot harder than it needed to be. That was eventually taken care of. I gained the needed experience, coordination and skills - so Dave finally signed me off. I had earned it. It was no 'rubber stamp' process.

The last day before he left, Dave asked what I wanted to do. I suggested that he should fly front seat that day. Although I had been paying him, he'd been patient and had ridden in the back seat when he'd really rather be piloting. So, I suggested that we should just go to the places, do whatever soaring that he'd enjoy doing. Surprised and pleased, that's what we did. It was a good day of flying and the beginning of many flights to come.