Aircraft Reincarnation Through Air Zoo Restoration

By Scott Spangler on November 29th, 2021 | What do you think? »

When it comes to aircraft, restoration and reincarnation may seem like synonyms, but there is a significant difference that transcends semantics.

Restoration is rehabilitating an airplane to a former point in its existence. Certainly, this is what the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience is doing for US Navy aircraft of World War II salvaged from Lake Michigan, where more than 17,000 naval aviators received their initial carrier qualifications on the USS Wolverine and USS Sable, coal-powered side-wheel passenger steamers resurfaced with a flat top.

Reincarnation is a step beyond restoration. It revives the airplane’s soul by searching out and connecting with the people who originally gave it life. If they have succumbed to time, their memories and contributions to the resurrected airframes survive in the consciousness of their relatives and descendants. Identifying these people and sharing their contributions to the airplane’s life is part of the Air Zoo’s dedicated reincarnation effort.

Looking at the FM-2 Wildcat in the rotisserie that aligns and supports the front half of the fuselage while the restoration team builds and connects a new rear fuselage and tail feathers to it, Greg Ward, the Air Zoo’s aircraft restoration manager, explains how the Wildcat ended up on the bottom of Lake Michigan three days after Christmas 1944.

Ensign William Forbes lost power on the third of the required five takeoffs from the USS Sable. It rolled off the flight deck, turned upside down after it landed in the lake, and the ship’s port paddlewheel broke the Wildcat in two just behind the pilot seat. Strapped in that seat, Ensign Forbes “held his breath for nearly two minutes,” Ward said. “He got out of the cockpit, got picked up, survived the war, and lived a long, wonderful life in Fresno, California.”

The Wildcat spent 68 years on the bottom of Lake Michigan. “We’ve been working on it for about eight years, and we have maybe two or three years to go,” said Air Zoo CEO Troy Thrash. “When I got here in 2013, we didn’t have any other restoration projects,” Thrash said, and when the team learned about the FM-2 Wildcat, it wanted to submit a restoration proposal to the Navy.

“I said, yeah, we can, but we’re going to hang our hat on two things. The Navy already knows the quality of our work,” Trash said, referring to another Lake Michigan find, the SBD-3 Dauntless that’s long been on display in the World War II wing. “In keeping with our new missions, we’re going to restore the FM-2 differently than we or anyone else has done it; we’re going to do it on the exhibit floor where people can not only watch the volunteers work, they will have the opportunity to interact with them. Some days people are asking so many questions about the work they are doing the volunteers don’t get much done.”

Volunteers do most of the restoration work, Ward said, pointing at the people working around the shop. “Not all of them are [airframe and powerplant] mechanics. That guy over there is a financial analyst. They’re just people who like to work with their hands, like to work on airplanes, and love to work with other people who love to work with their hands on airplanes.” Most are recruited by word of mouth, and a good number of them have built their own airplanes, and several of them have won trophies for their craftsmanship at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh.

Restoring the Wildcat “created the mother of all challenges for our team,” Ward said. The Eastern Aircraft division of General Motors built the Grumman single-seat fighter during the war. “No one has ever said, ‘Let’s build the front half of an airplane and then build the back half, and then figure out how we can attach the two.” But that’s what they team had to do.

Part of the challenge was managing the stresses between the two halves. Every time they worked on it, the stress of the two halves warped the frame where they came together. The rotisserie, designed and built by a volunteer who’s a veterinarian, solved that problem.

And then there were unexpected and welcome surprises. “All of [the fuselage] stringers were extruded by the company that made them during the war,” Ward said. “It’s had several different owners since then, but when I called and gave them the part number, they said, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got those dies and can make them.”

The volunteers’ work is guided by plans and technical manuals and other documents acquired from a variety of sources, the US Navy and its National Museum of Naval Aviation as well as others who have restored siblings of the same make and model. “A lot of times we get drawings from the 1940s, blow them up, and discover we can’t read them,” said Thrash. “That’s just a piece of the puzzle, and if we can’t fix it, we make it.”

Making it is sometimes a matter of beating flat aluminum into shape on a hand-carved wood form that recreates the compound curves where the fuselage becomes the vertical stabilizer. “That’s the way I’ve always done it,” said Ward, who’s been at the Air Zoo for 33 years. “Now we use computers. Dan [Brant, deputy restoration manager] is really good at CAD drawings, and he saves us weeks and months of work by whipping them out on CAD and emailing the file to the waterjet cutting guy in Kalamazoo, who calls when the parts are ready for pickup.”

Picking up a dented and unrestorable curve of large diameter ducting that fed air to the Wildcat’s oil cooler, Ward said creating a new one would be more than a challenge. “General Motors has big 3D scanning equipment—they built this airplane back in the day—and they donated a 3D scan of it. Now we have a digital copy of it, and we used a 3D printer to make the form block and formed flat metal around it.”

Somethings only an original part will do, because making magnesium wheels for the SBD is beyond the their capabilities. “I bought these wheels cheap from another museum [that flies its SBD]. Being magnesium, you can’t get brakes for them, so they switched to Hellcat wheels and brakes, and that made them available.” The Air Zoo team didn’t worry about brakes because airworthiness is not the restoration (or reincarnation) goal.

An Air Zoo View of Space

By Scott Spangler on November 15th, 2021 | What do you think? »

In introducing the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience, its president, Troy Thrash said it was purposely designed “to be a different environment for an air and space museum.” There is no better example of this than the exhibit focused on the lunar landing of Apollo 11 in 1969. Instead of telling the story with space hardware, the Air Zoo connects to the environment in which we all (at least all of us who were sentient beings then) shared in the experience, on TV in our living rooms.

Turning the corner to the exhibit, with its shag carpeting, cathode cabinet television on which Neil Armstrong made that first step for a man in an endless loop, and the fiberglass TV tray where many of us ate many a night, was a time traveling gut punch that stopped me in my tracks. It revived my mom and dad and shaved the decades of life from memory and put me rapt and cross-legged on the floor with my sister. Short of looking at Michael Collins’ lunar station at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, this is the most important Apollo exhibit I’ve ever seen because it allows people to relate to a moment in history personally and physically.

It’s a theme that continues through this section of the Air Zoo. Gort, the robot enforcer from one of my favorite science fiction films, 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Robby the Robot, who first appeared in the 1956 film Forbidden Planet and made subsequent appearances in other films and TV shows, including Lost in Space, flank the portal to Alien Worlds and Androids. The Air Zoo rented the traveling exhibit in 2015, said Thrash, and set it up to expand the space exhibit and tell the story of planetary space exploration beyond the shuttle and space station. The exhibit’s owner retired it in 2019, and Kalamazoo is its permanent home.

Building on the theme of robotics and exploration of space, visitors meet other pop icons like C3PO, R2D2, and BB8, “and no discussion of exoskeletons would be complete without Iron Man,” said Thrash. Standing in testament to the possibility of other life forms is the eponymous Alien, which helps tell the story of the microbiome. “It’s a different way for kids to connect with science.”

But this section of the Air Zoo has not forsaken the hardware geek. There are wheels from several different Mars rovers, and capsules from Projects Mercury and Gemini. First, there is a Gemini crew trainer, a fixed spacecraft procedures simulator. The orange and white El KaBong is a boilerplate Gemini capsule that NASA used in tests of the Para-Sail Program, a Rogallo wing that replaced the traditional parachutes used to slow the final descent. “It is a NASA artifact, and it was in pretty bad shape” Thrash said. “NASA said if you want to restore it, you can display it here.”

The Air Zoo’s space has its own moon rock, from Apollo 15. But turning to the living room exhibit, this is “my favorite space,” Thrash said, and they christened it on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. “Everything here was donated by someone locally—this was in my house when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon. It’s really cool to see grandparents come and sit on the couch and tell their grandkids this is where I was when it happened, watching it on TV.”

Air Zoo: Unique Airplanes

By Scott Spangler on November 1st, 2021 | What do you think? »

What makes the aerospace menagerie on display at Kalamazoo’s Air Zoo special is its unique airplanes, as in the only one in the world, the sole survivor of a specific make and model. With its black skin fading into the main display floor’s studio lighting, you have to look closely to see the second cockpit bump on the SR-71B trainer (or read the sign). The Curtiss XP-55 Ascender, on the other hand, is spotlighted in a back corner, standing guard next to the entrance to the World War II exhibit hall. And in the restoration building, which faces the Kellogg/Kalamazoo International Flight Line, visitors can watch, and learn from, the volunteers restoring the only F-117 Nighthawk on display at a civilian museum.

All three aircraft are on long-term loan from either the National Museum of the United States Air Force or the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. Lockheed built two SR-71B trainers. One of them was destroyed in a landing accident and the survivor retired to the Air Zoo after its last flight in 1999 with NASA at Edwards Air Force Base. The Air Zoo welcomed it to its exhibit area on April 23, 2003. It built steps and a platform so the curious can peer into the cockpit windows, and it opened the canopies on one of its open-cockpit weekends in September.

The other unique airplanes required a bit more work, said Air Zoo President Troy Thrash, and it was the institution’s restoration reputation that brought them to Kalamazoo. Curtiss built three XP-55 Ascenders during World War II. All three of the canard pushers crashed, Thrash explained. “Only this one was salvageable. It is a Smithsonian artifact. Knowing our restoration capabilities, the Smithsonian asked us if we wanted to take on this project. If we did, then we could have it here on long-term loan. It took us quite a few years to restore this airplane, but we are happy to say that we have the only XP-55 Ascender in the world.”

Another unique aspect to the Air Zoo’s restoration effort realized the only civilian museum display of the F-117. “About four years ago we found out that the Air Force was going to release four F-117s per year (for about eight years) to museums,” said Thrash. “Everyone who wanted one put in an application, so we did. Three years ago, they invited us to Tonopah [Nevada], where these airplanes live so we could see first-hand the challenges. It is really cool to say we want an F-117, it is another when you think about what’s involved.

In deciding who among the requesting institutions would receive the aircraft, Thrash said, “The Air Force concerned that a museum would get an airplane and wouldn’t have the time or money needed to restore the [demilitarized airframes stripped of all their stealthy secret stuff]. Their big question was, How long, from the time the airplane arrives will it be on display? About 10 minutes, because we do all our restoration work on the exhibit floor in the Flight Discovery Center.”

Earning his jet experience in the Air Force as an F-104 Starfighter crew chief (including the F-104 in the Air Zoo collection), Dick Klass is the F-117 restoration project manager. “When the F-177 arrived, the wings and vertical tails were off, as were all of the leading edges, which were proprietary secrets that actually belonged to Lockheed, who leased them to the Air Force.”

Receiving little more than the airframe, the restoration crew had to figure out how to fabricate 210 feet of leading and trailing edges. “And we had to figure out all the angles. There are more angles than you can shake a stick at,” said Klass. “Our problem was to connect the top and the bottom. Do you weld it? Do we make some sort of blocks that we could screw into it? One of the guys came up with the idea of using piano hinge. It adapts itself to any angle.”

When the team of volunteers gets the edges finished the way they want, they will fill the piano hinge’s nooks and crannies with a filler that has the consistency of warm butter. “It gets in between all the seams. We put it on with a spatula and push it in with a rubber gloved hand,” said Klass. “When it dries, we sand it smooth.” The team uses a heavier filler over the rivets that hold the hinge in place.

Unlike traditional jets, the F-117 doesn’t have tailpipes. Klass found a photo of the louvered trailing edge exhaust of the engines buried in the wing. Looking at the photo, Klass wondered what the white rectangles were, so he Googled F-117 exhaust. Leading the results was “Part 5: Nozzles and Exhausts” of an Aviation Week series, “A Closer Look a Stealth.” Once the team finds the right color, it will add the replica heat reflecting tiles.

Before the Air Force released the F-117s to museums, it sandblasted the radar absorbing material that coats the airframe. “They did a very poor job of it,” said Klass, pointing to hollow spots in the skin between the underlying frames. “We debated replacing the panels, but they are .125 thousandths thick, and new aluminum to replace them would cost about $3,000 a panel.”

Bondo doesn’t work well over large areas because it will bow and crack, especially with temperature changes. Looking at photos of other F-117s on museum display to suss out the solutions employed by other museums, “they all have the same [hollow-spot] problem,” Klass said, so like all the others, the Air Zoo’s F-117, called Shaba, will have hollow spots.

Pointing to the airplane’s name painted on the open door of the weapon bay, Klass said each F-117s in the Air Force fleet received a unique name. “Shaba” is Arabic for “ghost.” The signatures of many of the airplane’s maintainers and pilots surround the moniker. The pilot’s call sign was a combination of “Bandit” and ang graduation number from F-117 transition training.

“Here’s Bandit 512; he was the 512th pilot graduated to fly 117s. There were only 62 F-117s, but they flew for a long time so I’ve seen pilot numbers into the 700s,” said Klass. And with its arrival, it adds the modern era to the Air Zoo’s display of unique aircraft.

Christy Kincaid, Keeper of the Air Zoo Artifacts

By Scott Spangler on October 18th, 2021 | 1 Comment »

Illuminating the spectrum of science, technology, and engineering opportunities embodies for people of all ages is one of the premeditated objectives of the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Its many hands-on youth and adult education programs are the foundation of this effort. Built on it are volunteer and internship opportunities that reveal previously unknown professions such as the archivist who preserves and keeps track of a collection’s artifacts.

“I’ve been at the Zoo almost 14 years,” said Christy Kincaid. “I started as a high schooler and never left.” Education was one of the majors she worked her way through in college, she said, but she found the structure imposed on classroom teachers stifling. “It really takes the creativity out of being a teacher. I wanted to teach in a more informal setting, and that’s how I ended up as a museum person.”

Teachers are students who share what they’ve learned with others. An archivist since 2003, Kincaid interned at the Air Zoo and moved through a variety of roles. “Last February, before the pandemic hit, I was promoted to manager. It’s been a fun and interesting time. The majority of an archivist’s skills are learned on the job. I’m always learning, reaching out to my colleagues and different museums about the best ways to take care of something. My job is always fun—never boring. I’ve always got a project going on.”

One of them is guiding a team of colleagues and volunteers who are building a new computer database that keeps track of the Zoo’s menagerie. “We have about 100,000 objects and archival materials in our collection,” she said. “Everything will get a picture and tag and its own number. Only about 40,000 items in the collection are in the new database, so we have a lot of work ahead of us. One of my volunteers doing a high-level index said it’s taken her a month to work her way through one file drawer [of Guadalcanal contents] because she keeps going down an interesting rabbit hole.”

Beyond the aircraft on display, the collection “deals with everything from the weaponry pilots carry when they are flying and the everyday items a paratrooper has in his pack to the recognition cards Coca Cola created [during World War II] for citizens so they would feel more connected to the war and their loved ones in the service. We even have a happy birthday letter Hitler wrote to a member of his staff. The Guadalcanal collection is one of our pride and joys, and we rotate the items on display to help preserve them.”

Not quite as vast as the storeroom in Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s still a good walk from the door to the back wall. Almost everything is organized by category, Kincaid said. Weaponry, machine guns to pistols. Everyday items services members carried—Bibles, playing cards, matches, cameras, glasses. Turning down another aisle between towering shelving units, “we have four aisles of pints and patches, and we’re reorganizing them; here are our NASA patches.” Not far away is the space collection. “We got it from the Jackson Space & Science Center in 2007, 2008. Most of our space collections is Skylab based, and it’s another collection we hope to ramp up and be able to tell a more present story.”

A couple of aisles down is the Zoo’s textile collections, a supersized closet organized by service—Marine, Navy, Coast Guard, Army, Air Corps, and Air Force—and conflict, World War I, World War II, Korea, and so on. Flags and banners are one of Kincaid’s favorite projects. “They were stored in tubes. After visiting other collections and learning more about how to preserve them, we took them out of the tubes, photographed them, researched them,” layered them in acid-free archival gauze, and wrapped them loosely around an acid-free cardboard tube. Pointing to the tag with a photo of the protected artifact, she said, “This is a Nazi banner that was draped outside a building.”

A few aisles back, the shelves are open-faced hangars for intricate, detailed model aircraft standing alone or in the center of a diorama that depicts a past moment in time. Beyond that is the odds and ends aisle. In addition to “toys, commercial aviation items, the trench art collection, if anything comes off one of our airplanes, like the panel removed from the Corsair so guests could see the machine guns in the wings, those things come here so we can keep them nice and safe.”

Preserving artifacts and keeping them safe is a multifaceted challenge that is often expensive. Sometimes it’s a matter of deciding how to organize the artifacts, like all of the artwork, posters, and other graphics in the long lines of flat files recently donated by Western Michigan University. Pointing to a letter-sized acid-free archival document box on a shelf, Kincaid said it cost $15. “To have one made for oversized items can run more than $300. Two years ago, I attended a workshop to learn how to make boxes. Figuring out how to make a box for a big artifact has been a tremendous challenge, but making them exactly how I need them has saved us a ton of money.”

Most of the artifacts on the shelves and on display were donated by individuals and families who gave the Air Zoo a piece of their personal history. “We have a lot of treasures here,” said Kincaid.

If you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor

The Air Zoo, an Extraordinary Aerospace Destination

By Scott Spangler on October 4th, 2021 | What do you think? »

Mostly because of its alterative name, I’ve known about the Kalamazoo Air Zoo for decades, but despite a number of trips to mitten Michigan on other assignments, I never made time to visit its home at the southwest corner of the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. If you’re considering a visit, don’t make my mistake and think the Zoo is just another small-market museum.

Far from it. The Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience is an extraordinary, must visit aerospace destination that embodies the premier elements of well known and visited destinations such at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and the national museums of naval aviation and air force with unique combination of inclusive, hands-on experiences unavailable at any other institution I’ve ever visited (and as my wife will attest, I’ve visited way too many of them).

At EAA AirVenture this year I ran into the hulk of an SBD-1 fished out of Lake Michigan in 1994 after its last, and unsuccessful operation in 1942 on the training carrier USS Wolverine during World War II. It was on a trailer, bound for restoration at the Zoo. Knowing that the Navy is finickily particular about its aerial artifacts and the institutions it deals with, it drove me to plan a visit. Learning that the Zoo is the only civilian institution with a F-117 that it is restoring on its exhibit floor made a visit imperative.

This was not an easy decision. From my home outside of Oshkosh, as the crow flies, Kalamazoo is 190 miles away. If you’re not a crow, driving over the top of Lake Michigan covers 589 miles; driving under it 330 miles. Either way, it’s an all-day drive thanks to the toll roads and eternal traffic of the Chicago metroplex. We split the difference and splurged on the SS Badger, the car ferry and National Historic Landmark that connects US 10 between Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan.

Research did not emotionally prepare me for the Zoo. An airplane I’d first met in 1976, Sue Parrish’s Pink P-40N, filled the atrium airspace in the Flight Innovation Center. With her husband, Pete, a World War II Marine aviator, Sue, a WASP, co-founded the Zoo in 1979. I met her and her airplane when she visited her friend and sister WASP, who operated the flight school at Long Beach, California, where I was learning to fly. On the walls that protected the P-40 were banners for upcoming events, including weekend cockpit crawls in different airplanes during September.

Troy Thrash, the Zoo’s president and CEO since 2013, led me down a serpentine cloud tunnel that led to the main exhibit hall, which opened in 2004. The wide-open panorama stopped me dead. With so much to take in, my brain disconnected from everything but my eyes. Tracing the history of flight from the first hot air aeronauts to space exploration the Zoo synergistically coordinated its artifacts with a 30,000-square foot hand painted mural created by two artists over 11 months.

Artists had similarly painted the exhibit hall’s floor. Grass and pavers covered the left side of the hall that spanned early aviation to World War II. Setting on It were a Sopwith Camel and Spad from World War I, a Ford Trimotor, B-25, and the world’s only surviving Curtiss XP-55 Ascender. Amidships was the bow of the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63) with an F-14 nose-down and ready for launch. Next to it was an F-8, with an F-18 cued up for the catapult. Above and behind them was the carrier’s island. And to their right was the world’s only surviving SR-71B, the two-seat Blackbird.

The main exhibit hall was designed “to be a different environment for an air and space museum,” said Thrash, describing it as part museum and part theme park with four rides, in balloons, biplanes, and parachutes. “People who love airplanes love airplanes. At the same time, there are so many people who don’t realize that they love the science and technology behind the airplane, and their history as well. So, we designed this space to display different reasons for people to come to the Zoo.”

Describing the diversity of the regional and Kalamazoo community, “we want everyone, especially young people, to see themselves reflected in these heroes of aviation and space that we celebrate,” said Thrash. “A small piece of that is this Smithsonian exhibit called Black Wings, American Dreams of Flight. It traces the history of Black Americans from Bessie Coleman to Mae Jemison and Ronald McNair.”

The Zoo crew continues to expand the big women in aviation and space exhibits that are situated throughout the museum and highlight women from the “real riveting Rosies of World War II” to today, Thrash continued. Exploring later on my own, the mural, among other things, subtly but without equivocation, reinforced the level of detail the museum employed to reflect the community it serves. While airplanes of the different eras fly on the mural near the exhibit hall ceiling, families and individuals enjoying picnics at the floor level make it clear all are welcome here.

To be continuedIf you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor


PreFlight Camp Introduces Girls to Aviation Opportunities

By Scott Spangler on September 20th, 2021 | What do you think? »

Meeting at U.S. Air Force survival school in 2007 and reflecting on the unexpected opportunities that introduced them to aviation, Liz Greene and Kristen Franke conceived an idea that became the nonprofit PreFlight Camp whose mission is to make girls 11 to 14 aware of aviation and its career opportunities.

“We’re past the point of receiving negative feedback. Gender representation is turning around in medicine, engineering,” said Franke. “It just lacks exposure, reaching out to half the population is what the aviation industry desperately needs. You can’t be what you can’t see!”

The founders didn’t know flying was an option because they’d never been exposed to it or had someone explain the opportunities to them. For Franke, it was an ROTC officer at the University of Missouri who urged her to take all the pilot tests.

“I just wanted a job. My grandfather was an Air Force pilot who flew heavy airplanes, but he died when I was 5, so he wasn’t an influence,” she said. “My grandmother took me to some air shows, but the thought of becoming a pilot never entered my head. When the recruiter encouraged me to take the pilot tests, I didn’t know about the 10-year commitment. Take the tests, he said, you can change your mind later. So, I did, and I owe him for encouraging me to try something I never considered. Nobody told me I couldn’t do it; it just never occurred to me.”

Greene’s story is similar, Franke said, and they bonded during their weeklong overlap at survival school and sustained their friendship over time and distance. Greene was a C-21 and KC-10 pilot stationed at Ramstein, Germany, and Franke was a C-17 pilot out of Charleston, South Carolina. “We went to Ramstein all the time.”

The founders left active duty in 2014 (Franke now flies the Airbus 221 for Delta and the C-17 for the Air Force Reserve and Greene flies for Hawaiian Airlines) and met in South America, where Greene was on a four-month travel journey. “I had some time off, too, so I flew to Colombia, went for a hike, and cruised from Cartagena to Panama on a chartered sailboat.”

It was during that trip that Greene delivered her “brain baby” that became the PreFlight Camp, said Franke. “I was just the enabler. “We didn’t know flying was an option for us initially, we fell into it, and we thought, in the spirit of the WASP legacy, sisterhood, and as role models, we could do better for the next generation.”

PreFlight Camp debuted in 2016 as a six-day, overnight camp held at Texas State University in San Marcos. The following year the founders participated in EAA AirVenture’s AeroInnovate business accelerator. As a 501c3, PreFlight Camp was the first nonprofit booth at EAA and received an Aeroinnovate grant.

The camp returned to Texas in 2018 and 2019. After the pandemic standdown in 2020, it adapted as a day camp at Colorado Skies Academy in Centennial, Colorado, and 12 campers and two junior counselors participated from July 26-31, said PreFlight’s president and board chair Morgan Mitchell. The camp counselors, recruited through social media and word of mouth, are (like the four-member board) all volunteers.

“Flexing to the day camp option instead of the overnight was great and we didn’t have any problems,” said Franke. “Colorado Skies Academy enabled us to hold almost all of our activities in the large cafeteria with garage doors. We kept the garage doors open whenever we were holding camp and the campers and volunteers were required to wear masks if they were unvaccinated.”

As it has at preceding camps, the week consists of lessons, hands-on activities, and introspective discussions in Aircraft Components, Aerodynamics, Weather, Weight and Balance, Communication, Navigation and Goal setting.

“We close each activity with an introspective question to help the girls think about what they are interested in. The four forces of flight is an example; related to life, what drags you down, what lifts you up, and how do you keep them in balance? Ultimately, PreFlight gives girls the courage and confidence to look around the corner, to do something different,” said Franke.

“We were also able to take all the campers on a tour of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs where they got to tour the airfield and campus, sit in a glider, use the simulators, and hear from some awesome female pilots that work there,” she added.

“At the end of camp, they all got a discovery flight with a female CFI provided by Aspen Aviation and learned how to preflight the plane. While they waited their turn for the discovery flight, they had the run of the Exploration of Flight Museum as well as the opportunity to check out 2 T-6’s that flew in from Randolph AFB, Texas. To cap it all off, Col Kim Campbell, (first female solo demo Thunderbird pilot, now retired) spoke to the girls during graduation,” Franke said.

“We liked the day camp format so much we’ll probably stick with it for the foreseeable future. We plan to hold camp in Colorado in 2022 as well as tentative plans to hold a second day camp in Texas.” And efforts to grow the organization continue as well, seeking funding to support multiple camps and pay staff. Ultimately, the people behind PreFlight Camp “focus on quality, not quantity,” said Franke.

Mentoring campers is an open-ended commitment. “The mother of an Indian girl who attended our inaugural camp called us and said her daughter, who wants to be an engineer, also wants to be an astronaut; what classes should she take in high school? We didn’t know, but we found someone who did.”

If you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor

A Sign of Ice

By Robert Mark on September 12th, 2021 | What do you think? »

                American Champion 7KCAB

Although this story is old, the details and the learning experiences are as valuable today as they were years ago. Rob


Inexperience, stupidity, get-home-itis — take your pick. Any of them applied to me one late November evening as I cruised over Chicago’s Loop with an electric night sign slung beneath the belly of an old, but well running Champion Citabria 7KCAB.

It was supposed to be a routine advertising sign trip over Soldier Field adjacent to Merrill C. Meigs Airport (CGX) on the lakefront. I’d flown the trip many times before and I knew the area well. At the time I had about 400 hours and a commercial certificate under my belt. I was working on my instrument rating.

The Job

The night sign – a conglomeration of wires and lights – was usually hung under the Champ in the fall when the nights were longer. It was an old design that resembled an early mobile billboard, a chicken-wire cage running from wing tip to wing tip underneath the airplane and would show whatever message was programmed into it. To the aircraft owner the sign meant extra income. To a pilot the sign meant a paycheck too, but it also represented extra drag.

As I prepared for the flight from Palwaukee Municipal Airport (now Chicago Executive), I was aware that light snow was forecast, but not for nearly three hours after that night’s job would end. Unfortunately, as I approached the plane, I noticed it leaning to one side because the right main tire was flat. After some quick phone calls to the customer about the delay, I managed to find the night mechanic to fix the tire. More than an hour late, I rushed to get airborne into the now darkened sky.

I hadn’t checked the weather for almost two hours, but when I did, DuPage Airport to the west was still good VFR. I didn’t think to check the weather at Rockford, about 30 miles northwest of DuPage. If I had, I would have known that it was already reporting a 200 overcast and a half-mile in snow.

Night signs slung beneath some aircraft.

I turned on the night sign while still about six miles north of the target, figuring the customer had the extra bit of time coming. I circled around the target many times, and the conversation with the tower controller at Meigs made it tough to tell who was more bored.

The Weather

I’d been over the target for perhaps half an hour when I saw lightning to the west of the city. I called Chicago Flight Service and learned that DuPage was IFR in snow, with a thunderstorm, too. I had to do something. But with only $3 in my pocket, I wouldn’t even be able to pay for the cab ride back to my apartment if I landed at Meigs. I made a few more passes around the target to give the customer his money’s worth before I bade the Meigs controller good night and headed north up the Lake Michigan shoreline toward Palwaukee. Actually, Palwaukee is northwest of Meigs, but I didn’t feel comfortable flying over the city at night in a single.

Three miles north of Meigs, drizzle began that sounded like thousands of tiny grains of sand hitting the plexiglass windshield. The visibility was still good, so I figured that I was home free, even though the outside air temperature was near freezing. As I looked toward my destination, I realized that some of the city was beginning to disappear in the precipitation. I thought about it for a minute and decided that it was time to break my rule and fly over the city.

The intensity of the rain seemed to increase, but only for a short time. Then, the only sound was the constant drone of that 150-horsepower Lycoming. It took me a few minutes to realize why much of the noise had disappeared and why I no longer saw the rain streaming across the windshield. The precipitation was freezing. I saw tiny drops of ice clinging to the struts and tires; but, most of all, it was clinging to the hundreds of feet of wire on that big night sign.

My Decisions

As I looked behind me to the shoreline, I decided it was too late to turn around. Palwaukee, now six miles ahead, was reporting three miles visibility in freezing rain. I did the only thing that I thought I could — I climbed — hoping to give myself more time once this big block of ice decided to come down. Straight ahead, the rotating beacon of what was then the Glenview Naval Air Station seemed to beckon. For years, I’d been told that civilian airplanes were not allowed there except in emergencies. The lights of Glenview’s 7,000-foot runway reflected off the ice on my sign as I passed over the field.

Palwaukee was two-and-a-half miles away as I flew a straight-in approach to Runway 30 Right. Even though I was still holding full power, the aircraft was beginning to descend. A mile out on final, I was down to about 400 feet agl. The icicles hanging from the night sign looked like stiff tinsel. I held full power almost to the ground. About six feet above the runway I began easing back on the throttle. As the rpm slowed through 2,250, the old Champ gave up the fight and fell to the runway. I don’t think that airplane rolled more than 200 feet before it stopped. The snow, sleet, and freezing rain were now so heavy that I could barely see the tower half a mile away.

As I taxied closer to the fuel pumps, I watched the line attendant’s eyes widen in amazement. I shut down and took a few deep breaths before I got out. Now it was my turn to look surprised. The little taildragger looked as though it were encased in clear plastic.

After I tied down the airplane, I headed for the airport restaurant and some coffee. I ran into one of the charter pilots I knew and told him what had happened. “Why didn’t you land at Meigs?” he asked. “Why didn’t you declare an emergency and land at Glenview?” he continued. “Why didn’t you keep closer track of the weather? What kind of decisions are those?” By now, I realized that most of my decisions had been pretty poor.

I had been presented with plenty of options but had been too single-minded on getting home to see them. That night I learned there are always other options … you just have to look out the windows to see them. When you see them in a worst-case scenario, as in the airplane and you might not survive, the decisions come much easier.

This story was originally published in AOPA Pilot.

Rob Mark


Promote Aviation With Inclusive Participation

By Scott Spangler on September 6th, 2021 | 1 Comment »

Over the decades, the Young Eagles program has given millions of youngsters what, in many cases, were their inaugural flights in an aircraft smaller than a transport category airliner. This includes my kids and my grandchildren, which gives you an idea of how long pilots have been participating in the program. Unfortunately, its desired outcome—inspiring youth to become members of the pilot community—has not achieved the desired or hoped for magnitude.

Certainly, there are many factors contributing to the anemic number of Young Eagles who act on their inaugural inspiration. One I had not considered came to mind after reading about a new program in Washington that introduces a diverse cohort of newcomers to hot air ballooning. Unlike a Young Eagles flight, a passive, one-and-done experience akin to a theme park ride, the balloon program encourages the aeronauts to become volunteer members of the team necessary for every flight of a hot air aerostat.

Similar opportunities exist with gliders or sailplanes. Unlike powered aircraft, where a single person, usually the pilot, can prepare them for flight, gliders and balloons cannot fly without the contribution of others. Besides the pilot, gliders need at least two other people to take flight, someone to connect the tow rope and run with the wingtip in hand until the ailerons take effect, and another person to pull the tow rope, such as the tow-plane pilot or tow winch operator.

There are many more opportunities for hands-on participation on a balloon crew, which is always supervised by the pilot. A single person cannot wrestle the basket and propane fuel bottles in position. Nor can the pilot spread out the envelope, set up the fan to start inflating it, and operate the basket’s burners to heat that air, and then run to the top of the envelope to hold the rope that keeps the balloon from lifting off or drifting in the breeze. It takes a team, a group of individuals whose effort is repaid, over time, with a ride and, often, hands-on piloting experience.

Unlike gliders, aerostats go where the wind takes them, so the launch team is also the recovery team. Someone needs to drive the truck and trailer or van, someone else communicates with the pilot via radio, while others maintain visual contact with the balloon and do their best to translate its windborne flight to terrestrial roads and pathways. It really is an exciting challenge that encourages critical thought and problem solving. And it promotes appreciation of the efforts of every member of the team because they experience it from their own and the pilot’s airborne point of view.

Over the past four decades I have not yet encountered a balloonist or glider club that did not welcome visitors with open arms and invite them to join in the fun as a volunteer member of the team. And the situation is right, there’s often a ride upfront to set the hook. As participants in every aspect of the flight, from preflight briefing (and balloonists get into the nitty gritty in their weather briefings), it redefines ground school. If there is a downside, it is that the aeronauts often arise well before the sun to drift into the new day. But it has always been worth setting the alarm clock for the opportunity. The challenge is for powered aircraft pilots to create similar hands-on opportunities that encourage inclusive participation in the joy of flight.

If you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Living Life by Pragmatic Absolutes

By Scott Spangler on August 23rd, 2021 | 1 Comment »

Mentally treading water in Afghanistan’s déjà vu cesspool, I take little comfort in the images that bracket my office clock and remind me to live a life guided by pragmatic absolutes. In the right hand frame, some of my shipmates are pushing over the side two of the 29 South Vietnamese UH-1 Hueys the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19) had to park in the ocean so the circling helos filled with refugees could escape the fallen city of Saigon in April 1975.

These images remind me one of life’s two absolutes—gravity. Its absolute partner is death. No one gets out of life alive.

In the left hand frame is US Ambassador Graham Martin. Arriving at o-dark-thirty, the admiral who was the task force commander guides him across the Blue Ridge’s flight deck. The ambassador is my poster boy for delusional hubris. While fighting for $750 million in continued support that he assured President Gerald Ford would finally turn the tide and save South Vietnam, he delayed many of the preparations that would have made for a smoother bug out from an ill-considered conflict.

Given the unyielding absolutes, I’ve lived a life guided by practicality rather than idealism, and never forget that we are ultimately responsible for the consequences of our decisions. Among the most important of these is learning from the mistakes of others, so we won’t have to convene our own learning experience by repeating them.

When faced with a decision, especially one of import, I look at this image of a man whose hubristic allusions of what he thought should be were visibly shattered by reality. After asking what he would have done before he landed on the Blue Ridge, I do the opposite. In other words, I strive for pragmatism, a philosophic doctrine that emphasizes facts and/or practical affairs, often to the exclusion of intellectual, emotional, or artistic matters.

The only thing worse is thinking you’re better than other mistake makers, clever enough not to repeat the errors they made, that you can outsmart the unimpeachable absolutes. No matter the situation or environment, each of us is responsible for the consequences of our decisions whether it’s bugging out of an ill-considered conflict or pushing the wind, weather, and fuel on a cross-country flight. You can point all the fingers you like, but gravity still wins and the pilot in command pays the price.

If you enjoyed this story, why not SUBSCRIBE to JetWhine, if you haven’t already, and please share it with anyone who might find it interesting. – Scott Spangler, Editor

Launchpad, What Were You Thinking?

By Robert Mark on August 15th, 2021 | 4 Comments »

My close friends know that as a pilot I have one deep-seated fear. If I should ever buy it in an airplane, I don’t want it to be for something that’s classically not me, something I’ve spent my career as a flight instructor campaigning against, like trying to keep a light twin in the air when an engine quits just after takeoff on a sweltering day. Or trying to turn back to the airport after the only motor quits when I’m only a few hundred feet in the air. Most of all though, I hope I never violate my Prime Directive; to lower the nose and pitch for best glide speed when the engine quits, no matter my altitude.  I know any additional increase in pitch, even accidentally, reduces the airplane’s margin above stall and could eventually lead to a complete loss of control. Sounds simple … but in an emergency, anyone’s brain might turn to mush.

The NBAA Safety Committee and the GA Joint Steering Committee (GAJSC) have studied Loss of Control Inflight for years knowing it’s responsible for more aviation fatalities than anything else. Randy Brooks, vp of training and business development at Aviation Performance Solutions (APS), a company created to teach pilots how to recognize an impending stall as well as how to recover if they don’t, told me that 45-50 percent of general aviation accidents can easily fit into the loss of control category. Not surprisingly, most LOCI events are preceded by an aerodynamic stall. “Stalls are by far the greatest single contributor,” Brooks said, “although attitudinal upsets like a nose-low spiral dive could result in structural failure due to overspeed or flutter.” This all translates into a lesson instructors should be teaching pilots in all categories of training; better to impact the ground during a power-loss emergency with the aircraft under control than the alternative.  A stall near the ground is almost always fatal.

A month or so ago I wrote a piece for Flying magazine about the personal loss I and some of my friends felt over the death of my friend Brad – Launchpad – Marzari when he crashed in his Focke-Wulf FWP-149D just a few miles short of runway 1 at Killeen, Texas Skylark Field Airport (ILE). He’d been displaying the warbird at New Braunfels Regional Airport (BAZ), about 100 miles to the south. Last week the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released its preliminary report of the crash and the Board’s highlights sent me into a brand new personal tailspin.

NTSB Accident Reports

If you’re new to reviewing aircraft reports, a crash is seldom the result of a single problem, like pilot error as most like to claim. The real cause usually lies much deeper than that. The NTSB doesn’t usually look at why a pilot took the action or failed to act in a specific situation. The NTSB report on Launchpad’s crash simply presented the facts as the investigators uncovered them. A final report won’t be available until near the end of 2022.

What jumped out at me when I read the report was the interview with the maintenance technician who cared for N9145. I don’t remember the person’s name, but I do remember Launchpad telling me a few weeks before the accident about some of the maintenance issues he was up against with his warbird, one being the magnetos.

The report said, “on July 2, 2021, [the mechanic] installed the right magneto on the engine after it was repaired by an overhaul shop. The mechanic stated that after installing the right magneto he conducted an engine run to assure proper engine operation. During the engine run, he observed the amber-colored “chip detector” cockpit warning light illuminated. The mechanic shut down the engine drained the oil into a clean bucket and followed the wiring associated with the “chip detector” warning light to the oil filtration system housing.” The chip detector actually turned out to be an engine oil bypass detector indicating something in the system was blocking the free flow of lubrication.

The mechanic stated that he observed “metal contamination” on the filter screen and inside the filter housing. The mechanic then showed the pilot the metal material found in the oil filtration system. With the pilot present, the mechanic ran a magnet over the screen and determined the observed metal material did not stick to the magnet.” At this point, it’s very possible Launchpad took the failure of anything to stick to the magnet as proof the problem was not that significant. Of course, the magnetic probe the mechanic said he used could have been faulty as well.

“The mechanic and Launchpad then discussed that the metal particles needed to be collected and sent to a laboratory for additional analysis. Brad told the mechanic that he intended to fly the airplane back to his home base at ILE. The mechanic told the pilot that they needed to determine the source of the metal contamination before the pilot flew any trips in the airplane. The mechanic then collected samples before he cleaned the filtration housing, sensor, and screen. He then added new oil to the engine and performed another engine run, during which he did not observe the “chip light”/bypass light illuminated.” No explanation was offered for why the mechanic thought enough to send the metal fragments to a laboratory for analysis when the magnetic probe attracted nothing.

The Accident

The NTSB said, “the pilot returned the following day, July 3, 2021, to retrieve the airplane. The mechanic observed the pilot complete an engine runup before he departed Draughon-Miller Central Texas Regional Airport (TPL), Temple, Texas, to ILE. The mechanic reported that he believed the airplane was going to remain at ILE until the laboratory results were returned concerning the metal particles.”

Despite what I interpreted as confusion about the existence of metal fragments in the engine, Launchpad flew the airplane on July 4th from Skylark to New Braunfels to display it for a portion of the day. He departed BAZ about 16:34 local for the short flight home. When N9145 was about 8.5 miles from ILE descending toward the airport – about 1717:30 local – he joined the extended runway 1 centerline at 2,700 feet MSL. With the ILE field elevation at 848 ft. at this point the Focke-Wulf was flying about 2,000 feet above the ground.

NTSB data gathered from the ADS-B system showed the aircraft began to slow during the next few minutes. “The Focke-Wulf FWP-149D Pilot Operating Handbook (POH), indicated the aerodynamic stall speed at maximum takeoff weight with the landing gear and flaps retracted is 61 knots, and the maximum glide distance with no engine power is achieved at 90 knots.” The calibrated airspeed on Launchpad’s FW-149D decreased from 112 knots to about 60 knots and occasionally to as slow as 57 knots, indicating the aircraft and pilot were wrestling with a serious problem. Although flying at a slower airspeed, the airplane was still inching closer to the airport. With just a few more miles to go, the end of the runway must have been calling to Brad. He’d made it this far, surely the old bird would fly just a few more miles.

Almost since he joined the extended runway centerline, the ground beneath the Focke-Wulf was nearly flat, only occasionally dotted by clumps of trees. But there was a large housing development between Launchpad’s current position and the runway threshold just a few miles ahead.

Moments before the aircraft struck the ground, Brad was heard calling Mayday on 121.5 and that he had, “lost his engine” was “losing altitude” and “trying to make it to Skylark.” A few seconds later he must have realized the inevitable and said he “wasn’t going to make it to the airport” and to “roll the trucks.” A witness reported the airplane flying toward the airport at about “300 ft agl” and flying at “50-60 knots.” He heard the engine “sputtering” and observed the airplane’s wings dip left-and-right 2-3 times before the airplane “stalled” with the left wing down.” The airplane descended toward the ground about 2.7 miles from the airport, just short of that thick housing development. “The witness immediately responded to the accident site where he found the airplane engulfed in flames.”

In my Flying story, I told readers I thought when Brad purposely forced the old warbird into the ground to avoid inflicting harm to anyone on the ground. After reading this NTSB report, I stand by that conclusion. The evidence seems to point strongly to an engine calamity of some kind aboard N9145 in those final minutes. Was that power loss linked to the metal the mechanic discovered during his inspection just a few days before? We’ll probably need to wait for the final report to know for certain.

But what will haunt me to the end of my days Brad, is why in the world you flew the airplane knowing there was a potential engine problem lying in wait for you somewhere along the way? It was just an airport-day display at New Braunfels. Was it worth risking your life or the lives of anyone who might have been near had the accident occurred earlier during the trip? I’ll bet you didn’t think of that. When the engine started sputtering, you still had flat ground beneath you. Why did you try to stretch the glide to Skylark? Sure you might have torn up the airplane during the gear-up landing you would have probably made short of the airport, but you would have probably survived to tell us all on the next Airplane Geeks episode how you almost made the wrong decision.

Guess none of us will ever know for sure why you forgot that airplanes can be repaired, but often not people. RIP buddy. Your friend, Rob