My Second Trip to Sun-n-Fun


Friday, April 12, 1996

Winter had really sucked. Sixty plus inches of snow had fallen from sixteen separate snowstorms. By April I was so damn tired of shoveling snow I was ready to sell the house and move to Ecuador. This would be my second trip to Sun-n-Fun in my S-7. Bill Hass was flying my wing and it would be his fourth consecutive trip to Sun-n-Fun in his S-6.

This year, instead of my 7.5 gallon auxiliary fuel tank, my 220 pound 6'4" brother would occupy the rear seat. Last years' trip proved that I really didn't need 5 hours of range when I only had a 3 hour butt. My brother and I are no lightweights. Between Steve, me and a full tank of gas we were already thirty pounds over gross, so we did everything we could to save weight. We absolutely had to have two gallons of oil and a tool bag. But everything else was cut to the bone. Clothing consisted of only the absolute essentials, shorts and a few T-shirts and those we packed in plastic Giant grocery bags. We even considered breaking off the handles of our tooth brushes to save weight. After all the scrimping we still ended up about 100 lbs over gross. To make matters worse I had Ron Weiskopf change out the Rotax crankshaft for the newer 618 style in December. Because of all the snow I had only managed to get about an hour of running time on it and I was a bit nervous about that.

As usual I was glued to the weather channel 24 hours a day for about a week prior to departure. They were predicting four inches of snow the day before we were supposed to leave and I swore that if it snowed one more time I was calling the Realtor. As it turned out the snow storm ended up being a cold soaking rain. And just like last year the day of departure turned out to be pretty decent. We were forecast to have headwinds all the way, but no significant weather. Steve and I blasted off around 11:00am Friday morning into cool, overcast skies. We rendezvoused with Bill Hass at Tappahanock Airport about 40 miles south of Benedict where we both topped off for the first leg.

The forecasters weren't kidding about the headwinds. We had em. About twenty miles an hour worth right on the nose. We both bitched about the headwinds and hunted for better air higher and lower. It was blowing harder higher up and was rougher than a cob lower. The 75 mph ground speed completely shot two weeks worth of flight planning all to hell. I didn't even think we could make the first planned fuel stop. One good thing though, the lousy progress we were making took my mind off the brand new crankshaft that was spinning its brains out in the lower part of my engine.

This first leg was the longest, and I decided to push it to the first planned fuel stop. When we landed at Harnett County, North Carolina about two hours and forty-five minutes later I calculated that I had 31 minutes of gas remaining. Legal or not that's too close for my comfort. It was warm and humid in North Carolina. A nice change from the cold, overcast Maryland we just left. We filled the gas and oil tanks and drained about four gallons of coffee from our bladders and were airborne again in fifteen minutes. I realized we were in trouble the moment we left the runway. As soon as I broke ground the rpm dropped to 5400 and would not go any higher. We hung there, at 45 mph, about twenty feet above the trees, neither climbing nor descending, Rotax screaming its guts out. I knew the problem was a partially stalled prop. It was fine during the test flight in December. Of course that was at 45o and with only me in the plane. At a hundred pounds over gross and a warm, humid day it was just too much for the little two banger to handle. Once the trees thinned out I traded what little altitude I had for some airspeed. As the plane picked up speed the prop took hold and I managed to maintain a feeble cruise climb. I would definitely have to tweak the prop before we got to Florida.

Our next fuel stop was supposed to be Walterboro, South Carolina, but the headwinds got worst the farther south we went and forced us to stop early. We landed at an airport called Lake City, South Carolina a little after 5:00pm. It was a quiet little place set on the edge of a vast lake resort area. We wandered around for awhile and it suddenly became apparent why it was so quiet. The place was closed. Actually it was in the process of closing. We were lucky enough grab the FBO girl just as she was locking the doors for the night and talked her into turning on the pumps for us. Lucky break for us. Five minutes later and we'd have spent the night on the ramp. We both tanked up for final leg of the day to Walterboro. It was even warmer here than it had been in North Carolina and the prop was giving me fits. I had to circle the airport a couple of times before I had enough altitude to cross the lake. I liked the higher cruise speed, but damn, it took forever to get to altitude.

We were only about forty-five minutes from Walterboro and we still had plenty of daylight left. In fact I knew it would absolutely kill Bill to land with any kind of daylight remaining. Bill would rather fly until it was pitch black and sleep in a cow pasture than waste one second of flyable daylight. But we had been fighting the winds and turbulence for about six hours and I was ready to call it quits for the day and find a cold beer. As we entered the pattern at Walterboro, South Carolina I recognized the voice on unicom. It was Lloyd. Lloyd was as old as dirt and had been a fighter pilot in the Pacific in WWII. He was a bonafide ace in Hellcats with seven kills to his credit. Lloyd always had a story to tell. He never shut up and he never told the same story twice. I'd never seen a person who could talk as much as Lloyd. He was a fixture at Walterboro Airport and had been my companion for two days when I was weathered in coming back from Lakeland last year. Lloyd radioed "welcome home" to us as we were taxiing to the ramp. I figured he was just being nice. There was no way he could have remembered me with all the traffic that comes and goes here. I was wrong. At 75+ years old Lloyd was still sharp as a tack. Not only did he remember me from last year, but while we were still on approach, and without being asked, Lloyd had called and reserved us the last two hotel rooms in town. What a guy.

While Bill was tying down I pulled off the cowling and tweaked the prop. Bill suggested that pulling the pitch back about a quarter bubble would do it. He was absolutely right. With that little adjustment the Rotax just screamed and held 6300 rpm and a 600 fpm climb even in Florida's heat and a hundred pounds over gross. Cruise was down slightly, but what the hell, we weren't making any time anyway.

One of the friendly FBO staff drove us to the famous Thunderbird hotel where I had spend two days last year. Russ Keil was still the owner/manager and had turned away a line of people trying to get the last two rooms when Lloyd had called on our behalf. Hey, do these people take care of pilots or what? I swear I'm gonna retire here someday.

Being settled in for the night we all decided to sample a little of South Carolina's seafood. We had dinner at a grimy looking dump across from the hotel that I just knew by the looks of things was going to give me dose of the bloody, screaming shits the next day. We were served by a fat old broad with hairy armpits that huffed and puffed when she walked. She had so much food and grease stuck to her apron that a family of Haitian refugees could've lived for a week off of it. She complained that she was about ready to close, but served us anyway. Everywhere we went everybody was always closing. I guess these people in the south live a slower life than we do in the Washington D.C. area. As it turned out the food was pretty good and it all stayed where it was supposed to. Good thing too, because the next day was going to be bumpy and slow.

Saturday, April 13, 1996

The next morning we blasted off a little before 9:00am with the winds aloft still blowing the wrong way. If anything they were stronger than yesterday. It was depressing to watch tractor trailer rigs pass you going up hill. While I stayed at 2,500, Bill went looking for smoother air and friendlier winds. He tried above 3,500 then tried below 1,500. It was the same anywhere he went. We finally resigned ourselves to just sit back and enjoy the scenery. We were going to be looking at it for a long time.

After what seemed like an eternity we finally saw the Atlantic Ocean coming into view. We squeezed between the Savanna, Georgia class B airspace and the coast line. This was the only part of the flight neither of us liked. There's absolutely nothing but salt marsh for about an hour (well an hour and a half at our ground speed of 70). In an emergency you could probably put down safely on the bits of semi-dry land, but it would take the rest of your life to walk anywhere inhabited by people. That is if the snakes and mosquitos didn't get you first. We were both anxious to get to the coast line. We'd had so much fun flying the little fifteen mile stretch of beach last trip that this year I'd planned on a beach run of about 170 miles. Once we picked up the coast line we dove for the beach and broke out the video cameras. As we passed through about 100 AGL the turbulence suddenly quit and it became smooth as glass. As we leveled out at ten feet over the beach almost all of the headwind suddenly vanished as well. We were scooting along right over the surf at over 85 mph! Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

We ran the first stretch of beach from just south of Savannah, Georgia all the way to Malcom McKinnon, Georgia dodging beach debris, small herds of wild horses, and generally having more fun than God intended any man to have with his clothes on. At six miles from our next refueling stop I called Bill and told him we oughta climb and find the airport. He begged for just a few more miles on the deck. He didn't have to convince me, this was just way too much fun. When the GPS read two and a half miles and started counting back up I said "We gotta go up! We're passing the airport!" I pulled back on the stick and found myself immediately on downwind. Woah! Downwind to a pretty busy airport I might add. I'd never heard of a pattern entry from the middle of the field and ten feet off the deck, but we just improvised our way into the pattern. We landed feeling almost drunk from the adrenalin high of the last sixty minutes on the deck at 85 mph.

The local EAA chapter was hosting a free breakfast and cheap gas for all Sun-n-Fun'ers. As everybody knows sport pilots never have any money and will always take a free meal. As I stuffed my pockets with plastic bags and headed for the free coffee and pancakes we noticed a nice looking Ryan PT-26 landing. I remarked that it looked a lot like Tom Bayne's airplane. The Ryan came to a stop and out hopped none other than Tom Bayne, World War II flying outfit and all. Tom was flying to Lakeland with his fiancee who was also decked out head to toe in WWII clothing. Now he doesn't find these women walking around town wearing these outfits. Somehow Tom manages to talk all his women into wearing this stifling, wool WWII stuff in the hottest weather. I don't know how he does it, but I bet its got something to do with his anatomy.

We ate our fill of free pancakes, drank some free coffee and shot the breeze with Tom for awhile. The place was humming with activity as mostly GA types were passing through heading for Sun-n-Fun. Tom had the only warbird and I believe Bill and I had the only homebuilts on the entire airport. The rest were spam cans.

Spam can drivers are a funny bunch. All of them are experts and know everything there is about aviation (just ask one). They can usually quote the FAR's, argue about the correct procedure to use with ATC and know the POH by heart. And to a man (or woman) they are probably bored to death with flying. This is because they really aren't flying anymore. They're too high to see the ground as anything more than a featureless green mat. They're too busy playing with all their buttons, switches and dials and talking to ATC to look outside anyway. Spam can drivers are generally a snobbish bunch of boring pricks. I know. I used to be one.

Finally we couldn't stand it any longer. Both of us wanted to get back on the beach. We jumped in the airplanes and fired up. Well almost. Bill's fired up, but I flooded mine and we ended up spending about thirty minutes replacing the plugs (I hate it when that happens).

We finally got airborne and headed immediately back to the beach. The plan was to stay on the deck all the way to Flager County, Florida (another 120 miles) and make our last refueling stop there before heading to Lakeland. The beach was a little more populated along this section. In some spots it was just plain crowded with people. Everybody wanted to wave at us. Especially the kids. They would hear us coming and splash out into the surf jumping up and down and waving their arms frantically. We'd wave back and they would jump up and down and look back at their parents screaming. I could just imagine them saying..."Mom, Dad they waved back!" Our arms got tired waving at all the kids. Who knows? Maybe we inspired some of them to become pilots that day.

At one point we were flying along at about 25-30 feet on a section of beach that was pretty deserted. Suddenly I spotted a single person walking along the dunes. As I flew past I noticed it was a guy. I could tell because he was totally naked! Bill who was flying trail verified my observation. Yep! naked guy alright, must be over a nude beach. Whoa! That posed some possibilities! We really started paying attention at this point. We only spotted one other nude worshiper of the sun, who also turned over to be a guy. Bummer. We must've been on the wrong beach because the radio was filled with chatter about all the babes somewhere called Coconut Beach. Wherever the hell Coconut beach was it wasn't where we were.

We were having so much fun parting the sand and chasing horses we almost didn't see this huge tanker pulling out of an inlet. As we pulled up to clear the tanker Bill asked what all that concrete was a couple of hundred feet to our right. I looked and saw a large 27 painted on the ground. Boy that sure looks like a runway. Boy that sure looks like an aircraft carrier floating there. Boy that sure looks like a control tower. Holy shit! Not only had we violated Mayport Naval Air Station's airspace, but we had violated the hell out of. I mean we were damn near over the approach end of the fucking runway! I was having so much damn fun I forgot to call. Too late now. Never confess your sins to your wife or ATC! We both floored it and headed for the deck. We put the planes into a slip to hide the numbers in case the tower was using binoculars to figure out who the hell we were. We leaned on the throttles and didn't slow down until we were ten miles south. I felt stupid for the blunder. I mean, hell we could've been creamed by an A-6 or something. Bill said he should have been paying more attention too. We both flogged ourselves for awhile. Bill cautioned that we shouldn't mention the name of the next airport we were going to land at just in case. I thought that was a pretty good idea. Despite how remote the possibility, I didn't relish the thought of having a friendly FAA civil servant waiting for me as I taxied up for gas. For the rest of this leg our next refueling stop was code named Havana, Cuba.

In a few minutes we were dipping and weaving all over the beach and we both forgot about it. We finally landed at Flager County after another half hour of splendid, low level, high speed, aerial beach combing. We tanked up with gas for the final leg to Lakeland. It was with great reluctance that our route of flight took us away from the coast. We were up at altitude fighting headwinds and mild turbulence. Life sucked once again. An hour and a half later we had Lakeland in sight. We felt a little better when we spotted all the poor spam can drivers doing endless laps around Lake Palmer waiting for ATC to give them a call. We thumbed our nose, dropped to five hundred feet and sneaked into the ultralight side of the field. Final was over the Pepsi plant today and we touched down on the sacred soil that is Lakeland Linder Airport at 11:30am on April 13th.

The nice thing about arriving at Sun-n-Fun the day before it officially starts is that it gives you a chance to see things without the crowds. We wandered around Paradise City for several hours and didn't see anything really new. By 5pm we were ready to head back to the hotel, so we saddled up and took off for Winterhaven where we had hotel reservations and a rental car waiting.

The arrival at Winterhaven wasn't nearly as bad as it was last year. Still there was plenty of traffic to watch for. We landed and taxied to the same parking spots we had last year. It took forever to get a gas truck. There was a waiting list you had to put your name on and I think we were like one million or one million and one, something like that. We also had to wait for the rental car lady so we weren't going anywhere anyway. While we were doing all this waiting I whipped out my trusty portable phone to call the hotel to make sure our reservations were still there. No, I didn't use the pay phone at the FBO and pay a quarter for the local call. I had to use my high tech mobile phone and call standing next to my airplane, because I was cool you see? I found out a month or so later that little one minute phone call had cost me nine dollars! They must've routed my call around Jupiter for Gods sake! I guess I'll have to be un-cool from now on. I don't have the money to be that cool.

We finally got a gas truck and picked up our rental car and found the hotel. We had made plans to meet Buddy and Woody (two guys from our club) at the Outback Steak House in Lakeland. We had just enough time to shower some of the sweat and grime off and grab some clean clothes. Then we were back in the car for the 45 minute ride to Lakeland.

We found Buddy and Woody half shit faced already at a table. They had apparently just been seated, but had passed the two and a half hour wait by devouring a whole bloomin' onion and a bottle of scotch. Our waitress was cute, the poor thing. Nothing worse than a table full of drunk pilots away from home. We made up for our boisterous behavior by leaving a generous tip.

On the way back to the hotel Bill said he had to have some ice cream. Dairy Queen, Highs, Seven-eleven he didn't give a shit, but he had to have an ice cream. We pulled into the only place that still had lights on and by a stroke of luck they had a freezer full of goodies. Stopping at that little place for some ice cream after dinner became our nightly ritual while at Sun-n-Fun. By the time we got back to the hotel we were all pretty well played out. I don't think anybody said anything. All you heard was shoes and pants hitting the floor followed by heavy snoring.

Sunday, April 14, 1996

The official opening day of Sun-n-Fun. I don't know if this place has a curse on it or what, but just like last year there was a heavy fog on opening day. Last year we made the mistake of driving to Sun-n-Fun only to see the fog lift about a half hour after we had arrived. This time we just hung around the FBO and waited. In Florida when the fog starts to lift it just vanishes, almost in the blink of an eye. When we started seeing blue patches through the fog we yanked out the tie-downs and started warming up the airplanes. By the time we were ready to go there was blue sky everywhere with patches of low scud rolling across the airfield. We took off and headed southwest towards Lakeland. Everything was fine for a couple of miles. But it wasn't fine over the city of Lakeland. The visibility went completely to shit as we penetrated the edge of a fog bank. There was almost zero forward visibility, but you could still see the ground. I didn't think it was particularly dangerous, but the situation definitely had my attention. Bill radioed and asked what I thought about things. I told him that if gets any worse I was turning around, but at the moment things just sort've sucked a little bit. About that time we popped out on the other side of the fog and Lakeland lay right in front of us clear as a bell.

Bill mentioned something about jet traffic and before I could ask him to say again a Gulfstream III bizjet passed directly over us by about 50 feet. I mean you could see the rivets on this sucker he was so close. I waited to feel his wake turbulence, but it never came. I don't know if the pilots of the G-III ever saw us that morning. Probably not. They were probably on an IFR flight plan, in and out of the soup and figured they were the only ones in the sky, because no one would be stupid enough to fly VFR in this kind of shit. Oh well, that's why I carry a BRS chute.

As usual the ultralight pattern at Lakeland was alive with Kolbs, amphibs, powered parachutes and all manner of shit. Having learned our lesson last year trying to be nice guys, we just picked out a spot and butted in line. I know that sounds bad. But honest to God if you try to be a nice guy about it you'll spend hours doing circles waiting for some jerk to leave you an opening large enough to slip into. We landed and hid our planes at the far end of the field so Randy or John Schlitter wouldn't see them. Last year they had insisted on us parking our planes in front of the RANS booth, on the other side of the snow fence. At first I thought this was an honor. Eventually I realized that it was just free advertizing for the RANS guys at my expense. The great unwashed ended up using my airplane for everything from a shady place to park their fat ass to using the horizontal stab to set their cokes on. I about had a coronary over that the previous year. I mean for chrissake this little airplane had to get my ass all the way back to Maryland. So anyway that's why we hid the planes at the far end of the field.

I had previously arranged to meet up with another S-7 builder, Randy Beachler, in front of the RANS booth. Randy lived in Ohio and he and I had been in contact with each other for the past three years, trading ideas and swapping stories about the S-7. We usually met at Sun-n-Fun each year. Sure enough, he showed up at the appointed time along with two friends. We made arrangements to meet for dinner that evening.

Steve and I wandered all over the ultralight side of the field trying to find the SVS-1400 four stroke engine from the Chech Republic. I had discovered this two cylinder engine about six months previously while surfing the internet and had talked to the designer. Steve and I were anxious to see it in the flesh. We must've walked 30 miles that day, but never found it. In the meantime I came across a really neat set of strobes from Kutzleman. These were wing tip style double flash units. I drooled over them for two days before I finally parted with $228 and took a set home with me.

There really didn't seem to be anything new this year. Some guy with obviously too much money and nothing to do had mounted a jet engine on a Mitchell B-10 flying wing. That made about as much sense as a confessional in a whore house. What the hell can you do with an airplane with a ten minute range? We did manage to stumble across the guys that were developing the Aero line of twin cylinder, four stroke engines. These things were really a work of art. The 85 hp model was only 90 pounds and was designed to drop right into an existing 582 engine mount. Plus they all used parts you could but from any hot rod place. Somehow I liked that idea better than having an engine made in Lower Slobovia or whatever.

We milked the day for all it was worth. When they put the green flag up signaling the all clear to fly after the air show was over we were ready to head back Winterhaven. We met Randy Beachler and his two friends later that evening at some Italian joint just up the street from the Outback. The food was ok, and they gave you two free beers with your meal. Now these guys know how to attract pilots. After dinner we had our customary ice cream stop to finish off the evening.

Monday, April 15, 1996

Unlike the previous day, Monday dawned sunny and clear, however thunderstorms were forecast for later in the day. We discussed taking the car to the show rather than flying, but Bill was having none of that. No way he was going to sit for hours in a line of cars, then stand for hours getting tickets. He had a point. So we flew in again. Flying to Sun-n-Fun definitely has its advantages. Not only is it faster, but you know all those people sitting in the line of cars are hating life. Besides, if all you're going to do is hang around Paradise city you don't even have to pay for a flight line pass.

Having taken in the sights of Paradise City yesterday Steve and I were going to spend the day on the other side of the field checking out all the vendors. We decided to be honest about it and purchase a pass rather than trying to sneak to the other side of the field. While we were buying passes Bill rented an electric cart. I failed to mention that Bill had surgery on his knee only eight days before the trip. He could fly ok, but standing and walking gave him a problem. The electric cart was worth the money.

We started at the first indoor vendors building and finished up the last building about three or four hours later. After the first couple of buildings it gets to the point where you start seeing the same thing over and over again. Bill and I both had all the avionics we needed and we didn't see any new whiz-bang, gotta have toys so basically we just wandered in and out of the buildings looking at the same stuff we saw last year and the year before that. It was kind've a bust. We wandered around some of the parked experimentals and saw a few neat things. One guy had mated a modified Breezy airframe to a Bell 47 bubble. It looked like some kind of grotesque mutated sperm cell with wings. But I bet the guy had good viz.

They started the airshow, but we had gotten bored from that stuff years ago and since nothing else really attracted our attention we went on back over to Paradise City. Steve and I still had not found the SVS- 1400 engine that was supposed to be here. It was the primary reason we came to Sun-n-Fun this year. We figured the guy had just not made it to the show.

True to the forecast some dangerous looking storm clouds were starting to roll in from the west. Suddenly everything was a dark grey and the wind really started whipping. They canceled the airshow because of the high winds and closed the field. Great. Now how the hell do we get back to the hotel? I moved my airplane down to the opposite end of the field so I could make a fast get away in case things improved. Of course then the wind switched and I was at the wrong end. I started seeing the spam cans blasting off from the main runway. One every couple of seconds. It looked like a scramble at Mig alley. Apparently they were letting the GA guys get out ahead of the storm. I flagged down one of the officials and asked if I could get the hell out of there. He told me that the field was closed to ultralights because of the winds. I explained to the guy that I was an "N" numbered experimental aircraft, not an ultralight and if the GA guys could leave why in the hell couldn't I? The guy made a call to the tower and got clearance for me to depart. About that time Bill Hass and Steve came wandering around the corner. By this time the wind was really howling. We practically had to scream to hear each other. I told Bill to crank up we getting clearance from the tower to leave. He hauled ass to his plane as fast as his crippled leg would allow. Steve and I yanked up the tie downs and jumped in the airplane to keep it on the runway. I got a signal from the lineman to go ahead and crank. By now a significant crowd had formed to watch the impending crash of two idiots departing in a full blown gale. I was sure we were going to get our guts shaken out once we were airborne so I tightened my belts so tight I could hardly breathe. Bill checked in on freq and asked if it was ok to go. I looked at the official and made a gesture of "well?" He was obviously listening to the tower over the radio and held up his hand to wait. Suddenly he jabbed his finger into the sky telling me to "go for it" and shook his head yes. I gunned the engine and pulled out of the parking space giving them a little salute of thanks as I went by. I called Bill and told him I was taxiing his way for departure and we had clearance to go. The snow fence was about three deep in onlookers by now all waiting for our takeoff. I felt like we were the airshow, and I guess in a way we were. The coolant was hot by the time I reached the end of the runway. Bill was ready. I pulled the belts just a little tighter and floored it. As soon as the airplane came off the ground all hell broke loose. I was everything but straight and level. We were really rocking and rolling and for a minute I thought I had just made the stupidest move in my life by taking off in this shit. But once we were above the trees it smoothed out. Turning towards Winterhaven I picked up a 20 mph tailwind and was clocking 110 mph over the ground. Ya-hoo! We made Winterhaven in about twelve minutes and landed without incident. We were just tying down when the rain started. And man did it pour. Bill and I had brought our own tie downs, but we rented another set from the FBO just to make sure the planes were still there when we came back in the morning. We finally got everything secured and we all dived into the car soaking wet and laughing like hell. Talk about milking a day for all it was worth. We did.

Tuesday, April 16, 1996

Tuesday morning still had a low broken to overcast deck hanging over the airport. But Bill was in his "I'm going home mode." I had found out last year that when Bill gets it in his mind that he's leaving, there isn't a hell of a lot that can stop him except maybe a .357 magnum bullet. I knew Bill was a little anxious about the weather so while he was packing his stuff I gave his airplane a thorough preflight. One of those preflights you make when your 80 year old grandmother is about to go up with you. I snapped a picture of Bill as he was climbing into his plane and again as he took off. I mean you never know. The way Bill pushes the weather it might be the last time you ever see the guy.

Steve and I decided to drive to Sun-n-Fun today because we wanted to stay for the club party later that night and I couldn't fly the plane after dark since it wasn't equipped for night operations. By Wednesday the crowds had thinned significantly. We zipped right into the parking lot and walked right up to an empty booth to buy our tickets. No wait, no hassle.

Steve and I had decided to go to Choppertown to see if the SVS-1400 engine display was located with the rotorcraft guys. We caught a tram rather than walk. It was a pretty good hike. Better than a mile. While we were there some guy was hovering a little single place helicopter with an APU jet engine. As we watched, the helicopter suddenly dropped the two to three feet to the ground and rolled over on its side, throwing blades and dirt all over the place. The pilot scrambled out of the side window apparently unhurt and ran a few steps away from the ruined helicopter apparently worried about fire. A couple of people ran over to help the poor guy, but he was all right. Five minutes later every siren at Lakeland was going off and about a million vehicles, fire trucks, ambulances and God knows what all came pouring onto the field. A little late if you ask me.

Since Chopper Town was obviously closed for the foreseeable future Steve and I decided to head on back to Paradise City. We waited for the tram for awhile, but eventually we said to hell with it and started walking. Along the way we spotted some twins with vortex generators all over them. Since I had already ordered two sets of VG's for my S-7 I was curious about proper placement. We got out some paper and measured the exact placement and angle of a couple of different planes for future reference.

We made it back to Paradise City after a long, hot and dusty walk. We went in through a gate we rarely used and low and behold there was the SVS-1400 engine. We must've passed the damn thing about a hundred times in the past three days. We crawled all over it for about an hour taking pictures and videos. We didn't bump into Milan Stavnek, the company president, until late in the day. We had a pretty good talk with him about the engine and Steve and I were initially impressed..

Most of the activity was winding down for the day. Steve and I hung out around the club tent. Drank a few beers and shot the breeze. Buddy Carlisle and Ron Raum came back from flying the Titan Tornado and Buddy was just in love with it (Buddy was in love with everything he didn't own yet). He ranted and raved about what a nice machine it was for several minutes. Titan fever had suddenly swept through the club in the past few weeks. Three or four guys were talking about buying Titans. I thought they would be sorry after the initial fascination wore off. The damn thing was just plain little! I couldn't see where you could ever have a serious cross country airplane, no matter how fast it went if you could only carry ten gallons of gas, had nothing but a back seat for cargo space and had a panel so small you didn't have room to hang anything on it. Finally the club party we had been waiting for started. It was kind of pathetic as most parties go. Basically 15 or 20 guys gorged themselves on food for about half an hour to forty-five minutes then everybody left to go to bed. You call that a party? Steve and I left to find the car, stumbling around in the dark trying to keep from knocking the shit outt've ourselves on a wing tip or tripping over a tie down stake on the ground. We talked about the merits of the SVS-1400 engine and how it would fit into the S-7 all the way home.

Wednesday, April 17, 1996

Today we were leaving for home. The day was sunny and beautiful. If only Bill had waited another 24 hours, he wouldn't have almost gotten killed on the way home. We didn't know this at the time, but about a week after we had got back Bill called to tell us of his adventure. Apparently he was almost home and had been dodging small rain shafts most of the way. He had a headwind (what else?) And was running out of daylight. Rather than go around this last rain shaft, he decided to fly right on through it to save time. It was pretty small, he said, and he could see right through it. What he couldn't see were the intense vertical currents associated with rain falling from the bottom of a thunderstorm. As Bill put it..." one minute I was flyin' along the next minute I was being sucked up into the bottom of the cloud." Bill said he had power off, nose pointing towards the ground and his VSI was maxed out, meaning he was exceeding two thousand feet per minute up. Just as he was about to penetrate the cloud base he said he felt like he was slapped by a giant hand. He had been slammed by the down draft. Bill was at full power and best rate of climb speed and heading for the ground at fifteen hundred feet per minute. There was absolutely nothing he could do about it. The down draft hit him so hard he said his flight bag slammed up against the skylight so hard he thought it would bust the lexan and go sailing off into space. About this time he figured he was dead. Four hundred feet above the ground he flew out the side of the down draft and it let him go. A shaken Bill Hass then proceeded to his home field and landed without further incident, giving all the other innocuous little rain shafts a wide birth. He had been lucky he flew into a very small, mild wind shear. A full blown thunderstorm would've ripped the wings off the tiny RANS and spit out the debris into the trees.

Not to sound like "I told you so", but Steve and I departed into beautiful, clear blue skies about 24 hours later. We saw the coolest thing. There was still small areas of ground fog, mainly in the low lying areas. We spotted a large round depression in the ground filled with fog. The surface winds were spilling the fog over the edges and dragging it downwind. It looked like a giant cereal bowl with sugar spilling out of it. We also saw a few hot air balloons. We passed right over one in fact.

Half way to Flager County, our first refueling stop, I had to piss so bad my eyeballs were floating. I asked Steve if he had anything I could use. He drank the last mouthfull of water outt've a water bottle and passed it to me. Now this was one of those spring water bottles with the real small openings. The size of a Coke bottle. Have you ever tried stuffing the head of your dick into one of these things while flying an airplane? It ain't easy, let me tell you. I asked Steve to take the controls while I shifted around and tried to position my...well, myself over the tiny opening of this damn water bottle. We had a little light chop and just about when I was relaxing to let go a quart or two we'd hit a bump and the head of my dick would pop out and I'd have to pinch it off to keep from peeing all over the airplane. It was hell! After about a half hour of struggling I finally managed to drain my bladder. I handed Steve back the water bottle half full and warm. "Here, hold this." I said. "What the hell am I supposed to do with this?" he asked. Jesus you'd think he was holding an open jar of radioactive toxic waste or something. We debated throwing the whole bottle out the window, but I was afraid I'd kill someone. I could just see the headlines..."MAN KILLED BY LARGE PLASTIC BOTTLE OF URINE. DNA TESTING CONTINUES..." Besides I might need the bottle again before we stopped.

We landed at Flager County and filled up with gas. Steve bought a few goodies for the family at the gift shop they had at the FBO. Ya gotta bribe the family with gifts ya know. That way you increase you chances of getting to go again. We took off and headed straight for the beach. For some reason flying the beach wasn't quite as much fun by ourselves than when Bill was with us. But it was still a helluva lot more fun than flying at three thousand feet. Steve shot some excellent video over my shoulder.

We pulled away from the beach when we came off our second refueling stop at Malcom Mckinnon, Georgia. I didn't know if it was my imagination or not, but the engine seemed to be acting funny. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but it just didn't feel right. About the time we were crossing the dreaded salt marshes near Savannah the engine started to surge. It would speed up then slow down, speed up, slow down. Oh lordy, lordy. Please don't let this thing quite now. Now I knew it wasn't my imagination. We were definitely having some kind of problem. Sweat started to trickle down my back. My eyeballs jumped from landing spot to landing spot. There weren't many places to land so I decided to press on to our next fuel stop which was good old Walterboro, South Carolina. When we landed and I pulled the cowling what I saw almost made my knees buckle. The rotary valve oil bottle was completely dry. The oil line still had oil in it, and there was almost a half quart in the engine itself, so I was pretty sure I had not sustained any engine damage, but I had never seen the bottle completely empty. What I did not know at the time was that the bottle nipples had narrowed due to the clamping pressure I had applied. The original Rotax oil lines had started leaking last year and I had replaced them with high quality 3/8 inch oil line. The problem was the Rotax oil lines were metric, not 3/8's. The replacement line was oil tight for the first year, but as the bottle nipple had narrowed the lines became progressively more leaky, until finally all the oil just blew right out of the bottle. It was a classic case where higher quality was actually bad. I filled up the oil reservoir and took a socket wrench to the clamps. I got about another half turn on them. I would have to check the bottle every time we stopped for gas.

We were racing the sun to get home in one day. With the headwinds and the time it took to fix the oil problem the sun was winning. What I didn't want to happen was to have the sun set and be only a hundred or so miles from home. But I was not going to press it either. We would just go as far as we could and then stop.

Our new route of flight took us directly over the Raleigh-Durham TCA. Rather than waste time going around we climbed to 4,500 to get above it. It was already cold, but at 4,500 we were absolutely freezing our asses off. Plus we were loosing the sun and the added warmth it gave us through the skylight. Steve grabbed our lightweight jackets out of the baggage compartment and we both managed to struggle into them. It helped a little, but it was getting colder the farther north we went. Another reminder that Old Man Winter wasn't quite finished with the northeast.

Dillon, South Carolina was our next fuel stop, and we both put on our winter coats. It must've been in the high 50's or low 60's on the ground. We passed right over South-of-the-border on our climb out. At this point I wasn't sure if we were going to make it to Benedict before it got too dark to fly or not. I kept watching the ground speed. If I could keep it in the 80's we would just about make it.

We needed to make one more refueling stop to make it to Benedict. It was around six or six thirty in the late afternoon and I was concerned that the next intended fuel stop would be closed by the time we got there. It was still about 40 miles off, but I tried calling anyway. There was no response. Now I wasn't sure if they were closed, or they just couldn't hear me. There was an airport just 15 miles ahead, but a few miles off course. If I could get fuel there we could still make Benedict non-stop. Being conservative in nature I made a command decision. If they were open I was going to land and fill up. I called. The FBO was closing in thirty minutes. I asked them to hold the fuel truck for me I was ten minutes away. We refueled for the final time at Halifax County airport in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. It was a beautiful little place next to a river. As we took off for the final leg home Steve remarked how different things always looked every time we landed and took off again. It's true. It almost seems like a different day even being on the ground for only 15 or 20 minutes.

We didn't waste time climbing to altitude. There wasn't any need. We passed over endless fields and sod farms. We leveled at 1,500 just to give us a measure of protection against flying into tall towers. The ground speed at that altitude was about 85mph. It was going to be close, but it looked like we would make it. Steve shot a beautiful panorama from one wing tip to the other. The sun was setting over the Appalachian mountains. There was some cloud cover to the west and it was getting darker faster because of that. It was also cold. By the time the Potomac River came into view the sun was long since gone and we were operating in that half hour of legal twilight that having strobes allowed. Shitty strobes though they were. I couldn't wait to install the Kutzleman's. Steve was still filming as we came up on Benedict. When he took the camera away he was surprised at how dark it actually was. The camera was so good that it gave him a better picture than the naked eye. He joked about letting me use the camera to land with if I needed it. In another fifteen minutes I would've taken him up on it. The little extra ground speed we got by staying low had made the difference. We touched down at Benedict right on the edge of darkness. It must've been around 8:30pm or so. In fact we had to use the headlights from the van to unpack the airplane.


The trip down to Sun-n-Fun had taken 13 hours. We had terrible headwinds on the way down. The trip back had taken only 10.7 hours. We had taken off at 8:00am and landed around 8:30pm stopping five times for fuel and averaging about 20 minutes per stop. Steve had a great trip. I had a great trip. We shot some excellent video, and I didn't want to sit in the damn airplane again for at least a month.

The author is a Commercial pilot with Instrument and CFII ratings. He has worked as a flight instructor, part 135 air charter pilot and Air Traffic Controller in Tower, Center, Approach Control and Flight Service positions both in the Air Force and the FAA. He holds a bachelors degree in Professional Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He owns and fly's a RANS S-7 he built from a kit in 1992. He currently resides in Waldorf, Maryland.

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