Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Told Ya!

t’s often true that out of adversity comes prizes....that life leads you by the hand and takes you places you had never thought you could go but secretly hoped to.

It’s been tough at work. The scramble to safely get the space shuttle flying again has been anything but easy. My workload and responsibilities are at the highest levels they’ve ever been. And rightly so. The Columbia accident happened on my watch. I’m determined to do what I can never to see such a thing happen again, and it’s not only because it’s what I get paid to do. It’s because I have a personal stake in it.

Yet, I have had mixed feelings about this job and living in Houston for quite some time. My heart is in the desert southwest but finding work there has not been easy for me or my wife. Events always seemed to push us back here to Houston, and I kept asking God ?Why?? It was nice I seemed needed at my job at Johnson Space Center; but that is a mixed blessing for me and my charges, my coworkers I am expected to lead. One balances this kind of things with hobbies, something one loves to do. My hobbies have centered lately around computers and video. The problem is that they hold the unrealized potential of becoming a job. Hard to relax at that, especially when I’ve been told the shuttle program has only six more years of life in it. While I project it has ten to twelve, I have no illusions that when the program ends, so does my career. The last twenty years of my life, including the three years I was away from NASA, have been tied up with the space shuttle in one way or the other. It’s where most of my expertise is, and I’ve been around NASA long enough to know the true story. I’ll be too old to be needed once this program winds down. Especially as a contractor, I expect to be unceremoniously put out to pasture.

Which is why the airplane is such a surprise.

Flying has been one of my loves for various reasons, some healthy, some not. I got my private pilot’s license on December 22, 1973. I was in the Navy at the time, an enlisted jet engine mechanic using the Naval Air Station China Lake’s flying club airplanes to do the deed. From there I had gone on to get my commercial license and instrument rating (via the G.I. Bill and the Auburn University School of Aviation), gotten into Navy flight training and wound up in the backseat of an F-14, gone to NASA to train astronauts and learned to fly the space shuttle simulator, all the while plugging through the sky in little airplanes off and on, more off than on sometimes. Over the years, I had developed a love/fear relationship with flying. I sometimes wasn’t sure if I loved it anymore. I kept doing it because whenever I did, I felt better. It was, in essence, another form of therapy and a hidden form of joy...when I wanted to let it be.

For years, I’ve been flying with the Bay Area Flying Club. Located at a now-closed airport first called ?Spaceland? and then ?Houston Gulf?, the club had given me relatively cheap access to Cessna 150’s and 172’s, 200 horsepower Piper Arrow’s, and Grumman Tigers. When Gulf was closed by a developer who bought the place from the Bin Laden family (an ownership that caused a lot of notoriety after 9/11), the club moved out to Clover, an airfield recently renamed ?Pearland Regional? and located between Pearland and Friendswood where my wife and I had bought a house. While out at the clubhouse a few months ago, I noticed a white and blue striped taildragger for sale nearby. It was an easy walk to go check it out. A paper stuck on a window said it was for sale. I really liked the airplane but I assumed I could never afford to buy it. And I was right. But what hadn’t dawned on me then was while I couldn’t afford to buy it, my wife and I could.

The airplane sat and sat, not selling. Was it waiting for me?

I mentioned it to my wife; and much to my surprise, she was all for getting it. She was, in fact, more excited than I was about it. If I had any doubt about being blessed by having a pretty wife that loves to fly, it disappeared. Not only was this something we could do together, but it was something we were looking forward to.

I want to buy this airplane. I feel right about it. Aligned with harmony. I’m cautious, though , because I also know this shiny apple could be hiding rotten meat. As a friend of Connie’s says, ?Friends don’t let friends buy airplanes?. My two closest pilot friends spent between two and five thousand dollars on their airplane’s first annual. Gulp! If we buy this airplane, its annual will be due in December and will cost at least $500. If we suddenly had to recover the airplane, it could cost about $10,000. While the fabric looks in good shape, I’m told the airplane was last recovered in 1982. Good fabric will last between 20 to 30 years, meaning we’re in the window for having it replaced. And there’s also the risk of me losing my medical. While I’m in fair shape, I’m not in good shape because I’m overweight and need to exercise more and change my diet and stressful lifestyle. The airplane’s going to force me to. My medical is due in February 2005. I have no reason to think I wouldn’t pass it, but ?what if??

I flew in the airplane for the first time yesterday. While I didn’t get to perform landings and take-off’s (the riskiest part of a flight in a taildragger) because his insurance woudn't let me fly, I did fly the airplane at altitude for a while, putting her through turns, slow flight, and a take-off stall. I liked how she flew. And he didn't appear to work that hard during the takeoffs and landings. The airplane was a typical short wing Piper. No float even at an approach speed closer to the Piper Arrow than the Cessna 172.

This is an airplane we can afford and one of the few that matches expense with capability. It’s not a great climber. With me and the skinny owner aboard on a 95 degree hot summer day at sea level, we got 400 fpm. But he wasn’t flying at best rate. I believe I could have gotten another 100 fpm out of it. Not great but respectable. Still, we want to go to the Big Bend area with it, something we'll have to do in early spring, winter, or late fall....once I figure out how to keep us from getting shot down or intercepted by the Border Patrol erroneously thinking we're smugglers.

So, what now? The pre-sale inspection is next. I’m still deciding which mechanic to use for that task. I have the insurance quote and I’m going to get AOPA to do a title search. If the title search is clear and the pre-sale inspection doesn't turn up any big ticket surprises, I’ll make the owner an offer. Stay tuned.