Pilot stories: crossing continents in a Cub
14:57 16 September 2016
FEATURE US to Europe SINGLE USE PILOT MAG ONLY
Young American pilot and photographer Garrett Fisher shipped his Cub across the pond to find flying in Europe brings both frustration and joy
Words and photos: Garrett Fisher
I can’t get far into a conversation about my latest lifestyle change without puzzled looks, followed by the inevitable question, ‘Um, why did you move to Germany with an aeroplane?’ It’s not one I can answer all that clearly, other than to fall back upon my lineage of poorly-thought-out adventures. I defer to Rinker Buck’s quote, after writing Flight of Passage and crossing a good portion of America in a mule-drawn covered wagon: “Naiveté is the mother of adventure”.
Perhaps a little background would be a good start. The whole Germany thing is sort of a 140-year full circle, as some equally naïve Germans left their homeland in the 1800s and found their way to rural upstate New York, where many of them became hardworking agricultural rednecks. Eventually, my grandfather was brought onto the scene, who decided while a boy during World War II, that aviation was his passion. It didn’t take him long to buy his first Piper Cub. Then came the registered private airport on the property where I grew up. My first flight was at age two in a bright yellow Piper Cub, a few hundred feet from my parents’ house.
My grandfather started giving me informal lessons in a Super Cub when I was eight, teaching me a version of self-reliant flying that hails from the Golden Age of Aviation, something hard to find in today’s glass cockpits. Despite being unable to see past his six-foot-three frame, I was expected to fly without being able to see the gauges, navigate by memory without the aid of instrumentation or a map and land from the back seat.
At age sixteen, he told me formal lessons would be taken in a Piper PA-11 Cub Special he had just finished restoring. A side benefit of having my grandfather as a neighbour was the ability to spend fifteen years of my childhood in the hangar as he made a career restoring almost every single model from a J-2 to a Super Cub, including his claim to fame; the first production E-2.
For eight years, he scoured parts to build the PA-11. I still recall thinking the thing was a bit of a jalopy compared to the newly- manufactured factory Super Cub I was accustomed to riding in. I soloed in that aircraft at sixteen, received my private certificate at seventeen, and eventually took ownership of the airplane from my late father in 2010, when the real adventures began.
As part of a quarter-life crisis in 2013, I decided to move to a valley 9,360 feet above sea level in Colorado. The nearest airport was precisely 9,927 feet above sea level in Leadville − the highest in North America. When my wife asked if it would be a problem, my reply was, “I took the airplane to 14,000 feet in New York when I was a student. It can’t be that complicated.”
Crossing the United States with no radio or starter, it only took four months after arrival to decide to photograph all 58 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet. The PA-11 is equipped with a whopping 100 horsepower engine, which produces seventy at 10,000 feet. Cabin heat is ineffective when it’s cold out. Within eight months, I had the project completed and turned it into a book.
After that, the airplane went back across the country again to the North Carolina coast, leaving a trail of photography and books, including the peaks over 6,000 feet in the Southeast US, the Blue Ridge Parkway from the air and Outer Banks of North Carolina from the air. An opportunity presented itself to return to the west and live on an airpark, so I crossed the country for the third time, flying 2,000 miles to the western edge of Wyoming in late winter to spend a long summer on an airpark not too far from Yellowstone.
I knew I would fly extensively, though I hadn’t prepared myself for 330 hours in one flying season. Nor did I expect to fly all the peaks over 14,000 feet again, or photograph every glacier in the US Rockies, traverse every major mountain range in the Intermountain West, deal with a winter emergency landing at 8,000 feet in Yellowstone, and fly the distance of the circumference of the earth, all the while taking tens of thousands of photographs. In that time, I finally became the photographer and pilot that I wanted to be.
It was at this juncture that Germany entered the picture. At the moment our rental on the airpark came to an end, the house of a friend in Germany, who had bought a Piper Cub from my grandfather, became available. Programmed by my grandfather that “Germans are the only ones that can get anything done”, I followed a hazy instinct from childhood to make good on a heritage I did not understand very well.
I had always wanted to go to Europe for at least a period of time. If I did not do it then, I would only talk about it for the rest of my life.
Blinded by naïvety, I rationalised that taking the wings off the PA-11 and tossing it into the shipping container with our stuff wouldn’t be that big a deal, and I’d ‘just fly it’ in Europe. But then there’s the £4,779 of equipment I needed to install: a radio, 406.9 ELT, Mode S transponder, starter, battery and the electrical system, from ground up. I justified these by telling myself there would be some convenience (no more hand-swinging!), additional airspace access, the ability to charge my iPhone and iPad in flight, a tiny extra margin of safety by having a transponder, some cost recovery from an increase in aircraft value, and the reality that the costs would be needed only once.
I was aware that avgas would increase from £3.52 per gallon to roughly double that figure, but I decided it wasn’t the end of the world as my burn rate averages 4.2 gallons per hour and the main workhorses of the general aviation fleet in America burn roughly double that. As petrol for my car would be twice the price compared to the US, I rationalised I was transitioning to aircraft costs that most Americans are used to paying for.
Then there is the subject of landing fees. I was aware these insidiously ridiculous machinations existed, though I was advised they should be small − something to the effect of €8 (£6.50) or so. I set this aside in my mind, knowing the total amount in landing fees I would pay in the course of the year wouldn’t be all that awful, though it represented a forced doffing of my symbolic cowboy hat.
No longer could I just do a series of wild landings for the sheer hell of it, lest I inadvertently become an excessive Keynesian economic stimulus for the local economy and run afoul of the monetary policy of the Bundesbank. Sigh, there goes putzing around the pattern in the evening.
I thought my sorrows would end there − I was wrong. This poor sap of an American lacked the proper and magical combination of propeller, engine and airframe laid out in the canonical scrolls of the Luftfahrt Bundesamt, so the airport “had no choice” but to charge me €16 (£13) per landing! Considering this egregiousness an act of barbaric fascism, I went to war to get the landing fee back where it belonged. That opened up a Pandora’s box of functional incompetence and lack of common sense on both sides of the pond, where I learned European bureaucracy thrives on paper.
The issue with the higher landing fee classification had to do with the fact the aircraft had no parchment associated with it indicating the sound level had been tested. It had next to nothing to do with whether or not the aircraft was actually quiet. Unfortunately, my purebred heritage comes from an Old World mindset corrupted by the frontiers of Americana, where common sense is primary. As the aircraft is N-registered, I researched FAA documentation on sound certificates, and in our own lawyer-fuelled way of using many words to say something simple, the FAA basically said it does not produce noise certificates, and that I just needed to create one myself to satisfy foreign bureaucrats.
Armed with some skilful use of graphic design software, a pantheon of regulatory-sounding words, a healthy dose of caution (never actually saying I was the FAA), I drew up a form and signed it. Success! Landing fee is now €7.98 (£6.50).
My next series of problems was the result of a salacious fusion of German and British legal ideology. I heard many horror stories about German underwriters refusing to pay for hull claims due to avoidable negligence. Um, isn’t that what insurance is for? Gear-up landings, excessive crosswinds, fuel starvation... the list goes on. If it’s pilot error, chances are extremely high the Teutonic insurance company will deem it entirely acceptable you should atone for your sins by buying a new airplane, while they kindly increase the penance by retaining insurance premiums. Terrified by this nitpicking obsession with minutiae, I fled to an underwriter with an ancestral familiarity with American law − and was in English. Lloyd’s of London comes to the rescue, or so I thought.
I placed a copy of the policy in the water closet as part of my document management workflow. Eventually, I read through it, discovering two nefarious terms: one referring to ‘appropriate airport field conditions’ for the aircraft in question, and another generalising that the ‘pilot shall use due diligence to operate the aircraft in a safe manner’. Hmm… nothing in the latter half of that sentence could be a good thing. I emailed the agent asking what kind of silliness this little clause could bring and they kindly advised that Great Britain has laws about treating the customer fairly and the clause is only for obviously stupid things, like flying without a medical, or taking off overweight. Overweight? What on earth is this about?
I dug through the giant stack of papers related to this geriatric aircraft and found it does indeed have a weight limit. Well, fancy that! To make matters worse, the weight limit is some absurdly low number, which makes no common sense.
I added up fuel, me (I am terrifyingly tall), standard baggage and realised I was just below max, without having bothered to put a human in the passenger seat. My airplane just got emasculated from a fun-loving two-seater PA-11 to a solo aircraft, thanks to one silly little clause in my insurance policy.
My next call was to find out if a flying career of 20 years with this airplane was carried out without cover in the US. The short story is that, in the States, an underwriter can deny cover if any regulation is broken. The key, however, is that the US has a custom of investigating matters related to the cause of an accident. In the event of an engine failure and landing in a field, the NTSB will not be looking at overweight as a cause for the engine to quit. If the aircraft stalls on takeoff and crashes, weight and balance will be analysed. In effect, overweight has to cause the accident for cover to be denied. That results in a reality where every single Cub and Super Cub pilot jams the aircraft full of lead bricks, and takes off with full fuel on record hot days, and nobody cares.
In the case of a standard GA aircraft, just about everyone knows and performs a weight and balance, and avoids flying out of C of G like the plague. They might push overweight slightly, though not without being aware of field length and density altitude for climb-out. Regulation or not, Americans have an equal desire to Europeans to remain alive after each flight.
I then started thinking about the kinds of flying I have done in this airplane. Well, there was the time with me, my 300-pound father in the back, full fuel, on a hot day. And there was the other time with suitcases stacked to the ceiling, a passenger, full fuel, takeoff at 5,400 feet, and climb-out over a pass in the Rockies at 12,500 feet. Hmm… every single dual instruction flight was overweight.
Then there was the record hot day of 38°C, when I took off with a passenger, full fuel and stuffed with suitcases from 6,200 feet field elevation and crossed terrain at 10,000 feet. To top it all, I took a passenger to 16,300 feet in the Rockies once, taking off from Leadville at 9,927 feet, with the engine producing 70hp due to altitude.
The bottom line is that the PA-11 can handle hundreds of pounds overweight, even above its stated service ceiling. I have researched a litany of supplemental type certificates (STCs) for modifications, and it has been substantially proven, with engineering documentation, that the bulk of the airframe can handle it. Engineering has not been completed on a few components. That notwithstanding, the kind underwriters sitting in an office in the UK have decided that my airplane cannot handle a passenger, so I guess it suddenly cannot.
I thought this was just a German thing. I must say I appreciate the protection I am receiving from the European machine of regulation. It is painful when I think of the things I might do if the ranks of non-pilot individuals sitting in regulatory and insurance offices didn’t rush to my aid and stop me before I did something silly!
There is no shortage of irony in that I later found out if Germans wish to take passengers in aircraft similar to Cubs, they choose to fly overweight with a morbid resignation that they have no hull coverage, somehow viewing the situation as normal.
It is at this point the aircraft was ready for a test flight. After wrangling with a host of little squawks getting the airplane put together, I left the field many times frustrated with my lack of progress, cranky when viewing the weather, and even more cross when I heard of yet another inane and restrictive regulation.
More than once I fantasised about putting the airplane in a container again and heading back to the US, though I reminded myself of a quote from a friend of mine back in Alpine, Wyoming. I was throwing a temper tantrum when visibility was bad while most of North America was on fire, bemoaning the photos I was not getting: “If it was easy, someone would have done it already.”
In a nutshell, that is one of my motivations for this whole adventure - a continent filled with exotic and beautiful scenery I cannot find in America.
Yes, it costs more financially and emotionally, though the things I can produce as an author would far exceed my existing body of work.
When the test flight finally came, it was a bit of man vs machine. I have test flown a J-3 I put together, a product of a two-year repair process after it was flipped over in a thunderstorm. As I sat there at the end of the runway in North Carolina, I had the same feeling I was having now in Egelsbach, Germany, that nothing good comes from taking an airplane apart and putting it together.
Still, with no specific reason not to, I applied full throttle and decided to see what happened. This was my first flight with vortex generators at sea level. I had installed them at my home field elevation of 5,633 feet in Wyoming, and the lowest I had been since was 4,500 feet. The aircraft was off the ground, without me bothering to rotate, in sixty feet and climbed like a homesick angel.
After the initial terror wore off, I realised I was flying, and flying in Germany! I think the smile on my face afterward was as big as when I took my first solo flight.
Since then, I have managed to get in about twenty hours of flying in Germany and the Netherlands, touring the wine regions of Germany, the Rhine valley, commercial tulip farms in Holland, as well as the North Sea and a host of small things in between. In just this short period of time, the things I have photographed absolutely smash my existing work in the US, as agriculture and the countryside of Europe are almost beyond words.
Those millions of obese, pontificating American summer tourists might be on to something after all. It may seem all the adventure has been had, transporting the aircraft from Wyoming and flying it in Europe, while not ending up in court with regulators. The reality is the adventure is just beginning.
I installed a Class 1 transponder in the US so that I could fly above 15,000 feet to photograph Mont Blanc. Since moving here, I have received invitations to visit people and airports from Romania to the UK. And then there is the fact I absolutely must fly the aircraft to Spain and Morocco. Time will tell if I will wander up to Norway − my wife’s ancestral heritage − and Poland, where my grandmother’s family is from. Or if I am willing to spend hundreds of euros in tips to land in Turkey. It is certainly true that wandering around the patchwork of nations in Europe is far more interesting than flying from North Carolina to South Carolina.
Garrett Fisher describes himself as an aerial adventure photographer. He has photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11 and has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast and the Outer Banks. He has more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights.