Four Years That Flew By

Mac reflects on how he enjoyed flying his daughter to and from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Graduations are always a combination of happiness celebrating a job well done and sadness that a big part of the lives of everyone involved has come to an end. Over the four years our daughter Karen spent at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my Baron was involved in every phase. Karen had a wonderful college experience, but it wasn’t any better than mine.

It began with a campus visit to Chapel Hill. Her final two choices were Michigan and Carolina. Both schools are about two and half hours away by Baron from my home base at Westchester County Airport, just northeast of New York City. Nobody asked me, but if they had, I would have picked Chapel Hill and spending the four years flying up and down the East Coast instead of jolting across the entire length of Pennsylvania, with its perennially rotten weather, another time.

We flew down to Chapel Hill in early March, and the sky was Carolina Blue, as advertised. It was my first look at the Horace Williams Airport that the university owns and operates in Chapel Hill, and I was impressed only by its nearness to the campus. Williams is a marginal airport in most respects, with no taxiway, virtually no ramp space, tall pine trees on all four sides of the runway, including trees on a small hill 500 feet from the Runway 27 threshold that, according to the Jepp chart, top out 75 feet above runway elevation. The runway is 4,005 feet long, but its usable length is a lot less because of the trees intruding into the approach and departure paths. And if there is any breeze, the trees guarantee there will be big sinking spells on both takeoff and landing.

Chapel Hill is a beautiful spot, and the UNC campus and town join seamlessly into a place full of tradition while still offering every amenity a college kid could want. After visiting bleak Ann Arbor, with its dirty late February snow, cold and low clouds, Carolina was an easy choice for Karen to make. I was very happy with her choice, and that Carolina had chosen her, but on that first takeoff at Williams I fervently hoped that both engines would keep running for at least a minute or two as I stared at those trees towering at the end of the runway. I knew that I would think the same thing many times over the next four years.

Freshman move-in day was an exercise in Baron packing. Weight was a consideration, but I needed only three and one half hours of fuel, so I had about 1,300 pounds of payload available. But the bulk of all the stuff a college kid takes along can’t be compressed, so, as the FedEx people say, we were “cubing out” before we got to the weight limits. Despite my complaining that not everything would fit in the airplane, it somehow did, with just enough space for Karen, Stancie and me.

My memory of that day is of heat exhaustion and thunderstorms. Hundreds of kids were trying to move into the 10-story Hinton James freshman dorm at the same time with only three elevators. Karen drew a spot on the 10th floor. Temperatures were in the mid 90s with high humidity. It was either wait forever for an elevator or climb 10 flights of stairs. I didn’t have a heart attack that day, but it sure seemed like a possibility.

By the time the last load was up to the top floor, the thunderstorms were building to severe levels across Virginia and the rest of the route home to New York. I told Stancie the only thing to do was take off and see how far we could get. Finding the storms with eyeballs and the weather radar in the nose wouldn’t be a problem, but finding a way around them might be.

It was one of those days when all the major terminals in the Northeast were closed due to storms, so the controllers were letting me deviate as I wanted. Washington Center controllers got word from New York that New Jersey had the worst weather, so I started making my avoidance maneuvers to the west. The controllers were great, and I was just navigating by weather radar, turning to where the storms weren’t. After nothing but total freedom to deviate as necessary, I was surprised when a Washington approach controller told me that “I just had to turn left now.” As luck would have it, there was a break between cells and we popped out into the clear and I could see the ground. I was directly over the Pentagon and had been pointed at P-56, the prohibited area over Washington, D.C. That was 1999, when thunderstorms were a pilot’s biggest worry.

We almost made it home, but a big cell was right on the localizer into Westchester. After waiting a couple of hours at nearby Stewart, we departed for home and were the first airplane to land at Westchester in many hours.

There were flights to Chapel Hill for parents weekends, football and basketball games, and to take Karen back and forth for holidays. After the first year the Tar Heels basketball team let us down, but every visit to the campus was a joy. We flew through lots of crummy weather during the four years but only postponed one trip. On that day, a Sunday morning, I was flying Karen back to school after Thanksgiving. A nor’easter was ripping up the coast, and I dreaded the heavy rain and turbulence those winter storms bring. But the conditions are seldom convective in a nor’easter, so you can fly through them without breaking the wings off, so I filed the flight plan, we loaded the car and drove to the airport.

The rain was even heavier at the airport, and as I drove up and looked at my poor airplane sitting in the downpour, I had a brilliant idea. “When is your first class tomorrow?” I asked Karen. Not until 10:30-an early one by college standards. We drove back home, got up early the next day and delivered her on time for class in weather that wasn’t great but was still a heck of a lot better than the day before.

Over a year ago the university announced plans to close its Williams Airport and use the land to expand the campus. I was disappointed, but I must admit to having mixed feelings about the plans.

I loved the convenience of having the airport right in Chapel Hill, but it is far from an ideal situation. I’ve already noted the many shortcomings of the facility, and it would take millions of dollars to transform Williams into a first rate airport. Having mailed a noticeable amount of money to the airport’s owner, I’m not sure that I want the university’s regents to put airport improvements ahead of academic necessities. And even if the money is available, getting approval to level the hundreds of trees that interfere with the approach and departure paths would take forever.

The other problem at Williams is the lack of a precision approach. In four years of flying there I had to divert twice to Raleigh-Durham Airport, which is only 14 miles to the east, because ceilings were below the 530-foot minimum descent height at Williams. RDU has long parallel runways with ILS approaches and centerline and touchdown zone lighting. It is as good a facility as you will find on the East Coast, and it’s close to Chapel Hill. On another occasion, I was hauling Karen and some friends for spring break and I had them drive over to RDU because I just didn’t want to make a maximum weight departure over the trees.

UNC bases at Williams Airport a fleet of airplanes that serve the medical center, and the North Carolina state government ordered the university to keep Williams open until a suitable home for that fleet is found. All but a handful of airplanes and the small flight school have left Williams, though the airport will remain open-and unimproved-indefinitely. During Karen’s fourth year at UNC I flew in and out of Williams being grateful for the convenience but wondering how this airport limbo will end.

Graduation was a weekend-long event, and for the trip to Chapel Hill on Friday there was a weird weather pattern. A big coastal low pressure area was just off New Jersey, bringing hundreds of miles of rain, low clouds and strong winds. It looked for all the world like a winter nor’easter, but it was mid May. After an hour or so of bouncing through the steady rain, we flew into the clear south of Richmond and made the visual approach to Chapel Hill.

The weird weather continued for the whole weekend with low clouds, drizzle and temperatures barely making 60 degrees. The real rain held off through the main ceremony in the football stadium, and Bill Cosby was as good a commencement speaker as I can imagine. I sat in the stadium remembering dying in the heat on move-in day four years ago, and I was now ending the Carolina experience shivering in a cold rain.

Around Chapel Hill they like to say that God made the sky Carolina blue, and on many days I have been there, I agree. But on Monday after commencement when I lined up on Runway 27 at Williams there was nothing but the colorless sky of 400 overcast with one mile visibility in drizzle. But climbing through 4,000 feet we popped out into the clear under a canopy of Carolina blue. The four years had flown by, and our airplane added immensely to a terrific experience at a wonderful place. Every dad should be so lucky to get to fly his kid to college. And with Roy Williams in charge of the Tar Heels basketball team, I doubt I have made my last flight to Chapel Hill.

Gears and Liquid On page 33 (August 2003) we have a story about a new family of piston engines that the Rotax division of Bombardier is developing. The engines sound promising, offering the potential for improved efficiency, longer life and reduced pilot workload. But Rotax must overcome two major pilot perceptions to win acceptance because the new engines are geared, and they are liquid cooled.

There have not been many geared piston engines in general aviation, and the few there are have not enjoyed reputations for reliability and durability. Lycoming built the GO-480 and 540 series that power the Twin Bonanza and Queen Air, plus a few other airplanes. The engine has a short TBO of 1,200 to 1,400 hours with average overhaul prices approaching $40,000. Continental didn’t enjoy great success with the GO-300 in the Cessna 175. Its recommended TBO is 1,200 hours. The GTSIO-520 in the Cessna 421 has been a better engine than its reputation, but it is still expensive to overhaul.

And then there was the Continental Tiara engine family that was developed in the early 1970s. The Tiara had many advanced features and excellent power to weight and fuel efficiency, but for many reasons it was a failure. Critics pointed to the fact that the prop shaft was geared to the crankshaft to reduce prop rpm as reason for the lack of success, even though the gears were not a problem.

Continental’s Voyager series of liquid-cooled engines met a similar fate. Even though two of them pushed and pulled the Voyager all the way around the world with perfect reliability, the liquid-cooled engines were not installed by any airframe manufacturer and had very limited success in the Cessna 414 under a RAM program. Liquid cooling took the fall for a whole series of issues.

This is an odd situation because all of the legendary engines from the golden age of piston aircraft are geared, and many are also liquid cooled. The Rolls-Royce Merlin, perhaps the most famous aircraft piston engine, is a liquid-cooled V-12 with the prop shaft geared down to about half the crankshaft rpm. The famous radial engines, such as the Pratt & Whitney Wasp family and the Wright Cyclone series, all had their propellers geared down to a slower speed than the crankshaft. When did gearing and liquid cooling move from the stuff of legends to the stuff of nightmares in the general aviation pilot’s mind?

My guess is that the bad impressions of liquid cooling and geared propeller drives have to do with cost. It’s fairly easy to produce a couple hundred horsepower with a direct drive engine, and that power range takes in the majority of general aviation airplanes. Gearing would add to the price of buying and maintaining a relatively small engine, but in itself, won’t add much, if anything, to performance, reliability and fuel efficiency. And it’s also pretty easy to air cool an engine of modest horsepower, so liquid cooling benefits are not immediately apparent to most general aviation pilots.

But technology has changed and there is no longer necessarily a cost penalty for gearing and liquid cooling an engine. Hoses, couplings, radiators and the other elements of a liquid cooling system are improved greatly to the point that most of us don’t give the cooling system in our car engines a second thought, when only 20 or 30 years ago the system demanded regular attention.

Designing a gearbox that can withstand the loads placed on it by the propeller is still not an easy task, but it’s doable. And the benefits are significant because you can turn up the speed of the crankshaft, which produces more power with less displacement, meaning the engine can be smaller and, more important, pressures in the cylinders are reduced so avgas as we know it won’t be necessary. Apply full-time electronic control of the engine, as Rotax will, and you can automate engine operation so the pilot need do nothing more than move the lever to increase or reduce power like you do in a jet. Liquid cooling will keep the engine temperatures uniform because a thermostat increases cooling flow at high power and low airspeed and cuts off cooling liquid flow at low power and high airspeed. All of those elements should add to durability.

The Rotax engines won’t enter service for at least a couple of years, and I’m sure there will be plenty of growing pains, as there are with any new engine or airplane. But the fundamental design concepts are sound. Pilots should forget the hangar talk about the evils of geared engines and liquid cooling and welcome a new option in piston aircraft engines.


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