Confessions of a NATS F3A Pilot

BY: Derek Emmett

Derek Emmett at the 2019 AMA Nationals in Blythville Arkansas

This article was originally featured in the NSRCA KFactor September 2019.  Derek was gracious enough to adapt it for us at CK Aero.  Thank you, Derek, for sharing!

I was asked to recount my thoughts from my 2019 Blytheville Arkansas NATS experience. This year proved to be an interesting journey for sure! For the last several years the NorCal gang has coordinated coming back to Muncie, IN, and more recently Blytheville, AR, but not this year. The group is aging, and the willing drivers decreasing. Going as a group has always made it far more enjoyable and supportive. We almost always rent a home, which provided a base camp to unwind, make great meals and mixed concoctions, and enjoy awesome fellowship. This year would be different, with just Peter Vogel and I going from NorCal, making base camp at the Holiday Inn Express (and eating every meal there), and having to find our own ways back to Arkansas. For me, the choice was to fly back and package up my plane to fly back with me. Sounds simple, right? Hmmmm, the journey was far from that.

Here are my pilot confessions:

Seven days out. It was very difficult for me to commit to coming this year. The NorCal group was not coming and I had no experience flying my entire gear back with me! I also had limited practice time due to my past hobbies (Scuba and Archery) creeping back in, a demanding work life, and a wonderful new addition to my life, Nicole! I had a good plan for my P and F sequences as I already had a year on those. However, the “FAI Unknowns”?! How many of you have looked at the FAI sequence catalog? Daunting at a minimum! My Unknowns plan was unfortunately never executed. It would not be until one week before I needed to leave for Arkansas that I would actually buy the airline ticket to go!

Snapped landing gear. One week before buying my ticket I was out practicing in some heavy cross winds, as I normally do. However, on my landing, which I’m very careful to do, the forces were just right such that I completely sheared off the right strut… This left me scrambling to find a replacement, as the damaged one was not repairable. I luckily found one and CK Aero was also able to provide a backup! By the way we only have crosswinds in Blytheville! So at this point the NATS dream was still alive.  

Blown Contra #1. Just after replacing the broken strut I needed to test a new motor for the Contra I would be flying. Well, it was a prototype, and it appeared to work great, but I noticed it ran very hot despite my best attempts to cool it. After just 9 flights the heat from the motor smoked a completely rebuilt contra! The heat turned my planetaries into dust! My home flying field, EBRC, is a windy field (note: large windmills nearby), and I barely made it back to the field with my seized Contra! The motor/Contra was not ready for primetime, so now I was back to the drawing board. I happen to have a completely different Contra solution in my backup Allure, with a couple hundred flights on it, so I swapped it out and installed it to my Alchemy, and it was working good enough!

Finding and picking up shipping box. Now it was way past time to come up with a crate solution as I did not have one! Keep in mind I had troubles committing to the NATS, so everything was last minute. However my buddies, Frank Capone and Jon Carter, had a solution for me; I just needed to make 6 hour round trip drive to get it, so I did! The box given to me was the new Angel Shadow crate, which is beautiful, and just what I needed!

Packed up and ready to go!

Blown Contra #2. After making the 6 hour crate drive, with one week to departure, I decided to put more time on my Allure to Alchemy Contra transplant. Sounds good right?! Hmmmmmm, as fate would have it that motor inexplicably smoked, of course on a windy day, and again I would just barely make it back to the field. At this point I’m thinking the pattern Gods are trying to tell me something, something like “don’t go to the NATS!” 6. Replacement Contra #3. As luck would have it, I was rebuilding Jon Bruml’s Contra, and it was staring at me from my bench. For some reason I kept ignoring what the pattern Gods were telling me and asked Jon if I could borrow it. He kindly obliged and my pattern NATS dream was alive again for the 3rd time?! No mounting stress on me of course, right?!

Hurricane Barry. Meanwhile back in Louisiana there is a mounting hurricane that will run through Arkansas! Mice nuts, right?! In my head I’m thinking, “what’s a hurricane at this point?”, perhaps another pattern Gods warning?! At this point don’t you think a smart man, with reasonable minded logic, would come up with a different plan? Meanwhile my girlfriend, Nicole, is reminding me of weather reports and expected weather through the region… Ahhhh, it just a hurricane… I mean come on, with blown motors, struts, expensive flights, expensive car rental, blah, blah, blah… Heh, I’m still in!

Broken antenna Rx #1. It’s the eve of when my flight boards at 7am the next day… So now is a good time to disassemble the Alchemy and put it into the crate. I mean that’s plenty of time right?! Of course this is an easy task. Forget about the shrink tubing and originally putting the plane together not thinking that you want to take it apart someday. Cake! Now at this point I have bags, and bags for bags to put screws and parts in. In my case I had to completely remove the receiver to get the stabs removed. … Minor problem, I now notice only one antenna wire sticking out of my receiver! I have really good soldering skills, but I don’t have the right gear at home. Do I have a backup receiver, yes!  

Reconfiguring shipping box at the final hour. One other problem, my Alchemy does not fit in the box, so I undergo internal box hacking and reconstruction! Thank God for Dremel tools and thick super glue! At this point, it’s late and I need to drive to Nicole’s house with all my luggage, plane boxed, for 7am boarding. Nicole lives one hour away, but much closer to SFO airport, so leaving from her house makes since, right?! Heh, not so fast!

Forgetting Rx #2. So I finally get everything perfectly packed and arrive at Nicole’s at 2am’ish…. Finally we can go to bed and head to SFO at 5am… Something in the back of my head is running a check list of “did I forget anything?” I realized I forgot to bring the backup receiver, you know the one with two wires!!! Ok, just kill me now… Pretty please, just kill me! I beg you! Poor Nicole… We decide it makes more sense to drive one hour back to my home to pick up the receiver, but stay at my home and make the one hour journey back to SFO in just a couple hours. Did I say yet that she’s a trooper?

SFO Airport. So after an hour or so of sleep it’s time to drive to SFO! Nicole, for some reason at this point, appears to still be my girlfriend, and only slept an hour, to release her boyfriend to Arkansas, where a lingering hurricane awaits. You know I had a lot of stress building up to what it would be like to box up a plane and fly it with me. The boxed plane only weighed 30lbs, and United processed it like simple check bag. I was worried about carrying on five flight packs with my transmitter, and getting that through x-ray was easy! I’m a believer now in flying with all my gear as it really goes a lot smoother than expected.

Arriving Memphis and waiting for Peter. After two flights, I arrived in Memphis, TN with everything intact! Peter Vogel was the only other NorCal guy coming and he was arriving Memphis later. He had Jerry Budd generously drive his plane back. While waiting for Peter I went to a local restaurant called “Itta Bena”, which serves great food and cocktails, and I highly recommend it. A welcome reprieve at this point. Peter arrives a few hours later, and I thankfully relinquish the drive to Blytheville to him.

Reassembly of the Alchemy. Ahhhhhh I love the smell of hurricane in the morning, don’t you?! We’ve arrived a couple days before plane check in. It’s raining, it’s windy, time to go flying! Just one problem, I need to reassemble the Alchemy! Peter is amused at the process as I have the Alchemy cradled in pillows on top of pillows. Everything should go fine right? Well, do you know what a stabilizer incidence set screw is? I was all smart like when I took apart the stabilizer, I made it so that I only needed to tighten one stab set screw, and one stab tube screw… Hmmmm, one problem, when I went to set the stab incidence set screw it was missing. I mean how bad could it be to go buy a 2.5mm hex stud in Blytheville, right? Yea, well, the set screw fell out, was missing, and my NATS journey felt like its over! Funny what the brain does in a situation like this. I’m thinking “can I slit my throat with my shaving razor?” Lol… Well, maybe not so much. As I’m fantasizing how I can gracefully exit this world my eye catches a reflection on the carpet, under the bed, shadowed by the bed spread… Unbelievably the 2.5mm hex set screw, with mounting nut is there!!! Ok, how many times have the pattern Gods pulled on me at this point? I’ve lost count, but I’m back in!

Forgetting my tray. Of course I forgot my tray! I mean seriously who needs a tray? I’ve had to scratch build a tray before, but I had a saw and drill. Here I am again, scramble on top of scramble, which is completely part of the program!. Later I run into Clifton Bradford, I mention I forgot my tray, and of course Clifton has a tray I can use! Thank you Clifton, this allowed me to practice in the 30mph crosswinds, in the rain, with three flying sites to myself! Meanwhile… I call Nicole and have her ship my $100 tray to me for $160! This is awesome! Thank you doll face! Seriously!

Practice in the hurricane. Peter is incredibly supportive, even in near hurricane conditions. I mumble to Pete, “hey, you want to go to the field?” At the same time I’m looking outside and the rain is sideways… Pete says “yes!” I’m thinking, hmmmm, maybe he doesn’t see the rain going sideways… We arrive at the flying site and Pete politely says, “just drop me off at the tower”… I laugh inside and say “of course!” After dropping Pete I drive out to one of the flying sites.. Hmmmm, why isn’t anyone out here? I mean, heck, this might be the conditions we need to fly in come Wednesday, so I better get some practice in! It’s blowing crosswind 25-30 and I’m alone. I’m thinking this is a good practice opportunity! I point the Suburban into the wind, open the back, and wait for moments of less rain. When the rain lightens I run out, put the plane together, and throw up one crazy wind flight. After awhile some folks come out, but I notice they never take their planes out. I come to realize they are taking bets in the background on whether my plane comes apart in flight, or that I’m struck by lightning, or if I can actually land the plane. Funny stuff… Meanwhile I’m thinking, “this is good practice!” I repeat this daily pattern until we actually fly in much lower wind, in overcast/sunny conditions Wednesday… Also, late reports come in that everyone else was flying in Memphis, thus avoiding the rain/wind…

It just looks nice

The P sequence. I flew the P19 rounds well, and I was happy with my 4 flights. I did not get the scores I hoped for, but I was competing against myself, the pattern, and I liked what I put up. However, on one flight a judge zeroed my spin. Say what? I could not believe it. The other two judges gave me an 8 and 8.5, and then there was the zero. I’ve never zeroed a spin. I watched the plane fall through, etc… You can’t un-zero a zero! So here I am 2500 miles from home with a throw away flight? I know what I did, and I know the plane fell through. The only thing that was unique is we were flying in a crosswind, and the plane weathervaned in that direction. I can’t tell you how devastating this felt… All the time, the practice, the expense, the pattern God’s screaming at me… A judge sees what he sees, and a pilot can’t un-zero a zero. Round thrown away! I held the 7th place spot.

The F sequence. I flew solid F19 rounds. But… another zero on one final maneuver due to overtime. I’m pulling my hair out. I mean, really? I’ve never gone much over 7 minutes on any F19 practice flight, but now I’m over at the USA NATS?! Another throw away round?! The emotional ups and downs at this point have really taken a toll. I don’t fly slow and another pilot comments that he thought I was moving fast. Also, I’m not flying big or far out, so how did I fly over 8 minutes? I’m reaching for my shaving razor again, but it’s it won’t take me out of my misery… I watch everyone’s flight; slow, big, far out, not a single one near 8 minutes? Thankfully the line judge says to me he thinks he made a mistake. There was a chance he did not clear the clock between the plane arming time to takeoff time. My stress goes from 20 out of 10, down to 8 out of 10… Thankfully the judges rule that there was a clocking error and I’m allowed to fly the last maneuver again. By the way, at this point in the entire competition, all ruling questions have only been directed at me!? Are the pattern Gods speaking to me again? I’m appreciative that the line judge came forward, admitted to the possibility of the time error. It takes a big person to admit their mistakes, and now it is water under the bridge. I held 8th place after the F sequence.

Making the F3A finals. At the finals announcement meeting that night I find out that I placed 8th and made the finals. I’m a bit disappointed that I did not hold or move up in placing through the F19 rounds, but of course happy to have made the finals. However, a completely different feeling settles in, and it’s not joy, it’s “oh my God what did I get myself into?!” I’ve never flown a competitive Unknowns, nor really practiced the daunting K6’s that are frequently selected in the Unknowns. I’m really concerned that the Unknown draws will have rolling eight’s in them, and sure enough both Unknowns drawn have 2 and 4 rollers in them! Oh S%#T!! I didn’t have a caller, or anyone that I’ve remotely worked with as a caller, so what do I do now? I ask Jerry Budd, and he generously says “yes!” But then he is called to judge the next day, so now what? I’m feeling well… completely panicked to say the least! There’s a chance he can get his judging assignment moved, but now I’m forced to find other resources. Meanwhile the room is loud and extremely difficult to study the Unknowns. We are all stuck there until night falls. Finally night falls, and we find out that Jerry’s assignment is moved to the morning, thus allowing him to call for me. Earlier, Dave Lockhart sees the “deer in the headlights look in me” and offers to help me write up a call sheet! I’m like yes, YES PLEASE! Dave as you know is a veteran to FAI finals, and has a very systematic approach to how he creates his call sheets. We collectively work till 11pm+ on those sheets! Poor Peter Vogel is stuck with me until we are done with the sheets. Meanwhile I can hear Peter’s inward thoughts of “how did I get stuck with Derek?!” He pretends he’s all good with the late night, but I know better. I’m sure he won’t do that again! Lol… 

The sequestering. The next morning all FAI finalists were sequestered to a room. There we went over our call sheets and using our stick planes to work through the sequences. I so wish it made a difference, but it was too late for me, as 14-15 of the maneuvers on each of those Unknown call sheets I’ve never flown! I mean heck, all of you regularly practice rolling 8’s with 4 rolls per loop and 1 ¾ snaps, right?!

The F3A finals. Finally the unknown showdown… It is here we find out who knows and fly’s the maneuvers, and who is able to quickly string them together in elegant fashion. The sequence practice pilots get to privately fly and practice the sequence with their callers, which is everything. The rest of us, the finalists, must each throw down the sequence for the first time. Well, in my case, every part of it was the first time! On my first Unknown flight, one of the easier maneuvers, a vertical knife edge eight, everyone could see that it would be close for me, I mean soybean stains on the wing tip close! Talking about testing your commitment in front of all your peers… For sure the most humbling pattern experiences I’ve had to date!

Post mortem. There is no criticism implied here, but to myself: I was honored to make the top 8 of the FAI finals, however I was not prepared for what followed. Wow, wow…. I had no idea what to expect with the FAI finalist being held until dark and the sequestering the next day. I’m very naive to the world of FAI finals, and the apparent dubious behavior that must take place, thus the need to control the pilots. I have never flown a competitive FAI finals, nor really practiced FAI Unknown sequences, thus completely unprepared. Brutal lesson indeed. The entire experience was humbling on many levels. I realize now the FAI caller/pilot rapport is everything in the Unknowns. I did not have a caller, or I should say he was taken away due to a judging assignment, to later be reassigned to earlier duty. In any case, huge stress on pilots to find a caller, lose a caller, to later get him back. It would seem the only solution to a finalist is to bring a personal caller that is not part of the contest, thus has no responsibility but to his pilot. I did not have that luxury! I only got to work with my caller 1-2 hours before we needed to report in the morning. For me it was a complete face plant performance. All on me. As far as the FAI caller, in regards to finals, I think those individuals need to be identified up front, and used in other judging assignments outside of the FAI finals time. I think I’m still traumatized from it all, but hope to find myself in the finals again, but much better prepared! Congratulations to all the finalists, I have a completely new appreciation and respect for you all!

A big thank you! Finally, a huge thank you to all my flying friends that supported me and kept me going. I’m not sure any of it is worth doing without your support! The Blytheville NATS organization was terrific! The volunteers, the line crews and chief judging, the scoring system, food preparation gals, and all the preparations that went into this. Wow! To Monte and all the people that supported the NATS this year, a job well done!

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