Sky Kings

Sometimes flying a light plane is like driving a Jeep over a bad mountain road: A bumpy, jarring, tooth-rattling, stomach-churing journey. The sky is not a calm place. It’s full of wind currents, updrafts, down drafts, strange unexpected eddies, and whirlpools. The true texture of the sky, that large jetliners are oblivious to, makes itself known to a thousand-pound two-seat airplane.

But this day the air was like glass. I’ve never felt it so smooth. We sailed through the sky like a canoe gliding over a tranquil pond at dawn. Above our open canopy a patchy layer of grey clouds slid by, below us the incredible New Mexico landscape unfolded–dry canyons, twisting arroyos, yellow rock and red earth. Off in the distance to our right ran a small rain storm, dragging its grey tendrils from cloud to earth; and to the left shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds to illuminate mesa tops and dance off green junipers and piñon pines.

Our destination today: Starvation Peak. Estimated time enroute: 33 minutes. Fuel required for round trip, plus legal reserve: 8.1 gallons. Direct Magnetic Course 298 degrees.

One local legend holds that the Colonial Spanish Militia pursued a band of Indian raiders to the very spot we are flying to, the Natives retreating to the high ground for safety. The cliff walls made a direct assault deadly, so the Spaniards surrounded the peak and waited, besieging the warriors on the top until they starved–to the last man.

Oh. Right. And then there’s another version of the Legend of Starvation Peak. And it’s that hostile Indians chased Spanish settlers up to the top of the peak and held them under siege until the settlers all starved–to the last woman and child.

You hear both stories equally. Most likely, nobody starved at Starvation Peak.

But it’s a beautiful, perfectly round, isolated mesa. One that just begs to be circumnavigated. As the peak grew in our windscreen, the sky got wilder, the shafts of sunlight speeding across the landscape like heavenly searchlights. The patchy clouds grew, becoming an upside down ocean above our heads, waves tossing, turning and twisting. And still, like magic, we flew through a be-stilled atmosphere.

And then we we arrive. I slide the throttle lever downwards, slowing the plane, and pitch the nose up a hair to keep from losing altitude. I’m eye to eye with the flat top of the butte, and I want to keep it that way.

Keeping my wings level I fly in close to the ringing wall of cliffs, the butte on Rio’s side of the plane. When it’s exactly off our right wingtip I begin our turn by gently tipping the yoke to the right. The left aileron rises, and the right drops, deflecting air, pushing the right wing down while the left rises. The interconnected twin rudders point right and the tail slides to the left. We enter a long, shallow, lazy bank as we chase the cliffs.

And around the peak we go.

Once.

Twice.

Thrice.

As we circle, Starvation Peak looks like the base of a giant Oscar trophy, minus the golden man.

The fourth time is the charm. Rio gives me the thumbs up and we turn for home. The storms part before us, shafts of sunlight like beacons to light our way.

I have the plane

Believe it or not, commercial airliners have actually crashed because both guys up front thought the other guy was flying the plane. Because of this, during flight training the modern drill is for the pilot handing off the controls to say, “You have the plane,” to which the other pilot responds, “I have the plane.” It’s a good idea, and one I use for unofficial training.

What’s unofficial training, you ask?

Well, I’m not a Certified Flight Instructor, so I can’t give logable flight instruction. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good idea (or an illegal one) to teach some basics to those who fly with me often. Like how to keep the plane in the air, and how to use the radio, in case I drop dead in flight.

This is even more important in the Plane Tales Plane, because Tessie is a plane that has to be “hand flown” at all times. You may or may not know this, but many modern aircraft can be “trimmed” to fly straight and level with no input from the pilot. It’s not an auto pilot, but a way of micro-tuning the flight controls to hold steady, given steady conditions. Tess, however, cannot be so fine-tuned. If you let go of her for one second she turns right then nosedives like the Corsairs in the opening title sequence of Ba-Ba Black Sheep with Robert Conrad.

Maybe she was a fighter plane in a previous life.

Anyway, anytime I need to do anything, I need my passenger/co-pilot to keep her in the air. Which is how Lisa got her first flight lesson. On a recent SciFlight, Lisa and I had rigged the doors for aerial photography. This usually means one door stored down in the belly and one slid all the way up over the top. This gives us a roof over our heads, and open windows on each side. As the morning was cool, I started off wearing my latte-brown flight jacket from Burlington Coat Factory.

But the day was getting hot and I wanted to take it off. I knew we’d be down strafing the cattle in the fields below if I took my hands off of hot-headed Tessie long enough to get my coat off.

As casually as I could I told Lisa to take the yoke, as I needed to take off my coat before I cooked.

Lisa panicked. “What?” she squeaked. “Your have got to be kidding? I don’t know how to do this! What do I do??”

I told her she’d be fine and to just take ahold of the yoke. She grabbed it in a two-handed white-knuckle death grip. Good, I said, That’s it. You’re doing great. OK, a little bit back, nice and gentle. OK, just a hair to the left. OK, you’re doing fine. You have the plane.

Then I proceeded to undo my shoulder belt, take off my headset–Holy Cow, it’s loud without the headset!–and pull the jacket up over my head. Naturally it caught in the slip stream and nearly pulled out the window. Finally, I got it off and stashed in the back, got my belt back on, got the headset back over my ears, and re-adjusted my mike.

We were in a very slight climbing turn to the left, but Lisa was doing fine. We weren’t strafing cattle or going into a Kamikaze dive. I sat back to enjoy the view. Lisa was frozen like a statue.

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“Ummm….” Slight quiver to her voice. “I think I’m done now. You can have the plane back… Please?”

I slipped my left hand forward onto the pilot’s side yoke. I have the plane.

“You have the plane. You have the plane” she said, “Boy oh boy, do you ever have the plane!!”

 

$100 Huevos Rancheros

Ree and I popped over to Tucumcari today to visit a pilot friend and take her to brunch. The morning was lovely, and we set out for SXU just as the sun was beginning to paint the sky a riot of pinks, reds, and oranges. A distant straggler from the previous night’s line of thunderstorms was retreating to the east, dragging a trail of virga over the mesa tops. High wispy cirrus clouds topped the dome of the sky.

We lifted off smooth as an elevator and turned due East… Straight into the sun.

Memo to self: Avoid early morning flights due East.

25 minutes of squinting and sunburn later, we finally caught up to the the straggler storm and stole some much-needed shade from it. Just shy of our destination we rolled off course and dropped down to the tree tops to search out a probable airmail beacon site, but came up dry. Based on our past finds (I don’t think I got around to blogging it yet, but farther west Rio and I found two more sites a few weeks ago), we knew the folks that built the beacon towers had a fondness for the high ground. Anyway, looking at the marked location of our current target on the old charts, and studying the terrain on our GPS, I was absolutely positive I could find this site in two seconds. The GPS showed a lone butte of the type the beacon service was fond of.

But when we got there, there was no lone butte. The land below our wings was a virtual village of buttes, cerittios, hills and hillocks. The damn thing is down there somewhere, but finding it would have to wait until we had more time. We had a brunch date. We peeled off and pointed our nose to Tucumcari, airport ID TCC.

I love TCC. It’s kinda long in the tooth now (like many New Mexico airports), but at one time it was a happenin’ place. They have two good runways, a large terminal, a lovely old-school beacon tower with the big rotating light, dozens of old hangars, shops, and hail sheds–mostly empty–and, my favorite feature, a fueling island.

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Back in the day, at busy airports, islands like this one made it possible to fill up a lot of planes quickly and easily. The pump is in the middle and a long hose can reach any point on the island. You don’t have to wait in line for the previous guy to leave before you get your plane filled up. Today, Tess was the only visitor, and the lineman was good natured about putting a gallon and a half in each wing. Hey, it wasn’t much, but we always try to support any airport we land at.

Over brunch our pal, whom I’ll call “Betty,” filled us in on her adventures at the big EAA fly-in at Oshkosh, and then we started talking about planes. She’s into both Ultralights and Light Sports and has built, five, I think. I asked her how she got into airplanes. “Oh, I started with RC planes,” she told me. For those of you who don’t know, RC stands for Radio Controlled, and while some folks might regard these as toys, nothing could be farther from the truth. RC planes are miniature planes that do everything their larger people-carrying cousins can do. Including crash. Trust me, I know about this, having four times crashed Rio’s RC helicopter

“I still have some, would you like to pop by my place on the way back to the airport and see them?” Betty asked.

I glanced at my watch and glanced at Rio, who bobbed his head up and down. OK, we got time and the boy wants to see the planes. Why not?

So we went. OMG, what a collection! Betty had nearly 50 RC planes hanging from the ceilings of every room of her house. Some were HUGE. All were beautiful. The detail was immaculate. She had a twin-engine Cessna 310 that must have a had a wing span of four feet. There was a Pitts. A Cub. A F4 Phantom. Float planes. An anphib. High wings. Low wings. Bi wings. Even a frickin’ airliner for crying out loud!

She built every one of them herself. Some from kits, some from plans, some from scratch. I was stunned. But my favorite was an amazing shiny silver Ercoupe, flying upside down from her living room ceiling (above a large HO scale electric train set that took up nearly every square foot of the room). At the controls was Barbie. Buggs bunny was the co-pilot.

Betty saw me gazing lovingly at the silver ‘Coupe. “That was the first plane I ever built,” she told me with pride. “I built it from scratch. No plans. No kit. It flies good too.” I was absolutely floored. Trust me on this, I spend a lot of time looking at Ercoupes. And Betty got every detail, every curve, every contour, every detail exactly perfect, right down the the spark plug covers. Her Ercoupe was a masterpiece.

That’s what’s great about the aviation world. It’s full of unexpected connections. Her first “plane” was an Ercoupe.

So was mine.

Office with a mountain view

A hair over 9,000 feet above sea level, I banked into a steep right turn, orbiting above the patch of green along the twisting stream below. Lisa poked the massive lens of her camera out the window and started blazing away.

Her job: Shoot pictures of the wetland below for a study of the Gallinas watershed.

My job: Not hit Hermit’s Peak, the craggy granite monolith that we were getting up close and personal with on each orbit.

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I had the easier job. It was a lovely cool morning and the sky was smooth as glass. Plus, it wasn’t like our wing was actually brushing the cliff faces with each pass. Still, it was an impressive sight. It’s probably the closest I’ve been the the peak that dominates the skyline (and official crest) of my adopted county.

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On each pass the rocky peak filled the windscreen and my side windows like some crazy high-def big screen TV showing the Mountain Scenery Channel.

Surely, this can’t be real.

Lisa was so intent on her little patch of wetland 500 feet below that she was missing the show. Finally I tapped on her shoulder and pointed out the window on my side.

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Her mouth dropped open as she absorbed the view. Then she turned to me and said, “This is making me rethink what flying is all about.”

Oh?

“Flying is f – - cking cool!” she shouted and gave me a high five.

Indeed. Flying is f - - cking cool.