An Introductory Flight of Frustration

By Scott Spangler on September 10th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

ltf signFollowing Santa’s directions, for Christmas my oldest son’s wife got him an introductory flight lesson. I can’t remember any gift in the preceding years that left him so excited. An ICU nurse living in the metropolitan Kansas City, it took awhile for the weather to align with his work and family schedules (that happens when you have four kids). But he was patient, and his eager anticipation never dimmed, until he actually made the flight.

On his way home from the airport he called in a state of agitated consternation. To summarize our hour long conversation, the intro lesson was much less than he anticipated, and he pelted me with a series of questions whose common denominator was, “Was I expecting too much?” As he stepped through the lesson, if you could call it that, the answer to each question was no. What Santa brought you was not an introductory flight lesson but an hour of flight time for a safety pilot posing as a CFI.

My son described him as a “professor,” of what he didn’t know or say. He was “older than me, but not as old as you, Pops,” which put him somewhere between 31 and 64. And there was very little conversation before the flight. He didn’t ask why my son wanted to become a pilot and how he hoped to use this precious, hard-earned skill once he’d earned the certificate. Nor was there any preflight discussion of what they would do during the lesson. “He checked the oil and said, ‘Let’s go flying.’” said my son.

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Tactile History at Naval Aviation Museum

By Scott Spangler on August 22nd, 2018 | 2 Comments »

A lot has changed since I last visited the National Museum of Naval Aviation 46 years ago, when I was a student at the Naval Schools of Photography that once called the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, home. The photo school, and the occupational rating itself, are no more. The Navy merged four jobs—photographer’s mate, illustrator draftsman, lithographer, and journalist—into a new Mass Communication Specialist designation in 2006, and the classic white structure that was its home became the air station’s headquarters. Likewise, time has replaced the museum’s World War II temporary buildings surrounded by the open-air bondage of a dozen or so aircraft (the more delicate examples were inside) with a magnificent structure that should be on the to-visit list of every aviation aficionado.

USN-61But the one important aspect of the museum, the one thing that makes it unique among all others with similar collections, has not changed. Aside from those flying suspended from the ceiling, all but a few of of the airplanes on display are within easy reach of the museum’s visitors. Stanchions stand by some airplanes, but no velvet ropes connect them. They stand disconnected to warn visitors that they are approaching something sharp and/or pointy, and to pay attention. (And learning that the F11F-1 Tiger’s wings folded down was one of the many surprises revealed during my visit.) The Navy clearly expects museum visitors to pay attention and respect the small yellow placards affixed to fuselages that say, “Please Keep Off.”

USN-33Walking through the timeline of naval aviation history is more like wandering through a clean, well-lighted hangar deck than following a prescribed museum maze. And the rewards are many. It is one thing to read that the wingspan of the Curtiss/Naval Aircraft Factory NC-4, which celebrates the centennial of its historic transatlantic flight next year, is 126 feet, and that the wingspan of the Boeing F4B-4, a frontline carrier-borne fighter during the early 1930s  and finished its service as a training airplane in 1941, is 30 feet.

USN-47But nothing puts this disparity in perspective more than seeing the fighter under the wing of the flying boat and comparing the wingtip float to the single-seater’s fuselage. For an even greater “holy crap” moment, walk behind the NC-4 and compare the span of its biplane horizontal tail feathers with the biplane span of the Curtiss JN-4 Jenny displayed beneath it. They are almost the same, and the NC-4’s tail looks to have a wider cord. And if you are tall enough, you can peek into the open cockpits. The early biplanes, like the F4B and this Grumman F3F-2, are the most accessible. That tube above the panel that protrudes through the windscreen is the gun sight.

USN-53Contemplating the early years of naval aviation, and looking into the aviators’ working spaces, these were surely robust men who were no bigger than the average 21st century middle schooler. Then look at the NC-4’s tail feathers and remember that pure muscle moved these surfaces by direct connections made by cables, pulleys, and pushrods. In today’s aviation era, where an aviator’s inputs are interpreted by a computer and carried out by some form of power steering, I wonder how today’s aeronauts would adapt. Some, perhaps many, would welcome it, because they would be directly involved in the flight. And when you had to hand-crank the retractable landing gear in the F3F and its single-winged offspring, the F4F Wildcat, the effort was so memorable that pilots didn’t forget to raise or lower the gear.

What made it memorable, said my father, who flew the Wildcat for his carrier qualifications on the USS Wolverine in Lake Michigan, was the crank’s location on the lower right side of the cockpit. It took some practice, he said, to fly with your left hand and make the necessary 28 turns with your right and not go phugoid during the effort. –Scott Spangler, Editor

ATC’s Bob Richards Heads West

By Robert Mark on August 20th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Everyone at PWK tower thought Bob Richards was interesting, in a rather curious way, when he began his air traffic control career back in the early 1980s. Not weird, but more quirky, like a guy holding back some part of his personality, at least at first.

I was one of the controllers assigned to train this new guy and early on he impressed me with how quickly he caught on to the practical side of air traffic control. Bob knew when to simply let a tough day go at our busy airport and when to laugh. At the time, PWK (now called Chicago Executive Airport) was running about 160,000 takeoffs and landings a year, so it was not the kind of place where every trainee succeeded.

As I came to know Bob better, I remember razzing him about how his parents must have spent a fortune on his dental work since he had such a perfect smile. Some of the PWK started calling him “California Bob,” because of that big smile. He just seemed Hollywood-like to us. And of course once the folks you work with begin poking fun at you, you’ve pretty much made the grade.

Richards – officially Robert Paul Richards – died earlier this month at age 61 from heart related problems, leaving behind his wife Kim, five kids and eight grandchildren.

Bob’s personality is what people remember most about him. He was a tough guy not to like or laugh with. He always managed to remain cheery in a profession that back then, not many years after the 1981 PATCO strike, was still pretty gloomy. Most of the controllers left were tired from working 10-hour days, six-days a week.

After spending a few years in the old tower at KPWK, Bob went on to a distinguished career as an O’Hare tower controller in Chicago, from which he officially retired a few decades later. During his time at ORD, Bob gained his famous “Calvin,” nickname, one I originally thought had something to do with Bill Watterson’s old Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Bob called me one day to tell me just how far off I was, explaining the ORD controllers had tagged him Calvin because he like to wear Calvin Klein jeans. Unofficially he told me, “I needed to get the flick,” one of those insider ATC memes. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn years later that one of his grandchildren was named Calvin.

But Bob Richards didn’t disappear after his retirement from ATC. Our paths often crossed since we were both regularly called upon by TV networks for opinions about ATC or aviation issues in general. He went on to pen a successful insider’s guide to air traffic control called “Secrets From the Tower,” that he never failed to remind me at AirVenture every year was still selling like hotcakes. My books of course, weren’t selling nearly as well as his. He told me an L.A. production house even bought the screen rights to the book, although the story never made it quite that far in the end.

I just couldn’t be jealous of Bob and his success of course. The guy was too darned nice. Even when I’d tell him he was being kind of a jerk, he’d flash that big California Bob smile at me during AirVenture and say, “c’mon Rob, let’s go have a beer.” That was Bob. I’d kind of lost touch with him over the past few years, but looked for him at the AirVenture’s Author’s Corner this year, completely unaware of the state of his health.

On a side note, I also remember Bob as one of the early advocates for more air traffic controllers. Sadly, the FAA’s staffing shortages, mostly of the agency’s own making, have these days again created pretty lousy morale at many large ATC facilities by working controllers six days a week.

So keep em separated up there buddy, You’ll be missed. I just realized I never did find out if California Bob ever had braces as a kid.

Rob Mark, publisher

USAF Museum: Thanks For Your Service

By Scott Spangler on August 6th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

Day 3-68Standing at the bent and battered nose of a Vietnam-era C-123 Provider at the National Museum of the US Air Force and wondering why there was a World War II P-47 Thunderbolt snuggled under its left wing, a middle-aged blonde walked up, looked at the airplane, and said, to no one in particular, something about “their achievements.” Then she turned to me, because I was the only one there, and asked, “Did you serve?” My affirmative reply was followed by today’s autonomic honorific, “Thanks for your service.” And then she was gone.

This brief interaction—it lasted less than a minute—shaped what remained of my day-long dedicated exploration of the museum. It should be clear that I really don’t like people thanking me for my service. It implies that I’m someone special. As those who know me will attest, I’m far from it. In early 1972 I joined the Navy because I had a low draft number and was racing the postal service. Before and after the draft, military service is a choice. I could have decided to resist or run north, but I decided to enlist because my future then pointed to no specific goal.

Really, applying for a job in the military doesn’t make anyone special. But circumstances related to the performance of that job, going above and beyond the call of duty, qualify, to a degree. All of those I’ve talked to who have made this effort agree that they are not special. They were just doing their best to accomplish the mission they signed up to do—and not die, or let anyone they are responsible for die, in the process. That was the goal, not the glory that followed.

Day 3-24But elsewhere in the museum is a tribute to a group of men who are special. Each of their names is engraved on a silver goblet. Logic suggests that every man who volunteered for Doolittle’s mission to bomb Tokyo had to know in their hearts that launching a B-25 from the USS Hornet was pretty much a one-way adventure. Someone who volunteers for that job, knowing that more than likely it would be the last thing they ever do…that person is special and deserves our thanks for his courage and his service.

Taking time to read the signs explaining the goblets, I learned that they are organized by crew, identified by the pilot, with the others in the column below. Richard Cole, Doolittle’s copilot, made the case in 1973. Now 102, he is the sole survivor of the Doolittle Mission. His goblet stands next to the cognac. On the other side is the inverted goblet of the penultimate survivor, David Thatcher, the gunner on Ted Lawson’s crew. Cole drank a final toast to him and the other 78 members whose goblets stand mouth down in the velvet-lined case in 2016, on the 75 anniversary of the mission.

Yeah, the rest of us who served anonymously, we’re not special. You want special? Bring back the draft so everyone, male and female, has skin in the game, and let’s see who gets thanked for their service. One wonders, if every mother’s son and daughter faced the possibility of serving their nation—with a chance of dying for it in the process—would everyone be so thankful, especially to those responsible for our decades of armed conflict?

Day 3-46Coming across the new Memphis Belle display diverted my gloomy train of thought, and it explained why there was a P-47 under the wing of the C-123. The museum staff cleared out a lot of airplanes to make room for the Belle, and they haven’t yet finished rearranging the space yet. And you can’t just park such historic artifacts outside, can you? My hat’s off to the curators who created the display and putting the airplane on up on its jack points was genius! Being able to look into the open bomb bay makes a subtle point of the airplane’s purpose, and looking up at the crew positions puts their service in the proper perspective. –Scott Spangler, Editor

A Unique Around-the-World Journey Heads East

By Robert Mark on August 2nd, 2018 | Comments Off on A Unique Around-the-World Journey Heads East

A Unique Around-the-World Journey Heads East

As you read this story, Mason Andrews should be winging his way eastward out of Italy toward Croatia while sitting in the left seat of his dad’s Piper Lance (a link to the full podcast is at the bottom of this story).

Andrews was one very lucky young man when he asked his dad to borrow the airplane for a trip and received a thumbs up. OK, that’s not completely accurate unless you understand the context, that the senior Andrews did actually express a few reservations when young Mason mentioned the length of the trip … around the world.

And yes, his dad definitely raised an eyebrow when Mason told him he wanted to make the trip alone. Mason Andrews, a newly minted instrument pilot and Louisiana Tech student just recently turned 18.

When Mason Andrews completes his round-the-world trip, he should become the youngest person to complete a global trip solo. Mason wasn’t making the trip to become famous, although he likely will. The trip was actually designed to raise money for MedCamps of Louisiana to fund summer camp for kids with special needs, a summer event where Andrews also serves as a counselor.

About the Aircraft

The Piper Lance Mason will fly has been modified to carry enough fuel for legs as long as 18 hours. The Lance cruises at about 140 knots burning 13.5 gallons per hour. The first leg of the flight began last week from Republic Field on Long Island NY. The first leg took him from Republic to St. Johns Newfoundland. Mason’s flight plan includes a stop at Paris LeBourget, site of Charles Lindbergh’s arrival following his record-setting solo flight in 1927. Mason Andrews said he believes the flight’s biggest challenge will be “weather.” The Lance is much better equipped to keep him informed of the weather than Lindbergh could have ever imagined.

My EAA Radio co-host Amy Laboda and I managed to convince Mason to join us for an interview last week during our regularly scheduled “Attitude Adjustment,” show at AirVenture 2018.

One of the first things Mason mentioned the day I met him was that he was still celebrating the two-year anniversary of his first solo as a student pilot from Monticello Airport (LLQ) in Arkansas.

I think you’ll find Mason’s story worthy of 10 minutes of your time. Click here to give it a listen. You can also follow Mason’s journey on Facebook.

If you enjoyed Mason Andrews’s story, brought to you by, in collaboration with EAA Radio, we invite you to subscribe to It’s free. You can also follow Jetwhine on Twitter @jetwhine and EAA Radio @eaaradio. Enjoy.

Rob Mark, Publisher

EAA AirVenture Stages Surprising Finale

By Scott Spangler on July 26th, 2018 | Comments Off on EAA AirVenture Stages Surprising Finale

AV3-197After its unusual start, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh returned to its predicable ways as the week passed the halfway mark. But is was just setting us up, out of the west, just above the trees and behind the backs of everyone facing the flight line for the National Anthem, came six blue and yellow F-18 jets arranged in the U.S. Navy Blue Angels’ rock solid delta formation. Everyone was like “Whaa….where’d they come from?” Reversing course, the Blues executed there Delta break, then rejoined in the delta and disappeared to the west just as magically as they had appeared. Clearly it was a well-planned (and timed) fly-by on their way to some other destination.

The second surprise came at AirVenture’s Press Headquarters on Thursday morning. On the media side of the event, this has not been the year for big announcements, and when there is a significant announcement, the orator shouts it from the stage early in the week. In other words, I wasn’t expecting much from the National Air & Space Museum’s presser at 0900 on Thursday morning. And then I saw Sean D. Tucker’s Oracle Challenger III parked in front of the press headquarters. Searching my midweek addled brain for any memory of another airplane so parked over the past 30 years I came up blank.

AV4-12 Let me cut to the chase. Air & Space is commencing a top-to-bottom makeover of the the visited museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In the transformation of its 23 galleries, the museum will dedicate one of them—We All Fly—to general aviation, thanks to a $10 million gift from the Thomas W. Haas Foundation. And the Oracle Challenger III will soar above the portal to that gallery.

Tucker said he is closing out his solo air show career this season and is in the process of putting together a four-ship air show team and the sponsorship needed to make it work. While he’s gathering the second half of the necessary sponsorship, he said he would “campaign” the Oracle Challenger III to promote its new home, and then he will deliver it to the museum.

My final surprise was learning about an era of aviation I know little about, and to learn about it from roaring, burping, castor oil spitting engines that are a century old. Knowing that the crankshaft of a rotary engine is bolted to the firewall and that the prop is bolted to the crankcase and radial array of cylinders that spin as a unit is one thing. To see them actually operate is another. And I have a new appreciation for torque.

AV4-56Kermit Weeks brought three of his World War I airplanes to Oshkosh, the Sopwith Pup, Sopwith Snipe, both with 80-hp and 230-hp rotary engines, and an Albatross, with a water-cooled Mercedes engine. All the engines are original, and their airframes are exact recreations created by Peter Jackson in New Zealand. Before starting each engine, Weeks explained the operating idiosyncrasies  and operating parameters. For example, the 230-hp Bentley rotary on the Snipe burned about 13 gallons per hour of fuel, and about 3.5 gallons of castor oil, a vegetable-based lubricant. That’s important, because it doesn’t mix with the mineral based fuel, said Weeks. The lubrication system is one of constant flow; what friction doesn’t consume gets flung out of the engine, liberally lubricating the pilot and airframe. “It’s my beauty secret,” said Weeks. “Another benefit of the system is that you never have to change the oil. You just add more before every flight.”  Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn’t allow any such excursions, and that was certainly no surprise. – Scott Spangler, Editor

EAA AirVenture 2018 Has An Unusual Start

By Scott Spangler on July 23rd, 2018 | Comments Off on EAA AirVenture 2018 Has An Unusual Start

AV0-17No two repetitions of the the annual gathering of the aviation faithful at EAA AirVenture at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, are the same. But in attending the event for the 40th time, I can honestly say that all of them share clearly defined family traits. Until this year.

What makes it feel really different I can’t exactly put my finger on, so forgive what is sure to be a wandering stream of consciousness puzzle piecing that is searching for a more focused picture. It was weird that no matter where I walked about on setup Sunday, aka AirVenture Day Zero, I didn’t see a lot of people.

Let’s start with the one above. That’s Row 331 in Homebuilt Camping at about 1300 on Sunday, Day Zero. Mother Nature is always a controlling factor, but I’ve never seen this area, and Homebuilt Showplane Parking, which parallels the flight line, so empty. Normally, there are lot more impatient pilots who see the bad weather forming and cut out of work to beat it to Oshkosh. But not this year.

Normally, even when the weather is bad, which it has been for the five preceding days, there’s always  a throng of “civilians” (those not involved in setup, making the area defined by the exhibit hangars a dodge-em course for forklift drivers and others trying to get ready for the show.

AV0-10Having spent two decades as an exhibitor, the civilians have always made setup complicated, but like many other aspects of Oshkosh, it was something you just had to deal with. This year EAA did something about it. The exhibit areas were a restricted area, unless you had one of these distinctive orange lanyards. (And the volunteers, who politely turned away the civilians who tried to enter the restricted area, did let me take a peak with my media pass.) Nice job, EAA! The exhibitors I talked to loved the new restrictions, and I didn’t hear any of the civilians griping that they could not wander among the grumbling beasts with the four little wheels and long steel tusks.

I’m guessing that the exhibitors were less happy with the relative absence of civilian traffic on Monday, Day 1. Walking through the four exhibit hangars this afternoon, they weren’t exactly empty, but they were not filled with a lot of people. Maybe that’s because it seems EAA has again widened the rows that separate the facing lines of booths. And the occupants of those booths continues their transition from aviation-related companies to more consumer products like jewelry and vibrating massage recliners.

AV1-90Perhaps more important, Mother Nature threw off her blanket of clouds on Sunday afternoon and almost within minutes airplanes recreated what was close to an aerial version of the settlers’ invasion of the Oklahoma’s Indian territory in 1889. Making my way north through Homebuilt Showplane Parking, I waded through a sea of airplanes to reach Row 331 in Homebuilt Camping. As you can see, a few people and their airplanes showed up in the past 24 hours. Hats off the the air traffic controllers who funneled them to the marshaling crew that got them safely to their campsites. After the disconcerting start, the comforting family traits of airplanes and friendly people have reasserted themselves. But what will tomorrow bring? – Scott Spangler, Editor

Cody Parkovich, Enstrom Helicopter Production Test Pilot

By Scott Spangler on July 12th, 2018 | Comments Off on Cody Parkovich, Enstrom Helicopter Production Test Pilot

Enstrom-76Just six months on the job as Enstrom Helicopter’s production test pilot, Cody Parkovich traces his position to the night he was bartending in Marinette, Wisconsin, just across the river from Menominee, Michigan. “That night I found out, when I was 23,” that Enstrom was a hometown company. “And I grew up here.”

Just discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps and home from San Diego where he’d served as an F-18 mechanic, “I didn’t know that flying a helicopter was an occupation outside the military,” he said. His original plan was to “go to school and go back into the service, but I got the itch and started flight training in Duluth two weeks later.”

Then he moved around the country to build time and experience in a number of different helicopters, the Robinson R44, Bell 206, the A-Star 350 series, “ and I instructed in a new Guimbal Cabri G2,” he said.

After teaching, Parkovich flew commercial ops in Utah, flying aerial tours in Michigan’s mitten, some ag spraying, and some utility pipeline inspection around Louisville and railroad track surveying with LIDAR, so the Canadian National could measure the grade before they increased the cruising speed of their freight trains.

“This is the life of a professional helicopter pilot,” said Dennis Martin, Enstrom’s director of sales and marketing. “Airplane pilots fly airliners, Helicopter pilots do 25 different things.” In short, they have to be as versatile as the rotary-wing aircraft they fly.

When Parkovich started work at Enstrom two years ago, “I thought I was a halfway decent mechanic from working on fixed wings, and then I found out that helicopters were a whole other ball of worms.” Like most of Enstrom’s workforce of 150, Parkovich works in different areas that cross-complement his primary responsibilities.

Enstrom-66“Because I still work on the floor as a mechanic, I know these ships like a doctor knows human anatomy. I’ve been hands-on with the rigging process.” As we talked, he was prepping a turbine-powered 480B, with a Garmin G1000 in the panel, for its final inspection, just across the aisle from the final assembly area. In front of it was the hangar door.

Summarizing the purpose of a production test flight, Parkovich said it takes, on average, 5 hours to demonstrate that the helicopter meets all of its documented performance numbers and that all of its equipment, regardless of how it is equipped for the customer, works as its documentation proclaims.

More specifically, this involves flights at different centers of gravity, making sure it has the same cyclic throws and maneuverability. Accelerating to VNE –the never exceed speed—he checks for adverse vibration and retreating blade stalls.

He also flies to track and balance blades and helicopters, a process that reduces the whole-ship vibrations to the absolute minimum. All of the helicopter’s rotating pieces can produce vibration, but they start with the main rotor, which can vibrate on both the vertical and lateral planes.

Enstrom-54New blades are balanced chord-wise, the added weights written on the tips, and span-wise. Those balances are refined by flying the blade set in a known ship, said Parkovich. Putting them on a new helicopter would introduce too many variables, such as tail rotor vibrations.

This also saves start cycles on the Rolls-Royce turbines, said Martin. “They only get 3,000 cycles before they need hot-section maintenance, and when you’re making blade adjustments, you have to shut down, adjust, and restart. And if it takes 25 or 35 cycles, you don’t want to give that to a customer.”

Production flight test doesn’t involve a lot of test equipment, said Parkovich. His most important instrument? The seat of his pants. In another summary, his job is to “make sure very helicopter feels the same, flies the same way.” –Scott Spangler, Editor

Enstrom Helicopter Blade Maker

By Scott Spangler on June 25th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

In the simplest terms, a helicopter’s rotor blade is a wing that generates lift by flying in a circle. But the similarity between a wing and rotor pretty much ends at the airfoil because the forces acting on each of them is vastly different. Imagine flying an aircraft that is constantly trying to shed its wings through the centrifugal force of normal operations. From building airplanes small and full-scale, I know how the skeleton of the wing deals with the forces of flight when fixed in one position. But when it comes to wings that fly in a circle, my understanding is destitute. Enstrom Helicopter Corporation, which for 60 years has been building piston and turbine helicopters in Menominee, Michigan, just up the coast from Green Bay, said they could fix that.


On the wall outside the Leland Burdue Training Center on the second floor of the Enstrom factory at the Menominee-Marinette Twin Country Airport (MNN) are two rotor blades. It’s clear that like the first propellers, the first rotor blades were carved out of wood by artisans of the drawknife and spoke shave. This long, wooden aerodynamic blade probably lifted one of Rudolf “Rudy” Enstrom’s prototype helicopters to a hover sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. “We’re really not sure,” said Dennis Martin, director of sales and marketing. “A family member found this in a barn [after Rudy passed on September 25, 2007], but we’re pretty sure it flew” on one of his early prototypes, which employed a two-bladed teetering rotor system.

Tool marks are visible beneath the worn black paint on the yellow-tipped wood blade. Beneath it is a seamless black-and-white striped metal blade. It is one of a trio that creates the fully articulated rotor system on the piston-powered F-28F and 280FX and the Rolls-Royce turbine-powered 480B. The rotor systems are essentially the same for all models, and together the main rotor systems have logged 4 million flight hours without a catastrophic failure.

Building Blades

Enstrom-42The wood and metal blades have two things in common. Both are 16-feet long give or take, and artisans make both. Working what looks like an orbital sander loaded with a fine abrasive that seems to be polishing the metal is the leader of Enstrom’s blade shop, Ken Clark. Asked how many blades he’s built, Ken furrowed his brow for a second. “I’ve been here 32 years, more than half my life,” he said. Founded in 1959, Enstrom has been in business for 60 years, “So about half the number ever made.” That would be approximately 3,200 blades, with a birthrate of 12 per week.

“I have a couple of guys who work with me, and we make the tail rotor blades, too,” Clark said. When called for, another couple of workers join the crew. With 150 total employees, most of Enstrom’s technicians are cross-trained in several departments, and the blade shop is one of the more demanding studios. “This is an art,” said Clark. “This is nothing anyone is going to teach you in school. To take a guy fresh, it’ll take about seven years to teach him everything.” His apprentices have been working with Clark for about two years, and like many of the skills Enstrom’s artisans employ, their education is on the job.

Enstrom-47Given the forces involved, I expected a more complex design. But Enstrom blades are built around an extruded D spar leading edge. Two sheets of 2024 are bonded to the recesses on the top and bottom of the spar, and at the training edge. “There are no ribs, no honeycomb, they are hollow all the way through,” said Martin, but the blade’s interior is epoxy primed to prevent corrosion. There are some doublers at the blade’s root, where the grip that connects it to the hub is bonded in, added Clark. He’s never counted the steps involved in building a blade. “It doesn’t matter; it’s got to be done either way.” The most challenging part of the process is, however, setting the tip cap rivet. “You’re almost done with the blade, and one wrong hammer—and it’s scrap.”

Enstrom-46All of Enstrom’s metal blades have been built in the same fixture, which holds the pieces in place, forms the fully symmetrical airfoil, which includes a 7-degree twist down near the tip, and electrically heats the bonding seams and the entire fixture, with a box that encases it once all the pieces are in place. It takes an hour to warm up, it spends an hour at the perfect adhesive bonding temperature, and it takes an hour to cool. The twist, Martin explained, comes into play during an autorotation, a helicopter’s engine-out glide. Air passing through the center of the rotor disk turns the blades, and the outer portion provides the lift.

The relatively simple design blade wasn’t its only surprise. With so many rotating parts working in critical concert, their lifespan counts the hours of operation. Asked how long a rotor blade lives, Martin smiled: “97,500 hours. Effectively, they are on condition. There’s no calendar life, no hour life. They will last as long as they are maintained. The oldest calendar set that I’m aware of has been flying since 1973. The highest time I’m aware of is 22,000 hours. If you take care of the blades, keep them clean and corrosion free, they’ll last forever.”

Enstrom-44Another question Martin often hears, he said, was about composite blades. He keeps his answer in a green, four-drawer file cabinet in the corner of the blade shop, in a drawer labeled “Broken Blades.” Halfway expecting some Harry Potter magic to produce a 16-foot blade, Martin instead pulled a deformed tail rotor blade out of the drawer. “This guy had a bad day,” he said. “But he still had something back there doing work for him. He put the helicopter back on the ground safely.” While the aluminum was bent and cracked, the bonding adhesive was unbroken. A composite blade would shatter and shred itself to an ineffective stump.

Blade Matching

Enstrom-43“Everyone thinks you just throw the pieces in the fixture, and it’s magic,” said Clark. “But there’s a lot you have to do to make sure it comes out right.” Quality control begins before the pieces get near the fixture. Enstrom helicopters have mechanical controls, so they are sensitive to blade balance. “If the blades have different weights, they will fly differently, so we weigh every spar and rout the inside of the D to equalize the weight. After we build them, we match them in sets of three,” said Martin.

The birth certificate of every blade is the record of several hundred measurements and a profile of the entire blade. This data is fed to a spreadsheet that creates a chart for every set of blades. Call it a family born of a common fixture. “We keep this information forever,” said Martin, “If a customer needs a new blade or two, we look at that chart [for the family of blades delivered with his helicopter] and send replacements with matching numbers. Usually, they track very well. But if they don’t the customer sends them back and we send another one.”

Enstrom-78Rotor blades are not the only components Enstrom builds from scratch. It’s easier to itemize the components it does not build: engines, avionics, and instruments. “We don’t have a foundry to cast parts like the main transmission housing and tail rotor gear boxes,” said Martin, “but we have four CNC vertical machines and three turning centers, so we do the final machining. We also have a CNC router for cutting metal, and CNC press brakes for bending it.” Because it is a critical component, Enstrom has two firms that precision grind the hollow main rotor masts to 5/10,000th of an inch. One is in Traverse City, Michigan, and the other (which made parts for the space shuttle) is in Green Way, Wisconsin. Without doing the math, Martin estimated that 99 percent of the Enstrom is made in America, and most of the handful of foreign vendors is Canadian.

One of them extrudes the rotor blade D spar. “Spar thickness is critical to the blades’ performance, and we can tell when the company’s die starts wearing out because the blades fly differently on the helicopter,” said Martin. “So call them up and say that it’s time to refresh the die.” —Scott Spangler, Editor

Al Bean: An Astronaut of Many Colors

By Robert Mark on June 15th, 2018 | Comments Off on Al Bean: An Astronaut of Many Colors

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By Micah Engber

Al Bean. I just liked saying the name when I was a kid. It was a cool name, sounded like he would be a cool guy, what a neat name for an astronaut, for the fourth person to ever set foot on the moon. If it weren’t for that cool name, at least pretty cool to a 13 year old boy, I might not know much about Al Bean. Unlike some other astronaut names I know, that are in the forefront of my brain, Captain Bean didn’t fly a lot of missions, but he sure did save the day on one of them.

Turns out Al Bean was a pretty cool guy, and one of my childhood heroes; it also turns out, that I guess I’m at the age where I’m starting to lose a lot of them. Now the last survivor of Apollo 12 is gone.

Born in 1932 Alan Bean was a Texas boy and a University of Texas graduate with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. He was part of Navy ROTC at UT and after graduating, being commissioned, and getting through flight school, he flew the F9F Cougar and A4D Skyhawk. Eventually he was assigned to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, where Pete Conrad was his instructor.

Al Bean applied for Astronaut Group Two, and was rejected. That didn’t discourage him though he applied and was accepted to Astronaut Group Three along with Buzz Aldrin, Gene Cernan, Mike Collins and ten other names you may know. He was assigned as backup command pilot for Gemini 10 but never did fly Gemini; in fact he never got assigned an Apollo mission either. He ended up in the Apollo Applications Program where he worked on the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator and was the first astronaut in the tank to try it.

He had resigned himself to not fly Apollo when some luck struck him, both good and bad. You see fellow Astronaut Group Three alum and Apollo 12 Lunar Module Pilot Clifton Williams was lost in the crash of his T-38. Pete Conrad, Apollo 12 Commander remembered training Al Bean at Patuxent River and personally requested that he become Clifton Williams’ replacement. See what I mean, good and bad luck at the same time.

Al Bean was the right man for the job; in fact he saved the day. You see, Apollo 12 was struck by lightning on launch, and it knocked out the telemetry, as you can imagine quite a problem for a rocket on its way to the moon. In trying to restore telemetry the command came from ground, “… try SCE to ‘Aux”, an obscure switch that seemed to stump both Commander Pete Conrad and Command Module Pilot Richard Gordon. But Al Bean knew it! With Pete Conrad’s hand firmly grasping the abort handle Al Bean saved the mission.

Pete Conrad and Al Bean landed Lunar Module Intrepid on the lunar surface and did two EVA’s. Turns out, mixed in with all the hard work, there was also quite a bit of fun on the moon. One of the mission objectives was to collect some material from the Surveyor program, an unmanned two year NASA mission that demonstrated the feasibility of soft landings on the moon pre-Apollo. Al Bean had smuggled a camera timer on board Apollo 12 so he could take a photo of himself and mission Commander Pete Conrad in front of the Surveyor. Something that was done as a practical joke for NASA scientists as they knew nothing about the timer. But when the time came to take the picture, he couldn’t find the timer, and the photo was never taken. When he did find the timer, just before boarding the Lunar Module for departure, he just tossed it away over his shoulder.

The timer isn’t the only thing Al Bean tossed away on the moon. He’d worn a silver astronaut pin for six years. As an astronaut that completed training but had not yet flown a mission he was not entitled to a gold pin. Knowing he would be awarded his gold astronaut pin upon his return to earth Al Bean tossed his silver one into a lunar crater.

There were a few other little ditties that I could retell. Some Playboy Bunny photos attached to the lunar check list for example, but this is a family show.

Al bean didn’t have another space mission until 1973 in Skylab 3, the second manned mission to Skylab. During that time he spent 59 days in orbit, performed a spacewalk, and even tested a prototype of the Manned Maneuvering Unit. It’s said that his Skylab crew accomplished 150 percent of its pre-mission goals.

Although appointed backup spacecraft commander for the US crew of the Apollo-Soyuz Project, he never flew in space again after Skylab. As a Captain he retired from the Navy in 1975 but stayed on with NASA for quite some time afterwards as a civilian, in Astronaut Candidate Operations where he had the unofficial title of Chief Astronaut.

I always felt that Al Bean had a heart. Like I said, I could hear it in his name; I thought he was a cool guy. Turned out I was right.  He was in line to fly some of the first space shuttle missions but chose not to when he retired from NASA in 1981. In an unselfish gesture he decided there were so many younger astronauts that could do that job that he gave up his opportunity to go back into space to give them a chance.

For relaxation and his own personal growth Al Bean took art classes. When he retired from NASA he focused on painting, and his paintings are beautiful. He painted moonscapes, some of him and Pete Conrad on the moon, paintings of the photos he wanted to take, but couldn’t due to the lost timer. He incorporated real moon dust in his paintings and used some of the tools he brought back from the moon to paint them with. When asked about those paintings he once said that if he were painting as a scientist he would have painted in grays but as an artist he could “… add colors to the Moon.” He sure did.

For Jetwhine, here in Portland, Maine,

This is your Main(e) man,