All Aviation Articles By Travis Kircher

Aviation Tragedy: When disaster strikes

Bruce Van Fleet and Luke Sullivan (Source: ITEC / Facebook)

Let me tell you about Luke and Bruce.

Luke Sullivan was 28 years old. By all accounts, Luke wanted to do more than just fly airplanes for the fun of it. He didn’t want to make a buck. He wanted to make a difference. So while so many pilots wind up flying to the airlines, Luke’s aviation career led him to Guatemala.

It may sound like an unlikely place for a budding young Texas aviator to end up, but Luke accepted the position of aviation director for Paradise Bound Ministries. The Michigan-based organization, according to its website, is a Christian non-profit created to “do ‘whatever it takes’ to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost and dying in Guatemala.” That includes providing clean water and medical care to people in remote villages – and Luke was a part of that.

Bruce Van Fleet, age 32, is from Florida. Another pilot, I’m told Bruce had just received his commercial license and was working on getting his A&P. Like Luke, he was interested in mission aviation, and he recently went to visit with Luke in Guatemala to learn more about the possibility of working with Paradise Bound Ministries.

Four days ago, both of them were on the same flight. According to a report by The Washington Post, the aircraft took off from Quiche department, bound for Guatemala City’s international airport, when it went down in Chimaltenango department, about 20 miles from the capital.

Luke ultimately died from his injuries. He leaves behind a wife, three children and a fourth on the way.

As of the time of this writing, Bruce is back in the states in a medically induced coma. He is fighting for his life. He has a wife and a child.

I write this not to be morbid. I don’t know either man. Originally, I planned this blog to be about a chance encounter with a Pietenpol pilot one of my instructors and I had while visiting a grass strip. But with my Facebook feed filling up with concerned prayers and condolences for the families involved, this seemed more important.

"He is one of the nicest people you could ever meet," wrote Austin Brumfield, one of my Facebook friends, about Bruce. "I don't know why God gives us days like these, and I know Bruce has got to feel so alone where he's at right now. Be praying for him."

Zack Wilkinson, another Facebook friend, had this to say:

"At its core, aviation is about relationships. In the same way, the calling of Christ is a call to establish a connection with a man who came to offer salvation to all. Regrettably, Luke lost his life in pursuit of serving the Lord through aviation largely before getting started. He was not the first, and he will not be the last. Though his part on earth is done, its impact is far from over. Luke lived for Christ each day. For some who hear his story, his impact will have just begun."

There is just something about the aviation community. Maybe it's the shared bond we have of having spent hours studying weight and balance problems and acronyms. Or trying to figure out how to track and follow VOR approaches. Or sweating out power on stalls for the first time. Maybe it's simply the closeness we all feel from a shared love of aviation. Whatever it is, when a tragedy like this strikes, aviators from all over the country seem to come together and step up to help.

You don't have to share Luke and Bruce's faith – as I do – in order to feel for their families or mourn Luke's loss.

As my Facebook friend so eloquently put it, it's not the first time the field of mission aviation has faced such tragic losses. Most famously, on Jan. 8, 1956, Missionary Aviation Fellowship pilot Nate Saint, along with fellow missionaries Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming, and Roger Youderian, were slaughtered in Ecuador by members of the Huaorani tribe after making the first contact. (For more information, see the film "End of the Spear," or better yet, read "Jungle Pilot" by Nathaniel Hitt.)

Those deaths seemed senseless at the time. But something incredible happened. Some of the widows of the men who were murdered went back to live with the tribe. They ministered to them. This isolated tribe – a tribe so murderous the locals had given them the derogatory name "Auca," which means "savage" – took them in. They learned a better way. They stopped killing each other.

Years later, Nate Saint's children were baptized by the very men who murdered their father. Their families share a bond that, to outsiders, makes absolutely no sense. And yet…

After the murders on the beach, the remains of Nate's plane were washed away by a brutal storm. They weren't found until decades later in 1994. The skeletal frame is now housed in the lobby of Mission Aviation Fellowship headquarters in Nampa, Idaho. I've seen it. I've seen the dents the natives' machetes made in the metal.

The remains of Nate Saint's airplane, located in the lobby of Mission Aviation Fellowship. (Source: MAF.org)

Aviation is, by and large, relatively safe. Most of us know this. Most of us will never have to deal with this kind of tragedy. But when it does happen, it seems senseless. It seems like it was all for nothing.

The family of Nate Saint would disagree.

I would not dare to speak for the Sullivan or Van Fleet families. They don't need me to speak. I don't know them. They need us to listen – and to help where we can.

If anyone is interested in helping either family, there are a number of ways to step up:

Paradise Bound has set up a GoFundMe account to help both the Sullivan and Van Fleet families. For more information, CLICK HERE.

ITEC, the company that was training Bruce Van Fleet (the company that was started by Nate Saint's son), has also set up a GoFundMe account for his family. For more information, CLICK HERE.

Travis K. Kircher is a private pilot based in Louisville, Kentucky.

 

FIRST SOLO FLYING

The moment a student pilot soars into the air alone for the first time is a leap of faith – for both the student and the instructor.

The date was July 31, 1997.

It was the date of my first solo. I was 21 years old. And I was petrified.

Okay, maybe not petrified. But my palms were sweating. My heart was pounding.

Flying Solo for the first timeSee, we aviation enthusiasts like to imagine ourselves as those old pilot stereotypes:  the barnstorming stick jockeys who are afraid of nothing – who duel it out with the Red Baron, defending our homeland. Then, when our plane gets shot up, we bail out, and ride our parachute down to where we happen to land just outside our favorite diner. Just in time for breakfast, we pack up our parachute, trudge into the diner – to the awe of everyone inside – and order bacon, eggs and grits.

“Coffee’s cold again,” we would grumble. “Heck, this wasn’t even worth getting shot down for! And I don’t even eat grits!”

That wasn’t me. I put my first solo off.

I was a fair weather pilot. I was the guy who was constantly checking the winds – and if they weren’t straight down the runway, there was no way I was going alone.  What? There’s another plane in the pattern? Better wait till he’s gone. Don’t wanna go while it’s crazy up there!

ME:  And look! See that little cumulous cloud off in the distance? Looks grim! Probably means a storm’s coming!

INSTRUCTOR:  That’s a smokestack.

ME: Who cares? They both have lifting motion!

Okay, again, I exaggerate. But no matter how many touch-and-go’s I did, the thought of me taking off without my instructor in the right seat set me on edge.

But that week I decided that, come what may, I was going to do it. I was going to fly my first solo.

Part of it was a girl. The girl I liked at the time was dating someone else – but she would have found out if I chickened out, and I wasn’t about to let THAT happen.

But mostly, it was because I wanted to fly. My aviation career had hit a wall – and there was no way I was ever going to get over that wall and get my license if I wouldn’t solo an airplane.

So two days earlier, I went to see a wise old doctor to get my third-class medical. Like countless student pilots before me, I walked up to a kind receptionist who basically handed me a plastic cup, pointed to the restroom and said, “You know what to do.” 

Unlike student pilots nowadays, I walked out of the doctor’s office that day with my medical in my hand. It was a pre-9/11 world. We didn’t have to wait weeks for our paperwork.

That Thursday evening, when I walked into the Devonair Flight School on historic Bowman Field (KLOU), I had butterflies in my stomach. I told the folks there that I hoped tonight would be the night that I would solo.

“Your flight instructor called,” one of the guys said. “He said he’s sorry, but something came up and he won’t be able to make it tonight.”

At first I felt relief. I had an excuse. God obviously didn’t want me to fly today. Well, better luck next time.

But deep down, I also felt disappointment. I was ready. I had spent all day psyching myself up for this.

“I will solo you!”

The voice came from the chief pilot, a Norwegian, who had subbed in as my instructor on a couple of occasions. I’ll call him Dan.

“I dunno, Dan,” I stumbled. “I should probably wait until—“

“No!” Dan replied. “I will solo you tonight. Go pre-flight the plane.”

Dan and I went up and did a few touch and go’s in N9105, a Cessna 172 trainer. It was a hot summer evening, and Runway 6 – a 4,300 foot runway – was the active. I did the touch-and-go’s one after the other, and to my growing irritation, Dan wasn’t paying any attention. As I glided in for touchdown, he didn’t seem to even be looking out the window.

I wanted to yell, “If you’re going to sign me off to fly this thing alone, will you at least pay attention to see if I can land properly????”

(He was of course. Paying attention, I mean. I hadn’t yet caught on to that old instructor trick of feigned distraction and faking indifference during the most critical moments of flight, in order to build the confidence of the student.)

Finally, he had me taxi back to the hold short line, where he grabbed my logbook and signed it.

“You will solo now,” he said.

“What?” I said. “I don’t think so. You haven’t even been paying attention. I should probably wait for—“

“You are ready,” Dan replied. “You should solo right now.”

“I dunno Dan,” I said.

Dan sighed. Then he opened the door of the airplane, turned, and to my surprise, hit the transmit button.

“Bowman Tower, Cessna November Niner-One-Zero-Five is ready at Six.”

Then he smiled.

“Bye!”

In a moment, he shut the door and was gone.

I was shocked, half nervous, half grinning at the audacity and hilariousness of my situation. Then the controller answered back in my headset:

“Cessna November Niner-One-Zero-Five, Bowman Tower, cleared for takeoff, left turn approved.”

I had two choices at that point. I could decline the clearance and taxi back to the flight school in shame and defeat, or I could say a prayer, taxi onto the runway centerline, throttle up and come-what-may.

I chose the latter. And as soon as the wheels left  the pavement, my hours of training kicked in. On my first landing, I was dumbfounded – I had just landed an airplane by myself! By the second landing, I had a big, stupid grin on my face. On the third landing, I was Luke Skywalker tearing my X-wing through the trenches, getting ready to blow up the Death Star.

When it was over, I taxied back to the flight school in triumph. A few minutes later, I learned that my Dad had shown up at the school on an errand. He didn’t know for sure that I would be soloing that evening, but when he heard my voice crackling over the flight school’s handheld radio, he sat down on one of the airport benches to watch me land. He told me later that my wheels “kissed the ground.”

My dad passed away a few years later. That night will always be one of my favorite memories of him.

My first time - Flying SoloOvercoming my fear of soloing was a huge accomplishment for me. I would go on to make more solo flights, eventually to the practice area, then on to do several long solo cross-countries, before getting my license.

Like me, there may be lots of other students standing on the edge of the abyss, wondering whether you’re ready for your solo. Here is my advice:

  • Make sure you meet the legal requirements for soloing student pilots, outlined in 14 CFR § 61.87.
  • Trust your instructor. He or she knows what they’re doing. If they think you’re ready, you’re ready.
  • Trust yourself. You have the training and the ability, or your instructor wouldn’t have signed that logbook endorsement.
  • Fun. Take time to look out the window. Enjoy the view. Notice the seat empty seat next to you. And when you land, be sure to take plenty of pictures (but NOT UNTIL YOU LAND!)

 

Study hard. Learn the procedures. Then when you’re instructor says you’re ready, take the plunge.

If I can do it, you can do it.

How about your first Solo, tell us about it?  Help a new pilot understand it happens to all of us:) 

For the Love of the Mosquito Dream

A New Zealand aviator is looking for a new home for the “Wooden Wonder” -- his lovingly restored Mosquito T.43

Glyn Powell has a special talent. He has the ability to raise the dead.Glyn Powell

Not people, mind you. Aircraft.  Specifically the de Havilland Mosquito.

Introduced by the British and flown regularly by the Royal Air Force during World War II, the Mosquito had a wooden frame supporting two Merlin engines. A multi-use aircraft, the Mosquito served as a both a fighter and a bomber until it was eventually eclipsed in both design and popularity by the Supermarine Spitfire.

Though produced en masse during the war, most of the Mosquitos were eventually burned as time wore on and their wooden frames became rotten and unusable. Components were lost. Drawings were scattered. Long thought to be an unfortunate casualty of history, by the turn of the century, it was not believed that any Mosquito would ever fly again.

Until Glyn Powell took up the challenge.

An implausible ambition

Theo Botha, general manager of Mosquito Aircraft Restoration, has two words to describe Glyn Powell:  Humble and pragmatic.

“He’s exactly the kind of guy you really wouldn’t expect to want to rebuild one of the most technically complex non-jet aircraft in history in what is – what was – his garden,” Botha said.

And yet that’s exactly what happened. The New Zealand-based pilot fell in with a group of aviation enthusiasts with a shared vision: They wanted to rebuild a flyable Mosquito.

“Everyone talks about Spitfires because they’re flying,” Botha said. “You can see them. ‘What’s that?’ ‘Oh, it’s a Spitfire! It’s cool! It makes a loud noise!’ ‘Great! They won the war!’ ‘Oh, brilliant!’ But actually, the Mosquito played a very important role as well – extremely important – but because the airframes are made of wood, none of them are around. So they’re less in people’s minds. Glyn wanted to fix that.”

By 1989, most of the group had given up, but Powell had caught the vision and he wasn’t letting go. He purchased the remains of NZ2308 – a Mosquito T.43 – and began the work of restoring it. That work included securing 8,000 drawings on microfilm from the Smithsonian Institute, as well as traveling the world to examine, in detail, preserved Mosquitos. He also became a fervent collector of Mosquito parts.

“He’s not a CEO-type character – a bull-type character – where the only way to get him to do something is to set him a challenge,” Botha said. “He’s more someone who decides what he wants to do and is just gonna get on and do it. I supposed there’s no ego attached. It’s not a question of, ‘You say I can’t do it, so I will.’ It’s more a question of, ‘I’m gonna do it because it’s what I want to do.’”

“So what kind of guy is he?” Botha asks. “The kind of guy who just humbly shows you what he’s done, and the only thing you can think of to say is, ‘How can I help?’ He’s that kind of guy.”

Mosquito workshop

Restoring a flyable Mosquito is a task that would take Powell decades.

“I really don’t think they had any idea how hard it was to do,” Botha said of Powell and his team. “Because there’s almost a fractal level of detail with this. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to make an Airfix model or something like that – those little five-minute jobs that end up taking you the best part of a week. The Mosquito is that to the Nth degree.” Glyn Powell

Powell and his team were faced with the obstacle of building a flyable Mosquito from drawings that weren’t 100 percent complete, assembled from parts – many of which were missing – in a manner that was both functional and historically accurate.

“At the time this was made, they were pumping these out like a Model T Ford,” Botha said. “But what we’re talking about is making one Model T Ford from scratch in your garage, from drawings. It’s mindboggling.”

By far, one of the most difficult aspects of the aircraft’s construction is its wooden frame. Made of a combination of plywood and balsa wood, the frame would require the construction of two moulds, composed of douglas fir and cedar wood. Botha says that wasn’t an easy task at a time when – aside from the construction of high-end furniture and musical instruments – the craft of woodworking is dying. Much thanks, he said, goes to the professionals at Avspecs Ltd., a New Zealand-based vintage aircraft restoration company, for their workmanship in forming the fuselage in a manner that reflected the original design.

That said, in some rare instances, Botha says modern materials were substituted where using the originals simply wasn’t practical for the overall longevity of the aircraft.

“There are substantive differences,” he admitted. “Some materials which were used are no longer commercially available, so some materials had to be substituted in.”

“But also, more importantly, the modern adhesives are much more resistant to moisture,” he added.

The original design called for a 1940 technology organic casein or urea formaldehyde glue. In place of this, Powell and his team used a modern epoxy.

“Moisture and humidity is a Mosquito’s worst enemy,” Botha said. “If you want it to last forever, you want to control its storage environment – the humidity. And the adhesive’s ability to be resistant to moisture is very important. So epoxies are used for the adhesive.”

Botha says Powell and his team had a much more difficult time building a handful of flying Mosquitos than the Brits of the 1930s did.

“At the time this plane was built, it was a really serious industrial job,” he said. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of people at hundreds of companies working together. So when Glyn started from scratch with just the drawings of the Mosquito, and not having the mammoth industrial supply chain – to have one organization making spars, one making ailerons, etc. – to do that with a small team is unfathomably audacious.”

Part of Powell’s success, Botha said, stems from the creativity and tenacity of the people working under him.

“They live and breathe small engineering activities,” he said. “They’re humble people, and they’re not earning a fortune from this.”

“One of the key men who works there, his hobby is making fully-functional, handheld-sized petrol engines,” he said. “So he’ll make you a V-12 you can hold in your hand. He makes those at home.”

Botha said he first visited Powell’s workshop years ago on the advice of a friend – and he immediately fell in love with the Mosquito.

“It’s hard not to,” he said. “If you pick up any part – any component or subcomponent – it’s just mind-blowing, the level of detail, within the detail, within the detail. And then the craft, which stems from figuring out how to interpret the drawings through to actually fabricating parts using the appropriate techniques and really making a job of every last piece…

“These days you could, using computer-aided design, CNC-machine all these parts and do all of it a lot easier, but they’re not doing it that way,” he added. “This is craft and advanced engineering and woodwork by hand, but up to the standards of CNC machining. It’s mind-blowing.”

The Wooden Wonder

The first fully-restored, fully-functional Mosquito, KA113, thrilled audiences when it made its post-restoration maiden flight in Sept. 2012. It went on to receive the award for Grand Champion WW2 Warbird at the 2015 EAA Oshkosh Airshow.

To date, three Mosquitos have been reconstructed and are now flyable. A fourth – Powell’s original plane, NZ2308 – is in the process of being restored, as financing permits. Botha said Powell hopes to find the financing to finish the project, and a buyer to give the aircraft a good home.

“The reason Glyn started this was not because he wanted to sell one, or because he wanted to build one. He wanted to fly one,” Botha said. “And he wanted to keep the memory of this thing alive. And when he was finished flying it, his ambition was to have it sent straight back to the UK, where it could be an important part of the flying military history over there.”

Currently, Powell is working with The Mostquito Pathfinder Trust, an organization raising funds to finish the restoration project and have the aircraft sent to the UK.

Botha said that, of the available Mosquitos, this is the prize.

“This is the one that started it all,” he said. “It is constructed from the pick of the available components by the guy who was sourcing them, as his personal aircraft.”

As time passes, Botha says the value of NZ2308 only increases, given the fact that it will become increasingly difficult to find the necessary skills and components to build another Mosquito.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “The cost of restoring a Mosquito is extraordinarily high, but if you had to make new metal parts from scratch, the cost would double. So the possibility of having authentic restored mosquitos is going away. Estimates vary, but two-to-three more will be the maximum. This is going to be the most special one.”

But the biggest advantage of this particular Mosquito, according to Botha, is the dual-control system, which means the plane can be flown from either the right or left seat.

“If I can afford it, I’d buy this, and I’d have one of a very, very, very small handful of pilots take me up in it and have some very safe fun in it.”

 “I think it’s a no-brainer,” he added wistfully.

Interested parties can review the purchase details at this link https://www.globalair.com/aircraft-for-sale/Mosquito-The-Wooden-Wonder

Mosquito aircraft with crew during WWII

Sometimes the experts are wrong

When you’re working toward earning your private pilot’s license, and you’re not sure you’re gonna have the time or the cash flow to make it happen, most of the self-proclaimed experts will give you one piece of advice.

Whether it’s a column in a flying magazine, a message thread on a Facebook aviation fan page or a couple of CFIs opining on your favorite podcast, they all chant the same mantra:

If you don’t have the money to fly regularly – at least once a week -- then stop.

Quit floundering in the wind.

Take a break from flying.

Save up your money. For weeks. Months. Years, even. However long it takes to build a cash mountain that will keep fuel flowing in the tanks on a continual basis. THEN start back up again.

If you can’t go weekly, don’t go at all.

At least that’s what they say.

Travis first flightMy first flight was on June 11, 1994. My parents had a rule:  Until I graduated high school, no motorcycles and no airplanes. Well, I was now a brand new high school grad – and I still remember my first flight that hot, humid, hazy Saturday morning with instructor Mark Loring. According to my logbook, we were up for 0.7 hours in a Piper Warrior (I’ll always love you N9886K), and we practiced climbs and descents, level turns and dutch rolls out of Bowman Field (KLOU) in Louisville, Kentucky. When it was over, I celebrated with deep-dish sausage pizza at the Bearno’s across the street from the airport.

I couldn’t believe I had my first entry in my Pilot Logbook.

I couldn’t believe I had a Pilot Logbook.

Eventually, my family got into the flight school business. I had easy access to aircraft and flight instructors. Looking back, I can’t believe how spoiled I was. I was allowed to work the desk at the flight school in exchange for flight time – and soon I was well on my way toward getting my PPL ticket. My first solo was on July 31, 1997. Then came my solo cross countries. My long solo-cross country.

But then, suddenly, things changed.

Our family got out of the flight school business. I moved out of the house. Graduated from college. Launched a new career. Gas prices went up – and my disposable income went down. In the meantime, a handful of evil, selfish people decided to fly airliners into buildings in New York. I changed careers again.

I didn’t get my PPL.

Instead, I took a break from flying. In fact, the very idea of spending money on flying airplanes was laughable. I would still look back on flying wistfully, but as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t in the cards. My medical expired, my sectionals and FAR/AIM s were WAY out of date, and my Jeppesen flight manual gathered dust on my bookshelf.

MY break lasted 16 years.

If you look at my logbook, you’ll see two entries right next to each other. They’re only centimeters apart, but the time they span is breathtaking: one reads Feb. 20, 1999. The next reads June 13, 2015.

I can’t really point to one single thing that brought me back to flying. I guess it started during a 6 a.m. Thursday morning men’s Bible study group at Southeast Christian Church. One week I was asked to summarize my life – from birth until the present day – and flying came up.  The guys at my table asked if I was still doing it. I wasn’t.

Then I read “Jungle Pilot” by Nathaniel Hitt, about the life of missionary pilot Nate Saint. I started volunteering for Mission Aviation Fellowship – an evangelical Christian organization that sends general aviation pilots to serve unreached people in isolated regions. I became friends with some of our missionary pilots – and helped some of them move overseas. I even got the opportunity to visit some of them out in the field.

Ultimately I realized that maybe the experts were wrong. Maybe I didn’t have to go once a week. Maybe I could just go once a month. Maybe once every six weeks. Even if I never got my license, at least I would be in an airplane again. At least I would be flying.

Do you want to fly?

Do you have cable TV? Take my advice:  cancel it.

That’s one flight lesson. One flight lesson a month right there!

The experts are wrong. Don’t do what I did and take 16 years off, thinking flying is out of your reach. If you love flying, and you can only afford to go once a month, then just go once a month. Or once every six months. Or once a year.

Here is a link with Flight Schools and Recurrent Training facilities all around the world, tell the experts to take a hike.

Yes, I know you won’t progress very far toward getting your certificate on a once-a-month regimen. Yes, I know students who go more frequently will get their PPL much faster. And yes, I know every expert says you’re wasting your time. But at least you won’t be giving up entirely.

And it’s not wasting your time if you simply love flying.

Travis PIC

As I write this, I’m looking at my shiny blue private pilot certificate. I passed my check ride – at Sporty’s no less! – on Sept. 1, 2018. Ultimately, I did have to increase the frequency of my flight lessons, but that wasn’t always an option. I’m glad I hung in there, even during the dry spells.

I’m working on my Instrument Rating now. My goal is to eventually get my commercial ticket, and my CFI. Then my flying will finance itself.

Maybe I’ll get there and maybe I won’t. What I do know is I hope to keep flying a part of my life some way – even if it’s only volunteering or reading a book about it – for many years to come.

Sixteen years is far too long.

TRAVIS K. KIRCHER is a private pilot – as well as a lifetime student – based in Louisville, Kentucky. His home airport is Bowman Field (KLOU). He is always ready and willing to tell you about Mission Aviation Fellowship – and you can find out more about it by visiting www.MAF.org

 

 

 

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