The EAA Biplane, N56PE

There's a monument just outside of Pierre, South Dakota that claims to be in the exact center of the North American continent. That's about as near to the heartland of America as you can get. I went there to buy an EAA Biplane that had been advertised in Trade-A-Plane. U.S Air got me there. I took flight 294 from Tri- City to Charlotte, N.C.; flight 1260 from Charlotte to Kansas City; commuter flight 5644 to Sioux Falls. I slept most of the way. Airline flying is to flying about what airline food is to eating.

The mountains were beautiful in Tennessee and North Carolina. April 26th must be the day Dogwoods and Redbuds compete for attention. The Dogwoods were winning. Spring hadn't yet come to the farms of Iowa and Kansas. Their square sections of dark, rich soil looked good enough to eat straight; no need to run it through the corn, wheat and cows.

I met N56PE in a hangar on the Pierre airport. She was a pretty red airplane, built and flown exclusively by Paul W. Ewert. It was a well-constructed plane, and Paul impressed me as a conscientious builder. He had started building the biplane when he was fifty-six years old, hence the number. It first flew in 1981. Everyone around the airport told me that they thought Paul would never sell his little sweetheart, but Paul now has other irons in the fire.

Paul is an active man. In addition to building and restoring airplanes, Paul has flown charter and turned wrenches for the local F.B.O. He also provided security for the late governor of South Dakota and for several of the governors who served in the past. All of this was after retiring from the U.S. Air Force after a career as a flight engineer and bomber pilot. Paul said that he bombed the Bridges of Toko Ri during the Korean War, but wasn't mentioned in the movie of that name. It was probably because he was in a B-29 at 33,000 feet; far out of camera range.

Paul Ewert is also an excellent tour guide. He picked me up at the Sioux Falls airport and gave me an introduction to South Dakota. First, I learned that Pierre is not pronounced like it is spelled. They call it "Peer" with a long "R". I saw buffalo, deer, pheasant, jack rabbits, monuments, a large earthen dam and a hot, artesian water fountain that has natural gas mixed with the stream of hot water. The fountain has been burning since 1910 and was once used to heat the Capitol building. I took a lot of pictures of the fountain. It's not often you see a water fountain on fire. I also took a lot of pictures of the Corn Palace in Mitchell. It's covered with murals depicting western scenes. I'm no expert on architecture, but this must be the largest and grandest building in the world made entirely of ears of corn. There were birds everywhere. Maintenance is probably a real headache.

I liked Paul's little biplane. I had never flown one of this type and was anxious to get to know it. The design dates from the late fifties. A design team headed by Paul Poberezny drew up the plans and began selling them as the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Biplane. The single seat biplane was designed to handle a six "G" load in either direction and to take engines from 85 to 150 horsepower. Hundreds of sets of the plans were sold and about 88 were actually built and flown. The EAA stopped selling plans for the biplane in 1972, when the Acro Sport plans became available. Some of them have been wrecked, but the design has a rather good safety record; there have been no structural failures. That was especially reassuring.

As we stood on the ramp, leaning into a 25 knot breeze, the locals told me that it always blew like that. "This is nothing. You get used to this. Sometimes it gets above 50 knots, then we don't let the students fly."

Through a day of inspecting the little biplane and familiarizing myself with its systems, I thought about the problems of checking myself out in a 25 knot wind. I wished that it had two seats or even one large one. The term "wind-swept plains" took on new meaning. Paul gave me advice on how to fly the biplane. "Keep the stick back." "Three-point it off and on." "No wheel landings." "Take off on the front tank, then switch to the rear tank in level flight," and lots of good stuff like that. We exchanged money and paperwork on Tuesday evening and at 5:45 on Wednesday morning, Paul and I were sitting in the parking lot at Hardee's, waiting for the biscuits to bake.

"Take good care of it," he said, "I put a lot of work into it and no one else has ever flown it."

The Pierre weather at 0700 on the 28th of April was, probably for the first time in recorded history, "winds calm, visibility unlimited, and, at 6000, winds from 270 at 18 knots." It was the same in Sioux Falls, Sioux City and Kansas City; a tail wind all the way. You know, there is just no substitute for living right.

Paul strapped me in, told me once again how to fly the airplane and closed the sliding canopy. I taxied out to runway 31 and called Pierre Radio just to hear the good news again. I held the stick back just as Paul had instructed and let the little plane roll. It squirmed and wiggled, tried to go left, then right, but I didn't let it. Like a spirited horse, it was determined to test me. I kept the nose more or less straight, and by the time the airspeed indicator said "80", we were flying. I lowered the nose and made a sweeping right turn, to give Paul his first look at his sweetheart in the air. I managed a Dutch roll as we crossed the hangar, then climbed into the clean, calm western sky.

By the time we reached 5500 feet the biplane had decided that it was O.K. to let me be in charge. We leveled, reduced power to 2500 rpms and switched to the rear tank. The Missouri River took us south to Interstate 94, then we turned east, past Mitchell and the bird covered Corn Palace. The oil pressure stayed steady at 50 pounds per square inch and the oil temperature stabilized at 210 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Paul's red and green marks on the instruments, that was just what they should be saying. The rear tank gauge, which now said "E", held 10.1 gallons of automotive fuel. When I moved the fuel selector to "rear", I reset the panel clock to 12:00; the panel clock is a Timex watch attached to the panel by a sheet metal screw. EAA people are so innovative.

The biplane trimmed out well, and was stable. It had a slight tendency to turn left, which I could have cured by reducing the power and corresponding torque, but I was in a hurry, so I kept it at 2500 RPM and put a little pressure on the right rudder. The front fuel tank holds 29.6 gallons, which, guessing that the Lycoming O-290-D engine should burn about seven gallons per hour, will allow us to fly five hours with a comfortable reserve. In anticipation of this, I had brought along a plastic bottle with a good, tight cap. As I looked around in the crowded cockpit, I wondered if it would be possible to use it. My shoulders fit the cockpit exactly, comfortably rubbing both sides at once. My legs reached the rudders, but the panel was so low that I couldn't move them when they began to tire of being in one position. I did manage to take a few pictures and make a few notes, but there was no room for moving anything else.

Approach Control at Sioux Falls gave me a transponder code, then informed me that he was showing a ground speed readout of 130 knots. Not bad for 125 horsepower. At Alexandria, I decided to take a shortcut, leaving I-94 to follow the trail of the Iron Horse ... the railroad ... southeast to Interstate 29, south of Sioux Falls. The engine quit one hour and eighteen minutes after switching to the rear tank. Now I knew the fuel burn rate. In the two or three microseconds it took me to realize the tank was empty and to switch the lever to the "front" position, I remembered Paul's parting words. "If the engine quits, don't look to the right, left or to the front for an emergency field. Look between your knees, because that's the direction you are going." He was right. Fortunately, it wasn't necessary to pick a field. Given a fresh supply of fuel, the engine caught up with renewed enthusiasm. Added notes on the rear fuel tank: when the tank is full, the gauge reads "E"; when the tank is 3/4, the gauge reads 3/4; when the tank is bone dry, the gauge reads 1/2. I plan to have a look at that when I get home.

A glance at the Omaha sectional chart shows that there are very few roads west of Sioux Falls, and that most of the ones that are there run either south and north or east and west. From the air, the roads form a grid that separates farms. Each square of the grid contains a cluster of buildings surrounded by a ring of trees. The clusters consist of the following: one large, white house; one large barn; two or more silos; several metal storage buildings; pig or chicken sheds (hard to tell which from 5500 feet); pickup trucks and tractors. As I looked down at the roads and at the compass, I noticed that one of them was lying. As I headed south on I-29, the compass indicated 240 degrees. This was no problem as long as the weather was good and I could follow the roads, but I made a note to look into that also.

I-29 meets the Missouri River down near Omaha. I talked to Omaha Approach and took a picture of their airport, banking to the right with my knees so I could frame the town, river and airport between the red wings. If you don't have room to move around in an airplane, you just have to improvise. As I followed the Missouri again, I remembered a map in Pierre that detailed the many tragic steamboat wrecks along this river. It is a mistake to think of the good old days as a time of security. The ratios of fatalities per passenger mile on steamboats was much greater than that in general aviation ... and it couldn't have been this much fun.

As the sun rose above the center section of the top wing, the snug cockpit began to get warm. Paul had sealed it well enough to fly in the Dakota winters. My long-billed cap, with the words "SOUTH DAKOTA" and the picture a pheasant, the state bird, on the front was in the baggage compartment. The baggage compartment was directly behind my head. I reached back and could barely touch the lock on the door. After deciding that I couldn't get the cap, I ripped off a corner of my brand-new Omaha chart and put it under the top band of the headset. It worked well; little pieces could be torn off to fine tune the shaded area as the sun got higher. It was also necessary to tear the chart into strips to read it. There was just not enough room to fold a map in the cockpit. Every time I tried to, I turned on or off the lights or radio, so my new charts become an expensive pile of shredded paper in the floor.

Somewhere around Rock Port, Missouri, I made a command decision. I had been flying more than three hours, and the rent on my morning coffee was due. I considered the options and decided to use the plastic bottle. It proved to be possible, but this is not a procedure I would recommend for the faint hearted. Perhaps a catheter would be more appropriate. Soon afterwards, now that I was prepared for another two hours of flying, I ran into the weather. The guy on Kansas City Approach talked about a line of thundershowers that was moving northeast at twenty five knots; the sky looked dark ahead. Decision time again. I landed at Saint Joseph, Missouri.

Saint Joe is a nice place. The Rosecrans Memorial airport was sufficiently large for my first landing in an EAA Biplane. I asked the tower to give me their best runway, as I was new at this. "Roger 6PE, any runway is O.K., the winds have settled down. It's calm right now," the tower said. The biplane glided straight down the approach path in air as smooth as glass. I held the stick back, as Paul had instructed, and felt the shudder of a stall just above the runway. Three hours and fifty-five minutes flying time and one landing.

The guy in the tower said, "that didn't look bad for a first attempt, but you'd better tie it down. There's a thunderstorm just south of town." Remember what I said about living right?

After a quick refuel ... 31.3 gallons ... and a call to flight service, I decided to leave before the storm hit and to head east. There was light rain falling as I began the take-off roll. It got heavier and louder as the speed picked up. I wonder if Paul ever flew in the rain. Probably not. He wouldn't have subjected his little sweetheart to this torture. Rain drops at this speed are very hard.

The weather man had said that all of the bad weather was south of a line between St. Joe and Hannibal. I followed Highway 36 east until there were lightning flashes off the right wing, then deviated northeast. The rain got lighter, then heavier, then it stopped. Then the sky began to get brighter. I wasn't lost, of course, but for the first time, I wished for some navigation equipment; a compass that worked would have been nice. The one on the panel had begun to spin wildly, like the ones in the movies about the Bermuda Triangle. I tried to pull it off the panel, to see if it would act better further from the magnetic fields of the engine, but I couldn't get it loose. Then, in frustration, I slapped it. The compass stopped spinning and settled down to a solid indication of "E". As it happened, east was the way I thought I was going and the way I wanted to go, so it was tempting to believe the newly reformed instrument, but .... was it telling the truth, or just trying to get even? I decided not to trust it.

I crossed an Interstate that I was pretty sure was I-35, then stumbled on Lake Viking airport. I was certain it was Lake Viking, because the runway is on the shore of the only lake within fifty miles. I found an old railroad, abandoned, but visible, and followed it to Chillicothe, then the highway to Hannibal. As the Illinois border drifted past, the clouds parted to show some blue sky. I was glad to be past the weather. I don't normally penetrate fronts without the benefit of gyroscopic instruments, navigational equipment or compass.

With the excitement of the weather past, I switched to the rear fuel tank and the engine promptly quit. Now what? I switched back and thought about it. Water in the tank from the rain? Not likely. Probably air in the line, since I ran it dry last time. I waited until I was over the airport at Pittsfield, Illinois, and switched to the rear tank again. It took the lo-o-o-ongest time, but it caught up and ran fine. We followed Interstate 36 east to Jacksonville, Ill., then faced another crisis. In my haste to leave Saint Joseph before the storm hit, I had left the new St. Louis sectional chart in the baggage compartment ... zipped up in my overnight bag ... locked behind my head. I could have landed at Jacksonville and retrieved it, but I didn't want to give up my 5500 feet of altitude. I could have just continued on, following the Interstate and hoping there were no control zones. But I chose a third option: to unlock the baggage door, open it (toward my head), remove the bag and get out the chart, replace the bag (there was not room to fly with it in my lap) and relock the baggage door.

I did it. I'm not even going to talk about how difficult it was; and dangerous, since it involved doing aerobatics with my knees; but I did it. I consider this to be one of the greatest triumphs of my thirty-year flying career. If I hadn't lost that twenty pounds last year, it would never have been possible.

With the new St. Louis chart in hand, I headed confidently off on a southeasterly course. The compass still claimed to be headed east, but by keeping the shadows of the "N" struts on the lower wings at a constant angle, it was possible to maintain a heading. We followed a railroad past Waverly, Virden, Girard, Litchfield, Greenville and Centralia, and on to Mt. Vernon.

One of the things I've learned on past cross-country trips is that each of the contiguous states have the same towns. Only the relative sizes are different. Waverly, Tennessee is smaller than Waverly, Illinois, and Mt. Vernon, Virginia is larger than Mt. Vernon, Illinois. I was happy to see Mt. Vernon's Outlaw airport. Outlaws or not, I was ready to land. Three hours and fifteen minutes on this leg made a total of seven hours and ten minutes flying time. The biplane's little seat was getting uncomfortable. Outlaw airport had an eight knot cross wind. I lowered the upwind pair of wings into it and kept the runway lined up. Gradually removing the correction as the wind slacked near the surface, we rolled onto the ground, smooth and easy. A piece of cake.

The mechanic at Mt. Vernon gave me a piece of foam rubber to pad my seat, a kindness I will never forget. It made the rest of the trip much more pleasant. It took 25.9 gallons of fuel to fill the tanks and a couple of quarts of oil for the engine. I grabbed three packs of peanut butter crackers and a diet Dr. Pepper and wedged myself back into the cockpit. I swear it seemed to be getting smaller.

From Mt. Vernon, it's an easy ride east on Interstate 64 to Kentucky. I like following interstates. They're nice and straight and rarely have power lines over them. Interstates are long runways that follow you to your destination. The interstate highway system was designed and built for military use in times of national emergency. Many of those nice, long stretches of highway have already been designated as military runways. That's why access to them is so limited. I feel comfortable thinking of them as runways. I just have to remember to land with the traffic.

We were back at 5500 feet when we crossed the Wabash River. I called Evansville Approach and learned that my ground speed had dropped to 120 knots. My tail wind had become a cross wind from the south. The folks on Louisville Approach said I was down to 110 knots, but the countryside rolled by. There was color and contour to the land now, green fields and Dogwood trees in bloom. We turned right at Lexington and followed Interstate 75 past Berea and on to London, Kentucky. The sun dropped below the horizon and it was time to stop for the day. I've done a lot of single-engine night flying and I don't like it. Especially not in an airplane new to me. The beacon at London led me to the airport, but there were no runway lights. The runway lights are turned on by tuning to 123.6 and clicking the mike button five times, but it was too dark to read this information by the time I needed it. My third landing in the biplane was a night landing; not one to be proud of. I flared a little high, but it was O.K. Nobody was watching. The fine folks at Emerald Aviation gave me a blanket and let me spend the night in the pilot's lounge. There were movies to watch, but after ten hours and twenty minutes in the saddle, I was ready to sleep.

Thursday morning was clear, blue and calm. I took Emerald Aviation's van to the Big Boy restaurant while they put 22.5 gallons of fuel in the biplane. After a leisurely breakfast and then back for a nice chat with the flight service people, I took off for Tennessee. Somewhere around Corbin, I remembered a flight twenty years earlier, when I had followed I-75 north in an old Stinson. I had passed within a hundred yards of a helicopter, a Bell Jet Ranger which had been following the road the other way. As I thought about that earlier flight, a spot appeared ahead of me and began to grow larger. It was a Jet Ranger; now a different color. I couldn't tell if it was the same guy. I didn't get close enough to see his face this time.

The visibility in the mountains was terrific. I could see the peaks up past Harlan, Kentucky to the east and down to Oneida, Tennessee to the west. The naked, unhealed scars of strip mines show where coal has been ripped from the mountains. At Jellico, Tennessee, I-75 begins a long climb to cross the mountain range that separates Kentucky from Tennessee. It reaches near three thousand feet, then drops back to one thousand at Knoxville.

Norris Lake never looked better. Its banks were lined with newly leafed trees and slow moving fishing boats; a sure sign the bass and crappie are biting. Over Cherokee Lake I got Greeneville unicom on the radio and asked someone to call my wife. One hour and thirty minutes from London, Kentucky; eleven hours and fifty minutes from Peer, South Dakota, and I'm home. Paul Ewert built a good airplane. I'd take it anywhere ... after padding that seat a little more.