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.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Strait Up

I'm on Vancouver island with a paramotor. The obvious thing to do from here is fly it back over to the mainland, and then maybe on home to Canmore. The strait isn't too wide, about 35-50K depending on where you went, but it's pretty wet and not a good place to land. The Vancouver airport also makes things more difficult due to all the airspace restrictions and heavy jet traffic.

My dad came along to help out with logistics and chase, and we've been in the Qualicum Beach area for the last three days. The reasons I haven't flown back over yet are varied, mainly that the wind has been warping out of the southeast for the last three days. I've also blown a hole in the top of my piston, we're going to rebuild today if the parts show up...

The best part of the trip so far has been the amazing help I've had from locals. Mark Johnson, a bud from back in the day, has been invaluable in helping to find launch locations and just generally being his positive self. The first real problem here was to find some kind of place to launch north of Nanaimo; the island has a lot of trees, and not many clearings...

We were driving around the Fanny Bay area looking for fields when we saw this absolute perfect farm; big fields, several possible launch directions, nice grass, just a very well-tended piece of Vancouver Island. So we drove up and knocked on the door, and had the great good fortune to meet the Keenan family. I can't thank them enough for all their help and enthusiasm. Yesterday when I blew a hole in my piston on a test flight they came and got me with their truck, then helped break down the engine on tailgate, diagnose the problem, and then feed us lunch. I think I would have thrown the motor into the ocean and gone home without the Keenan family, thanks. So much of flying for me is not just the flying but the opportunity to meet great people I might not meet otherwise.

Parts should be here today, Mark ("Yeah, I have all the bits necessary to do anything to a motor, bring it on over.") Johnson is on the situation. Thanks.

The weather is perfect, we just need wind other than southeast so I can fly northwest!

Last night we hiked up a peak around here to get rid of some stress. So much focus, intensity, desire and the general unknown of the situation had wrung me out. The sunset was fantastic, and on the hike I realized that having the piston blow in a place where I could land on a rocky beach was a lot better than having it blow in the middle of the strait. It was a lucky day.