|Etiquette and Preparation Tips|
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I've had some of my best experiences at flyins. it is hard to beat the
sound of radial engines, the late evening side light making everything the field
glow, strolling around on the grass, and good companionship from friends as well
as people you've never met.
These are the accumulated set of tips and practices I've built up over years of going to flyins. The intent is to be as well-prepared and as safe as possible. It may seem intimidating but with good preparation, flyins aren't significantly different that normal flying. The enjoyment is definitely worth the preparation for me.
I like to fly to flyins as much as possible. With antique airplanes, that generally means long VFR cross country flights. Make sure you leave plenty of time and don't have a get-there-itis pressure, so that bad weather could leave you making foolish choices.
Preparing the plane for maintenance for a long cross country is a good idea. This includes changing the oil, checking the tires, and fixing all those little nagging squawks that have been there but not been annoying enough to take the plane down for. This includes things like little avionics nits, broken or intermittent instruments, checking that all the paperwork is up to date (you did replace your ELT battery, didn't you?) and missing screws or fairings.
Although prepatory maintenance is good, the thing not to do is run out of time and end up using your first leg of the cross country flight as the first post-maintenance shakedown flight. Schedule your maintenance to finish at least a week before the flyin departure date, and make sure to fly at least 1 hour locally on a shakedown before departing to remote destinations. Finding out a fix didn't take during the climbout to the big flyin puts you in a terrible mental bind. Finding out that a radio or some other piece of equipment isn't working while in the busiest part of an unfamiliar approach to a crowded uncontrolled flyin pattern in asking for disaster. If there's a problem, turn around or divert. There's always next year for most flyins and that's much better than pushing into a high stress accident-prone situation.
In terms of recent experience in the air, I also try to brush up on crosswind and high wind skills before leaving on a long trip back east. In Puget Sound we rarely get big winds, so the winds in the central plains can come as a rude surprise. It is better to not make it to the flyin than to bend the airplane by flying in winds outside your comfort zone.
Because I fly antique airplanes, it is a fact of life that things will occasionally break. On the road it can often be hard to find experienced or even willing mechanics for 70 year old equipment. Consequently I bring a set of road tools that are capable of handling most problems. This has served me well on numerous occasions either for my plane or a friends. Here's my recommended set of tools. Speaking of maintenance, have you practiced simulated engine failures in flight lately? Over rough terrain?
When flying, time permitting, I take it as a challenge to land at different, smaller airports in order to see new places and get the local character. Rarely are the smaller fields a bad choice since usually the operators are happy to sell some gas, loan you the airport car and pass on a tip for the local lunch hangout.
The one downside to this approach is that you should plan ahead by buying charts and facilities guides in advance, and call ahead the day of to verify FBO hours, gas availability, and the availability of rides into town for hotel overnights. Since cellphone coverage is pretty much national these days calling ahead is easy. If you take a lot of trips consider a no-roaming-fee and nationwide flat-rate long distance cell plan.
The other small piece of advice is to file flight plans, even though they're a pain, and to pre-program the direct-dial local Flight Service Station numbers into your cellphone in advance. Unfortunately cellphones often get confused when calling the 1-800-WXBRIEF number about whether to connect you to the local FSS or to your home FSS, and it is much better to speak with a local briefer who's familiar with the area.
Flying In - Procedures
Prepare for the flyin by studying the airport diagram and the flyin NOTAM, if there is one. Generally the larger EAA-sponsored events have a NOTAM outlining special approach instructions and temporary tower and approach frequencies. Nowadays these NOTAMs are almost always available on the web for printout.
The area around a flyin will be as busy an area as you will likely ever fly in, so you need to have your head out of the book and NOTAM and looking for traffic. If you can bring an experienced passenger to manage paper and/or look for traffic that's good.
Practice before you go to the flyin. Approach procedures for large flyins usually call for precise navigation along landmarks like railroad tracks, and for precise airspeeds and altitudes. If you haven't practiced airspeed, altitude and heading control to checkride standards, you should do so before heading off to the flyin. If you can't maintain the called for airspeed at the flyin without having your eyes glued to the indicator then you'll create a traffic hazard to yourself and others. Practice and write down the power and flap settings that will result in a known airspeed before you enter the flyin approach.
Many large flyins have a temporary tower and sometimes an approach agency. The frequencies are given on the NOTAM. Large flyin radio practice is different in that you try to minimize congestion on the radio at all times. Monitor well before you call, and use only aircraft type and color such as "Red Cessna" instead of "Cessna Skylane 8431Z". Also do not acknowledge instructions on the radio, instead rock your wings vigorously.
Another thing to practice is short field approaches and tight patterns. Oftentimes at a busy flyin the controller will be landing planes before a downfield plane has fully taxied off the runway and you have to hold short, or you may be asked to land on the second half of the runway, or sometimes even asked to land to one side of the runway only. Be prepared for unorthodox instructions by practicing and having confidence in your ability to slow down or speed up your approach at will, and to always hit the numbers.
For flyins without a temporary tower (or sometimes even without a radio frequency) the best plan is to keep your eyes outside the cockpit looking for traffic. Be prepared to go around or even exit the pattern if you lose situational awareness.
Oftentimes a crosswind runway is closed and used for parking during a flyin. Inevitably this results in some higher-than-normal crosswind situations during the course of the flyin. Even though you may have gone a long way to get to a flyin, don't flinch at diverting to a nearby airport with better runway alignment until the wind dies down.
Be aware of airport closures for airshows. Usually the airshows are in the mid-afternoon and the field is completely closed. Also for the hour following the airshow the field is very busy with departures so plan to arrive at some other time if you can. The arrival parking staff can close up before darkness during the late summer days, so try to arrive before 6 or 7 pm.
Do not be afraid to go around when you're at the flyin. Yes there a lot of people watching. It is still better to go around than to bend your airplane.
Large flyins often have "follow me" scooters to direct you to parking. Follow the parker's directions even if you know you should have a better spot. You can negotiate a better spot after shutdown and you won't be blocking the ramp and potentially causing a safety hazard to pedestrians. If in doubt about pedestrian walkways, stop and shutdown and call for assistance or wingwalkers.
At The Event
If you're overnighting at a flyin, make sure that you arrive in time to get a good parking spot. For many flyins the display line fills up early, so plan your arrival dates. Most flyins start between mid-week and Friday and end on Sundays or Mondays. I find that the peak days are usually Friday and Saturday, but this varies by flyin. The fly-market junk and merchandise stands usually have the best stock at the beginning of the flyin so it can be a tough balance.
Bring tie down ropes and stakes. I've had great luck with Fly-Ties which are pricy but are easy to transport, strong, and easy to install. If you don't bring your own stakes the some flyin venues will charge you a hefty fee to use theirs. Make sure your rope is properly stored and replaced every few years lest it lose its strength.
If you have a show plane, it is often helpful to make a small folding sign out of plastic or plywood to inform onlookers as to the history of your plane.
Even if you don't camp, a blowup or rolled foam pad can provide a good place to sit. The lightweight folding sling chairs that are now being sold in sporting goods stores are great for setting up a conversation and relaxation area in the shade of a high wing.
At the event make sure you drink plenty of water, use sunscreen liberally, and wear a hat. Most flyins are in the peak of the summer heat and you'll quickly run out of steam if you don't take precautions against the heat and sun.
If the event is an informal one such as Blakesburg, pull your plane out during the late afternoon on a Saturday and start hopping rides for friends or passerbys. There will never be a shortage of people wanting to go up, and you'll be putting a smile on their faces. You might lose a few votes in the "cleanest airplane" competition by being in the air instead of parked, but you'll be keeping the barnstorming spirit alive.
Departure days at the end of a flyin, as well as departure hours after airshow closures, are usually very busy. There will often be a line of 10 or more planes waiting to leave.
When starting up, pull your plane out of the display line and in some cases pull the plane by hand to the end of the display row. Usually passerbys are happy to help with moving a plane around. Always direct the prop blast away from any other parked aircraft or display areas.
When taxiing, make sure you are always aware of pedestrians and call ramp control for walkers or escort scooters as appropriate. During busy departure times there can be a line of taxiing aircraft and you can lose visibility in a taildragger by following too closely.
Busy departure times can result in a self-imposed pressure to line up without taking time to do your normal departure checklists and runups. This has resulted in more than one accident due to taking off on the wrong fuel tank or incorrect flap and control settings. Take the time to do a runup even if it means pulling out of line.
At controlled fields there are often multiple planes departing at once from different sides of the runways, so be prepared and make sure you practice your runway alignment before getting to the flyin. The same rules about radio congestion that applied for arrival apply for departure as well.
At short soft fields in the heat of the summer (e.g. Blakesburg), with an airplane loaded with flyin baggage and booty, performance can be marginal. If it doubt I will plan to leave with 1/2 tanks to provide some performance margin and then stop at a nearby, non-congested field to fully gas up before taking off on the first long return trip leg.
Be sure to have camera preparation. I've gone all-digital and bring camera, extra memory cards, and a backup laptop to download images. For shooting pictures of the line, a 28 to 100 mm zoom (35 mm equivalent) is a good lens to have. You need the wide angle capability to get the complete plane when parked on the display lines. Also be cognizant of the light and sun angle.
At the more personal flyins such as Blakesburg you can often get good taxi, takeoff and landing pictures. These shots usually require longer zoom lenses, say 200 mm. At the larger flyins the runways are generally far away from the crowd lines so it is pretty hopeless to get good photos.
Unless you have a very long lens don't waste your film on aerial shots of airshows, as all you'll get are tiny black dots in the sky with smoke trailing off into space.
Someday I'd like to go to most antique flyins equipped for air-to-air photography, which requires a chase plane and crew. For now that will remain a post-retirement fantasy. The proper equipment would be:
Air to air is an art in and of itself. The most dangerous aspect is close formation flying. The trick with photos is to position for the right sunlight angle, use morning or evening light, and use slow shutter speeds to blur the propellers (a frozen propeller in flight is pretty unnatural).