With Wings As Eagles: Craig P. Steffen's Blog

Welcome to the show

2013 August 22 08:34

I flew to Oshkosh this year. It's bene a goal for so long it's difficult to believe it happened. I've been interested in aviation and airplanes all my life that I can remember. After I got hired in my current job in 2002, Mike, the guy who hired me, got me interested in going to the big Oshkosh airshow; he flies every year. I first drove and car-camped for part of the week at the show in 2004 on the way to England to join my wife there for our sort-of honeymoon epic vacation. In 2005 I went for the whole week. I've gone off and on since then, last year with my wife, but always by car. This was the first year I flew an airplane there myself, and I was thrilled that it could be my airplane.

The worry was to get the time free and to make sure the airplane was healthy. After a spring of having to iron out problems and bugs, I took a trip to Minnesota in early July (a subject for another post) that was remarkably free of mechanical difficulties. So I geared up in late July to fly to Airventure Oshkosh with business stops on both ends to help absorb the vacation days incurred.

I flew from home to my usual business stop at KCMI and stayed for the latter part of the week before the beginning of the show. I parked the Mooney at the FBO at the airport, which is really terrific and I like a lot. I bussed around town while I was there. I was actually only current for IFR flight through the end of July, which meant that I needed more logged instrument approaches if I was going to fly IFR in August (which included my flight back from the show; August 1 was Thursday when I was planning to leave). So I hooked up with a pilot friend and we flew 5 approaches at Willard over 2 days.

I packed for the trip in rather a hurry, and I needed to sort out an electrical power source for all my cameras and gadgets, so I rented a car on Saturday morning before the show. I went around and got campuing stuff, and easy-to-carry food (granola bars and stuff). I picked up a briefcase solar panel at Home Depot which I'll talk about later. And on Saturday afternoon, I got laundry done and drove all my stuff except for a single change of clothes and drove it out to the airplane, so that when I came Sunday morning I could just carry my one bag out to the airplane and take off.

Sunday morning of Oshkosh came, and I got out at a reasonable time, but not quite as soon as I wanted. The FBO opens at 5am, and the tower starts operations at 6. My plan had been to take off and be up off the ground before the tower opened, but I didn't quite make that. I dropped off the rental car and cranked the airplane up. There was actually an airliner who taxiied out ahead of me. I was just about to start taxiing when the tower started broadcasting, so my taxi and takeoff was actually under tower with a normal VFR departure.

The plane has almost 5 hours of fuel and the flight to Oshkosh is about 1.5 hours. As it turns out, fuel wasn't a consideration anyway. Weather in Illinois was pretty good but the clouds were coming down as I got into southern Wisonsin. I was looking at the weather via my Stratus, and ceilings in southern Wisconsin were getting pretty low north of Rockford, so I stopped there. It was a good stop; I was able to check the weather and I waited about an hour and a half. I ran into several groups of people in airplanes who were also going to Oshkosh and stopped for the same reason. I talked to a guy who had made his IFR reservation 3 days before, which intruiged me (more on that later).

I left there at 9am or so and heade north to Oshkosh once the weather north seemed to be getting steadily better. Pretty much the whole flight from Rockford I was already below 2000 feet just to stay under the clouds. Even with the improving conditions, it was just high enough to be able to safely/legally fly the 1800 ft MSL approach. One thing that's nice flying a Mooney--you mostly only have to worry about traffic that's directly ahead of you. If you see someone to the side, in a minute they're well behind you. I didn't get really close to anyone, but I saw a few distant airplanes as I flew past them.

I joined the VFR arrival procedure without incident. I didn't really see anyone to follow so I just headed up the railroad tracks from Ripon. I didn't have any trouble getting down to the prescribed 1800 feet and 90 kt speed required for the Airventure arrival procedure. They called me as "Mooney" which was fine. I was slightly concerned about rocking my wings enough to be obvious but that worked fine. I was instructed to go up the railroad tracks and make downwind for 27.

What surprised me was how high I seemed on the approach; part of that was I didnt' start decending nearly soon enough, so I ended up high on the turn to final (typical for me). I got cleared to land in the green dot, most of the way down the runway, which I even overshot, but that was fine. Taxiing was bumpy; this was the first time I'd taxiied the Mooney on grass, and I was going perpendicular to any ruts. But I got parked and started to make camp.

I'll tell the story of camping in another post. I was at the show Monday through Wednesday, including spending Tuesday with my uncle Bob who was an Air Force pilot and corporate executive jet pilot and was probably the person most directly responsible for inspiring me to become a pilot. It was a great few days, I saw cool stuff.

My plan all the while had been to arrive and depart VFR; that's the fun bit. However, the weather early Wednesday morning had me a bit worried. The field opened for departures promptly at 6am, and there were definitely airplanes departing. And the ATIS indicated VFR departures were open...but I dont' frankly think they were technically legally VFR. I watched airplanes depart 27 and dis-appear into a cloud 30 seconds after take-off. That got me worried. Even if I ended up being able to take off, what if I ended up trapped somewhere else in Wisconsin before I could fly over the lake?

So that got me thinking. I'd known there was an IFR "reservation" system for arrivals and departures, and I'd always assumed that all of the slots were filled months before and there was no point in a small single-engine airplane trying to get one. But then there was the guy in Rockford who said he'd gotten his reservations 72 hours ahead. So Wednesday morning, thinking that perhaps an IFR departure would be nice after all, I read the IFR departure section in detail. It turns out that you can ONLY get an IFR reservation slot 72 hours in advance. At that point, it was slightly less than 24 hours before I wanted to leave. My plan had been to depart just after 6am. What the heck, it couldn't hurt to check. So I popped up my laptop, got network through tethered through my phone. After a couple of false starts dealing with the reservation system, lo and behold, I had an IFR reservation for 06:30 Thursday morning. Whoo-hoo! Heck, if I'd known it would be that easy I probably would have planned to do it that way in the first place.

There are a couple of subleties to the Oshkosh IFR reservation system. First, you can reserve your slot up to 72 hours in advance. If you get your reservation more than 24 hours ahead of your slot, it's a "tentative" reservation, in which case you need to "confirm" it between 24 and 12 hours ahead. If you get it inside of 24 hours ahead of the slot (as I did) it's confirmed when you get it. So I ended up with a confirmed reservation form with a reservation number attached to it. I wrote the all-important number down, but just to be safe, I also printed that to a pdf file which I then saved onto a separate flash drive in case I needed to print it.

They also want you to file your flight plan at least several hours in advance, and to put the reservation number into the flight plan comments. So before I went to bed, I filed my flight plan, using a routing over Lake Michigan that was suggested in the departure NOTAM.

I got up Thursday morning, broke camp (with wet tent and camping gear, blech). I called for my clearance and permission for engine start, got it and they said to call when ready for taxi. So I pulled the airplane out into the aisle (with the help of my camping neighbors, thanks gents!) and cranked up and started taxiing. This was a bit more complicated because there was no-one out directing traffice, but I'd figured out the system in the days before.

I taxiied east along the south edge of 09/27. Ground called me just as I was about to get onto 13 to taxi southeast to get ready to depart 27. I stopped at the intersection of 4 and 13 to do my run-up, and get everything ready. Tower called me and instructed me to taxi straight ahead to the departure end of 27, so I did. I got cleared for takeoff, runway heading, and my squawk code, and I was off.

I got vectored straight west, then straight south, then straight east, then eventually joining my filed course. Once I was past the middle of Lake Michigan (I had a monster tail wind, which was really nice) they vectored me straight to Lansing. It's just as well that I departed VFR, because the weather in Lansing would have been tricky or impossible to land visually. I flew the actual real-live ILS into Lansing and stopped for my meeting and fuel. When I went to leave, I couldn't start the airplane, but that's another story.

[I've been meaning to write this post for weeks, but it's so huge and with many dozens of pictures I was dreading starting it. So I decided to write this post, with the bulk of the text in it, by itself. I will hopefully make more posts, maybe 3 of them, with all the photos and more commentary.]

How Smart is it?

2013 August 04 22:29

When I needed a car in the spring four years ago, I did some serious shopping. I drove several different models. One of the cars I was interested in was the Smart Car, made by a division of Mercedes. It's very small, which I like, and it's very fuel efficient, which I like. It's also cute and fairly unqiue, which I think is cool as well. So I considered it very carefully when I was car shopping that year.

I thought it was quite comfortable. The handling is really good. However, in the one mile test drive in Knoxville when I tested one, I definitely notice the transmission didn't shift like I would have thought it should. That and the fact that it's a rear wheel drive car kept me from seriously considering buying one at the time.

I've spent a lot of time since then contemplating that decision. Was the transmission really that bad, or was I just being over-sensitive? Judging by other poeple's comments, Top Gear for instance, and a lot of videos on Youtube, I'm not alone in this. That's the one complaint about the car (the transmission). On the other hand, lots of people complain about driving original VWs and I like mine fine.

The real question here is: would I like it as a road car? That's the one over-riding requirement for any car for me, is it reasonable to take on a long road trip? You can't really figure that out unless you can do serious driving, but finding one to rent is tough. Avis car rental claims in various places on their web site that they rent them, but I've called them several times and asked for ANY Avis office that rents the Smart, and I've come up with zero.

However, there's another interesting avenue. There's a company called car2go that provides short-term micro-rentals in urban areas, and the car they rent is exclusively the Smart ForTwo. Certain cities have fleets of these Smart cars and they just sit around the city to be rented. You buy a membership with the company, and they issue you a proximity card membership card:

You then use the card to rent any available car2go Smart car on the spot. You're charged for the amount of time you use the car, at a per-minute rate until you hit the amount for one hour. After an hour, you accumulate minutes again and so on. There's also a cap for the amount you pay per day. The daily cap is higher than a typical small car rental would be for a day, so it's mostly geared to using the car for an hour or two.

They're only available in select cities in North America at the moment, but they're adding more cities. I don't happen to live near any of them, but I travel a lot. After a few years of hemming and hawing about the Smart, I had my chance in 2012. I'd found out about Smart, and I was going to be in the Austin area in the fall, which is a city that has car2go cars. I got the car2go membership and brought the card along. Unfortunately, I'd already bought my airline tickets when I had this idea, so I ended up with not a lot of time to do any driving. I probably got 20 minutes driving total, and it was in a pretty heavy rain, so I didn't really get a feel for it (although it handled very very well in the rain).

This spring (2013) I ended up with work travel that I arranged to go through Austing to visit family and it ended at Portland (another city served by car2go) so I was able to plan my travel to heavily use car2go to try it out and to get some serious Smart car driving time.

To start out with, car2go had JUST installed a group of their cars at the "The Parking Spot" facility at the Austin airport, so there are always car2go cars there that you can grab at the airport and drive into the city if you're arriving:

Each car has a proximity card reader inside the windshield on the driver's side that also has an LCD status display that tells you if the car is in an active rental and if not, if it's available to rent:

So you hold your card up to the reader, then it checks your account, activates your rental, and unlocks the driver's door:

Inside the car, there's a center console nav unit that's also a part of the security system on the car. The ignition key is in a socket in that console.

When you get into the car, you type your PIN into the console, then the rental is active and you can take the key.

The key cylinder is right behind the gear shift between the seats.

The Smart ForTwo is just two seats, of course, and a bit of luggage space behind the seats over the engine. It's actually a reasonable amount of room. It fit my big week-trip travelling suitcase just fine:

and in fact it JUST fits lying down if you move the seats out of the fully-rearward position:

And a few dashboard shots because they amuse me:

In the 2012 trip, I only drove the Smart twice on two very short stints, and it was all in heavy rain. This trip in 2013, I had 5 rull runs in Smart cars. In Austin, I drove to meet family, then back to the airport. In Portland I stopped by local community college that has a bunch of Smart cars on their campus (which is a great idea, I think) so that I could drive one on the Interstate. And then travelling through Austin in my way back, I took a Smart to my hotel and then back to the airport to fly home.

So after all that driving, here are my impressions. The good things are what I thought they were. It's a fine car to ride around in. The handling, suspension, brakes are good. The seats and interior are comfortable. I like the instruments and the panel layout.

And finally, the transmission. As others have found, if you shift manually it's better. The only real annoyance is the shift from 1st to 2nd gear. If you get the rhythm right and shift manually, it's not too bad. So I wish that mercedes would just bloody well make a transmission that was better, but I would find it a mild annoyance but perfectly drivable.


2013 August 04 10:21

I went to a conference in Oregon in April. Here are a very few photos to commemorate the trip. I few by way of Austin, TX, for reasons that made sense at the time. I got to visit family in Austin and played with Smart Cars, but that's another blog entry.

I flew into Portland but the conference was a ways away, so work renteda car for me to drive. I ended up with a Chevy Impala. Despite dislike of the water-bed-like mid-1980s Impala, the modern one is a very nice car.

Interestingly, it seems to have the weird retro semi-LED shift graphics as the Chrysler 200 has. I guess it's a GM thing.

It does have one thing that modern GM cars do right, a "cruise control engaged" indicator in the upper right:

And here it is at night:

I actually took a vacation day on this trip and visited a friend and colleague of my wife's in Eugene, Oregon, before I continued on to the conference. The drive to Eugene...well, the view didn't suck.

She walks to work every day. This is the view ahead as she's about to enter campus:

and the view 90 degrees to the left of that:

While I was in town, I stopped by the campus storage and got some Oregon Ducks gear for my friend who's a huge fan.

Here's the book I broguht along on that trip to read:

It's Off To Be The Wizard by Scott Meyer, who writes the awesome web comic Basic Instructions. The book is excellent, and it's written more specifically to a programmer's point of view than any other fiction book that I've ever read. It's his first prose book, and frankly it's a much better first offering than most authors give.