A week at OSH

I know a few people who read this blog have wondered why TBM hasn’t emerged yet.  I made a decision to work intensely for the first two weeks of July because a great event was on the horizon.  The formal name is EAA Airventure Oshkosh 2015, but everyone just calls it “Oshkosh” and it’s the greatest aviation event in the world.

OSH tower airshowThat’s no exaggeration. You can mention “Oshkosh” to any pilot around the world and they’ll immediately know you are talking about this event. About half a million people come to visit from 70 countries, and something like 8,000 airplanes fly in for the event, making the otherwise average airport at Oshkosh the busiest airport in the world.

I flew into OSH back in 1996 with Steve and Eric (the same guys who now are my companions on motorcycle trips in the summer), in the family Piper Arrow. It was quite an adventure flying in from the east through thunderstorms, and then camping next to the plane in tents for a few days, something I’ll always remember. Back then we were active members of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and so every days we’d run into fellow pilots and friends who were building their own planes, or with who we’d had many a pancake breakfast in a cold airplane hangar over the winter.

Earlier this year Brett and I found a business reason to come to Oshkosh again, so Brett stashed his motorhome in Milwaukee after Alumapalooza 7 (in early June) to await our return in July.  He flew in a day before me to get the motorhome ready (fridge cooled, stocked with food, fresh water tank filled, etc), and then I walked out of the General Mitchell Airport and found him waiting in the short term parking lot with an ice chest filled with refreshments.

That’s a very nice way to be received after a flight, kind of like being met by a limo, and I highly recommend it.

Wisconsin is a great place to visit in the summer. It has a lot in common with my home state of Vermont, with better weather.  I like the green rolling hills of corn, the out-of-the-way restaurants with German names, the obsession with cheese, and the oh-so-friendly almost Canadian attitude and accent of the locals. Lots of uncrowded spaces, really good custard everywhere … and did I mention a mind-blowing annual aviation event?

For someone deeply engaged in the Airstream world, Oshkosh offers a substantial side benefit: it’s also one of the biggest RV gatherings in the world. Nobody seems to make a big deal out of that, I guess because the RVs don’t fly and are thus much less interesting to the OSH crowd. But for me it was a strangely thrilling moment to pull up to a few hundred acres of mowed grass and see a thousand or more recreational vehicles all parked together in a giant ad hoc community. If you miss the old days of the really big rallies, this is one of the places you can still find the experience, and under my idea of ideal conditions too: grass, no hookups on most of the field, lots of smiling people, and few rules.

Of course “no hookups” meant boondocking all week. Brett’s motorhome had just 50 gallons of water on board, but we are both experienced boondockers and so it wasn’t really a problem to make it last.  For $30 we could have had the water refilled but it became a point of pride not to need that service so we executed our very best “Navy shower” technique every day. Brett rigged up 100 watts of portable solar panels to keep the battery charged, and two or three times a day we’d turn the panels to face the sun to optimize power generation.  We managed seven days and we still had some water and full batteries on the day we left.  Yes, for those of you who have never tried boondocking, it can be done.

OSH Airstream motorhome camped

There were a few Airstreams scattered around the field, but not as many as I’d hoped for. Perhaps someday we’ll organize a gathering at OSH. I know there are a lot of pilots and ex-pilots in the community.

OSH Airbus A350 flybyOSH B-29

Airventure is huge and features everything that flies. We saw seaplanes & amphibs, ultralights, warbirds, current military jets including the remarkable F-22, the Goodyear blimp, helicopters, gyrocopters, vintage aircraft, homebuilt, passenger jetliners, executive jets, drones flying in a dedicated UAV demo cage, powered parachutes, and gliders. There were hundreds of vendors, dozens of workshops and demonstrations, amazing airshows daily, and so much more that I can’t do justice to it here. Two days are barely enough to scratch the surface; after seven days we still had things on our list to do.

So perhaps it’s just as well that our original plan didn’t work out. Instead of working the show on one particular project as we had expected, we had time to explore for new opportunities—and found them. We ran into Airstream friends from both coasts and spent time with them. We found new products that might make the cut for the Airstream Life Store. We had time to talk about the next Alumafandango, which will be in northern California in September 2016.

OSH airplane parking

OSH Rich weldingAfter a few days we fell into a routine that started around 6:30 a.m., once the sun was pounding at the windows too loudly to ignore. We’d slather on the sunscreen and walk to the bus stop to catch one of the school buses that served Camp Scholler. We’d roam the exhibitions, checking out the aircraft of our fantasies (a HondaJet or perhaps a Velocity homebuilt) or talking to vendors about their products. One morning we took a free workshop and tried our hands at TIG welding.

Around noon we’d head back to the motorhome for lunch and an afternoon of watching helicopters fly overhead. At 6:30 p.m., the ultralights would take over, buzzing directly over us in the traffic pattern.  You can’t go to Oshkosh for quiet. You have to love the sound of aircraft because there’s rarely a daylight moment without something roaring, buzzing, screaming, or pounding overhead—from drones to the new Airbus A350 xWB. I happen to enjoy sunny days with the awning out, parked in a grassy field, with a warm breeze and the sound of flying machines, so I took the opportunity to make the helicopter periods my siesta. Very relaxing.

There are a lot of “only at Oshkosh” moments. For example, only at Oshkosh would you find yourself picnicking under the nose cone of a B-52 while listening to Gary Sinise & The Lt Dan Band.  Only at Oshkosh will you get to try your hand at welding and then flying a drone helicopter in the same day, and think that it’s nothing unusual. It’s the kind of event that people cherish so much that they have been coming for decades, and pass the tradition to their children.

OSH drone camera

We got some great ideas for next year’s Alumapalooza while we were here. We had already planned to make a full day of music during next year’s program. Now we are thinking of developing another full day of hands-on workshops, where participants will be able to actually try basic repair and maintenance techniques using their own hands and tools we supply. Very different from prior Alumapaloozas, but I think it will be a lot of fun, especially with some contests and prizes.

So it turned out to be one of the better business trips Brett and I have had, and a great TBM activity too.  I highly recommend a week of Oshkosh for anyone with an RV. Maybe I’ll see you there in a future year?

Farewell to the Interstate

After that epic hike to the Keet Seel cliff dwelling in Navajo National Monument, our little Airstream Interstate adventure was more than half over.  We had one last thing to do: visit the WBCCI International Rally in Farmington NM, about 2.5 hours drive east.

For those who don’t know the International Rally was for many years “the” big thing to do in the Airstream world.  Back in the heyday a few decades ago, these rallies would attract over 3,000 Airstreams—essentially creating entire temporary towns, like Burning Man does today. Lately, with the general decline in clubs, the International Rally has brought in about 300-400 Airstreams, which still makes it the largest Airstream event in the world.  (By comparison, Alumapalooza brings in about 125-180 Airstreams, and Alumaflamingo in Sarasota was the second largest Airstream event in 2014 with 250 trailers.)

The day of the giant RV rallies is past.  I think everyone has realized that it’s not about sheer volume anymore, it’s about quality of experience. The WBCCI International Rally is an important event for the club members whether it brings in 100 or 100,000. People go to conduct club business, meet their old friends, and maybe trade in their Airstream for a new one.

That’s why we were there. Our mission was to show off the Interstate Grand Tour and hopefully find someone who wanted to buy it, because Airstream didn’t need it as a “media loaner” any longer.  Brett put on his best sales attitude and within 36 hours of arriving he had found a couple who really wanted it.  Mission accomplished.

Petrified Forest ranger horse Airstream

After the weekend we had to get the Interstate back to Arizona so it could be made ready for sale.  Monday morning we saddled up for the final drive, 400 or so miles back to Phoenix where Brett would catch a jet home.

But hey—why just drive straight home?  Northern Arizona is loaded with cool places to visit, and we had a $152,000 motorhome to play with for one more day.  So we detoured through a few spots …

Petrified Forest Airstream Interstate

… like Petrified Forest National Park, off I-40 in northern Arizona.

Holbrook AZ wigwam Airstream Interstate

… and one of the famous wigwam motels, this one in Holbrook, AZ right on “Historic Route 66.”

Airstream Interstate reflection milk truck

… and finally down in elevation from the cool piney Mogollon Rim (75 degrees with light showers), along the twisting Disney ride they call the Beeline Highway, and into the scorching heat of the Phoenix metroplex (111 degrees).

We picked a small RV park in Mesa mostly because it was the close to the airport and the only amenity we wanted was 30-amp power to keep the air conditioner cranking. There was a swimming pool but even a splash in the water doesn’t seem terribly inviting when it’s that hot. That night we walked one block to dinner (a very poor choice of restaurant despite high ratings—curse you, Yelp) and then walked straight back to the air conditioning in the Interstate before we melted into the pavement.

Hmmm…what to do now? Trapped by the scorching heat outside, there seemed only one option, and that was to break out a “guy movie” (e.g., one with science fiction, action, violence, and a bare minimum of romance or gentle emotion) and settle in for Movie Night. The only problem is that the noise of the air conditioner blowing on High made it difficult to hear the audio. Fortunately, being frequent travelers, we both had our Bose noise-reducing headsets handy. We plugged them into the back of the bedroom TV using a splitter, put on the movie, and the background noise of the air conditioner vanished as we reclined on our individual twin beds. It seemed like we were watching in a private theater, with ice cream bars handy in the freezer and comfortable pillows under our heads.

I highly recommend the noise-reducing headset solution to other RV’ers who hate the noise of the air conditioner—or, you can trade in your current RV for a new Airstream with ducted air.  I’m sure my friends at Airstream wouldn’t mind that.

The next morning I dropped Brett off at Sky Harbor and zipped down I-10 to Tucson to get away from the rapidly-building heat of the day.  In Tucson it was a mild 88 degrees, not bad for unloading all the stuff into the house.  I discovered that the Interstate, despite being tall, fits into my carport just barely so it could be kept in the shade and plugged into 30-amp. I think all the signs are telling me that I should have one of these things.  Perhaps I should launch a GoFundMe campaign to see if everyone wants to chip in to get me one?  (Just kidding.)

Now I’m Interstate-less (Under-stated?) and I don’t have a tow vehicle for the Caravel, so it’s time to switch gears for a few weeks.  I’ll dig the TBM gear out of the closet and start exploring Tucson’s hidden gems, when I have time away from work.

But if you crave reading about travel adventures, don’t lose faith. Later in July I’ll be heading to Oshkosh WI for the amazing EAA Fly-In, staying on-site for a week in an Airstream motorhome. That should be a very interesting week if you (like me) want to see lots of cool airplanes.

A Grand Tour

I’ve been looking forward to this week for a long time—and wondering if we could really pull it off.

It started on Saturday, when I was in Vermont after the 6-day motorcycle trip to the Adirondacks. I only had a couple of days to catch up on work and re-pack for a trip out west. From Sunday morning on, I had the singular experience of waking up somewhere and knowing that I would be going to bed somewhere entirely different that night.

In the Airstream, this is fun. You can roam where you want, knowing that each night you will end up in your comfortable rolling home and familiar bed. But when the travel involves airlines and hotel rooms, the charm tends to slip away quickly.

It began on Saturday night when Eleanor and I relocated to an airport motel, so that on Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m. she could take me to catch a flight from Vermont to New York City, and onward to Sacramento CA.  I met Brett at the airport in Sacramento, to drive around California’s beautiful countryside. (We were scouting a site for Alumafandango 2016, and things went very well. We’ll have an announcement about that in July.) That night we split a room at some nondescript motel off Rt 49, in an area of California that was once known for gold mining, and now is known for wineries. That was our 27-hour Day One.

Monday morning we scouted some more, visited the state capitol, and caught a late flight to Tucson, getting in around midnight. We settled into my house for the night. That was Day Two.

Tuesday morning we picked up a shiny new Airstream Interstate Grand Tour on loan from Airstream, at the local dealership (Lazydays), loaded it up with about 100 pounds of gear and food (much of which Eleanor had set out for us a month ago) and launched immediately toward Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. We spent that night at Fool Hollow Lake State Park in Show Low.  Day Three.

Now I have to say that the Airstream Interstate was a fantastic relief after jet planes and motel rooms. Not only could we slow down our pace of travel, but it meant that for a while we could sleep in a bed more than once. The Airstream, stocked with our food and gear, could be our home.

Airstream Interstate in AZ

And what a glamorous home it is.  The new Grand Tour floorplan of the Interstate is a big improvement for those who want more of a traditional RV. Bigger kitchen, double the fridge/freezer space, much more storage, permanent beds, a nice little desk, and many other small pleasantries make it really usable. If you read my blogs from last summer when I tried out a regular Interstate, you know I liked driving it, and the Grand Tour retains that fine handling and ride (and an incredible list of safety features).

Airstream Interstate Salt River canyonWhen Brett and travel together there’s always a little bit of a battle over who gets to drive, and with the Interstate there was no question we both wanted the wheel as much as possible. I had picked the most scenic route I could on our northward journey, from Tucson to Globe, and then up to the beautiful Salt River Canyon, and finally up the Mogollon Rim to Show Low where the pine trees are tall and the summer air is much cooler than the low desert below. Even when we were gaping at the scenery deep in the Salt River Canyon, Brett wanted to keep the driver’s seat rather than give it up to get a better view.

We averaged about 15.5 MPG on that trip, which is pretty impressive for a 25-foot long motorhome on a hilly climb that eventually ended well over 6,000 ft. Or at least we thought that was good until the next day when we averaged 18 MPG on more level terrain through the Navajo nation in northern Arizona.

The goal for this leg was Navajo National Monument, a less-visited national park near Kayenta AZ.  We first visited as a family on 2008, and hiked 5 miles roundtrip to the impressive Betatakin cliff dwelling. Ever since that trip, I’ve wanted to go back to visit the even-more-impressive Keet Seel cliff dwellings, and this trip was finally my chance.

You don’t just pop in and hike to Keet Seel. The trip requires a permit from the park, a mandatory orientation by a ranger, good gear, and some stamina. It’s an 18 mile round-trip on foot if you do it right, and considerably longer if you miss a turn in the canyons. (More on that later.) So you can see that getting to this point was the product of planning we’d done months in advance.

The Interstate turned out to be an ideal base camp for this trip.  We parked in a canyon view site (in the Navajo Nat’l Monument campground, which is free, no hookups), and spent the evening checking our gear and eating dinner outside with a spectacular view of the sunset on the red Navajo Sandstone. One nice thing about the Interstate is that it fits in places a travel trailer couldn’t go, and there’s virtually no setup after arriving. We just pushed the electric awning button and slid open the big side door.

Airstream Interstate Navajo National Monument

And that was Day Four.  Funny how the days seemed to be much more filled with adventure and camaraderie now that we were traveling at about 50 MPH instead of 500.

The next morning we hoisted our packs, loaded with about 30 pounds of gear and water each, and walked right from the door of the Airstream down a dusty road and began our descent into the canyons …

Keet Seel deserves its own blog entry, so I’ll write more about that in the next day. Stay tuned.

Something useful and beautiful

I’ve always had mixed feelings about our 2005 Airstream’s awning.  The awning is a unique feature for travel trailers. If you don’t have one, you might not understand how its value goes far beyond providing shade. I know when we got our first Airstream (which didn’t have an awning) I didn’t really see the value in them.

Then we got this 2005 Airstream Safari bunkhouse, and it came with a massive (21 foot long) Zip-Dee awning.  I unrolled it for the first time and was struck by the impact of it: instantly creating a welcoming space outside the trailer where before there was nothing. Suddenly I wanted to get a few chairs and table, perhaps a cooler of icy drinks, and sit out there all day watching the sun set.  Then, like a lot of Airstreamers do, turn on a decorative lamp for the evening and have dinner with some friends.

All that inspiration from a big piece of fabric overhead.  Who’d have thought it would transform a patch of gravel into an outdoor living room?

A-B Airstream morningThe only problem with this inviting tableau was the color of the awning.  Airstream was installing a dark gray awning on most Safaris at that time, which I didn’t like at all.  To me, an awning should be colorful and a little festive. The gray was monochromatic and tended to get hot in the sun, generating a layer of warm air underneath that inevitably got sucked into the trailer through the entry door screen.

But awning fabric is expensive, so I ignored the dullness of the fabric for a decade, although I winced inwardly a little every time I had to deploy it.

About five years ago when carpenter ants nested in the awning and chewed a few holes in it, I considered replacing the fabric. But that Sunbrella fabric is tough stuff and the rest of the awning was fine, so instead I called Zip-Dee and they sent me a swatch of replacement fabric to match patches. Eleanor and I cut it into squares with some pinking shears and attached the patches with fabric glue.  (Zip-Dee recommends clear silicone caulk, which works well too.)

Those patches were holding up well right up to the day we replaced the fabric. We didn’t need to replace it even after 11 years of use; I just got sick of gray. We also had installed a used window awning that came with fabric that didn’t match, which gave us the final push to change both sides of fabric to something we’d really like. Eleanor and I spent some time going over the Sunbrella swatch books at Alumaflamingo in Florida last February, and settled on “Coastal Spa” #4851-0000.

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-2

It might seem strange, but one of the reasons I was willing to go to the expense of swapping out perfectly usable fabric on both sides of the Airstream was because I trust Zip-Dee. Jim Webb, who is the president, has come to Alumapalooza every year to do demonstrations and help customers. He personally installed our window awning last year—in the dark!—and if that isn’t proof that he’s a nice guy, I can also mention that he has supported Airstream Life magazine for many years with Zip-Dee ads.

Plus, Zip-Dee just makes an excellent product. Their awnings have been synonymous with Airstream trailers for over forty years. They last forever, they are easily repairable, and the company’s customer support is superb. Plus, they are one of those rare products that are still made in America (just like Airstreams) and world class. So I felt pretty strongly that not only would Zip-Dee treat me well, but that I’d be very happy with the upgrade.

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-1No surprise then that Jim drove from Chicago with his son Alex to personally demonstrate to an interested crowd exactly how to replace the fabric on a Zip-Dee awning, using our Airstream. In the photo you can see the old gray fabric on the ground, as Alex and Jim prepare the new fabric to slide into the awning tube. They had the job done in about 45 minutes.

I love the way the new awning reflects on the Airstream, and the patterns of light it creates below. It simultaneously feels festive, relaxing, and (to me, at least) evocative of green subtropical waters by the beach.

There are lots of upgrades you can make to your Airstream, and we’ve done most of them big ones. But I have to say, for some reason this little change is one of the most pleasing. Now I look forward to sunny days so that I can put out the awning.

At least for us, our Airstream is our second home. Periodically spending some money to make it as nice as it can be seems frivolous, until you think about why you have it in the first place. An Airstream isn’t just a convenient way to travel; it’s also a place to relax, change perspective, and simplify. Why wouldn’t we make it as enjoyable as possible?

Airstream new Zip-Dee awning-3

I subscribe to William Morris’ famous advice: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” In this case, the Zip-Dee awning is both at once, and that’s a big win in my book.

How to keep your Airstream traveling forever

It’s hard to convey how happy I am to tell you this:  My long-awaited Airstream maintenance book is finally coming out!

I’ve been working on it for years. It covers everything you need to know to keep your Airstream travel trailer in great running condition for decades, by yourself, with simple tools and no prior experience.

Maintenance of your Airstream is not nearly as difficult as most people think, and with just a few basic tools and this guide, I think you’ll find you can do almost every routine task yourself. No more trips to the service center for every little thing.  No more feeling like you are at the mercy of the mechanic because he recommended changing the air in your tires and replacing the blinker fluid.  You might even find that this book saves one of your vacations, if something goes wrong on the road!

Let me tell you, writing this book was therapy for me. When I started Airstreaming in 2003, I knew nothing. I didn’t know how to fix anything, or even where to look to find the cause of a problem. I got a little better by 2005, when we went out on the road full-time. The next three years were trial-by-fire, because all kinds of things started to happen to the Airstream, and inevitably they’d happen when we were 200 miles away from the nearest assistance, so I had to call my friends and have them tell me what to do.

That’s the hard way to learn. So I wrote this book, with help from those same friends & Airstream Life contributors, to collect all the knowledge into a single volume.

I thought I had learned a lot about Airstreams after seven years of intense travel and lots of on-the-road repairs, but during the next four years (while I was writing this book) my eyes really got opened. I had long talks with Airstream personnel.  I read every guide I could find from every major supplier to Airstream, including Dexter, Alcoa, Atwood, Wineguard, Parallax, Hehr, Dometic, Marshall, Cavagna, Fantastic Vent, Zip-Dee, Corian, Forbo, and many others.

I collected articles from decades of “Schu’s News” and read several other “white box” maintenance guides cover-to-cover.  I talked to dealers, polishers, repair shops, and restorers.

And when I finally had a draft written, I put every word through intense review by experienced Airstream mechanics, retired factory staff, and knowledgeable Airstream owners. At the end, I realized I had often been confused, deluded, or just plain mis-informed by half of the junk I’d read online from self-appointed “experts”.  (They make things so much more complicated than they need to be!)

I think you and every other Airstreamer can benefit from the last four years I’ve spent working on this project.  I wrote the book specifically to suit every level of mechanical ability, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t even own a screwdriver. There are many things you can do to keep your Airstream going strong, and fix problems when they occur. Right now Brad Cornelius is working on the illustrations, 40 or so of them.  When he’s done, I think the book will run about 200+ pages, spiral bound.  That’s a lot of material, because it covers all these topics:

  • How To Inspect (to find problems before they occur)
  • Your Traveling Toolkit
  • Interior Cleaning and Appearance
  • Exterior Cleaning and Appearance
  • Aluminum Body Repair
  • Leak Prevention, Detection, and Repair
  • Windows, Doors, Locks, and Vents
  • Plumbing
  • Running Gear & A-Frame (including wheels, tires, brakes, and bearings)
  • Loading
  • Storage and Seasonal
  • Electrical
  • Propane System
  • Climate Control
  • Gas Appliances
  • Resources

Bottom line: this book is unique. No other book available contains so much Airstream-specific maintenance advice.

You can buy a copy from the Airstream Life Store right now.

I hope you love it. If you liked “The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming,” (my other book), I know you will.

If you’re wondering why it’s called “(Nearly) Complete”, it’s because no guide is ever really done.  Things keep evolving and new ideas pop up, and so my plan is to keep updating and expanding the book over the years. I want to thank the people who have helped me with the first edition, and thank you in advance for any tips or additions you add as you use it.