Wicked jets, shark-mouthed warbirds, and… a pink race plane?

The gull-winged Vaught F4U-4 Corsair of Black Sheep Squadron fame, arguably one of the most beautiful war planes of all time, is painted a deep glossy blue—nearly black. She sits near the hangar door, wings mimicking praying hands, folded upward towards the heavens.

DSC_4513

The man who taught me my commercial, instrument, and mountain skills—Gil Harris—flew one of these as a Marine pilot in the Pacific during World War II. Every time I see one of the iconic fighter planes I think of him.

But now, with the spinner high above my head, I’m struck once again by just how damn big the thing is, especially for a one-man fighter. It’s over 33 feet long from nose to tail. Unfolded, the wings stretch to 41 feet. But most impressively, the top of the engine stands nearly 15 feet off the ground. This one, with her wings reaching upward literally towers over me.

And it bears my Race Number: 53.

DSC_4507

Funny the way the aviation world is so full of connections. But it’s chilly inside the massive 64,000 square-foot-hangar, so I cut short my communion with the past and its links to the present, and move on to the next exhibit, a rare two-seat P-51 D Mustang named Friendly Ghost. Next on the flight line is a shark-mouthed P-40 Warhawk, the same type the Flying Tigers flew, but this one is in Army Air Force colors.

On the tail of the plane, a cowboy is urinating on the Rising Sun.

IMG_5496

I admire the moxie, but I sure wouldn’t want that on my tail if the Japanese shot me down.

I turn, and in the shadow of a gleaming black twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning is another old friend. Painted bright, cheerful yellow, a tiny Piper Cub manages to hold it’s own among the massive warbirds. A sign in the windshield says that it’s a 1937 model, and that it’s the oldest flyable Piper airplane in the world.

IMG_5501

And that’s what makes this museum special. The War Eagles Air Museum prides its self on keeping its collection aloft. Under nearly every one of the thirty-seven planes in their main hangar sits an oil pan. That’s not something you see in most air museums, where former denizens of the air are often shown as “static” displays, permanently grounded, shot and stuffed birds in a natural history diorama.

Airplanes are born to fly. I like museums that keep them flying, which is no easy thing to do. It’s much cheaper to park a plane and dust it off once a month than to keep it airworthy. It takes extra dedication to keep a collection aloft.

Next to the Cub, on a stand, is a cub engine. A 40-horse Continental A40-4. Ridiculously improbable as an aircraft engine, it’s small and simple. It looks like it belongs in a lawn mower rather than in an airplane. I have a vision of being able to tuck it under my arm and carry it to my mechanic for maintenance (although according to the internet, it weighs 150 pounds, and I’m not that strong).

IMG_5503

Looking down the isle, it’s airplanes as far as I can see.

IMG_5564

This world-class museum is in the unlikely location of Santa Teresa, New Mexico, population: 4,258. The village sits 30 miles west of El Paso, Texas, and six miles north of the Mexican border. Santa Teresa is Spanish for Saint Teresa, one of the patron saints of pilots.

Like I said, the universe is full of connections.

The collection of planes, like that of many airplane museums, is heavy on both military aircraft and World War II aircraft; but there is a handful of biplanes, two helicopters, a number of early fighter jets from the 50s, and a lovely DC-3. The museum is comfortably crowded, unlike the Mid-American Air Museum in Liberal, Kansas, which is uncomfortably crowded. War Eagles also has an interesting array of aviation artifacts—mementos, photos, uniforms, models, and more.

For car lovers, the museum includes a collection automobiles. In fact, they have more autos than airplanes, with more than fifty cars ranging from a 1908 Overland to a 1984 Jaguar, along with a great collection of antique gas pumps.

IMG_5545

Rounding a corner under the wing of a twin-engine Douglas A-26 light bomber, an unusual airplane catches my eye. Suspended from the ceiling in one corner is a Cessna 140.

And it’s Mary Kay pink.

I stop and rub my eyes, then look again. Yep. A lovely shade of pastel pink. Not normally a color you see an airplane painted. Her nose and wheel pants are painted a darker pink, as are her wing tips. She’s also sporting a Race Number: 22.

IMG_5581

Tickled pink, and I couldn’t wait to learn more about this unusual airplane.

Briefly, this is the story of Race 22, a.k.a. the “Cotton Clipper Cutie:” The small Cesena was the First Place winner of the 1954 all-women’s air race. Variously called the Women’s Air Derby, the All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, and today known as the Air Race Classic; the press at one time dubbed the long-running women’s cross country air race as the “Powder Puff Derby,” a moniker that different generations of women pilots have alternately either embraced or shunned.

The pink plane was piloted by Ruth Deerman and Ruby Hays of El Paso, now both sadly deceased. They were no strangers to the arduous race. They competed in the 1950, 1951, 1953 races without scoring a major victory, but their luck changed in 1954.

Flying from Long Beach, CA to Knoxville, TN, with nine intermediate stops, the women covered the nearly 2,000 mile route in five days, clocking an official speed of 123.9 miles an hour for the course, taking the first place slot in the 8th running of the race, and beating out fifty competitors.

The Women’s Race is a “handicapped” race, a system that places all the planes in the race on an equal footing. The winner isn’t the plane with the biggest engine; the winner is the plane with the best crew. Winning speed comes from precision flying, smart planning, finding and taking advantage of winds, and apparently, being fast on the ground, too.

According to the display, Hays, the copilot/navigator, related that—wearing a dress, nylons, a hat and gloves—she dashed from the plane at one of the checkpoints to get their log stamped and “took a spill” on some loose gravel, sliding right under the table!

She called it ignominious. But they won.

IMG_5602

The ladies donated the historic race plane and their trophy to the museum in 1994, along with a collection of memorabilia that includes a great photo of the two women lying on the ground waxing the belly of the plane with Wonder Earth glass wax.

So did Race 22 win the derby wearing pink? Sadly, no. She was painted pink in later years. A faded period B&W photo shows the polished silver plane as she looked crossing the finish line.

But now in the pink, she’s quite the eye catcher.

 

That time of year, again

I haven’t flown in eleven days, and I’m already getting crabby. Last night I nearly kicked one of the cats.

It’s not that eleven days is all that long. I often go weeks at a time when I don’t fly. But those dry spells are self-imposed. Right now, on the other hand, I can’t fly because I don’t have an airplane. And to make matters worse, I have no clue when Tess will be back in her hangar.

Yes. It’s that time of year again. Tess is in Santa Fe with her mechanics for her annual inspection. As is typical, the mechanics have refused to even speculate on how long this one will take. And I can’t go over and take her up for a stretch of her wings and my soul because at this very moment, her left wing isn’t even attached!

IMG_5293

The good news is that firewall forward she’s been given a clean bill of health. That means my mechanics started with her engine and made sure everything between me and the spinner is still in good shape after an epic year traveling the country racing. Next comes a long list of “squawks” that need repair.

The copilot fuel tank needs to be removed and rebuilt. That’s a biggie. Another biggie is that we’re biting the bullet and installing an ADS-B transponder so we can fly into controlled airspace after January 1, 2020.

Her yokes, ailerons, and nose gear are out of alignment. In level flight, the yokes are tilted 12 degrees to the left and her nose gear is crooked, causing drag and uneven wear on the nose tire from landing with it cocked slightly sideways. The pilot’s side door, once again, has broken; and the velts that the two doors slide along have worn to shreds and need to be replaced. The windshield seals have failed again too, so while all that glass is out we’ve decided to change it all to LP Aero UV/Infrared blocking replacements. I’m told that this magic material can drop cockpit temps by as much as 20 degrees. What a blessing that will be, plus we won’t need to use as much sunscreen!

One of the wing walks has come loose. The altimeter is wonky, and I’m not convinced the amp meter is working right. The tail is sagging a bit, so more spacers will have to be added to the main landing gear. And now that we have more electrical power than we used to have—thanks to the fact that the generator died last season and was replaced with an alternator—I’ve had my guys add some USB charging ports for all the modern gadgets we fly and travel with.

yimg-250778347-9002-635259256

The tie-down loop on the tail needed to be replaced. The cabin heat hose is in the way of the oil dipstick on the new exhaust. And so on, and so forth.

There’s nothing I can do but wait and let nature—and the mechanics— take its/their course.

It’s an annul ritual, and at least the enforced flying break makes me that much more grateful that the rest of the year I can drive to the airport and fly anytime I want.

In the meantime, however, I guess there’s nothing to do but go make up with the cat.

 

Old flames

When men talk about having “unfinished business,” it’s usually in reference to a woman who was on their sexual radar that somehow eluded radar lock. Many married men don’t even regard sleeping with a lady they had unfinished business with as cheating on their spouses. I guess the rationalization is that the would-be relationship pre-dated their vows, so that makes it OK. But I’m not here to talk about ethics. Rather, I have a confession to make: I, myself, have unfinished business.

But it’s not with a woman.

It’s with an airplane.

The story begins in the spring of 1981 when I started my flight training in a ratty old Citabria. It was a fabric-covered high wing tail dragger from the mid 60s with a tandem design. I sat in the front and my half-deaf flight instructor sat behind me, shouting at me, pounding his fist on my shoulder, and generally making me a nervous wreck.

But that’s a story for another day.

The Citabria and I were flying out of KGXY, the Greeley-Weld County airport well north of Denver. Back in those days it was the busiest uncontrolled airport in the state, with two flight schools and scores of privately owned airplanes. Every few days as I walked to the Citabria’s hangar I passed an open hangar that held a gleaming Beechcraft Duchess.

Dutchesssmaller

Image: Air Associates of Kansas

She was a sleek, modern, four-seat powder blue two-engine airplane, called a “twin” in the biz. Her panel was a blizzard of dials, instruments, and readouts. Between the front seats sat a bulky quadrant with twin throttles, twin mixture controls, and twin prop controls.

VC_10

Image: AvSim

This was a real man’s airplane.

I was seventeen at the time, and I fell in love. Well, maybe it was lust.

Every night as I lay down to sleep in my basement bedroom I dreamed of flying the blue Duchess through sapphire skies between towering white clouds. I could feel my right hand wrapped around those twin throttles, thrusting them forward, feeling the force of her engines push me back into the pilot’s seat.

Detail_4

Image: AvSim

Many of my friends had Farrah Fawcett pinup posters on their bedroom walls. I had a colored 8×10 of the Duchess, carefully clipped out of Pilot Magazine.

She fueled my dreams of flying and I couldn’t wait until I had enough experience to climb behind the yoke of a twin. In those days, you weren’t a “real” pilot until you were twin-rated.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1983. By then I’d earned my Private ticket and my instrument rating, I was building time toward my Commercial license, and I was finally standing on the wing of a twin-engine airplane, getting ready for my first lesson.

The wing I was standing on did not, however, belong to the sleek Duchess of my teenage fantasies.

Instead, it belonged to a battered Piper Apache, older than I was. Outside, her paint was a faded and chipped, butter yellow in color. Her tires were nearly bald. She sat on the tarmac slightly lopsided. Inside, her vinyl seats were cracked, the fabric on her walls threadbare and water stained. Her instruments were arranged in a seemingly random manner on a charcoal-grey panel that might once have been black. The throttles I had dreamed of wrapping my hands around were broken Bakelite plastic, and the trim controls were above my head, literally, on the cabin ceiling. She was so underpowered that if I had lost one engine, the other one would have carried me only to the scene of the crash. It’s true. Her single-engine service ceiling was about 500 feet below the mile-high Colorado terrain.

I couldn’t wait to fly her.

I did 10.8 hours in that old Apache and loved every minute of it. She was a battered and abused veteran, for sure, but she was a real plane and I was on the verge of finally becoming a real pilot.

But it was not to be.

When I showed up for my check ride with the FAA Examiner, he told me that the rules had changed. If I took my ride that very day, my multi-engine rating would forever be part of my Private license. It wouldn’t upgrade to my Commercial ticket. He advised me to wait, take my Commercial check ride in the twin, kill two birds with one stone, and be a Commercial multi pilot. I took his advice.

My instructor called me a pussy, and accused me of being afraid of the checkride. And she was a lady instructor, mind you.

Then, before I had enough hours for my Commercial check ride, the flight school sold the old Apache and I never got my multi-engine rating, a wound that still festers to this day.

I need a multi-engine rating now like I need a hole in my head. But still, sometimes, I don’t feel like a real pilot without it. But there was nothing to be done about it. I returned to flying under what’s called the Light Sport Rule, which only allows for single engine airplanes.

I did this because during my last absence from flying I developed a minor health issue (at least minor as in terms of affecting my ability to fly) that would have made getting a standard pilot medical time-consuming and terribly expensive. The Light Sport Rule circumvented that and let me use my driver’s license in lieu of a medical.

But now the medical rules have changed, and suddenly, a universe of airplanes is now available to me. Or will be in after May 1st.

Will we trade Tessie in on a more capable aircraft? Hell no. She’s family and I’ve come to love her, shortcomings and all. I don’t think I could ever enjoy flying any other plane as much as I enjoy flying the ‘Coupe.

But one morning recently I woke up and realized that there was nothing stopping me from completing my unfinished business with the twins, and becoming a multi-engine pilot. Thirty-four years late.

Well, nothing stopping me but time and money, that is.

I spent a day online looking at my options. In the end I found a guy in a location that was convenient to my race schedule who is offering an accelerated multi-engine add-on at a reasonable price. Well, reasonable for twin-engine flight training, anyway. And he was using an Apache. I signed up. It won’t be the Duchess of my teen fantasies, but it will be a reunion with an old friend of sorts.

And when I’m done, I’ll finally be a “real” pilot.

 

Meet the newest member of the family

Now there are nine of us. I count the New Mexico branch of the family like this:

The nuclear family is three—Debs, Rio, and me.

The extended family is two—Grandma Jean and Lisa.

Then there are the two cats—Khaki and Cougar.

And the airplane—Tessie.

So that made a total of 8 of us before the newest member of the clan showed up. Smaller than Tessie and smarter than the cats is D-drone. Yes, I’m now the proud adoptive father of an intelligent flying camera. Here are my two sons together:

imagejpeg_3

It all started out, as many things around here do, with an article. I was writing an article on drones, officially called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs for short. No shit, there are now more UAVs in the sky than there are honest-to-God aircraft.

Actually… that’s really not fair, because I learned—and you are about to—that a modern drone is truly an aircraft in every sense. So more correctly, I should have said: No shit, there are now more aircraft in the sky without pilots in them than with pilots.

Anyway, all drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds need to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Anyone who wants to make money flying one also needs to get a drone pilot’s license (people who fly them for fun don’t need the license), and the Feds made it easy for existing pilots to get the new license. How easy? It actually took me less time to get the drone license than it did to get the drone registered, but that’s a story for another day.

Getting my license was a simple matter of taking an online class and passing a test. I did that for my article with no intention of going out and getting a drone. That was actually the irony I was writing about: That you could get a drone pilot license without ever having flown a drone.

But then… well, I’m not sure how things got this out of hand…

It probably started when Rio and Lisa bought a toy drone before Christmas. It had a very sad little camera, but it got us thinking about the possibility of getting some shots of Tess from above for our Air Racing series in GA News, which is coming back next season. Then a few weeks later at BestBuy, when I was looking for some computer stuff, I saw a handsome rescue-orange drone that was drool worthy.

IMG_5074

In particular, I was entranced with its camera. It was sporting a camera that looked like it was capable of taking quality images. A few weeks later Rio and I were in Santa Fe with some extra time to kill, so I took him to see Orange Drone.

He didn’t think much of it, but was drawn to the next drone over (BestBuy had a whole isle full of drones). This drone had six motors, a huge camera slung under its belly, and pair of sensors on the front that looked like eyes. It was called a Yuneec Typhoon. It was more Star Wars droid than traditional flying machine, and it was “only” eight hundred bucks.

IMG_5077

Rio pressed a button on the drone’s sales display and a large flat-screen TV above the drone came to life. Bathed in the light of stunning high-def, Rio and I stood transfixed as on the video the wicked-looking black drone rose up off the ground, its landing gear rising smoothly up and out of the way. Then it whisked off into action, its camera able to turn unobstructed through 360 degrees.

I was sold.

We couldn’t wait to share the video with the rest of the family.

When we got home we booted up the computer, but could not find the promo piece online. Instead we found a YouTube review that ended up convincing us that the retractable gear Typhoon was not the right piece of gear for us after all. The review started out as death by a thousand pinpricks. The reviewer was comparing the wicked black beast to a boring-looking white drone from some company I’d never heard of: DJI. More on them in a minute. In every test he devised to compare the two flying machines, the Typhoon under-performed. Sometimes by a little. Sometimes by a lot. I kept rooting for the Typhoon, but it kept falling short.

But the killing blow was the tree.

Both the drones are supposed to have sensors and intelligent software that lets them follow moving objects (people, cars, boats) while avoiding stationary objects (mountains, houses, telephone poles). In this part of the review our host walked though a small grove of trees. He hadn’t gone even ten feet before the Typhoon drone smacked head-on into the first tree, shattering propellers and collapsing to the ground in a pile of twisted broken plastic and metal, its camera severed from it’s body.

Rio and I sat in depressed silence.

Then I booted up Google to learn more about the other drone, the DJI one. As it turns out, DJI is the world’s drone leader, and has been for years. In list after list of top drones, DJI products dominate. The more I read, the more impressed I got. And, sadly, the more I compared DJI’s various models, the clearer it became that the newest—and most expensive—models had clear advantages over the older, cheaper models. I decided to start at the top, rather than buy cheap and have to upgrade in six months.

How expensive was it? One penny under eighteen hundred bucks.

But consider that it’s (1) an excellent camera, capable of taking 20 megapixel stills and high def video; (2) it’s a computer; and (3) it’s a flying machine. You’d expect to pay nearly that much, or more, for any one of the three. So all three together for that price is a real bargain.

Or at least that’s the argument I made to my wife.

I don’t think she bought it, but she let me buy the drone anyway.

We originally planned to test it on the tarmac at the Plane Tales airport, but the day after it arrived we woke to a dead-still morning, so Rio and I took D-drone out into the front yard before he had to go to school and pressed the auto takeoff button. The four motors came to life, and buzzing like a swarm of angry bees, the little white machine rose smoothly into the air about three feet and stayed there, as if frozen in place.

I don’t know about other drones, but I have to say, D-drone is one of the best-handling flying machines I’ve ever gotten my paws on. It’s well behaved and rock solid in a wide range of conditions and winds. It’s responsive to the controls without being hyper. The camera is easy to deploy and takes great video and stills.

But surely it’s not a real aircraft, you say. Well consider one spec alone. Its service ceiling is 19,685 feet. Quite a bit better than Tessie, and of course, illegally high in US airspace for a drone.

Still, it’s an impressive statistic.

And while it can only fly at speeds up to 45 mph, it has a climb rate of 1,180 feet per minute, better than most manned airplanes. Of course a battery will keep it airborne for only half an hour, and it would be hard pressed to carry any cargo. After all, this is a photo drone, not a pizza delivery drone.

But like my fellow humans, my cats, and the family airplane; I’m quickly learning that D-drone has a personality. And probably a soul to go along with it.

And that’s why we are now a family of nine.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0138.JPG

Slow flight

Ah. So this is what it’s like to fly a hot air balloon. The view is fine, but our movement over the ground is so slow that it feels like we’re standing still. Nearby mesa tops remain stationary. Or nearly so. The minute hand sweeps across the face of my pilot’s watch and no landmark appears any nearer. Distant roads stay distant.

Frankly, it’s eerie. Having air race blood in my veins, I think I’d make a poor balloon pilot. Of course balloon pilots are immune from my current worry.

Rio consults the chart, “We’re still inside the VOR ring.”

The compass rose ring on the chart around Anton Chico VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Range) radio station is 25 miles across. We’ve been flying over this one for half an hour. Our ground speed indicator shows 36 miles per hour. This is ridiculous. And I’m starting to think about all those pilots who run out of gas and crash ten miles from their destinations.

I run the math again. In my head. Because my navigation system apparently can’t deal with speeds this slow. Normally my Garmin Pilot App displays a constantly updated ETE, or Estimated Time Enroute, telling me how much time it will take to get to my destination. Using it, I can quickly compare this remaining flight time estimate with my elapsed flight time, and know if I’ve got the gas to get where I’m going. But on this flight, anytime our ground speed drops below 45 miles per hour, the ETE screen goes blank—right when I need it the most.

Usually gas isn’t much of a worry for me, even though Ercoupes don’t have what most people would consider functional gas gauges. Instead, I know that if I put six-and-one-half inches of fuel in each wing tank I can fly for two hours. I measure the fuel depth with a clear plastic straw marked with a scale. That gives me a 200-mile range, more or less. For reserve, regulations require me to have an additional 30 minutes of fuel onboard, but my personal minimums are greater because we have a lot of open spaces between airports out here in the West. I consider my header tank to be my reserve: A full hour of fuel.

Today’s flight is only ninety miles. We’re ferrying Tess from her home base in Santa Rosa over Rowe Mesa to Santa Fe for her annual inspection. An annual inspection is a religious ritual in which you take your plane to the Maintenance Temple and make a sacrifice of a big pile of money so that the Maintenance Gods will grant you another year’s safe flying.

Yes, plane ownership is a religion.

Our speed drops. Again. We are at full power, in level flight, and our speed over the ground is—I kid you not—31 miles per hour.

IMG_5227

Luckily we’re half way to Santa Fe, because if we’d had to go this speed the whole way, the trip would have taken 2 hours and 54 minutes, leaving us with only six minutes of fuel on landing. Of course, I’d never fly the tanks that dry. I’d have aborted the attempt long before.

Still, I’ve burned through an hour of fuel already. I’ve got another hour in the wings, plus my reserve. At this speed we’ll just be tapping into the reserve on arrival. That’s OK. That’s what a reserve is for. But I confess, I’ve never bucked a headwind like this one, and I never thought I’d be worrying about fuel on a ninety-mile flight.

So what’s up with that? We’re flying into the teeth of an eighty-mile per hour gale, that’s what. A silent gale. An invisible gale. It’s sunny and the air is calm with only the occasional jolt to remind us we are passing through a fluid medium rather than sitting on a mountaintop taking in the view.

More bizarrely, Santa Fe is reporting calm winds. And even though my nav system is on strike about our arrival time, it still shows my altitude above the ground: We’re only 1,600 feet up. I consider dropping lower to try and get out of the winds but there are two problems. First, the terrain is rising and with both Rio and I aboard we’re close to our upper weight limit. That means Tess doesn’t climb well. Actually, even lightly loaded she’s not a fast climber. She’s not the kind of plane you want to barnstorm rising terrain in.

And the second problem is wind shear.

Wind shear is a violent difference in wind between two altitudes. And if you’re in 80 mile per hour winds at only 1,600 feet and it’s calm at the surface, it’s very likely that there will be a wind shear boundary between you and the surface. Wind shear can affect aircraft lift, so passing through it can cause a plane to momentarily stop flying and start falling. As I didn’t know how close to the surface the wind shear would be, I didn’t want to chance it. So we kept crawling over the ground up in the wind.

Rio jerks forward in his seat three times, like a jockey trying to urge a stubborn horse onwards. “Come on,” he growls.

I laugh. Then I run the numbers in my head again and start considering my options if our speed drops into the twenties. Can the head wind get so strong that we’d be moving forward through the air at 110 miles per hour but moving backwards over the ground?

Yes. Yes it can, but rarely this low. Winds that strong are usually high up in the atmosphere where airliners roam. Still if it gets much worse we won’t have the fuel to continue.

What then?

Plan A is to turn tails and run for home. As soon as I reverse course I know my 31 mph ground speed will jump to 190 mph as the headwind becomes a tailwind.

We can get home quickly. Very quickly.

Plan B is to turn south and strike out for the nearest airport for refueling, then climb back into the wind and slug it out again. But I comfort myself that even at 31 miles per hour, we can make it to Santa Fe.

Then our ground speed drops to 29 miles per hour.

But only for an instant. Then it increases to a blazing 35 miles per hour. I stay the course.

And we make it. Two-point-one hours on the Hobbs for a ninety-mile trip. Average time for the course: 42.86 miles per hour.

A most un-airplane like speed.

The Flight of the Phoenix

The final installment of Air Racing From the Cockpit just hit the streets. It’s part twenty. Can you believe it? I can’t. I’ve been writing professionally for nearly 40 years and I can assure you I’ve never had a gig like this! Aside from regular columns, I think the largest series I’ve ever written on one subject was four-part series.

Plus, each was given generous space and was lavishly illustrated.

Screen Shot 2017-01-14 at 9.17.58 AM

That’s over with now, but don’t be sad: I have good news. Air Racing From the Cockpit is coming back next season! Each story will be slightly shorter–web stats show modern readers don’t finish longer articles anymore–but every single issue from March until the end of the year will feature a new race adventure.

There are 18 races scheduled so far this year, and three more in the works. It will be a long and tough season. Will we score the Gold? Follow me on the pages of GA News to find out. The second season of the series starts March 23!

 

 

Heavy reading

“Paper or plastic?” is the common question at checkout. When it comes to my groceries, I’m ambivalent. It seems that the clerks always overload the paper bags so that they suffer structural failures halfway across the parking lot, but the modern plastic bags are so thin as to be only mildly superior to thin air.

But where I always prefer paper to plastic is in my books. I’d much rather sit down with a “real” book than read on my computer, iPad, or Kindle. And if I have a choice of a hardcover book over a paperback, I’ll get the hardcover.

That said, I just bought a book that simply doesn’t function in paper. I should’a chosen plastic.

The book in question has the riveting tile of FAR AIM, and it’s the bible of the modern aviator. FAR stands for Federal Aviation Regulations, and AIM stands for Aeronautical Information Manual.

FAR is the rules, AIM are the procedures.

It’s important to know both. Back when I was a fledgling aviator, the books were two separate volumes (and in those days AIM stood for Airman’s Information Manual) and I wish they were still two books because today’s combined FAR AIM tips the scale at nearly three pounds.

In paperback.

There’s no hardcover option because no one in his or her Wright mind would buy it. You see, not only would it weigh too much to carry in any general aviation airplane, but it would be cost prohibitive as well. Every year the FAR AIM is updated.

Why did I say this book doesn’t function in paper? Well, while the book is large in both weight and length—it’s 1,123 pages long—the print is small and the margins tiny. Due to the number of pages, the book is so thick that it won’t even open properly. Along the binding the text in the center disappears into a canyon of paper, making it nearly impossible to read when held in the lap, the only place to hold a three-pound book.

If ever there was a book that was good for nothing but ballast, this is it. Thank God I didn’t have to pay for shipping, thanks to being a member of Amazon Prime.

I struggled with the book for about two hours before I said to myself, you should’a chosen plastic. In another hour I changed course, set aside the three-pound bundle of paper, and ordered the Kindle version. It’s lighter, plus I can make the text any size I want to make it.

IMG_5210

It won’t make the reading any lighter, but it will lighten the load.

 

Blown away

Damn. It’s windy again. I mean really windy. I can hear it crashing against the west wall of my house, tearing across the roof, and rattling the screen doors. Our weather station says the wind is 38 miles per hour. With gusts to 45.

bcf0b114b2d4b75c252c8d5f5c7a17b3_wind-clip-art-wind-pictures-clip-art_719-474

Artwork: ClipartFox

Not a great day for flying.

Not that I couldn’t fly, but I’ve decided to stay home and curl up with a good book rather than take on the wind gods. But before I do—curl up with the book that is—this is a great opportunity to discuss wind and airplanes. In the past, we’ve talked about how wind blowing in the opposite direction of the airplane’s course (a headwind) can slow down your progress in getting to your destination, while wind blowing the same direction as the airplane’s course (a tailwind) can get you there faster. And if you are down low in the atmosphere, strong winds can make for a bumpy ride, as the wind creates turbulence as it flows over, around, and through ground features.

But other than these issues with ground speed and smoothness of ride, wind doesn’t have much of an effect on airplanes in the air. Just like a fish is largely immune to the actions of the water it’s swimming in, airplanes don’t care much about the wind.

Except when they are taking off or landing.

Then wind matters. A lot. Especially if the wind is from one side or the other, what’s called a crosswind. By definition, a crosswind is any wind that’s blowing across a runway. Most airplanes really don’t care for crosswinds. The crosswind will try to blow them off the runway that you’re trying to take off from, or land on, and the trick to operating in a crosswind is to use the controls of the plane to counteract the effects of the wind.

Unless the wind is so strong that you run out of control travel.

Simply put, at some amount of wind there just isn’t enough aileron or rudder authority to overcome the wind. Taking off or landing in these conditions pushes you off the runway and you can end up in a sad little pile of twisted aluminum in the weeds downwind of the taxiway.

So how do we pilots know how much wind is too much for our airplanes so that we don’t end up in a sad little pile of twisted aluminum?

I’m glad you asked.

First, know that the wind practically never blows directly across a runway. It generally blows at some sort of an angle to it instead. This brings us to our aviation term of the day: Crosswind component. It’s the percentage of the wind speed that’s acting in a crosswise manner adjusted for the difference between the direction of the runway and the direction of the wind.

We can use a table, graph, or an app to determine the crosswind component.

IMG_5123

I grant you that at first this all seems a little obtuse, but it’s actually one of the most important aspects of aviation weather because all general aviation airplanes (at least modern ones) have what’s called a “demonstrated crosswind component” as part of their certification, and this number is printed in the aircraft’s operating handbook.

This number tells you how much of a crosswind your plane can handle, at least when it’s flown by a professional test pilot. So there are two things to consider: First, it’s not a maximum. The plane can probably handle more. And second, it doesn’t matter that it can probably handle more because most pilots probably don’t have the skill to fly the damn thing up to the demonstrated crosswind component in the first place.

Still, it’s a nice way to compare apples to apples when operating in different airplanes.

Most general aviation aircraft have a demonstrated crosswind component of somewhere in the 15-20 mph range (of course in most aviation circles, winds is reported in knots, so our range would be 13-17 knots).

But Tessie isn’t most airplanes.

Her design makes her the Crosswind Queen. But to understand why she is, I need to quickly introduce you to how crosswinds are handled in lesser planes. To keep it simple, let’s just focus on landings. When landing most planes in crosswinds, there are two basic techniques.

The most common technique is called a sideslip. The upwind wing is lowered to keep the plane from being blown off course, and opposite rudder is used to keep the plane from turning into the wind. This has you landing at a crazy bank angle, usually touching down on one main landing gear before the other, but it works.

The other way is to use the “crab” method: The plane is held level with its nose pointed into the wind. The ground track follows the runway heading, but the plane is flying somewhat sideways, hence the name “crab.” Right as you flare for landing, you need to kick the rudder to straighten out the plane for touchdown. Why? Because touching down sideways in most planes will rip the landing gear right off. One FAA course on crosswind landings states that crab landings require “timely and accurate action” in the final phase of touchdown.

OK. So sharp readers might have noticed that both techniques require using the rudder peddles. But the Plane Tales Plane doesn’t have rudder pedals, as her rudders are physically attached to her ailerons, so you might be thinking, how on earth can she handle crosswinds at all, much less be Queen of them?

Right. No side slips for me. If I lower the upwind wing, the plane will turn, as I have no way to apply opposite rudder. I would end up circling the runway numbers, never landing. However, I can fly in a crab, no problem. Still, with no rudder peddles, how can I take that last-minute “timely and accurate” rudder kick to straighten the plane?

I can’t. But I don’t need to. And the secret is in the Ercoupe’s main landing gear design, not in her rudder operation. Ercoupes have a robust trailing link main gear that makes them pretty much immune from side load damage. In a ‘Coupe you hold the crab all the way trough touchdown, when the forward motion of travel will pivot the plane nicely parallel to the runway seconds after landing on it at a crazy angle. This unique way of returning to earth has created the legend that Ercoupes have castering landing gear. They don’t. It’s just simple physics.

It takes time for pilots trained in less robust planes (including me when we first had Tessie) to overcome their training-instilled fear and simply land the damn plane sideways, but it works. And because there’s no need to cross-control to handle the winds, it means Coupes can land in winds that leave the rest of the fleet grounded.

The “book” crosswind component of the later Ercoupes is 25 mph, already 5 mph higher than almost any other general aviation airplane; and many experienced Ercoupe pilots don’t even pay attention to crosswind components until it exceeds 30 miles per hour (roughly double what the typical plane can handle).

So why aren’t I flying the Crosswind Queen today? Is the wind beyond my personal skill?

Actually, no. I’m one of those who have landed with crosswinds somewhere in the 30 mph range. So I can do it if I need to.

But there’s a difference between what’s possible, and what’s fun. So if it fell to me to deliver the serum that would stop a plague today, I would be out there right now, not even worrying about the wind. But while Tess is Queen in the crosswind, such strong winds bring a lot of turbulence. And she’s no Queen in turbulence. Her lightweight and wing loading make her like a bucking bronc in weather like this.

What’s wing loading, you ask? That’s a subject for another day…

 

The year flew by

My favorite kind of calendar is those square jobs that dedicate their entire surface area to telling you what day it is, and nothing else. No pithy sayings. No motivational poetry. No graphics. No kittens and puppies. Just a big, bold number and the day of the week. Pure. Elemental. Basic.

K15017_1

Every day is a fresh start. You literally tear off the day before and throw it away. There’s something cathartic about leaving the past behind in such a hands-on, mechanical way.

And now with only two sheets left—today and tomorrow—it’s a reminder that 2016 is also about to enter the dustbin of history, inspiring me to look back on my year. But with all my calendar pages in the landfill, how am I to do that?

Luckily for me, we pilots are required to keep a log of all of our flights to prove training, experience, and currency. I poured a second cup of coffee and sat down at my desk and began to slowly flip though the green pages of the log.

In 2016, I filled four pages of tightly spaced lines with tiny, cramped, handwritten script. The logbook records 252.9 hours of aerial adventures for the year.

IMG_5080

Is that a lot? Well, it depends on who you are. An airline pilot would probably fly that much in a few months (they are limited to 1,000 hours per year); while the average for general aviation pilots nationwide is 35 hours a year—although that figure includes people like me who fly more, so the typical pilot flies a lot less.

My eyes slid slowly down the columns of scribbles, and as I reread the brief, Tweet-like entries, the flights came alive for me again. The blue sky above the canopy. The dull roar of the engine through my headset. The throb of power that pulses through the airframe. The sun twinkling off the waxed surface of the wings. And the magical feeling of slicing through the air in defiance of all logic, levitating above the ground in a metal object that weighs over a thousand pounds.

The year’s first flight was on January 8th. My logbook shows I ferried Tessie back from maintenance in Santa Fe. My logbook notes the plane was, “hot and fast,” complete with a smiley face, but I see the flight time was nearly two hours—twice what was needed.

I must have gone sightseeing on the way home. No big surprise; the previous flight was five weeks before. She had been in her annual inspection and I must have been thirsty for the sensation of flight after such a long dry spell.

My logbook ends the year yesterday with a flight to nowhere. I went up and practiced race turns near our home airport so I wouldn’t get rusty in the off-season. Rio came along with me but stayed on the ground learning to fly his Christmas toy drone inside the empty hangar next to ours.

In between these bookend flights are endless adventures. The first, if you missed it, was an early January beer run of sorts to Kansas, flying low and hot to break in a new engine cylinder. The following month, in February, we flew up to 10,000 feet, just to prove we could. Then I flew Rio to his flying lesson (he had taken up gliders), although later in the year he decided that airplanes without engines weren’t right for him. March saw race practice, and in April it was off to the far eastern borders of Texas for our first race, a 7.5-hour flight. It was followed by two more the same month.

May saw us flying over the Gulf of Mexico on a race trip that logged 22.6 hours in the air with the commute to the race, the practice run, the race itself, and the flight home—all in five days. It also was the month a speed mod went south on us in a big way.

June had me racing down the Mississippi River. Literally. And then turning around and flying across the Rocky Mountains and up to Washington State. I was in the air 12 days that month. It was heavenly. Naturally, in July we took the required pilgrimage to aviation’s Mecca: AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

In August we were on display at the state’s largest fly in, but it was a slow month for flying, with few hours logged. September saw us flying to the west twice, once for an air race in Arizona and the second time for a race in the southern Colorado Rockies. On that second flight I spent a lot of time in the plane, but very little time flying it, being stranded by weather at a desolate unmanned airstrip in the middle of nowhere.

October is the scantiest month of the year in my logbook, with a paltry 1.1 hours logged. What’s up with that?

The log told the story in a format that’s not changed in my lifetime: Date. Aircraft Type. “N” number. Where the flight started. Where it stopped. Then there’s not-quite two inches to add a “remark.”

The remark on the flight of October 3rd is, “break down.” Yeah. Our girl sat out the month in Clovis, not even 100 miles from home.

With the coming of November we were in the air again, to Grove, Oklahoma, and down into southern Texas for races, then wrapping up the month helping the family student pilots practice their landings.

December was more practice, race practice for me, pattern work for Lisa, and landing practice for Rio.

It was a good year. Next week, at the start of the New Year, it’s off to Santa Fe to drop Tess off for her annual inspection, bringing us full circle.

Time for a new calendar. Time for a new logbook page.

Wine and balance

For you non-pilot readers (I love you!) there’s a thing called weight and balance we pilots are supposed to do before every flight. It’s a series of mathematical machinations that are used to make sure the plane is not too heavily loaded and that whatever load it’s carrying is positioned so that the aircraft won’t be too nose nor too tail heavy to fly safely.

In the old days we used complex charts, slide rules, and pencil and paper to confirm that we were safe to fly. Now there are a slew of modern electronic options and apps for the purpose.

Is this really necessary for the small, car-like planes most of us fly? Damn straight! Most four-seat airplanes can’t actually fly with four people, some baggage, and full fuel—so this becomes important. Even the Plane Tales Plane is incapable of flight with two of us onboard and all three of her fuel tanks full to the brim.

For us at Plane Tales, it’s really all about the weight. As a two-seat, side-by-side airplane, the balance side of the equation for Tessie really doesn’t come into play as she has no backseat. I just need to make sure that no more than 75 pounds of baggage goes into the luggage compartment and I’m good to go on balance. Weight, on the other hand, has a huge impact on us, but perhaps not the impact you’d expect. We can actually pack the plane to her gills if we want to, but if we do, we won’t be able to go very far.

You see, every pound in the cockpit means a pound less fuel in the tanks. Actually, we pilots don’t think in pounds, we think in six-pound units. That’s because a gallon of aviation gasoline weighs six pounds. [Technically, it weighs 6.01, a difference which would matter in very large planes, but with the typical fuel loads in general aviation airplanes the difference is marginal, so we use the easier-to-manage six pound figure for weight and balance calculations.]

In the Plane Tales Plane, as we burn something in the neighborhood of six gallons per hour, each gallon of fuel gives us 10 minutes of flying time. At our current performance, in no-wind conditions, that gallon of gas will take us 18 miles.

It doesn’t sound like a much. And it isn’t. For six pounds. But consider what a typical travel suitcase weighs. The airlines cap carry-on luggage at 50 pounds per bag. Putting a 50-pound suitcase in Tessie would reduce her range by one hundred and fifty miles!

This is why we are the kings of packing light. Every ounce we save lets us fly farther without refueling. Refueling is kinda fun, because you see all kinds of places you’ve never seen before, but it’s always time consuming with approach, pattern entry, landing, taxiing, talking to the airport bums and answering the obligatory “does your ‘Coupe have rudder peddles” question. (She doesn’t.) Plus, many times there simply isn’t an airport where you really need one, so a cross-country flight can become a serpentine zigzag affair resulting in the elapsed travel time of an oxcart.

So if we really need to get somewhere far, far away, we need as much gas in the tanks as we can safely muster.

Now, I need to divert from our course to talk about my wife. She actually enjoys flying. At least now and then. For short periods of time. When the air is absolutely calm. And when I’m content to limit the bank angle of turns to about five degrees.

The rest of the time, visions of fiery crashes dance in her head, and she pictures Rio an orphan. Accordingly, she’s the least-flying member of the family, and because of that, I’m never 100% sure how much aviation lore and knowledge is actually in her head.

But recently, I learned that, in her quiet way, she has been paying close attention.

Second diversion: There’s nothing that I enjoy more at the end of a long day than a nice glass of red wine. Or two. And sometimes three. This is a mission easily accomplished at home. But during the last race season we had some problems. There are dry counties that aren’t marked on aeronautical charts (they should be). There are strange liquor laws in some states about where wine can be sold. And on what days. And at what time of day. In short, wine shops proved to be in shorter supply than airports on our travels. Plus, there’s the problem of what to do with a partly un-consumed bottle of wine on the road. And sometimes the cost of wine in far-flung locations was more than the cost of the Avgas the plane was drinking.

The obvious solution was to bring our wine with us as part of our luggage.

But wine weighs. In fact, as a pure liquid, it weighs more than aviation gasoline. Wine tips the scales at 10 pounds per gallon. And worse yet, the typical packaging of wine is in glass bottles.

And glass bottles are heavy. More on that in a minute.

Plus there was the problem of multi-day trips. There was no way we could carry enough wine for long journeys, but I could at least protect myself from wine-free zones by carrying enough to cover me for one dry landing, and attempt to resupply “on the road.”

Bottles being out due to the weight and balance, I tried wine “miniatures” first. They come in both plastic and glass. I sent Debs to town with orders to find the plastic bottles. They were light enough but suffered the Goldilocks syndrome, with one bottle being too little, two bottles being not quite enough, but three bottles being too much. And traveling with a wine-drinking copilot the number of miniatures needed ended up requiring math harder than the most complex weight and balance equation.

Next, I considered boxed wine, but the boxes typically hold the equivalent of four bottles of wine and were excessively heavy. I didn’t want to have to choose between wine and clothes. I’ve never flown naked, and I don’t see why one couldn’t (with enough sunscreen) but it would be excessively embarrassing (and probably illegal) at fuel stops.

So the problem was one of those that seemed to be eluding a solution until the day Debbie came home triumphantly with something new. It was called a “brick” of wine, and sure enough, is about the size and shape of a typical construction brick. It held the equivalent of two bottles of wine, enough to fuel the crew for a typical cross-country. “How much weight do you think this will save over a pair of bottles?” she asked me.

“Let’s find out,” I replied, and got out our kitchen scale and two bottles of wine.

IMG_4510

The pair of bottles weighed in at 5.7 pounds. The box at 3.5 pounds. Debs had saved us a full 2.2 pounds and added just a hair over six and a half miles to our range.

My non-pilot wife had worked out the perfect wine and balance.