Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sky Ranch & The Champ

Jodie and I went to Knoxville Tuesday night for Thanksgiving. I had to do some work on Wednesday, so I holed up in a Starbucks with my laptop. I finished my work a couple hours before I needed to meet Jodie and her family for dinner, so I figured I'd explore the local small airports. I had read about the Sky Ranch (TN98), a club-owned airfield carved out of the Class C airspace around Knoxville's McGhee-Tyson Airport. With a little driving around, I found it tucked away on an island in the Tennessee River, downriver from the Knoxville Downtown Island Airport (KDKX).

Pulling into Sky Ranch, I was impressed with the number of aircraft and hangars. I saw a bunch of old taildraggers, an RV, an AgCat, a few Bonanzas, and a lot of Cessna 150s and 172s. A cottage-like structure with a front porch, deck, and chairs overlooking the river was on one side of the grass runway. As I parked next to what I later learned was the clubhouse, a Cessna 152 landed. I walked down to chat with the pilot as he secured the plane, and learned that Sky Ranch has been a club since the 70s. It costs $250 to join, and $30 a month. They sell gas for $3.03 a gallon to their members, more than a dollar less than I pay in Maryland. The club owns three planes, and the monthly $30 gives you tie-down rights. That is a DEAL.

I walked back to the car, and as I did a man pulled up in a truck. Figuring I'd get some additional information, I introduced myself. His name was Lee, and after repeating some of the basics I had already heard about Sky Ranch, he asked me what I was doing right then. I told him I had to be home for dinner, and he said, "Well, do you want to go flying? Right now." I immediately recognized this as one of those pilot-community things that only happens every so often, so I said yes and grabbed my headset out of the car. "What kind of plane?" I asked, and he said, "Well, you're about to find out." We walked over to the covered tie-downs and right up to N84021, a 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ. I've read about taildraggers, and I've read about grass runways, but this was my first experience of the way flying used to be. I helped him do the pre-flight inspection and pull the plane out, then I sat in the back seat and held the brakes while he spun the propeller to start the engine.

We taxied (bounced) out to the end of the runway, he pushed the throttle forward, and we started accelerating down the runway. It's commonly said that you have to fly an airplane from the time you undo the tiedowns until you re-tie them. When we had accelerated some, Lee pushed forward on the stick and the tail came up off the ground. For the first time, I understood-- although the main wheels were still firmly on the ground, Lee was flying the plane.

Shortly after we lifted off, Lee gave me the stick. There were no gauges in the back seat, but I could see the slip-skid indicator over Lee's right shoulder if I craned my neck. It took a LOT more rudder to keep the Champ coordinated than it does in the 172 I regularly fly. We climbed to 3500 feet and flew north to Norris Dam. We flew around the dam, then Lee took the stick, chopped the power, and pointed the nose at the ground in a steeply banked, circling dive. We dropped 1500 feet FAST, and for the first time ever I felt a little queasy. Lee leveled out and told me he wanted to practice a few s-turns over I-70. After one or two, he let me try, and I did a bunch. There was a 15-knot wind blowing across the road, so the conditions were perfect. Lee said he could tell I was a student because I did much better than almost all pilots he goes up with, not really changing altitude -- which was amazing to me because I couldn't see the altimeter.

We flew back to Sky Ranch after I flew low over Jodie's parents house, and Lee dropped the plane down onto the runway in a beautiful forward slip, stopping in well under 1,000 feet. As we were taxiing to the fuel pump, I asked Lee about radio calls. He said, "What radios?" For the first time I realized that although there was an intercom, there were no radios in the plane.

Taildragger, grass runway, no radio, no transponder, hand-propping.... This is what flying used to be. What a treat!

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