Under pressure

“Something’s wrong,” I tell Lisa.

Immediately her head—which had been bee-bopping back and forth to some silent music playing in her mind—freezes, and her perpetual in-flight smile dissipates.

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“Huh? What?” she asks.

I point to the oil pressure gauge. We’ve lost oil pressure. A lot of it. The needle on the small round dial in the lower left hand corner of Tessie’s panel is in the red arc, down to around 20 pounds per square inch. Damn! Why hadn’t I noticed it dropping earlier? When was the last time I looked? I scan my instruments regularly, automatically, without thinking about it—just like breathing. They don’t even register in my mind unless they have changed a bit. But to go from green to red is a seismic change. How could I have missed that?

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Did I get distracted?

Or is it dropping that fast?

We’re just a hair over an hour out from Wilbarger County at Vernon, Texas, where we’d refueled and added oil. So we have plenty of oil. It must be a bad gauge. Unlike most pilots, I resist the temptation to thump the gauge with my finger to see if it will change its mind. Instead, I work the problem in my head, but talk out loud to keep my copilot in the loop.

The flight pad is estimating 35 minutes until our next scheduled fuel stop, based on current ground speed. But if it isn’t a bad gauge, thirty-five minutes is a long time to run an engine short of oil.

What are my options? “What’s the nearest airport?” I ask Lisa. She snatches my iPhone, which runs a backup copy of Garmin Pilot, and stabs at the screen.

“The closest is Smiley Johnson Municipal,” she says, “not too far behind us.” Good omen, I think, with a name like that. “But no services,” she adds.

Hmmm… if we need a mechanic it would be better to land somewhere that has one. The closest place with maintenance shops is Amarillo, about 20 minutes away, north and west of our current location.

The oil pressure gauge hasn’t changed. Still too damn low, but not dropping. The oil temp is normal. If we were really short on oil, it should be running hot. The engine temp is good, too.

Our gauges are telling different stories.

But which one is telling the truth? If an airplane cockpit were a democracy, the oil pressure gauge would be out-voted by the two temperature gauges.

Of course a cockpit isn’t a democracy. Far from it. I’m in absolute command—with absolute responsibility.

OK, so it looks like a bad gauge. But if it isn’t, what would cause us to be down so far, so fast? Unfortunately, the possibilities are endless. It could be we’ve sprung a leak in an oil line, cracked oil filter, or suffered some other calamity, and at this very second my engine’s life blood is draining out, smearing a slick coat of death over the belly of the plane.

Better an empty airport than an empty stretch of road in rural Texas. We could be minutes away from a bona fide emergency. It’s time to get on the ground.

I press the “NRST” button on the Flight Pad, then select Smiley Johnson. It’s only 16 miles behind us. I roll Tess into a right bank. Time to get on the ground where we can check the actual oil level. If it’s fine, we’ve not lost much time and we can lift off and be on our way. If it really is low, we can top up. If we have some sort of leak… Well, we’ll be stranded for a while, but it beats all the other alternatives—given the situation.

I throttle back to lose some altitude. The oil pressure drops to zero. My heart skips a beat.

Quickly, I throttle back up and the oil pressure recovers, but only to the top of the red line.

We fly in strained silence for what feel like an eternity. The engine sings its muffled roar. No change. No roughness. No skips. I fly with one eye out the windscreen and one eye on the oil pressure gauge.

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There it is! A narrow ribbon of concrete running north-south. Shelter from the storm that hit on a bright sunny day.

We drop into a lazy curving arc and line up. Seconds later our tires kiss the pavement, letting out their characteristic chirp. I taxi to the apron and quickly shut down. We sit for a moment, collecting our thoughts and listening to the wind buffet the top of the canopy. Then I slide the two halves of the canopy into the belly of the plane, climb out of the cockpit, step onto the wing, and drop to the ground. I walk around my left wing and kneel on the ground, looking up at the belly of the plane, half-expecting it to be dripping with fresh black oil.

Well, nothing unusual anyway. Like a Harley Davison, if a Continental C-85 isn’t leaking some oil, it’s probably completely out. But we only have the normal small smear of oil that the engine has burped out staining our underside.

Next, I open the cowling by freeing the four camlocs that hold it securely closed in flight. I peer into the engine compartment. All looks well. We’re not car-show clean (and never will be) but there’s nothing unusual to report.

Gingerly, I reach for the dipstick, being careful not to brush my hand against any of the red-hot engine components. I grip the bright yellow cap and turn it counter clockwise. Wisps of steam escape the oil sump as I pull out the dipstick. I wipe the stick with a red oil rag, then place it back in the sump and lock the cap by turning it clockwise. Then I pull it again to read the level.

It’s half what it ought to be.

Son of a bitch. The gauge wasn’t lying.

Our oil is low. But there’s no sign of it leaking. So where does that leave us? Where the hell did the oil go? And what are our options now?

I sit cross-legged on the pavement and stare at my airplane, imploring it to answer my questions. None of the facts add up. I can make no sense of bizarre layers of information.

We have a quart and a half of oil with us, which should have been enough to get us home. Now I don’t know how far it will get me, and curse myself for not having more onboard. It’s Sunday in Texas, and that means that the vast majority of airport businesses are closed. I get out my phone and start checking the hours of various shops at nearby airports.

To find one that’s not observing the Sabbath, we need to go to Amarillo. From where I sit, it’s only a hair over half an hour to Amarillo’s Tradewind Airport. With no visible sign of an oil leak, it seems a fair bet we can make it. Once there, we can see how much oil we lost, if any, en route, and then decide how to proceed.

I run my thinking by Lisa, and she agrees. We mount up and take to the air.

Topped off, our oil pressure is now good. Flying low over the Texas countryside, it holds steady. Across the south side of the city we fly, descending on final approach over a sprawling cemetery.

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On the tarmac in front of the terminal, I order fuel and two quarts of oil from the lineman. Then I free the cowl to check the oil.

It’s unchanged.

 

[From Tradewind, we flew back to our home base at Santa Rosa with normal oil consumption. The cause of our low oil is one of those airplane mysteries that will never be solved. My best guess is that some sort of bubble in the sump tricked me into thinking I had more oil than I actually did when I added oil in Vernon, TX. But we also topped up that morning before the short flight from North Texas Regional to Vernon, so that explanation really doesn’t hold water either.]

Too busy for stress

Flying relaxes me. It always has, but it wasn’t until just the other day that I figured out why, and it’s so simple it made me laugh: Flying takes too much mental bandwidth to let stress in.

There are constant mental challenges in flying. Am I on course? Keep her at the right altitude, William. Check your oil pressure! What’s my cylinder head temp? Where would I put down if the engine crapped out right now? What’s the weather like ahead? How’s our fuel consumption? Keep her on course…

And there are the delightful attractions of seeing the globe from above. Look at that crazy field below! How on earth did they plow it like that?

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Plus the delightful attractions of being a citizen of the air. Check out that crazy cloud above! The sun above has lit up the ice crystals like neon southern lights!

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So partly, there’s just so much to do—even in a simple cockpit like mine—that the mind simply doesn’t have the capacity to latch onto all the little things that plague us in on the ground; and partly, when you’re in an airplane, you can’t do anything about most of the things that stress us out on the ground. Forgot to send the car payment in? Well, nothing you can do about that right now. Your mother needs her screen door fixed? Well, that ain’t happenin’ at 7,500 feet.

That blend of the high mental bandwidth required for flying, mixed with a location that limits what you can do anyway, nearly washes stress away completely. What little stress is left is drowned in the sea of confidence that taking a thousand pounds of metal and making it fly generates. Mastering any skill is good for the soul, but mastering something so humanly improbable as flight?

Tonic for the ego, for sure.

So that’s why flying relaxes me. It keeps me too busy to be stressed out.

How much flying is too much?

Fifteen days. Two hundred forty five gallons of 100 low-lead avgas. Three thousand, four hundred, and seventeen miles. Forty-four point nine hours added to my logbook.

Out from our New Mexico home base to South Carolina, then down to the middle of Florida, up the Gulf Coast, across the South, and eventually home again. Yep, it’s race season, and this epic commute took in the first four races of the season. When I got home again, I was pretty much flown out.

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But that was a week ago.

Now I’m chomping at the bit. The sky is calling.

How much flying is too much? Can we pilots ever get enough? I’ve always suspected not. But I’d never given any thought to who has flown more than anyone else until I encountered this plaque at Montgomery, Alabama, where fierce winds and turbulence forced me to alight early for the day (nearly kissing the ground after I pried my bruised body out of the cockpit):

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The plaque was my introduction to John Edward Long, Jr., the pilot who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for more time as Pilot-in-Command than any other person on the planet. His total flight time? A holy-cow 64,397 hours.

Apparently, Long was a low and slow kind of pilot like me. Most of his record-breaking flight hours were in a Piper Cub, flying power line patrols less than 200 feet off the ground. He joined the Alabama Power Company in 1953, and flew for them pretty much five days a week for the next 46 years.

Long was born in 1915, a dozen years into the history of powered flight. He grew up in the age of Lindy and Post. When he was 15 years old, his grandmother gave him 50 cents to take a ride in a Ford Tri-motor, and he got bit by the aviation bug. Long started flying at age 17 in a Curtiss Robin. It was the Great Depression. Times were tough and money was tight. He washed airplanes, trading a week’s work for a half hour of flight time, and in 1939 he was granted pilot certificate number 44,202.

At 115 pounds, he was too light to be a military pilot when war broke out, so during World War 2 he served as an airplane mechanic instead. After the war he worked as a charter pilot and flight instructor before joining the power company.

According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Long filled 14 logbooks that, if added up and divided by the number of hours in a year, total up to a full seven years.

Even birds don’t spend that much of their lives in the air.

On average, from first setting foot in an airplane to hanging up his wings, he flew 961 hours a year—an astounding amount of time in the cockpit. And throughout it all, he had an amazing safety record.

Long passed away in 1999. I would have liked to have met him, but I’m glad to have at least discovered him. I count myself lucky that my long flight intersected his long career.

I’m on logbook number two now, but to be honest, I didn’t fill the first one. It just got too tattered up to use anymore. So Long’s long record is one I’ll never break, but it proves what I’ve always known: There’s no such thing as too much flying.

 

For want of a spare

The nose wheel tire is flat as a pancake. Again. I sigh. Then curse. This is my third time at this particular rodeo.

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The first time, my mechanic gave me instructions over the phone on how to remove the nose wheel to bring it to him so he could replace the inner tube. Unlike cars, it’s illegal to patch the inner tube of an airplane tire. Come to think of it, unlike cars, airplane tires still have inner tubes! (Aviation technology historically lags the rest of the world, due to long certification processes and libraries full of rules and regs that never evolve.)

Now, for background, there are actually a handful of maintenance items that pilots are allowed to do, and don’t require a licensed airplane mechanic. For instance, a pilot can change a light blub in an airplane. And a pilot can replace a defective cotter pin. A pilot can also add hydraulic fluid to the reservoir. A pilot can change the battery. And that’s about it.

Oh. Wait. A pilot can also change the tires, or more correctly, “remove, install, and repair landing gear tires.”

Of course to do so, it helps to know what you’re doing, which I didn’t. But with my mechanic’s advice, some creativity, the deployment of a lot of Anglo Saxon English, and with much struggle and lots more grease, Rio—whom I took out of school for the day to help me—and I got the job done, and we drove the removed wheel to Santa Fe for a new tube.

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While I had faith I that could successfully remove the wheel, and get it back on again, I had no particular faith that I could remove the bad tire and tube and put a new one on the wheel. I’ve watched through the windows at the tire shop when I’ve bought new tires for my car. These types of operations require the right equipment and the right know-how. I have neither.

My confidence in my potential for doing that part of the job was not increased by watching my mechanic put the new tube in later that day. Besides, I thought, how often could something like this possibly happen?

The second time we had a flat nose wheel, we were on our way to the AirVenture Cup and we were severely pressed for time. My mechanic offered to make a house call. He and his dog flew over from his airport to our airport and he got us fixed up right away in our own hangar.

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And now, not even a year later, I’m squatting on the ground next to yet another crumpled pile of rubber.

I attach my compressor to the stem of the flat tire and flip on the switch. In no time, I’m at 18 pounds psi on the little tire. I get out the bottle of soapy water and spray the stem. No dice. No simple fix of a loose stem valve. We’ve got a real leak in the inner tube and I’ve got three choices: Remove the nose wheel and take it in for repair—a four hour round trip drive; request a house call; or air up the tire to the max and fly the plane to my mechanic, betting that the tire won’t go completely flat during the one-hour flight.

I immediately reject option three as unnecessarily risky.

Oh. Right. I have a fourth (theoretical) choice: I could put a new tire on the wheel myself, if I had one. Naturally, I decide to take the wheel to Santa Fe.

I lay a soft towel over the horizontal stabilizer of Tessie’s tail and heft three heavy bags of landscaping rock up on top of it. This shifts the center of gravity backwards, offsetting the weight of the engine, and like a child’s teeter-totter, Tess rocks smoothly back and forth on her main gear with the touch of a finger.

This is how airplanes are jacked up to change their nose wheels, although I’m told that the pros use cases of oil instead of landscaping rock.

I settle myself onto the oil-stained concrete floor of the hangar and struggle with the screws that hold the nose pant in place, then start loosening the bolts that hold the axle. My hands become coated with a slick layer of black grease as I remove the various parts. It’s taking longer than I remembered, and I’m not looking forward to the long drive over to Santa Fe and back to the hangar, where I’ll have to reverse the whole process.

That’s when it occurs to me: If this were a car, I’d be putting on the spare right now. Actually if it were a car I’d be calling AAA rather than getting my hands dirty. After all, that’s what I pay them for. But you get my drift.

I decide right then and there that I’m going to buy a spare nose wheel and have it mounted with a new tire and tube. For future flats, I’ll just do a quick change and be on my way. Of course, having a spare wheel will change the course of the universe entirely, because being fully prepared for a quick change, I’ll never have a flat nose gear tire again in my life.

At least, that was what I decided until I saw the price of a new nose wheel. For most planes, a nose wheel runs a few hundred bucks. For whatever reason, for mine, it’s fully two thousand dollars.

If an ounce of prevention buys a pound of cure, how much cure do I get for 2K?

I look into my empty wallet and change my mind.

I think I can learn to put a stupid tire on the damn wheel.

 

Hot Property

For Sale: Five year old Air Race. Nice time of year. Mild climate. Good location at large airport. Held during major air event. Viewed by over 200,000 attendees. For more information, call Craig Payne at Sun ‘n Fun.

OK. So I totally made up that classified ad. But what it’s selling is totally real, and you can buy it tomorrow, if you want. The Sun 40 Sprint—an aircraft speed trial that actually launches out of, and finishes at, Sun ‘n Fun’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport during the expo’s daily showcase—has been re-classified by the expo’s brass as a “sponsorable” event.

That means you can buy your very own air race. Which is not as crazy as it sounds.

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Let’s suppose you own a small company that has a great aviation product that you want to sell to pilots. You’ve got your website ready to go and your inventory is just begging to be shipped. Now all you have to do is get the word out. Sure, you have a Facebook page, but like us here at Plane Tales, you only have 32 “likes.” (And we love every one of you.) So you need to advertise.

The traditional approach would be to buy an ad in one of the aviation magazines, but this is not for the faint of pocketbook, and certainly not for the bootstrapper. For instance, a 1/6 page black and white ad in AOPA’s Pilot magazine costs $3,080—and everyone who knows anything about magazine advertising knows you need to be seen again, again, and again. For a two-color ad the rate jumps to nearly four thousand bucks. Want a color photo in your ad?

Cha-Ching. $4,840 at the cash register, please.

For one ad.

So what about a booth at one of the aviation expos instead?

Sun ‘n Fun would actually be a good place to start. It’s neither as expensive nor as overwhelming as AirVenture, but it’s a huge leg up over a local airshow or fly-in. The annual Florida event draws nearly a quarter million aviation enthusiasts from all over the country who are in a nice warm location following a cold winter back home, and they are ready to take to the skies again with their hearts and wallets.

How much would a booth at Sun ‘n Fun set you back? Looking at this year’s rates, the cheapest outdoor booths are $1,390. That price includes six exhibitor badges and one parking space. If you want to be indoors, the rate is $2,350. If you need internet, it will be more. Of course, larger booths and premium locations command yet higher rates.

Still, it sounds like a deal and a half, huh? Hell, it’s cheaper than the stupid magazine ad.

Or is it? Because that’s just the cost of the empty booth. You’ll still need signs, display materials, and tradeshow giveaways. And that’s just the beginning. The show runs the better part of a week. You’ll need to pay for hotel, rental car, and food. And unless you have amazing stamina, you’ll need help.

And you have to get there, too.

This is why some companies choose to have a remote presence instead. Ben Sclair, publisher of Sun ‘n Fun Today (the show’s daily newspaper) told me that some companies find it cheaper and just as effective to advertise in his paper to reach the attendees, rather than to take on all the costs of coming in person.

Or you could buy the air show. Even I gotta admit that the Plane Tales Sprint has a nice ring to it.

I’m sure the details are negotiable, but Payne tells me he’s looking to find someone to sponsor next year’s show for around three thousand dollars. Where would your money go? To trophies and food for the racers, and to help support the event and Sun ‘n Fun’s educational mission. What would you get for your money? Well, you’d get your name out in a big way. It would be in all the adverting, all the media coverage, and if you went to Sun ‘n Fun yourself, you’d hear your company’s name again and again during the hour-long event, which is covered live by an announcer just like a baseball game.

If I had something to sell other than words, I’d jump at this opportunity in a second. I think magazine ads are great. A booth at a trade show lets you interact one-on-one with potential customers. But both are expensive. Also, there’s virtually no limit to the number of magazine ads out there, and Sun ‘n Fun has hundreds of booths. In other words, you’re part of a crowd. It’s hard to stand out.

But there’s only one Sun 40 Sprint. It’s never been for sale before, and it could be all yours—all yours. That’s what I call a hot property.

 

Here’s Craig’s email: yakman285@gmail.co

 

Back to Flight School

Tessie is flying perfectly. The controls light and harmonized. I adjust the new trim handle until I can’t feel any pressure coming through the yoke and then I let go. Tess flies straight and true. I bank into a turn to the left and she slides right into it. Silky. Compliant. Very airplane-like.

Aw, hell. Now I have to learn how to fly all over again.

Ever since we first got her, Tessie’s been a handful. A blue and white airplane with a red head’s temperament. She’s always been 100% hands-on, requiring full concentration. To be clear, this is not the way most airplanes are. Most airplanes are dynamically stable. If you let go of the controls, they fly on. If you hit a bump of air and do nothing, they settle down again.

Prior to the latest round of maintenance, if I let go of Tessie’s yoke—even for a few seconds to take off my jacket, she’d snap tail up, roll abruptly to the right, and dive like a Stuka, the World War II German dive bomber that was the terror of the invasion of Poland.

I always knew in my heart that Tess was an extreme member of her tribe, but being an older technology I never expected her to fly like, you know, an airplane. Still, not needing to dive bomb anybody, the Stuka-like behavior was getting old. I suspected that she was “out of rig” in some manner.

The word “rigging” comes to us from the sea, where it refers to all the various ropes, cables, and chains on a sailing ship that control the sails and yard arms. In airplanes, “rigging” is used to describe the harmonized balance of the primary control surfaces: Ailerons, elevator, and rudders and the adjustment of the cables and rods that control them. Quoting Jeff Simon’s Rig it Right: “If your plane is not properly rigged, the aircraft is fighting against itself in flight.”

Rigging is complex and time-consuming, with multiple variables that all interact with, and affect, each other. Most airplanes have rigging specs to guide airplane mechanics in assuring that the rigging is correct.

But as you know, Ercoupes aren’t most airplanes. Heck, they originally shipped from the Erco factory with no manual whatsoever.

Still, I’d been whining about our rigging for a few years, and I guess I finally got through to my mechanic. It might have been my threat to dive bomb his shop. But at any rate, my mechanic re-rigged Tess stem to stern and wing tip to wing tip. His assistant told me he spent days at it, working methodically through all the control surfaces.

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The results?

Now she flies perfectly. Light. Responsive. Eager to please. Not at all the delinquent I’ve come to know and love.

I don’t now how to fly this airplane anymore!

Now that the plane is re-rigged, I guess we’ll have to re-rig the pilot!

 

Machine Gun Kelly

Machine gun fire. I glance over my shoulder to check my “six.” There’s nothing behind me but Tessie’s twin tails and blue sky.

Again the pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of a distant gun. But no tracers streak by, and besides, who would want to shoot down a mild-mannered Ercoupe at this altitude over middle-of-nowhere New Mexico?

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Then it occurs to me. I’m only hearing gunfire when receiving a radio broadcast. A distant crackle. A Lear on approach to Amarillo. More popping. At the end of the pilot’s broadcast, the popping stops and only the dull drone of my engine fills my earphones.

I tune into a nearby AWOS station. In the background, behind the automated weather broadcast is a constant, uniform popping. Like gunfire, but not quite gunfire. A sound almost like… like…

Slowly a possibility dawns on me and I do something I never do in flight.

I reach for the ignition switch.

Aircraft engines are just like old-fashioned lawn mower engines (and nothing like modern car engines) except for the fact that each cylinder has two spark plugs. The purpose of this is safety. In our engine, the top plug in each cylinder and the bottom plug in each cylinder are controlled by separate magnetos—spinning magnets that generate the electrical power to fire the spark plugs. Magnetos themselves are independent of the rest of the airplane’s systems and are highly reliable. Having two of them makes them even more reliable.

Backup upon backup is the battle plan aviation safety is built on.

Speaking of safety, the ignition switch on an airplane has four settings: On and Off, plus Right and Left. Huh? In the On position, both mags fire. In the Right or Left position only one of the two mags fires. This design lets you confirm that both systems are working on the ground as part of your engine “runup” before takeoff. If one system has crapped out, the engine will stop when it is set to the dead mag. When both are working, there’s a small loss of power as you test each independently. If one mag is dead, you need to think twice about your flight, as you are out of backups.

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I gently—being ever so careful not to turn the damn plane off—switch the ignition key to Left only. There’s a slight drop in RPM. But someone on the radio is still trying to shoot me down.

One more gentle click counterclockwise to the Right mag. Suddenly the radio comes in loud and clear. No more Machine Gun Kelly down there on the ground below gunning for me. Back to the left and pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.

To the right. Silence.

To the left pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.

Somehow, over the radio, I’m hearing the sound of my own spark plugs firing. It isn’t the sound of someone trying to shoot me down. It’s the sound of Tessie’s beating heart keeping me aloft.

I’d heard that this was possible, but had never experienced it for myself. Later, when I looked into it, I discovered that aircraft ignition systems are actually the number one cause of radio interference. It can be caused by the spark plugs themselves, the wires, or the mags.

But regardless of the cause, I knew the cure. I banked left into a gentle turn. Back to the West. Back to Santa Fe. Even though the family plane just came out of a two-and-a-half month maintenance odyssey, it was back to the shop for her.

On the bright side, it’s a beautiful day to fly.

And no one is trying to shoot me down.

 

Test Pilot

When I was in flight school, I read Tom Wolfe’s classic novel The Right Stuff. It tells the entwined, but parallel, tales of the Mercury Seven and the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in the early days of jet plane development. The thing that impressed my barely post-teenage brain the most about test-flight work wasn’t the fast planes, the high risk, or the higher status; but rather it was the fact—according to Wolfe’s accounts—that women just flocked to test pilots. And not just any kind of women, if you know what I mean.

Right then and there, I decided to become a test pilot.

Of course it never happened. Not until yesterday.

After two and a half months in the shop, the Plane Tales Plane was ready for the air again. Well, maybe. So many things had been done to her that she needed someone to take her up and ensure that all was in proper order. In short, a test flight. And as I have more hours in her than anyone, I was the obvious choice as test pilot.

I didn’t expect a flock of chippies to magically appear and make my day, but I took my responsibilities seriously. Or at least I tried to. Time change having just arrived, it was unaccustomedly dark in my house at 5:30 in the morning as I headed to the airport, and I neglected to grab the notebook that had a carefully drafted flight log designed to make it easy to record observations and to ensure that I didn’t forget to check anything.

Still, I was able to borrow a clipboard from my mechanic and I set off with a tiny tickle of a thrill: Me! A test pilot! (Chest puffs up slightly.)

The sun was barely above the eastern mountains, and yet to warm the chilly ramp, as I did a through pre-flight inspection before mounting up. The step up to the wing was a stretch—new spacers in the landing gear have raised Tessie’s tails to the proper level. Old Ercoupes, like old women, sag over time. Unlike many planes, however, saggy landing gear actually changes the flight characteristics of the ‘Coupe. She’s designed to have a zero angle of attack on the ground, meaning the plane isn’t capable of flight until you lift the nose. Of course, if your gear is saggy, your nose is pre-lifted. It doesn’t make a world of difference on takeoff, but it matters when landing. The Coupe is designed to stay on the ground once you plant it there. This is especially important in crosswind landings.

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Slipping back into the cockpit after such a long absence was heavenly, like collapsing into a favorite comfy chair at the end of a long, hard day. I slid the new smoky grey doors closed above my head and fired up her engine, the throaty rumble music to my ears.

Oil pressure in the green arc, Mr. Test Pilot professionally notes.

While she warms up, I get familiar with my new GPS navigation radio, making sure it can talk to my iPad and smart phone. Then I plug in the remote for my wireless headset, turn the headset on, link the two devices, slide the headset over my head, carefully adjust the ear pieces, and then position the mike in front of my mouth, whereupon I realize I’ve forgotten to put on my hat.

I doubt this ever happened to Chuck Yeager.

I take the headset off and start over, this time with my hat on first. Soon, it’s time to fly. I’m at Santa Fe, which is a controlled airport, so the first order of business is to call ground control and get permission to taxi the plane from the maintenance shop to the active runway.

That accomplished, it’s time to fly.

Cleared by the tower, I pull onto Runway 15 and smoothly push the throttle to the firewall for full takeoff power. The plane has been completely “re-rigged.” Every control cable and rod has been adjusted. Also the trim system, a mechanism designed to relieve control pressures on the yoke, has been replaced. I expect the plane to handle differently, but I don’t know how that will manifest.

The Devil’s in the details. This is what being a test pilot is all about. It’s invigorating.

My speed picks up. 35 miles per hour. 40 miles per hour. 45… 50… 55…

Tess is showing no interest in leaving the ground. In the past, her nose reached to the heavens around 55 miles per hour.

60 miles per hour… 65… I’m not alarmed: I know with the tail at the proper height she should stay glued to the runway until I do something about it. I hit 70 miles per hour and I ease back on the yoke.

She jumps into the air. The runway drops beneath us. I ease back a little more on the yoke to increase our climb angle and the yoke sticks. My heart skips a beat. Then the yoke moves smoothly again.

Did I imagine it?

The tower instructs me to turn on course to make way for a commuter jet taking off on the other runway. I bank right. Tess’s left wing lifts smoothly into the deep blue sky, the entire motion silky smooth.

South and west of the airport I put the newly refuib’d plane through the paces. It’s bumpy as hell this morning, winds tumbling off the mountains are creating mechanical turbulence as they ricochet off the buttes and mesas in the foothills. My notes on the clipboard look more like Greg Shorthand than English.

But the new trim system is fabulous. By moving a lever on the left side of the cabin I can drop the plane into a dive or nearly stand her on her tail without using the yoke. With fine adjustments, I can make her hold a level altitude “hands off” while flying slow, at cruise, or at balls-to-the-wall race speeds.

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She’s still wing-heavy to the right however, so we still have an adjustment to make there. I jot some more notes in Turbulence Shorthand, then head back for the airport. The wind is brisk on the surface now, and the tower gives me my choice of runways.

Being a professional Test Pilot, I choose the more difficult of the two. Ercoupes are excellent crosswind planes, and now that my rigging is improved I’m eager to put it to the test. I do a descending arc over the city and line up to Runway 20. The wind is coming from my left. Like a weather vane, Tess cocks sideways into the wind. I descend toward the runway flying sideways. This is how it’s done in an Ercoupe. I’ll touch down at a crazy angle and the forward motion of the plane, combined with her trailing link landing gear, will neatly pirouette her around as I hit the pavement.

I’m coming down at my approach speed of 80 miles per hour, faster than most general aviation airplanes land. I make tiny power adjustments with the throttle to keep my descent speed at 500 foot per minute. As I close in on the runway I pull back on the yoke to “flare,” a nose-up maneuver that bleeds off the excess speed right before touch down and sets the plane up at the proper angle to touch down on her main landing gear first, with the nose wheel touching down second.

It won’t move. The yoke is stuck fast.

I pull with all my strength, but I might as well be one of the unworthy strongmen trying to free Excalibur from the stone. Before I can say, “Oh shit!” I slam into the ground. A spray of fuel bursts from the nose tank. The gear compresses, and like a spring, catapults me back into the air again.

With still no way to move my elevator and get my nose up, I fall flat a second time.

I’m fifty percent terrified, fifty percent humiliated, and 100% mystified.

After the plane finally bounces to a stop, the yoke moves freely back and forth again, smooth as silk. I taxi back to the maintenance shop, and on wobbly legs, dismount and walk in. “How’d it go?” the boys asked.

“The elevator froze on landing,” I replied. Immediate frowns. Then a bustle of activity. Tess is quickly pulled into the hangar. Off comes her tail cone. Out comes the seat to access the control cranks. Flashlights are fetched, mirrors on long poles are brought out to check far corners. I describe what happened and they all congratulate me on my fine flying skill.

It all happened so fast I can’t be sure I did anything to be congratulated about.

At the end of 45 minutes there are several theories, but no smoking gun. Some tweaks are made. Some parts lubricated. And then its time for another test flight.

But this one is different. This time I know something is wrong and I’m going up to try to reproduce it. A whole different type of courage is required to climb into a plane that you know is not quite working right, than it takes to climb into a mystery plane.

Teenage testosterone-fueled dreams aside, I don’t have the Right Stuff to be a test pilot. At least not every day.

Flocks of promiscuous girls or not.