Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tulip Fields/BBQ Extravaganza!!!

A few months ago, I received a very pleasant, but unexpected surprise as a result of my blog. I received an email from a really nice family who found my photo's on the internet. It turns out that one of the tulip fields I flew over and photographed last year was one of their fields. They are tulip growers living not far from where I live and they emailed me to find out more about how I took the photo's. We exchanged several emails and I was invited to visit their greenhouse to learn all there is to know about growing tulips, and when we said our goodbyes we were presented with the freshest bouquet of tulips as a gift, straight from the grower himself. 

I regaled stories of my flying adventures, and waxed lyrical about my joy and love of flying and I invited them to come and join me on a tulip hunting adventure in April. The initial plan was to go flying the Sunday that the horrendously named Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted and all the airspace was shut solid. Unlike my friends in the UK who were happily buzzing Gatwick and Manchester airports, everyone in Holland was grounded.

But in the meantime, I had another pleasant surprise. Once again, out of the blue, a professional photographer had found my blog and wanted to go tulip hunting. GREAT!!! The more the merrier. Curtis, my new photograper friend, and I exchanged a few emails and it turned out he was planning to come to Holland the same weekend I had pushed back the initial tulip flight to, so I suggested he join us that same day. 

Then Marina met a couple from her homeland of Ukraine and after a few glasses of wine when we all made our acquaintances, she announces I am a pilot, to which we recieved the obligatory "COOOOL" response. Marina told them about the planned tulip flights and instantly they asked "Can we come too??". Suddenly my dream of my own airline (aptly named Pendair) doesn't quite seem like an unobtainable dream :-)

Finally, our best friends, Andrew and Angelina, joined us for a boat cruise around Waterland in Noord Holland and we talked about the tulip weekend. And yes, you guessed it, they were hooked too. That's three plane loads of people all booked for Sunday. I made a quick call to Wouter in Polder Aviation and he said I could have their new C177 Cardinal for the afternoon from 2pm, BUT, I would need a check-out ride in it first. No problem....well, only one, but it's a minor one....I would have to be there at 9am for the check-ride, and then wait until 2pm for everyone to arrive. A small sacrifice to pay.

With so many people planned to come flying, Marina thought about having another BBQ flying day, similar to the one late last Summer. GREAT IDEA. We called everyone and they all agreed it was a great idea. So we agreed Marina and I would arrange the food and drinks and bring our portable BBQ. We set off for Makro (the local cash and carry) and bought all the provisions and then some and Marina marinated everything the night before. The BBQ was on for Sunday.

Then the first snag, of many, made it's appearance. Our tulip growing friends were not able to make it. They were really excited about coming, but unfortunately would not be able to join us and asked to take a rain cheque to another time. Fear not.....Angelina and Andrew mentioned on Facebook about their upcoming adventure, and that got others asking if they could come along, so once again the planes were fully booked :-)

The plan was for everyone to meet at Lelystad at 13:00. Marina and I loaded the car the night before, I made my way to the airport bright and early to get checked out and Marina would follow at 13:00 and me me and everyone else there.

That's when the second snag made it's appearance. Keep in mind that it's been a full six months, yes, count them, one, two, three, four, five, six, since I last flew, which was when I flew "NP" down to France for her annual. I have been unable to get her since (snow storms in Europe this Winter, volcanos in Iceland) and had shied away from renting anything if I was flying alone. Now also bear in mind that I'm flying in a new airplane type, which has several key handling differences, one of the biggest being that a) it's got a less powerful engine, b) has an all moveable elevator (an elevon) and c) has an ASI (airspeed indicator) in MPH instead of KTS which means a new set of speeds to memorise, and you can see where I'm going with this. A rusty pilot in a new plane is not exactly a successful mix.

Eelco, my instructor arrived and briefed me on the differences between the Cessna 177 I was about the fly, and the C172 I know so well. We refuelled and started her up and off we flew. The check-out would consist of the usual few steep-turns, stalls, practised forced landings and touch and go's. The first few steep turn exercises were a bit all over the place. Given there was so much haze and not much of a horizon, it was difficult to begin with, but I got it nailed eventually. Then we practiced stalls. Stall recovery in landing configuration was good, but stall recovery in a clean configuration and fully stalled were a bit slow in the beginning. Eventually I got the drill down perfectly though. We then headed to the field and Eelco pulls the throttle to idle "Engine Failure" he says. OK, run through the drill, look for a field. Since we weren't very high to begin with, I had to get her to V BG (best glide) quickly and then look for a suitable field even quicker. The first attempt was criticised because I chose a field that would have had a tail wind instead of a head wind. A new nugget which I NEVER considered, and I'm shocked I was never told about it before, was to look at the windmills and where they are pointing to figure out the wind direction and THEN choose a suitable field. The second attempt was carried out flawlessly.

That done, we headed back for the circuit to practise landings. That's when it all went a bit tits up. Getting the set-up in the plane in the downwind took a lot of practice. I ended up being too low in the downwind, over compensating, then getting too high on final. Then when I flared, I was over controlling with the elevator and we had to go-around after a baulked landing. Second attempt I was a bit better with the altitude but was way too fast on final. Third and fourth attempts I was better with speed and height, but wasn't spot-on with compensating for the cross-wind. The last attempt was a total greaser. Perfectly executed and was greeted by a loud "YESSSS!!!" from Eelco in the P2 seat. "THAT'S what I want you to do each and every time!!". We ran out of time and made that the last one and agreed to do two more later that morning. If they went OK, then I would be signed off. Phew...The rust is starting to flake off :-)

Everyone arrived at 13:00 on time. The plane was for our new Ukrainian friends, Maks and Tanya, to come fly first. Marina took everyone else to the woods to set-up the BBQ. I got up again and managed two more greasers and went in to sign the paperwork. While we waited I showed Maks and Tanya around the hangers of Lelycopter's and introduced them to Albert, one of the pilots there. A short 15 mins later and we were in the plane and ready to go tulip hunting.

Maks was all questions and excitement. Tanya was all smiles and big eyes. We took off and headed straight for the nearest tulips fields in the Flevo polder. I gave Maks the controls for a few mins and had to keep repeating to him not to be afraid to actually turn the plane, and to stop climbing or descending. The landing though with a full load was a little different than the last greaser I pulled off with Eelco and we bounced a little bit upon landing. I was so PISSED with myself, because as all pilots know, everyone who is NOT a pilot judges a pilot on his flying skills solely on how well/bad he lands the plane! D'oh!! We had flown for about 50 minutes. By the time we had landed, Marina, the amazing logistics planner for the day already sent the next batch over.

Now it was the turn of Andrew, Angelina and Curtis. Andrew had planned on sitting up front and flying, but Curtis needed the use of that seat for his tulip photo's. Andrew kindly gave up the seat on the proviso that he sit up front on the next lift. We took off and again headed all over the polder. Andrew brought along with him his portable GPS device and tracked the entire flight. At home later that evening he downloaded the data and sent me the track overlayed on a map of the Netherlands. This time I ventured a bit further South to Naarden. By now the skies were getting VERY busy. We had traffic off to our left about 200-300 feet higher. I have no idea if he saw me, so I gave him a wide berth and had Andrew help keep an eye on him. We circled Naarden, everyone snapping off like the paparazzi and headed back for more tulip fields. Curtis and I were getting the hang of figuring out the best line to take for everyone to take pics and we circled a few fully bloomed fields several times. Alas though the fun had to come to an end and we headed back. But the tulip fields just kept on giving...there so many more on the route into the circuit, so everyone was happy. This time though the landing was as smooth as silk :-) Having said that, Angelina looked a LITTLE bit green as it had turned a little turbulent as the heat of the day resulted in a lot of thermal activity. But she still enjoyed her flight.

Curtis wanted directions to the tulip field near the run in to the circuit, so off he went to photograph from the ground. Andrew had to drive back to pick up the girls for the next flight, so I relaxed and chewed the cud with the guys in Polder, trading war stories. When Andrew came back they came bearing gifts.....a gorgeous burger, cooked by my gorgeous Marina. Pendair has now graduated to in-flight catering :-)

Once again, everyone climbed in, a quick taxi to the active and we were off. This time though we were getting pressed for time. Wouter needed the plane back soon and I wanted to make the most of the daylight. Andrew took over the controls and flew the girls around the Polder. I kept a sharp eye on any potential traffic and also made sure we stayed below the Schiphol TMA. I have to say that Andrew did an amazing job flying. All those hours mucking around on Microsoft Flight-Sim had paid off. He knew what all the dials were, he knew what to expect from the handling of the plane, just was not used to the real sensation of flying. He nailed the altitude the whole time and eventually built up his confidence about "controlling" the plane and not being afraid of it biting back. I had him steer us back towards Bravo (the run point to the circuit at Lelystad) and took control about 2 mins out. Great job Andrew!!! Again, a good set-up resulted in a smooooooth landing and I was happy that the last of the rust on this pilot flaked off for good.

In all, I logged a little over 4 hours in the saddle, logged 10 landings and flew with 8 people yesterday. I was completely knackered, but in a good way. The highlight of the day was listening to everyone share their stories of the days experience and look at the amazing pics everyone had taken. And of course enjoying the efforts of my amazing Marina's BBQ while enjoying a few well earned COLD beers. 

Huge thanks to Andrew and Curtis for letting me use some of their photo's on my blog.

Seems like Curtis wants to go up again on Tuesday, so maybe I'll go up again!

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