Thursday, July 31, 2008

Oshkosh Diary - Day 6

I had to leave Oshkosh very early this morning because of a family emergency. Apparently, my youngest son was held up and robbed at gunpoint at his apartment.

As they say, more as it happens.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oshkosh Diary - Day 5

(Note: Much more is being posted over at Letters from Flyover Country.)

This was "me" day today at Oshkosh. I've got a few things to do and I didn't have any appointments or "deadline" stories to write, so I did whatever I felt like doing. I was going to go to some of the RV-based forums; I blew them all off.

I did put together a little slideshow of RV "art" -- both nose and tail. You can find it here. If you're at the show and you shot a picture of some nose or tail art, I'd like to add it to the slideshow. Please send me a copy.

Many of the things I've been working on, by the way, will be in this week's RV Builder's Hotline, which will probably come out Sunday. I haven't been able to keep up with the various threads online, however. So if you'd like to be 'editor for a week' on the Hotline, all you have to do is send me your five favorite threads of the last two weeks. The Hotline emphasis is on building, so if they could stick to practical building/flying information, that'd be great. It would be a big help to me.

Reality check

You can probably tell by the piece I did on aircraft judging that I've been pretty well wow'd by some of the workmanship of RV airplanes here, almost to the point where it feels like I should go home, and leave the airplane building to the people with talent. It's that good. I knew I needed a lift and so I stopped by the Van's tent to look at their demonstrator models, knowing I'd feel better. This -- my airplane -- is, afterall, a "working man's RV."

Sure enough, the empennage fiberglass tips that the instructions tell you to fill are not filled. That's really all I needed to see, just a confirmation that these planes can fly without a complete investment of my waning years and children's inheritance.

How to survive in a bad economy

Customer service! What part of that don't you get, American businesses. I hold a grudge -- a long grudge -- against companies that provide poor basic service. My wife and I walked into a Norwest Bank (now Wells Fargo) when we moved here. We signed our name on the sign-up sheet, sat down and waited for someone to help us open checking and savings accounts. The reps ate their lunch and ignored us and we left, vowing never to do business with Norwest again. And we never have. And we never will.

You learn a lot about a company by the way they treat you before you've purchased anything. Now, don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying the company I'm about to mention is a bad company; they're not. I'm not saying their product is a bad product; it's decidedly not. In fact, it may be the best value on the market.

But here's why I'm now going to spend my money on the Grand Rapids Sport EFIS package instead of the Dynon. I was the booth today trying to get the lowdown on Dynon's product. I'm pretty near ready to commit to either it or Grand Rapids (Ideally, I'd probably go with Advanced Flight Systems, but it's pretty far out of my financial league): I was 10 seconds away -- 10 seconds away! -- from saying "I'll take it," when the Dynon rep saw somebody he knew and struck up a conversation with him, leaving me to twiddle my thumbs.

Guy, did you come here to sell your product or chew the fat?

A few minutes earlier, I was in the engine monitor-shopping business and had stopped by Grand Rapids' booth. The gentleman who helped me understand their system (and, yes, I know there are more whizbangy systems out there, but this is a really good one) spent about 10 minutes answering my question. If he talked to someone else, it's only because that other person was watching the demonstration and had questions that were valuable to me, too.

He got about $1,400 of my money today. I already knew Grand Rapids' reputation for customer service; this guy reinforced it and he not only got a customer today, he'll have one when I buy the EFIS.

As I said, nothing against Dynon, and I know at airshows there's a lot of folks kicking the tires. But I work hard for my money and I demand the attention of salespeople when they want some of it. Perhaps I looked like a tire-kicker and the guy decided his friend was a better customer. If so, he was wrong.

Composite 101

Among the more valuable things at AirVenture are the short workshops intended to get you used to a building material, whether it's sheet metal, fabric, or fiberglass. One of my goals this year was to go to the composite workshop. Mission accomplished. We made a little laminated sheet that's along the lines of something we'd have brought home from school as kids. But you know, I think 90% of building an airplane is the confidence to do so and I feel a little better about fiberglass now.

On the flight line

I haven't sat down by the side of the flight line along to watch planes go by for years. So I did that today. From my seat I got to see the RV formation flight. It looked pretty bumpy up there and as I've said before I'm not really in to formations, but this was really impressive stuff. Most impressive to me was the overhead break to landing and the sight of four RVs in single file, handling a hellacious cross wind as if it were nothing. And, I'd guess, for these guys, it was nothing. Some of the best pilots in the world are here, and these are a few dozen of them.

I'm sure the RV groups will be littered with pictures of it, but they do it no justice. Only the naked eye and an appreciation for precision as maneuvers change can provide that.

Ardy & Ed's Drive in

Ardy & Ed's drive-in has been ranked as one of America's best. It's not just a throwback to an earlier time -- it has waitresses on roller skates and you can eat in the car if you wish -- it's got great food and it's situation not far from the runway at Oshkosh, you get a steady diet of airplanes while you ruin your diet.

I'd intended to head there this week to hoist a root beer float in honor of the friends who couldn't make it to Oshkosh this year. And so this afternoon, I did.

I elected to have mine inside, at the soda fountain...

The place actually looks really cool at night, all lit up in neon. So, anyway, to all of you who couldn't be here this week, this float's for you.

Judging an RV

Homebuilt judges are busy people at Oshkosh. They'll judge an estimated 800 planes in a week, starting at 8 in the morning going until around 3 in the afternoon. They judge in groups of 3, rotating the individuals so a judge isn't with the same 3 each day. They input the data on a PDA and then download it to a computer which does its thing and spits out the results.

The judges use a point system, awarding a 1-10 score on individual areas such as appearance, fuselage, instrumentation, paint, and power plant and then award an overall score to the airplane.

Armed with this judging standard, I tried my hand at it, selecting the first RV I could find -- there are 400 of them at Oshkosh -- and giving it a good going over. The result? It's better than what I'm building. Join me for the judging.

If you can't see this on your browser, go here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Oshkosh: Day 4 -- I've been thrown out of worse pan-selling shows than this

The oddest moment of Oshkosh this year has nothing to do with aviation at all. A lot of AirVenture actually has nothing to do with AirVenture at all, in fact. AeroShell Square, which is show center, surely is about to renamed Ford Square at the rate that company is taking over things here.

But I was putting together a short multimedia piece, perhaps for my day job, on the sights and sounds of AirVenture, with a perspective on the non-aviation aspects of it. There's people selling ladders, there's Jerry's one-man band, there's the guy with the Flintstone-looking plane that putt-putts around the grounds (the woman who dressed up as a Norse-like cavewoman who would stand on the top and wave is gone, though.

And then there's the Fly Market, where all sorts of interesting characters hawk their wares. Take this guy, for example, the Healthy Gourmet. Apparently he chose that name because The Paranoid Cook was already taken. He was in the middle of his snake oil sales speech sales presentation for, I think, pots and pans when he saw me standing -- not under his tent but in the walkway between booths, taping his talking snake oil pitch sales presentation to a group of women who looked like they were about ready to buy some snake oil overpriced pots and pans to help burn dinner in.

"Hey, you can't record, this is a copyright presentation," he said. Apparently, or so I thought initially, there must be a big market in bootleg tapes of snake oil salesmen pots-and-pans salesmen, standing in front of a suckers little old ladies who actually believe the sign at the front of the room that says "As seen on TV" (but, buddy, not on the Internet!).

I'm used to people not wanting to be taped and so I responded in the way we're taught in obnoxious reporter school. "OK," I said.

So then I took out my camera and took a picture of him and that got him all flustered. He turned to his security force, pointed to me (still standing outside out on the "sidewalk" and said, "Can you....?" not finishing the sentence but I'm pretty sure it wasn't going to but I'm pretty sure it wasn't going to be "... show this dashing young man how well these pots and pans braze chicken."

His security force turned out to be, I believe, his wife, who was charming. I showed her the media credentials hanging around my neck and said "I'm a reporter and I'm credentialed by EAA to come in and tell the story of AirVenture and this is a story I'm doing about the sights and sounds of Oshkosh. "Oh, that's fine," she said. "We've had some problems in the past so...."

Some problems in the past? Hmmmm... is there a Healthy Gourmet competitor out there chasing the guy around from town to town stealing the guy's pitch? Did NBC Dateline catch the guy in some pots-and-pans-salesman sting?

The jet pack

There are lots of airplane wannabees here. Business that have come up with some design for some product that's never going to end up on the market, that has enough venture capital money, I guess, to buy nice shirts, slick marketing kits, and afford a nice booth at Oshkosh. Many of them will draw a crowd, but I'm betting they'll never end up in production.

Here's one. The jet pack. Everyone's talking about. As I understand it you fill it up with gas, strap it on, and fly to work, as long as work is less than a 20-minute jet-pack ride away.

Everyone wanted to see it perform today and -- as the story goes -- they fired it up after an extensive delay, it lifted the guy off the ground a couple of feet, and then settled back to earth.

"Thanks for coming," the guy said.

I'm thinking he and the pots-and-pans guy should meet.

Coming soon: Judging an RV

I couldn't get any of the homebuilt judges to talk to me about judging although I went and found Bob Reese, who is in charge of such things. Bob looks about 45. He's 70, he told me. He pointed out his associated who's been judging for 27 years; he looked to be about 35. He's 51. Clearly there's something of a fountain of youth in this homebuilt airplane judging business.

Bob cleared up for me once and for all, the question of whether covered rivets is a no-no for metal airplanes. It is. If you're going to build a metal airplane, like an RV, and you want to compete for a prize at Oshkosh, do not the rivets. Also, you can't win anything with a great paint scheme. "That doesn't impress us," Bob said.

And so armed with my trusty tape recorder, a camera, and the judging guidelines from Bob, I picked out an RV and went over it closely. It was a wonderful airplane, the construction is clearly better than mine can every hope to be.

I gave it a 8. It'd gotten a better score if he hadn't covered the rivets.

Look for a little multimedia slideshow on the subject soon.


This is James Clark of South Carolina, one of the really interesting people on Planet RV. I ran into him today as he was preparing for a formation flight over Oshkosh. He's a really good guy and I was pleased he remembered me. We've chatted online before and he was kind enough to come to the BBQ last year. The EAA's magazine, Sport Aviation, just did a large article on him. I'd like to think if I hang around, even for a few seconds, with brilliant people, some of it will rub off. It's obvious already this week that this is a flawed dream, but it's a dream nonetheless. Read the article, his is an amazing story.

But this picture here, well, this is what we call "the money shot" in the business. The formation group, I guess, had purchased these hats -- probably from a hat salesman who also didn't want to be recorded or photographed. James said he'd probably look pretty silly in it but I asked to take his picture at which point he gave us a sample of some South Carolina stylin'.

Though the picture is a keeper, it'll grace the top of RV Builder's Hotline this week, I can attest that not only does James' brilliance not rub off on me, neither does his style.

The story behind the story

Meet Jack Beck, his wife Marmy Clason, and Jack's sons, Peter and Johnathan. They're from Germantown, Wisconsin. I sat and chatted with them about the 9A they're building and, well, wow. What a heck of a story! It's so good of a story that I'll probably use it on MPR's News Cut, my day job. It's amazing really that behind every interesting person is an interesting story. It's what makes News Cut go. But I'll be putting the story in the RV Builder's Hotline next week. It involves a leap of faith into homebuilding. The bigger story is one fine people they are and the values that the kids have touched lives as
far away as Nepal.

Going with Trio

Who wants to buy my TruTrak wing leveler system? I bought it for something like $1,500 a few years ago. The servo is installed; everything else is still in the box. I'm going to upgrade to the new Trio product that's shipping in September. You know, it looks like a great product, I know they're great people. Why would I not want to do business with them?

Reamer tips

I stopped over to the ATS Tool booth to talk to owner, Des, about the proper technique for reaming out holes with a, get this, reamer. For the record, I want to step back a couple of years and ream the holes correctly, which is, as he pointed out, by hand, not in a slow-turning (or any other turning) drill. That is all.

Mine is smaller than yours...

I've selected those components I'm willing to pay a premium for, and I'm getting better at putting out of my head, those products that I simply do not need. I do not need to have an IFR capable airplane. I have talked to many IFR pilots here with IFR capable airplanes and the one common theme is, "I don't fly IFR enough to make the investment worth it." Bingo. Anyway, you know those stick grips with the buttons for trim (I have manual trim), autopilot, flaps, DVD, and machine guns that look like the head of one of those jumbo golf clubs? I didn't buy one of those. I bought two grips today with a simple push to talk button. I think even I can install it.

I did stop by the Dynon booth today and I was about to buy, but decided I want to hit the Grand Rapids Technology booth first. Stay tuned.

The Mustang accident

In his very fine Oshkosh daily e-mail yesterday, Bob Miller, who writes a weekly newsletter called Across the Airwaves, talked about going to the NTSB booth to leave some criticism that the NTSB focuses too much on mechanical factors, and not enough about human factors, when issuing reports on accidents.

The irony here is that the NTSB display at Oshkosh, is all about the human factors that went into one of the most spectacular accidents ever -- the crash of a couple of Mustangs a year ago.

It's a gripping display that discusses the human factors of the accident; that is, how long does it take for a human to react to events.

There's a forum on the subject the NTSB is holding, I think Thursday, on the crash. If there are comments left here that expresses a desire for me to go, I will.

The future of AirVenture

Today I stopped in to the EAA booth to hear more about the plans for the future of the AirVenture grounds. I believe an RVer -- Dave Klages -- heads this committee.

I don't envy him and here's why. Something has got to be done about the tremendous vehicle traffic on the grounds. People are walking around looking up of course and sometimes that includes the truck drivers, Gator drivers, and golf cart drivers (of which there are too many). Put bluntly, it stinks. The new plans call for a vehicle-free area (except for golf carts). That's a step in the right direction.

On the other hand, I worry about what they'll do about Camp Scholler. I think EAA is on thin ice here. Granted Porta-Johns, and taking a shower with a kitchen sink hose isn't all that great, most people will say publicly. But, you know? That's part of the Oshkosh experience and this week I've talked to lots of young adults who say they haven't been here since they were kids and they're trying to recapture that.

The words I heard too many times on the subject at the booth was this one: luxury. Luxury showers for one. Is a luxury campground far behind? At its essence, it needs to be a campground and while I get the fact that a lot of spouses don't want to come because of that and while I understand the need for more electrical hookups for those who use generators now, it really wouldn't take much to disturb the equilibrium of the Camp Scholler eco-system.

Aviation is already trying to fight the perception that it's a rich person's game. Even in the RV community, let's admit the obvious: an RV-10 driver really doesn't have that much in common with the RV-12 builder. They're beautiful airplanes that are more Cirrus than Cessna and that's great.

But if EAA is heading toward, as I think Brad Oliver or Chuck Jensen said tonight, a "NASCAR" vibe in the campground, then I think that would be the end of AirVenture as we -- the working crowd -- know it. Let's hope they'll be able to finesse these improvements while maintaining the attraction.

There's much, much, much more than airplanes here.

The following is from earlier today. Let the record show: it didn't rain.

It's a spiritual experience, some aviators say, about coming to Oshkosh. I'm not ready to quite go that far, but in recognition that, yes, AirVenture is a spiritual experience for some people, let us bow our heads in prayer.

Dear Lord:

If I ever start making the old man noises that the guy in the Port-A-Potty next to me is making, please kill me.


This being Oshkosh and all, let me take a stab at this whole "looking at the sunny side of life" thing. It was cloudy this morning, rain of some sort is due, but at least the early morning sun didn't heat up the tent to ridiculous temperatures. Yeah, great, that certainly changes the possibility of a flood-out.

Camping at Oshkosh requires -- nay, demands -- that you suffer through at least one interminable night of rain. There are two problems with this: One is the obvious one that everything you own and were too stupid to put in the car is now useless. The other is the next day people in a camper will tell you, "I didn't have a problem. I'm totally dry." I've got your positive thinking right here, Sparky.

Whether we get that sort of rain today, I don't know. It started out cloudy, the sun has come out, and my wife told me this morning that the weather radio in the Twin Cities went off three times overnight. Maybe -- maybe -- whatever's heading our way went north of us, but that would be very unOshkosh-like.

These experiences of Oshkosh have prepared me a little more since the days when Patrick and I gave up shoveling towels against the tide and headed off to the Mexican restaurant to await our rain-soaked fate.

Are you supposed to spray your tent with some sort of water preservative? Every year I tell myself that I'm going to do that -- if you're supposed to do that -- before the next Oshkosh. Most of the incoming flood comes through the zipper on the door. I'm going to duct tape that up tonight (at least the one on the wind side) and see what happens. I'll have Camp Collins looking like the runup to Hurricane Katrina in no time. And, finally, I'm going to put just about everything in the car except for one pillow and one sleeping bag. I'll let you know what happens.

The other part of the Oshkosh experience is your fellow campers. There's always one guy whose car alarm -- beep.... beep.... beep -- goes off around 5:30 in the morning when he's fishing around for something. Yesterday, I was that guy. I was only good for about 7 beeps, but I was still that guy. Geez.

I've got the crying baby next to me this year. A young couple (obviously) with full camping gear and a crying kid. They've obviously done this before; it's not like most "crying baby families" where it looks like the couple thought it would be a nice get away so they stopped to pick up the Acme model tent and by the end of the first day, the kid is crying and the parents are yelling. This one isn't so bad. The kid is crying but Mom seems to be handling things well. The most upsetting part is, perhaps, that Dad thinks keeping the kid from crying is Mom's work. I give the marriage 6 years.

The ultralights are up flying around this morning so you it's not a washout, at least not yet. One of my goals this year is to spend more time over at the ultralight area, watching powered parachutes at dawn or dusk.

Today's goal is to try to get into one of the composites (fiberglass) workshops just to mess around a little more with the stuff. When Oshkosh is over, I need to tackle the fairing at the front of the canopy. Then I'll go check out some more RVs to see how the smart people do it. My friend, Warren Starkebaum, who camped with me last year and was on the reasons last year was the perfect Oshkosh (except for the rain) was at this stage last year so he shot a bunch of pictures of canopies. You can find the slideshow here.

There's good news and bad news for the wireless system in the campground. The good news is the signal strength is terrific; it's much better than last year. The bad news is getting onto the system fails about 25% of the time, although judging from the reaction of my neighbors, it's 100% of the time this morning (I'm writing this offline). You're usually greeted with:

Sorry, but we're currently experiencing technical difficulties. The present error condition is:

Preparing to reconnect with messaging system.

For assistance, please contact:


Additional information:

AP MAC Address: 00:0e:0c:b9:xx:xx

I'll bet "unknown" is really busy this week! But despite that minor annoyance, EAA is doing a fabulous job here. As usual I hear the "it's too commercial" complaints. I say "so what?" Open a drink, pull up a chair and have a chat with someone building an experimental airplane, and say a little prayer for the folks who aren't here.

More as it happens...

Oh, Ask The Dumb Guy in the Campground has been very light the last couple of days. Are you out there, America? Let's hear from you.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Oshkosh Diary - Day 3

The slideshow
I transferred some more wealth to the estate of Sam Walton today and bought a power cable which allows the audio cable to work out of my Marantz hard disk recorder. Bottom line? I've been able to add audio to the RV slideshow. Meet four really fabulous people. Now, you may not be able to see this especially if you use Firefox. If not, please go here. You should be able to view it there regardless of what browser you're using. I hope you enjoy it. Please note: It WILL take a long time for the audio to load. So be patient.

Last night's dinner

The WiFi in the campground crashed last night (too many people? Maybe) so I couldn't post an update.

Here's the "trio" from Trio Avionics. We had a very nice dinner down at Wendt's on Lake Winnebago.

Even if I had decided not to come over for the week, I'd have driven over for the evening to spend some time with Sid Tolchin, Chuck Busch, and Jerry Hansen. They're what makes Oshkosh Oshkosh.

Some famous aviators stopped by the table while we were there. Mark Scheuer of PS Engineering (I profiled his product years ago in the Hotline) stopped when he saw the Trio Avionics shirt that Sid was wearing.

And the people from Grove Aircraft stopped over to say "hello" to the guys. Their headquarters is next to Trio's in the San Diego metro.

Later in the evening, Paul Trotter stopped by for a visit. He and two friends drove straight through from the Westchester County area. Paul was one of the forces behind the RV BBQ and we discussed bringing it back next year.

Here's the thing: It takes up-front money and I don't have it. So if there is a sense that we should return the BBQ next year, I'll need some help on the initial round of donations.

But there's more to it than that. The BBQ started as my -- and a few other folks -- desire to be around friends who shared a passion. As it grew, it became great fun, but we also started to lose the friendship part. Without getting too specific, there were a few folks who came to the BBQ and ate the food and drank the beer and then over the winter posted on the RV Yahoogroup that I was out of line for objecting to my treatment in Kitplanes at the hands of another writer "because he had a great Web site and it would be a shame if he got mad and took it down."

I have to figure out how to tell those people to stay home. I haven't figured that out yet. Shoot, I didn't want to go off on that old wound...

Happy happy hour

I struggled about whether to come to Oshkosh this year, as you may know, and I'm glad I did. Some old acquaintances have been stopping by, and some new ones, too. Fine people, all.

Ben Beard of the great state of Wisconsin, by way of Texas, dropped over. He's a 6A builder and pilot. He gets together over in Eau Claire for pancakes with some of the Minnesota Wing of Van's Air Force. It was great to meet him and have a chat.

And old friend Bob Kelly of Indiana then stopped by so the three of us had happy hour, accompanied by the next-door camp, led by Steve R. Bob is an RV-9A builder and pilot. Last year at Oshkosh he gave me a DVD he made of building his airplane, which has served to provide occasional inspiration for my project, which -- I've joked this week -- will be on display in the vintage aircraft section here at Oshkosh some year.

And Doug Reeves of Van's Air Force stopped me as I was wandering aimlessly around the grounds. It's always good to see Doug and thank him for the good work he does. His big news? He's got termites. Always fear the call from home!

On the air
If you'd like to listen to the Oshkosh tower live, go here.

What's hot?

So what's hot at Oshkosh this year. Hard to say because the show technically doesn't open for 45 minutes. A lot of folks go streaming for the Van's tent but I generally ignore it. I've got my project. Supposedly they're going to announce the RV-12 fuselage is now available (See their Web site).

But it's amazing how many people are talking about this demonstration coming up later this week with a guy marketing a jetpack. Allegedly it uses gasoline and can last up to 20-30 minutes, plenty of time for my commute to work. We were chatting last night about how the FAA would license such a thing. Is it an ultralight? Is it a light-sport aircraft. If I take off from my backyard, would that violate Woodbury, Minnesota's ban on airports?

Forum on wiring
I attended the "aircraft wiring for smart people" forum this morning. That's the first forum I've attended this year and one more than I attended in 2007, and 2006. Greg Richter (above) of Blue Mountain Avionics was the presenter. I've written an article for RV Builder's Hotline which you can find here.


A quick trip to the SteinAir booth this morning netted a picture of a couple of smart electrical engineer types attempting to smile.

For you non-aviation Minnesota types who are following along, Jed and Stein are based in Farmington. At least one of 'em, I believe, is a former Northwest employee. Stein made his money in the radio business like everyone else and then, subsequently not needing to work for a living, decided to build instrument panels for homebuilders.

At least one of those statements is not true.
More as it happens.

Oshkosh Diary - Day 2

Did I mention I'll be updating these daily posts as the day unfolds? I'll be updating these daily posts as the day unfolds, so check back.

Chad's Compound
One of the many traditions -- all of two years, I believe -- is Chad Jensen's "compound" just across the creek. He asked me to stake it off and today that was one of my early priorities.

You can see the ultra luxurious Casa Collins resort in the background.

The other priority today was picking up my media credentials and that has also been accomplished, as has the first run for ice. The $1.20 price for a bag at WalMart is much better than the campground store, although I notice the price tends to go up later in the week. I'm a one-cooler guy this year so I won't be spending a fortune on ice this year. Of course that also means I only am able to ice 3 or 4 beers at a time so if you're in the campground and you intend to join me for a Happy Hour, get here early.

Darwin checks in
Darwin Barrie called an hour or so ago and it was a very nice surprise to hear from him. You want a Mr. Oshkosh (to me)? That's Mr. Oshkosh. I wish he and Glenn Brasch could be here but next year should be quite special. As of 10:30 this morning, Darwin reports it's 91 in Chandler, Arizona. But, you know, it's a dry heat.

Two items from Darwin: A heat wave is apparently heading for Oshkosh. That speaks for itself.

And Darwin said he talked to Jeff Point earlier today and the reason the "North 40" is 75% full is about 25% of it is unusable. They had something like 14 inches of rain here in June and some of it is reportedly flooded. I'll have to check that out.

It appeared there were a substantial number of RV airplanes already in the homebuilt section as of 10 a.m. I'm heading down there now to see some of the RVators. I'm taking a laptop, tape recorder, camera and chair with me. It's been years since I've sat by the side of the runway and watched the Sunday arrival traffic but this is the only plan I have today.

Formation arrives

I'm not much of a formation guy. I know it takes a lot of work and a lot of practice but if you don't fly formation and have never practiced it, you have no appreciation for flying formation. To me, one formation looks like the next and I don't mean that at all as a negative. There's a really crappy photo of the RV arrival at Oshkosh, although now that I look at it in its bluriness, I'm not sure it is; but I think it is since it showed up around 1:30, the assigned time, I believe.

The other thing about pictures of formations? Since you can't shoot anything on the ground, one looks pretty much like the other.

RV Corral -- The movie

Not really, but I have been over talking to RV airplane builders and/or pilots in the homebuilt camping area this afternoon and I'll be putting together an audio slideshow this afternoon. I'm not sure I'll have it done by dinner (I'm going out to dinner with the guys from Trio Avionics), but I'll try. I'm in the press headquarters now dumping the images. I have to go to WalMart to get the right audio cable.

Fingers crossed, but I think you'll enjoy it when it's done.

I did run into Mark Chamberlain. He's arrived from Arizona, obviously, but the guy with two emergency landings under his belt (he says he's gone a year without one) is shy of cameras and microphones. Great guy.

RV safety
Rick Woodall has an interesting thread going on Van's Air Force. While most pilots are safe, you just have to wonder why the FAA doesn't just haul off and pull the certificate of some pilots.

(Cross posted at Letters From Flyover Country, where you'll find a lot more)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Oshkosh Diary - Day 1

Son of a gun. It is like coming home.

I arrived at Oshkosh around 2 -- a 4-hour trip from St. Paul (if you're coming from the Twin Cities, be advised Highway 45 is closed). Using the trusty GPS, I found "my" spot.

I said yesterday I was getting used to packing light, in anticipation of making this trip in an RV airplane someday. I have a lot more learning to do on the subject.

In the old days, when my wife and kids came over, this is the part where I'd get all upset about something and Carolie would say, "let me take care of it," and I'd go for a walk and come back and the tent would be up. Those days are gone but over the last few years I've gotten pretty good at it. The tent -- and it's like an old friend that comes here once a year, too -- went up in about a half hour and the big canopy took a little longer, thanks to the typical Oshkosh wind. But in due course, "my spot" was "my home" once again.

A lot of friends aren't showing up at Oshkosh this year and as I was about finished setting up camp, I was thinking this was the first year in many that someone didn't venture out to the middle of the field to see if I was here. When I turned around, there was Rich Emergy of St. Charles, Mo. (or is it Illinois, anyway it's basically St. Louis), one of the first people to stop by every year (Larry Frey, are you here?). Rich was one of the big organizers and volunteers of the BBQ and it was great to see a friendly face.

Rich, who is one of the volunteer chairmen here, says there aren't as many airplanes as usual on the field yet. I noticed a very, very quiet sky as I was driving in, and here in the campground, I'm seeing more tents and pop-ups this year, and few of the big land yachts. Take this anecdotal evidence for what it's worth. Since I camp out in the middle of the field at the EAA grounds, I see the campground fill up as people eventually reach my location around Sunday afternoon or evening. I'd say, so far, it's about the same as last year.

(As I wrote that, three big land yachts just showed up a couple of 'streets' over. They're setting up in a "compound" formation, so it looks like we'll be having some parties nearby. Good.

Rich, who recently retired and is building an RV-7 airplane, had a nice chat and we engaged in the campground version of watching people land. We watched people struggle putting up tents in the afternoon Oshkosh wind.

As is the nature of Oshkosh, we eventually helped the poor kid get his rig set up. I give it one good rainstorm before it sees the dumpster.

The EAA, bless their hearts, has again provided free wiFi, so here I sit in the middle of a field, connected to who knows who, who knows where?

If you're out there reading this, shoot me a note. I'm playing "Ask Mr. Oshkosh" (link fixed) this year so make it a fun note. Each day I'll be printing a few.

Rich is camping near one of the homebuilt judges, so I'll try to get introduced to him, perhaps, this evening for a story I'm doing on what makes a well-built RV airplane. We'll try to pick one of the heap that's arriving at Oshkosh tomorrow around 12;30 on a formation flight from Rockford, Illinois.

As I said before, this year I'll be writing a bit more about the unique experience that is Camp Scholler. For those who've never been here, getting in is easy. There's many volunteers to move what looks at first to be a long line into a short registration process. I was into the front gate and onto my spot (I used the GPS for the exact coordinates) in under 10 minutes.

For veteran campers, you'll be pleased to know the South Africans are here again. They fly a charter over and set up in a huge area and they do not observe the usual 10 p.m. curfew. They observe the 10 p.m. curfew on South Africa time. They party, bring in bands and booze. We'll be stopping by to say "hello."

On the other side of the emotional spectrum, I've received this from John Porter:

Well, it is with deep sadness that I tell you I won't make it to OSH '08. We had three big trees ( two oaks and a hickory) punch holes in our house in a recent storm. We made the cover of the Cherokee Ledger..............big score!! And since my deductible for wind and hail is $4500, we will be laying low for this year. Bob, thanks again for all you do. I really look forward to next year.

That's a real shame. John was one of the many pleasures of last year's Oshkosh. Veterans RVers will remember him as the brains behind this shirt (and that's John holding it up):

I had at least one Ask Mr. Oshkosh question this morning but at this hour of the afternoon (sunset), it's nowhere to be found.

More as it happens... Don't forget to subscribe to the RV Builder's Hotline for a recap of this week with articles from forums etc.

There's much more that I'm writing from Oshkosh. It's posted on Letters from Flyover Country.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Oshkosh Diary -- Friday July 25, 2008

(Cross posted at Letters from Flyover country)

Many of you know I wasn't going to go to Oshkosh this year; I just couldn't seem to work up a heck of a lot of enthusiasm for it. If it weren't for a couple of fellow RVers, a crushing amount of pain in my shoulders from crouching over my computer in my day job, and J.W. French, I wouldn't be going. I'd be working on that RV-7A canopy. At the reception for J.W. French the other night, fellow RVer Paul Hove looked at the project and said, "man, you have a long way to go; you haven't even started the systems yet." It was at that moment that I realized that my project is years away from completion and while spending a week working on it is not only necessary, but therapeutic, it was nothing that was going to make a big difference in the big scheme of things. So what, really, do I have to lose by sitting in a field for a week, watching planes and hope people stop by to say "hello."

This diary has become an annual tradition of the RV Builder's Hotline. I'm starting the writing a day early so that I can talk a little about camping in Camp Scholler. Every year on Van's Air Force, a newbie or two will ask about camping at Camp Scholler. Not many people ever write about it, possibly because it's old hat. So this year I'll write about it and next year -- when my RV-7A project will still have a long way to go -- you can Google it. So if you're reading this in 2009, don't tell me who won the presidential election. Let me surprised.

Friday July 25, 2008
Dateline: Woodbury, Minnesota. It's muggy as all getout, some thunderstorms are passing to the north and normally I'd be putting up the tent in a muggy field in Oshkosh. But I decided to wait a day. It's not that important that I stake out my usual spot in Camp Scholler on 12th Street between Lindbergh and Elm, because I'm not doing the RV Builder's BBQ this year (Note: It's been surprising how many e-mails I've received this week from people asking if I'm doing the BBQ. It's a reminder that a lot of folks don't read this blog, get the RV Builder's Hotline, or peruse Van's Air Force or Rivetbangers.).

Stuffed to the gillsWith the price of gas being close to $4 a gallon (it actually dropped around here to $3.65 today, a day after I filled the tank.), I'm taking the 2004 Cavalier rather than my wife's AWD, but lousy gas mileage, Subaru. This requires me to pack a little light this year. I figure if the RV-7A project ever gets done, I'm going to have to get use to living light, since the baggage payload is only 100 pounds.

And, guess what, it fits? So what do you need to set up a good campsite at Oshkosh?

A tent
One of those bit canopies you get at Fleet Farm
An air mattress
A cooler filled with a couple of frozen jugs of water (the ice concession is a rip-off in the campground)
Shorts and T-shirt
Tons of bug repellant an sunscreen
Cooking stove, plates and all that
The Van's instruction manual
A GPS if you have it with weather
A computer, and digital camera (if you have a blog or a newsletter that a lot of people don't read)

That's pretty much it. What? No food? Pointless if space is at a premium. You'll be spending as much time over at the WalMart across the street. Why carry it over?

Surprise! It all fit in the car.

There's free wiFi at the campground but as more people show up, it becomes somewhat problematic. It wouldn't hurt to pick up a $20 Starbuck's card and register for the free 2 hours a day of service at Starbuck's. There's one on the frontage road. Don't bring too much clothing. The Maytag coin-op laundry in Oshkosh also has free wiFi.

I've been getting e-mail already from companies and such that want to do interviews while I'm there (I'm media). On Saturday, there's a Chevron-sponsored event with Barrington Irving, the first black pilot to fly solo around the world, and someone who tries to encourage young people to strive to achieve their dreams. If that's through aviation, so be it. But that's not the prerequisite. Unfortunately, it's at 11 a.m. and I'm not leaving here until 8, which should put me in a muggy field just in time for the afternoon thunderstorms.

As always, if you have questions, drop me an e-mail and I'd be happy to answer them for you.

Off to Oshkosh

I'm off to Oshkosh.

As you might've read earlier, I haven't been entirely enthusiastic about the air show this year for reasons I can't quite fathom. But I probably just need to sit an empty field for a few days, watching people walk by and planes fly overhead.

The trick will be not spending money. A few days ago, a barnstorming pilot stopped at my hangar and I put him up for the night. A few RV builders (the plane I'm building) also stopped by and looked over the project, which I'd pushed over to the side of the hangar for the occasion.

"You have a lot left to go," one said. "You haven't even started the systems, yet."

Well, yes, that's exactly what I needed to hear after 7 years and 1,800 of work and a ridiculous amount of money. The sad part is: he's right. So what's stopping me? Money.

At one time I had enough to finish the plane, but kids needed cars, some computers went on the fritz and there were needs here and there and, voila!

The engine for the plane is due to be built next month and delivered, I presume in September. $23,000. I'll "home equity" that (that's a verb?) and pay it off as I would a new car.

But back to Oshkosh. There's a ton of stuff you can buy there; stuff you might even need. But I looked into the cockpit of that biplane that spent the night in my hangar the other day -- altimeter, airspeed indicator, turn indicator. And the guy flew -- solo -- to all 48 states. I'm going to keep that mental picture in mind when I'm walking past the temptation over the next week.

Mini-news Sean bought a new (used) car last night. A 2005 Cobalt. He got a good deal I think for the car with 40,000 miles. Gone is the car with the breaks that are shot, wires that run everywhere, the button you had to push before you turn the key (assuming you didn't lock the steering wheel because then you can't turn the key without some serious shenaningans) and the ignition key that broke off in the front door lock.

It'll be another couple hundred dollars a month for the young man, and adding debt is always sobbering and a little maddening, but his mother and I couldn't be happier.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A REAL letter from flyover country

When it comes to aviation, I guess I'm mostly a 'gee whiz' style of writer, which is not at all the style of writing I tend to do for my day job.

Many folks seem to like both, but I can't say I've encountered a letter like the one I'm posting below. Especially when it comes to publishing the weekly RV Builder's Hotline, I'm aware that people all over the world open it up each Saturday and I think that's pretty cool. This is even better.

A few months ago, I wrote an article for Kitplanes magazine on the history of my RV airplane-building project. This week, editor Marc Cook forwarded a letter he received about the article. I admit that the way it started, well, I was pretty scared.

I am writing to demand that you never let Bob Collins ever write
anything for your magazine again. In my opinion he poses the single
greatest threat to aviation...ever.

We all know the single most important element in aviation is, of course, looking cool! Forget safety, without looking cool, who would want to be a pilot. Now, imagine me, a major airline pilot sitting in my cockpit at 35,000 ft. reading Kitplanes magazine (which, of course, I would never do because it's against the rules).

I come across the June article "Letter to a Friend" by Bob Collins and begin reading about the core elements of beauty and dedication that make us build and share this amazing experience that is homebuilding. I read about the experiences that change our lives and those of our families for the better and bring us together as a ommunity of common travelers.

And, let's say for the sake of argument I have a little moisture welling up in my eyes. Now I have to set the magazine down on the glare shield (which, of course, I would never do because it's against the rules) and turn toward the window pretending that I have dust in my eye so nobody will know that I am getting a little weepy in the cockpit! This man is a menace and must be stopped!

Yours, ever so cooley,

Chris Hawley

Talk about cool. Wherever you are, Chris Hawley, safe travels.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Summertime blues

It's official! This summer blows. I blame the Republicans and Democrats.

Just two years after having an entire summer off and making the most of it, I find myself captured by the yang of summertime yin.

For the last couple of months, it's seemed my summer was booked before it even started. AirVenture at Oshkosh, long the highlight of my summer, automatically gets a week on the calendar. But I'm also supposed to go out to Denver the last week of August to cover the Democrats, and then turn around and spend the next week covering the Republicans in St. Paul.

It's hard to relax and enjoy the summer when you have the Republicans and Democrats on your schedule as the big finale, sucking every last bit of air out of what used to be the carefree time of year.

Chances are, though, if I weren't covering the national conventions, I wouldn't be doing anything anyway. Life has become a pattern of work, home, TV, bed, work. You know, one of those patterns. It's off kilter and I can't seem to get it back on track.

My wife and I are still young, but health concerns now set the agenda for both of us. Getaways are canceled for whatever malady is in play and the little free time afforded by an economy that requires us to work until we drop, is frittered away. No trip East, no time on the beach, the bikes are gathering dust in the garage and the cost of gasoline is making things problematic. Throw in the occasional kid in need of attention here and there and it's enough to make one look forward to winter.

The deck project that's been going on for four years is still mocking me. I'm running out of time to do something -- anything -- on it this year. The famous "bench," scene of afternoon happy hours where we can relax and separate the work day from our lives, has been used this year exactly once.

There's nobody to blame for this but ourselves, of course. But I'm pretty sure this is a rut shared more and more by Americans in this current economy.

What to do? Regroup. I've decided not to go to Oshkosh this year. I'm getting tired of doing it solo, and this year it's more expensive to get there and many of the acquaintances I have aren't going either. Besides, I've seen it before. I'll probably spend the week working on the deck instead.

And maybe a little work.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Making memories

On holidays, most of my neighbors head for the lake or campground in search of quiet and relaxation. I don't have to because when they leave, they take their noise with them and I'm left with all the quiet I need, and some bird songs to go with it.

It is, of course, the 4th of July, which is my favorite holiday of the year even though I have no particular plans... ever... for it. But it's a good time to sit in the quiet of a holiday morning and reflect on how great summer is, and, of course, think of summers past.

Growing up, I'm sure we did other things in the summer besides head to the beach -- we had a trailer on the beach in Newburyport which at the time -- and even, today -- seemed like the height of luxury, but most summer memories begin and end with Plum Island. We might've stayed up there for weeks on end; we might've stayed up there for five days, it all blurs to me.

This, of course, was back in the time when parents let their kids out in the morning and expected them back for dinner. We'd go fishing, or scavenge for lures that washed up overnight, play "Army" on the dunes, build a sand castle, sit out on the tip of a jetty as the tide was coming in and pretend to be the captain of a ship in rough seas (scurrying off the jetty before the rising tide cut off our path of exit).

At night the family would have a fire on the beach and do the marshmallow thing. At least once, we'd head over to Hampton Beach for fireworks. A kid can't ask for better memories and my parents did a great job of providing them.

I often wonder what memories my kids have of their childhood and what will blur together as they get older. Will they be good ones?

When they were much younger, we'd take them somewhere and quite often it seemed as if they weren't having any fun. Then later they'd be telling someone about it and we'd overhear them talking as if it was the best day of their young lives.

But I wonder what summer memories will survive? Will they remember Sheffield, Mass. and the great cast of characters in that neighborhood on the mountain? Will they remember the July 4th up at Lynne and Robert's pond, with the picnic and the nighttime fireworks (real fireworks) over the water? Will it be Oshkosh? Will it be pounding golf balls into Newark Pond in Vermont, and then swimming for them, only to shoot them right back into the pond?

The picture at the top of the page is from 2003 and Sean and Patrick were atop Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire. It was during their "paintball period," so I think they were plotting what sort of strategy they'd employ if they had their weapons, which they didn't. My parents took us to Mt. Monadnock for a picnic at least once a summer, it seemed. This was the last time I went with them. A few months later, my Dad was dead.

This week Sean and Patrick moved out of their apartment up in Maplewood and moved into new places. Sean has moved to a complex in Woodbury, just 2 1/2 miles away from the empty nest. Patrick has moved into some student housing in White Bear Lake, a stone's throw from Century College, where he'll be finishing up his paramedic training.

I rented a truck and we packed them both up, they spent a night at the nest, and then I unloaded them at their respective places the next day. I wouldn't be 20 or 22 again for anything. Setting out on new frontiers is always a bit disconcerting for young people, made more so now by a difficult economy and rising prices. But I'm betting they're already making good memories.

I hope so, anyway.