29 April 2021

Light airplanes

Every 6 minutes or so, a plane was landing or taking off. It could sound like a busy airport, at least one before a pernicious and quite annoying virus decided to rear its head last year. But it’s actually a well-functioning airport, despite the pandemic that’s taking hold of the entire planet. That airfield is a mere kilometres from where I live. To be fair, that level of activity exists mostly on weekends. And the planes are but light aircraft.

It doesn’t seem the ducks care that much about planes taking off right above their heads.

Surprisingly, it’s possible to watch them land and take off from just 30 metres away, with no fence blocking access to the airstrip. I don’t know if this is common or if it’s because pilots of those flying machines are navigating by sight anyway. I guess I could ask one of my younger brothers who, after a successful career as an entrepreneur, is gradually acquiring various flying licences. His latest pet project is to build... his own plane. That is not a joke – I’ve seen pictures of something that for now looks more like a wooden canoe. It does scare me a little though, especially as he didn’t respond to my genuine questions regarding the certification of such a homemade aircraft. I assume that an expert has to examine it but I’m left wondering how thorough that kind of examination is, how one can make sure there are no critical construction flaws.

Sadly, I’ll never be able to board such non-pressurised aircraft – one pneumothorax (a collapsed lung) and you will be forbidden to do so for life. It’s for the same reason that I will never able to go on a suborbital flight (which got into my head a dozen years ago when I had first heard of Virgin Galactic), or go to planet Mars (that I’m not sure I actually wanted to try out): in this case, my lungs wouldn’t be able to cope with the g-force (about 3 Gs i.e. three times the force of gravity humans are normally exposed to when on Earth). Thinking of it, it should be technically feasible to create appropriate g-suits or g-compartments to mitigate that force.

Despite that airstrip being so close to my home, I had only visited it once, 7 years ago. Well, it’s not as if I need my dose of fresh Colombian powder every day either, I’m “reasonable”. So here’s what I’m going to do as I share my latest photos: I’ll try to enliven them with some observations, as interesting as can be, about their looks and technical details (which I can find thanks to the federal register, a database of the registration ID found on each plane). I’ve also created a full-screen carousel version (best viewed on large landscape-oriented screens: a laptop screen, a monitor, a TV, or a tablet).

I totally imagine this scene in a Mission Impossible film: Tom Cruise cycling away (okay, it’s probably not the most glamorous escape) while a rogue plane tries to shoot him down or knock him down with its wings. This photo also gives you a good sense of how close the airstrip is from the path (30 metres).
The registration ID on the body of the plane (HB-CWA) can be searched in the federal register. The plane was first registered in 1972! Yikes, it’s almost 50 years old… and it still flies. The register also indicates that this is a Cessna 150 with one pilot and a maximum of one passenger. It’s the fifth most produced plane ever (almost 24,000 units manufactured). This particular plane was produced under licence in France.
Looks the same as the one in the previous photo? You are correct! This is also a Cessna, produced in 1981, but a 172 model. It is THE most successful aircraft in history: 44,000 units produced, and counting. I can’t tell visually the difference with the Cessna 150 but it can actually sit 2 additional passengers (so 3 in total) and it’s 50% heavier at 767 kg. It would be a little dreary to talk about accidents so instead let me share 2 stories about that aircraft. The first one is about a Canadian student who stole a similar plane in 2009 (the university let students access the aircraft, the keys routinely left inside – unsurprising in Canada) and landed on a US highway after 7 hours. The student was depressed, hoped to get shot down, but was eventually arrested and sentenced to 2 years in jail. The second story is of a British passenger who managed to land the plane, despite having no prior experience: the pilot most likely had had a heart attack, so the passenger took control with radio assistance from flying instructors. Wow!
Another Cessna aircraft but this one is slightly different: while inspired from the 150, it’s actually the 152 model which has been out of production for more than 30 years (the one on the photo is from 1980). It’s almost the same plane but with a slightly more powerful engine. The squarish windscreen looks really uninspiring though.
Another Cessna 152 aircraft, this one registered in 1992.
And yet another Cessna 152 aircraft, this one registered in 1986. Yes, the pilot is wearing his seat belt.
This is a Piper PA-28 Cherokee produced in 1979. It can welcome 3 passengers. Notice how the wings are located below the structure as opposed to being attached to the roof of a Cessna. Almost 33,000 units have been produced… and are still being produced to this day. It can fly for about 1,000 kilometres at a speed of 200 km/h. This is the same plane that was chasing Tom Cruise in one of the previous photos (in the story version).
This is another Piper PA-28 Cherokee, this time registered in 1989.
This is a swan model aircraft, produced in 2014. It can sit one (very light) passenger but they are required to be particularly good at balance (no seat belt in the standard model).
This is yet another Piper PA-28 Cherokee, registered in 1997. It makes me wonder if there is any statistical analysis that’s been made on the likelihood of accidents depending on the age of the aircraft – I doubt it but if that were the case, it could make sense to look at the registration of a plane before boarding it. Have you noticed this is the same plane as the first one of this series (the one which takes off above either deaf ducks or ducks which couldn’t care less)?
This plane didn’t take off or land (or I missed it) which is a shame because it’s a different plane from the other ones that had landed. This one is a Wassmer WA-4/21 dating back to 1970! It’s a French aircraft, despite its German-sounding name. No new plane was produced after 1977 (insolvency of the company)… got to keep the old ones nice and shiny!
That’s right, this is a different model: it’s a Grumman American AA-5 produced in 1976 (specifically a “B Tiger”, as you can tell from the tiger emblem near the propeller). Only about 3,000 planes were produced until manufacturing ceased in 2005. Range and speed turn out to be not much more than a Cessna, however surprising that may be, but it can carry 3 passengers.
Yet another different model: that one is a Mooney M20(J) produced in 1990 – the most successful of all the Mooney aircrafts (I had never heard of that name, although I had heard of Cessna and Piper, probably because of flight simulation games). Interestingly, the initial models (in the 1950s) had wings and tails with wooden frames – but they’re now all metal. 11,000 units have been produced so far, carrying 3 passengers each (in addition to the pilot that is): they fly to a range of 2,000 kilometres at a speed of 448 km/h, so roughly double of the other planes mentioned previously.
Another Mooney M20(J), this time produced in 1993. In 2017, a pilot flew his Mooney M20 aircraft around the world, commemorating Amelia Earhart's attempted circumnavigation which took place 80 years earlier in 1937. Amelia Earhart (who was born on the same day as me, 24th July) was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932, just 5 years after Charles Lindbergh’s similar flight. She died just a few days before her 40th birthday, in 1937, as she was attempting her round-the-world flight. Her plane was never found in the Pacific: it’s likely that due to calculation errors and radio issues, she got lost and ran out of fuel – if you’re up for conspiracy theories though (involving deserted islands or the Japanese military), be my guest.