We drove 3 hours north to Lake Havasue City and the next morning, hooked-up with Johnny Fetz at the LHC Airport. John Fetz is legend in the PPG community, 65 years old, and a lifelong pilot he is a hard man to miss, over six foot and barrel chested with his long silver blond hair tied in a pony tail that goes well down his back. This year during the Alan Chuculate Style Competition at Paratoys, John was decked out in a blue lycra skin suit topped of with a 4-color ball cap complete with a propeller. His flying skills are unmatched and he is welcome anywhere pilots gather. In addition to being an aviation expert, John is famous for being able to repair badly damaged propellers of all kinds and he has a good side business fixing props for pilots all over the country.
John cruising Lake Havasue shore
John cruising Lake Havasue shore
There were seven of us who had come up from the Paratoys Fly-in; all were seasoned pilots except me. The air was light, no more than 2 knots, but it was shifting on an 180˚ arc, forcing us to either wait for it to cycle back around or reset our wings. Flying his trike, Doug was the first to go up, quickly followed by everybody else. Johnny was amazing, when he was ready to go, the wind had shifted 90˚ away from his take off heading, instead of unhooking and resetting the wing, he simply took several steps to the right and blew the wing into position with his motor. I, on the other hand, was having trouble with my motor, it was either the change in altitude or problems with the carburetor but in order to stand up after getting into the harness I had to bend forward and that’s when the motor would die. Finally, after climbing into and out of my harness three times to restart the motor I was able to stand without killing it. However the wind had shifted during my struggles, and when I started my run it was with a tail wind and the wing collapsed immediately. I stood on the runway hugely frustrated and wishing I had 200 flights under my belt and the ability to take off as easily as my mates. I decided that enough was enough and with great disappointment proceeded to put my equipment away.
The guys had been up for 30 minutes and were on undoubtedly the most scenic flight of the trip. By now they would have flown over The London Bridge and would be exploring the shores of Lake Havasu. At forty-five minutes the wind started to get gusty. It was blowing strong from the north when Doug landed and the gusts were increasing with each cycle. Doug and I searched the horizon and saw no sign of the others. At fifty minutes I spotted a couple of wings approaching from the lake. They were both at about 1000ft AGL but began to descend immediately. In no time at all they were down behind the horizon, we assumed on the ground. Only two others got back to the LZ that day. The first was Johnny Fetz who came in flying around, over and sometimes in between the cactus. The fifteen knot headwind didn’t seem to faze him at all. Once he was alongside us, he popped over the airport fence dropped back down and crabbed sideways over to his truck. I was afraid the wind would turtle him on landing but he dropped the wing to one side and quickly gathered it in. Joel also did a great job landing. He kept his trimmers out and approached low to the ground. When he got close he hovered 5 feet up with the motor running at probably ½ throttle. It’s not often you get to see a pilots face while in flight but he hung there for probably 10 seconds and it was obvious from his look that he was focused on keeping it all together. Modulating the throttle and brakes to keep from flying backwards, he was able to set down and collapse the wing without being pulled over. It was very active piloting at its best …up close and personal.
Brian said that the gust fronts came up very quickly and he was alternating between tremendous lift and sinking at 250 feet per minute. He and the others dropped into the desert where ever they were, as fast as they could. It took an hour or so to round everybody up but once again no harm to man or machine. We laughed and joked about the dramatic change in the weather and got back on the road.
Looking back it was probably a good thing I wasn’t able to launch. More than likely, I would have been at a much higher altitude than the others when the wind front came through and who knows if I would have been able to get back down safely with my limited experience. It’s true when they say, “it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground”.