How I got the pilot shirt blues

Well shit. I can’t see a damn thing.

What? No, I’m not lost in the clouds. I mis-spoke. I can see most of what I need to see just fine. There’s the mesa below me, red and yellow rock speckled with green Juniper and Piñon. Above, the cobalt blue high-altitude sky, strewn with artic-white clouds. My speed is just under 100 miles per hour. I’m in a slow climb. The tach is solid, well under redline. My oil pressure and temp are good.

But I can’t see my attitude indictor. My brand-new, fully electric $3,000 digital attitude indicator.

Its screen is white. Well, maybe there’s a hint of electronic blue sky and brown earth, but I have to lean forward and squint to make it out. That’s not going to cut it in a race when I’m trying to scream around a turn point with minimum ground track.

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Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the instrument. The problem is my wardrobe.

As it turns out, my white pilot shirt reflects so much light in my sun-soaked cockpit that my fancy-pants new instrument becomes one massive blot of glare. Who knew?

I fly north. Then south. East. West. Sun to the nose. Sun to the tail. It makes precious little difference. I try shading the instrument, but that doesn’t not help. It’s picking up glare from me, not from the sun above. I am not a happy camper. You could even say I have the blues.

Little did I know I was about to get a lot bluer.

 

The next flight…

I’m flying up the Rio Grande River. The electronic attitude indictor is glowing brightly now. I still can’t believe the “fix,” so I reach behind into the baggage compartment and grab my white flight jacket. I drape it over my chest. The attitude indicator disappears, its computer-like screen showing nothing but white. The sun isn’t even shining on the jacket; the white surface just kicks off that much glare in my greenhouse-like cockpit. I drop the jacket into my lap and the screen springs to life. I pull the jacket up again and the glare blots out the instrument’s screen. I drop the jacket and the screen is clear as a bell.

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The only change is that I’m not wearing a white shirt. I’m wearing a blue shirt. A pale blue shirt.

White shirt, no instrument. Pale blue shirt, no problem. It’s revolting. Mother suggested I just wear a pale blue bib over my white flight shirt to block the glare when I’m flying.

No.

Air racers do not wear bibs.

Lisa suggested I just wear a vest. Less embarrassing, but it sounds like a recipe for heat stroke to me.

I knew what I had to do.

I had to get serious about getting the blues.

 

Fashion consultants

When I first started flying, pilot shirts came in white, tan, and blue. The tan seems to have suffered some sort of mass extinction event, but I’m not sure I’d care. The Plane Tales Plane is white and blue on the outside; and blue, grey, and black on the inside.

No earth tones.

So I went looking for blue pilot shirts and was surprised to find that 99% of the suppliers no longer carry them. But luckily for me the small, friendly and fast Garff Shirts still does. Garff is a one-man operation run by a pilot who serves as the First Officer (copilot) for a regional airline, but amazingly he often gets stuff to me faster than the bigger players.

Once again, as soon as the shirt arrived, I assembled my fashion consultants in the form of Rio, who really just wanted dinner, and Lisa, who had just nearly amputated her finger trying to cut the tag out of her new flight suit. “Don’t drip blood on the shirts,” I told her, as I spread out samples of nearly every shirt we’d ever had made before on the sofa.

There are problems with changing from a white shirt to a blue shirt. I couldn’t just send it off to the embroidery shop and tell them to make another. First off, many of the logos on our flight shirts have white backgrounds. If you sew the logo onto a blue shirt, suddenly it has blue where white should be and doesn’t look right. But there’s more.

Things just look different on blue than they do on white.

We had to start from scratch. We printed out various logos and laid them on the shirt to see what they looked like. Rio was most grim about our prospects, but he can be a bit Eeyore-like, especially when he wants dinner. Lisa, despite her hand wrapped in a bloody paper towel, was more optimistic.

In the end it took dinner. And lots of wine. But I could see that we had a good-looking shirt coming together. A shirt that will allow me to see where I’m going. In style.

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Back again

The gust came out of nowhere. With a loud clatter the sign toppled over. Race 53 pens scattered across the asphalt. Preferred Altitude business cards swirled about my legs like a school of angry Piranhas.

But the wind wasn’t done with me yet.

As I lifted the display easel off of the tarmac, a second gust of wind snatched the three-foot by two-foot sheet of foam core, tearing it off the easel and sending it sailing through the air. To my horror it flew, dagger-like, straight toward a half-built GlaStar parked near by. The pilot-owner had spent the last two years drilling holes for rivets and I sure as hell didn’t want my sign scratching his paint the first time he displayed the plane. As I dashed after the sign I heard a second crash and glanced over my shoulder to see our other easel resting on Tessie’s tail.

One second before striking the GlaStar, the wind slackened and dropped the sign to the deck under the plane’s left wing. I ducked under the wing and stomped on the sign to pin it to the ground. Shouts behind me. I turned and saw the sun canopy for the Angel Flight booth, a giant blue pyramid with four skinny aluminum poles at each corner, rising from the ground, slowly spinning as it lifted into the sky above the airport parking lot. It reminded me of the lunar lander with its spider-like landing gear. The canopy reached an altitude of about 30 feet, then the dust devil released it, and the canopy slowly drifted back down, now a parachute.

It was the strangest flight I’ve ever seen. And a bizarre end to another awesome day at Double Eagle II Airport on the northwest side of Albuquerque. Like last year, we’d been invited to be one of the show’s static displays—airplanes front and center for visitors to get up close and personal with. Also, like last year, we started the event by flying into the “big” airport, the Albuquerque International Sunport, the day before, and visiting with both Cutter Aviation and Bode Aero for a makeover. They spent all day washing and waxing and buffing Tessie until she looked like she just rolled off the assembly line. Then, before the sun rose, Rio and I lifted off of the 150 foot wide, 13,793-foot long Runway 08 (between airliners), and headed across the sleeping city for the Fly-In.

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It was a grand day. Not too hot, not too cold. Just enough of a breeze to keep the air fresh, but not enough (until the end) to cause our giant signs—one about last year’s world speed record, and one about this year’s air racing—to escape from their water jug-weighted easels.

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A good-sized crowd turned out again this year and our plane was first on the line as people came in the gates.

Our whole gang was on hand. Grandma Jean sat in her official Air Racer folding chair under an umbrella and chatted with passers-by. Rio cruised the trade show and watched a 3-D printer making airplane parts and EAA key chains. Debbie alternately took in the sights and charmed visitors. Lisa snapped pictures and manned the Ninety-Nines booth in the exhibit hangar. I took the time to attend one of the three pilot seminars offered, but mainly I leaned on Tessie’s top cowl and chatted with the folks passing by.

Some had questions:

Is it true Ercoupes don’t have rudder pedals? Yep.

What do Ercoupes cost? Not much to buy, a lot to maintain.

How long have you owned her? I don’t, she’s my mother’s airplane.

Seriously? You race? How-frickin-cool! Indeed.

Others had stories to tell. An elderly World War II vet flew Hellcats off the Yorktown in the Pacific theater. After the war he owned an Ercoupe. At least he did until a problem forced him down in a wheat field. Plane and pilot were fine. But the wife wasn’t.

She made him sell the Coupe.

But the kids were the greatest. Kids automatically love airplanes and are full of questions about them. The bolder children I boosted up on the wing to look into Tessie’s cockpit. A few sat in the pilot’s seat to try her on for size. With the shyer ones, I sat cross-legged on the ground under her spinner—at kid altitude—to talk with them one-on-one about airplanes.

Again and again and again throughout the day I heard, “What a beautiful airplane.” And at the end of the day, we were awarded the coveted people’s choice award. Not a bad coup for a ‘Coupe, especially considering we were parked next to a cherry Stearman biplane.

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A fun day. Such fun that even the wind wanted to drop by for a visit.

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Photo by Larry Bell

 

It’s always something…

Tess had been with her mechanics the better part of two weeks between races. The list of improvements, repairs, and “squawks” was pretty long. The boys were removing the remains of the now un-used vacuum system, installing an electric attitude indicator, fixing the broken push-to-talk switch on the copilot yoke, and replacing loose rivets on the belly. The mags were out of timing, whatever that means, and half the spark plugs were replaced—the other four being cleaned and gapped. For the third time, hot and windy Kansas ripped off one of my wing walks, the windshield had come loose, and the metal around the camlocs that hold the cowl closed on the pilot’s side was suffering the effects of old age, called metal fatigue in airplane-speak.

Somehow I had bumped the throttle getting into the plane at Indy, and hit it just right (or wrong) causing the antique crystal halves to become unglued. One half promptly fell to the floor and rolled to the side where it fell down deep into the belly of the beast. The guys had to remove the seat to get to it.

The nose shimmy is back again, one of those gremlins that we can never quite track down. There must be 200 causes of Ercoupe nose wheel shimmy, and we’ve only tried 180 repairs so far.

Oh. And she needed an oil change. The fifth this year.

So after not flying for a bit, and writing a check with a lot of numbers and one comma in it, I was looking forward to having a perfectly functioning plane. At least for the flight home.

But it was not to be.

As soon as I lifted off, the nose pitched sharply down. I drew back hard on the yoke and kept her in the air. I fiddled with the trim control, but nothing happened. In a steady climb, I had heavy down-pressure. At 8,500 feet, high enough to clear the top of Rowe Mesa with comfort, I leveled out and once again tried to trim the plane. No luck. It took about ten pounds of backpressure to hold her level.

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I got a good workout getting home.

On the ground, as I suspected, the trim tab was deflected for a descent, and no amount of fiddling with the lever in the cockpit changed it.

Naturally, I vented my frustration by sending a nasty email to my mechanic, who responded that they hadn’t touched the trim system in the course of their work on the plane, which of course I knew was true. Still, in a just universe, you’d expect a brief respite from repairs.

At least for the flight home from the mechanic.

A fine coat of oil

I know. White pilot shirts were a bad choice. Sure, they look great and they are cool because they reflect the sunlight. But they’re a tradition that stems from the airlines, where pilots don’t check their own oil, sump their own fuel, or otherwise get their hands dirty under the cowl.

When we drive to the airport we look sharp.

Coming home again… Not so much.

Getting grimy black Aeroshell 15/50 on our white shirts is such a common occurrence we’ve all become experts with lye soap and bleach.

It’s usually an isolated blotch on the sleeve, an oily fingerprint around a pocket button, or ramp smudges on the side or back from crawling under the wing to check something or another. But Lisa was suffering from something new. Coming home from Indy, on the ramp at Litchfield, Illinois, she was peering at the front of her shit. “What the hell…??” she asked me, pulling her shirttails away from her body to inspect them. Here and there across her shirt were little black starbursts. They looked like oil, but they were the smallest drops I’d ever seen.

“How’d you manage that?” I asked her.

She had no idea, and that night they resisted all her attempts to remove them as she washed out her flight shirt in the sink of the Baymont Inn.

The next day more starbursts appeared. The front of her flight shirt was littered with them. Hundreds of dots, each with sharp Star of Bethlehem-like points following the grain of the fabric up and down, and side to side. Lisa’s shirt looked like a black-and-white negative of the Milky Way.

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We agreed that it looked like she’d been in the way of a fine spray or mist of oil, but we couldn’t imagine how or where that could have happened.

The third day the starbursts started to appear on my shirt, too, but only on the right-hand side. That’s when we realized that we must, somehow, be getting oil sprayed on us inside the cockpit as we were flying. And of course the source of that oil could only be the engine.

Now, old Continental engines like ours leak oil. (Unless they are out of it.) A while back when I bought some models of Tess. I told the model people I wanted a faithful reproduction of our baby, warts and all. They said, “So we should paint oil streaks on the belly, then?”

Not that faithful.

But it’s true that the only time we don’t have oil on the belly is when the plane is on the ground right after being washed. Thank goodness her belly is blue, so they oil doesn’t really show most of the time.

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But on our epic flight to the Great Northwest Air Race we developed something new. Oil on the side of the cowl, down the fuselage, over the wings. It looked like the airplane equivalent of a bloody nose. The cause? A bad seal where the engine-driven fuel pump attaches to the engine. The seal was replaced and we never gave it another thought.

But now more oil was coming out of the top of the engine. Once again we had streaks and smears high up on the cowl, and on the ground oil dripped and pooled at the base of the central air vent above the oil cooler. That’s when it hit me: Maybe the oil was being sucked into the cabin fresh air vent in flight, spraying us with an ultra-fine mist of oil droplets, creating the monochrome Starry Night on our shirts.

At the low altitudes we fly at, the “cool” air from outside feels more like the exhaust from a clothes dryer, but without it, the heat from the firewall would surely cook us. The cabin air inlet is on the floor on the copilot side and when fully open blows more directly on the copilot than on the pilot. Lisa was tired of hot air blowing directly on her, and partly closed the vent on day three, which shot the air slightly more sideways.

That’s when stars started appearing on my shirt.

When we dropped the plane off for post-race maintenance I told my mechanic my theory. He told me he’d check into it.

He had his best poker face on.

But that’s exactly what happened, and this is what caused it: Tessie’s engine has a breather tube that runs from high up on the engine down to the bottom of the plane. It was a crude affair. A roughly shaped metal tube that jerked and twisted its way through the cowl from top to bottom. Apparently at one of the bends a clot started to form. It could have taken decades, years, months, weeks, or days. Who knows? But just like cholesterol building up inside a human artery, one day the building clot sealed off the engine breather tube, and our engine had the airplane equivalent of a heart attack.

Well, that’s probably overly dramatic. But as pressure inside the engine couldn’t escape through its usual route, it sought out the next weakest link: The fuel pump gasket.

Why the leaking oil was sucked into the air vent this time and not last time I have no idea. Maybe the older gasket failed at a different location than the newer gasket. Regardless, I’m glad to have a gasket fail. The alternative might have been a cracked engine block.

Our mechanic, Steve, created a new breather tube to replace the clogged one. Never have I seen a simple tube that was such a work of art. It’s buttery smooth and snakes its way through the engine compartment from top to bottom with lines both soft and feminine. He also cleaned out the cabin air vent tubing.

On our flight home from maintenance, I wore an older white shirt. On getting out of the plane I carefully studied my front. No Starry Night.

But, of course, I had a big blotch of oil on the left sleeve and a black line across my right epaulette where the cowl slipped and briefly touched me as I checked the oil.

Waiting out the weather

I draw back the curtains and peer out. It’s six A.M., but on the western cusp of the central time zone it’s still dark out. I expected that, but there’s something funny about the darkness. It doesn’t quite look right. The streetlights in the Hampton Inn parking lot look remarkably romantic. They have a postcard quality to them. Lights more distant take on a diffuse, painterly quality.

Huh. That’s strange.

I squat down and look up towards the sky. No stars.

Ut-oh.

I fetch my flight pad from the nightstand, open the Garmin Pilot App, and gently rap the screen above the airport icon at Liberal, Kansas. A blood-red symbol with white letters appears. IFR. That stands for instrument flight rules, and it means the weather minimums are below what’s legal for visual flight, called VFR.

We’re a VFR airplane. A second rap on the screen brings up the details. Ceiling 300 feet. Overcast. Mist. Crap.

Oh, the report didn’t include “crap.” That was my editorializing.

This was not in the forecast. But come to think of it, none of the weather Lisa and I have been dueling with on this cross-country was in the forecast. It’s the last day of a three-day trip back to Santa Fe for much needed maintenance after the race in Indianapolis. We’ve worked our way, hunting and pecking a route around weather, for 824 miles. We only have 302 miles to go but there’s no going anywhere at the moment.

Yesterday—barely underway—we put down on the cusp of a line of early morning thunderstorms at Sedalia, Missouri. Just west of the airport, on final approach to Runway 05, we overflew an abandoned industrial building surrounded by a moat-like chain-link fence. Weeds grew tall around it. It was sad and weather-beaten. Even its red brick walls were faded to dull pink. Still, even in a state of semi-ruin it was impressive. The building was gigantic, covering acres. All along its front were huge, tall, closely spaced doors. It looked a bit like a shipping warehouse, but the scale was wrong.

After landing, I asked the airport manager what the building was. He told me that for decades it served as the primary engine repair shop for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. In fact, his grandfather first came to Sedalia as a boilermaker for the railroad. The “Works,” built in 1904, covered 120 acres and was the largest railroad repair facility west of the Mississippi River. Generations of men worked there, at one time 4,500 of them.

But time changes all. Following the steam age, it was all downhill. For a time the building serviced cabooses, but when the railroad dropped the caboose, the facility was finally shuttered. In June of 1986 the Union Pacific, who had brought the Missouri Pacific, let the remaining 87 employees go, and held an auction to sell off the contents of the building.

We spent two hours on the ground waiting out the weather. A light rain soaked the tarmac, but the bulk of the storm slid south. When the rain stopped and the ceilings lifted we took off for Wichita.

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We never made it.

Not 60 miles downrange from Sedalia, small grey puffy clouds started forming all around us. We ducked lower. The clouds grew and merged, becoming a solid blanket of grey cotton blotting out the sky. Then the ceiling began to drop. With each passing mile the gap between the grey sky and the ground shrank. Below our wings was rich farmland, littered with cellphone towers.

It was time to land. Quickly running out of sky, we called up the nearest airport by pressing the “NRST” key on the Flight Pad. Miami County Kansas, eighteen miles away, was the winner. I turned northwest, remembering the friendly folks at Miami, Oklahoma.

My mistake.

As it turns out, there are actually eleven cities in the county named Miami. One each in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. (Only five have airports.) I’ve lived in New Mexico for half my life and didn’t know we had a city named Miami.

The old terminal building at Miami County Kansas is now a restaurant called We B Somkin BBQ, which was just closing for the day when we taxied up. Apparently they are only open half days on Sundays. The staff glared at us when we came in the door, and didn’t utter a word. We were finally directed to pilot’s “lounge,” a single, closed-off room in the far corner of the building. The air was stale and stifling, and the room was filled with buzzing flies. There was no internet, the windows were painted shut, and the amenities were limited to a few hard plastic chairs, a folding table, and a pile of brochures touting the airport. Apparently the Mid-Way Drive-in Theatre is a must-see local attraction.

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Using our cellphones, we studied the weather and plotted our escape.

Our escape route to get us free from the clouds took us southwest to Strother Field, between Winfield and Arkansas City, Kansas, on the Arkansas River. From there, we’d strike due west for Liberal, which was our goal for the day. We had originally planned to be at liberal by 1pm. It was nearly 2pm now, and we still had 400 miles to go.

The sky was still grey above when we lifted off from my least favorite of the Miamis I’ve visited, but the ceiling had risen, and we flew over the fields at a comfortable 800 feet, keeping a sharp eye out for cell towers, both off our nose and on the moving map in the cockpit.

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By the time we reached Srother Field the sun had come out and it was a whole ‘nother world. From damp, cool grey to sun-scorched baking heat. The metal nozzle of the fuel pump singed my fingers as I topped up our fuel load for the last leg of the day.

But the weather gods weren’t done with us yet.

Flying over a country road that extended arrow-straight to the western horizon, I watched afternoon thunderstorms bloom on my cockpit radar. They began as isolated patches of green, like moss on a forest floor. Then, the centers of the larger patches turned bright, cheerful yellow, like Kansas sunflowers. Next the centers deepened to angry orange, soon topped by fire engine-red. As the powerful convective currents pushed the storm tops high into the atmosphere, the centers of the storms turned brown-red, like dried blood, on my radar, and finally, blooming like multicolored wild flowers, the tops of the storms displayed lavender purple.

One storm cell, as powerful as they come, lurked to the south of our course. It was tall and strong, but small in diameter. We couldn’t make out its direction of travel. Whether it would cut us off or not. Since we were entering a no-man’s land where airports are scarce, we started reviewing our options. As we closed in, it was clear that it would let us pass, but ahead a squall line was forming outside of Liberal. We’d beat it there, but it looked like it might be a wild weather night.

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On touchdown at Liberal, the sun was still pounding down, but the horizon was ringed with towering thunderstorms. We arranged for a hangar and crew car with the friendly folks at Lyddon Aero Center, then headed for the Hampton which offered a special airport rate on a pair of splendid king suites.

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Worn out from the day, I kicked back in my “living room” at the hotel and studied the weather for the final day of our trip. There was no forecast weather. I set my alarm for 5:15 AM.

So much for forecasts. I set my flight pad down and look out the window again. The night is retreating and now the blankets of fog are clear in the muted twilight. The far side of the street is cloaked in mist.

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My cell phone makes a sound like an old fashioned telegraph. I just got a text. It’s from Lisa, across the hall. “Ready for wings up,” it reads.

“Look out your window,” I text back.

A minute later my phone telegraphs again: “Well, crap.”

Yeah. Crap. It looks like we’ll be waiting out the weather.

Flying the anxious skies

Cleared by the tower, we pull onto Runway 20 for departure. I pull the checklist booklet from its pouch and flip it open to the proper page. Throttles forward, the engines shriek. The airframe shakes. We start to roll. To my right, my copilot leans slightly forward in her seat, crosses herself, and—in a low whisper—starts praying out loud.

As the engines spool up fully, her soft prayers are drowned out, but out of the corner of my eye, I can see her lips still moving. The G-forces start pushing me back in my seat. I cross my legs and return my attention to the checklist.

Canadian Club.

Dewar’s.

The nose pitches up sharply as the commuter jet rotates. Across the narrow aisle, a businessman in a dark suit coat is gripping his armrest so tightly his fingers are chalk-white. He stares dead ahead, jaw tight, mouth a thin, straight line.

Jack Daniel’s.

Jim Beam.

Lots of options for my inflight drink today.

Unlike my fellow passengers, I’m completely relaxed. Even though I’m not flying the plane. Even though the pimple-faced kid who is flying the plane doesn’t look old enough to drive, let alone pilot a plane full of people across the Rockies.

The Jack Daniels. Definitely. Mixed into a diet Coke.

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I’ve always found the inflight drink to be one of the great perks of not sitting in the very front seat of an airplane. If I have to leave the driving to someone else, I’m sure as heck going to enjoy the ride.

The jet starts to level out. The businessman releases his grip, massaging his left hand with his right. My seatmate finishes her prayer and settles back into her seat. The fasten seatbelt lights are still on, as are the perpetual no-smoking lights. I glance out the window. The ground seems impossibly far below.

Still, it’s beautiful. Nothing to be afraid of. But then, as I order my drink and hand my credit card to the Flight Attendant, it occurs to me: Maybe we’re all afraid to fly. Some passengers pray. Some use a death grip. Perhaps others turn to the bravado of alcohol.

Or maybe I just know how to have a good time on an airplane.

 

The saga continues…

Part ten. Yep. The tenth installment of Air Racing From the Cockpit just hit the streets! Run to the airport and pick up your copy now!

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(Or click on the General Aviation News Link to your right to read all ten parts online, plus the story of the Indy Air Race that’s not in print yet.)

Too busy to stress out

I look up and smile when I hear an airplane fly over. That’s because flying relaxes me. In fact, it’s the one and only thing that does. Oh. Wait. That’s not true. One glass too many of a nice cabernet sauvignon will due the trick, too. But back to flying: Not being good at self-analysis, I never gave much thought to how and why flying de-stresses me. But recently, thanks to a long flight, a short drive, and one comment, I think I’ve stumbled onto the answer of why flying is relaxing.

First the flight and the comment: About 450 miles out of our home base on the way to the gulf coast, Lisa, who was copiloting, suddenly said, “I hadn’t appreciated how much work flying really is.”

Huh? This isn’t any work at all. I’m totally relaxed. We’re on course, nicely making way with a ground speed of 110 miles per hour. Oil pressure and oil temp are good. The engine’s throbbing healthily. The fuel float indicates the normal burn. The vibration that courses through the small cockpit makes it -ike: Encasing, supportive, warm—almost a caress. I dial in the frequency for the next airport ahead so we can listen for traffic. Then I scan the sky around us looking for other planes. Or birds. I look left to right. Above and below. A glance at the iPad Mini shows that we’re starting to drift off course to the right. I gently move the yoke left to get us back on our line. The vertical speed indictor shows we are beginning to drop. I nudge the throttle forward to kill the descent. Suction for the gyro is good. Cylinder head temp is fine. Amp meter is at it’s usual just-barely-generating-enough-power to charge the battery and run the radios level. I check the radar. Yeah, that system over Houston isn’t headed our way. Oil pressure is good. Tach is under the red line. I touch the face of the iPad to confirm the altitude of a nearby military operations area.

OK. Maybe it is a lot of work. But it doesn’t seem like it.

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Actually, none of the tasks of flying are, in and of themselves, either enjoyable or relaxing. So why is it that the collective hole is both enjoyable and relaxing?

It wasn’t until a week later, when I was driving to town for the mail, that the answer hit me. Driving is a lot of work too, but not as much work as flying. For one thing, there’s one less dimension to worry about, and the status of the machine doesn’t require the same level of attention.

So as I was driving I found myself worrying about the Visa bill. And my Mother’s health. And my son’s weight. Did my editor like my last piece? I haven’t heard anything from her. And what about the pitch letter I sent to Flying Magazine, why hadn’t I heard back on that? Even a rejection is better than silence. I’m still in second place in the Air Racing League, I can’t seem to get ahead of the Ely’s. Crap, I’m overdue for my dental cleaning. I wonder what that funny noise the washing machine has been making is all about? The stove! I forgot to call the guy about the stove! When did I last change the oil in the Jeep? Oh, damn, I forgot to talk to the handyman about that leak on Mom’s porch. I really need to go flying…

And that’s when it hit me. Flying is relaxing because it’s so much work. There’s so much to do, there’s no room for anything else in your head. All the other worries of life—big and small—are pushed out. The mind uses all its bandwidth on one complex, interrelated task. Being focused on one task and one task only, it gets a break from all the other million things that usually occupy and overwhelm it.

That’s really profound. Flying is no work at all because it’s such hard work. Wow.

Did I remember to put Blue Cheese Dressing on the grocery list?

I really need to go flying.

The next speed mod

Just because the last speed mod nearly killed me doesn’t mean I’ve given up on the idea of making changes to the Plane Tales Plane that can buy us speed. So, despite the mid-day Texas heat, Rio and I walked the flight line studying Coupe after Coupe. Hey, where better to look for things that might make an Ercoupe go faster than at the national Ercoupe Owners Club convention?

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Of academic interest, we saw several different styles of the speed fairing that didn’t work out for us, but I was mainly focused on pants. I really wanted some pants. No, I wasn’t walking the flight line in my underwear. Landing gear fairings are often referred to as wheel pants, although I don’t know why. They are more shoes than pants.

Now, I had read up on Ercoupe pants, which are no longer available new. They are said to give a 3 mile-per-hour speed boost, which for most people isn’t worth the cost and hassle. But for racing, adding 3 miles per hour to your top speed would be an epic improvement.

But, as always, there were problems.

First, the Ercoupe pants are heavy. Adding weight is a real problem, both for racing and for general operations at high altitude. Second, around the main gear, the pants are a maintenance nightmare. Mechanics hate them, and things mechanics hate tend to cost owners more. And third, I found them kind of ugly. The pants around the main gear, to my eye, seem out of scale with the plane. They are too big. Too bulky. I just don’t like the way they look.

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Although we did see a sexier design I’d never seen before:

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But I couldn’t get any info on it.

There were several planes for sale at the convention, and one “for sale” sign also noted that the owner had a set of wheel pants being sold separately. I jotted the phone number down. But I had already decided that what I wanted was a nose wheel pant. Just a nose wheel pant. Not a whole set. We chatted with a number of the Ercoupe gurus at the convention and the consensus was that the all of the speed benefit of Ercoupe pants came from the nose pant reducing the drag around the nose wheel, which, due to the interlinked design of the controls, turns sideways in flight as the plane turns. The pants over the mains, less slick in design, bulky and heavy, were regarded as “boat anchors.” Rio was a bit dubious about the aesthetics of having only a nose pant, but many Pipers are set up that way, so I wasn’t worried.

On nearly the last day of the convention it dawned on me to ask our host, Terrell Aviation, if they happened to have any pants lying around. After all, they’ve been Coupe rebuilders for years. It turns out that they had a dusty set on the shelf, and I could buy the whole set or just the nose.

I got out my checkbook.

Then I spent the next 30 minutes arguing with Rio. He wanted to get the whole set in case we decided to add the mains later. I suspected it would be a waste of money and that we’d never use them. He almost had me talked into it when he himself noticed that this particular set of pants were the non-landing light type.

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We took the nose faring and ran.

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Of course, with Ercoupes, nothing is easy or simple. Or cheap. Our mechanic quickly discovered that all we had was the fiberglass husk. We were missing the brackets and hardware needed to attach it to the plane. I won’t bore you with the details of the next agonizing month, but suffice it to say there’s not a spare bracket left anywhere in the known universe. Luckily for us, however, we scored an original blueprint and were able to have the necessary parts created based on the drawings.

Then we sent the battered fairing off to the paint shop for bodywork and repainting. The final result is stunning:

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But the damn paint job cost more than the fairing itself!

And what about speed? How much speed did we get for our time and money? I won’t really know until the next race.

And that’s tomorrow.