Everyman's Airplane


May 1, 1992


If you've got a job that needs to be done by small airplane, from power-line patrol to forest-fire spotting, Hanover Aviation in Ashland, Virginia, most likely has the aircraft and pilots for the mission. But if you call company President Caton A. Shermer to discuss your needs, don't ask for Caton or even Mr. Shermer; everybody around Hanover County Municipal Airport and its environs knows him simply as "Fuzzzo."

He picked up the moniker from his boyhood baseball coach, and fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon how you look at it, it stuck. He still wears a crew cut, so the name still makes some sort of sense. And he gets a lot of mileage out of it — his airplanes and business cards bear the trademark "ZZZ Ranch," and his pilots and observers like to point out to the uninitiated that "the middle 'Z' is silent."

I first met Shermer when he flew up to Frederick Municipal Airport in his 1960 Piper Aztec. What do you expect of a guy named Fuzzzo who speaks with a syrupy Southern drawl and does most of his flying a few feet above the ground? When he climbed out on the wing, wearing green plaid pants that would make your eyes water and a ball cap (bearing the ZZZ Ranch logo, of course) cocked back on his sparse scalp, I thought my worst doubts had been realized. What kind of a yahoo (it's pronounced yay-hoo in Virginia, I'm told) was this Fuzzzo character, anyway? Then I noticed the green sweater and green tie and remembered — with a delayed appreciation for Shermer's sense of humor — that it was St. Patrick's Day.

Turns out Shermer is no yahoo, nor yay-hoo, either. What he is, is an accomplished airman with more than 14,400 flying hours, much of them under very demanding conditions. He started flying in 1962 in Richmond, which is just a few miles south of Ashland. He earned his commercial certificate and instructor rating in college and joined the U.S. Air Force in March 1967 (coincidentally, on St. Patrick's Day). His more than 12 years of active duty included three tours in Southeast Asia, where he flew F-100s and F-111s in combat. He separated from the Air Force in 1979, then spent a decade in the Air Force Reserve as a reserve assistant to the Virginia Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. He retired from the reserves two years ago as a lieutenant colonel.

Meanwhile, Shermer had been flying Learjets for an outfit in Richmond and, starting in the early 1980s, power-line patrol for a fixed-base operation at Hanover County. He liked it so much, as they say, he bought the company. That was in 1984, and things have been going great guns ever since.

The FBO is a relaxed, old-fashioned kind of a place, with a snack bar that serves home-style meals, and where pilots with Quiet Birdmen pins on their lapels hang around doing a good deal of hangar flying.

Better still is that there's a whole lot of real flying going on, and most of it is the fun kind: VFR, close to the ground, stick-and-rudder flying. You won't find many guys with epaulets and big leather flight cases lounging about, but you definitely will run into men who know how to fly airplanes.

And the airplane Shermer chooses for most of his rigorous operations is the Cessna 172.

Shermer has five Skyhawks that he employs in a variety of roles. The dominant mission is power-line patrol for three public utility companies in Virginia and Maryland. But the 172s also earn their keep in a variety of other jobs that go beyond the usual flight school duty in which most of us picture them. These include: forest-fire spotting; aerial photography and photo mapping; reforestation and deforestation photography; aerial study of gypsy moth and pine bark borer beetle infestations; traffic reporting and radio promotions; plus video and still aerial news photography.

To keep things even more interesting, Shermer runs a flight school that has seven Cessna 152s, a 172RG for complex/ commercial training, and the Aztec for multiengine work. There's also a 1946 Ercoupe that you can rent for 35 bucks an hour.

While the other missions, mostly done under contract with the Virginia Department of Forestry and area paper manufacturers, help Shermer buy avgas for his Aztec and stay out of the poorhouse, the bread-and-butter work for the Skyhawks is power-line patrol. Evidence of this is the 24-inch lettering on the top and bottom sides of each airplane's wings that spells "POWER PATROL." That is an attempt to prevent civilians from getting too upset when they see an airplane flying at treetop level or disappearing behind a hill, and perhaps, as one wag observed, "to keep the moonshiners from shooting at them."

The aircraft may not come under fire, but it is amazing, one soon discovers on power-line patrol, how many hunters mistake electric insulators for deer, rabbits, ducks, and other game. Damage from gunfire is one of the leading problems that observers look for. Shermer even discovered an arrow stuck into a pole crossarm on one patrol.

Patrols are flown using two-man crews — a pilot and an observer. In general, the observer watches the lines, and the pilot watches where he's going. Patrols are usually flown at about 50 feet above the poles or above the highest obstruction. Strict safety rules and procedures — i.e., always patrol gradually rising terrain downhill, otherwise it may rise faster than you can climb — are drilled into the pilots, who must fly as observers for 10 hours in each area of operations and undergo extensive indoctrination before being turned loose as pilot in command on patrols. The results of not following those procedures can be serious; the company's only two mishaps, a collision with power cables and a crash into rising terrain, occurred because the pilots broke the rules (fortunately, nobody was killed in either accident).

"I don't perceive it as dangerous. If it's done properly, the element of danger is minimal," says Shermer. "If it's done and done right, it's like flying the downwind in the traffic pattern. It's not as relaxing as cruise. You can't let your mind wander."

One man intimately aware of the consequences of not doing it right is W. F. (Chuck) Dunnington, one of Shermer's top observers. Dunnington was flying as observer on the Skyhawk that went into the hillside, but he was back flying patrols again before doctors had removed the cast supporting his torn knee ligaments.

"The first time I got in the airplane, I loved it," says Dunnington, who as a manager at the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Bowling Green, Virginia, began flying patrols more than 10 years ago with the previous operator. He enjoyed the flying so much that he earned his own pilot certificate in 1985, although he lacks the commercial certificate necessary to act as PIC on patrols. Still, being an observer is satisfying in itself "I think it's the most fun thing I've ever done in my life," he says. "It's exciting. I'm probably half crazy, but I love it."

Dunnington looks for "anything that can cause a problem," such as encroachments on the power-line right of way (he's found people building swimming pools and buildings on the right of way, for example), overhanging trees or cranes in backyards, bad insulators, bad wires, etc. The most unusual thing he ever found was a dead fish sitting atop a high pole. After mulling that one over (there hadn't been any 100-year floods lately), he decided it must have been the abandoned meal of an eagle or osprey.

Pilots and observers work closely as a team, crew coordination being key to mission success and safety. They communicate through a rehearsed set of verbal and hand signals. The observer tells the pilot where he needs to be, and the pilot puts him there — if safety will not be compromised. Likewise, the pilot is primed to react immediately if the observer spots an obstruction, responding to standard commands like "break right."

"What I look for in a pilot is a person who has been on board here, and I get a feel for him and the way he handles an airplane," says Shermer.

What he looks for in an airplane comes in a neat package called the Cessna Skyhawk. "It's a right match of power and capability," Shermer says.

Shermer has tried out other airplanes on power-line patrol, but they all came up lacking in one way or another. He tried the 152, but it lacked the power needed to climb hills, and its flap extension speed was too low to use flaps on patrol. He tested the 172RG, but the gear warning horn kept going off. A Citabria got an audition, but its tandem seating proved an obstacle to the cockpit communication so critical to safety and efficiency on patrol. Always, Shermer came back to the trusty 172. Patrols are flown with 10 degrees of flaps. The flaps provide better stability, reduced speed, and help the airplane ride out bumps better, says Shermer. On the later Skyhawk models, the flap extension limit is 110 knots, and the aircraft climbs better with one notch of flaps, Shermer maintains.

"Also, there are the collateral missions I can do with the Skyhawk," he says. Three of his 172s have camera holes in the rear floor, providing accommodations for a back-seat photographer, for example.

Maintenance on the patrol aircraft, each of which has about 5,000 hours total time on the airframe, surprisingly involves no special TLC. They receive routine 100-hour inspections and other work only as needed. "The special thing," Shermer notes, shaking his head, "is cleaning all the bugs off the leading edges and the windscreen."

All of which adds up to low maintenance and very high productivity. You can't ask much more of a workhorse than that.

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