Friday, July 18, 2008


Art is Where You Find It

Interesting corrosion patternHere's an interesting corrosion pattern seen on a gauge on a piece of old fire fighting equipment at the small museum at Logan County (KAAA). It looks like some artsy-craftsy person painted a very intricate clinging vine motif on the face of the instrument, inside the glass.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Independence Day

A common discussion topic on the web boards around this time of year concerns the worthwhileness of watching fireworks displays from the air. The consensus seems to be that it's not worth the effort since the airbursts take place at low altitudes and tend to get lost amidst the lights on the ground. You also miss the sounds of the explosions since you are probably wearing a noise-canceling headset to protect your ears from the effects of being wrapped in an aluminum shell that's being vibrated by at least 83 little explosions per second and pummeled by an equal number of prop blades.

My own experience tended to bear this out. I've seen fireworks from the air a few times before - typically smallish displays seen from a distance while cruising at about 5,000 feet - and they were novel, but not particularly impressive. I've typically spent the Fourth of July on the ground, usually as part of a band of some sort playing for the festivities, but this year I found myself gigless. With nothing else on the schedule, I decided to take Yellowbird out to see if we could see anything from aloft.

I departed about 45 minutes before sundown. I hadn't really planned things out, so this gave some time to scope out where the displays might be found. Bloomington lies under the class Delta airspace for KBMI, so I decided to check out some of the smaller towns in the area. From experience. I knew that school athletic fields are popular sites for fireworks displays and are easy to spot from the air. I checked out a few of the nearby towns until I found one where cars seemed to be gathering around the local school. I then hung out at a comfortable altitude and waited for sundown.

As darkness fell, sporadic small displays erupted all across town. I sometimes headed over for a closer look, practicing turns around a point over someone's back yard barbecue until they stopped firing things up. I figured that they might enjoy a little airshow with their fireworks, but it later occurred to me that they might have thought that I was some sort of airborne fireworks patrol and that the authorities would soon drive up and shut down their festivities. But as it turns out, fireworks are apparently so legal around here that it's hard to find a supermarket that isn't selling them at this time of year. We may not have scenery, but Americana is still alive and well.

Fireworks seen from the airSome time after dark, the show started in earnest. I set up a left hand pattern at about 1,500 AGL and about half a mile to a mile radius from the launch site. Best results were with a gentle bank angle (about half standard rate). Winds were calm, so once trimmed for level flight in the turn, I had a pretty stable perch and only small adjustments were needed to stay on station.

Fireworks seen from the airThe resulting view was more that I expected. In short, it was spectacular.

Fireworks seen from the airThe ground lights were not bright enough to overpower the fireworks, and from a reasonable altitude and distance, they were just as brilliant as when seen from the ground.

Fireworks seen from the airNo mosquitoes to deal with, and no crowds either.

Fireworks seen from the airI didn't have to hunt for my car in a vast field of parking, and there was no traffic to fend off during the drive home.

Fireworks seen from the airOf course I couldn't hear them go off, but visually, I had the best seat in the house.

A few caveats:

  • Maneuvering flight at low altitudes carries a number of unique risks. Among these are the tendency to get distracted by things on the ground to the detriment of situational awareness aloft. A pilot's number one priority is flying the airplane, but still many pilots have come to grief trying to circle an object of interest on the ground (the dreaded Moose Hunter Stall). Maintaining airspeed, attitude and coordinated flight are more important than keeping some bombs bursting in air in sight. The fireworks aren't going anywhere, so you can always come around for another view if you drift off of your pattern. You probably won't get a second chance in a stall/spin at low altitude.
  • I had the sky to myself, but I've heard others relate seeing up to six airplanes watching a fireworks show. That many airplanes in one area can be a recipe for disaster, particularly if one or more pilots are distracted by watching things on the ground. Surprisingly a search of the NTSB accident database shows no midair accidents (or any accidents, for that matter) in the vicinity of fireworks displays, and only one accident that was in any way related to fireworks. (The pilot could not see the airport due to darkness and the intensity of a nearby fireworks display, so he diverted to an open field where he misjudged his approach, in part because he had no landing light.) Still traffic avoidance should be a top priority. I kept my eyes open, my landing light on, and the radio tuned to the CTAF frequency of the local airport.
  • The show was on the outskirts of town, so at times there were not enough lights visible for good ground reference. And it was slightly hazy, so there was no visible horizon. Added to these factors are the bright lights of the fireworks, and spatial disorientation became a real risk. I made a point of periodically looking at recognizable ground features (brightly lit intersections, etc.) to keep my bearings. I also looked at the panel from time to time to check altitude, attitude and engine performance.