Once upon a leather jacket

“But it’s brown, not black,” I wailed, my prepubescent voice cracking with the last word. But there was no convincing my father. His son was not, not going to wear a leather jacket. Period. Only hoodlums and troublemakers wore leather jackets. I stood sadly by the rack of jackets for the longest time, caressing the buttery soft chocolate brown leather, drinking in the lines of the jacket with my eyes. The epaulets. The sleeve pocket. The fuzzy fur collar. The jacket was reminiscent of the ones the B-17 crews wore in my favorite books. Heroes, surely. Not hoodlums and troublemakers. But I knew that once my father dug his heals in, there was no changing his mind, and the annual new clothes for the new school year shopping trip ended with me wearing a Colorado-proper nylon ski jacket. One that I hated all year.

In the decades since, I’ve learned that my father was right: People do pre-judge you by what you wear. But that hasn’t stopped me from owning any number of leather jackets, some brown and some black.

That said, I don’t think I ever really bonded with a jacket in the way I’m sure I would have bonded with that first bomber jacket that my father refused to buy me. In my mid-20s I had a beautiful black Harley Davidson jacket, complete with fringe. Oddly, my father never said I looked like a hoodlum wearing it, but I surely must have. As is appropriate for a hoodlum jacket, I suppose, someone stole it from my car. About the time Rio was born I was wearing a soft, lightweight black leather with zip-off sleeves. I was much heavier then, and when I lost weight, the jacket had to be shelved. It was replaced with an orange plasticy faux leather auto-racing jacket with a Nehru collar from Burlington Coat Factory. I still wear it now and then, but not often. It’s handsome, but it doesn’t breathe the way real leather does. That’s why leather makes a great fashion accessory; you can wear it over a wide range of temperatures and neither freeze nor roast while looking great.

And don’t kid yourself. We pilots like to look great. From our pilot watches that we don’t really need, to our oversized pilot sunglasses that mimic the goggles of old, to our flight jackets, which, come to think about it, we don’t really need either.

I recently read that flight jackets, at least as American pilots think of them, got their start in World War I, when the U.S. Army created something called the Aviation Clothing Board. The Board designed and issued leather flight jackets to protect the pilots of open cockpit biplanes from the elements. But it was World War 2 that may well have been the heyday of the leather flight jacket, and all the flight jackets on the market today bear some resemblance to the jackets of the Greatest Generaton.

How many jackets are there on the market? Dozens. Hundreds, probably. Made in both brown and black, most feature big dual-entry hand pockets on the front, and may have epaulets on the shoulders. Some have fur collars. Many have knitted wool cuffs around the wrists and waist. Some are as thick and stiff as armor, others as soft and flexible as silk. And I had been doing just fine without one.

Until Duluth.

February before last, AOPA sent me to Duluth to teach a Rusty Pilots Seminar. Duluth is lovely, but I can’t recommend a February visit. I actually survived the sub-zero temps in my nylon flight jacket with its Nascar-style brightly colored logos (although I learned to appreciate the value of a good knit hat), but while I was there I first spied a leather flight jacket that would trigger lust in my heart for something similar.

The seminar was held at the Cirrus factory, and one of the Cirrus executives had an amazing fight jacket. It was a well broken-in brown bomber, with the Cirrus logo on the left chest embroidered directly onto the leather using a color of thread almost identical to the jacket. The effect was both subtle and dramatic. It caught the eye like embossed leather, only in reverse. It blew my mind.

As Cirrus has a reputation for creating awesome image items—never say “no” if you are invited to one of their parties—my first assumption was that the company had these jackets created for all their brass, but in the conversation I struck up with the executive about the jacket, I learned that actually, he’d had the jacket for many years and that his wife had taken it to a local embroidery shop to have the logo added after Cirrus hired him. Up until that point, I didn’t realize that leather could be embroidered on. I filed it in my brain under things to think about.

Fast-forward one year. I’m suffering from an image issue. I now work three days per week at a community college, teaching language arts to high school dropouts. As a high school dropout myself (maybe dad was right about the bad effect of leather jackets) I find the work highly rewarding. I spend the rest of my time writing, flying, and writing about flying. But this gives me sorta of a split personality, which has created no end of wardrobe confusion. I know what pilots wear. I know what writers wear. I know what normal college professors wear, but adult education is different… So what the hell to wear?

Nothing in my wardrobe felt quite right. Then one day I woke up and realized that I needed a leather flight jacket. And not just any leather flight jacket, but a black one. The perfect thing for teaching high school dropouts & hanging out with pilots. And just to make it special and unique, I’d take a page from the Cirrus executive’s wife and “logo it up,” black on black.

Of course the lady who runs the local embroidery shop is fond of bright color. I figured she’d think I was crazy. But first, I had to choose the jacket. I knew I didn’t want a fur collar, I wanted one with snaps to keep it firmly in place. And I didn’t want knit sleeves either. I had to have epaulets, of course. I didn’t want chest pockets, as I envisioned large monochrome logos on the chest. I love sleeve pockets, but they are more common on cloth and nylon flight gear. And as I have arms a bit too long for my body, I needed a jacket that would come in a Large-Long size. I started scouring the internet, and I also started looking at jackets during my travels. And by far, the best-looking leather flight jackets out there are the ones worn by Southwest Airlines pilots. Their jackets are a sharp-looking modern take on the flight jackets of yore, and the design looks good on an amazing range of body types. Southwest has tall skinny pilots, short stocky ones, and the occasional Captain with a beer belly. And they all wear the same jacket to good effect. And darn if I didn’t find it for sale at the iconic Sporty’s Pilot Shop, in their Southwest Airlines Pilot Store page. Oh. That link is for the whole store. Here’s the link to the jacket.

But, like all quality leather jackets, it wasn’t cheap. And I’m becoming so myself, so I held off buying it for months. Finally, trapped in Michigan with a sick kid for a full week (a tale for another day), with nothing to do but listlessly surf the internet, I caved. I worried about ordering a jacket online, as I couldn’t try it on, but I knew that Sporty’s was good about returns, so I felt I had nothing to loose.

It was waiting for me when I got home. It’s one of those armor heavy leather jackets. The leather is thick and creaks wonderfully as you move. Like a good pair of boots, it’s a jacket that’s going to take some time to break in, but it will last a lifetime. And, of course, it has that wonderful new-leather smell that they have yet to perfect as a men’s cologne. It was a good fit, and I felt like a bulletproof P-51 pilot in it. The only shock was how much landscape the large front pockets ate up. I wouldn’t have as much chest area to cover in my monochrome logos as I thought I would have. As it turns out, that wasn’t an issue.

While in Las Cruces to take delivery of Lisa’s new plane, Warbler, or maybe it was on the trip we took down several weeks before that for the pre-buy inspection, Rio sat down with me at the hotel to plan a logo layout for the new-me jacket. Right away we realized that many of the logos that adorn our other flight jackets simply won’t “work” in a single color, they rely on their different colors to create their principle graphical patterns. Iin the end, we chose the Sport Air Racing League logo for the right chest, our Race 53 wings and the text “National Champion” for the left chest, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale world record-holder logo for the right sleeve, and the Erco logo for the left sleeve. I wished I could have put our large “Ercoupe Racing” logo on the back that some of our other jackets have, but Rio and I agreed that it wouldn’t “work.”

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The next week I met with my color-loving embroiderer, and to my surprise, she got into the project and had several ideas, including some ways to modify the large back logo to make it work black-on-black. She explained that as the embroidery machines change the angle of the treads to create designs, light hits the threads in different ways, letting a black-on-black logo still show detail that you wouldn’t expect is possible. Here, see for yourself:

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A week later the jacket was done, and it’s the perfect look for a flying-teaching-writing man. Now I’m all set with a brand new image to match my complicated life. Well… Almost. Because, well, darn it. Now my shoes just don’t match my jacket. And Nothing in my wardrobe feels quite right.

So what kind of footwear do flying-teaching-writing people wear? Maybe I need a pair of those airline pilot boots, it sure works for those Southwest pilots…

 

Racing… Nevermore, nevermore?

“Gentlemen, start your engines,” is not a command I’ll get to hear this year. The race season, for me, has ended before the first swing of the propeller. I love the sport and I was rarin’ to go, my bags were half packed for the first race. It’s even a short season, but as it turns out, well, damn it, my checkbook is even shorter.

Two seasons of racing with family in tow, neglect of work in lieu of racing, a downturn in opportunity, and a long string of expensive “mechanicals” on Race 53 have tapped me out. I’m drowning in red ink.

I did my best to ignore reality, of course, but in the end, there was no escaping it. First, I toyed with cutting out just the more distant races. Then going to just the closest ones. But the more I looked at it, the more I realized that even that was out of reach.

I even considered running just one race, I probably could have afforded that, but I realized that for me, one race would be harder than none. Harder on my soul, that is. This racing, you see, is like a drug. You can never get enough. At least I can’t. One taste would just fuel the thirst for another, and another, and another.

And like any addict I’d no doubt take stupid measures to get my next “fix.”

So I packed it in. Called it off. Took my hat back out of the ring. Scratched the races I’d signed up for. I deleted the flight plans and erased the checkered race flags from the big wall chart in our flight lounge.

I’ll keep my League membership. Keep the big black and white “53” gumball on the wings and fuselage. But, for this season at least—and probably more—I’ll have to be content to be an armchair racer, watching from the sidelines, waiting for the times to be posted to see where my friends and rivals are placing, imaging where I’d be in the lineup. Seeing their championship points build on the leaderboard while hoping to catch glimpses of their trophies on Facebook.

Or maybe I won’t even have the strength for that. It might be too much like smelling the distant cookout when you are starving in the woods.

Do I have regrets? Sure. Plenty. I’m bummed we won’t be able to see how much better (if at all) the 0-200 Stroker delivers compared to Race 53’s old engine. Plus the Fac6 Category is really heating up. There’s some serious competition now at the bottom of the pack. Damn. That would have been fun.

This year, too, SARL has introduced a handicapped element to some races, leveling the playing field between production planes. Handicapping erases the element of the airplane itself. That leaves pilot skill as the only factor when it comes to winning or losing a race. In theory, in a handicapped race, Tessie could trump Mike Patey’s 400+ mile per hour turbine terror Turbulence.

Wouldn’t that be something to see?

Oh. Wait. So far, this handicapping thing is just for the production crowd and Turbulence runs in the Experimental Category. Still, it would have been interesting to see if me, or my friendly nemesis from last year, Charles Cluck of Race 35, is the “better” pilot. My mother and my wife are convinced I am, but that’s just family loyalty. That guy is a hell of a pilot. The Brits learned the hard way not to mess with men who wear kilts.

Still, I would have relished the challenge.

But I realized that if I tried to race there’d be no flying money for anything else. I’d fly ten trips in the year, most on credit, and Tess would end up being relegated to the lowly status of Hanger Queen the rest of the year. Better, I decided, to settle on racing a cloud every weekend than run a few sparse races and twiddle my thumbs most weekends.

So there won’t be a continuation of my Air Racing from the Cockpit series form GA News here at Plane Tales like I hoped, but I’m sure I can think of something to talk about.

And at least, while the ravens of racing are crying “nevermore” for me on the circuit, my blue and white bird will still continue to race around the skies.

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Tessie’s first nest

Tomorrow, our girl turns 71 years old. Her data plate shows that she was manufactured on May 5, 1947. I gotta say, for her age she don’t look half bad!

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Naturally, every year on this date we throw a Tessie party, along with everyone else in New Mexico.

What? Oh. Sorry. I wasn’t clear. We’re not that famous. The rest of the state isn’t celebrating Tessie Day with us. They are celebrating Cinco de Mayo, which is something akin to a Mexican Fourth of July, which just happens to fall on Tessie’s birthday. Actually, come to think of it, it’s Tessie’s Birthday that just happens to fall on Cinco de Mayo, which honors the Mexican Army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, a full eighty-five years before our girl rolled off the assembly line in Riverdale, Maryland.

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Now, just to be clear, I don’t think that most people here in New Mexico have a strong affinity to our southern neighbor, they just like a good excuse for a party, so Cinco do Mayo has been Americanized and secularized, featuring Mexican Beer, Margaritas, and our idea of Mexican food (which generally isn’t available in Mexico itself).

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Logo courtesy North DelaWHERE Happening

Keeping in step with the rest of the state, we mark Tess’ B-day with Margaritas, chips and salsa, guacamole, some Chile con Queso, steak Tampico, and—of course—birthday cake with ice cream. After which, we usually kick back and watch an aviation movie or two, just to keep in the spirit of our high-flying version of Cinco de Mayo.

Now, seventy one years is a long time. For a machine, a person, a building. For pretty much anything, really. Still, Tess flies great and I feel nothing but safe in her cockpit. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the age of airplanes recently. Partly that’s because a segment of the aviation press has been wailing and gnashing their teeth about the aging of America’s general aviation fleet (the average age GA airplane 36.9 years old); while the other half of the aviation press is lauding the efforts of individuals who restore classic planes of the golden age, and of outfits like the Commemorative Air Force who keep World War II aircraft alive and well and flying.

As I fly an airplane nearly twice as old as the average in the fleet, I’m obviously biased, but it’s clear to me that airplanes—properly cared for—are eternal. In fact, the oldest airworthy plane in the world is now 109 years old. It’s a Bleriot XI, built just six years after the Wright Brothers first flight!

And one day, as I was thinking about the eternal nature of airplanes and the owners who came before me, it occurred to me that it was possible that all of Tessie’s previous owners might still be alive. A dual biography drifted into my head: Telling the story of the airplane by telling the stories of all her owners. It would be a fascinating walk back though time, sort of a history of general aviation, showcasing the changes in our industry and society, and changes in Tess herself over her long seven-decade journey. The book would be a way of showing the eternal nature of airplanes, and how that all of us who “own” planes are really caretakers of their legacy for a time. Mortals cannot own the immortal. It’s a sweeping canvas, but it would be a tale told through the lens of one single airplane and the people touched by it.

Based on our title search when we bought Tess, plus some wonderful correspondence from previous owners who reached out to us over the years, I knew that Tess had at least six owners before us, and maybe more. It was a manageable project, and the more I thought about it, the more excited I got.

I made a list of questions, and hoping that many of the previous owners might still have period photos of Tess, fired off letters to all the previous owners I was aware of, then I got down to some serious research. With the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA.

Now, you need to know that the FAA has a long memory. In fact, the FAA’s memory (and records) extend waaaaay back in time to the point where they weren’t even called the FAA. They were called the CAA, or Civil Aeronautics Authority. And it is in seventy-one year old CAA records, microfiched and stored by the FAA, that Tessie’s earliest days are recorded. With the help of my mechanic, I was able to buy a CD disc of all these records. The disc has digital copies of every scrap of paper the CAA and FAA ever had on N3976H, or as her first Bill of Sale calls her, NC 3967H.

That discovery was a delight to me, as I didn’t realize “my” girl was old enough to wear an “NC” number, which was the standard name badge of civil aircraft between the world wars. She wears the NC number, at least in her paperwork, until 1953, the first year I happen to have a historic picture of Tess, and by then she’s wearing a standard, modern “N” number.

Fascinating stuff, this history.

But quickly things started to fall apart. Instead of a half dozen or so owners, the CAA and FAA records showed a long train of love affairs between my girl and other men. Tess really got around in her youth—which I suppose may be part of the story of general aviation, too—but her owner roster includes more than twenty people! Meanwhile, my two oldest contacts didn’t respond to my letters. Neither, too, did the convicted drug smuggler currently in federal prison who once owned her. (Was Tess used in an elicit manner? Darn, I sure wanted to know!)

So things have slowed down, but I haven’t given up on the book. No way. It has too many possibilities. But rather than writing families, it’s clear I’m going to be spending time in dusty archives in small town libraries and newspapers. And the first stop will be a homecoming for Tessie at her first home airport: Guymon, Oklahoma, in the panhandle.

Because that’s where my oldest predecessor, one Mr. R.V. Wadley, took NC 3976H home to after buying her directly from the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) on the 20th of May, 1947.

Tessie was just fifteen days old.

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But in staring my research on Guymon, the name of the city rung a bell. I couldn’t place it but Rio thought that maybe we’d been there, so I did a “places” search in Photos, the software that organizes and stores the millions of digital photos that I never get around to editing. (I should at least delete the accidental pics of my feet and the photographs of the insides of my pockets.) And lo and behold, guess what?

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Yep. July 22, 2016, enroute to the AirVenture Cup and the big bash at Oshkosh, Rio and I apparently landed and refueled at Tessie’s original home airport.

And she didn’t even tell me.

I wonder what other secrets she’s keeping from me?

 

Officially not good

If you’ve ever been out to a small airport, you might have noticed that there are always a lot of pilots hanging around talking to each other about flying, and you might wonder why they aren’t just out flying instead.

It’s probably because their planes are in the shop, where it seems ours spends half her time recently.

To recap: In July of last year we put in a new engine. Well, three new engines. That took until late November to straighten out.

Then we spent all of December pitching, un-pitching, and re-pitching the prop so it would work with Engine III.

January Tess developed oil incontinence; and in February the header tank sprung a leak. Into the cockpit.

March it was throttle issues. Now in April, one month before our annual (Again? Seriously?) this happened:

Yeah, the exhaust pipe isn’t supposed to move like that. Actually, it’s really not supposed to move at all. In this case our muffler has come loose, and as it flaps around, it’s torn the carb heat connections loose, too. What does all that mean?

It means at least a theoretical risk of carbon monoxide poisoning for anyone in the plane when the engine is running, and a more than theoretical risk that the carb heat system will fail when it’s needed most. And those two things together add up to mandatory maintenance.

And as I could see that the cowl would have to come off to work on this newest problem, it made more sense to me to move the dreaded annual up a few weeks than to pay for two rounds of maintenance within a month’s time.

So off to the shop I must go, and then, because I won’t be flying for a while, I guess I’ll just hang out and talk with the other pilots.

The one’s whose planes are being worked on, too.

 

 

Meet Warbler

You would think she would have known better. After all, she’s had a front row seat to one airplane “disaster” after another. But noooooooooo. Despite all the best advice to the contrary, Lisa did it anyway. Yep, she went out a bought herself an Ercoupe.

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I blame myself. First, I showed her how much fun you can have in an Ercoupe. Then I accidently told her about one that was for sale nearby. I actually tried to dissuade her to atone for those sins, as did Rio who not so subtlety demanded, “Are you crazy?!” But, well, as anyone who’s ever flown an airplane knows: Airplanes are sirens, and sometimes it’s impossible to not answer their call.

To her credit, while it might have been an impulsive purchase, she didn’t make an impulse purchase. She test flew. She had our mechanic check all the logs, airworthiness directives, and service bulletins. She got the FAA history on the plane and reviewed hundreds of scanned documents (her new-to-her plane is one of the ones that was actually sold at Macy’s!) and then she paid our lead mechanic to travel all the way across the state to do an onsite inspection. The whole process took nearly three months. Last week the entire family drove down to the southern tip of the state where she paid the previous owner and got the keys. The next day, she and I ferried her new plane, named Warbler as he’s a small bird with a Warbird paint scheme, home to his new nest right next to Tessie’s.

Yep. I now have a hangar neighbor at SXU and I’ll have competition for the title of President of the Airport User’s Association (previously, I had the only airplane based there).

Now as anyone who has a passing familiarity with Ercoupes knows, they could be better known as Frankencoupes. Most are now in their early 70s, and have had dozens of owners over the years. In fact, in doing research for my Eternal Airplane book, I recently learned that my Tessie was quite the little tramp in her youth, having gone through 24 owners up till now. And each owner of each Ercoupe made little changes on their watches over the decades, so that now I doubt that there are two Coupes that are alike, and none look like they did the day they left their factory. In point of fact, one of the fun things about the Ercoupe Owners Club fly-ins is comparing the planes to each other. But now that there’s a second Ercoupe in the “family,” as it were, I’m finding more and more differences between the two every time I’m at the airport.

For Coupe fans, here’s a quick rundown on Warbler: He has a C-85 engine, fabric wings, a single fork nose wheel, Goodyear brakes, a floor-mounted handbrake with no foot pedal, the flat windshield but enlarged back windows, the large luggage compartment, and the three-piece canopy. Like any proper Ercoupe, there are no rudder pedals. He has the early Mooney-style wood and burnished metal yokes and a nutin’ but the basics panel: Airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, altimeter, compass, and three engine instruments. The entire airplane has only two switches, one in the back that’s the master, and one on the panel for the nav lights. The radio is a handheld verco’d to the panel.

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Flying home in Warbler’s right-hand seat, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a 1956 Ford Pickup truck, which insulted Lisa. “He’s more like a Jeep,” she insisted. But neither trucks nor jeeps fly, and Warbler flies. And very well at that. It was a fun and easy flight, but odd in a way too. So much the same, yet so different. I kept looking for things on the panel that aren’t there, Tess being a bit more instrument heavy.

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Warbler’s in remarkably good shape, better by far than Tess was when we got her. And being simple, there’s hopefully less to go wrong—although we did have an interesting fuel misadventure after taking delivery, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. Meanwhile, I’ve got my fingers crossed that my wing woman Lisa has many happy years of airplane ownership, and fingers cross that those many happy years of ownership don’t include sending her mechanics’ kids to Harvard at her expense.

And for myself, I confess that I’m looking forward to two-plane adventures in the future and I suspect that we’ll have many Planes Tales to tell in the coming years.

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Something we could agree on

It was colder than forecast. You can’t trust weatherman and psychics. The easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propeller, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Earlier that afternoon, we’d come to the hangar to deal with some electrical connection issues on the new engine monitor. I sat on a stool with my head under the cowl, my iPhone on speaker, while tech support guided me through the process of checking the wire connections. That actually worked out OK, partly thanks to the fact that we had earlier watched a YouTube video on how to use the hand-held electrical tester that we’ve owned for years and never used.

It was one of those things I bought because an airplane owner is supposed to have one.

The electrical gremlins subdued for the moment, the sun was getting low in the sky, and we had to zip our jackets up. We probably should have called it a day, but I was too excited about our race propeller to have the sense to wait for a warmer day to finish the job. As far as I was concerned, now that the work was done, it was time for some fun.

Fun being painting the black checks onto last week’s white prop tips to finish our new race prop look. Before Rio changed his mind.

I used a seamstress-style cloth measuring tape to mark the centerline of the prop, then drew a thin pencil line from the tipity-tip of the blade to the end of the white paint I applied last week. Next, I carefully lined up the first of the blue painter’s tape squares, making sure its edges lined up exactly with the edge of the white paint and the pencil line, then smoothing it firmly along its edges and lightly in the middle. I need it tight on the edges so the paint lines will be sharp and clean, but light enough that it won’t pull part of the white paint off when I remove it, which would cause me a great deal of pain and stress.

The square didn’t quite reach to the edge, so I added a second piece to extend it a sixteenth of an inch or more.

Then I applied three more squares, bending the tape around the edges of the propeller blade as I worked my way up toward the tip. Then I repeated the process on the other end of the prop. The tape masks off four squares of the white paint. When I hit the prop tips with Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, the exposed white squares will be painted black. When I remove the tape, revealing the protected white squares beneath, I’ll have my very own Barnstormer Propeller. At least that’s the plan. And it won’t be an authentic reproduction. Or, well, maybe it will be.

Anyway, just looking at the checkerboard pattern created by the tape, I was optimistic the final product would look good.

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While Rio and Lisa started covering the canopy with cleaning rags to protect the glass from errant spray paint, I added a few more strips of blue tape to the prop to protect the main blade from over-spray.

We buttoned up the hangar. Lisa held a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to catch the overspray and Rio held a shop light.

Remembering the running paint issue from last week, I tried to go lightly. But the damn black paint is a different beast from the white paint. The can spat the paint out in large droplets, leaving a splattered look. I tried patting them flat with a paper towel, but that created a rough look. We had to wipe some of the squares off and start again.

Then the sun set.

And the mercury dropped.

The paint dried slowly between applications.

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I had thought two light coats would do, as the paint is so much darker than the white, but it took three. Our feet getting cold, we retreated to the terminal building while we waited for the final coat to set enough that I could remove the tape.

But when we returned, working by the headlights of my hot rod, the easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propellor, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I picked at the tape from the back of the blade, finally freeing a corner. Holding it between two fingers, I began to pull, stretching the tape as I went.

Slowly, stubbornly, the first three pieces came off, revealing magically sharp lines between my white and black checkers. Then it happened.

One of the squares took a large chunk of white paint off with it. My hopes for a beautiful Barnstormer Propeller crashed and burned.

But it was the only one that gave me trouble. The rest came out perfect:

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So I’ve got one touch up for another day, but I went home more happy than upset. The next day I had to fly to Santa Fe. In the daylight, on the tarmac, the final effect blew my mind:

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And later than night as Rio and I disagreed on paint schemes, he told me, “Well, Dad, at least we agreed on the propeller.”

Something we can agree on

Sporty’s Pilot Shop has been around as long as I can recall. As a student pilot in the early 1980s I can remember taking a break from my studies of aviation weather, cross country flight planning, and the FARs by thumbing through their full color mail order catalog; drooling at all the wonderful things that were out of my reach.

Leather flight jackets, pilot watches that cost more than my car, and those short boots airline pilots used to wear.

Of course they had practical things, too. Kneeboards, a folding navigation plotter, airspace memory cards, and little rotating plastic calculators to help you figure out the best runway to land on.

And they had mysterious things only airplane owners would need. Tow bars, oxygen systems, cowl plugs, and engine heaters. A back seat air conditioner?

I still get the Sporty’s catalog. And I still thumb through it when I need a mental break from more serious work. They also send me their newer Wright Brother’s Collection catalog, which is more gift oriented. Cool aviation décor and art, books, videos, clothing, and more. In the most recent edition this photo caught my eye:

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The trio of props were called “Barnstormer Propellers.” According to the add copy, the handcrafted solid wood propellers are “authentic reproductions,” which if you think about it, is an oxymoron.

But naturally I was taken with the race flag prop.

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I could totally see Tess, a.k.a. Race 53, sporting race flag prop tips. Of course, given Rio’s recent reaction to race-themed paint schemes, I didn’t hold out much hope that he’d agree. Still, I tore out the page to show it to him later.

To my surprise, when he looked at it, he was OK with it. He actually thought it would look good, as did his mother and our buddy Lisa. It then it fell to me to figure out how to make it happen. Thanks to a combination of a poor paint choice by a previous owner, and a poor choice of cleaning materials by us, we’ve actually had to repaint the prop tips once before. As I recall, it went badly.

But that’s a paint tale for another day.

The plan for this cosmetic speed mod was simple enough, mask off the tip, sparingly spray paint it white, somehow mask off white checks with some sort of tape, then spay over sparingly with black paint, and voilà!

Off to Home Depot we went. Or maybe it was Lowes. Anyway, after showing our driver’s licenses to prove we were old enough to buy one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white spray paint and one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, Lisa and I stood in front of a towering edifice of rolls of painter’s tape in every width and length imaginable. “Too bad,” I said to Lisa, “that they don’t make this stuff in pre-cut squares.”

And then it occurred to me: Maybe they did. A quick Google search on my iPhone proved that an angel had just whispered in my ear: 3-M blue painter’s tape comes in a dizzying array of squares and rectangles. But what size of square did we need?

We agreed we’d need to be standing in front of the prop to figure that out.

The next week, after some approach-to-landing training for Lisa, she got out a pad of three-inch sticky notes and stuck them on the prop. It didn’t work out too well. For one thing, putting enough of them on to give a checkered flag look ate up a third of the prop. Too big. Next she cut them down to 2.5 inches, for a momma bear effect. Better, but not just right. At two and a quarter inches, we judged the size of the squares to be perfect.

Naturally, 2.25 inches is the only size of tape squares not made.

Back to the drawing board. Well, cutting board.

In the end, we decided that two inches was the ticket.

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And standing in the hangar, I ordered the squares from Amazon. “They’ll be here Wednesday,” I told Lisa. Then thinking for a moment said, “Wanna get the white paint on now?”

“Sure,” said my wing woman, “it’ll give the white paint plenty of time to set before we do the black.”

So we covered every inch of glass on the plane with cleaning rags—as I said, we’ve had some bad experiences with spray paint in the past—and got to work.

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We carefully calculated how far down the prop the race checkers should go (eight inches) then spent some time trying to figure out how to get the tape perfectly perpendicular to propeller. I then ran my finger back and forth over the edge of the tape to ensure it was down tightly for a sharp paint edge, and lightly attached several more strips of painter’s tape to protect the main body of the prop from over-spray.

Next, we closed the hangar doors down to a crack to let in light, but no wind. Lisa held up a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to protect the plane, and I starting shaking the can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint for the required 60 seconds.

Then, using short, sweeping bursts, I got a lovely coat of smooth white paint over the tip of the propeller. I set the paint can down and pushed the hangar door open to let in more light. A cloud of floating Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint particles was sucked out into the breeze like exhaled cigarette smoke. I inspected my paint job. Generally speaking, I’m a poor handyman, but everyone once and a while things work out for me perfectly.

This was not one of those times.

Almost at once, the paint began to run, forming a thick artery of paint on the smooth surface. I let out a choked wail and dashed for the roll of heavy blue paper shop towels that lives in the tool cabinet. Luckily, the prop being so smooth, the thick layer of paint wiped clean off with several strokes.

On the second try, hangar door cracked, paint shaken for sixty seconds, I painted just a kiss of paint onto the prop tip. Then we did the other side. After letting the hangar exhale paint smoke a second time, we inspected the tips. The white paint look grey and thin, but it wasn’t running. We kicked back and started a pair of cigars to let the paint dry, then hit the tips again, drank some whiskey to let the second coat set, then hit the tips a third time, and so forth.

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Four light coats did the trick. The last phase was to remove the tape. Naturally I had visions of the tape pulling a large part of the paint on the prop off with it, but no, it came off perfectly clean.

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So far, so good. How’d the blue tape squares and black paint work out? I don’t know. We haven’t done the second half of the job yet. I guess that will be next week’s Plane Tale.

See you then and here.

 

Paint tale

“What on earth happened to your paint?” asked our league photographer in her heavy English accent, pointing to several naked places about the size of a dime on Tessie’s left wing

“Oh, I accidently plowed through a flight of baby peacocks at the last race,” I replied, being careful to keep a poker face.

There was a long silence while she processed this, then she said, “I was under the impression that peacocks didn’t fly very high…?”

“They don’t. And your point?” I asked.

I think I told someone else I ran down some baby flying squirrels. In truth, I have no idea where the paint went, or where, how, and when the dozens of other missing paint flakes disappeared. All I know is that Tess is beginning to shed paint like a cat sheds fur in the spring. And that can only mean one thing: Her paint job is reaching the end of its service life, expiring, dying; and that means there’s a new paint job in my future.

Which is both scary and exciting at the same time. But mainly scary.

An airplane’s paint job is more than mere decoration. It’s protective. It keeps the metal from being damaged by the elements. So it’s important, and beyond some point, it’s not something that can be safely put off. But getting an airplane painted is nearly as much work as buying an airplane in the first place, and in our case might cost nearly as much. Why scary? Well, for one thing, there are hundreds of paint shops to choose from, and the offerings and quality vary a lot. As do the prices and the potential for disaster. I’ve read several articles on the whole process, a couple of which—focusing on all that can go wrong—sent me into a nearly cationic state with worry.

But done right, as I understand it, the process goes something like this: First, all the old paint needs to be stripped off. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think this was done on Tess’s last paint job or two. Under that pretty blue and white is buff yellow, and in some places green is peeking through. Some shops use chemical strippers to remove the layers of old paint, others use high pressure water, while others still use something called “vacuum blasting.”

Once down to the bare metal, any damaged skin discovered lurking under the paint needs to be fixed, along with any dents and dings, much like auto body repair. Naturally the control surfaces need to be removed to get the old paint off the edges and get the new paint on, as well as all the inspection ports and the like. I read one case where the plane was put back together wrong and crashed right after leaving the paint shop!

Once all of that pre-paint work is accomplished, the new paint is applied, sometimes many layers of it, depending on the design, plus whatever top coats you choose. As you can imagine, protecting the interior and glass requires much taping and paper.

So much for scary. What about the exciting part? Well, that’s scary, too: What paint scheme do you choose? Getting a paint job opens up a universe of possibility. An overwhelming universe. It used to be that airplane paint was pretty pedestrian: White with a stripe. What color would you like your stripe? Tess’s current paint job is actually higher end than that, but now planes come airbrushed with artwork resembling show cars, tattoos, and more.

I’ve seen some pretty drool-worthy paint jobs in my travels. Check out this paint job of the inner race plane shedding its warbird skin like a snake:

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So what to do? Tess is sort-of a famous plane. She set a World Speed Record that still stands, and is a well-publicized two-time National Champion race plane. Does that obligate me to simply re-do the livery she sports now? Maybe use a sparkly white instead of gloss? Or should I update the scheme? Or can I let my imagination run wild? I mean, really, what would the perfect Ercoupe paint scheme look like? When I look at the Coupes gathered at our national fly-ins, I’m not that impressed with most of their paint jobs. That’s sad. They are cool-looking airplanes. They deserve cool looking paint jobs. But what would that look like, exactly? And what if I were wrong? I’d hate like hell to take a chance, try to design something, then detest the way the plane looks every time I open the hangar doors.

Not sure what I wanted to do, at AirVenture this last summer I prowled the paint vendor’s booths and talked to many of them, and I also attended a few workshops on the painting process. One of them was led by a scheme designer.

What on earth is a scheme designer, you ask?

It’s not some sort of con man, as the name implies. Think of scheme designers as architects. They are part artist, part draftsmen. They create designs for airplane paint jobs and translate them into precise instructions for the paint shops. One, named Craig Barnett, particularly impressed me. He runs an outfit called Scheme Designers, which does paint jobs for airlines and aircraft manufacturers—and he’s even designed the paint schemes for many of AOPA’s sweepstakes planes. And Craig had an offer for me I couldn’t refuse: For a flat rate, he’d create an unlimited number of paint schemes for our plane, letting us explore the “entire universe of possibilities.” I figured if AOPA trusted him, I could trust him. I hired him on the spot.

Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people, so it took a looooooong time until I saw any exploration of my universe.

Anyway, at AirVenture, Craig looked at photos of Tess’s current paint job, which he declared to be 1970s Mooney-esqe. Fair enough. He asked what I wanted and I said I had no idea, which was why I was hiring him. He said he needed a little more to go on than that, and suggested I send him pictures of planes I liked. Or even cars. I didn’t have anything that visual in mind, so instead we talked concept. For starters, I asked him to create a modern, updated version of Tess’s current livery. Then I wanted something race-themed with checkered flags. He told me that he hated the checkered race flag look, but OK. Then I said, perhaps a muscle car look. I told him to avoid art deco or warbird, as there are a number of Ercoupes that have gone that way (successfully) and I wanted to do something different. I also told him to design one scheme completely based on the lines of the plane.

The first thing he did was send us out paint chips of aviation paints. Dozens of colors. The rainbow and more. As a family, we decided to stay with cool colors, leaning toward the blue and white we are used to (and would match the interior), but we threw in black and a kick-butt sparkly silver as options. In fact, most of the colors we chose were sparkly.

After that, we didn’t hear from Craig for a looooooong time.

Half a year after I hired him, just about when I was ready to abandon any hope we’d ever see anything, we got our first look.

This is his update of Tessie’s current look:

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I especially like what he did with the rudders, as I always felt that little triangle back there didn’t fit the rest of the design scheme very well. Filling in the area in front of the triangle really tied it in for me. I also like what he did with the nose pant, making it two tone. So that’s Tess, as we know her, updated.

He also created a slightly more whimsical version:

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And playing up the “Herbie” race number theme he submitted this Love Bug meets Ercoupe scheme:

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I like it, but wouldn’t use it, though I might consider it in different colors:

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The grey isn’t grey. It’s the kick-butt sparkly silver. From any distance it would look like polished aluminum. But the paint job that blew my mind was this hotrod racer one:

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I love the silver and black race flag motif. I adore the way it follows the gill-like edge of our cowl and wraps up onto her back. For a man who hates the race flag look, Craig sure nailed it. And the subtle flames licking down the side from the engine compartment completely blew my mind, as did the perfect placement of the bold race number on her flank. I miss the two-tone nose pant from the updated design, but I can see that it would be just too much if we did that, and I’m not sure about the bars on the rudders. Still, this is just a first draft. Any and all details can be tweaked.

I’d love to fly a low pass in this baby, and taxi into the race parking in it. It would be the ultimate racing Ercoupe look. Heads would turn, jaws would drop. We’d be the envy of every racer, even in our humble Ercoupe.

I couldn’t wait to show Rio. I was sure he’d love it as much as I did. His reaction? He shrugged one shoulder and said, “It doesn’t do much for me. I don’t think I want a race flag look.”

I was crushed.

Why does his opinion matter? Well, because, in point of fact, it’s his damned airplane. Or nearly so. The title to the family airplane is currently held by Grandma Jean. I sometimes (well often, actually) refer to Tess as my plane, but she isn’t and never will be. Mom has willed her airplane straight to my son Rio, bypassing me completely. It wasn’t that I’m a bad son, she helped her other grandchildren with their college, but Rio is the youngest and she didn’t think she’d still be around. It was her way of making things even. But the end result for me is that despite all the blood sweat and tears I’ve but into the little beast, I’ll never own her. Now, if mom dies before Rio’s 25… or maybe it’s 23, I can’t remember… then I serve as the airplane’s trustee until he comes of airplane-owning age. But that’s it.

So while I could talk the current owner into a paint scheme that I like that he doesn’t, or could, in theory, acting in my role as future trustee, paint it any frickin’ way I want, it would be a mean butt-head thing to do. Given the cost and complexity of painting an airplane, Rio will need to live with our choice a long time.

Of course, I’m still the only licensed pilot flying Tess, and I’ll be damned if I’ll arrive at a race in a pink plane with purple polka dots—not that he’s suggested any such thing—my point simply being the two of us have to agree on a paint scheme. And I’m finding that now that Rio is becoming a young man, he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his old man very often. Serves me right for encouraging him to have a brain of his own.

Luckily Tess doesn’t need paint tomorrow, because this is going to be a looooong process. Poor Craig. He really has his work cut out for himself this time.

My family lives in a big universe.

 

Next week: Rio and I finally agree on something.

A new perspective on Santa’s commute

That looks unfriendly. Over there. To the right. The clouds are reaching down for the ground in a lover’s embrace, a curtain of grey-white cutting off my view of the horizon. When I first spied it, the curtain was parallel to my course, but now it’s converging, its far tip pointing like a finger to my home airport.

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A look at the radar shows a cigar-like yellow-orange echo, easily 20 miles long, mimicking what I’m seeing out the windscreen, confirming that the storm is heading to the same place I’m going. I’m 18 minutes out. I advance my throttle from cruise power to its race setting.

The race is on. The race against the weather.

As I close in on SXU it’s clear I’ve lost. The weather is the winner. The curtain slices across my path eight miles out. As I close in on it, it takes on an unusual look. At first, I thought it was rain… but no. It’s not streaky enough. It churns oddly. Uncloud like. It’s clumpy. Could it be smoke? There’s a controlled burn to the southside of the airport today, but the AWOS reports the wind is blowing the other way. Smoke from the fire should be going away from me, not toward me. And besides, how would smoke show up on the radar? I look back over my shoulder and the curtain extends to the far horizon behind me, not thinning. Doesn’t smoke usually dissipate as it drifts away from its fire? Still, clearly, smoke it must be. What else could it be? Maybe the surface winds are different from the winds aloft. Maybe a few hundred feet up they change direction. Hmmm… I must be alert for wind shear.

I close in on the plume, I can see through it, but not well. The land beyond is indistinct. I can see it’s a narrow band, but I’m surprised how opaque it is. Well, no worry. I can sort of see through it, and clearly at this speed I’ll blow through to the clear air beyond it in a matter of seconds. I turn slightly off course to the south to hit the column straight on, and prepare myself for the odor of burning grass and weeds.

As Tess and I plunge into the cloud, it turns into a dizzying swarm of white insects, then a white out. Snow! I’ve flown into an aerial blizzard! My forward visibility is gone in the flash of an eye, dashing through snowflakes at 100 miles per hour makes them as optically solid as London fog. Out my left side I see clusters of flakes churn and tumble as I blast through their mass, and then as suddenly as it started, I’m in the clear again.

I bank left to get back on course, flying side by side with the falling snow. So you are snow. Not smoke. Not rain. Not cloud. I’ve heard of how impossible snow is to fly in, but I’ve never experienced it. Now close, but not in the plume, I can see the flakes falling and I marvel at the long thin band of snow and wonder how it can fall over so many miles in such a pencil-like band.

No wonder Santa needs a beacon light.

“Let’s race!”

Our last air race was… gosh… when? Let me check my author index over at GA News… Wow. Seriously? The AirVenture Cup? Last summer? And that wasn’t even in our own airplane!

No wonder I’ve been such a grump lately.

But to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether or not that would be my last race. Sure, I still wear my race jacket with it’s many patches and logos, and when strangers at cocktail parties ask me what I do for a living I tell them I’m an air racer, but in truth my air racing future has been in serious doubt. At the end of last season when I drove out for the Championship awards and my colleagues asked me if I’d race in 2018, my stock answer was: I will always race. At least some. Will I shoot for the championship again? I haven’t decided yet.

But the truth was that I knew I couldn’t afford another try. Hell, I could barely afford the first try much less the last try. This racing is expensive, with the travel, the hotels, the food, the booze, and the wear and tear on the airplane. Last year, in my determination to win Gold, it was racing First for me all spring. I passed up the chance to refill my bank account teaching seminars in favor of empting it out with more racing. Then the maintenance issues started and I missed race after race after race after race while the money drained out of my checking account like water from a bathtub after a long soak.

It’s iconic. Last season there were a record number of races on the books, and a record amount of work available to me. This season, the number of races is modest and the work nearly non-existent. Had I only known, I could have taken last year off from racing, worked my tail feathers off, and have easily banked enough to pay for this season.

(((Sigh)))

Well, that’s hindsight for you, fickle little bitch that she is.

Anyway, this year I knew that work, not racing, needed to come First, and one of my jobs is teaching Rusty Pilot Seminars for AOPA. The seminars are three-hour gigs in various parts of the country, which almost always fall on Saturdays, the same day of the week as most air races. In advance of each quarter AOPA asks me (and the other instructors) which weekends we are available. Last season, I blocked out all the race weekends. That was a lot of weekends, and I didn’t end up teaching much. But, as I said, it was racing First.

When the racing season was announced for this year and I saw that, except for April, it was pretty much one race per month, I briefly toyed with blocking off all the race dates to keep my options open, but I stuck to my guns: Work First. Still, I drew the little race flags over each host airport on our big laminated wall planning chart, marked the race dates on our wall calendar, and penciled them lightly into my desk calendar.

Then I tried not to give them a second thought. I didn’t even check the league website every night at the dinner table to see who had signed up for each race, like I did nightly the last two seasons. I buried active thinking about air racing in some dark recess of my mind and pretended they didn’t exist.

The fly in the ointment was a commitment I made after reading my email following one to many glasses of wine. I promised one of the publications I write for that I’d go to Sun ‘n Fun, a stupid thing to do as the assignment will nowhere nearly pay for my costs of going. But still, it’s the one major aviation event Rio has never attended, so there’s the side benefit of being a good father.

But here’s where it gets complicated: The Sport Air Racing League (SARL) season kicks off with a race into Sun ‘n Fun. Given that I have to be there anyway, shouldn’t I race in?

Maybe. Maybe not. I can hop onto a Southwest Airlines flight and be in Florida in half a day. Flying Tess to Florida is a two or three day project, and arguably more expensive. What to do… What to do?

In the end, I decided to let Fate decide for me. I made no travel plans one way or another. When the days-available request for the quarter arrived from AOPA, I told them I was available every weekend except the weekend I’d be in Sun ‘n Fun, and that even that weekend I could teach one at Sun ‘n Fun if they wanted me to.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. And didn’t think too much about the racing. I tuned it out. Then, just before lunch a few days ago my assignments came in for the quarter. Oh wait. Not assignments. Assignment. As in one. I think I mentioned that work was nearly non-existent this year. Ironically, this one one gig is on a race weekend, but it wasn’t in April. I was free to run the Sun ‘n Fun race.

And actually, there’s more than one race. There’s a short pre-race in typical “round Robin” SARL style launching from Sandersville, GA; followed the next day by one of the two cross-country races of the season, this one down to Sun ‘n Fun. So I could, quite literally, get two races for the cost of one. Plus, there’s the speed trial out of Sun ‘n Fun that I ran last year. It’s not sanctioned by SARL, so I don’t get championship points for running it, but it’s still a hoot. So I had the opportunity to race three times in nearly as many days. There was no work lost, but it would add to the cost. So what to do?

Debs was off to town for groceries and Lisa was teaching at the college, so my Council of War was limited to Rio and Grandma Jean. Over salads and red wine for lunch I laid out the situation. Mom didn’t hesitate, “Let’s race!” she said firmly, thumping her wine glass down on the table for emphasis. I turned to Rio, who shrugged one shoulder and said, “I don’t see any harm in it.”

Unlike the rest of the clan, he was never fully infected by the racing bug.

“OK,” I said, and went to the library to throw my hat into the ring. I went to the SARL website, pulled up the first race, clicked on the I Am Racing! tab and entered my name, race number, and class.

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I hit the return key to submit my entry, and a wave of pure euphoria swept over me.

I’m racing again.