An Aircraft Review
By Hank Gibson, CFI, CFII, MEI
As all readers know, Sunday was Christmas. In Texas, where I live, it was actually cold. The thing with Texas is, you never know what the weather is going to do. One year, it was 80 degrees! That doesn’t sound very Christmasy, does it? I digress.
Anyway, I had heard through the wires last week that Santa had finally upgraded his sleigh to give him better single pilot resource management in his yearly trek across the world. My source had told me that Santa had grown tired of fighting through clouds and relying on his outdated TCAS system. Rumor has it, his weather radar was so old, it was certified by the CAA.
I wanted to see Santa’s new setup myself and be the first to give a review of his new sleigh. So, I camped out on the roof on Saturday night. Right about 2am, I was awakened by distant jingle bells and some rather loud snorting. I jumped out of my sleeping bag, almost forgetting that I was on a roof (that wouldn’t have been a pleasant start to Christmas), grabbed my note pad and hid behind the chimney.
He hit the other two houses on the cul-de-sac first, then made a somewhat bumpy landing on our roof. I guess he still hasn’t quite smoothed the landings out. I pulled out the cookies I had brought as insurance and approached the jolly, red clad icon. As he turned around, he was startled by me, but I held out the cookies in a non-menacing way. “Hey Mr. Claus! I heard you upgraded the avionics in the sleigh. I was wondering if I could have a look at it for my article this week.”
A big smile formed on his rosy, beard adorned face. “Why of course, son,” he replied. After a quick glance at his list, he looked up again. “You must be Hank. I’ve got a little something in this here bag for you. Tell you what. I’m going to go lighten my load a little bit and you have a look around. When I pop back up the chimney, I’ll be glad to answer any questions you have.” With that, he waddled over to the chimney and with great agility, hopped up in the air and down into the house.
With a shrug and a smile, I turned to gaze at the wonder of the SleighMobile 2100×11.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much new to report about the engine. The sleigh still only has 8 horsepower (or reindeer power if you want to get technical). Rudolph and his nose weren’t needed this year.
Remember as a kid all the pictures of Santa’s sleigh with the open cockpit design? Well, Claus finally wised up and enclosed the cabin (more comfortable when traveling through the northern latitudes). It was a bubble canopy, vacuum sealed and pressurized. He even had an emergency oxygen tank tucked in a compartment in the back. True airspeed does increase with higher altitudes, so I guess he makes better time up high.
The seat was no longer a carriage seat that you see in the pictures. No, Santa’s flying in luxury with a BE Aerospace custom designed seat. It looked like he could open it up to use as a cot for a quick snooze between towns.
The reins to steer the reindeer were very uniquely worked in. They were tied in to a computer, which was rigged to a side-stick in the cabin. Even Santa is flying by wire these days.
The avionics were unparalleled. The instrument panel had a G2000 touch screen system, complete with synthetic vision. There was weather radar, an up to the second traffic alert system (I guess Santa needs it since he is the lone aircraft in the entire world who isn’t required to talk to ATC), and even XM satellite radio, tuned, appropriately, to the Christmas pops station. Apparently, even Santa needs a GFC 700 autopilot. There was also a heater and an air conditioner. I guess the tropics are still a little warm even at Christmas!
The SleighMobile 2100×11 is still red. The runners on the sleigh have been equipped with what appears to be a super sticky, non slip coating. Very useful on icy roofs. The defrost was still in full tilt and I could see tiny wiper blades peaking out the bottom of the windscreen. There was a strange piece of metal on the front of the sleigh that I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. An unidentified pipe protruded from the back of the sleigh.
Santa had the aviation style beacon on top of the canopy, in addition to his red and white position lights attached to the left and right sides, respectively. His strobes were on the back of the runners. Each reindeer also had a beacon strapped to the top of their antlers.
All in all, Santa had a pretty nice ride. When he popped back up the chimney, I queried him about the metal piece and the pipe. With a chuckle, he replied, “Those both have to do with waste. “The metal piece is a dung guard for when the reindeer need to go. I used to get it in the face back in the ‘30s before we came up with this. Goggles were all I had to protect my rosy cheeks.” As I looked closer, there were some brown and yellow stains on the metal, a clue a better reporter wouldn’t have missed!
With a chuckle, Santa continued on. “The pipe is connected to a hose in the cabin. I’ve got a hot chocolate and cappuccino maker in there and I’m not so young anymore. Those liquids move rather quickly through me. So, over oceans, lakes, or other uninhabited regions, the pipe takes care of the liquid!”
With that and a roar of laughter, he climbed back in his toasty cabin, gave his side-stick a push, and off he went, soaring into the cold, Christmas night. I was left with half a cookie and a story to tell.
How it Started
One of my best friends in high school, (Doug Gray) was a private pilot. He offered to take me up for a flight in a 1967 Cessna 150, N6228S. We took off from Calhoun, Georgia, and he took me on a scenic tour of the area, I was hooked. I later found out that my English teacher, (Jan Haluska) was also a flight instructor and the school was offering a ground school course the next year, which he taught, along with flight training with the goal of becoming a private pilot. I managed to talk my dad into funding the training, at the time the total cost was right around $500. Cessna 150 rental rates where $12 an hour, and the 172 we used for cross country was $15 an hour including fuel.
It started August of 1977. The fall semester rolls around, and I am enrolled in ground school, and if memory serves me, we met twice a week. First came the paperwork for my student pilot certificate, which at the time was included with the 3rd class medical. I loved ground school, especially learning navigation, plotting courses on the sectional, again this was before iPads and GPS, so we did a lot of dead reckoning and VOR navigation for cross countries. At the end of the course, I made an 83% on the Private Pilot written exam, remember this was before we had the question-and-answer books that on future test I would consume before taking a written.
The fun really began on August 22, 1977, it was my first flight. To my surprise we used the same Cessna 150, N6228S that my friend Doug Gray had taken me for a ride in. The Cessna 150 had a standard VFR instrument panel, with one NAV/COM, and one VOR CDI. No intercom, so no headset, at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. I didn’t get my first headset until I started my instrument training in 2003. I was a big guy, I was 6’ 4” and weighed 245 lbs. but I do not remember being uncomfortable in the 150 even with the instructor in the right seat.
First flight lasted .8 hours, and we accomplished orentation, shallow turns, stability, and effects of flight controls. Over the next few months we added steep 720’s, slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, S-turns, emergencies, landings, (short field, soft field and normal).
At this point I want to talk about a training experience that still stands out. We were close to solo and were practicing takeoffs and landings. Turning base to final Jan got very upset at the way I was cross controlling the aircraft. Cross control is when you are in, say a left turn, and use opposite rudder to line the nose up with the runway. So, he had me depart the pattern and head east to the practice area, and climbing up to 5500 feet MSL, he had me slow down to just above stalling speed, start a left shallow turn and add right rudder. As the airplane stalled I had the strangest sensation, no roller coaster has ever come close, instead of blue sky in the windscreen I was looking at brown ground, and as far as I could tell we were upside down, through the terror of the moment Jan talked me out of the spin, controls neutral, oposite rudder, pull slowly out of the dive. As we leveled off he asked me what altitude we were at, as I remember it was around 2,800 feet MSL. Then he asked me what would happen if I experenced this on base to final in the traffic pattern. The answer was obvious, I would be a pile of wreckage off the end of the runway with a very short-lived aviation career. Needless to say this cured my cross-control tendencies.
Another training event the sticks out in my mind was the first time we did takeoffs and landings at the High School runway. The runway was 1,500 feet long, not sure of the width, but it seems like we had about 5 feet on each side of the wheels when on the center line of the runway. Landing from the south you also had to go between a cutout in the trees to be able to stop in time on the runway. After getting confortable landing here every runway since seemed huge. I remember landing at Chattanooga (KCHA) on a night cross country and commenting to Jan, that I felt like I could of landed sideways on the runway, it felt that large.
Very soon after this I started wearing old shirts to all my flight lessons, the reason for this occurred on February 8, 1978. The lesson that day was stalls, takeoffs and Landing. As we were taxing back in Jan told me it was time for my first solo. I was very excited, and after some last minute advice from Jan, including watch for floating on landing the plane will be light with him not in the right seat, complete 3 takeoffs and landings to a full stop. It was a blast, and at the end of my shirt was shorter in the back because Jan cut the tail out of it signed and dated my solo [an aviation tradition]. Total flight time accumulated on the day of my solo was 18.1 hours. I was now officially a pilot with solo priveleges.
In my next article I start cross country training, when Jan decided that it would be best accomplished this in the 172. Checking out in N5970R was like moving into a 747, this started a love affair with one of my faviriote planes to date. Since this time I have flown over 900 hours in many different models of the 172 and feel like I am stepping into an old friend every time.
More about Randy here: https://www.flyhpa.com/team/randy-delong/
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