Heading north, morning sun streaming in from the right, smooth air at 8,500 feet—what’s not to like?
Last Friday I flew to Sandpoint, Idaho in the panhandle north of Coeur d’Alene. MAF asked me to retrieve two pilots who ferried a Kodiak 100 to the Quest factory for adding a new option. My craft, a more modest Cessna 172, performed well in the smooth, cool morning air. Fitted with a 180 horsepower engine mod, it lifted me and full fuel tanks quickly to 8,500 feet. I had an easy schedule, so I anticipated a great day wandering north.
Fifty minutes out of Nampa, I crossed the Hell’s Canyon west of Monument Peak and He-Devil Mountain. Billed as North America’s deepest, its gorge plummets 7,993 feet down to the Snake river. Most of the area remains inaccessible by road, but I got a prime seat.
After 17 years flying the Amazon jungle and Andes mountains, I came to my first AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Before first day opening, I flashed my Exhibitor badge at the dutiful guards and walked through the AirVenture gate. Thirty years of professional aviation experience provided no preparation for what I beheld. Without turning my head I saw three times more aircraft than occupied the entire civil registry of the country where I served.
As a pilot and air ops manager, who knew I needed an aviation fix? Like a starving man no longer feeling hunger pangs, I didn’t know what I needed until I immersed myself into the world of cold 2024 aluminum skin, taut cotton wings, red hydraulic fluid, flashing glass panels, spinning propellors, and clouds of 100 octane exhaust fumes—ambrosia and incense.
A Cessna 206 fuselage barely stands with most of the skin and stiff forms removed.
My friend Ron decided to build his own airplane—a Vans RV-7A. A few days ago he invited me to help him put a wing together. Seeing it reminded me that we make airplanes out of really flimsy stuff.
The outer skin of your average airliner is only about ⅛” thick. Ron’s bird—lighter, slower, carries only two people—sports a hide just over 1/64” thick. How will that metallic tissue keep him safe three miles above the ground when he flies 200 miles per hour for 900 miles?
Turns out it depends on how we stick it together. We could, for example, scrunch up aluminum foil, adding wad to wad, until we fabricated a substantial, solid mass. It might be robust but would weigh too much to fly and leave no room for motors, fuel, cargo, passengers or even, oh yeah, the pilot. Fortunately, the Germans developed a method a hundred years ago to make the skin a structural member rather than just streamlining. The technique, not widely used until the 1940’s, later acquired a French name: monocoque that literally means “single shell.”
Inspirational Aviation & Space Writer