Not quite ready for prime time

35 miles per hour…

40 miles per hour…

45 miles per hour…

Oil pressure good. Engine cylinder and exhaust temps coming up, but in range.

50 miles per hour…

55 miles per hour…

We’re at the top of the green arc. Tessie should be able to fly.

60 miles per hour…

65 miles per hour…

The control tower zips past on my left as we barrel down the runway.

70 miles per hour…

75 miles per hour…

We’re still glued to the runway, speeding down the blacktop like a dragster without the slightest hint that the plane is ever going to fly. Ahead, the band of lights marking the end of the runway is fast approaching.

I smile ear-to-ear.

Yes! This is the way it should be! Properly rigged, with the main landing gear appropriately sprightly, holding the twin tails the designated height off the tarmac, the ‘Coupe’s wing has zero angle of attack on the ground. In other words, if you want the plane to fly, you need to pull the nose up.

Of course, I don’t want to fly. Not yet anyway. Flying will come later. After all, Tessie’s wings haven’t seen the light of day in many months, and I’ve learned from experience that rather than assume that everything will be all right when a shop declares that an airplane is fixed and ready to go, you should assume that nothingwill be right following maintenance.

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And these last few months of maintenance were like no other maintenance Tess has ever seen.

Parts of her that haven’t been seen by human eyes since she was built in 1947 were exposed to the light of day again as the very skin and bones of her nose were removed and replaced, her engine sitting for months on a pair of sawhorses. Her engine, naturally, is back on, sitting in a new engine mount. But every hose, cable, and wire was disconnected and then re-connected—and that means there’s no end of potential trouble.

So this time I decided to take a stepwise approach to returning to the air. First, I taxied lazily around the ramp, spinning slow motion doughnuts at low RPM, assuring myself that the complex control interlinkages were functioning. Going straight forward the ailerons were flat and the control yokes straight and true to the beckoning horizon. In a turn, one alerion flipped skyward and the other pointed to the earth, as the yin-yang of aerodynamics commands. Looking back over my shoulder I could watch the twin rudders flip left then right as I danced across the tarmac.

Naturally, given my hard-earned distrust of this particular aircraft engine, I kept one eye on the oil pressure gauge the whole time, but all was well.

Next, I asked the tower for a high-speed taxi test: Basically, to run down their runway as fast as possible without lifting off. This puts more air over the control surfaces, lets the engine run at higher power, and hopefully—while you’re still safely on the ground—shakes loose anything that might fall off. It’s as close to a test flight as you can come without actually flying. Which I didn’t want to do. Yet.

Which is a good thing, because, right now, I’m running out of runway.

I slide the crystal art deco throttle handle back, down to the base of the throttle quad, tap the brakes, and exit the runway.

My high-speed taxi test is complete. Next will come the flying.

But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.

 

Plane Parenting

Rio just had his wisdom teeth out. All four of them. At once. That should have been a blessing, but due to a snafu with the surgeon’s prescriptions, the pharmacy, and our distance from civilization, he was without any sort of pain meds for about two hours after the general anesthesia wore off.

I’ll spare you my distress over his distress. Parenting: It’s not for wimps.

On the same day, I got an email from my mechanic about my sick airplane. Tess was supposed to be ready for test flight in a few days, but the team has been having a hard time getting the cowl and nose bowl to fit properly after the engine was installed in its brand-new engine bracket and mounts. Well, one thing led to another and it turns out that the engine is out of alignment with the fuselage, and spacers need to be ordered to get it to point forward, not downward.

I’ll spare you my distress over this stress. Airplane ownership: It’s not for wimps.

This morning, it occurred to me that owning an airplane is, in fact, much like being a parent. Or that being a parent is, in fact, much like owning an airplane. I suppose it depends on which came first in your life. Here are just a few examples, feel free to chime in with more via comments:

Airplanes & Kids:  No matter how old they are, you worry about them. (All. The. Time.) The only difference is that you tend to worry a little less about your children as they age, and a little more about your airplane as it ages!

Kids & Airplanes:Keep your mind alive. They force you to never stop learning. Kids ask questions that challenge your knowledge, while airplanes never stop teaching you about themselves.

Airplanes & Kids:Get sick or break bones at the worst possible time. Always the worst possible time. And visits to the doctor are expensive; and that’s true even for routine checkups. The only difference is that the airplane doctor costs more than the kid’s doctor!

Kids & Airplanes:Take you to places you never imagined existed. Literally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Airplanes & Kids: Eat more than you could possibly have imagined before you had them.

Kids & Airplanes: Amaze and delight you when you least expect it.

Airplanes & Kids: Demand time, attention, money, and love.

Kids & Airplanes:Love you back, unconditionally. No matter what your faults as a human and a pilot are.

Airplanes & Kids:No matter how rich you are, you really can’t afford them.

Kids & Airplanes:Even though you can’t afford either, you really should have at least one of each.

Being a parent of a child—or an airplane—is rewarding, expensive, amazing, and stressful. And I wouldn’t trade either experience for the world.

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The perfect gift

Jigsaw puzzles were a big deal in the Dubois Clan when I was growing up. We did them frequently, and it was serious business with specific rules of engagement set down and enforced by my very Victorian Father. Each member of the family got to study the box cover art in turn. One time. For sixty seconds. Then the box was hidden away. Next, the pieces were all spread out and flipped right side up, then the border had to be built before any other construction took place. Lord help you if you found two pieces that went together before the border was complete.

Actually… those are the only rules I can remember, but knowing my father, there must have been others. Most likely, these traditions came from his father. In respect for the past, I try to enforce the same rules in my family, but I live with a pack of anarchists, so it doesn’t work out very well.

Despite that, I find puzzle building fun, and the process brings the Fam together in a unique and social way. Still, it seems we do them most often when we are snowed in, which tends to happen around the first of the year each year. Of course, being a flying family, we have a weakness for aviation-themed puzzles. Last year at Christmas we did a puzzle of Santa loading up a Piper Cub in lieu of his sleigh. The year before that it was a puzzle of an antique airplane poster.

But this year we had the ultimate puzzle, and the story starts a good ten weeks before Christmas when, after writing a rather large check to get repairs started on the family plane following a hard landing, I was having a moment of quiet desperation with my checking account. I emailed both my sisters to cancel holiday gift exchanges. My eldest sister, who’s also having a tight year agreed at once, but our middle sib wrote to say, sorry, but she’d already gotten something for us.

I was annoyed. Who on earth has their Christmas shopping out of the way in late October, fer crying out loud? “If I don’t get it done early,” was her reply, “I don’t get it done.”

Anyway, the promised box showed up shortly before Christmas, neatly wrapped in holiday themed paper, with a card that read, “To Tessie and Family.” I dutifully deposited the package under the tree—after giving it the traditional inquiring shake that told me that either the post office had completely and utterly destroyed my sister’s gift, or that the gift was a jigsaw puzzle.

It was a puzzle. But not just any puzzle. It was mypuzzle. A personal puzzle. A puzzle of Tessie. A montage of pics of my favorite plane taken from various online magazines. Tessie flying. Tessie on a snow-covered taxiway. Tess, a.k.a. Race 53 making a “race takeoff.” Tess in her art-filled hangar, Rio and I proudly standing on either side. It must have been a lot of work.

I was blown away.

And sure enough, right after Christmas we got a huge snow storm and we broke out the puzzle. We spread the pieces on the table, starting flipping them right side up—all 1,014 of them, and then I hid the damn box. It was a diabolically delightful puzzle. Tess, according to Rio, is “Fifty shades of blue,” to start with, and the light was different in each of the photos of our baby. OK. Clearly, this is part of the nose bowl, but from which image? Ah ha! This is the landing gear. But is it the landing gear from the race footage or from the picture of the plane parked on the snowy taxiway?

Oh, and not only are there fifty shades of blue airplane, but the puzzle also featured fifty shades of blue sky. It ended up being, by far, the hardest—but funest—puzzle I’ve even built. My sister really knocked it out of the park with this gift.

But in addition to putting together a machine I love, piece by piece, I had another first. I got to pick up the pieces of, well, me!

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When the legends die

Once again, I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air & Space. My story this time: Write up my experiences in attempting to re-fly one third of the Woodrow Wilson Transcontinental Airway using nothing more than the original written instructions from the nearly 100-year-old Pilot’s Directions—a slim manual published by the Postal Department to help new pilots find their way across the country in a time before modern ariel navigation. A time, in fact, before aviation maps and charts. A time before radios. A time before the flashing airway beacons, strung out like pearls in the night, led the way.

Pilot’s Directionsis descriptive text of contact flying. Look for farmer Brown’s red barn north of town, then follow the river. Keep the small round lake to your left. Fly south one section line for every 25 west. Don’t mistake the Union Pacific railroad for the Pennsylvania Southern. That type of thing.

How much will the face of our country have changed from above in the past 100 years? Will it still be possible to navigate the wide-open spaces between Omaha and Salt Lake City using these century-old written directions? Can modern pilots even follow directions like these? I’m going to find out.

Next month.

Lisa is lending me her ‘Coupe Warbler for the mission, as he’s equipped nearly identically to an airmail plane of the era. Which is to say he hardly has any equipment at all. Lending me her plane, provided, of course, that she gets to come along on the adventure. But Lisa’s presence isn’t just for fun. Her presence is key to the mission’s success. She’ll watch my track on her iPad and ensure that I do not get us so lost that we run out of gas or blunder into modern military or restricted airspace.

In the meantime, to get ready for the flight, I’ve been living in the past. I’ve read every book about the early airmail that I can get my paws on, trying to learn more about the men, their machines, and how they flew the mail at the dawn of practical aviation. I’m focused on the few brief years when the government ran the show, before farming out the entire system to contractors, giving birth to the modern airlines. I’ve learned that the pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep from freezing in their open cockpit biplanes. That they used clotheslines for windsocks. That they sometimes landed in fields to ask farmers for directions.

And I’ve learned that they were not only bold, but smart. They experimented, pushing the envelope of aeronautical science.

Chief among these experimenters was air mail pilot Wesley Smith. It was this pilot, in fact, who was reported to have first taped a flat half-empty bottle of whiskey on the panel of his mail plane to help him keep his wings level in the clouds. Call it a First Gen attitude indicator. Apparently, many of the other pilots quickly adopted this technique. In fact, I had read about these proto-instruments in the past, and I encountered them again and again in my air mail research. Like many pilots, I took this legend as Gospel truth, and didn’t think much more about it, beyond admiring their spunk and ingenuity.

But in the midst of my research, I was reminded that Bob Hoover was famous during his air show days for pouring himself a glass of tea during barrel rolls.

So wait a second… Either liquid is true to the world of the plane, or true to the outside environment. But it can’t be both. Right? Or can it? Are the forces in a roll stronger than the forces in garden variety maneuvers? Could a half empty bottle of liquid reveal the horizon in gentle maneuvers? Help keep a plane level in fog and cloud? Or like tea, would it always be level to the floor of the plane? I’d be a pour aviation journalist if I didn’t find out the truth.

Did I say “pour?” Sorry, I meant to say “poor.”

Clearly, I needed discover the truth for myself, and set the record straight if, in fact, we’ve been deceived all these years…

 

“Bank right,” I tell Lisa, as I hold the half-empty bottle of Chivas Regal to the windscreen, “Now bank left.”

Sadly, the level of the whiskey stays parallel to the floor of the plane, the horizon snapping left and right, cartwheeling outside the windshield, beyond the straight line of brunt amber liquid in the bottle.

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“Is it working?” asks Lisa.

“Sure,” I say, “but not like we’d hoped. Instead of showing me the horizon, it’s showing me the floor of the plane. No matter what you do, it stays level.” I sigh. I’m bummed. I’m not looking forward to writing up this Plane Tale. I feel like I’ve just been given the assignment to shoot the Easter Bunny dead in his tracks. Of all the aviation legends, the un-tested whiskey bottle was always my favorite for some reason.

Likewise, I’m sorry to report, hanging your pocket watch from the roof of the plane fails to show the angle of bank. The watch always hangs straight toward the floor, regardless of how the floor is angled in relation to the horizon outside the plane.

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What’s up with this? Why does liquid level itself to the plane’s floor when the plane is canted crazily to one side? Why does a watch chain hang straight down to the plane’s floor when your eyes tell you that you could fall right out the door and plummet to your death below without even bouncing off the wing?

The answer comes down to the forces of flight. A plane in a turn is assaulted by a barrage of forces and factors: Centripetal force, the vertical component of lift, centrifugal force, weight, inertia, thrust, resultant load, g-forces, effective lift, aerodynamic axis, load factors… Here, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Image: Agostino De Marco

To be honest, I don’t know which of the myriad of forces holds the whiskey true to the plane rather than true to the horizon. It’s probably the interplay of all of them that effectively moves the forces of gravity in line with the floor of the plane, bursting our myths.

So that’s it. The legend is dead. You can’t use a half-empty bottle of whiskey to keep your wings level in the clouds. But surely, the first pilot who tried this nearly a century ago must have discovered that on the first flight. Why, then, do we have so many historians telling us that the whiskey bottle was basic equipment for air mail pilots? Was it sloppy research by a historian who was not a pilot? Did one historian write it up and the others, like lemmings, followed him over the cliff of error?

Perhaps, but I think that there’s something else at play.

The airmail was a dangerous job. A dangerous job at the dawn of Prohibition, which came into law within two years of the start of the airmail. Suddenly booze was forbidden for everyone, much less for government employees. Were the pilots simply having fun with their ground-pounder bosses? Flouting the liquor law under the guise of flying equipment?

We’ll never know, but it gets my vote. It has the flavor of truth to it.

But what the hell, in a salute to Smith and his colleagues, whatever their real motives, and to keep in the spirit of the early days of airmail, we installed a Smith Attitude Indicator in Warbler for our re-flying of the Air Mail route.

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It won’t help keep our wings level, but taking spirits into the sky will sure keep our spirits up.

 

Music to my ears

As I drove down Airport Road the distinctive howl of a twelve-cylinder Merlin filled my ears. It came from the left, shot overhead, and disappeared to my right like a cannon shot. I ducked and slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt.

Holy crap! I’ve been buzzed by a Mustang!

Then two more in close succession: Vaaaavooooom!!! Vaaaavooooom!!!

I looked to the right. To the left. Then I leaned forward on my steering wheel and looked up. The sky was empty.

Next, the growl of a heavy metal radial buzzed by, shaking the car, and I remembered: I had left the car stereo on full blast when I left the hangar, but the CD was between tracks so I’d forgotten I had it on. It was Reno on Record 3blaring out of my Alpine Speakers, not real airplanes tearing up the sky. Sheepishly, I turned down the stereo, tapped the accelerator, headed on down the road again, glad that I was alone and no one had seen me ducking phantom planes.

Well, not phantom. The planes are real enough. They just aren’t here. Not now. Their growls, whines, and roars were captured in high fidelity recordings as they passed Pylon One during the National Air Races in Reno in 1990, 1991, and 1992 and put on CD by AirCraft Records.

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Yep, our new fav in the music department is unlike any CD I’ve ever owned. It’s made up of nothing but airplane noises. Apparently, the original Reno on Record, and its sequel Reno on Record 2, were both a mix of airplane sounds and interview clips with racers, but according to the promotional literature inside the CD cover, “We have answered the request of many of you for a version of Reno on Record with little or no talking. This is it. On ROR 3 you will hear nothing but the beautiful, raw sounds of Merlins, 3350s, 4360s and much, much more.”

Who on earth would want an hour’s worth of nothing but engine sounds?

Well, as it turns out, people like me! Although I didn’t know that until I bought a copy. I discovered this wonderful CD quite by accident, and I’m sure glad I did. I was actually looking for whiskey when it happened. Well, more correctly a whiskey decanter. Back in the ‘70s the McCormick whiskey folks made several commemorative decanters that were sold at the National Air Races. One, which I scored on eBay, looks like a race pylon. A second one looks like a radial engine with a three-bladed prop. I’d seen pictures of it, but I was having a hard time finding one for sale. Of course, I had a saved search to alert me if one was listed, but over the years I’ve found that sometimes the best successes, when it comes to buying collectables, happen when you come across something that’s not listed quite the way everyone expects—so if I’m bored, I’ll just do some random surfing with very broad search terms, flipping through a few pages to see what I see.

Thus it was that I stumbled upon Reno on Record, the record. No kidding, I found an old-fashioned vinyl LP record, called Reno on Record. It was from 1986 and was billed as having “actual sound recordings and interviews from the National Air Races in Reno.” I thought it was very clever creating a record that recorded Reno and was called Reno on Record. However, it was priced well beyond the impulse purchase range and deep into the “ask your wife first” range, so I decided to see if I could find it priced more economically somewhere else.

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Photo: eBay seller Susaninpgh

I didn’t. But I did find CDs of Reno on Record 2 and Reno on Record 3. As ROR 3 was heaps cheaper, I bought a copy to check it out, not being sure why I did so. After all, who would want to sit around listening to airplane noises? The CD arrived promptly, but languished on my desk for weeks. Then the flight school sent both Rio and Lisa home with their pre-solo exams, an open book take home test, on the same weekend.

Airplane noises in the background seemed just right for ambiance.

And boy was it. As we sat around the kitchen table working through the Skyhawk’s POH, looking up FARs, pawing through the AIM, and scratching our heads over tricky weight and balance problems, race planes screamed around the track in the living room. It was inspiring. The perfect background noise for the task at hand. Of course, because we were studying, we had the volume down.

That was fun. But the CD really shines when you pump up the volume, which is what we did while working in our planeless hangars to give them the proper aviation feel. Quoting the AirCraft Records folks,“the thunder of the hot-rodded WWII fighters of the Unlimited Class will be ripping up your living room and alienating your neighbors as they pass in front of your nose and out of your speakers.”

Luckily, at the airport, we have no neighbors to alienate, but I appreciated the rebel sentiment. But living room or hangar, when you crank up the volume on this music you’ll smell the dust, oil, and avgas of Reno.

This is one damn fun CD. If you like airplanes, I think you’ll be surprised by how much pleasure you can get from having them roar by in the background. Get a copy and see what it does for your soul on a foggy day, or how your flying friends react to it at your next hangar party.

My rating: Five stars. No, wait. I think instead of stars, I’ll give it five Ercoupes.

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A TV show you might have missed

My Hispanic father-in-law studied the latest home-repair mess I’d made for a long time before he finally sighed and said, “You college-educated white guys aren’t very good at this kind of thing, are you?”

That was almost thirty years ago. And ever since then, the family joke is that I’m the star of a late-night cable TV show called the College-Educated White Guy Handyman. A show featuring a weekly home repair or improvement disaster. In my defense, home repair skills take a lengthy education of their own, and mine was limited to watching my college professor father blow a chunk out of his Swiss Army knife cutting through a live wire while trying to replace the plug on a table lamp.

As time goes by, I have gotten better, but usually my first attempt at doing any kind of repair or improvement goes awry. A recent case in point: Our hangar floor.

Now there are two things you need to know. The first is that the airport will let me deduct the cost of any improvements to our hangar from our rent, and the second is that while traveling the country in two seasons of racing, we saw some pretty swank hangars.

Oh. And a third thing. I’ve been suffering hangar floor envy ever since Lisa and I connected our hangars. You see, she has a wall-to-wall cement floor. I have a gravel floor with a 15×15 foot concreate pad for Tess to rest on. Of course, I didn’t know it was 15×15 until too late. I think my non-college educated Hispanic handyman father-in-law told me something about measuring twice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

About two months ago, I got it in my head that I could trump Lisa’s expanse of concreate if my humble pad of concreate were more swank than her concreate. How would I do that? Well, really swank hangars have really swank epoxy floor coverings. Some glow like mirrors, others have interesting patterns, but all of them are tough as diamonds and as an added benefit, their non-absorbent surfaces reduce oil spill clean-ups to a simple flick of a towel.

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I don’t recall how, but I recently discovered that there is a do-it-yourself version of this swank floor covering called Rocksolid from Rust-Oleum. How hard could it be?

I watched the YouTube video and judged it to be no more difficult than painting, and with Tessie out of the hangar for extensive repairs, this would be a good time to take it on. On my next trip to Santa Fe to take Rio to his flight lesson (and to check on the status of aforementioned repairs), I planned to buy a hangar-floor-in-a-box.

And this is where we get to measuring.

Standing in Home Depot in Santa Fe, I had no earthly idea how big my pad in Santa Rosa was. This mattered, because Rocksolid come in two sizes: The one-car garage size, with the kit covering 200-250 square feet; and the two-and-a-half car garage size, with the kit covering 450-500 square feet.

Picture me in Home Depot trying to astrally project myself to my hangar.

I decided that although the hangar itself is huge, the concreate pad in the middle was much smaller than a one-car garage. And I was so convinced of this that it didn’t even occur to me to measure it later on, even though I had several opportunities to do so between the time I bought the smaller kit, and when it was warm enough to break it out and paint it on.

Of course, any of you who are sharp at math know that 15×15 equals 225 square feet, smack dab in the middle of the theoretical range of what the kit will cover.

I’ll spare you the details of the various trials and tribulations of preparing the concreate: Sweeping, hosing, scrubbing with degreasers, more hosing, scrubbing with dish soap, more hosing, etching with acid, more hosing. Instead, let’s jump straight to the main event. Actually, I’ll spare you the details of the main event, too. Just suffice it to say the goop is the thickness of maple syrup but you are to spread it as thin as paint. And that my cement pad is full of ridges and channels and cracks and dips. And the roller was a magnet for the nearby gravel. And that the handle of my roller brush broke. And the foam bush they gave me with the kit delaminated.

Yes, let’s skip all of that stress-fest and go right to the final chapter. Here, let me show you:

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Yes, that’s right. I ran out of swanky Rocksolid material pretty much right at the 200 square foot mark.

Measure first. Who knew? Oh. That’s right. My father-in-law.

 

A pair of solos

In 1910, First Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois became one of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ first pilots after he was assigned the duty of flying the Army’s one and only airplane, a Wright Model A. But there was a minor problem: He’d never flown an airplane before.

So he did what any thinking man in his era would do. He sat down and penned a letter to the Wright brothers, asking them for some instructions. Orville Wright wrote back with some tips, after which Foulois went out to the plane and figured it out. Thus it was that Lieutenant Foulois learned to fly by correspondence course.

This is not the way we learn to fly anymore.

Instead, a student pilot flies with a flight instructor to learn the ropes. But sooner or later, the fledgling aviator must do what Foulois did: Take to the air by him or herself, and return safely to the earth. We call this flight a First Solo. It’s kinda a big deal in the aviation community.

Our family, as most of you know, has two student pilots—my son Rio and my Plane Friend Lisa—and they are both rapidly closing in on their first solos. It’s not a competition, at least not to them. They’re mutually supportive; neither of them is as competitive as I am. Still, I’d often wonder as I lay my head down on the pillow at night after a long day: Which one will solo first?

Over the last few months, at different times, I placed different bets. For a while it looked like Lisa would solo waaaaaaay before Rio. But then she hit a training plateau and I despaired that she would ever solo. Right after that, Rio hit a rough patch health-wise, mixed with ill weather, and missed a bunch of lessons.

And so it went. Back and forth. Back and forth.

But as 2018 drew to a close, their mutual flight instructor was telling me that they were both “very close.” They both took their pre-solo exams and both passed with flying colors. I don’t remember a pre-solo exam. I think that must be something new. Well, I guess that given the fact that my solo was well over three decades ago, I can’t be using a word like “new” to describe anything that happened in the interim, but you know what I mean. Actually, having two student pilots in my life has led me to learn no end of things that I’d either forgotten or that have changed without my noticing it.

Anyway, Rio was within a flight or two at the most, when a chain of bad weather cancelled several flights in a row. Then Lisa, who teaches at a community college, booked nearly every day of her winter break between semesters to train. This should have put her ahead of weekly-flying Rio, but she must have forgotten to make the proper sacrifice to the winter weather gods, because they fell on her with a vengeance. And it wasn’t just low ceilings, blowing snow, and crappy visibility: One day an ice storm so clogged and blocked the hangar door tracks that, even with a blow torch, the FBO couldn’t reach her plane, Warbler. Then a few days later, they “forgot” to put him in the hangar at night, and he was an Ercoupe popsicle when she showed up to fly the next morning.

Meanwhile, in addition to working on his pilot’s license, Rio has been working on his driver’s license. Here in New Mexico we use a complicated “graduated” licensing system. This required him to take driver’s training once a week for several months, then he got a student license that let him sit left seat in a vehicle with a responsible adult while he logged 50 hours of driving time, including 10 hours of night driving—actually not that different from the requirements for flight training. After this “dual” training requirement was completed, he’d qualify for a provisional license, that would basically let him be driver in command, but limit the number of fellow teens he could carry with him to one (excluding sibs).

Rio could have had his provisional license some time back, but driving doesn’t interest him much, which I confess I find baffling. I couldn’t wait to drive when I was his age, and I loved the freedom and independence of being behind the wheel. Anyway, before the close of the year, Rio had logged the necessary time, but one thing or another got in the way, and I didn’t get him to the Department of Motor Vehicles until after the first of the year. It was surprisingly painless until the next stop at State Farm, where I discovered having a teenage son doubled my monthly auto insurance bill.

On this same day, Lisa, who hadn’t been flying in about a week due to the anger of the weather gods I was talking about a moment ago, was off to Santa Fe. It was cloudy, but the ceiling wasn’t too low. The week before her instructor had told her, that if she felt ready, he would endorse her for her first solo after the next flight or two. As she hadn’t flown for a bit, I assumed it would be the next day, but when I looked at the forecast, I guessed that the next day would be unflyable. I worried her solo would be pushed back. But speaking of solos, I suddenly realized that Rio, despite being a licensed driver for nearly 20 hours, had never soloed a car.

So I sent him out for a pack of cigarettes.

Well, not really, of course. I don’t smoke cigarettes any more, nor will stores sell them to minors—but the proverbial cig run was just what he needed. I handed him the keys and dispatched him up the road to Romeroville, about 15 miles up the highway from our house, with instructions to go and buy whatever struck his fancy, then I busied myself around the house and pretended not to worry for the next hour.

He returned, unscathed, with a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and reported that he had fully expected to be a nervous wreck, but that in fact, things had gone well and he found himself not only relaxed, but more focused on his driving than ever before. Which got me wondering why a first solo isn’t part of driver’s training early on. Surely, the confidence gained, and the focus on individual responsibility early in driver’s training would be beneficial. I mean, it’s crazy, we give driver’s licenses to people who’ve never even once driven a vehicle by themselves!

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Speaking of when to solo, back in the early days of aviation, solos happened very quickly in pilot training; after only a few hours. In my day, not quite so quickly. Looking at my logbook I had about 25 hours, and as I recall that was on the long side at the time. I must have been a poor student. But nowadays, it’s not uncommon for students to have nearly enough hours to legally get their licenses before the solo. Partly there’s more to learn. Flying and the flying environment have become more complex over the decades, but largely it’s the regs and how the regs are interrupted. Frankly, I think pilots advanced more quickly in the old days with earlier solos, but I digress.

Anyway, in the middle of being proud of Rio, and talking to him about his solo drive, my phone made the teletype clattering that signaled a message from Lisa. It read: Need a stiff drink. Can you help?

Crap. She must have had a bad day. They must’a pushed her solo back. Or worse. Naturally I replied she should head straight over, and I got out a fifth place setting for dinner. When she showed up her shoulders were slumped and her face was long. I opened the door and she pushed past me saying, “I need to see Rio.”

She gave him a big hug, and told him, “I’m sorry, Rio… I soloed first!” Then she laughed and she tickled him.

Yep. Lisa had taken to the air by herself and returned safely to the earth. Three times. Complete with three other airplanes in the pattern and a landing commuter jet. And like Rio on his drive, she reported no nerves. “I knew I could do it,” she said, “and I did.” Simple as that.

Was Rio the least bit bothered that she beat him into the air? No, he’s just not that kind of kid. He was just happy for her.

But in truth, she really didn’t solo first. They both soloed on the same day, at pretty much the same time.

Lisa in an airplane. Rio in a jeep.

 

Little planes, big noise

I can’t make sense of any of the numbers and abbreviations, so I study the graph. A line starts in the upper left at point labeled “normal,” and descends at a roughly 45-degree angle down and to the right, ending below the point labeled “moderate-to-serve.” This line roughly bisects a blocky crescent-shaped graphic that resembles a weight-and-balance envelope.

The bottom part of the line is outside of the envelope.

That can’t be good.

But this isn’t weight and balance, and most of the line is within the envelope, so there’s probably nothing to worry about. At least, that’s what I tell myself until the doctor comes in to explain the results of my hearing test.

He whips out a pen and with careful, deliberate hash marks greys out everything above the line. “This is how much hearing you’ve lost,” he says.

More than half the hearing in my right ear. A good third of the hearing in my left.

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“You’ve completely lost your ability to hear high frequency sounds,” he explains in a loud voice, tapping the chart with his pen, “Like vowels.”

Ah. So that’s why everyone’s mumbling recently.

“Have you ever worked in a loud noise environment?”

My hearing may be failing, but in my mind I hear the cough of an airplane engine starting…

 

If you ask any pilot my age (over 55) what’s the biggest change in aviation they’ve seen in their lifetimes, you might expect them to say the advent of the glass cockpit. But it’s not. That’s just technology. Since the Wrights, aviation has been one tech leap after another: Radios, gyroscopes, the primitive “beam” navigation systems, VORs, autopilots, GPS, digital instruments, glass. It’s the nature of pilots to quickly adopt new toys, and it’s been that way for over a hundred years.

No, the biggest change in in aviation in my lifetime is the headset. In my youth, and for the decades of flying prior to that, no one took any serious action to protect their hearing. It wasn’t from a lack of technology, although like all else, that has improved. No, it was a matter of culture. Pilot culture. We just didn’t wear headsets. I’m not even sure why, but it just wasn’t done.

And I’m not quite sure how it happened, because culture is hard and slow to change, but now everybody wears headsets, and a good thing, too.

But it’s too late for me. Now I’m paying for the sins of my youth… Or I will be if I can afford to.

 

The insistent, slightly maddening ringing in my right ear is, ironically, caused by the fact I can’t hear anything worth a damn with it, according to the doc. Well, “ringing” doesn’t really describe it. It’s a high-pitched electrical sort of noise, deep inside my ear. It almost seems to come from the right third of my skull. It varies little in tone, although the volume varies throughout the day from barely noticeable to loud enough to block out conversations. It’s worse after flying, especially following long cross countries, and ironically much, much, much worse when wearing noise-canceling ARN headsets, instead of the old-fashioned passive models.

It was largely this ringing in my ear that brought me to the audiologist. I mean, I knew I was having some difficulty following conversations around the dinner table, and I’ve had a few comical miscommunications with Starbucks staff at various airports, which I am only now understanding were due to my lack of hearing, not to their lack of proper command of the King’s English, as I had previously assumed.

The good news, the doctor cheerfully tells me, is that my sort of hearing loss responds to simply “turning up the volume.” Of course, as we can’t turn up the volume on the entire universe without annoying the neighbors, I need hearing aids.

He gives me a thick packet of information on my various options. I deposit it in the circular file, unopened, as soon as I get home. You see, my health insurance—like most—doesn’t cover hearing aids and I can’t afford them.

The cost of one set of hearing aids of the type I need is equal to five annual inspections. (After owning a plane for a few years you’ll find that any time you think of money, it will be through the lens of aircraft maintenance costs.) So that’s not an option. At least not right now.

So I’ll turn up the TV. Ask my wife to speak up. And tell the girl at Starbucks that I’m hard of hearing, could she please repeat what she just said?

And I won’t worry if the engine sounds a little less loud. Unless it goes totally silent.

Then I’ll execute an emergency landing.

Or pony up for the hearing aids.