At beautiful Liberty Landing International Airport we call them "little white friendlies." These are the innocuous little puffs of cloud that usually appear in late summer mornings. They’ll start out as hazy white cotton balls, but as the day progresses, they’ll sometimes align themselves into rows of stately white and gray galleons, sailing across the sky like hundreds of ships in a flotilla on an azure sea.
Every so often a really big thermal will punch its way through and send a towering pillar of cloud high up above the rest. And then a really mystical thing happens. A lot of the other little white friendlies will start to slide over to join the others. Then more and more will merge. Soon, those original little white friendlies will morph into a terrifying convective sigmet big black surly Missouri super-cell thunderstorm. Challenging a big black surly is something wise pilots don’t contemplate. The options when you encounter them are limited. You can either run like heck the other way or land as quickly as possible and get the plane under cover.
Weather like this can make pleasure flying in the Missouri River bottoms during the summer months of June through August a challenging endeavor. You can either do your flying early in the morning or late in the day. Back when we were all working stiffs, afternoon flying was our only option.
Now you also have to consider the other contributing factors you must contend with for afternoon flying in the Midwest: mind-numbing heat, humidity so high that when you walk outside it feels like someone threw a wet wool blanket over you and the thermals. Holy moly, the thermals! When you’re flying during the heat of the day, you can run into killer thermals without any warning. We like to call them either "spar benders" or "wire twangers." You’ll either get mashed down in the seat or thrown up against your straps. In an open cockpit plane, being thrown against the straps is one of those moments when you reach down and check "just to make sure" that everything is secure and you won’t be catapulted out of the cockpit.
The stud muffins of The Dawn Patrol wait for the bump dummy to land and make her BDPIREP (bump dummy pilot report). From left to right: Tom Glaeser, Mark Pierce, Dick Starks, Dick Lemons.
However, the reason you’re out there is that the air will usually calm down and smooth out just before sundown. Then, for about 2 hours you’ll have some of the best flying imaginable. The air is so glassy you can let go of the stick, rest your elbows on the cockpit coaming and just bore holes in the sky, marveling at the beauty of the land inching by under your wings. For even more fun, just fly the pattern doing touch-and-goes over and over again. You know that somewhere out there is the elusive perfect landing when you can’t even feel the wheels touch the grass.
Of course, it’s the unwritten rule of flying that when you do make the perfect arrival there will be no one there to witness it, just as there are always bystanders when you bounce one in higher than the hangar roof.
The only fly in the summer ointment is that there’s no way to know when the air is going to make the transition from "good grief" to "ah sweetness." It usually takes about 15 minutes to happen, and there is only one way to find out if the transition has occurred.
The Kolb Twinstar MK-II, the aircraft of choice for bump dummy work, is ready for taxi. Its light wing loading makes the Kolb very susceptible to rough air. Please note the steely-eyed, stern-jaw look as Sharon heads out to battle the elements.
Keeps Going and Going…
Enter the bump dummy. That’s the brave soul who volunteers (or loses the coin toss) to go up and test out the air just to see what the conditions are "up there." Some individuals are born to be bump dummies, while others are elected. It all depends on how gullible the nominee is.
At beautiful Liberty Landing International Airport where The Dawn Patrol is based, we have a unique organization. The members are Mark Pierce, Dick Lemons, Tom Glaeser, Sharon Starks (token female pilot and airport cook) and yours truly. We’ve all been flying there since 1986. As time has passed, we’ve all fallen into our predestined roles in the drama (or comedy, you choose).
Our designated bump dummy is Sweetums. Yep, she’s the logical choice for two reasons. First, her lightweight Kolb Twinstar MK-II has an enormous wing with the lightest wing loading of any plane on the field. Thermals will bounce her around a lot more than it will us in our Nieuports and Fokkers. Second, we snookered her into doing it. The stalwart stud muffins in The Dawn Patrol have no shame. During one of our hangar gab fests around the table, we gravely told Sharon about the time-honored tradition in flying concerning the bump dummy, who is always the pilot with the lowest number of hours logged in their logbook. We were all nodding our heads as we imparted this aviation nugget to her, yet we were amazed when she took the bait and swallowed the hook.
Of course, she’s gullible like that. Next to me, Sharon’s had the most practical jokes played on her out at the field. The giant inflatable snake that we hid under her car was our crowning achievement. Using monofilament fishing line, we pulled it out from under the car as she was getting ready to open the car door. Sharon gave out a piercing scream and, defying the laws of gravity, levitated herself a foot off the ground. She was able to maintain that altitude while she ran in place for about 10 seconds trying to keep her frantically churning feet from stepping on the snake. After she landed back on the ground, she stomped the poor defenseless snake into oblivion. Then she turned her attention to us as we rolled around on the ground laughing and holding our sides. It was then that we learned she had been building her vocabulary and taking note of our language while we were working and things weren’t going well. She screamed some very bad words at us. (It was still worth it.)
Please note: Just in case you readers out there want to accuse the stud muffins in The Dawn Patrol of being a bunch of unshaven, smelly, armpit-scratching, snorting, grunting, belching, gas-passing classic examples of Oinkus Americanus (aka sexist pigs), Sharon is the airport cook by her choice. Her reason is that when we try to cook anything, we leave too big a mess for her to clean up. (We never told her that we did that on purpose. It only took a few times to train her and have her accept and cherish her womanly duties.)
The best thing about big black surlies is that after they’ve passed, the air is usually crystal clear and smooth as silk. Tom Glaeser and Dick Starks make a smoke pass over the airport with an enormous, menacing big black surly on the southern horizon as a backdrop.
But as the passing years have proven, the arrangement works out just swell. That icebox and grill are her domain and no one else’s. She rules her kingdom with an iron fist, too. She can be 500 feet down the row of hangars, changing the oil or spark plugs on her planes, when one of us happens to open the refrigerator.
In a split second she can beam herself 500 feet up to the big hangar. As we peer hopefully into the depths of the fridge, we’ll hear a low, menacing, suspicious voice from behind us hiss, "What do you think you’re doing?"
"I’m hungry," is the safest response.
"Step away from the fridge," she’ll order us, and our mission is accomplished. We’ll amble back to the front of the hangar and drink diet Dr. Thunder and trade lies until we hear the scream "COME AND GET IT!" from the cook hidden somewhere in the middle of the roiling cloud of greasy grill smoke.
About That Summer Flying
Now that you know all of the actors in the playbill, we can get back to the subject at hand. We’ll suggest that the bump dummy go up and check out the air. We’d rather Sharon take the Kolb up because of the aforementioned wing-loading issue. She will jump in her Kolb, start up the Valley Engineering big bad twin four-stroke engine and waddle out to the active (and only) runway.
After giving the engine time to warm up, she’ll shove the throttle in, thunder down the runway about a hundred feet and lift off.
She’ll make a pattern around the field, and then it’s decision time. Will she land or fly by and give us a big thumbs-up?
If she makes a low pass down the runway and gives us a big thumbs-up, the Nieuports are cranked up and the evening’s flying can begin.
If she lands and taxis back in with a white face and bugged-out eyes, we’ll all open another can of hearty diet Dr. Thunder and go back to swapping lies in the shade in front of the hangar.
A thumbs-up pass down the runway at beautiful Liberty Landing International Airport gives the others a go-ahead.
In about 30 minutes, she’ll go back up. It may take a few more bump dummy runs, but sooner or later we’ll get the thumbs-up, and another great flying day is ours to enjoy.
Now, all is not smiles and sunshine. She’s snookered us a few times, too. She’s flown down the runway with a big grin and an emphatic thumbs-up. We’ll all take off and she’ll immediately land and watch us get our guts bounced out trying to get back on the ground without "blowing beets." Every red-blooded American male knows that sooner or later, women will always get even. Sometimes it just takes them awhile to find the right time to strike.
You know, it’s kind of sad that bump dummies are not needed at towered airports. You can always get PIREPS over the radio or just ask the tower. Where’s the joy in that? It takes all the mystery out of summer flying.
Would we like it the way they have it at big tower-controlled airports you may ask? Nah, why mess with perfection? Dispatching the bump dummy is a lot more fun.
Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; You Want To Build And Fly A What? and Fokkers At Six Oclock!! He was the recipient of Flyings 2001 Bax Seat Award for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight. Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.