Lost Lambs–Chapter 2

We’re sitting in the library in my house. On the computer screen are a dozen snap-shots of the Plane Tales Plane. On the floor is an aluminum grid that looks like half a TV aerial. It was Adrian’s turtle-tracking antenna.

Well, how far could a tortoise possibly get in a week? I asked.

Lisa sighed, “They’re not tortoises. They’re turtles. They’re aquatic. They live in the water and swim either upstream or downstream.”

Huh. Aquatic turtles in the desert. Who knew?

“Well, that makes things easier,” said Rio. “We just have to fly up and down the river.” It’s true. We were lucky Adrian wasn’t studying bobcats or some other terrestrial creature that was free to–or inclined to–roam hither-tither across the face of the planet, because the transmitters his University had supplied him with sport a woefully short range. About a mile. Of course, I was hoping we might be able to do better from above.

But today’s meeting wasn’t really about turtle range and speed. We had met to answer one question and one question only: How the Sam Heck were we going to get Adrian’s critter-tracking gear attached to the Plane Tales Plane without damaging either?

Lisa’s first thought was to strap it to the top of the wing. I pointed out that changing the shape of an airfoil was likely to lead to one of those nasty stall, spin, crash, burn episodes, and she quickly decided she wanted no part of that.

We considered attaching the antenna to the landing gear, to the top of the cockpit, and to the bottom back of the fuselage. I squinted at another photo while Lisa and Rio munched on a King-sized Mr. Goodbar Lisa picked up while fueling up her truck on the way to our house. This would be easier, I muttered more to myself than to them, if we had the plane here with us.

“Well,” said Rio, “why don’t we just go down to the hangar?”

I groaned inwardly because it had been a long day, the airport is 45 minutes away, I was tired, plus I’d had a glass of wine with lunch–so getting in a little flight time was out. But as soon as Rio let the words out of his mouth, a childlike enthusiasm overtook both my child and my child-at-heart friend, and any resistance from me was futile.

Off we all went on a moment’s notice. (After finding sunglasses for Rio’s Nana, who came along for the ride.)

When we got to the Plane Tales Hangar, Rio had a new idea. Just place the antenna on top of the engine:


I actually liked this idea: No major impact on aerodynamics; out in front of the plane where the signal wouldn’t be blocked by the structure; located where we could keep an eye on it; plus it looked cool. But in the end there was no way to attach it in that spot without drilling holes in the Plane Tales Plane.

We also rejected attaching the antenna to the plane’s tail for the same reason, and due to the low wing, securing the antenna to the landing gear pretty much assured it would be ripped right off on the first landing.

We also learned at this point that the antenna is sometimes used horizontally and sometimes vertically.

Hmmmm…. Then, despite all our overly-complicated thinking, the solution was simple and only required six disposable Shop Towels and some electrical tape. The Telemetry Tracking Technician on the flight could simply hold the antenna out the window, holding it either horizontally on top:


Or vertically on the side:


The Shop Towels? That protects the paint from getting scratched. Only one question remained: Would the wind snatch the antenna out of the CoPilot’s hands, to be lost forever in the New Mexico wilderness?

A flying plane has two types of wind: The wind from moving through the airmass (in Tessie’s case around 100 mph) plus the wind thrown back from the spinning prop. And I honestly don’t know how much the two totals up to. Safe inside her fabulously designed cockpit with both doors open, the wind is no worse than you’d get riding a horse at a decent clip. But stick your hand out and BAM! The tornado-like gale snaps it back against the window frame behind you!

We needed to test our theory, and once again it was Rio who figured out how:


Yep, no problem holding the antenna while screaming down Route 66 at 85 miles per hour in Lisa’s white 1999 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab truck!

When the Tale Continues: Before we chase turtles in the wild, Lisa suggests a dress rehearsal.



Got this great magazine cover on eBay to add to our Hangar Art collection:


Who’s the babe? According to the inside cover of the July 1945 Erco employee’s magazine, “The lovely Martha Vickers, Warner Brothers’ actress, currently working in the Technicolor musical ‘The Time, The Place, and the Girl,’ matches her radiant beauty with that of the Ercoupe.”

They don’t write copy like that any more!

Lost Lambs–Chapter 1

Lisa’s son Adrian had lost his turtle Roberta, and Lisa was calling to ask if we could help find the missing reptile. Now, before you start reaching for your kleenex boxes while visions of a little boy crying for his lost pet dance in your heads, I should point out that Adrian is a full-grown man. And, as it turned out, he’d actually lost two turtles.

Leigh was missing, too.

But before you reach for the phone to call the Humane Society on this turtle-inept pet owner, you also need to know that, like his momma, Adrian is a field biologist. And you need to know that the missing turtles are wild Chelydra serpentinea who live in the Mora River about 60 nautical miles north of the Plane Tales Airport. Of course that’s easy for me to say now. At the time of the call things were much more muddled.

The conversation started off early in the morning and my brain wasn’t firing on all four cylinders yet. “Adrain’s lost two of his Chylydra serpentinea,” Lisa said, without preamble, in her normal overly-hyper way, “and I was calling to see if you and the Planes Tales Crew could help us find them.”

Uhhhh…. Have you ever had one of those phone calls when you haven’t had enough coffee, you missed the subject of the conversation, and you just flop abound on the metaphorical ground like a fish out of water? I couldn’t recall if Chylydra serpentinea was one of those designer night club drugs, or a break-a-way Czech Republic. And I couldn’t figure out how Adrian would be involved in either one. And in either case–in my book–he seemed well rid of the situation.

But as the one-sided early morning call went on, it was clear I’d have to fess up that I either missed what we were talking about, or never actually knew in the first place. Hold on, Lisa, I said, what’s a Chylydra serpentinea? Or at least I think I said something like that. There might also have been some colorful profanity in there somewhere, because it was early in the morning and that’s the way Lisa and I generally talk to each other.

“There’re snapping turtles,” said Lisa.

We have snapping turtles in New Mexico?

For this question I was rewarded with a long silence from my better creature-informed friend. Well, that’s OK. She may know animals better than I do, but I’m pretty up to speed on designer drugs and Czech Republics. Or if not those, at least airplanes.

Anyway, it turns out that Adrian is finishing up his Master’s Degree, and he’s been literally following seven snapping turtles using radio telemetry. This cohort of turtles, ranging in size from a quarter pound to 20 pounds each, have a radio transmitter epoxied to their shells and Adrian tromps around on the ground carrying this thing that looks like a 1960′s roof-top TV antenna to track their movements.

The problem was, he’d lost track of two of his study subjects and Lisa was calling in the Cavalry to help.

The Air Cavalry.

When the Tale Continues: To hell with how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood: How do you find a lost snapping turtle? From the air?


How I became a pilot

After two generations of college professors, I came along. The high school dropout.

Yes. It’s true. But my mother, God bless her, never gave up on trying to make sure I got a degree.

This was a very long time ago, and my memory is a bit sketchy on the details, but as I recall I was too busy trying to get established as a writer to bother with school. One of my high school counselors–in an disastrous attempt to motivate me–said, “Well, if you’re not even going to try, you should just drop out!”

Really? I can do that?

My mother was furious.

Anyway, during one of my breaks from traveling and writing, I’d swung by the homestead for food and laundry facilities. Mom had clipped a story out of the Rocky Mountain News. It seems that Colorado State University had created a bachelor’s degree in crop dusting. Wouldn’t I find that interesting work?

I often read about pilots who had wanted to fly since they were tiny children. That wasn’t me. I mean, airplanes are cool, but so are ships, and subs, and tanks, and all other manner of machinery. The earliest job I can recall wanting to have “when I grew up” was that of marine biologist. I have no idea why, and I’m still not clear on what it is they do. I guess having grown up in the mountains of Colorado, the sea just seemed romantic, and being a scientist sounded like less work than being a swabbie. Anyway, although I had not nursed a life-long desire to be a pilot, at that very moment in time, being a crop duster didn’t sound like a bad way to make a living, and I was practically starving as a writer.

I called the dean and chatted with him. I’ve completely forgotten what he told me, but I guess I must have needed a private pilot’s license to get into the program, because I ended up in the aviation program at the local community college. I never did go down to State, and have never crop dusted–although I still think it sounds like fun. But on April 21, 1981, I first took the to sky in the maroon Citabria N8785, with Duffy, a half-deaf grey-haired flight instructor who made me a nervous wreck by shouting at me from the back seat.

Glorious? Hardly. For the first few flights I was certain that I’d fall through the flimsy floor to my death. I even had nightmares about it.

But I was a natural pilot and lived happily ever after in aviation, right? Uh… no. It would be a rocky road with many fits and starts, and many long breaks in my training. I didn’t solo until the following year, didn’t get my private ticket until the spring of ’83, my instrument and commercial ticket until ’84.


But in the end, the high school dropout earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in Aviation Technology. I wrote a resume and hit the airports to get a job as a pilot.

Which didn’t happen.

The hard lesson I learned was that while a commercial pilot’s license made it legal for you to be paid to fly, no one will actually hire a freshly-minted pilot. I was only offered one job: As First Officer an a light twin engine air ambulance. The problem? It didn’t pay.

No. Literally. It didn’t pay. At all. Not a dime. They were doing me a favor by letting me build hours, or so they said.

Looking back on it, in those times that was probably true. But I needed to eat. Life demanded a break from the air so I could earn a real income. So was that the end of the flying of my youth?


But the next chapter of this Plane Tale can wait for another day.

Picture Perfect

Tessie doesn’t have a bad side; she’s a pretty little thing from every angle. I’ve shot hundreds of pictures of her since she joined the family–quite the muse, that little plane. But one angle that’s always eluded me is what she looks like from below. You, know, when she’s up in the sky where she belongs.

As I’m the only licensed pilot amongst the Plane Tales Crew (at the moment), my view of our baby in flight has always been through the propeller. From the inside. Not that I’m complaining. But that changed today.


We’ve gotten involved in a wonderful project that involves wildlife tracking. I’ll write all about that on another day, but this morning we flew a series of test flights to figure out how to place the tracking antenna on the plane, work out search patterns and altitudes, and fine tune our air-to-ground communications.

Our ground crew had several transmitters of the same kind that the biologists have out in the field. Of course, I knew where to find the crew, but the goal wasn’t hide-and-seek; the goal was to learn how far out we could expect to pick up tracking signals and how close a radial we’d need to be on to intercept that signal. In turn, that information will let me figure out how tight our search grids need to be for real-life searches.

So as I flew in circles and squares and ovals and triangles over our ground crew, they blazed away at us with their cameras and caught some the most amazing, beautiful, stunning in-flight images I’ve seen in a long time.




You might think that we were trimming the weeds with our prop, but we were actually 800 feet above the ground—our earthbound companions had damn fine telephoto lenses capturing large files that allowed for extreme cropping.

All flying is fun, but for a change the high point of the day was actually back on the ground. That’s when, while refueling Tessie with 100 low-lead, one of the ground crew handed me her camera and said, “Here’s a picture of you  flying Tessie. I can actually make out your face.”


I haven’t a clue why I look so serious, because inside my skin, I’m grinning like an idiot every time I fly.

Maybe, unlike Tess, I have a “bad” side, at least photographically.

Gone West

All of us here at Plane Tales were greatly saddened to read of the passing of record-breaking pilot and fly writer Jerrie Mock this week. Ms. Mock was the first woman to fly around the world solo, a feat she accomplished in 1964 flying a specially modified Cessna 180 named “Charlie.” (Charlie had a huge gas tank installed in the cockpit to make the trip).

Bizarrely, unaccountably, and unfairly she virtually disappeared from aviation history in the years following her accomplishment. We found out about her only thanks to the efforts of Phoenix Graphix who recently republished her out-of-print 1970 book Three-Eight Charlie that documented her flight.

Actually, “documented” is a poor choice of words, and does Ms. Mock’s fabulous book an injustice. “Documented” suggests a dry academic treatment. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The book is a delight from cover to cover. Ms. Mock is a wonderful storyteller who brings her flight alive in a way that makes you feel you are along for the ride in her cramped cockpit. Her observations on the different cultures she encounters spanning the globe are worthy of Margaret Mead, and the details the mind-boggling logistics involved in planning and executing a globe-spanning flight are amazing. The book also serves as an excellent time capsule of the golden age of general aviation before the era of the GPS and glass cockpit; and exposes some of the darker elements of the competitive world of aviation record setting and the way the media covers them.

Three-Eight Charlie is a book that demands a space on every aviator’s bookshelf. If you don’t have it yet, we recommend the hardcover 50th Anniversary Edition. It’s a beautifully executed volume with the quality and grace you’d expect from Easton Press, with a masterful layout of graphic extras that make the book a feast for the eyes as well as for the mind.

None of us ever had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Mock personally, but through her book her wonderful, adventurous, and spunky character came alive to all of us; and with her passing we feel like we’ve lost a member of the family.