It was to be a big day for me and my recently finished Pietenpol, C-FPET. I had travelled across three states and spent the last few days in Brodhead, Wisconsin, where I slept under the wing of the airplane at night and barnstormed and hopped rides during the day. It was an idyllic, relaxing event spent with like-minded people — both those who had built before me and those who one day hope to build their own Pietenpol. But with every fly-in event, the final night had come to an end and I packed my camping gear in to my airplane and prepared to move on to what many Brodhead regulars call, “the other show.”
I participated in a briefing for a group arrival with four other pilots the afternoon before and spent more time on my own the following morning over a cup of coffee reviewing the procedure for the arrival into the Oshkosh ultralight field. It was an odd arrival compared to what I had experienced many times years before. Unlike Fisk and Ripon and “wag your wings” and “land on the green dot,” this was a very precise, low altitude arrival meant to be safely tucked under all of the Oshkosh arriving traffic and terminating on a patch of grass only 800 feet long. Furthermore, that patch of grass was oriented perpendicular to our arrival track and hidden by standing trees until revealing itself in the last moment. I looked forward to the flight but also felt grateful to be part of a group who had done this before. All kinds of aviators, the experienced ones simply reassured the rest of us that we wouldn’t find the whole experience terribly challenging. I reflected on those comments, having heard them before and not always agreeing with the assessment afterwards.
Gear packed, engines warmed, and pilots ready, we taxied in a group over to the departure end of Runway 27 at Brodhead. Our rendezvous point would be Hartford Airport — a field only 38 miles south of Oshkosh. There we would contact the ultralight field boss and request permission to fly the procedure after providing an ETA. The agreement was that if the group broke up or lost an airplane it would be everyone for themselves. After the first three aircraft departed, I lined up behind my friend Kirk in his P70 Acey Deucy. I watched the grass flatten behind Kirk’s aircraft as he advanced the throttle and soon he was briskly rolling down the runway. Throttling up behind him I was soon airborne behind him only to hear a quick report on the frequency from him, “Returning to Brodhead, I have a flight control problem.” I followed Kirk back down to the field after flying a tight pattern and watched him complete a nice touchdown and clear off the field to the side of the runway.
By the time I shut down and extracted myself from my airplane, Kirk’s rear seat and camping gear were already strewn about the grass next to his airplane and he was bent over the rear cockpit examining something deep in the bottom of the fuselage. I grabbed my tool kit and spare parts bag from the baggage hold of the Pietenpol and headed toward him. “What’s up?” I asked, partly concerned for him and his airplane but partly annoyed that the three other airplanes were now headed toward Hartford without us. “My ailerons are stiff!” Kirk complained. Moving the stick left to right I felt a grinding sensation in the torque tube. Soon our Brodhead colleagues we had been spending time with over the past few days joined us in a golf cart with more tools, lubricants, and grease. It appeared that the Acey Deucy suffered from a little too much outdoor moisture and exposure on our trip, being used to a cushy lifestyle of a clean, dry hangar. A little LPS 1 and some quick repacking and we were on our way again with our friends about 45 minutes ahead of us.
Our arrival in to Hartford was uneventful but our three friends had already departed and were on their way to Oshkosh without us. As Kirk bought some gas, I got on the phone with the ultralight field boss. “Come on in!” the boss said with a cheery tone. We launched again and I led our flight north toward our destination. As we reached a small town ten miles south of the airfield I followed the procedure and descended to 500 feet AGL. The afternoon sun had created a significant amount of lift and sink at that altitude and we bumped and rolled up Highway 26 with folks below us sitting on lawn chairs in their yards waving up to us in encouragement. I waived back enthusiastically enjoying our little bit of notoriety and the warm hospitality that seems to come from everyone associated with AirVenture.
We reached the truck stop about five miles back where the arrival instructions directed us to descend to 300 feet. This would be the highest altitude we could fly from this point forward. The next few miles consisted of 90-degree turns left and right to avoid houses, barns, and parked airplanes eventually lining us up with the tree line west of Runway 36. I reminded myself not to fly over the parked aircraft as that was a bold statement in the NOTICE. Beginning to make out the Red Barn at the ultralight field I started to fill my situational awareness picture with where beyond the trees the runway would be.
As we closed in on a quarter mile I throttled to idle and began a descent, which put us at only 100 feet AGL as the field came in to view off to our left. A quick slipping turn put us down on the grass with a short roll and I steered the Piet off the runway to make way for Kirk who slipped in gracefully right behind me. What a thrill and what a terrific way to arrive at the show. What I didn’t know was that our “arrival” wasn’t quite over.
We were greeted by some of our EAA Canada Council members. Having been kindly offered parking of our aircraft in front of the EAA Canada Council tent on the show grounds meant we needed to move our machines from the ultralight field to close to air show centre. Chris Moran and Jeff Seaborn came up to my aircraft and after welcoming us, shared the plan. “You’re going to taxi north parallel to Runway 36 and follow the marshallers. I’ll be waiting for you on the other end.” I started the Pietenpol back up and followed Kirk across an open taxiway and off we went taxiing next to throngs of people in chairs next to the taxiway fence. Not sure of our routing, I simply followed Kirk as we progressed closer and closer to air show centre. Assuming we would pass the big entrance taxiway and sneak in some back road to our final parking spot I was both shocked and thrilled when the marshaller directed us to make a left turn and proceed up the big taxiway to show centre! How many years had I spent as a member of the audience watching the biggest, coolest, and most glamorous warbirds, classics, and show airplanes taxi gracefully up the “big road” with orange vested marshallers bringing them to a stop and photographers clicking away on either side behind the safety fence. Here I was sitting in my diminutive little homebuilt, wingtip to wingtip with my buddy Kirk, who only a few hours ago sat across from me at a picnic table in a quiet Brodhead field sipping a coffee.
Soon we were out of our machines and with the help of a few marshallers pushed them to the front of the EAA Canada Council tent where they would stay as proud markers for the next several days.
While chocking, installing tiedowns, and securing flight controls, I reflected on the day. That arrival will be something I will never forget. The kindness of everyone, from people sitting in their yards waving at us to the marshallers on the field, is such a great representation of what AirVenture offers the aviator in all of us. “A week of hanging with my peeps,” is how I describe it to friends and family. But this year, arriving in my homebuilt for the first time, was so much more. The ability to give a presentation on the experience of building the Pietenpol was very special to me.
The experiences I have had flying my Pietenpol after finishing its construction have consistently eclipsed any idea I entertained about what doing so would be like. My first arrival flying C-FPET into Oshkosh was something I always tried to visualize when building the airplane. The actual experience was so much more than I could ever have imagined and will remain forever a significant highlight in my life as an aviator.