Michael McCafferty - European Biplane Tour

To Fly Is To Be

Last night, I used my Internet web page connection to The Weather Channel to look up the forecast for today, and I was pleased to see sunny skies predicted. I went to sleep fully expecting to fly in the morning.

Jumping out of bed early to check the sky, it actually did look promising. Although it was cloudy, they were higher clouds than during the previous weeks and I even imagined that I could see some hint (oh, so faint!) of blue color above.

"I'm going to FLY today!" were the first words to escape my lips, to no one in particular, to the World in General. This was said with great gusto and with heavy emphasis on the word FLY. In fact I even sang the word!

I rushed through a breakfast and went outside, quickly looking again at the sky to confirm my belief that surely the sun would shine today, then headed again into the subway for the trip toward Le Bourget airport. When I emerged at the end of the line at La Chapelle, it was raining! Now a positive thinker, such as I am, immediately thinks that this rain is just a light shower, and that it's very localized, a freak event that is not at all indicative of the general conditions in the area. In fact, a very accomplished positive thinker could even look into that raining sky and still see some blue! And I think I did. When the taxi dropped me off at Le Bourget, it was still raining, but I was convinced that it would stop. And it did. And then it started again!

I visited the operations office where I had to file a flight plan and got the latest weather forecast. The conditions it forecast were absolutely horrible. According to it, in another couple of hours the sky would be throwing all kinds of garbage my way. Thunderstorms, ice (in July?), low ceilings, cumulonimbus down to 1500 feet, high winds with gusts even higher! Not a pretty picture by any measure, and certainly not flyable. But outside, right at that moment, it was relatively decent, with high clouds, and the winds were only about 15 knots. Sure it was raining, but not that hard, and visibility was not all that bad. It was the kind of day that normally I would never even consider flying. It was the kind of day one would choose to stay home with a good book, by a fire, with a glass of Port wine, some Mozart.

But a positive thinker, who woke up this morning with a song in his heart and the picture of flying in his soul, would not even consider that these conditions were not flyable. In fact, I have flown in worse. Never by choice, of course. Flying in conditions like this are the sort that occur to you when you are already in the air and it comes upon you close to your destination, as a surprise. But it was flyable. The only thing I didn't like was the fact that it was raining. But a little rain never hurt an airplane, and so what if I was going to be sitting out in the open cockpit in the rain. Many an early pilot flying the mail sat in much worse conditions. My flight was relatively short, so it couldn't be all that bad, could it? And besides, I REALLY needed to fly. This is what I do, this is who I am. To fly is to be.

The decision was simple. Fly now in the rain, or don't fly at all today. And with the way the weather has been, who knows when I would ever fly again. So I filed my flight plan and headed for the plane.

The gas truck took forever to arrive. And when he got there he took a nasty scrape out of my right wheel fairing with a ladder he used to reach the upper wing. Not a great omen, one could think, but not a positive thinker like me.

Finally, I strap into my seat, wrap my new lucky scarf around my neck, put on my kneeboard, organize my maps, fire up the big round engine (so good to hear it again!), dial in all of the radio frequencies I am going to need to get out of Le Bourget, contact Ground Control and advise them that I am indeed going to fly, receive clearance to taxi to runway 25, and slowly move out of the ramp area of Euralair. As I turn back for a last look, there is a throng of mechanics and office workers who have assembled in the open hangar door (safe from the rain) to watch this extraordinary airplane take off. My wave is returned many times over, and I am sure they are wondering who is this crazy American who wants to go flying in the cold rain in an open cockpit biplane. I know that's what they were thinking, because I was thinking the same thing.

I find runway 25 and while holding short, do my run-up checks and announce to the tower that I am ready to go. The tower now advises me that the wind has shifted considerably (as well as increased in strength) and would I like to take another runway, 21, more aligned into the wind. I agree that 21 would be better under the circumstances, thinking that it would be wonderful if I could just as easily choose a runway that would be in the sunshine!

Throttle full forward, the beast attacks the wind... suddenly I'm in the air. Things start to happen very quickly now. Tower directs me to turn left immediately, stay under 1500 feet and report when I have arrived at "Echo One", a place that exists only as the intersection of two radio beams and is indicated in my cockpit by two different instruments. The only problem is that one of those instruments is not functioning properly. In fact, that is the reason for this flight in the first place, to go to the airfield where they can repair it. This leaves me in a bit of a predicament of course, but I have prepared to meet this situation. It has worked throughout the ages in all manner of difficult situations, and I'm relying on it now. I beg for mercy.

"Le Bourget Tower, this is Waco biplane November Two Five Zero Yankee Mike, I am not familiar with your area, and I would appreciate your assistance in locating Echo One." I could have told him that I had an inoperative instrument, but then I would have been stupid for taking off without it working properly. No, it was better to be ignorant than stupid. And what are they going to do to me anyway, shoot me down? Make me come back to Le Bourget and write something on the blackboard 100 times? No they would rather help me get out of their airspace as quickly as possible and into someone else's airspace. So they steer me where they want me, probably having a good chuckle among themselves in the tower. (Crazy American, flying that old biplane in the rain, getting himself all wet.)

I'm reminded of an old saying: "It is better to ask forgiveness than it is to ask permission." It usually works!

Soon comes the tower's sign-off: "November Two Five Zero Yankee Mike, you are clear of our area, proceed to your destination on your own and you may change radio frequency. Bon Jour." (Translation: "Good riddance")

Well I know exactly how they feel. I like dealing with air traffic control as much as they like being interrupted by people like me. I would much prefer to go flying in silence, without being given orders about which way to turn, which runway to use, to speed up, or slow down, or climb or descend. Birds don't take orders from any traffic controller, and they do just fine, thank you.

Finding the tiny airport at Nangis was easy with the help of my GPS. How did people fly without the help of a couple of dozen orbiting Global Positioning Satellites? They flew with the aid of a compass and a clock, and many times they got lost, or dead, but a GPS is a miracle. I have flown without it, but I would surely prefer to have one.

Nangis has a hard surface runway and a grass runway, and I chose the hard surface only because I had no way of knowing the condition of the grass. With all the rain lately, it could easily be partly underwater, which could bring my beautiful Waco to an untimely and unattractive turnover on landing. My approach was just the littlest bit high, so I burned off the extra altitude with my signature sideslip, then straightened it out just before touching down for a very nice landing, if I do say so myself. Since there was no one else there to say it, it really must be said, or it wouldn't be as much fun. So there!

Nangis is a very small airport, in the country, just outside Paris. No tower to go bossing you around. Only a few hangars, a flight school, and Aerodima, the shop that could fix my very broken and very important instrument -- the Horizontal Situation Indicator (HSI). As I taxied up in front of Aerodima a group of about 8 people are waiting for me with smiles all around, and the smiling-est face in the crowd was Helene Brillant-Gavard. I talked with Helene a couple of times on the phone before coming here, about the field and the weather. She is the only one there who is fluent with English, so she was elected to deal with me.

Here's a photo of Helene, her husband René, and Mr. Brillant, her uncle.

Nice People at Nangis

I had arrived just in time. Everyone was just leaving for lunch and I was invited to go along. French food is just wonderful, of course, but it is even better when you have someone who knows the food and can translate the menu for you and recommend the right things.

At lunch I learned from Helene that the very interesting looking plane I saw in their hangar was a Vampire, the first French Army jet aircraft, first flown in 1950. The main section of the body of the aircraft is wood! Helene's father is a big fan of the P-38 Lightning, but there just are none for sale, and even if they were, it would be way to expensive. So to ease his hunger for a P-38, he bought 4 Vampires. An interesting tradeoff! John Travolta owns and flies a Vampire, so it's got to be cool. Here's a photo of the one in their shop, getting an annual inspection. What you can't see is the twin boom design very reminiscent of the P-38.


It was very quickly after we returned to the airport that Mr. Brillant, Helene's uncle, had located the problem with the HSI. He removed the gyro unit from the Waco, and holding it in his hands, gave it a gentle shake to demonstrate that there were some very wrong sounds coming from inside. It sounded like a kid's toy the day after Christmas: broken. Within minutes he had it taken apart on the bench, identified the problem as a ball bearing that had come unstuck, stuck it back where it belonged, and everything checked out again. (This is my very un-technical translation of a very technical French explanation.)

Just as they were re-installing the gyro, the skies dumped more rain, so we pushed the biplane into the hangar for the night. It's then that it occurs to me that I have no idea how I'm going to get back to Paris and my hotel room. But for some reason the universe always takes care of the details. Helene and her husband were going to drive into Paris that very afternoon, for an appointment that Helene had there, and it would be no problem to take me back with them. In fact, René dropped me off at the front door to my hotel. Awesome! Am I living right, or what?

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