Today is the 11th April 2010 - more than 20 years since that first infectious flight in a C150 at Sywell Aerodrome in the UK. I have flown more than 40 types, over cities, countryside, desert, lakes, sea, mountains, forests, rain forests and low level over more hostile terrain than I care to think about. But today was special.
CH701 9G-ZAF, or Alpha Foxtrot was built for the Medicine on the Move flying doctors and nurses project, and she is beautifully crafted by the hands of young West African maidens - each rivet pulled with care and a love for the new skills learnt in the rural workshop. The soldering behind the panel is, in many places, the first soldering a young person has done. Everywhere you look on Alpha Foxtrot you see the signs of loving and caring by those who have laboured over the birth of this baby. The seat is sewn locally by a seamstress who weighs in at under 90lbs (about 40kgs), and the wire-locking has been tied off with the care that a midwife would give to the umbilical cord, separating the workshop from the child. Every cotter-pin placed and secured as if it were an earing in the small girls ears. This plane is probably the most loved by the most people plane in the world.
The Rotax 912 engine has its rocker covers polished at every opportunity and discussion about fuel consumption, engine revs, fuel pressure and the vital signs on the engine instruments treated with the respect of a nurse checking the health of the most precious person they know.
Today I had the opportunity to carry out some tests on the aircraft before we send it into some pretty tough situations in the coming weeks. I fly a range of aircraft on a regular basis, and there was no plan to have a ;special flight' - it just happened.
As I settled onto the soft foam seat and flipped the necessary switches up, calling 'clear prop' at the same time, it seems quite possible that the engine came to life as the red and white aircraft sensed the lightest of pressure from my finger on the starter button. Rotax engines have a special sound - and this one sounds extra special. Rotax knew that this very engine would end up on a flying doctor aircraft, and listening to the purr of this power-plant I wonder if they added some TLC to the crankcase too?
Temps are in range and checks all done, I taxi over to the threshold of 19, wind is calm, air-on in the mid 30sC or mid 90sF, density altitude around 3,500ft. I am not wearing a a head-set so that I can hear the most possible noises from the airframe and engine on this run. As I increase the power the nose draws the bungee tighter until I release the brakes at around 4000rpm, even on the grass runway her nose is instantly off the ground - I let her accelerate a little with the wheels on the ground, then with the smallest forward pressure on the centre stick the mains are up and we can accelerate in ground effect. With the increased airspeed the climb is dramatic for a non-STOL pilot, but it still raises a grin on my face.
Climbing to 2,000ft in a matter of minutes I start to push the envelope. I watch the temperatures, and they are all well behaved. Full power, sustained straight and level (doors off) gives 85knots indicated, 5600rpm, 110C (230F) oil, 110C (230F)CHT, without changing the power setting i pull back to establish a climb at 40kts, Ts&Ps are stable as a table the machine is as well behaved and docile as the best trained Labrador guide dog. In fact it is almost as if the plane is guiding me as to what to do next - perhaps it is a puppy?
At 3,000ft we level off and the sounds of the airframe and engine are individually discernible with a cruise setting of 5000rpm giving a comfortable 70+kts. I expect that to be close to 75 or 80 with final trimmings and doors on.
We start to dance together, turning to the left and the right, a Tango at 3000ft. Everything is so sensitive, so responsive, the air, for once, is co-operative and the visibility over 25km (15miles), I let my hand out onto the strut and feel the smooth paint, looking down at the mud hut villages below, seeing the darker green of the river lines and occasional bamboo or raffia palm benefiting from the moist tracks of water that are bonus and not a right in this part of the world. The cattle boy looks up, a stick across the back of his neck and hands draped over it as it he guides his cows to find some water, he waves, and I wave with my hand as Alpha Foxtrot waves with her wings.
As we set up the descent, notice WE are flying, me and Alpha Foxtrot, for I am no longer an individual, we have become one, our thoughts are joined and our movements synchronized in the African morning sky. The cumulus clouds even seem to be moving away to enable this flight to be so special. I look down at the beautiful runway that just a few years ago was bush-land and an unimaginable location to start this project. I feel Alpha Foxtrot smiling with me, her engine beating as a heart beats, her warm exhaust passing underneath us she breathes. WE bring the power back to 4000rpm and find that we can turn left and turn right in large sweeping 360 degree turns without losing altitude if we keep the speed just below 50kts. We both smile and I am sure that Alpha Foxtrot even giggled at the fun we were enjoying in the sky. We reduce the power to 3500 and start a gentle descent in spirals to the left and to the right and then, at 300ft deploy the flapperons for a silky smooth landing.
A short back track and onto the apron. Before I could shut down, I had to take-off one more time - this time across the empty apron. Alpha Foxtrot almost whooped with joy as she leaped back into the sky for two circuits, each with a 'power-off' approach form 500ft abeam the threshold. Nose down, speed at 60kts, a sweeping descent onto a low short final with flaps deployed at 50kts for the smoothest simulated engine failures I have ever encountered.
We taxied back and parked, both satisfied that we had proven the worth of this aircraft for its forthcoming role of taking health care to the needy, and in doing so, we had both had a marvelous time.
Walking away I smiled more than the first time I flew, for the first time in many thousands of hours airtime. I now understand why the girls kiss these planes goodnight when they put them in the hangar - for they are our babies and together we are growing and having adventures that change our lives and those of so many others.
Alpha Foxtrot looked at me as we closed the hangar, if she had eyes they would have been wide and puppy-dog like, begging for just one more flight before going to bed... I told her that there would be many more flights to come - and that she should get some rest. The girls laughed - and so did I, but I know that we have something special, Alpha Foxtrot and I!