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.

 

Happiest of Thanksgivings

Happy Thanksgiving! OK. Yeah, right. I know Thanksgiving Day was really yesterday, so I guess I need to say either happy Thanksgiving +1, or happy belated T-day. Either way, as this is the regular publication day closest to the big day, I decided to use it for my T-day post

Today, of course, is actually the oddly named “Black Friday,” and you might expect that with Tess in the Airplane Hospital for extensive repairs after our October mishap, and considering the fact that there’s not been much flying happening in this flying family over the last year, I might be in a mood to match the name of the day today.

But that’s not the case.

First, for anyone who missed the memo, Tess will fly again. The cost of repairs is nearly as much as she cost in the first place, but given all the upgrades we’d undertaken, I had insured her for more. It was a bit of a drawn-out process, with at one point an AIG insurance adjuster complaining to me that “it’s such an old airplane,” to which I bit my tongue and didn’tsay, “Well we sure pulled the wool over your eyes on the plane’s age when you insured it, didn’t we?”

But repairs are now finally underway, so that’s good news, and a huge relief. Of course, it won’t be fast. As we speak, Tess is back in Santa Fe, looking more a wreck than an airplane. Everything forward of the firewall is gone. The prop and cowl are off, the engine dangles on a crane like the corpse of a hanged convict, and the bent engine mount lies on the floor to one side.

IMG_1862

Next, dozens of rivets need to be drilled out to remove large skin panels between the firewall and the front of her wings on each side, exposing the bent stringers—metal supports that run nose to tail—that need to be replaced. New skins need to be cut and formed to the proper shape and riveted onto the fresh stringers. Then a brand new engine mount must be attached and the engine re-hung, which entails reconnecting all the disconnected plumbing and electrical wires. And of course, her main landing gear needs to be reconstructed, as well. This is going to be a loooooong process.

Adding to the potential triggers of a black mood, the next hospital bed over from Tess at the Airplane Hospital is occupied by my second favorite flying machine—Lisa’s boy Warbler. Ironically, Lisa decided to hangar him in Las Cruces for the Ercoupe Nationals, rather than park him on the ramp. I say ironically, because rather than giving shelter as a hangar should, Warbler got damaged by Lisa’s bid to protect him from damage. You see, the FBO hired a guy to paint the hangar, and the painter guy decided there was no reason to take the planes out of the hangar before he sprayed paint all over the place.

Warbler’s glass was destroyed. All of it. The windshield, side doors, top door, back windows. Thousands of pin prick-sized melted pockets in the plexi.

So there’s plenty to be in a black mood about for Black Friday. But instead, I’ve used the downtime to count my blessings. Other than becoming much poorer since becoming an airplane-owning family (and who’s to say we wouldn’t have just pissed the money away on something else, anyway?), and being occasionally stressed out, the airplane has been nothing but healthy dividends on the investment—at least with the proper perspective.

Tessie has changed all our lives. She’s taken us to beautiful places where we’ve had amazing adventures and met fabulous people. It’s only been a few short years—half a dozen if I’m counting right—but it seems like forever. I don’t really have a clear sense of “pre-Tess.” It seems like she’s been part and parcel of the family forever.

For that, I’m thankful this Thanksgiving season. Thankful for the flights of beauty and fun over these past few years, and Thankful that my future promises many more.

 

Frigid Flight

First the thick T-shirt from Eddie Bauer. Next, a heavy polo-style sweater, also, probably, from Eddie Bauer. After that comes the scarf. Then my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. I’m getting ready for a frigid flight. I slide my hands into warm gloves. According to the internet, it’s 17° F at our homebase. On the ground. And the sky gets colder the higher you go up.

I finish by pulling my thick Fly Duluthknit cap down over my ears. They really know how to make hats in northern Minnesota. Of course, my friends in northern Minnesota are laughing their asses off right now if they’re reading this—they wear short sleeve dress shirts at 17 degrees. I’ll bet they don’t even reach for their extra warm, thick, and wonderful artic-proven Fly Duluth knit caps until the mercury goes seriously into the negative. But we Southwesterners have thinner blood, and this is the first real cold snap of the season. So I’m not even remotely acclimated to the fact it’s winter. Heck, the cabin heater hose in Tess is still disconnected.

Luckily, however, I had the foresight to plug in her electric engine pre-heater. I did not, however, have the foresight to bring a hammer with me to the airport. Why would this matter? Because the padlock to Tessie’s hangar is entombed in ice like the alien in The Thing from Another Worldwhen I arrive.

IMG_1632

I get out my phone and amend my flight plan for a later departure. Luckily for me, the ice-clad lock proves less an obstacle than it appears; but my real problems have just begun.

As I push on the left hangar door, it starts to open with a crunching groan, hesitates, then rattles back, pouring cold, blue early winter morning light into my frozen hangar. I push on the right door. It grudgingly moves two feet and then jams solid. I pull back. No go. It’s stuck. Stuck fast.

Great. I can only get half my airplane out.

Debbie starts optimistically sweeping the snow from the short stretch of crumbling asphalt in front of Tessie’s wheels while I hack, swear, kick, and chop at the ice that’s lined the right door’s tracks. A north-facing hangar is only a good idea in three out of four seasons.

At long last, both doors stand open to the frigid world. Time to make ready for flight. Weird things happen to airplane metal and plastic at temperature extremes on both ends, so I do a more cautious than usual preflight. The elevator moves smoothly. The ailerons do not. But that’s a good thing on an Ercoupe. Their ailerons are interlinked to their rudders and their nosewheels. With Tess’s nosewheel planted firmly on the frozen ground, her ailerons and rudders would move freely only if they were horribly broken. The oil level is good. I pull off a glove and reach in to caress a cylinder to ensure that the engine heating system is working. It’s hot to the touch, burning my finger.

I check the fuel levels with a Fuelhawkstraw. They’re much lower than I expect, until I remember that fuel contracts significantly when it’s cold. In fact, in his bid to win the 1946 Bendix Air race by flying non-stop, Paul Mantz dropped containers of dry ice into a fuel truck to contract the gasoline so he could squeeze more of the fuel into the tanks of his heavily modified Mustang, Race 46.

It worked. He took the Gold that year. And the next. And the next.

I, however, decide that it’s prudent to add a few galloons before I take off into the white wonderland that stretches between here and Santa Fe.

Tess ready, I pull her out onto the crunching snow and button up the hangar. Or try to. I’ve carelessly left the open lock dangling from the door latch, and dripping water from the towering hangar roof has sloshed into the innards of the lock, freezing solid, blocking the lock as if it were full of cement. Rio takes the glacial lock to the Jeep and holds it close to the air vent, heater on high to thaw it out, while I amend my flight plan for a second time.

Debs worries that I’ll pick up ice on the wings. She’s been watching Air Disasters with Rio, Grandma, Lisa, and me. Not to worry, baby, that only happens in clouds. The sky is pale blue today, the ceiling of a baby boy’s nursery, with not a hint of a cloud. Even if there had been a cloud, it would probably freeze solid and crash to earth in a shower of broken crystals.

Finally, screaming metal doors closed again, lock thawed, I carefully mount the wing and step into my refrigerator of a cockpit. I’m prepared for a long, cold flight. Fuel open. Master on. Beacon on. Throttle cracked. Mags to both. Two shots of prime. Press the starter.

The prop spins round and round, then she starts with less complaint than I banked on, given the temperature. I taxi across the snow, throwing up less of a blizzard than I expected, darn it, then make my way to the runup area to wait for all the engine parts to come to heated harmony.

Finally, the oil temp in the green, I do my run up and pull onto the runway. It seems that no sooner than I push the throttle forward we are airborne, climbing like a jet fighter, the frigid air turbocharging my engine and airfoils, Tess’s white wings stretching out over a white world below.

IMG_1643

Pilots may not, but airplaneslovecold air.

But quickly I discover that this flight is not the frigid episode of Ice Pilotsthat I expected. In the cloudless sky, the sun filters though my greenhouse of a canopy, and with my newly re-connected heater duct keeping my feet toasty I actually start getting, well, too warm.

So I reverse the winterization process. I take off my headset, and ears momentarily assaulted by 113 decibels of pounding cylinders, pull off my thick Fly Duluth knit cap. Next, gripping a fingertip in my teeth, I slide my warm gloves off my hands. Then I slither out of my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. Finally, I remove my scarf.

Liberated from the frozen ground, high in the winter sky, basking in bright sunlight, my frigid flight turns out to be comfortably warm

For body and for soul.

 

How to fly a plane in ten words

Mornings are not Lisa’s finest hour. At least that’s what I reminded myself as I looked at my watch a third time. I took another sip of the nasty Hampden coffee and distracted myself by studying the winds. Predicted to be kittens two days ago, they had grown up to be fierce tigers, roaring down the wide Rio Grande Valley from the north at 20 miles per hour.

It was going to be a slow flight.

Finally my Plane Friend arrived in the hotel lobby to join me for the free continental breakfast. In body, at least, if not in spirit. “Cof..fee… Cof..fee…” she intoned, zombie-like, eyes only half open.

61kTA500HNL._SX425_

Wonderful Mugs

I laughed at her. “Your brain isn’t even firing on half its cylinders this morning.” Then to tease her, “Do you even remember how to fly?”

Her eyes snapped open and without missing a beat she said, “Point the plane down the runway, go fast, pull back.”

A better description of flying, at least of taking off, has never been uttered.

 

The best beer ever

I’m not much of a beer drinker. That’s not to say I’m a teetotaler. Far from it. I’m a huge fan of dry red wines, especially Cabs and Malbecs, and more than one brand of bourbon can be found in our hangar.

Hey, half the fun of flying is hangin’ in the hangar afterward; and part and parcel of that is adult beverages. Booze and flying have gone hand-in-glove together since the days of the open cockpit biplanes. Of course, given the reliability of airplanes in those days, you really needed a drink when you got back on terra firma. Planes are safer and better today, but far be it from me to shirk aeronautical tradition.

Anyway, as I was saying, although I work hard at honoring the flying tradition of the post-flight drink, beer isn’t my weapon of choice. It just doesn’t do much for me. Sure, maybe once a year with a Mexican combo plate, an icy cold cerveza hits the spot, and in cases like those—just like with my wine and spirits—I tend to go for the heavy stuff. A dark beer, the color of coffee, please.

But not long ago I had a beer that broke all my normal rules and preferences, and it was the perfect beer. No. Better. It was the best beer ever. This is the Tale…

Poor Tess hasn’t flow much in the last year and a half, and with our recent crunch that bent her like a beer can just forward of her wings, I suspect my logbook is gonna remain bare for months to come. But her best adventure of late was the flight up to Spanish Fork, Utah for the Mt. Timpanogos Air Race, part of the Aeroplanes, Trains, and Automobiles event, the only race of the shockingly short, weather-battered Sport Air Racing League season that we made it to this year.

It was a long flight, something like six hundred miles, complete with two fuel stops. Plus crossing the Rocky Mountains. In late August. Don’t get me wrong. It was a lovely flight, but flying is actually hard work, and this route is challenging for a low-powered plane. Once on the ground, the day was getting warm, the fuel pump was being fussy, we had to prep Tess for the race the next day, and there’s an appalling lack of shade in which to do all of this on the airport ramp.

By late afternoon I was tired and hot. Hot and tired. But there was a party to go to. Race Director Mike Patey had invited us all to a pre-race party in his hangar. The invitation read: “Bring nothing but smiles; we have the rest!”

Now, Patey is truly one of the nicest guys in the world. But he’s Mormon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it made me wonder: Would a serious, practicing Mormon stock booze for his non-Mormon party guests? And if he wanted to, would it even be legal? Spanish Fork is dry, something I discovered to my dismay during the 2016 racing season. I briefly flirted with showing up with my own bottle, but I knew in my heart that would be a social faux pas of the highest order. In the end I decided that when in Rome…

The party was in the Patey hangar, a magnificent two-story structure in the heart of the airport. It features an upstairs inside-outside deck with a magnificent view of the ramp, taxiways, and the arrival end of Runway 30, as well as a stunning vista of the mountains of the Wasatch Range that tower above Spanish Fork to the east. On arrival at the party, I subtly stuck my nose into each of the various coolers scattered about to find soda, water, more soda, and more water.

My inner barnstormer sighed and resigned himself to a dry evening with good friends, good surroundings, and a good view. Still, I was having some trouble winding down, and was pining for a cool glass of iced red wine or a Jack and diet Coke on the rocks, when I heard a baritone male voice boom out: “Beer.” Followed by the resounding thud of a heavy cooler being dropped on the floor.

A beer will do just fine, thank you.

Inside the cooler, nestled in layers of ice, were cans of Bud, bottles of Guinness, and golden, glowing Corona Extras. Normally, I would have gone for the Guinness, but for some reason the Corona was whispering to me. I pulled one free from the ice and began the hunt for a bottle opener, the one thing the otherwise impressively equipped Patey hangar didn’t seem to have.

I can’t remember where I found one, it might have been part of a kitchen can opener, or it might have been a fellow racer’s Swiss Army knife, but the cap finally free of the bottle, I sat on the outside party deck and took a deep slug of the cold amber liquid. It was light on the palate, clean, refreshing—beating back the heat with its south of the border magic.

I sat on the deck, surrounded by people, yet in a momentary solitary bubble taking in my surroundings. The roar of airplane engines. The magnificent blue sky of the Rockies. The dying light of day. The comradeship of fellow pilots. And the coldest Corona ever, condensation fogging the bottle.

IMG_1350

Yeah. It was the best beer ever.

 

Real games with toy planes

I spent hours flying Tess and Warbler above the southern New Mexico desert scouting the route. Hours more getting just the right pictures of it. I spent days designing and laying out the beautifully printed knee boards for the race pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit how I paid for those.

IMG_1515

I carefully plotted the race course on Google Earth Pro, measured the legs, then applied the proper math to compensate for the turn radius of the planes. I worked out handicaps for the three sizes of engines under the cowls of Ercoupes. I created an Excel spread sheet to calculate the speeds based on the start and finish times, and to automatically handicap the planes. I worked out the marshalling order, created timing sheets, bought a pair of atomic clocks, a green start flag, and a checkered finish line flag.

I had three beautiful trophies made for the fastest planes. Tall skinny towers a topped with cups like the air race trophies of old. Then I had custom medals struck for each pilot that flew, so that everyone would win something.

IMG_1514

I also, in SARLtradition, found the cutest little pig with wings for the slowest plane.

IMG_6043

I connected with a local talent scout and recruiteda group of models that became known as the Derby Dolls to set the NASCAR-with-wings tone I was after.

Sure, the rare opportunity to fly into highly restricted air space and land at Spaceport America was the real reason most of the pilots were coming to the 42ndErcoupe Owners Club Nationals; but to me, the signature event was my air race—which I named the 1stNational Ercoupe Air Derby. Needless to say, I had secret fantasies of it becoming an annual event, maybe even a league someday.

Twenty-one of the forty-eight planes coming to the convention signed up for my Derby, and I realized that I had on my hands the largest race of like-kind planes since the 1930s.

I was on cloud nine.

Cloud nine itself, however, was at 200 feet. AGL. Apparently, despite all my careful planning, I forgot to make the appropriate offering to the weather gods.

Arrival day at the national convention varied between low IFR and garden variety IFR most of the day, with a brief gasp toward the end of the day of the most marginal Marginal VFR I’ve even seen. Only one brave soul made it in. As twilight crept in at the end of the day, I stood out on the cold, wet apron and looked at the small collection of Ercoupes. Instead of the expected 48 planes that would have over-flowed the ramp, I had six, only two of which had entered the Derby.

It was decision time. The weather for race day looked fine, but most of my racers were MIA, trapped by hurricane-whipped moisture all across the country, and there was no way that they’d make it in before the scheduled dawn briefing. I considered moving the race, but it was like trying to re-arrange jigsaw puzzle pieces. It just couldn’t be done. There were too many other events that needed to take place when they were scheduled.

I was about to cancel the first ever National Ercoupe Air Derby when my buddy Lisa, who is a certified frickin’ genius, had a suggestion. In the swag bags for the convention were toy balsa wood gliders from the state Aviation Division. Why not create some sort of Air Derby with them? After all, we had no shortage of pilots. Men and women who locked their fogged-in hangar doors, jumped in their cars and drove in, or jumped on commercial flights and rented cars to reach the convention.

Lisa got out a piece of paper and started scribbling. She thinks best on paper. Longest throw… Most accurate throw… Number of throws to complete a “pylon” course…

IMG_1518

The next day, when I should have been marshalling twenty-one Ercoupes onto Taxiway Alpha at KLRU, I was setting up orange cones on the ramp in front of EAA Chapter 555’s hangar, roughly mimicking the layout of the real race. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. Then my cell phone starting ringing and the assorted crises that befall convention coordinators started befalling me.

Chief among these was the Spaceport. They needed to know precisely how many people were coming the next day, their names, states, blood types and genotypes; and who was stepping off a plane and who was stepping off a bus. And they needed to know RIGHT now!

Of course, I’d given them this information weeks ago, but now with the weather, it was a moving target. On a borrowed laptop I started throwing together a new spreadsheet (not having the sense to bring the one I had previously made with me) and began to code pilots by: Cancelled, switched from air to ground, still coming by air, and unknown at present.

I knew our fearless leader, club director Larry Snyder, was trapped in Tucumcari, having failed to reach my home base of SXU by a few miles before weather forced him to retreat. He emailed, “Had to turn back. Solid wall of rain and maybe 1 mile visibility.” A pity. Our hotels and restaurants are better. I knew I had a handful of planes in eastern New Mexico, and the story of those pilots trying to find a rental car is worthy of a Plane Tale of its own someday. And I knew that eight planes were bottled up together at Willcox, AZ, more than had reached the convention itself.

I also had one pilot who was missing. The night before, Flight Service called to ask if he’d arrived. His flight plan was overdue and not closed. He hadn’t. I tossed and turned all night worrying about him, and it gnawed at me the next day. When he eventually showed up I was so happy to see him, I gave him a giant bear hug.

The rest of the fleet? Who knew? Certainly not me. Working from a tattered, folded, damp print out of the master registration list, I struggled to update the Excel spread sheet, while answering my phone every ten minutes (have you noticed that cell phone batteries never die when you want them to?) and alternately talking to members with a wide variety of questions, issues, comments, and suggestions. I was starting to, you know, stress out a little, when I heard it.

I heard the sound of a party.

Happy voices. Laughter. Cheers. The sounds were drifting into the EAA hangar from the ramp.

I got up and stuck my head out the door. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the Basal Wing Derby pilots. The wind was up, snatching the light gliders. One pilot used tape to increase his weight. Another swore her secret was to aim low and throw low. It was getting competitive, to say the least, but everyone was having a blast. The Derby Dolls were on hand working the green and checkered flags, and Lisa was keeping point totals on two giant sheets of poster board that kept flapping in the wind.

I was witnessing the birth of a new aviation sport.

DSC_9633

At the end of the trio of competitions, the Derby Dolls gave out the custom Air Racer medals to each person who participated in all three Basal Wing events, and presented the tall skinny trophies a topped with cups to the top three scoring pilots.

EOC_photo_14b copy

Talk about salvaging a disaster! Not only did our members have a blast, probably more people had more fun than if my race had gone off as planned. Of course, that’s not stopping me from planning the 2ndNational Ercoupe Air Derby for next year. You know, with real airplanes this time. But still… I think I’ll ask the state for another handful of those basal gliders next year.

Just in case.

 

One hell of a crunch

The ink was still wet on my Private Pilot’s license back in the spring of 1980 when I rolled the Piper Archer onto final for Runway 03 at KDRO southeast of Durango, Colorado. I was wearing my new headset, the first one I ever purchased. Not a sensible one, mind you. Not one that would help reduce the din in a cockpit installed behind the ultimate noise maker. No. The one I bought was a one-ear, corporate jet pilot-style headset with a skinny boom mike.

It wasn’t practical, but, damn, I looked good wearing it.

It also featured something totally new to me: A push-to-talk switch that attached to the yoke with a piece of Velcro. Prior to that, all my aviation radio experience was using CB radio-style microphones that hung on a clip at the bottom of the panel.

The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: The runway wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Rather, it was a dozen feet lower. As the plane lost lift, instead of softly kissing the asphalt, it dropped sickeningly from the sky with a rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late. I gripped the yoke tightly, accidently triggering the new push-to-talk switch and, as the plane hit the pavement with teeth jarring effect, broadcast the word “Crunch” for the whole world to hear.

It’s one of those things people never let you live down.

Fast forward to last week. After an hour or so of flying Tess for the pure joy of plying the sky, I was returning to my home base. It was late morning as the clouds were lazy and didn’t want to get out of bed, hanging low to the ground for hours after the sun rose. But now they were small, widely scattered, and high. The wind was light from the south. There were a few bumps, but nothing to write home about.

I rolled onto final for Runway 19. The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: Someone had moved the runway.

At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with. After more than 782 hours flying this airplane, I somehow set up my worst landing since 1980. Instead of softly kissing the asphalt, Tessie dropped sickeningly from the sky with that rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late.

She slammed down on the pavement with teeth jarring effect. I heard a double crunch from the landing gear, left and right. Felt the punch. Up the gear strut, across the main spar, up into the seat, and through my spine. Then Tess sprang back into the air before dizzyingly falling to earth a second time, for a second pair of crunches. A second pair of seismic shocks. Again, I was catapulted into the air. Power now fully up, she wallowed for a moment, then regained her airplane pride and shot down the runway, slowly gaining altitude. I banked wide and slow, coming back over the runway to reassure myself that I hadn’t left any parts of my landing gear behind, then came around into the pattern and landed again. Which, with two bounces, I guess was the third landing of the day. This time the runway was where it was supposed to be and Tess kissed the pavement softly.

I taxied to the apron and shut down. The latent reverberation of the pair of heavy hits still quivering in my spine, I thanked the ghost of designer Fred Weick for his decision to build the ‘Coupe with robust trailing link landing gear. I slid the door down into the belly, climbed out onto the right wing and dropped to the ground. I ducked under the wing and inspected the gear. It looked fine. Irrationally, I looked up at the bottom of the wing. Nope. No dents in the wing from the gear. I moved around to the other side. It was fine, too. Then I looked to the nose gear.

It was not fine. Not fine at all.

I stared dumbfounded at my nose wheel faring, which appeared to have been nearly shot away by Arab terrorists.

IMG_0959

What… the… hell…?

But that was only the beginning. The big story wasn’t the blown-out back of the faring. No, the big story was at the other end. The very tip of the nose faring was chipped away. Hardly damage worth looking at, it took me a few minutes to process the cause: My own propeller had taken a bite out of the faring.

IMG_0967

I stood to one side and studied the back of my spinner. It wasn’t parallel with the nose, a sure sign of an issue with the engine mounts. Over time, the rubber mounts tend to compress from the weight of the engine and need to be replaced, but these are only six months old. Still, I popped open the cowl, and sure enough, the engine mounts had collapsed. I guess the impact of the hard landing squashed them like bugs. I could feel my wallet getting lighter by the moment.

I had no idea.

The prop now clear of the nose faring, I taxied back to my hanger and emailed my mechanic, who in addition to being an A&P, holds the prestigious IA, or Inspection Authority. I let him know what happened and sent him photos. Then more photos. Then more photos still. He judged the plane safe to ferry. Two days later, I delivered Tess to the two men I had been hoping not to see for a few months, and they got to work. They meticulously inspected the inside of the engine compartment, looking at the firewall for wrinkles (none), each joint of the engine mount for cracks (none), and who knows what else. Then they got to work changing the mounts, discovering in the process that I’d managed to bend the robust pair of bolts in the bottom mounts.

Quite the crunch.

When it was all done, the spinner back still wasn’t perfectly parallel to the cowl, suggesting one of two possibilities: Either it never was, or the entire engine mount had been bent. My guys told me to fly for a while and see if the trim, handling, or speed had changed.

I flew home.

Now we have to detour into envy for a minute, before the rest of the story unfolds. My hangar neighbor, Lisa, has a very different hangar from mine. My hangar has a largely gravel floor, with only a small square of concreate for the plane’s landing gear to perch on. I have some power plugs. But no lights. None of this ever bothered me.

Until Lisa moved in next door.

You see, her hangar has wall-to-wall concrete, and bright, wonderful lights on the ceiling. It’s also insulated. Apparently, at some point in the distant past, NASA used to launch weather balloons from our airport, and they upgraded one of the hangars. NASA is now gone and the upgraded hangar is Warbler’s nest.

I never needed lights until I spent some time in Lisa’s hangar. But not wanting to attempt to install many banks of fluorescent tubes twenty feet off the ground (I know my limits… sometimes), I purchased some work lights on a tripod from Home Depot while the guys were changing the engine mounts on Tess. After landing, I set up the tripod, attached the lights, and plugged them in. My hangar was filled with soft, warm, wonderful halogen-fueled light. It was so stunningly beautiful I decided to pull up a chair and simply soak in the view.

And that’s when I saw it.

Actually, at first, I thought it was just a trick of the light. An artifact of light, shadow, and reflection. Forward of the wing root was a perfect triangular depression in Tessie’s aluminum skin.

IMG_1164

Eventually, concern trumped entropy, and I rose from my chair, aided by my lightened wallet, and made my way to the plane. I softly ran my fingers along her side and sickeningly felt them side deeply into the depression. This was no trick of the light.

More emails. More photos.

The diagnosis: Structural Damage.