6th Annual Alternative Engine Round-Up and Experimental Aircraft Fly-In

Inspired by the adventures and writings of famous pilot Stephen R. Smith as reported here and on Quality Sport Planes’ site, I decided to wave the flag for Corvairs, William Wynne, and Zenith at the “6th Annual Alternative Engine Round-Up and Experimental Aircraft Fly-in” hosted by Pat Panzera of Contact! Magazine in Jean, NV (OL7) March 27-29, 2009.

Like Steve, I prefer to work in a little adventure or an extra dimension to my travels, and thus I thought I’d add a couple of “notches” to my control stick by stopping at Mammoth-Yosemite (MMH) and Furnace Creek (L06), the highest (7,128’) and lowest (-210’) respectively, paved runways in CA. The elevation of Mammoth might not impress some of you from Colorado and Utah, but I’ll bet ya can’t make the combo, especially within a 1½ hr leg.

I departed Vacaville Nut Tree (VCB) about 0900 local Fri. Mar. 27, to Mammoth via the CAINS waypoint thence up V 230 before “turning right at the top of the hill” and descending over the town of Mammoth Lakes into the airport.

The initial route of flight from Nut Tree to the CAINS waypoint on the V 230 airway passed southeast over the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the northeastern San Joaquin Valley and the Sierra foothills at the southern entrance to Yosemite. I flew most of this at 7,500’, climbing to 9,500’ shortly before CAINS.

At CAINS the route turned northeast, more-or-less along V 230, following the gorge of the San Joaquin River into the High Sierra. In this section, the trip becomes quite relaxing because you can ignore the constant exercise of selecting emergency landing sites, there simply aren’t any, just sit back, enjoy the view, and avoid any local cloud formations known as Cumulo Granite. This gorge is bordered on the north by Yosemite and the Ansel Adams Wilderness area and on the south by the Kaiser and John Muir Wilderness areas. It began to get a little “burblely” in the upper reaches of the gorge, and while 9,500’ should be enough clear this route, my intestines felt much better after I climbed to 11,000’, before turning east through a saddle in the ridgeline to descend into Mammoth Lakes. Imagine my surprise when I initiated the right turn for the saddle and a playful “burble” rolled the plane into a 45° left bank! Glad for the extra altitude, the plane and I eventually agreed to turn right after all and proceed as intended. We passed through the saddle and descended into Mammoth.

A 10kt breeze right down the runway made for a nice landing and, after taxiing off, I stopped for a snapshot of the altimeter. Not often do you see numbers like that when sitting on a taxiway. Hot Creek Aviation (the FBO) monitors the CTAF and their golf cart directed me to suitable (spectacular) parking. Inside, the fire in the fireplace (good spot for it, right?) gave more the feeling of a lodge than an FBO. After “visiting” the FBO, I took a picture confirming the altimeter reading and prepared for departure. I was careful to lean for best power during the run-up, but the take off itself was interesting as a demonstration of the stuff we all read in the books: the acceleration is noticeably slower, the take off distance is noticeably longer, and the cowl shake when the nose wheel comes off tells you that your ground speed is considerably higher than normal. If I flew out of Mammoth regularly, I’d do a very careful balance job on the wheels. Departing also made me reflect on the similarity between pilots and dogs. Like dogs we wander around looking for new territory and, after “visiting” we scurry off to sniff out more new spots.

The next spot I wanted to sniff out was Furnace Creek (L06) in Death Valley National Park. The route from Mammoth lay southeast to over fly Bishop (BIH) then south in the Owens Valley to Lone Pine (O26) thence east over the Panamint Valley to Death Valley. During this leg, the trip started to get interesting from a pilot point of view as opposed to a tourist point of view. Owens Valley is bordered on the east by mountains that generally top 10,000’ and on the west by a ridge of mountains exceeding 13,000’ with Mt. Whitney near Lone Pine being 14,491’ high. I found it quite awe-inspiring to fly along this valley at 9,500’ looking up at mountains on both sides. The mountain wave and rotors that develop in Owens Valley are the stuff of legends and it would not be good to find oneself here in windy conditions. Even so, the breezes that pick up during the day and the thermals that develop with the warming of the day make for conditions that should hold a pilot’s interest. The Coso and Panamint ranges that separate Owens Valley from Death Valley don’t do anything to smooth out the air in this area and I found myself slowing well below Va on many occasions to ease the bumps and not yank too hard on the controls. I liken it to rolling with punches. It’s a good pilot workout, but I’m not sure a passenger would find it much fun (I know I wouldn’t). Coming over these “little” mountains (7,000’) leaves a lot of altitude to lose approaching Furnace Creek (unless you want to make a long detour) and I had a good exercise to lose 1,000’ – 1,500’/min while, due to the turbulence, keeping the speed down at the same time. Please excuse the lack of photos during this section of flight.

After the obligatory altimeter and ground verification pictures I looked at the Zodiac sitting on the ramp and it made me feel a bit like George Jetson exploring a strange planet. At Furnace Creek, you run up on the mid-field ramp before back taxiing for departure. Just as I was ready to taxi, another plane announced his arrival in the pattern so I waited for him to land. It gave me a good feeling to see an Ercoupe taxi in with a big smile and a wave, a 1930’s design still out there having a good time exploring miles from civilization. Great stuff!

Onward to Jean! First order of business was to climb the hills out of Death Valley with the wind and thermals picking up as the day continued to warm. A couple of pictures will give some idea of this area, but I mainly had to concentrate on flying the plane. Fairly steep mountains lie northwest of Jean, necessitating another steep descent followed by a straight in approach to runway 2L. Virtually the first plane I saw on the ramp was another Ercoupe. Gotta love those little planes! Hobbs time for the day’s flight: 4.7, fuel burn: 4.9gph. Fueled, tied down, checked in with Pat Panzera, checked into the adjacent casino, and took a much needed nap. Later, back at the airport I meet up with 601 XL/Corvair owner Ken Smith from Lake Riverside, CA along with his friend who is building a Corvair powered Jodel. Conditions were knarly enough getting out of the Riverside/LA area that they decided "fly" his wife’s Chevy instead of the plane but it made it nice for the group run into Las Vegas for the Friday night group buffet. After trading aviation lies over dinner, it was an early turn in to rest up for Saturday’s seminars.

Saturday saw the arrival of two more 601 XL/Corvair stalwarts in the form of Rick Lindstrom and Andy Elliott. Rick, of FLAG Aviation and Kit Planes Magazine fame was exercising his brand new Harley (same on you) while Andy flew in from Mesa, AZ in his beautiful tailwheel XL. In addition to Andy’s and my 601s, there were examples of RVs, Glastars, and Dragonflys with “alternative” power ranging from our Corvairs, to Wilksch inverted 3cyl 2-stroke turbocharged diesel, Subaru variants, and Mazda rotary. Seminars ranged from “Why You Should Add a Glider Rating to Your Pilot’s License,” the good bad and ugly of various Egenfellner Subaru conversions, Maxwell Power Systems Subaru conversions, the afore mentioned Wilksch diesel (very fascinating), and Andy’s and my discussion of the Corvair aero conversion developed by William Wynne. Each seminar was followed by hands-on show and tells on the ramp where we all poked, prodded and oohed and aahed each other’s planes and installations. All this was followed by a barbecue and more flying stories (all true) shared with new friends.

Besides the Corvair engine (which is flying in over 30 Zodiacs), Andy’s plane has a number of very interesting modifications. He is loathe to discuss them until he has completed a thorough flight test program and submitted them for factory review, so don’t ask. However, since Andy has a PhD in aerodynamics from MIT, I submit that you should have a close look if the opportunity arises.

The previous two days I had been dealing with a variety of strange noises from the air conditioner in my room, which I traced to things such as a loose face plate on the control panel. I was disappointed to awake in the wee hours of Sunday morning to hear a low moan from the fan. I decided to just shut it off for a bit, since I wanted to get an early start anyway, but I was surprised to hear the noise continue after shut-down. Imagine my disappointment when I peeked from behind the curtains to see the big rigs in the lot heeling about 20° in the wind. My, my, this is going to be an interesting day. I walked to the airport before dawn and was soon joined by several other intrepid souls for a discussion about weather briefings. Since the “real” wind advisory was from 10:00 local on, it was “get out now or look at real estate ads for a house to rent.” Leaving just after first light, the lead plane radioed back that conditions were fairly nice at altitude after climbing over the mountains surrounding Jean. This made the rest of us feel better and off we went. The route was to roughly follow I-15 southwest from Jean to overfly Barstow-Daggett (DAG) then west along the southern edge of Edwards AFB to a refreshment stop at Wm Fox Field (WJF) in Lancaster. Between Jean and Barstow it was fascinating to experience the waves coming off the Sierra Nevada and across the desert. Flying at 10,500’ the plane would begin a 1,000’/min descent with the altimeter needle going around like a scene from a bad “B” movie to be followed by a 1,000’/min climb getting light over the top before beginning another down, down, down, down, up, up, up, up cycle. This could get to you after a while, but fortunately it didn’t last too long.

With the Fox ATIS reporting 30kts and seeing a cloudbank had built up in the southern San Joaquin valley and was spilling into the Mojave Desert, it was easy to decide to stay at altitude and make the “doggy stop” at Shafter-Minter (MIT) just northwest of Bakersfield. In addition to being rougher under the clouds, there appeared to be little, if any, clearance between them and the Tehachapi Mountains so on we went. It transpired that 10,500 wasn’t going to do the cloud clearance thing (I’m not talking legal nicety here, I mean in the clouds), so, with a glance at my watch to keep track of time at high altitude, I climbed to 12,500’. It was soon apparent that that wasn’t quite enough, so a short bump up to 13,500 was in order. At his point I remembered a suggestion from Doug Dugger and played with deploying about 5° of flaps and…voila, the nose came down, and the plane went up faster…magic! It was at this point that (as I swore to my flight instructor daughter) a band of high cirrus clouds came between my plane and the sun, thus beginning to dim the cockpit. Since the GPS indicated I’d now cleared the Tehachapi’s, I began descending, the “high cirrus” went away and the cockpit brightened up…a new personal limit explored.

What followed was one of those truly awe-inspiring moments that seem to occur fairly frequently when you fly. The top of the cloud bank was brilliant white, flat, and sloped down to the San Joaquin Valley such that I could descend at 500’/min and maintain a constant distance above it. After a few minutes, I looked back to see the cloud bank high above me while it stretched miles to either side and continued down in front towards the valley. It felt like skiing down a gigantic glacier. My puny photographic skills couldn’t do justice to the scene, so I just sat there taking it in. The cloud bank tapered off at about 7,000’ and I continued my descent all the way to a straight-in to runway 35 at Minter. Wind was 15kts on the nose, sweet. The approach to Minter was essentially a constant 500’/min descent, 40nm straight-in from 13,000’, made me feel a bit like a space shuttle commander.

I did my dog imitation and departed without fueling, since there was plenty for the leg to Nut Tree (right). After climbing to 6,500’ it was pleasing to cruise along at about 110kts in smooth but hazy air. The further north I got the more I noticed the divergence of air speed and GPS reported ground speed. The head wind was obviously picking up, a lot. The lowest groundspeed I remember seeing was in the mid 50s, and the thought occurred that driving might have been faster. My instrument scan evolved into more of an airspeed-distance remaining-groundspeed-fuel gauge scan with attendant mental calculations, and a voice began saying things like “Woody, if you do make Nut Tree, you for sure aren’t going have to legal fuel reserves. You’d better come up with plan B.” The sectional showed Byron (C83) to be a good option 40 miles closer. I’ve always wanted to stop at Byron anyway, so I relaxed (for a while). Soon the little voice said “Woody, you know, Byron is looking sub-optimal. You’d better come up with something better.” By now, the steadily increasing winds had made for increased turbulence and trying to watch airspeed, attitude, and read the sectional in a bouncing cockpit was an interesting exercise that taught me a couple of things: whereas the San Joaquin Valley is full of airports, virtually none of them have fuel, and a flailing sectional hitting the touch screen on my ATC GPS can shoot it off into some obscure set-up page faster than I can when I want to. End result was that Tracy (TCY) became the new object of my affection. The winds on the ground were now gusting to 30+Kts but weren’t too far off runway heading, so it looked reasonable for a straight in to runway 30. A slight complication was the small quarry on the approach end of the runway which made for a bit of a roller coaster ride on final. I’m now grateful for the training we get from the topography and summer winds at Nut Tree.

Fueling at Tracy was challenging. Once I had the plane head to wind at the fuel pumps, I had to grab a chock before jumping out and running to chock the front wheel before the plane blew away from the pump. The canopy opening up does a good job of making the plane a land yacht. It’s the first time I’ve seen the need for a parking brake. During the actual fueling it was interesting seeing the wind over the leading edge pulling fuel spray out of the tank opening and back over the wing. At this point I was beginning to have some concern about being able to successfully taxi to the runway for departure, and, since I was fairly close to home, I momentarily considered finding a tie down and having someone come pick me up. Then I thought, "If you have an issue taxiing, there isn’t far to fall, and pointed down the runway, you’re over half way to flying before starting the take-off roll." So, no guts, no glory, off I went. It was appropriately bumpy and I made the short hop to Nut Tree while observing white caps on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and listening to Travis AFB ATIS reporting 35kt winds.

At Nut Tree, the wind was gusting 30+kts about 50° off runway heading. Tracking downwind I felt as though I was driving a sprint car again, flying along looking out the side of the plane to see where I was headed. Base consisted of executing a 180 before blowing into the next county and then maintaining runway heading on final. The landing wasn’t a thing of beauty, but I thought if I used any more aileron I’d drag the wing tip (probably not true), but, since the plane is still useable, I’ll take it. My compliments to the Heintz family for stout landing gear. It occurred to me that, had I built the tail wheel version, I would now probably be using the plane to wrap baked potatoes.

The flight time home was an hour longer than the trip out and I didn't bother to calculate fuel consumption, but, all in all, this was a great trip and a wonderful learning experience. Highly recommended. What’s next?

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Comment by Bob Pustell on April 21, 2009 at 11:37am
Progressing slowly, still building the work area, but the kit is inventoried and stored. Things are kind of on hold for now while I help my parents with some medical/personal issues. I did just buy some lights for the project at such a good deal I put up a post about it. If you want some nice lights, get them this week!
Comment by Woody Harris on April 21, 2009 at 10:41am
Thanks, Bob. Good to hear from you. No, my engine was one of the features of an earlier Corvair College at Quality Sport Planes in Cloverdale. How's your project progressing?
Comment by Bob Pustell on April 20, 2009 at 10:09pm
Exciting story, Woody. Quite and adventure, in quite an airplane. I gather your engine is up and running (the one we all helped assemble at Corvair College 13) or is this a different airplane?

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