A big, beautiful map

The map nearly covered the floor. There was barely room for me to stretch out on the carpet between its edge and the freshly painted wall. Antique hardbound copies of The Aeroplane Boys held the corners of the map flat, fighting the curl that several weeks in a shipping tube created.

“This is a thing of beauty,” I told Rio and Lisa, “I’ve wanted one since I was a teenager.” My eyes roamed over the gigantic flight-planning map—the eastern half of the country pale green, morphing to moss green on the western highlands of the great plains, then transitioning to khaki, muted yellow, tan, and finally deep brown over the Rockies as the altitude rose.

The map was beautifully printed on thick, heavy paper; and laminated so dry erase markers can be used for planning without marring. The graphics are sharp and bright. The terrain jumps out, nearly 3-D. Rivers, lakes, and mountains are clear. Small magenta circles show uncontrolled airports. Blue circles show the towered fields. Military operations areas litter the country. The Bravo airspace around the county’s largest airports creates blue cookie-cutters around the sunflower-yellow splotches signifying city sprawl. Thin black lines between cities show the interstate highway system.

Pale grey circles, every 200 miles, radiate outwards from our home base, the Route 66 Airport in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

Yep, this map has been personalized just for us.

I chose 200 miles for the range rings as that’s how far we can fly, with two aboard and some cargo, before we need to alight for fuel.

Of course the map isn’t going to live on the floor. Once the curl is straightened out, and the new paint on the wall is dry, the map will take its place as the crowning jewel of our latest home improvement project: Our very own flight-planning room.

Understand that our house is small. Less than 1,500 square feet. It’s made up of two bedrooms, a combined kitchen and dining room, a living room, a small library and office with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and the other room.

The other room has served a variety of purposes over the years. Originally it was a photographic darkroom. Later it was a guest bedroom. Then a nursery for the baby. Then it was a walk-in storage closet. In it’s most recent incarnation, it was a tiny residential suite for my ailing mother-in-law, who spent the last three years of her life with us. After she passed away the room initially sat empty, then began to collect “stuff.”

Several times I asked Debs what her plan for the space was, but she wasn’t ready to think about it, so I backed off.

Then we cooked up the “48 project” as our next big Tessie adventure. Recall that first we set a World Speed Record, then we did a season of racing, so we needed to top those somehow. To do that, we cooked up a plan to make a single cross-country flight that touches down in all of the lower 48 states.

Now this is a project that’s going to require some careful planning, and I didn’t want to be doing it all on an iPad mini at the kitchen table with a pile of sticky notes on the side. As I drew a first draft of the zig-zaggy flight course on a kindergarten map of the United States that I printed out from the web, I recalled the wall-filling flight planning charts of my student pilot days. Wonderful, sprawling floor-to-ceiling maps that back in the day were found in every terminal and FBO in the land. They’re no longer made, and you rarely see them nowadays, but on our travels this race season I’ve encountered a few of the originals, faded to pale yellow with age, still on the walls of empty terminals.


These encounters inspired me to scour the internet in search or something similar, and that’s where I found Higher Plane maps, who make a modern descendent of the maps of my youth. The new maps range in size from five feet wide by three feet high, to over eleven feet wide and more than seven feet tall.

Sadly, our little house doesn’t have an eleven-foot by seven-foot wall in it. Anywhere. But some quick tape-measure work showed me we had wall space for the middle-of-the-road six by four footer.

In the other room.

I bookmarked the site, got up my courage, and popped the question to Debbie. No not marriage. We did that nearly 30 years ago. I asked her how she would feel about turning the other room into a flight planning center where we could plan our adventures, keep track of details, and store all our flight stuff that tends to get deposited throughout the house.

Much to my surprise, she said yes.

I went back to the computer, ordered the map, and started making plans.

The other room had at some point been painted in a tan and desert orange, colors my mother-in-law detested. I told her it was her “house” and she could choose any colors she wanted, and I’d re-paint it. She chose sky blue and deep well-water blue, I suspect because my wife didn’t like the idea of a blue room one little bit. I got the room about half repainted and then never finished the job. For the life of me, I can’t recall why. Probably it was because as her health declined I simply ran out of time for painting. She required more and more care.

Or maybe it was because I really hate painting.

Anyway, the two cans of blue paint remained in the corner, the room was half-painted, and blue is not an unreasonable color to paint a flight planning room. Deb hates painting more than I do, and I was already one victory up in getting her to let me have the room, so I needed to enlist someone else to help me and keep me motived.

Enter Lisa.

And I didn’t even have to pull the Tom Sawyer trick.

The room came out awesome. Even Debs loved the way the blues harmonized and said her Mom sure picked great colors.

The other room has come to life again.



An extra 200 miles

We were driving home from the airport. Debs had rescued me after I ferried Tess home from maintenance in Santa Fe. “The bummer,” I was telling my wife as she exited Interstate 40, “is that we’ll only be 200 miles from the Atlantic, but we just don’t have the time to go see it.”

Debbie was silent for a moment, her dark eyes pondering the horizon. “But that’s only two hours at the speeds Tessie flies, right?” she asked. “Surely you can afford two hours.”

“Sure. If it were only two hours. But we have to get there. Then we have to get back, and that will take longer with the head winds. Plus we wouldn’t want to just take a glance and leave. We’d need to add a full day. And if we did that, we wouldn’t be back on time.”

Debbie drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “I’d hate for Rio to miss the opportunity. Maybe you should just stay on the road. Don’t come home between the two races.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me. “We’d be gone… like… two weeks,” I said.

“I won’t like it,” said Deb with a sigh, “but I’ll survive.”

“Rio will miss a ton of school,” I pointed out.

“You seriously think he’d learn more in school?”

No. I didn’t.

Our next race is the Southern Nationals, in Greenwood, South Carolina. As the crow flies—if it were flying a Great Circle route—it’s 1,276 miles away. That’s a long way from New Mexico by any mode of transportation, much less an airplane that is barely faster than a car. And of course, even with GPS, you can’t really fly from point to point over that kind of distance. There isn’t always a gas station where you need one. Sometimes tall mountains get in your way, as can restricted airspace, military reservations, or giant airports around our largest cities with the mind-numbing complex airspace restrictions.

The flight plan Rio and I laid out takes us from our home base at the Route 66 Airport to Panhandle-Carson County, northeast of Amarillo, for fuel, then on to Oklahoma City to visit a pair of aviation museums and spend the night. Day two has us gassing up in Poteau, Oklahoma and then touching down for the night near Little Rock to visit a friend. Day three is a long haul with two fuel stops: Booneville Mississippi (presumably pronounced Boon-ville, not Boonie-ville), and Calhoun, Georgia before arriving in Greenwood—hopefully in time for the SARL “Low Country Boil with shrimp” the night before the race.

Quite an undertaking, in an Ercoupe, no less. But things get more complicated, as you’ll see.


The next race after Southern is the Ghost Run Air Race in Jasper, Texas, 675 miles away for our crow. Ghost is the weekend following Southern, so even though it’s quite a bit farther south, it just didn’t make sense to me to fly “right” past it on the way home, and then turn around a few days later and fly back out to it. It also didn’t make sense to cool my heels for three or four days in southeast Texas.

In the end we cooked up an overly complex scheme. After the race in South Carolina, Rio and I would fly to Shreveport, Louisiana, hangar Tess, and hop a commercial flight home. Three days later, I’d hop another commercial flight back out, ferry Tess the hundred-ish miles from Shreveport to Jasper, fly the race, then go home. The plan saved a lot of wear-and-tear on the plane and kept Rio from missing too much school.

But now the Atlantic Ocean is beckoning. And as Debs pointed out, he’ll lean more walking an Atlantic beach himself than reading about it in a textbook.

Plus it seemed such a waste to be that close and not go the extra mile

Well… 200 miles.


A cheap non-death

The email was taking forever to download. Who on earth was sending me such a large file? When it finally finished, and I saw who sent it, my blood ran cold.

It was from my mechanic.

Tess was in his shop for a simple oil change. Nothing else, for once. Or so I thought. But as it often turns out with airplanes, there was an unexpected problem. While changing the oil, the boys at the shop discovered a crack in the left exhaust stack. Not just a little crack, mind you, but a deep jagged one that cut deeply into the skin of the pipe, traveling nearly around the tube around its perimeter.


When I called my mechanic he told me that in his judgment the pipe would have “completely separated” within five hours on our upcoming cross country to South Carolina.

Replacement was the best option, provided a replacement could be found. Engine parts for seventy-year-old airplanes aren’t exactly on the shelf at Walmart. We’re luckier than most owners of old airplanes, however, because an outfit in Colorado called Univair holds the type certificate for the Ercoupe. They have a lot of “new old stock” parts in house, and if they don’t have what you need, they have all the old tools and jigs to build it for you.

The problem is that this is not a fast process.

Still, it beats haunting junkyards for parts. Some owners of orphaned planes need to own several just to ensure that they have parts as things break down.

So it wasn’t a matter of could Tess be fixed, but simply how fast. We’ve still got four races to go this season. Our rivals are ahead of us, but it’s not hopeless. Unless we miss a race. Then it would be all over for our hopes of wrenching the Production Gold Trophy from Team Ely.

I was so focused on getting the repairs done in time that I didn’t even think to stop and ask what all of this meant. But it was Lisa’s first question: “So what would have happened if the pipe had failed in flight?”

Luckily the question was in an email, so she didn’t see my deer-in-the-headlights dumbfounded expression.

Naturally, I quickly did some online research before answering her. One of the beautiful things about email is no one ever really knows for sure when you received it. It’s much easier to appear smart in email than over the phone.

I found an Advisory Circular entitled “Inspection and Care of General Aviation Aircraft Exhaust Systems.” Advisory Circulars are non-regulatory publications put out by the FAA to help interpret regulations, or educate the flying community about safety issues. One of the first things this Circular said was that exhaust system failures have led to “numerous fatalities and injuries to pilots and passengers.”

Who knew?

Of course, there’s the obvious risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. But apparently an exhaust failure can also cause a partial or complete loss of engine power. And additionally, we’re told that exhaust system failures are a leading cause of engine fires.

I emailed Lisa back, “Did I ever tell you about Advisory Circulars?”

Meanwhile, my mechanic did find a part and got it overnighted out. By week’s end, and well in time for our cross-country “commute” to the race, we were good to go. The cost?


The part was about four hundred bucks. The rest was labor. It was a tricky part to get to, requiring the entire cowling and nose bowl to be removed. And removing the nose bowl requires removing the prop, and so forth. All this takes time, and thus money.

When I fired her up to bring her home the cockpit filled with an odd smell, part space heater burning off dust at first use in the autumn, part new toaster oven on its maiden voyage. But once in the air, I had to back off on my throttle. I had more power than I’ve seen in a long while. Maybe the crack had been robbing me of some performance. I couldn’t wait to get back on the race course.

A few days later, while hitching a ride with my friend Eve, she asked what our next flying adventure was, and somehow we ended up on the subject of the exhaust stack and the cost of its repair. She asked the same question Lisa did: “So what would have happened if the pipe had failed in flight?”

Of course, this time I knew the answer, having already researched it. “Well, probably nothing in our case, but theoretically exhaust problems can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, power loss, or engine failures. All of which would suck. Particularly if all three happened at once.”

Without batting an eye Eve responded, “That repair sounds like a cheap non-death to me.”


The rest of the story: While carbon monoxide poisoning, power loss, and fire are all real risks for various sorts of airplanes, we were at low risk for any of the above. Our cabin leaks like a sieve, so it’s unlikely we’d be strongly affected by exhaust gasses; power loss would apparently be minimal on our plane; and fires are most common in turbocharged engines. When chatting with the guys at the shop after the repairs, they told me that on Tess all we would have been likely to suffer was a hell of a lot of noise and a partial failure of the carb heat system.


Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Race 53 makes the big time!!!

Breaking news:

OK, I was keeping this under wraps until it really happened–because I had to keep pinching myself to believe it was true–but official Race 53 merchandise is now available at a Website near you!!! (Well, I guess they all are huh?)

During AirVenture this year the folks at Preferred Altitude pulled me aside to talk to me about creating Race 53 licensed merchandise. Naturally, I thought all the Avgas fumes had finally done in my brain.

But they were serious, and today they launched the first T-shirt. Available in three colors, I’m told.


It’s a waaaaaaay cool logo and a great way to show your love of Ercoupes and your support for Race 53 and the gang!

Plus, I’d love it if a certain competitor of mine walked into her home airport and found a bunch of people wearing them! He-He-He-He-He….

Oh, right, the URL. Get your shirt here!

A self-serve affair

Given the choice, I’d never land at a tower-controlled airport again in my life. I’m a competent pilot, perhaps even skilled. I know my stuff and I fly—and communicate—professionally.

At least I do in uncontrolled airspace when no one is around to appreciate it.

But when I fly into an airport with a tower, I go to pieces. I stumble on my words, mis-broadcast my location, and just generally make a fool of myself. I can’t tell you how many caustic controllers I’ve been exposed to.

“November three niner seven six hotel, I show you as left downwind, not right downwind.”

Crap. You’re right.

“November three niner seven six hotel, I assume you meant to say runway 22?”

Crap. I did.

“November three niner seven six hotel, did you mean to say west?”

Crap. Can I just go home now? I need a drink.

Accordingly, when we travel cross-country, I avoid controlled airports like the plague. But by doing that we, by default, are landing at smaller, less-used airports. Such airports vary a great deal in their quality and available services. Some are desolate strips of asphalt with only a rusty self-serve gas pump. Others are robust centers of commerce with swank pilot’s lounges and dozens of on-field businesses. In short, Inever know what to expect.

My Garmin Pilot app gives me some clues, and the AirNav website can be a handy resource, but if I’m planning to spend the night, there’s no substitute for calling ahead to see what things are going to be like on the ground. Are there transient hangars? Tie downs? Will any of the local hotels pick us up? Is there a crew car? Are the gas pumps 24-hour, and if not, how early in the morning can we buy gas?

Warning when crossing Texas: An astounding number of airports don’t sell gas on Sundays.

Sometimes when I call, I get a real airport manager. Sometimes, an answering machine. Other times, a guy named Hal answers the phone, “It’s Hal, what’s up?” Once when I dialed the airport number I got the local Police Department. Another time, the municipal golf course. So I wasn’t fazed in the least when the number for the Holbrook Municipal Airport connected me with the city offices.

The same can’t be said for the lady who answered my call.

“Good morning,” I said, quite chipper on my second cup of French Roast coffee, “my name is William Dubois. I’m one of the pilots coming in for next week’s air race and I was wondering if there were any hangars available for a couple of nights?”

There was a long silence. Then the lady says, “This is the municipal offices… the airport is pretty much a self-serve affair.”

I immediately imagined a desolate strip of asphalt with only a rusty self-serve gas pump.

But the city lady rallied and put me on hold while she asked around. It turned out there were hangars, but they were all full. I thanked her for her time and booted up Google maps. I zoomed in on Holbrook and switched to a satellite view. To my surprise, I could see at least 35 tie-down spots painted on an expansive ramp. It didn’t look like as much of a self-serve affair as I’d been led to believe.

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Image from Google Maps

But on the ground the next week, things looked different. I’m not sure if “forlorn” or “desolate” would a better word to describe the hot, dry, wind-swept field, with its cracked asphalt runway and dirty, dingy terminal.


I taxied in, parked at the self-serve pump, heaved myself up out of the cockpit, climbed onto the wing, and dropped down to the pavement. In the back of my mind, the classic western whistle from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly played in my head. WeeWe-Woo…wah, wah, wah.

A twin engine “freighter” sat to one side, surrounded by orange plastic cones. Other than that, there was so sign of life. In the terminal, the Asian freight dog (pilot slang for cargo pilots who fly small planes to remote areas, often bringing the UPS Next Day Air packages to places, like, say, Holbrook) was sitting at a long conference table updating his logbook. He was unshaven and eating a banana. He was wearing nothing but his underwear.

Boxers, thank goodness.

I nodded politely and made my way across the grimy carpet to the bathrooms that I won’t even describe.

Following my reconnoiter of the terminal (I was hoping for vending machines, as the weather had delayed me and I was starving, but there were none to be found), I gassed up, parked Tessie, and tied her down with the chains attached to the pavement in one of the 34 available parking spots. Then I gathered up my gear for the walk to the hotel. Thanks to my research, I knew there was no hotel pick-up, no crew car, no help of any kind at this self-serve affair. It’s not the kind of place I’d normally stop for the night, but this was the starting line for the Thunderbird 150 Air Race, so I really didn’t have much of a choice. That said, it was only a half-mile walk to the hotel I had reservations at. Or it would have been a half-mile walk if I could have gotten out of the airport.

The “pass through” gate was chained and padlocked shut, and the automatic gate didn’t respond to any of the three un-marked buttons on the control box. The freight dog, barefoot and still in his undies, was now outside the terminal smoking a cigarette. “Hey, do you happen to know how to open the gate?” I called over to him.

Apparently, not only did he not know how to use the gate, but he didn’t speak English, either. I couldn’t help but wonder if he flew the twin in his underwear.

There was barbed wire atop the gate, so climbing over wasn’t an option. I could pull the gate far enough inward that I might just be able to squeeze out. Or just might get stuck for life.

I went back into the dim terminal. The dirty windows filtered the bright sunlight down to a dull glow more film noir brothel than airport terminal. There was a faded to yellow CRT monitor, sans computer, on the desk. A pile of 2014 Fly Low magazines sat in one corner. Incongruently, a brand new Charlie Bravo calendar hung in the center of one wall, properly opened to September, on this, the second day of the month. It was the only sign that the terminal hadn’t been abandoned years before.

There were no signs, no phone numbers, nothing posted about how to escape the airport.

The terminal was attached to an old hangar. Though the gaps in the door I spied two ultra lights, a low-wing piper, and a gleaming chrome Luscombe 8. Next to the hangar was a tiny house with two fairly new trucks parked in front. As I walked up, a woman came out with an ice chest. She seemed surprised to see me. I don’t know if it was because they so rarely got visitors or if it was because, unlike the other pilot on the field, I was wearing all my clothes.

I asked her about the gate and she called for her husband. I never got the story on who these people were exactly, but he told me what button to press. I walked back past the hangar and the terminal to the gate and pressed the red button. Nothing happened. I walked past the gate and the terminal and the hangar back to the house.

The husband walked back with me, pulled the cover off of the gate control, disconnected it, and pulled the gate open manually. “Damn thing only works for about two weeks at a time,” he told me. I noticed it was the same style of gate control we have at my home airport. It breaks down with about the same frequency.

By now it seemed like I’d been at the airport longer than it took me to fly to it. But at least, free from the airport’s perimeter fence, I was now slowly on my way to the hotel. As I walked up the dusty street, the airport couple zoomed by. They waved cheerfully, but didn’t stop to ask if I needed a ride.

I gotta say, all things being equal, it’s not my favorite airport of all the ones that I’ve visited.

But I’d rather go back there a hundred times than talk to air traffic control even once.

How I got the pilot shirt blues

Well shit. I can’t see a damn thing.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


The next flight…

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


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

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


Air racers do not wear bibs.

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

I knew what I had to do.

I had to get serious about getting the blues.


Fashion consultants

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

No earth tones.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Back again

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

But the wind wasn’t done with me yet.

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

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

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



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

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Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 5.55.09 PM

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

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

Some had questions:

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

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

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

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

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

She made him sell the Coupe.

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

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


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


Photo by Larry Bell


It’s always something…

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

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

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

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

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

But it was not to be.

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


I got a good workout getting home.

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

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

At least for the flight home from the mechanic.

A fine coat of oil

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

When we drive to the airport we look sharp.

Coming home again… Not so much.

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

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

“How’d you manage that?” I asked her.

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

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


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

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

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

Not that faithful.

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


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

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

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

That’s when stars started appearing on my shirt.

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

He had his best poker face on.

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

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

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

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

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

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