Saturday, October 04, 2008

Strait Up called on account of wind

For the last 15 years I've flown at least 50 or 60 days a year in western North America, and watched the winds aloft for at least another 100 days a season. I do this through Navcanada's flight planning site, a useful tool for any pilot. I've always thought that I "knew" the winds in western North America pretty well; they blow out of some derivative of west most of the time, unless there is a big low, high or something whacky going on. Then they'll blow whatever direction for a day, maybe two, before settling back into a range of about 220-320 degrees.

For the week we were on Vancouver Island the winds as far east as Cranbrooke blew from between 90 and 200 degrees. Every day. My line over the strait depended on some version of west winds. I never once saw anything approaching 270. There are a lot of ways to fly over the Strait, but the safest plan is to use west winds and line up some possible landing features such as islands. We saw more east and southeast winds aloft than I've ever seen. It felt like groundhog day--check the updated winds aloft at night, predicted southeast. Morning, predicted stronger southeast. Actual: strong southeast aloft. Paramotor engines sometimes just don't work. Although sorely tempted, I was not willing to take off over the Strait with the winds against me. And even if I had made it over the strait there was no place to go on the mainland with the southeast winds....

I was reminded of the variable nature of paramotor engines on Tuesday while doing a flight from the Keenan farm. The winds on the ground were north, the sky perfectly blue, I just couldn't believe that the winds up high were southeast. I took off, climbed to about 1,000 feet, and sure enough the winds were southeast.... I was messing about shooting some stills and slowly descending when the engine stopped. Hmmm.... I tried to restart, nothing, primed, got gas, checked anything I could while looking at the engine over my shoulder, and then headed for a rocky beach. Fortunately I had more than enough altitude to glide to land and not end up in the water, but the beach I had as a "reserve" was really rocky. Stuck the landing fine, the Keenans's and my dad came up and got me, soon we had the head and cylinder off in the Keenan's field. Stewart was a real assist for that, I'm no two-stroke mechanic but he knew a lot. In the end the diagnosis was simple: there was a big hole in my piston, right above the spark plug. I called up RPM and they sent parts right away, then I took the engine into Walker's Saw shop in Nanaimo to to get a Walbro rebuild kit.

Walker's is a Naniamo institution, the kind of place where any man who ever ran a chain saw would recognize as a mecca of all things two-stroke. Don Walker is a second-generation two-stroke master; he raced Kart at a high level, and instantly diagnosed the engine problem and volunteered to fix it overnight. Problem was, UPS sent the parts to Africa... In the end we had to limp homeward with no parts, the wind still south and a broken engine in the truck bed. I'm going to send the motor back to Walker's though, it's just dead obvious when you meet someone with a world-class knowledge of something, thanks to him.

I had to push the dates of this trip back due to knee surgery; August would have been better. Other than that we just had winds against us. I still feel lucky that the motor didn't blow up over the ocean somewhere too far from the beach to glide to...

I'd like to say thanks to my dad, Ben, for support, Peter at Talon Helicopters for believing in the madness, Mark Miller with Discovery, Mark Johnson (who has the best bachelor life of about any man on the planet!), the Keenan clan (great people!) and everyone else who worked with us to try and make this happen. JK and Gabe at RB provided positive energy and support too, nothing would happen without them. I WILL be back, and will send this trip, it's a dream that won't go away. Resistance is natural in life; sometimes you gotta be the ocean and just wear the SOB down until you can get over it. Big goals have big problems; the trick is to just never give up.


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