flying

All posts tagged flying

My instructor, Gerard Landri always said that it wasn’t a matter of “if” your engine would quit one day, but “when.” So, you had to be prepared and have a landing field in mind at all times when flying. Ultralights, because of weight restrictions often use two-cylinder, two-stroke engines for propulsion. Rotax is the main manufacturer of these light, high-performance motors. They are quite reliable when well taken care of, but leave them without TLC (tender loving cash), and they will pay you back at the most unexpected moment, according to murphy’s law. I love ultralights though, they are so much fun to fly. I’ll always remember my first solo flight from a beach in the South of France..

My Europa2 ultralight (21yo)

My Europa2 ultralight (21yo)


I used to ride my motorcycle around my home town of Comines, close to the Belgian border. It seemed like I would often end-up close to the local airport of Bondues, a small grass field for general aviation. One afternoon, I stopped by and looked around the hangars. There was the slickest aircraft I ever saw. Slim fuselage, with a long canopy, curves I had only seen on a woman. It’s wings were thin, long and flexible. The cockpit looked as comfortable as the best lounging chair. It had no motor, no propeller. I approached it, walked around, worried about being kicked out for trespassing when I heard a voice behind me: “Interested?” There was a young guy, a few years older than me (I was 19), smiling. “Sure,” I replied, and he administered the coup de grâce that would be the start of a lifelong passion: “Want to sit in it?” That was it for me! He then explained the fine points of flying gliders, offered me to take a short introductory flight and then a ten-hour block of lessons. I just said: “I’ll take the ten-hour plan.” “But, how do you know you’ll like it?” He asked; to which I replied “I will.”

Months later, I was waiting for a train home at the Lille station one September evening. The news stand had all kind of magazines (lots of porn), but I favored the aviation section. There was an ultralight magazine.. I don’t remember if it was “Vol Moteur,” or “Ailes Magazine,” the two French ultralight publications of the time, but I bought one. Now, you have to understand French mentality a little, the bad side of it, to know that general aviation pilots do not like ultralights.. They pay fortunes to fly “real” airplanes, when someone flies by in a tube-and-fabric contraption that costs as much per hours as it takes for them to taxi from the hangar to the runway, imagine that! So, I had been warned about ultralights being widow-makers, unreliable and dangerous. Well, going through the pages, articles and photos, they seemed much more serious than I was made to believe. The fact that they could land so slowly was in itself a great safety feature. Unreliable? Somewhat true, when it came to engines. But then, you have no business flying over forests or cities anyway, and the rest is pretty much pastures and agricultural fields. You’d have to be a very bad pilot to kill yourself there..

Flipping through the magazine, a small photo caught my attention, that of a small plane towing what seemed to be a gigantic advertising banner, or rather a flag, with an ad for a supermarket. That got me thinking.. I called the company and ask the man on the phone (Gerard), a flurry of questions about his business. Let’s just say that for someone crazy enough to get into it, there was money to be made. That December, I was learning to fly on the French Riviera, near Beziers. I came back without my license, not enough time, but started to look for customers. I had no plane either, mind you. However, I did find one attraction park owner willing to go for it, and received a 20% deposit on a 200-hour contract for July and August on the North Sea shores, from Berk-Sur-Mer to Abevilles to the South, and to Bray-Dunes (Belgium) to the North via Le Touquet, Dunkerque, Boulogne and Calais.

My next trip was to the bank, where I explained to a couple gentlemen that I needed a fat loan to buy a plane made of tubes and tarp-like covering to tow giant banners along the coast.. Well, either I was very convincing or the economy was really good back then, because they said yes! I was lucky they didn’t ask me if I indeed had a pilot’s license! I used part of the money to finish my training, and bought a two-seater ultralight from Monsieur Mathot’s Weedhoper factory in Valenciennes. I was towing banners and giving rides to tourists for the Park of Bagatelle at the end of June.

That fateful day, I felt like flying but my Europa2 was down for repairs. I called the factory to see if they had anything I could borrow. I was in good terms with them, having bought two aircrafts from them and a couple spare engines. I was also selling their products.. A customer had left a deposit for a plane, but never paid the balance. The ultralight was sort of in limbo, and they were willing to let me borrow it. Being a two-seater, I wondered who might want to fly, and thought of one of my best friends, Arnaud, who was stuck at home with metal rods sticking out of his leg after a broken femur, open fracture he got in a motorcycle accident. He enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

After a customary thorough preflight, we taxied onto the runway at Valenciennes and I applied full power. The Rotax 532 went up to the 6500rpm limit, but it didn’t feel like we were getting the whole 64hp it was supposed to deliver.. More like 50, which for two was a bit weak. We slowly climbed to one thousand feet where I decided to stay, not to over-strain the engine. It wasn’t but a few minutes before the motor started banging loudly on one cylinder! I hit the emergency stop button. No need to fry the second cylinder. We weren’t going to stay aloft on one anyway. Arnaud turned to me with a concerned look:
– “What’s going on?”
– “Engine failure..”
Nothing had changed though it was now quiet, but for the noise of the wind.
– “Are we going to be all right?”
– “Yeah, we just have to land right now..”
I knew we weren’t going to hurt ourselves bad, but with that hardware sticking out of his bone, any shock to his leg would have been a catastrophe. I spotted some power lines to the right, started turning left where I had seen a long brown field aligned with the wind. We were still at a thousand feet but i didn’t want to do a full turn to lose altitude. I put the plane into a side slip, with the nose way down. That increases drag quite a bit, so we were coming down quite fast. The Europa2 having a high-wing, I could no longer see my field. I checked the prop, which was stopped horizontally, otherwise I would have given it a little starter hit to move it so that it would less likely break upon hitting the ground, if we did. I told Arnaud: “lift your legs up!” and pulled on the stick to flare. “Shit!,” “what?” “Potatoes!”
Anyone with a bit of agricultural knowledge knows by now this isn’t good news.. The brown field was a potato field, with rows of elevated dirt.. Fortunately we were landing in line with them, otherwise, it would have been painful! The back wheels touched down a little fast, but without an engine, I didn’t have much choice. A cloud of dust exploded around us in a sickening crashing noise. We stopped maybe forty feet later, tail in the air, and the whole thing fell back down, right-side-up. We looked at each other in relief, not a scratch! The front of the ultralight though was a bit crushed, save the prop that made it unscathed. Not bad.
We jumped out, and looked around. It was amazing how little ground we covered after touching down. Knowing how much a hassle it would be to deal with the authorities, I said “let’s get out of here!” Then came the farmer.. He was all smile! “Hey guys, how are you? I heard you lose your engine, glad you guys made it ok, is that an ultralight? You know, you guys can come and land here anytime.” Waoh, and I was expecting him to up upset about his potatoes being harvested before their time.. We started dismantling the wings, just a few pins to remove, not tools needed. There was a house about half a kilometer down, so I headed for it, hoping to find a phone. A woman greeted me suspiciously, I can’t blame her, but gave me her cordless phone. The factory didn’t like the news, to say the least. They sent me a driver with a trailer in a hurry, knowing as well as myself that filing tons of forms in triplicate wouldn’t be much fun. We made it out before any cops showed-up. I paid for half the damage, which wasn’t much. It turned out that a spark-plug had burned a hole in a piston.

Losing an engine in an ultralight, or small plane like a Cessna for example isn’t that big a deal, if you pay attention at what’s under you when you fly. I knew a pilot, Mr Mesureur, who was operating a banner towing plane, a French Rally, from the same field. I used to see him fly indiscriminately over towns at 500ft. Good for business maybe, but being from the ultralight school of piloting, seeing him always raised a few hair on my neck, as I was going the long way, around towns and villages, never over. Well, one day, I arrived at the airfield to find a smoldering pile of junk in the middle of the runway being hosed down by firefighters. Out of whitch, sticking up, was the tail of his plane. I ran down the strip to be stopped by a fireman. Smoke was still pouring out of the wreckage. “Is he all right?” I asked, panting. “Yes.” He said, to my relief. The pilot explained to me later that his plane caught on fire in the air and that he barely made it, jumped out seconds before the whole thing burst into flames. I asked him if the incident was going to change the way he flew. “You bet.” He said…

Did you know that what you wear aboard an airliner could make the difference between life and death in a crash? Or that turbulence could smash you on the ceiling out of a clear blue sky? What about blood clots? Here are ten things to consider to make your flight more pleasant and safer.

1. Always wear your seat belt when sitting. Wind shears can unexpectedly throw passengers out of their seats. sixteen people were hurt, two of them seriously, when a KLM passenger jet hit turbulence soon after take-off from a western Japan airport on May 31st. These incidents are not so rare. Sometimes, there is no warning and the pilot won’t have tie to turn the buckle-up sign on. People tend to forget that they are in an aluminium tube at 40,000ft. close to the speed of sound.

2. Do not wear highly flamable synthetic clothing. Many airplane accidents happen on the ground. Either the plane overshoots the runway, or hits an obstacle like a vehicle or another plane.
On October 31, 2000, a Boeing 747-400, attempted to take off from the wrong runway at Chiang Kai-Shek International Airport. Due to poor visibility, the flight crew did not see that construction equipment had been parked on the runway. The aircraft collided with the machinery and broke up into pieces. A massive fire followed. 79 of 159 passengers and 4 of 20 crew members died in the accident. Many modern fabrics will burst in flames in seconds. Wear jeans and cotton, and avoid the synthetics. It may buy you the few seconds you need to get out.

3. Choose your seats. There is no evidence I know of, pointing to where the safest seats are in an airliner. Airplane design varies, and circumstances are always different. It is interesting to note however that the black boxes are almost always located in the tail section of the airplane. Being seated close to an emergency exit might be the best option. Read your safety card and pay attention to the safety briefing given by the attendant. Make sure you know where the exits are, and how many rows of seats are between you and the doors.

4. Choose your airline. American and European airlines are pretty safe. Asia and Africa however is another story. The E.U. recently banned all airlines from Indonesia. Other bans are in effect for African and some Eastern European airlines. Make sure you pick the right company. You may pay a few dollars more, but the safety and peace of mind is well worth it. I once bought a ticket to Sydney from Paris through Philippines Airlines. My impression was that we had one stop in Bangkok, then Manila, then Sydney. We landed in Rome, Karachi, Bangkok, Manila, Melbourne, and finally Sydney. In Bangkok, the pilot slammed on the brakes, aborting the takeoff. Luggage flew out of the overhead bins, people screamed. We taxied back, and a guy with a ladder opened an engine cowling and started banging on something with a hammer.. We taxied back to the runway and took-off. I pretty much held my breath until we reached cruising altitude.

5. Walk around if you can. Flights lasting more than four hours about double a traveler’s risk of life-threatening blood clots, World Health Organization studies found. This condition can be fatal. The solution is to move around as much as you can, without upsetting everyone of course. Move your legs, tense and relax your mucles while maintaining good breathing. Taking a baby aspirin before the flight might be a good idea. Talk to your physician about medication or injections. My parents, when they come to the U.S. from France always get an injection before leaving, and they have a couple ready for their way back.

6. If the worst happen, have the will to live. I remember a TV show about the flight 006 tragedy mentioned above. A female survivor was being interviewed. She felt very bad because while the plane was on fire, and people actually tried to get their luggage over-head, she crawled over rows of seats and even other people to get out. She made it; those who were trying to get their bags did not. It’s not over until it’s over. A man named Alan Magee, a B-17 ball turret gunner, had no choice but to jump out of a disabled, spinning out of control bomber from about 22,000 feet, without a parachute. Miraculously, he lived! His story was featured in a 1981 Smithsonian Magazine on the 10 most amazing survivals during World War II. I believe MythBusters also had a show featuring his story.

7. Carry what you might need. New travel restrictions do not allow you to carry much of anything with you. Think of what you might need if the plane has to land anywhere between your departure and destination. That includes crash landings far from any airport or town. It also could be things you may need if you land at a smaller airport without any amenities. Most likely, your luggage will not be taken off the plane for a while. Is it cold? Do you need a jacket? Do you have cash? A phone? Everyone remembers the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, in 1972. A plane carrying 45 people crashed in the Andes. Of the 27 who survived the first 24hrs, 16 made it alive after 72 grueling days. See the book by Piers Paul. Alive: Sixteen Men, Seventy-two Days, and Insurmountable Odds — The Classic Adventure of Survival in the Andes. I bet there are a few things they wished they had taken along, had they known.


8. Look for suspicious behavior. Unfortunately, since 9/11, we have to be vigilant. I wouldn’t suggest being too jumpy. Like last December, when an American Airlines flight was forced to make an emergency landing after a passenger lit a match to disguise the scent of flatulence! However, if the guy in front of you starts connecting wires to something, or tries to get something on fire, don’t wait too long.. If the plane is hijacked, if you are young and strong, keep in mind that a sharp pencil or pen makes a wonderful weapon (remember #7). If the Sh%t hits the fan, revert to #6.

9. Have ear plugs. If any of the above happens, you can always isolate yourself with good earplugs! Or most likely, to dampen nearby cries from an unhappy todler, or the roar of the engines right on your left. I use those yellow small foam plugs I always buy when going shooting. Since they work pretty well to protec my ears when firing a 9mm, I figure that anything less would be fine. If you have enough money, Bose has noise canceling headphones that work. Silence is bliss. It can be the difference between a few hours of sleep or a hellish noisy flight.

10. Relax. It might be easy to say, but you’re on a ride you have no control over. There is nothing for you to worry about since there isn’t much you can do about it. Be nice to other passengers and attendants, it will make your flight so much better. I used to take a Xanax before a flight, it made it easier to sleep in those cramped seats (I.m 6’2”). Talk to your physician, don’t buy stuff off the internet. And of course, at the moment of impact, your body will take much more of a beating without failing if you’re relaxed! That I learned in my Systema martial art class.. Too much stress, you might get a blood clot!

Fly safe!

Gil.