Farewell to a Friend: A Chance Encounter and a Lifetime of Memories

•August 21, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual convention – AirVenture – in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is far more than an airshow. This fact is so often lost to the casual observer, but for those who have attended for many years, the show becomes a family reunion, a look back, and a look forward. Long-time attendees are filled with stories of random encounters and chance meetings with friends, new and old. Friends in the aviation community come in two forms: the flesh and blood of humanity, and the seemingly inanimate conglomerations of aluminum, fabric, rivets and engines that lift us above the earth. Yes, these, too, can become friends.

Let me tell you about one.

N4550J departing Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on July 21, 2015. Here she wears full ALSIB 2015 titles.

N4550J departing Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on July 21, 2015. Here she wears full ALSIB 2015 titles.

It started as a random glance at FlightAware, the popular flight-tracking website. I was strolling the grounds at this year’s show in Oshkosh, and happened to look at the list of inbound aircraft. A tail number caught my eye. N4550J. N4550J. I know you. You see, this airplane was one of those old friends. In an odd way, I grew up with it. Years ago, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the plane – 50J for short – was based at my home airport, Moore-Murrell Field in Morristown, Tennessee. It was a tired old freight dog by then, used mostly to carry auto parts between southern suppliers and northern factories. It was also the first “big” airplane I ever saw, and to a four-year-old, craning his neck upward, a Douglas DC-3 really is a big airplane. Just seeing the number brought back fond memories: standing underneath the airplane, only a toddler, with my dad, fascinated by the enormous engines above my head. I recalled the oil buckets placed carefully beneath each engine: one should only worry, it was once said, if radial engines don’t leak oil. I still vividly remember getting my very own tour of the airplane: the steep walk up through the inclined passenger compartment; the look inside the narrow cockpit door; the old-fashioned dials, gauges, and levers; the windscreen with a view only of blue skies above. These were the airliners of old, they said. Early on, I learned to love this machine. I’d always want to go look at it. The indescribable appeal of old airplanes caught me in its grip early on, and never let go.

Here is 50J during her period of storage at Downtown Island Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010. This perspective was an attempt to illustrate how large the aircraft once appeared to me, at a young age.

Here is 50J during her period of storage at Downtown Island Airport in Knoxville, Tennessee in 2010. This perspective was an attempt to illustrate how large the aircraft once appeared to me, at a young age. Here she wears the prior scheme, in the colors of former operator Dodson International Air.

And, yet, the wings of progress and the fires of economic calamity would spell the end. Detroit and its winged suppliers failed to escape the recession. Mother Nature spurred a brief flurry of activity: 50J was pressed into service after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina to fly rescued dogs from the Gulf Coast to new homes and shelters inland. Yet, even as those Louisiana floodwaters receded, the cargo business in Morristown dried up, slowly but surely. More and more, the airplane was parked on its lonely, deserted tarmac home. It passed the years out there, six decades removed from its genesis in a Long Beach factory in World War II’s darkest days.

Reprieve and salvation emerged in the format of a gleaming sister aircraft. N17334, that one was registered. Many know it as the Flagship Detroit, an immaculate DC-3 restoration completed by the employees of American Airlines to honor the company’s long heritage. The Morristown owners of 50J, being one of the few DC-3 maintenance providers to be found, were eventually retained to complete maintenance on the Flagship. One day – around 2007 – both airplanes were parked at Moore-Murrell, side by side. The contrast was remarkable; on one side, the mirror-finished, blindingly-reflective, orange-striped DC-3 with freshly painted American Airlines titles; on the other, 50J, in the same dull metallic glory I had always known. Beauty isn’t only skin deep when it comes to airplanes. Their beauty lies within. 50J won the beauty contest that day, in my eyes.

Needless to say, DC-3 pilots are difficult to come by, and the Flagship was far too valuable to be used for training circuits. So 50J found a new purpose in life. She was flown to Shelbyville, Tennessee, and there became the official training aircraft of the Flagship Detroit Foundation. It was a fitting mission, in a way. She wasn’t beautiful in the cosmetic sense of the Flagship, but she was experienced, and wise, and became a training tool for pilots whose grandparents grew up flying aboard her. The days of passenger service had passed by. Domestic auto manufacturing was collapsing, carrying 50J’s freight contracts into the abyss with it. But here was a new goal, a new mission, a new purpose. This plane that had seen so much, that had traveled the world since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, still had lessons to teach for those who cared to learn.

N4550J at Knoxville, 2010. Note the suspended owl figurine, intended to keep birds away from the engines.

N4550J at Knoxville, 2010. Note the suspended hawk figurine, intended to keep birds away from the engines.

Nothing, sadly, is forever, and I met the airplane again in 2010. I was at Knoxville’s small Downtown Island Airport when a big silver airplane parked in a remote corner of the field caught my eye. I knew that dull glint anywhere. It was 50J, back in East Tennessee. I walked over, camera in hand. She looked the same as ever. The old Dodson International titles were perhaps a bit more faded than the last I’d seen them, but the worn livery still carried its comfortable familiarity. I walked all around, making photographs and reminiscing about the old days. The plane still looked big to a fifteen-year-old, but not in the striking way it had over a decade before.

She languished in Knoxville for some time. A destructive April 2011 hailstorm damaged her control surfaces, and repairs were slowly completed under the blazing summer sun. Her owners decided the end had come, and a sale was supposedly arranged, either to Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. This was not completed, and 50J found her way to Kentucky. For a brief time, her role as a freighter was reprised. There were a few more all-night runs, carrying who knows what for who knows who. 50J had been born on the right side of the Depression, emerging into the California light after economic calamity had been swept away by the crashing waves of war. This recession was not so survivable, and presently the airplane went up for sale.

For the intervening period, I lost track of 50J, unaware of her whereabouts. Indeed, until Oshkosh this year, I had not thought about the airplane in some time. And so it was that on a glowing Wisconsin summer evening, we had our reunion out in the grassy fields of Wittman Regional Airport.

N4550J looms above my head one last time, preparing to depart Oshkosh wearing full ALSIB 2015 livery.

N4550J looms above my head one last time, preparing to depart Oshkosh for a new home in Russia.

Wow, it looked different. Gone were the old Dodson colors. As I stared south across the runway at my newly arrived old friend, I marveled at the change. She was emblazoned with all sorts of bright decals and insignia. My eyes quickly drifted to a large red star painted near the tail. How odd, I thought. What is this about? More Russian titles caught my eye. Where the Dodson titles had once been was now a Cyrillic Aeroflot decal and the words ALSIB 2015. I smiled a bit when I noticed the familiar old block letters beside the mammoth tail: N4550J. Try as they might, they still couldn’t get rid of that old familiar livery. Yes, indeed, here she was, basking in golden light on a beautiful July evening. Why, I wondered? What brought her here?

Google told me. I searched for ALSIB 2015, and quickly found results. It is an acronym for Alaska-Siberia 2015, and is a commemorative flight in honor of those who ferried aircraft over the frigid waters of the Northern Pacific during World War II. 50J, it turned out, had been acquired to participate in the flight, which was to begin at Great Falls, Montana, in two days. That’s great, I thought. Living history.

I read on.

“After the flight, the planes will be transferred to the Museum of the Armed Forces of Russia.”

Damn.

A close view of the ALSIB 2015 mission insignia, painted on the forward left fuselage. Note the lettering in both English and Russian.

A close view of the ALSIB 2015 mission insignia, painted on the forward left fuselage. Note the lettering in both English and Russian.

That was my reaction. Selfish, of course. What better way for a faithful airplane to meet her end, on display in a museum someplace? I’ve seen too many just rot away, or be cannibalized for spare parts. Preservation in a museum is the rarest of retirement gifts bestowed upon our faithful winged friends. Even so, I couldn’t help the twinge of sadness that hit me as I read the words. Why couldn’t it be a museum here? Why there? Alas, the happy reunion had become a poignant goodbye. I looked across the field at her, resplendent in those new colors. I next looked at the sun sinking below the western horizon. Well, I thought. It’s rising in Russia. Off into the sunset, off at last into retirement.

Early next morning, I went to see her. My timing couldn’t have been better. The flight crew was boarding. It was a beautiful morning, as I stood once again beneath the giant fuselage, eyes wandering across familiar details. I thought about my four-year-old self, removed by six hundred miles and sixteen years. Maybe, just maybe, things weren’t so different after all. 50J still looked the same to me. Why, I wondered? Maybe because I’d learned to see beneath the paint, new or faded, beneath the dirt and dust and grime, into the throbbing radial heart inside. I owed this airplane something, I realized. Maybe that old freighter spurred the passion for aviation that I carry with me always. Maybe airplanes don’t have a personality in the human sense, but perhaps they can shape people. I know this one shaped me.

All too soon, the majestic radial engines came to life, throbbing, sputtering, producing great amounts of black smoke. An orange-vested flagman came forward, ready to direct the airplane off on her last journey. The throttles were advanced, and the big tires dug into the soft grass. 50J began to roll.

So this was goodbye.

I watched her taxi forward, then make the sharp right turn onto the active taxiway. A great cloud of smoke, dust, and dirt flew up. Something was in my eye, and I blinked it away.

Moments later, I heard the rumble from down the runway. N4550J was leaving. I turned to watch. All at once, she was airborne, right in front of me, banking sharply off to the right, into the mystic of an unknown future a world away.

Farewell, my old friend. Thanks for all the memories.

And maybe I’ll go to Russia someday.

Farewell and Godspeed, N4550J. Lyrics from "Now Comes the Night" by Rob Thomas.

Farewell and Godspeed, N4550J.
Lyrics from “Now Comes the Night” by Rob Thomas.

Author’s Note

The history of N4550J is fascinating to study in itself. Delivered in 1942, registered 41-38672, she first served with the United States Army Air Force, with units in North Africa and the Netherlands. She was transferred to the French civilian register as F-BEFF and saw service with a collection of French aviation companies, among them Aigle Azur, UAT, and Autrex (when she potentially flew in the former French Indochina). From there, F-BEFF entered service with the French Air Force, first with bureau number 38672 (derived from her former USAAF identity), and then a series of civilian registrations, ending her military service in 1973 at the age of thirty-one. From France it was off to warmer climes – the French West Indies –  where she flew as F-OGFJ for Air Antilles, Air Martinique, and Air Guadeloupe. (Here she is seen in Air Antilles colors at Guadeloupe in 1976). She finished her career in the Caribbean with Air Guadeloupe (seen here in 1981) in 1983, when she was transferred to a new owner via Opa Locka, Florida, entering the U.S. register as N4550J. She wore the Air Guadeloupe colors – minus the titles – until at least 1992, eventually being painted in the Dodson International Air livery, which remained for the duration of her service life in some capacity.

Sources for the above include:

The Warbird Information Exchange

OneSpotter.com

Aerial Visuals

One can learn much about the ALSIB 2015 flight by visiting the website of the Bravo 369 Flight Foundation here: http://bravo369.net

Their mission was remarkable, and they deserve all credit for making it happen, and preserving these stunningly vital, yet often forgotten pieces of history.

And, finally, I have found photo confirmation of my beloved bird’s arrival in Russia. Here she is, with a sister ship, on display in Russia on August 7.

The True Meaning of Travel

•December 14, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Travel. The word itself conjures countless ideas, visions, and emotions. Every human being thinks of travel in different ways. For many, perhaps, travel evokes thoughts of long waiting lines at airports, traffic jams, or the quintessential summer vacation. This concept is but a microcosm of travel, which, in its essence, means much more. At its broadest dictionary definition, travel is “to move, pass, or be transmitted.” To define travel is to define a journey, a quest, a homecoming, a final departure, or an escape. Travel is advancement through the human experience: the journey of life.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetThe physical act of travel has undergone a remarkable transformation during the past two centuries. It was stifled for millennia by the limits of human mobility. Finally, advances in technology spurred a renaissance, as new forms of transportation were born. Railroads blazed the trail, and then humanity conquered the skies, slipping the surly bonds of Earth for the first time. Even a single century brought incredible progress: in May 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed. One hundred years and two months later, man would travel nearly 250,000 miles to the moon. The problems of distance and human endurance were vanquished; still, the definition of travel has grown ever more complex, as the literal act of it has become much simpler.

If travel is defined by the individual, what defines travel? The answer lies with circumstance. Every person lives in different conditions and in different environments. The definition of travel varies with human existence. An individual’s socio-economic status, country of origin, employment, family, and life experiences help to shape personal definitions of travel. For wealthy New York socialites, to travel might be to fly via private jet to Palm Beach for the weekend. A middle-class family in Britain might take advantage of discount flights to Spain for a summer holiday. A poor family in the rural Appalachian coal country may only travel to the county seat, in search of work, housing, or support. For their children, an excursion to a nearby urban shopping mall could be their first exposure to the world beyond the rugged hills.

The reasons for travel change as well: people travel for work, pleasure, education, love, war, and survival; some only travel for the journey itself.  In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson,

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” 

The siren song of wandering calls out to many people.

Consider for a moment the journeys embarked upon by humans, even at this very moment in time. Across the world, travelers are departing on the vacations of their dreams. Many people are going home: home to stay, home to visit, home to welcome a new baby, or home to say goodbye to an old friend. Business people are traveling, to make deals, to visit faraway factories, or to otherwise supervise the engines of the world economic machine. Somewhere, perhaps, a small boat carrying dozens of desperate immigrants is sailing across stormy waters, in search of new opportunities in distant nations. There are refugees on their own travels across lands near and far; victims of oppression, famine, and natural disasters. While one person may be traveling to Italy for a grand culinary tour, someone on the African continent is simultaneously engaged in a trek in search of food and water. One person’s vacation is another’s mighty struggle for survival, yet with the same goals and the same common link: travel. 

Journeys do not have to be physical. Consider the recent preponderance of travel television shows. It is now possible to view the wonders of Earth in high-definition clarity without ever leaving home. And, for some, travel is a journey that takes place only in the mind’s eye. To reflect on life’s memories is to travel back in time, if only in the imagination. An elderly person, afflicted with dementia, might spend their days reliving their early lives, if only to themselves. In the words of Claire Day, who works with the Delaware Valley Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, “reminiscing is the success of people with dementia.” Even these people are travelers, mentally returning to better days and happier times. 

The march of time is the travel of the world. Everyone is constantly traveling; even as we sit stationary, we are travelers through the universe, with Earth as our conveyance. Travel is the voyage of all humankind, our shared progress through time, space, and distance. It satisfies yearnings of exploration and discovery, for, as it was once said,

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 

In this quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, the reader is encouraged to set out on their own travels, free from fear and in search of a great adventure. For, indeed, to travel is to live and to live is to travel. Life itself is the grandest of journeys, and travel is the progress along the path of the human experience. 

AirVenture 2013 in Photos

•August 19, 2013 • 2 Comments

For a week each summer, Wittman Regional Airport, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, becomes the center of the aviation universe. The reason for this transformation is simple: Oshkosh is the headquarters of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), which holds the annual AirVenture Oshkosh event. AirVenture is many things: airshow….campground….market….show room….reunion. Truly, AirVenture is the grand gathering of all things aviation. Oftentimes it is known simply by its location: talk about Oshkosh, and anyone in aviation will know exactly what you mean.

I have been an attendee at AirVenture every year since 2002. I spent six days on the show grounds this year, capturing several thousand photographs along the way. Early worries about a diminished show due to military budget cutbacks rapidly evaporated upon arrival, and soon it became clear that AirVenture 2013 would be one of the best yet.

I have selected a few of my favorite photographs from this year’s AirVenture. I hope they will convey some of the magic of this very special event.

A Grumman TBM-3E Avenger, just before takeoff on runway 27. The Avenger, a World War II torpedo bomber, was the type aircraft flown by the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush. This aircraft carries his name, seen below the pilot's canopy.

A Grumman TBM-3E Avenger, just before takeoff on runway 27. The Avenger, a World War II torpedo bomber, was the type aircraft flown by the 41st President of the United States, George H.W. Bush. This aircraft carries his name, seen below the pilot’s canopy.

N807NN, a Boeing 737-800, wearing the new livery of American Airlines. The aircraft overnighted in Oshkosh, before carrying a group of Vietnam veterans to Washington, DC, on an Honor Flight trip the following day.

N807NN, a Boeing 737-800, wearing the new livery of American Airlines. The aircraft overnighted in Oshkosh, before carrying a group of Vietnam veterans to Washington, DC, on an Honor Flight trip the following day.

The Shockwave Jet Truck, a heavily modified semi capable of speeds over 300 mph, prepares to race a Beech 18 piloted by Matt Younkin.

The Shockwave Jet Truck, a heavily modified semi capable of speeds over 300 miles per hour, prepares to race a Beech 18 piloted by Matt Younkin.

The AeroShell Aerobatic Team, seen during a performance at AirVenture. The team, which flies four North American AT-6 Texans, has been a fixture on the airshow circuit for over 25 years.

The AeroShell Aerobatic Team, seen during a performance at AirVenture. The team, which flies four North American AT-6 Texans, has been a fixture on the airshow circuit for over 25 years.

The nose of an Embraer Phenom 300, seen in this black-and-white capture. Over 100 have been built since the Phenom 300 was introduced in 2009.

The nose of an Embraer Phenom 300, seen in this black-and-white capture. Over 100 have been built since the jet was introduced in 2009.

This Eclipse 500 wears one of the most unique paint schemes I have ever seen. The Eclipse 500 is one of the only very-light-jet aircraft to reach production.

This Eclipse 500 wears one of the most unique paint schemes I have ever seen. Evening light lent itself quite well to the unique color palette on this beautiful aircraft.

This display redefines the formation takeoff. This impressive maneuver is demonstrated here by Skip Stewart and Melissa Pemberton.

This display redefines the formation takeoff. This impressive maneuver is demonstrated here by Skip Stewart and Melissa Pemberton.

This image is perhaps my favorite from AirVenture 2013. It depicts an immaculate Douglas C-47 basking in the warm glow of the evening sun.

This image is perhaps my favorite from AirVenture 2013. It depicts an immaculate Douglas C-47 basking in the warm glow of the evening sun.

More images will follow in the coming days.

Top of the World: A Trip to LeConte Lodge

•July 8, 2013 • 3 Comments

The mountains are calling and I must go.

– John Muir

MOUNT LECONTE IS one of the tallest mountains in the Eastern United States; indeed, the sixth-highest on the eastern side of the Mississippi River. The mountain, at 6,593 feet in height, stands several miles north of the main divide of the Great Smoky Mountains. Thus, the view to the north from the summit encompasses the wide expanse of the Tennessee Valley, almost exactly one mile below. To the south, east, and west, the entire Smoky Mountain stretches for mile after mile. LeConte is therefore extremely prominent, and easily distinguished from afar as being notably detached from the main chain of the Smokies. This divide – which doubles as the Tennessee / North Carolina line – is connected to Mount LeConte by a long, thin ridge called the Boulevard. This ridge provides a lengthy but scenic access to the summit, after departing from a junction with the Appalachian Trail.

Atop Mount LeConte is one of the more unique establishments found within a national park. Located just west of and below the summit, LeConte Lodge is a collection of rustic cabins and small wooden lodges. The lodge has existed in some form since 1926, when initial construction began. Since then, LeConte Lodge has developed into a rustic retreat accommodating up to 50 guests per night. There is no electricity; however, the buildings are heated, and illumination comes from kerosene lanterns. Hot meals are offered; a welcome treat after a strenuous hike to the summit.

photo 2

Part of the LeConte Lodge compound, June 29, 2013

I have visited LeConte Lodge seven times now. The first occasion came at the age of twelve, when my Dad and I stayed on the mountain on the night of July 7, 2007. Five trips followed in relatively quick succession. Attempts to obtain an overnight reservation were, of late, unsuccessful. Finally, a reservation came available for the night of June 28, 2013.

Watching the weather forecast for the mountain during the week preceding the trip proved to be a slightly troubling exercise. The chance of rain kept climbing, and the Tennessee Valley had settled into the familiar afternoon-thunderstorms pattern so common during the summer. This couldn’t be helped, of course, and that’s what rain jackets are for. Backpacks were filled, and our Friday morning departure was set.

Friday dawned somewhat better than forecasted; mostly clear in the morning, with ground fog. We drove the nearly two hours to the trailhead, and even scored a genuine parking space – a first! Our typical trail of choice is the Alum Cave Trail. This trail begins off of Newfound Gap Road, and offers the shortest route to the summit. One climbs over two thousand feet in the space of around 5.2 miles of trail. The hike to the top was uneventful; during the last mile or so, stunning vistas of the main divide of the Smokies offer welcome distraction from the steep and rocky climb. By this point, the sky had turned to an almost-complete overcast. Evidence of previous rains could be found all over the trail; where it is usually dry and rocky, it resembled a small creek. I was thankful for the waterproof hiking shoes I was wearing during that last mile.

Upon arrival at the lodge, Dad and I looked out over the valley below. Visibility was limited by the ever-present summertime haze layer, but one could see for a few miles before ground and cloud blurred together at the horizon. This condition was to be short-lived. Within a few minutes, fog rolled in, blanketing the top of Mount LeConte and cutting visibility down to scarcely over 100 feet. “Fog” on the mountain is somewhat different from the sort of fog seen in the valley below. While it might be a partly-cloudy day down below, the clouds often move across the summit. Thus the sensation is something like flying through clouds, though with your feet on solid ground. The ever-darkening clouds brought with them rumbles of thunder and heavy rains. I had commented for years about how I’d like to be on the mountain during a storm. I got my wish that afternoon. It worked out rather well that we were no longer out on the trail, and had the luxury of watching the rain from the rocking chairs on the cabin’s porch.

photo 1

Rain on LeConte

Weather observation and the consumption of hot chocolate filled the remainder of the afternoon. It rained for some time, before ceasing only minutes before the 6:00 dinner bell. The clouds, swirling by the summit, thickened, and visibility was reduced again. Very little natural light was available to illuminate the dining hall, and we ate mostly by lamplight. Sunset – the main event on Mount LeConte – was set for 8:53 PM. I remained optimistic while enjoying large helpings of roast beef and staring out of the windows…but bits of optimism were continually replaced by the mist.

Returning to the cabin after dinner, the waiting game began. My optimistic glances at the clouds were guided by experience…on the first visit I had made to the lodge, six years earlier, the fog had been so thick when we arrived that visibility was cut to mere feet. Before sunset time, however, the clouds had vanished  to be replaced by a spectacular fiery sunset. Surely a repeat performance was in order….wasn’t it?

8:00 went by with scarcely a glimpse of anything but gray clouds. Even so, we decided to make the trip to Cliff Tops, where one best views the sunset on the mountain. The hike to Cliff Tops is an uphill 0.2 miles over rocks; these rocks were instead a flowing creek, courtesy of the downpour. I had hoped for some clearing of the weather by the time we reached Cliff Tops, but it wasn’t to be. The steep rocky ledge comprising our destination was all that could be seen. Ahead was a solid wall of white cloud, sliding across the mountain, propelled by a cold wind. Even in July, a wintertime jacket was needed.

Cliff Tops, June 28, 2013. Swirling clouds obscure the stunning vistas beyond.

Cliff Tops, June 28, 2013. Swirling clouds obscure the stunning vistas beyond.

There was still hope as the time of sunset approached. Every glance at my watch seemed to cause a tantalizing flash of sunlight through the clouds. The time of sunset was reached, and passed, and still the clouds persisted. And then, suddenly, a break began to appear far below. The dim outlines of trees would appear for a brief second, illuminated by the golden glow of the vanishing sun. A ridge would come into view, only to vanish as a new wave of cloud flashed by. Working quickly, I set up my tripod and captured a few images, before the window into the sunset vanished once again.

The sunset appears...and vanishes again. Cliff Top, June 28, 2013.

The sunset appears…and vanishes again. Cliff Top, June 28, 2013.

I realized here that I would have to be content with the photos I had captured. Darkness was arriving, marching in from behind us, to the east, chasing the sun further down below the horizon.

And then it happened.

Suddenly, we weren’t in the middle of the cloud layer. We were at the top. The clear skies of twilight could abruptly be seen directly overhead. It seemed now as though we were surfing waves of cloud; half in the clear, with the vista below still quite obscured. But the clearing trend continued, and flashes of mountains began appearing as the strengthening winds cleared the way.

Above the Clouds

Above the Clouds

And, all at once, the full glory of a LeConte sunset burst into view. As the clouds cleared, it was as though a curtain had been lifted. Sunlight, mountains, clouds, distant flickering lights, trees, everything – suddenly in full view. It was all at once impossible to decide where to look first…everywhere, it seemed, there was a new scene even more spectacular than the last. I took photo after photo, determined to capture the sudden magic for all time. We were now above the clouds, which danced between ridges, helping the Smokies live up to their name. The sun, fully vanished now, still cast a brilliant yellow-orange illumination on a line across the horizon. Elsewhere, the skies were every shade of blue and purple imaginable.

Finally, in the clear

Finally, in the clear

While the remains of sunset were spectacular enough, the truly amazing sights were to be found to the left (the south) of the current frame. Looking on a line to Clingmans Dome, some 10 miles distant, the mountains appeared as spectacular as I have ever seen.

Where once there were only clouds...now, a vista as impressive as I have ever seen. The rocks seen in the bottom of the frame are those seen earlier in this post. Pictured looking toward Clingmans Dome from Cliff Top.

Where once there were only clouds…now, a vista as impressive as I have ever seen. The rocks seen in the bottom of the frame are those seen earlier in this post. Pictured looking toward Clingmans Dome from Cliff Top.

Darkness was arriving, and I shut down the camera in order to take in the view fully, with my own eyes. It didn’t stay off for very long…I just had to capture one last set of images. This sequence shows the western edge of Mount LeConte, and the ridges beyond, still partly shrouded in fog. Shortly thereafter, darkness settled over the mountains completely, and it was time to go.

Moments before darkness...one last look.

Moments before darkness…one last look.

Staying for the arrival of darkness necessitates a night hike back to the lodge. Properly equipped with flashlights, this is usually a straightforward exercise. However, this occasion made things a bit more interesting. Remember the rain? The trip back to the lodge now involved a descent down a rocky stream, flowing with water. Moving slowly and carefully, this excursion back was accomplished without incident.

The clouds followed us back to the cabin. Shortly after arriving, the glittering mass of lights in the valley below vanished, replaced by almost complete blackness. Silence gradually descended as other guests at the lodge retired to bed. Someone had a guitar, and made an attempt at music. This too turned quiet, and the inky stillness grew heavy.

Minutes before midnight, just before bed, the sky cleared again. Mist was replaced by a carpet of stars unlike any I have ever seen. The city lights are interesting to view; the spectacle above is utterly mesmerizing. I saw two firsts for me, that night, looking up at the thousands of points of light. Shooting stars…not one, but three, exactly as I had envisioned them. And then, most impressive of all….the blurred outline of a nebula.

It rained again during the night. Around 5 AM, I awoke to the sound of strong winds blowing sheets of water against the cabin walls. This downpour passed, and morning dawned as I watched from the cabin porch, coffee in hand. There were scattered clouds across the valley below, and occasionally one would drift across the lodge compound. Mostly, though, there was fog in the lower-lying areas of the valley. This pattern presented the perfect opportunity for another round of pictures.

The view from the LeConte Lodge Office on the morning of June 29, 2013...English Mountain, surrounded by patches of ground fog.

The view from the LeConte Lodge Office on the morning of June 29, 2013…English Mountain, surrounded by patches of ground fog.

Soon, it was time for the always-delicious breakfast of pancakes, ham, and eggs. Shortly thereafter, we hiked down the mountain. The rain from the previous night had further saturated the trail, which crossed over waterfalls where once there were only dry creekbeds. However, the hike was uneventful, and, walking down the trail, we took wonderful memories home with us.

Special thanks to Denver Childress for suggesting the name for this post!

FSXFlight: A Powerful Flight Simulation Tool

•March 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Readers of this blog are by now familiar with ForeFlight, the stunning aviation application for Apple iOS devices. In brief, ForeFlight, which is offered for a $75 subscription, offers users touch flight planning, navigation and airport charts, airport information, weather radar, and much more, all in an easy-to-use application. When paired with external GPS and ADS-B devices, ForeFlight becomes a moving map display complete with in-flight charts and weather information. Another $75 (for a total of $150 yearly) buys users geo-referenced approach plates, a tremendously useful safety tool, and an incredible convenience.

Enter here another branch of my aviation hobby: flight simulation. I’ve been using the Microsoft Flight Simulator series for around ten years. I first started using Flight Simulator 2002…I would fly around until I was done; then crash the airplane, as I didn’t yet know how to land. As my interest increased, I taught myself to fly properly, and then to land. Microsoft released two later versions of the game, ending up with Flight Simulator X, which I have used for over three years. These days, I fly all around the world, often using VATSIM, which offers real-world air traffic control services for flight simulation pilots. I do a lot of flying for virtual airline organizations, which simulate real-world airline operations with incredible detail.

Of course, the simulator flying follows along with my real-world flying, and I had used ForeFlight aboard real aircraft for quite some time. I also used it to plan flights on the simulator. This, needless to say, was excellent training on how to use the app. So, when I saw a report on Twitter about a program to link Flight Simulator X and ForeFlight, I knew I had to try it! The program in question is called FSXFlight. It is a simple .exe utility developed by software developer Jacob Eiting (on Twitter at @jeiting). The program normally sells for $14.99, but is currently selling for only $4.99. It’s worth far more!

After purchasing and downloading FSXFlight, it takes only a few steps to connect ForeFlight with Flight Simulator X. Once connected, FSXFlight instantly sends navigation information from Flight Simulator X to ForeFlight. Essentially, ForeFlight believes it is receiving GPS signals from a real receiver. Thus, your postion, speed, altitude, heading, and other vital facts are displayed on the ForeFlight screen. This is an incredible advancement for flight simulation…now users have an external moving map, complete with weather radar, airport information, and access to en-route and airport charts!

Below are a few screenshots from ForeFlight (running on a third-generation iPad), showing FSXFlight in use during a Flight Simulator X flight from Charleston, South Carolina, to Orlando, Florida. As you can see, even the geo-referenced approach plates perform perfectly with FSXFlight.

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Besides the obvious benefits to flight simulation enthusiasts, FSXFlight can create a powerful training aid as well. This works in two ways: first, what better way to learn all about the countless features of ForeFlight than to simulate an actual flight using the product? Now features such as the geo-referenced approach plates can be showcased using only a computer and a copy of Flight Simulator X; instead of actually having to be in an airplane.

Secondly, I see good possibilites for this product in support of flight training. I personally used ForeFlight, FSXFlight, and Flight Simulator X to become familiar with VOR navigation, before practicing in the real world. Concepts such as chart reading and navigation can be taught in the comfort of one’s home, flying a virtual aircraft, before they are put into practice in the skies. It’s much easier to learn these concepts while sitting on the ground, rather than in the air while dealing with distractions such as turbulence, traffic, and radio transmissions.

All in all, I would call FSXFlight the best $5 I have ever spent. It links two outstanding programs – Flight Simulator X and ForeFlight  – adding to each the many benefits of the other. In my experience, which involves dozens of flight hours, I have never experienced a crash of FSXFlight…or a crash of FSX caused by it. The program runs in the background, and connects automatically to FSX when the game is opened. For just a few dollars, you have a perfectly reliable program whose value cannot be overstated.

FSXFlight is available at fsxflight.com

For more about ForeFlight, please visit their website at foreflight.com 

Microsoft Flight Simulator X can be purchased from retailers such as Amazon for $20 – $30.

 

A Perfect Pairing: The RAM Mount and the iPad Mini

•February 9, 2013 • 6 Comments

Readers of this blog will recall my November post detailing a flight test with the iPad Mini. At that time, few mounting options were available for the new device. However, Dad recently received products from RAM Mounting Systems for use in the airplane. Upon their arrival, a trip to the airport was in order. Brief examination found the RAM Mounts to be very well suited for use in the plane, a Cessna 182.

The mounting system we used is a two-part unit with each piece sold separately, for a combined price of around $55. The suction cup mount is the RAM Twist Lock Suction Cup with Double Socket Arm and Round Base Adapter. The iPad Mini is enclosed in the RAM EZ-ROLL’R™ Model Specific Cradle for the Apple iPad mini WITHOUT CASE, SKIN OR SLEEVE, which attaches to the suction cup mount. Descriptions of these products are available here and here. 

Initial impressions of the suction cup suggest that it will mount easily to an aircraft windshield. The mount can be used in either portrait or landscape orientation, but we found that the landscape orientation would cover parts of the airspeed indicator and other instruments. However, in portrait mode, the mount allowed the iPad Mini to be easily used and viewed, without covering any of the panel.

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A view of the iPad Mini / RAM Mount, seen from the left seat of a Cessna 182. As you can see, the device is easy to see and use. It also doesn’t cover any instruments, or limit visibility.

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Another view of the RAM Mount with an iPad Mini, viewed from the right seat. Here you can get a better idea of the device’s placement on the windshield in relation to the panel and the left side door.

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This close-up view demonstrates the design of the two-piece mounting system and how it securely holds the iPad Mini. The round disc just below the iPad is not part of the RAM Mount…it is an old mount for a Garmin GPS unit.

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This view from outside the airplane demonstrates the design of the mount, and how it secures the iPad Mini with multiple locking points. 

The RAM Mount provides an excellent combination of security and flexibility. The suction cup mount seems to hold securely to proper surfaces, and accidentally prying the iPad Mini from its grip seems impossible. The overall construction, design, and quality seem to be top-notch. Although it holds devices securely, the mount offers numerous, easy-to-use adjustments. It is a simple matter to change the viewing angle of the device to one’s personal preference.

All in all, the RAM Mount seems to be the ideal companion for the iPad Mini in an airplane. It mounts perfectly on one side of the windshield, thus integrating itself with the instrument panel in a way yoke mounts and kneeboards never can. Simple adjustments allow users to modify its viewing angle to their personal liking, and the quality and durability seem to be first-rate.

A brief note…this mounting system was tested in a Cessna 182, so I cannot vouch for the best mounting locations in other types of aircraft. It is up to the user to determine the best mounting position in their particular aircraft.

Questions and feedback are welcome, via Twitter at @mdgjedde or the Comments section of this blog.

2012 Favorites

•January 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I enjoy the hobby of photography for numerous reasons. One: the simple joy of getting that great shot; another for the new perspective one gains from searching for unique subjects. But, one of the best reasons is this: to preserve memories. At the end of the year, it’s always fun to look back at your photos, to choose favorites, and most of all, to remember the experiences associated with each and every shot. That is my goal in this post. They’re not necessarily the “best” photos I took during 2012, but, rather, those that have the best stories to tell, and hold the most value for me.

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This particular image has appeared on this blog before. It is a sight not likely to be repeated…row after row of yellow Piper J-3 Cubs, which were gathered at AirVenture last July, to celebrate their 75th anniversary. As evidenced by the tent under the left wing of this particular Cub, many pilots camped beside their airplanes throughout the week. It was fascinating to stroll from airplane to airplane, admiring many an immaculate restoration, while noting the similarities – and differences – between each Cub.

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Here you have one of my all-time favorite aerobatic photos. The aircraft is a Boeing PT-17 Stearman, which was one of the primary training aircraft used by the United States during World War II. The pilot is John Mohr, who performs a spectacular demonstration with the aircraft at airshows around the country. This extremely low photo pass is from AirVenture in July.

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Of course, the family airplane has to make an appearance in any “Favorite Shots” compilation. Any nepotism aside, this is truly one of my favorite photographs from 2012. (Also, it showcases the remarkable quality of the third-generation iPad camera). The occasion to snap this one came about thanks to the Stratus ADS-B weather device, reviewed in another post on this blog. My Dad had just received the device, and we knew we needed to take it for a test flight. A rainstorm had just moved through the airport when we returned, and the wet pavement coupled with the setting sun presented the perfect opportunity to take this shot.

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Charleston, South Carolina exists as one of my favorite places on Earth. It’s also the perfect environment for photography. Some may recognize the scene in this photograph…the windows of the Mills House Hotel, located on Meeting Street downtown. This shot was taken on the Queen Street side of the building, with summertime afternoon sun providing illumination.

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Returning one last time to aviation-related subjects, here you see four Blue Angels F-18’s during a performance in Smyrna, Tennessee. I had never seen the group before, and the trip to the Great Tennessee Air Show in May ranks as a 2012 highlight. We flew down for the day, and enjoyed a full day of aerobatic demonstrations. The airshow that day was bookended by rainstorms, as evidenced by the gray skies in this photo. However, the show went on, and the thrilling Blue Angels performance offered countless photo opportunities. Minutes after they landed, the skies unleashed a downpour, and we departed for home as the rain continued to fall.

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As a NASCAR fan, I feel compelled to share this one. It was taken in March, at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee. I had never been to the track before, so this first visit was exceptionally memorable. I watched Sprint Cup practice and qualifying, and Nationwide Series practice on this particular Friday. The car seen in the photo is the #2 Dodge of Brad Keselowski. Two days later, he would pick up his first win of the 2012 season, which ended in November with Keselowski crowned Sprint Cup Series Champion.

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For the last shot in this collection, let’s visit Charleston once again. This shot, in addition to closing out this post, also closed out 2012: it was taken on the evening of December 28, days before the New Year. It’s a panoramic look at downtown Charleston, viewed from the rooftop terrace of the HarbourView Inn, located adjacent to Waterfront Park. The pink building just right of center in the far distance is the Mills House, as seen above. The street is Vendue Range; the steeple on the right side of the frame; St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, established in 1681. The steeple dates to around 1848-50.

What a year it was! 2013 promises to be even better, and hopefully will include more memorable shots.

 
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