The little bomber that could

Twin tails. An open greenhouse-like nose you can see right through. Must be a B-25 Mitchell.

Oh. Wait.

It only has one engine. Well, more correctly, one engine mount.

IMG_8780

Yes, this sad, disassembled aeronautical apparatus is my beloved Tessie. Her engine, nose gear, and wing tanks are removed—as is the skin from the cockpit to the firewall on both sides of the fuselage. Parts of this airplane that haven’t seen the light of day since 1947 are now exposed. It’s fascinating. And horrifying.

IMG_3513

Beneath her wings is a pile of assorted parts that resemble the debris field of a plane crash…

IMG_1853

Her engine sits on a pair of saw horses…

IMG_1907

Although, I must say that the view out the sides is stunning…

IMG_2821

So much so, I told my mechanic we should skip the metal and just put in plexi. I think for a moment he was afraid I was serious, as he started muttering something about the skin being part of the structure that holds the plane together…

IMG_5005

Or maybe it was because he’s started working on the new skins, apparently complicated by the fact that they have a compound curve, meaning that the metal plates curve top to bottom and front to back. Asymmetrically, of course.

IMG_1347

On the bright side, I’ll be able to keep the old skins as art. Hey, people pay good money for faux airplane side panels to serve as aeronautical decor. Now I’ll have one, too. Only mine will be authentic, one with real history.

IMG_5181

And while we’re all bummed out about the state of our family airplane…

IMG_3190 10.06.51 AM

We know this sad state of disassembly isn’t forever. Progress is slow, but she’ll be put back together soon. And I’ll leave the green-house-like nose to the B-25s.

IMG_6886

 

Horsing around, Part II

We tried every socket, wrench, and tool in the two hangars. They were all too short. Nothing would reach the damn sparkplug. Complicating the issue was the fact we couldn’t be 100% sure what type of socket we needed. It was clear that the three quarter-inch was too small and the one-inch was too big. But unlike Goldie Locks, in the world of socket wrenches there’s more than one bowl of porridge to choose from once you rule out the bowl that’s too hot and the bowl that’s too cold. In between three quarter-inch and one-inch stand 13/16, 7/8, and 15/16.

Seriously? Why on earth do we need so many nuts so close in size to each other?

Still, clearly, to shoe the horse, to get to battle, to save the kingdom, we needed a new nail. Well, I guess we had the nail. We needed the damn hammer.

It was the weekend; the local True Value hardware store was closed, so we hopped in the car and went to the nearest truck stop to see if we could buy a better tool. Believe it or not, there are three huge truck stops in town: A Love’s, a Pilot, and a TA.

And none of them carry socket wrenches big enough for sparkplugs.

“What the hell kinda of truck stops don’t have tools for sparkplugs?” fumed Lisa.

I don’t know much about engines, but one thing I do know is that diesel engines don’t have sparkplugs, so there’s no reason for truckers to need tools to remove plugs, hence no real reason for a truck stop to carry such a tool, other than the fact it would have made my day much easier.

Next, she called her adult son Adrian, owner of many a tool. There was no way he could come down to SXU, but he told her his tool box was open to her any time day or night. The problem was that reaching his tool box would require a 3+ hour round trip.

But with the sun now approaching the apex of the day, it was clear that we’d need to take a trip somewhere. The best bet was Las Vegas, NM, a hair over an hour’s drive away. Vegas has a two hardware stores, three auto parts shops, two ranch supply places, and a Walmart. Given all those choices, finding a socket capable of removing the sparkplug didn’t sound like much of a gamble.

We loaded up all of our close-but-no-cigar tools and headed out. And drove. And drove. And drove. And drove.

Lisa decided to hit AutoZone first, as it seemed logical to her that a car place would have the right tool for a sparkplug, even though we accepted the fact that car and airplane sparkplugs might not have much in common. When we arrived we found socket wrench heaven. Sockets as far as the eye could see. Well, not that far. But a good thirty feet of sockets hung on pegs in the middle isle of the long, skinny store. We quickly found the short versions of the three most probable sizes, and then found deep versions. Or maybe they were called extra-deep, I can’t remember. All I knew was that they looked quite a bit longer than the ones we had that didn’t quite reach. Problem solved. Or so I thought. Just as quickly, Lisa discovered that we could buy a whole set of sockets for the price of the three solo performers.

At the last second, as we walked up to the cash register, I realized that our new problem-solving sockets were all half inch “drive.” That meant the end of the socket that connects to the wrench is designed for a half-inch wrench, but all of ours are 3/8 inches. We needed an adaptor to make the whole plan work. I was very proud of myself that I noticed this and saved us a worthless drive.

How wrong I was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Naturally, AutoZone didn’t have the adaptor we needed. I guess they wanted us to spend thirty bucks on the wrench next size up. We ducked that bullet by finding the adaptor at the nearby ranch store and left Vegas in high spirits, thinking that we’d have the plug out within minutes of arriving back at the airport.

We drove. And we drove. And we drove. And we drove, arriving back at SXU with the sun low in the sky and long shadows stretching across the landscape. We happily snapped the adaptor onto our wrench, then clicked a long socket onto the adaptor, sliding it down over the narrow shaft of the sparkplug to find…

It, too, wasn’t deep enough.

The socket didn’t reach the nut of the Tempest spark plug that Lisa’s mechanic though was the root of all evil.

Now complicating the issue was the fact that the right mag—the one giving us trouble—is supposed to control the top plugs, suggesting that our issue was a top plug, but there was a good chance that the plane’s ignition switch was wired backwards, with the right mag position controlling the left mag, and vice versa. So we had no clue which of the eight plugs was the problem child.

With nothing to lose, and a wrench that could check all the remaining seven plugs, which were Champs, we decided to pull and check all the others. Given that the right mag was supposed to control the tops we started with the top, removing the sparkplug covers on Warbler’s cowl, which exposes narrow canyons in the metal engine cover that are not quite wide enough to really work on the plugs. (The Continental Engine doesn’t really fit in the Ercoupe; it was designed for another engine altogether, but that’s a story for another day.)

I slipped the wrench over the first sparkplug, and this time, being a Champion plug, it fit. I tugged at the wrench. I pulled. I pushed. The plug was stuck fast like Excalibur in the stone.

“Thump it,” said Lisa.

Like hell. I was afraid I’d break it.

“I’ve watched the guys,” Lisa said, “they thump it.”

Leary of this advice I pulled my iPhone out of my rear pocket and did a Google Search on sparkplug removal. The collective wisdom of the internet was that you should thump a sparkplug.

“OK,” I said, and thumped the wrench handle with my right palm. Pain shot up my arm like a springing Cheetah. “Ow,” I whined, shaking my hand.

Lisa tried next, holding the wrench in one hand, and thumping its handle with the palm of the other. “Ow,” she squeaked.

Not wanting to go down in history as a guy who hits like a girl, I put on a pair of work gloves and tried again. This time, with minimal pain, which I hid behind my macho image, the wrench spun, and in seconds the plug was free.

It was clean as a whistle.

A half an hour later we knew that all seven Champion plugs were clean. Only the single Tempest plug was left. The one that her mechanic replaced two flight hours ago. And the prime suspect in our troubles. The plug that we couldn’t reach. The plug that was causing a storm worth of trouble.

The sun was setting. It was Sunday. Lisa had three classes to teach in the morning, and I was skating on thin ice on a story deadline with one of my editors, and really needed to send the morning writing. But I’ve left something out. All throughout this misadventure there’s been a background radiation of panic. Lisa is on the brink of trying to finish her license. She’d signed up for lessons with a flight school in Santa Fe, in her plane, for nearly every day of the winter break from the college where she teaches. She’s arranged for a place to stay over there, got ahead on laundry and packed clothes, bought groceries, cleared her schedule of any other responsibilities, and hired a cat sitter.

OK. I made up the part about the cat sitter. That’s the great thing about cats, they take care of themselves pretty well if you need to be away for a few days.

But now, all of that was in jeopardy. Her plane was grounded.

Lisa stood looking at Warbler, silent, deflated but not defeated. Not being a woman to give up easily, she rallied. “I going to Adrian’s tonight. Maybe he’ll have something different. Or maybe he can drill out one of these sockets deeper. Or we’ll go to every store in town. I’ll call the college and have someone fill in. Don’t worry about me, I’ll take care of this.”

In for a penny, in for a pound. “Aw, heck… pick me up on your way by.”

The next morning, bearing a pouch of borrowed tools, she dropped by the house and picked up Rio (who by now wanted to witness the next chapter in person, rather than by text) and I up, and we headed out. We brought a picnic lunch, figuring on an all-day maintenance fest, including a possible round of musical sparkplugs to rule in or rule out a mechanical failure on a sparkplug that otherwise looked clean. Debs, who was taking Grandma Jean to a doctor’s appointment in Santa Fe was on standby to bring us replacement plugs if needed. It was hall hands on deck.

Two minutes after we arrived at SXU with Adrian’s extra deep sockets, with a heavy thump of Lisa’s gloved hand, the Tempest in a tea pot was off the engine. It was coated with oil.

IMG_6510

After following the cleaning directions—which involved gas sumped from the tanks, a wire brush, carburetor cleaner, and a piece of paper—we towed Warbler out, buttoned up the hangar, and Lisa fired him up.

After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for him to warm up, she performed a mag check.

It was perfect.

Problem solved. Or was it? Why did the plug foul with oil so quickly? Did she need new piston rings? Or worse, a new cylinder? In either case, a break-in flight would be required. This was not looking good for the home team or for Lisa’s intensive flight training plans.

Lisa called her mechanic again to report our discovery. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he told her. And he had a theory. He knew her engine was older. Probably the piston rings weren’t the best. But he got to thinking that perhaps with the long warm up times at low RPM during our recent cold weather, more oil was slipping past the piston than could be burned off the plug. He suggested she warm up the plane at a higher RPM and see what happened. He also suggested a post-flight mag check, if the plug got fouled during a flight, it could be cleaned before the next flight. She could clean as needed, at least until her week-long intensive training was done.

So with the problem fixed in no time, and with a picnic lunch and the full day ahead of us, there was nothing left to do but have a plane party.

Then sit back and relax.

IMG_3013

The horse had a shoe. The warrior was off to battle. The kingdom was safe.

Until the next lost nail.

 

Horsing around for horsepower

“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse,” cried Shakespeare’s grounded Richard III at the bloody Battle of Bosworth.

In later centuries, author James Baldwin tells us that an entire mythical kingdom was lost through a chain of events that began “for want of a nail” to hold a horseshoe.

But no horsing around, although it’s a horse of a different color, we lost our horsepower, and—like King Richard the Third, we were grounded. And like Baldwin’s lost kingdom, it was from the lack of the simplest implement. Not a nail, in our case; our flight was lost for the want of a wrench.

Naturally, like it always happens when these things occur, it was the loveliest day to fly you can imagine. The sky was clear. It was chilly, but not cold. The wind gods must have overslept, as the long grasses beyond the taxiway stood tall and still like sentinel soldiers.

Breakdowns never happen when the weather sucks and you don’t want to fly anyway.

It all started out when my plane friend Lisa was planning on some last-minute landing practice, with me along as her safety pilot, before her burst of intensive training with a real flight instructor, which was set for pretty much every day of her college’s winter break. With a stereo screeches we pulled her south-facing hangar doors back to let in the pale white winter sunlight.

We pre-flighted Warbler: Carefully checking the pitot tube, static ports, alerions, rudders, elevator, landing gear, exhaust, and prop. We sumped the fuel tanks and double-checked the oil level. Getting a plane ready to fly takes time. Airplanes aren’t like cars. You can’t just drive to the airport and jump into your plane and fly. Well, you can, but such carelessness often ends badly. As they say, if your car breaks down, you can pull to the side of the road. If your plane breaks down, you can’t pull to the side of the sky.

All in readiness, we pulled Warbler out, buttoned up Lisa’s hangar, and climbed aboard,

Lisa ran through the short and simple engine start checklist: Opening the fuel cut off, reaching behind me to turn on the master switch (like with many Ercoupes, Warbler’s master is in the original odd-ball location in the baggage compartment behind the pilots), turning the ignition key to “both,” giving the engine two slow shots of prime, then reaching over practically into my lap to pull the starter handle—which is arguably located on the wrong side of the plane.

The prop swung in a lazy arc. The engine coughed once, then took hold. Unlike Tess, who’s sometimes a hard plane to start, Warbler is always eager to go.

But this morning something didn’t sound quite right. Or maybe it didn’t feel quite right. The vibrations through the airframe were different. The symphony of noise not quite in tune. Still, the oil pressure gauge lazily came off the mark and sauntered into the green. Slowly the vibrations settled down. The symphony got their act together, except perhaps for one rogue violin.

But the oil temperature needle lay firmly against the peg. Warm up was going to take a while. Winter flying in Warbler takes patience.

We busied ourselves with getting our headsets plugged in and making small talk. When at long last the temperature of the oil was at least detectable, Lisa taxied from her little patch of crumbling asphalt in front of her hangar, across the gravel, and onto the smooth surface of Taxiway Foxtrot; which you’d only know was Taxiway Foxtrot if you were based at SXU. For years, the taxiway was labeled with a proper yellow and black sign with a large capital F, but for whatever reason the sign was taken down and not replaced during the most recent remodeling in 2014. We still call it Foxtrot, but for the benefit of visitors, add “by the hangars” to all our radio calls.

IMG_7294

Once safely onto the smooth, gravel-free taxiway, Lisa pulled the parking brake, a long handle on the floor between the pilots, and locked it by pulling a knob on the panel. Then she slowly pushed the throttle forward and Warbler’s engine spooled up, the propwash back off the propeller making him jerk, sway, and buck. First, she checked the carb heat, then she reached over to the ignition switch. Although this switch has a key, that’s where the similarity to your car’s ignition switch ends. Well, that assumes that your car still uses a key. Mine doesn’t. It uses a magic wireless box the size of a Zippo lighter. But I digress.

Cars traditionally have ignition switches with two positions: On and Off. Airplanes have four positions: On and Off, plus a position called Right, and a position called Left. This is because of one of the unique safety features of airplane engines: Each cylinder has not one, but two sparkplugs. And each of these sparkplugs is run by a separate and independent magneto. In Warbler’s engine, the top sparkplugs in each cylinder are run by one mag and the bottom plugs in each cylinder are run by another mag, the idea being that if one mag fails, the engine will keep running. In fact, you may recall that not too long ago, Lisa had some adventures with one of her magnetos, so it was damn lucky for her that our aviation forefathers had the good foresight to provide her with two.

Anyway, before flight, pilots test these dual systems to ensure that both are working properly. This is done by increasing the power to a high level and shutting off first one, then the other, set of plugs. Typically, a small RPM drop is seen. If one of the mag systems faileds, when you isolate it, the engine stops. Which is why we test the system while we are still on the ground.

Lisa checked the first mag and all was well. Then she checked the second. Suddenly, the orchestra rioted. The RPM dropped a ton and the plane shook like a wet dog.

We knew at once what was wrong. We had a fouled plug. Only three of Warbler’s four cylinders were firing. We knew it was a plug, not a mag problem, because the engine was still running, even if badly. We didn’t know about the plug before the mag check, because the second plug in the cylinder was firing when both the mags were on.

And we also knew it was a fouled plug because, frankly, this wasn’t our first rodeo. In fact, we’d been riding in this very rodeo not two weeks before in Santa Fe, when we picked Warbler up following the installation of his new tail. One of the plugs was fouled with oil then, but the plane had only flown two hours since.

Lisa uttered a few choice words about airplanes, airplane mechanics, and the nature of the universe.

I whipped out my iPhone and Googled the instructions for trying to clear a fouled plug by burning off whatever is fouling it. Basically, this involves throttle and mixture combinations to increase the heat in the engine, but I knew it was a lost cause. Ercoupe engines aren’t really powerful enough to generate the kind of heat needed to clear a fouled plug. It failed when we tried this two weeks ago, and it failed when Lisa’s mechanic repeated the experiment, but we tried anyway on the theory that there couldn’t be too much crap on a sparkplug so recently cleaned. At least, assuming it was the same plug giving us trouble. Once we tried. Twice we tried. Thrice we tried. Just like Uncle Goggle recommended.

And as before, we failed. There was nothing left to do but to taxi back to the hangar and call Lisa’s mechanic.

He allowed as how it sounded like a plug again. And he suspected a particular one, the plug in the bottom of the right-aft cylinder, which had been oil-fouled, although he admitted that it might be one of the others that he didn’t check, as he stopped checking them once he found a problem. He offered to come over the following week, unless in the meantime we wanted to pull the plug and see if it was dirty. Always handy with a wrench, Lisa opted for that, and her mechanic talked her though the process.

And this is where we get back to horses.

We disconnected the electrode lead and, using a socket wrench, tried to remove the sparkplug. But there was a problem. The socket of the socket wrench wasn’t long enough. It didn’t reach the nut on the sparkplug.

Over the next 48 hours, I would learn more about sparkplugs than I had previously learned in my entire lifetime, but here’s the only thing you need to know for the moment: Aviation sparkplugs come in two common brands, Champion and Tempest. Champion plugs have a nut in the middle of the plug. Any garden variety socket wrench will easily reach the nut to remove the plug. Tempest plugs, however, have the nut all the way at the base of the plug, beyond the reach of standard sockets, and as we’d learn the hard way, also beyond the reach of “deep” sockets, as well.

But I’ve been long winded today, so the hunt for the nail to shoe the horse, to send the rider into battle, to save the kingdom, will have to wait until next week…

The sequel is better

The fact that I couldn’t get the movie on DVD should have been my first clue that it was one of the worst flying flicks ever; but after reading about the movie’s real-life sequel in Smithsonian Air & Space, I just had to see the film.

More on the film in a minute; first a word or two about that sequel, because it was the real-life story that led me to the movie we’re going to talk about.

That tale in Air & Space was the story of a group of old guys who recently delivered a seventy-three-year-old C-47 Skytrain to a memorial park in China, re-flying the epic cargo route of World War II called “the hump.” The purpose of the flight was both to honor and pay tribute to the more than one thousand airmen lost flying the airlift over the Himalayas, and to deliver the plane to a new memorial park in China. To say that the aging aviators had a few problems en route would be an understatement. Not unlike Gilligan’s three-hour tour, the planned eight-day ferry flight ballooned into a more than three-month odyssey. But I’m not here to re-tell that story. Author Robert L. Willett has done a splendid job at that.

In his article, however, Willett mentioned off hand that the plane ferried to China was the same C-47 that had a starring role in the 1980s Aussie movie Sky Pirates.

A movie with a C-47?

And pirates?

I gotta see that!

And thanks to eBay, and the cast-off inventory of VHS tapes from A&C Video Movies, I got my chance.

IMG_2299

The movie, described by its creators as a “high-flying adventure that bounces across the Pacific,” follows a secret mission to transport a mysterious artifact from Australia to Washington to keep it safe from the Axis powers—never minding the fact they’ve just been defeated, given the timeline of the movie, which is set in the closing days of World War II.

The flick stars John Hargreaves as, Lt. Harris, whom the back of the VHS box describes as “a daredevil fighter pilot who can outfly, outfight, and outfox any enemy.” We are never told why a fighter pilot was tapped to fly a Sky Train on a top-secret mission. A fighter pilot who wears a fur-lined leather flight jacket for the entire movie. Even in the jungles of Bora Bora. His co-star is Meredith Phillips (not the Meredith of Bachelorette fame), who despite the setting of the movie at the end of World War II, has very eighties big hair. At least her wardrobe is more or less period, if you can forgive the fact that she magically changes clothing every several scenes, despite not having a suit case because she’s running for her life most of the movie.

The plot, such as it is, mixes ancient aliens, time travel, the Bermuda Triangle—well, its Pacific equivalent—the classic war movie personality conflict between the star and the officer in charge, Easter Island, a ditching at sea, the Philadelphia Experiment, a military court martial, assassination attempts, drunken pilots, a round of Russian roulette, kidnappings, car chases and a dog fight. Not necessarily in that order.

Oh. And fog. Lots of fog.

Did I mention the movie is only 88 minutes long? Although it seems a lot  longer when you’re watching it. Many of the scenes might give you déjà vu. You’ll be asking yourself: Didn’t I see that in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Why, yes. Yes, you did. Pretty much so.

On the bright side, in addition to the C-47 that would ultimately end up in a park in China, the movie also features a pair of Mustangs, a B-25 Mitchell, and a lovely Grumman Mallard; and the aviation photography is good—if not aeronautically accurate. If you can get over the scene in which Lt. Harris climbs out a hatch in the roof of the C-47 and onto the wing, inflight, to put out an engine fire (while barely ruffling his hair), you’ll enjoy the flight footage.

I can’t say if the acting is good or bad, because the characters are so cardboard and the dialog so uninspired, there’s really not much for an actor to act on.

Wait a sec. Where were the pirates? I didn’t see any pirates.

Oh. Wait. Maybe it’s the movie producer that’s the Sky Pirate. After all, the film is blatantly plagiaristic, and I can only assume that Spielberg’s peeps didn’t sue because the movie probably didn’t do well enough to make any money worth suing for. Or maybe Spielberg just felt that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

So is it really the worst flying flick ever? Nah, probably not the  worst.

But Pirates is bad enough I doubt it will ever steal its way onto DVD.

 

Ercoupe lover’s heaven

Let’s start with placards. In the flying universe, a “placard” is a small sign or plaque installed in the cockpit. It relays critical information to the pilot about the operation of the airplane. For example, a placard will tell you what fuse or circuit breaker powers which part of the plane’s electrical system. In a plane with flaps, a placard will tell you the maximum speed at which it’s safe to deploy them. In planes with complex fuel systems, placards will guide pilots in the operation of the fuel tank selector switches. In planes with retractable landing gear, placards will instruct the pilot on how to operate the system.

We have no flaps. We have no fuel selectors. And our landing gear stays in the same place all the time. Accordingly, our placards are pretty simple.

One says, “This airplane characteristically incapable of spinning.” That one was a Godsend. The government actually required the manufacturer to place the plane’s number one marketing claim on a cockpit placard. Another placard says, “Beware propeller. Leave airplane from rear of wing.” Well, never underestimate the stupidly of the human race. A third is an ON-OFF placard for the nav lights switch.

But Syd Cohen’s immaculately restored Ercoupe Scampy has an unusual placard on the panel, probably the only thing in his plane that’s not 100% authentic. It reads: “AREN’T WE LUCKY?”

EOC_21

Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

We sure the hell are.

Lucky for lots of reasons, but foremost among them is the fact that the maker of our nearly 80-year old airplanes is still in business. Well, sort of. It’s kinda complicated, and to be honest, the story of the Ercoupe is rather sordid. Yes, like a movie starlet from the golden age of Hollywood, the Ercoupe has had a lot of husbands.

The plane started life as the brain child of a company called Engineering and Research Corporation, also called ERCO. Development began in 1936, and ERCO launched sales of the plane in 1940. After the war, when the aviation economy collapsed, ERCO decided to get out of the plane-building biz and sold the Ercoupe lock, stock, and barrel (literally) to Sanders Aviation in 1947. Next, the plane, and its all-important type certificate, was picked up by Univar Aircraft Industries in 1950. But that union didn’t last either. Her next husband was the Forney Aircraft Company in 1955. But a stable wedlock just was not to be for the Ercoupe. In 1960 Air Products Company took over, but again it was a short marriage, and in 1964 Alon Inc. bought the Ercoupe. That union lasted until 1967 when the Mooney Airplane Company purchased the plane. Then, finally, just like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the Ercoupe returned to her third husband, Univar, in 1974—where she finally settled down, the two staying together for 45 years and counting.

Of all her suitors, Univair is the only one that didn’t actually build new Ercoupes. Both in the early ‘50s, and since ‘74, Univair has focused solely on the spare parts biz.

So let’s talk about those parts.

Apparently, each time the Ercoupe took up with a new manufacturer, more than just a marriage license was involved. The bride came complete with all her household goods, including her parts inventory and the various jigs and machines used to make them.

And that’s why we’re lucky.

Unlike the owners of most really old airplanes, we have an outfit that continues to support us. To supply us with parts. Univair has all the machining tools and expertise necessary to make virtually every part that makes up the Ercoupe from the original decades-old drawings, all of which came back home with the bride. That’s cool. But they also have a large supply of what would be called “new old stock” on eBay. But still, how many original parts could possibly still be around from the 1940s?

You would be amazed. I was. I have seen the promised land, and it’s Ercoupe heaven. So this is a PlaneTale of many parts. Literally.

It all started when AOPA assigned me a Rusty Pilot Seminar at Centennial Airport, on the south side of the Denver Metro area up in Colorado. Tessie looks more like a greenhouse than an airplane right now, so flying up the east side of the Rockies to get there was out of the question.

IMG_7522

Catching a commercial flight would require me to drive two hours in the wrong direction, only to be delivered an hour away on the other end, so driving up was the obvious choice. And as I was driving, it would cost me nothing extra to have a copilot on the adventure, and Rio agreed to come along.

I needed to arrive a day early to set up for the seminar, but I knew we’d have some spare time, especially if we got an early start, so I cast around for something to do. And then it occurred to me: Maybe we could visit Univair, who are located on the East side of the metro area. I guess they were in my mind because we’d just recently needed to order a pile of those parts I’m lucky to be able to order. Or maybe it was because I’d been in contact with them to hit them up for donations for the Ercoupe Owners Club scholarship auction as part of my duties as the Coordinator of this year’s convention. Anyway, I reached out about dropping in, and they were gracious, inviting us to come by for a tour.

Given the age of the company (it was founded in 1946) and the fact that they focus on older airplanes, I’d sorta expected them to be in, well, you know, and older building. But in fact, when we pulled up, we found the Univair building is surprisingly modern-looking on the outside.

IMG_6674

And, oddly, for a plane business, Univair sits far from any modern airport. They’re located in an industrial park that’s 50% large blocky commercial buildings and 50% farmer’s fields. Actually, once upon a time, there was an airport literally next door to Univair. Called Sky Ranch, all that is left is a short stretch of crumbling asphalt called Sky Ranch Road, and two World War II vintage hangars, one of which has a control tower on the corner. The runways have evaporated, their foundations buried under warehouses. What must have been the apron is now a parking lot for a fleet of cement trucks.

Dead airports are sad, but having Univair there somehow takes the sting out of it.

We were given a complete tour, staring in the office building, where the lobby has a small museum of key famous products in glass cases, then on to the sales offices, and the printing shop where Univair keeps many otherwise lost tech publications alive. Next, we entered the machine shop. I gotta say, the Univair shop is a museum of manufacturing. They have massive, towering machines dating from the 30s and 40s. Lathes from the 70s. State of the art computerized plasma cutters. With all this gear, if they don’t have what you need in stock, they can make it; and having two engineers on staff makes that process faster. Rounding out the shop are a trailer home-sized sand blast chamber and a huge painting booth. In the Univair shipping department, they build custom crates to fit all manner of oddly-shaped parts ranging in size from jewelry-petite to assemblies larger than cars.

We also got to meet many of the Univair peeps, including the boss, who is sort of royalty, being the third generation of his family to run the place. And it must be a good place to work, as most of the people we met had been there for years.

The highlight of our tour for me was the warehouse, a dimly-lit warren of narrow passageways between towering shelves. It has the creepy but exciting feel of an Indiana Jones/Laura Croft ancient temple. Only, you know, aviation themed.

And like all Hollywood ancient temples, it was full of treasure.

IMG_2355

A wall of wing spars. A shelf of header tanks. A cowl side, glowing pristine aluminum with a lathe-straight hinge. A bundle of throttle cables with faded maroon Bakelite knobs, hanging off a shelf high above our heads, an airplane version of tangled jungle vines high in the trees.

IMG_4986

Box after box after box after box after box of Ercoupe parts. Floor to ceiling, three narrow isles worth. Boxes of things we recognized. Boxes of things we’ve bought. Boxes of things that had us scratching our heads.

DSC_9836 copy

Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

And boxes of things that left us amazed and in awe, like Ercoupe pretzel yokes, still in their original wood packing crates, each yoke wrapped in newspaper with 1946 datelines.

IMG_1004

But there’s more than just inventory at Univair. Out beyond the warehouse, in the backlot, there’s an odd tombstone-looking object. At first glance it appeared to be the final resting place of the nose bowl, a grey solid granite memorial carved by a sculptor into the likeness of the real thing in its prime.

IMG_5614

But it’s no memorial to the dead. It’s one hand of the creator, a key tool to make new living nose bowls. It’s a mold. Over it, flat sheets of aluminum are placed, then squashed down with room-sized hammering equipment to stamp out the front ends of Ercoupes, each one a clone of the previous one. I’d no idea how they were made. In fact, before seeing the tombstone, I’d never even thought about it.

The rest of the yard is overflowing with giant and slightly rusty assemblages that are hard to identify. Is that a jig for forming an Ercoupe tail? Maybe. Oh, look at this, maybe this was used to make our wings.

IMG_5983

Our guide tells us that when they run out of something, the proper machine tools are moved inside from the yard until the inventory is restocked, then it’s back out to the yard until needed again.

Sadly, given all that Univair has in the Ercoupe department, we’re apparently a very small part of their business; I’m told only about 3%. Luckily (Aren’t We Lucky?), Univair is polygynous—also supporting classic Aeroncas, Champs, Citabrias, Luscombes, Cessnas, Stinsons, Taylorcrafts, and the ever-popular Piper Cubs, so Univair isn’t relying solely on us ‘Coupers for their survival.

And that’s the sad truth of Ercoupes. The line has never been quite a failure, but also never quite a success for any of her many owners throughout history. Ercoupe dreams fly higher than her numbers.

Back in the warehouse once more, on a bottom shelf, I find many wooden boxes of placards, including identification placards—called Data Plates in the biz. Every plane built has one. It records the plane’s serial number and its date of manufacture.

DSC_9850 copy

Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

There were of hundreds—maybe thousands—of blank data plates in the Univair warehouse; all created many decades ago, each waiting to be riveted onto a new plane rolling off the assembly line on pristine tires. Boxes of data plates for planes never built. Just like all the thousands and thousands of other parts, railcars full of them, it shows the optimism of ERCO in the post war world. How they believed, really believed, that they’d fill the skies with our twin-tailed marvels, put their money where their mouths were, and were ready to do it.

Sadly, it was not to be. Still, by some miracle, everything we need to keep our birds flying, from parts to placards, still exists, and is only a phone call to Colorado away.

Aren’t we lucky?

 

An aeronautical feast for the eyes

A stubby Gee Bee Sportster, all engine. A green and yellow Laird Super Solution, a biplane so aerodynamically clean it looks poured from water, not built from wood and fabric. Ahh…. The Curtis R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle used to capture the Schneider Trophy. A Travel Air Mystery Ship in iconic fire engine red, black racing scallops on the leading edges of the wings and cowl gracing the plane with the illusion of streaking motion, even while parked. A Curtiss Jenny, so ugly and ungainly it’s beautiful. A sleek Spartan Model 7, a sexy Staggerwing, and a pudgy but oddly endearing Culver Cadet. Then, glistening like a mirror, the bullet-like Hughes H-1 Racer. And in a place of honor, the plane that started it all: The Wright Flyer.

No, it’s not the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

And it’s an aeronautical feast for the eyes, its plastic branches covered in airplanes: A complete collection of all twenty-two Hallmark The Sky’s the LimitChristmas ornaments. Since 1997 the card giant has been churning out amazing replica airplane ornaments, featuring one new civilian airplane per year. Have I been collecting them since the beginning? No, and like everything else aviation around here, it all started with an Ercoupe…

Back in 2013, when we were shopping for a real Ercoupe, Debbie found The Sky’s the Limit‘Coupe ornament on eBay. Being the cheapest Ercoupe we’d seen up to that point, she bought it for me.

The diminutive, but highly detailed, resin model sat on my desk to keep me inspired during my lengthy plane buying odyssey. But—as often happens with our family—one thing led to another, and Rio and I became obsessed with hunting down every last one of the annual miniature planes; and since then, we’ve purchased each year’s new issue. In Year One of our airplane ornament hysteria, the family Christmas tree in our house was all airplane. Debs tolerated that.

The next year, the airplanes banned by the mistress of the house in favor of more traditional holiday decor, I decided to put up a Christmas tree in the hangar to share the holiday spirit with Tessie.

Of course, the problem with a hangar Christmas tree is that, unless you have the good fortune to live in one of those airpark communities where your hangar is connected to your house, you only see the hangar tree a few times during the Christmas tree season.

Still, I gamely put up the hangar tree each year since. Until this year. Because this year I had an epiphany. (Appropriate, given the season.) This year I decided to put up the hangar tree in the newly “renovated” terminal, so that not only would we enjoy it on our flying days, but so too could all the passing pilots who land for fuel, snacks, and a clean bathroom.

So armed with eggnog, Bourbon, a plate of cookies, and one of our Red Bull Sky Lounge Boxanne Bluetooth speakers (when you turn it on, you hear Jim DiMatteo’s voice say, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on!”) the entire clan descended on the SKU terminal.

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

With Grandma Jean “supervising,” we put up the three-part white faux tree. Then Debs fluffed up the branches while Lisa and I untangled the lights. I always wrap the damn things into a neat coil at the end of each season, but during the year of storage some sort of black magic intervenes to turn the bundle into a tangle. What’s up with that?

The tree up and the lights finally strung without stringing myself up, my responsibilities were discharged and I kicked back to enjoy the vibe of family, friends, music, and aviation. Debs and Rio took the fleet of planes from their cardboard hangars, setting each one on the table as if parked on a miniature ramp, then flew each one to the tree and carefully taxied them into position.

When they were done, we set up the O Gauge Plasticville Airport terminal and hangar buildings under the tree, and then argued about how to arrange the pair of tarpaper runways. Should they look good or be true to the compass?

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.

IMG_8329

Then, finally done, the cookies reduced to crumbs and the eggnog running low, we turned off the overhead lights and sat warm and cozy, bathed in the cold blue taxiway-colored light of the terminal tree, and soaked in the sight.

The un-racer-looking Howard DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan,” whose long legs won the 1935 Bendix Trophy, white against the white tree. A silver and blue Cessna 195. The bird of prey-like twin engine Cessna 310. Lindy’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. The big radial Monocoupe 110, a long-winged Stinson Reliant, a Christmas red Lockheed Vega, and a humble Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a miniature of the one Rio is flying out of Santa Fe.

And of course, an Ercoupe. An Ercoupe in a Christmas tree that my true love gave to me.

IMG_9195

 

A real zero

He’s slow to pick up speed. The off-white hand of the airspeed indicator is creeping up the dial ever so slowly, as if the landing gear were rolling over wet grass, not over smooth asphalt. Huh. The power is good. The Tach reading right where it should be. The roar of the engine steady and strong through the heavy walls of my headset. The runway stripes are zipping toward me, under me, with increasing vigor. The yoke is light in my hand. My senses tell me I’m picking up speed. But the airspeed indicator says I’m only going… thirty-five miles per hour?

Boy, these big, wide runways really mess with your senses. I glace left. There’s a lot of asphalt beyond the wingtip. Santa Fe’s Runway 20 is twice the width of my home base’s widest runway. That’s an extra 75 feet.

Still… Warbler is eating up quite a bit of this wide runway… here comes the north ramp already… and I’m still on the ground. Not that there’s a shortage of runway in front of me, but what’s going on here? Power is good. Engine sounds fine. Still, here we are, more than a thousand feet down the runway and I’m going only 40 miles per hour. How can that be? Think! The plane is light. Quarter tank of fuel in each wing. No cargo… Only me onboard.

Ah, here we go! The nose is finally lifting… But wait. I’m still at 40. He shouldn’t be ready to fly yet. Not in these conditions. There’s hardly any headwind worth mentioning. This is all very strange. Very unusual.

The runway center stripes zip under the cowl with increasing urgency.

Tentatively, I pull back on the yoke and Warbler leaps from the runway, a stone shot from a trebuchet. Holy cow! The wings rock as I pass through an air pocket, I level them and steal a quick glance at the panel. My airspeed is now zero.

Zero?

The airspeed dial’s off-white needle is pointing straight up, giving me the middle finger.

IMG_1931

What.   The.   Hell… ?

They say it takes five seconds for a pilot to recognize when something has gone terribly wrong in an airplane, and to react to it. I don’t know if that’s true. I didn’t time it. But I can testify that there’s definitely a deer-in-the-headlights moment while the brain deals with the unexpected. Before the body springs into action.

Of course, I hardly sprang into action. Actually, I did nothing. In hindsight, I should have chopped power and dropped back onto the runway. Assuming that I had had enough of it left to safely land and stop. I can’t say whether I did or didn’t, because I never considered it. Instead, I simply flew the plane, which is a legitimate response, and one of the first things you’re taught to do when something goes wrong.

At that moment, while I was processing all the conflicting data around me, the tower called, “Ercoupe 116, turn southwest, proceed on course.”

I think not. Time to end this test flight and get back on the ground. I thumbed the mike button, “Uh… 116 would like to return to the field.”

The response was immediate: “Make right traffic, Runway 20.”

Up to this second, I’ve been flying on auto pilot. Not a fancy mechanical marvel, but the martial arts muscle memory of tasks repeated time and again until the body does what’s needed without the brain wasting a neuron on it. But now it’s sinking in that I have no idea if I’m slow, fast, or just right. It’s a perverted aeronautical version of Goldie Locks and the Three bears.

Of course, in the old days pilots didn’t have airspeed indicators. Planes predate all of our gadgets. What was it my forbearers did to judge speed? Oh yes. They listened to the song of the slipstream across the bracing wires, the iconic “wind in the wires.”

No wires on an Ercoupe.

It suddenly dawns on me that rather than being an annoyance, this is a potentially dangerous situation. Sure, unlike most planes, if they get too slow ‘Coupes don’t stall. Not if they’re rigged right. Of course, Warbler has a brand-new tail. That’s what I’m doing today. I’m conducting a FAR 91.407 (b) post-major maintenance test flight to ensure that his flight characteristics haven’t changed. To ensure that he is  rigged right. Still, even perfectly rigged ‘Coupes develop what’s often called “profound” sink rates when they get too slow. Something to be avoided close to the ground like I am.

I’m not scared. Not at all. I’ve got a lot of time in these birds, and a fair bit in this very serial number. But I know I’ve got to think smart. I keep the throttle to the fire wall and hold the nose near the horizon. Screw the climb rate. Screw the pattern altitude. Gentle bank right. Level off. The runway drops behind my twin tails. Now a second turn. Nice and easy.

Should I let the tower know? They already suspect trouble. I told them this was a post-maintenance shakedown when I called for clearance. Should I advise them that I’ve lost my airspeed indicator and have no clue if I’m flying 55 miles an hour or 110? Well, what good would that do? It would seem to them a bigger emergency than it really is for me. For me in this plane.

I’m cleared to land. I’ve stayed high, kept the power up, and held the nose low. I know this makes me fast. Fine. I’ll bleed off the speed when I’ve got asphalt inches below my wheels. Down, down, down I come. The giant, wide runway rises up to greet me. I pull back on the yoke and Warbler skims the runway like a stone skipping over the calm waters of a pond, floating forever as taxiway lights shoot by on either side, then he gently settles to earth, rubber kissing the asphalt, still—according to his airspeed indictor—traveling at zero miles per hour.

 

Will Work for Red Bull

Last year, Lisa, Rio, and I went undercover. Twice. Well, once and a half, come to think of it. Here’s the Tale: As part of our General Aviation News series on air racing, we covered the National Air Races at Reno, and the grand finale of the Red Bull World Championship—which last year was held at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At Reno we had legitimate press credentials, but we also joined the exclusive Checkered Flag Club as full members.

So that was the one-half undercover. Why did we do that?

Well, while Rio covered the race pits and Lisa shot the race action from out on the pylons and on the ramp, the focus for my pen was on the race experience of spectators—especially the value of clubs like Reno’s Checkered Flag. Hence our memberships.

Then, for Red Bull, I decided to compare their Sky Lounge to Reno’s Checkered Flag Club. So the whole family went undercover with me to experience it, with none of us appling for press credentials. In hindsight, I probably should have written a single compare-and-contrast story, as the formula was somewhat the same and drew some negative feedback from readers, but going that route would have made for an article longer than any modern publication would run, what with reader attention spans getting shorter and shorter with each passing year.

Anyway, this year, exclusive clubs being out of the budget with all the repairs to Race 53, we applied for proper press credentials for the Red Bull. (We missed Reno altogether as AOPA’s Santa Fe regional fly-in was the same weekend. Really, who the heck schedules a fly-in the same weekend as the National Air Races???!) Anyway, Lisa and I were accepted by Red Bull, but poor Rio was rejected because he’s a teenager. This was especially embittering to him as his first published photo was of a Red Bull Air Race. And we wonder why we can’t get teens interested in aviation… But that’s a story for another day.

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 9.12.47 AM

Still, Rio likes the Red Bull Air Races as a spectator as well, so he decided to come with us to watch from the stands while Lisa and I did the press thing. On the drive out, as we were—I kid you not—drinking Red Bulls, we wondered if the Red Bull folks would give free Red Bull drinks to the press. You see, as members of the Sky Lounge last year, we had full access to all-you-can-drink complimentary Red Bull. In fact, that’s what got us hooked on the stupid caffeinated energy drink in the first place. Prior to last year, none of us were Red Bull drinkers. Now, Red Bull is only trumped by Red Wine in our diets, which come to think of it, also flowed freely at the Sky Lounge.

But I digress. On one hand, it seemed like throwing Red Bulls at the press would be a smart thing to do. It couldn’t cost Red Bull much, and a happy press is more likely to give, well, good press, right? On the other hand, most outfits don’t do much for the media. Reno? They give the press water and granola bars.

Well, when we got to Ft. Worth, not only did we discover that the 60-odd credentialed media got free all-we-could-drink Red Bull, but we also had an awesome perch above the Sky Lounge on the 9thfloor of the swanky Speedway Club, giving us a stunning view of the race course.

IMG_1669

The race planes zoomed into Gate 4 actually below us, then screamed up into their vertical turn maneuvers right beside the press centre. It may not have been all that great for the photographers (shooting though glass is a problem) but for writers like me it was awesome. Although, I think I was the only real writer there. Most of the media folks were shooters or video folks. Anyway, the press box also had catered breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks. If I had wanted to, I could have covered the entire event in absolute comfort. All I was missing was alcohol.

IMG_1689

Needless to say, a great view, free food, and a forecast for race day of temperatures in the 40s got Rio’s temperature up even more over the lack of press recognition. Meanwhile, the press passes Lisa and I had gave us access to most of the venue, including a brief time set aside for to interview the racers in the pits, and roof access for photographers above race control. We also got a tour of race control and had the opportunity to go inside one of the inflatable pylons.

IMG_1745 2

You can check out our coverage in the next GA News, but back to the Red Bull part of this Red Bull story. We drank five sugar free Red Bulls coming out. That was all the dollar store had left in inventory. Looking at all those coolers and mini-fridges full of Red Bull, and selfishly thinking about my upcoming airplane repair bills, I told Lisa, “We should be sure to grab a few cans for the trip back home.” So every time I knew I was going to pass the car in the media parking lot on my various travels back and forth across the grounds over the next couple of day, I’d grab a few and toss them into the trunk.

IMG_1671

Lisa did the same. There were a lot of coats and what not in the trunk and I didn’t realize how many of the blue and silver cans were piling up until it got cold and I needed every jacket we brought.

IMG_1840

Oh my. Feeling a bit guilty, I asked our press contacts just how many cans of Red Bull that Red Bull gives away each race season, figuring I could justify our “sampling program” by being an infinitesimal drop in a larger ocean. The media folks didn’t know, but promised to get with the marketing folks, who got back with the media folks, who got back with us that this information is a trade secret.

Well, there are no secrets here at Plane Tales, so if the marketing department is trying to figure out why five times more sugar-free Red Bulls were drunk by the press on a few cold days in Ft. Worth than at any other race in the series, we’re the guilty parties.

But, I suspect it will work out for Red Bull in the long run. If we got hooked by a few freebies last year, can you imagine what this stash will do to us?

I can see us now. Sitting on the street corner across from their Corporate HQ in Fuschl am See in Austria, sporting a hand-written sign on cardboard: Addicted and homeless. WILL WORK FOR RED BULL.