Oshkosh, Dad and the Flying Motorcycle


It wasn't until one of the very last stops and the very last day of my visit at Oshkosh that I really understood that I still lead a sheltered airline life. The revelation didn't sink in until my jaw went slack after catching a surprised glimpse of Larry Neal's flying motorcycle exhibited in the Ultralight area. For those of you as in the dark as I was, the flying motorcycle is a form of gyroplane (or gyrocopter; the difference escapes me). I hesitate to use the term contraption, because it is a well thought out and engineered design, but my first flying impression offers a vision that has me doing something unmentionable in my shorts. The flying motorcycle is intended for the sky and the road; the rotor blades lock into position to allow for street travel. Although the similarity has been overused, the flying motorcycle puts the Jetsons closer to reality. I don't see Harley fans canceling their Fat Boy orders, but Larry Neal's concept does allow room in the garage for both.

There is an interesting simplicity and complexity to the flying motorcycle. It is proof that aviation technology continues to develop. All one has to do is keep up with the developments. Despite my general aviation background and the exposure through this magazine, Oshkosh proved that I have a lot of catching up to do. And not just with new stuff. I have to rekindle my relationship with the old technology, too. Not being involved with general aviation on a regular basis, I have forgotten some of the basics of my roots.

On this particular occasion, my 82-year-old father accompanied me to AirVenture. He had always indicated a desire to participate, but the timing never quite worked. Bruce Stein, a non-airline friend of mine from Connecticut, had bought a ticket and flown into Chicago with me. The three of us joined forces for the drive to Oshkosh. Bruce is the president of my soaring club and a much more knowledgeable general aviation buff. He owns a 170 and a high-performance glider. As we began Day One of our tour, it became apparent that I wouldn't be able to answer all of my Dad's questions unless I fine-tuned my embellishment skills. I suppose it would have been a way of getting even for typical fatherhood stories, but it just didn't seem quite right being the only aviation aficionado in the family. I hoped Bruce would back me up.

The first stop was to climb one of the observation platforms on the field. It would afford my Dad the opportunity to orient himself and realize the expanse of the show. That was my first mistake. A variety of airplanes were lining the taxiways in preparation for takeoff. Although I identified an F-4 about to depart the north/south runway, I confused an F-86 with an F-something else. Dad took a picture anyhow.

Our next visit was to the Albatross that I had flown aboard during last year's engine fire escapade. Although not by direct correlation with the fire, the engine had been replaced. Don Rhynalds, the retired airline captain owner, had obtained the spare as part of the original purchase. I thought that was only possible in the movies. It's always nice to have a spare, especially when a round engine is involved. Don was a gracious host. Dad got the royal tour. He squeezed himself into the left seat. I explained my limited Albatross system knowledge. Dad took a picture.

We climbed down from the Albatross, expressed our gratitude to Don and then ambled toward the fighter flight line. Fortunately, Dad's questions stayed in the "What's that?" spectrum. I was thankful for the information plaques on the stands in front of the airplanes. Although Dad was in the infantry during World War II, he recognized the thunderous symphony of a P-51. He halted our walk to watch a couple of the airplanes taxi by. And yes, Dad took a picture. After lunch at Flying's Aeroclub, our threesome sauntered off to visit with the Flagship Detroit. We shook hands and got a brief private tour of the DC-3. I thought of the total lack of familiarity I had with the airplane. I looked forward to the day when I would have time to spare in order to attend ground school as a Foundation member. Dad bought a T-shirt. And yes, he took another picture.

I disappeared for a brief period and ran a couple of errands. Bruce and Dad wandered around the static displays of the Aeroshell area. When I returned, the airshow was about to begin. We found a spot along the flight line. Dad watched with awe as various airplanes puffed out white trails of smoke, performing acts that defy both gravity and the laws of basic aerodynamics. Bruce and I shook our heads, accepting the fact that we were observing stuff that was just not possible. Once again, I found something else I could not explain. Dad took a lot of pictures.

The airshow ended Day One. On the morning of Day Two, we afforded Dad the opportunity to visit the Fly Market while Bruce and I strode off to visit the hangar exhibits. Needless to say, aviation electronics led the way in contributing to my humbleness. I didn't know where to start catching up. I took the buffet approach and nibbled on everything from PDA Nexrad weather to complete MFD systems. The technology was mind-numbing. My wife is aware of my amateur geek tendencies. If it wasn't for money and the minor detail of not owning an airplane, I would become as obsessive with aircraft electronics as a gambler is with a Las Vegas slot machine. I ended the tour with a visit to Diamond's VLJ mock-up. That didn't help in the catching up department either. Bruce and I strolled back to the Aeroclub for lunch. We reunited with Dad. Dad spread out a plastic bag full of goodies onto the picnic table. He had found bargains at the Fly Market that he didn't really need, but that's one of his favorite pastimes. He was happy. And yes, of course, Dad took pictures. Mike Schrader, a salesman with Columbia Aircraft and a former salesman with this magazine, joined us for lunch. He invited us to visit his exhibit, which I always do. I can't think of a better example of general aviation development. The contrast between the Piper Cherokee that was the basis for most of my early days in training and the Columbia series of airplanes is like tomatoes and green peppers. It's not just the technology, but the human factors concept in the design that makes the difference. Knowing my father's background in industrial design and human factors, I thought the visit would be of interest. It was. And I counted on Mike's vast knowledge of the product and his smooth patter to assist in Dad's education. By the time we left, Mike had drawn a small crowd around the wing cutout section. You guessed it, Dad took more pictures.

Our last stop was at the Ultralight area. The simplicity of the airplanes attracted Dad to that facet of general aviation. Perhaps it was his lack of familiarity with the sophistication of conventional airplanes that seemed to have him connect the most with ultralights. Perhaps it was the affordability and versatility aspect. It didn't matter. He enjoyed the designs. Bruce and I queried a salesman on the airplane checkout protocol of light-sport aircraft versus ultralights. An unexpected and lively debate ensued. It was apparent that I wasn't the only one scratching his head during AirVenture 2006. Knowing that the next day was to be the last, we excused ourselves without reaching a conclusion, realizing that the salesman probably had little energy for the debate. And alas, Dad took more pictures.

It's no revelation that an airline pilot can be lost in the sea of general aviation changes. It's sure fun to explore, however. Oshkosh 2006 will be no different for me than Oshkosh 2007. Maybe I'll be a little closer to catching up by then, but it's okay if I'm not. There will always be a flying motorcycle to marvel over. And hopefully, Dad will always be able to take a picture.

Strangers' GateTom Casey, a friend and 777 captain with my airline, has written an intrigue novel with an aviation backdrop. Strangers' Gate involves an Albatross, and for a period at the beginning, a Beech 18. Tom is no stranger to either airplane. He has owned and operated both aircraft and is in the restoration process with the Albatross. Tom also has the rare distinction of being an Albatross flight instructor.

Strangers' Gate is a comfortable read. The action flows without interruption. The hero, Jason Walker, is a believable character with hopes, dreams and flaws that all of us can relate to. Jason has chosen to change horses in midstream, but he can't quite escape the past. Although the love story aspect is an important part of the novel, it will not turn off those with higher testosterone levels.

The dialog is lively and introspective. It is a style that makes us wish we could converse with such instantaneous forethought, but for most of us only comes to mind when we have already walked out the door. Having had animated conversations with the author, I understand the dialog's origin. Tom's first novel, Human Error, a story involving an accident in the airline world, is still in print.

Strangers' Gate can be purchased at Barnes and Noble, Borders and independent book stores. The novel can also be found at a discount through Amazon. Tom has recently signed an option with Michael Mailer Films. Enjoy Tom's book now before it hits the big screen. You can view Tom Casey's website at www.tomcaseywriter.com.