Wrong choices

Damn. This doesn’t look good. I’m to meet a newspaper reporter at the airport in Little Las Vegas (KLVS). Naturally, flying over is the plan. But it’s foggy outside my bedroom window. And According to my iPad, the current weather at my destination, a mere 45 air-minutes north, is bad news. A 300-foot overcast ceiling, plus mist.

Even the ravens aren’t flying this morning.

But a quick call on my antique phone to the automated weather system at our home airport KSXU reveals a lowish, but legal ceiling. The fog at Las Vegas will no doubt burn off as the sun rises. I have a specific meeting time, so I can’t push the flight back, plus if I wait too long to liftoff another problem lurks to bite me in the butt. Both Weather Underground and US Airnet—my two go-to weather sites on the net—are showing airplane unfriendly winds by noon.

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So the only question is: By the time I make the 45-minute drive from my house to my airport, get the Plane Tales Plane ready to fly, and make the 45 minute trip to Vegas, what will the weather look like then? It could be perfectly fine by the time I get there.

Or not, and I could be circling above a sea of grey while my trusty engine drinks my gas tanks dry.

Time for me to make the go/no-go decision. For non-pilots this is a no-brainer. If in doubt, stay on the ground. For pilots, it’s not so simple. All kinds of pressures and temptations abound that can affect our decision-making process, among them the fact that three-quarters of the time when you call off a flight it turns out you could have made it with no trouble.

I’m also grumpy because I’ve not flown in several weeks due to crappy weather and a busier than normal life schedule. But in the end, being a cautious pilot by nature, I cancel the flight and decide to drive.

On the first part of the drive the clouds are low and fog dances with the trees. I congratulate myself on my awesome ability to read weather forecasts and on my superior decision-making skills.

Then the frickin sun comes out. Well, hell. I’m momentarily annoyed with myself. I could’a made it. I should’a had more courage. I made the wrong call. Then, with some nice Bach playing on my Jeep’s radio, I reflect on what I knew, when I knew it, and the decision I made.

And I realize: Making the “wrong” choice to stay on the ground when you could have flown is a mistake you can make 10,000 times. Choosing to fly when you should have stayed on the ground is a mistake you only get to make once.

♫♩♬♪ Smoke on the prairie, fire from the sky ♫♪♫♩

As soon as I spotted the plume of smoke on the distant horizon I abandoned the science mission at hand, banked into a steep left hand turn, and then rolled out on course for the billowing pillar of white. “Hey, what’s up?” asked Lisa.

Smoke, I said, pointing forward.

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I’m not sure if all pilots take the time investigate the unexpected, but I always do. It might be some subconscious sense of civic responsibility, but more likely it’s newshound DNA. My mother was a journalist when I was growing up, and I was a newspaper reporter myself back in the days of typewriters and Camel cigarettes. That kind of background changes you for life. It makes you more interested in (and more nosey about) all the things that happen around you.

“What do you think it is? I mean, beyond the obvious fact that it’s a fire?”

Until she asked, I hadn’t thought about it at all. I flew towards the smoke out of instinct, like a moth to flame. The plume of smoke rose like Greek temple column, straight up, hundreds of feet into the sky. A small, hot fire. As the miles spilled way beneath us I realized the fire must be right at the border of the Pecos MOA—the local military operations area. Suddenly a pit formed in my stomach. As I was behind the controls of a plane, it was only natural that a plane crash came to mind.

Just keep a sharp eye out for helicopters, I told her.

If it was a downed aircraft, I was hoping it would be one of the drones from Cannon Air Force Base. Of course, if it was a manned military aircraft that got into trouble, the crew probably hit the silk and was fine. Still, I couldn’t help but worry as we closed in on the smoke column. After all, there’s a brotherhood between all pilots. In aviation’s early decades flyers of all nations called themselves Civis Aerius Sum—Citizens of the Air.

Now the funny thing about flying at a hundred miles an hour is that sometimes it seems fast and sometimes it seems slow. In this case, the fire turned out to be about 20 miles away. It took us only 12 minutes to get there, but it felt like hours.

As we closed in we could see bright orange flames, black charred ground, and rivers of white smoke flowing along with currents of air blowing across the desert landscape. The fire was burning down an arroyo, a dry stream course common in the New Mexico highlands.

We had our “flight pad” and the GPS receiver with us so I was able to pinpoint my location in relation to the MOA. The fire was right on the border. It’s not illegal to fly into a MOA, just stupid. MOAs are where military aviators train, and generally their planes are bigger, faster, and more powerful that ours. Not a good mix and match. Flying the Plane Tales Plane into their playground would be like taking a jog on the Indy track on race day. I banked left to stay outside the military’s airspace while getting as close to the fire as possible. At the top end of the fire sat a ranch house with a cluster of outbuildings, all intact. A tough-looking truck with a flashing red light on top was parked near the edge of the smoke. Looked like the volunteer fire department was on the scene. But they were outmatched. This was too much fire for one truck to handle.

“Too bad we can’t drop some water on it,” said Lisa. I had a momentary fantasy of being a firefighting pilot, diving in low above the flames, fighting the turbulence from the rising waves of heat, pulling the lever at the last minute to send hundreds of gallons of water cascading down from on high into the heart of the inferno.

What a cool job that must be.

We flew down the public side of the arroyo scoping out the blaze. No mangled wreckage, thank goodness. It seemed to be a garden-variety grass fire, probably accidently set off at the ranch at the top of the burn pattern. I did a 360 at the end of the smoke column and came back around for a second look.

The flames were spreading out in a slow moving crescent, driven by the wind across the dry glasses. “How are they going to stop that?” asked Lisa.

They probably won’t, I replied, but there’s nothing downwind for a hundred miles. They’ll probably just let it burn out.

Back at the ranch end of the fire again, I did another 360, putting the blaze back on Lisa’s side of the plane. She raised her camera to her eye and started blazing away. “Hey, can you bank right, I want to get a better shot of those flames.”

Huh. Seems my scientist buddy has some of that newshound DNA, herself. Who knew?

I banked the plane to the right, and the snapping shutter of her camera, picked up by her headset’s mike, echoed in my ears like machinegun fire.

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Then, with no water to drop, and the proper authorities on the scene, our curiosity  satisfied, there was nothing else for us to do. We turned our twin rudders to the fire and headed back the way we came, to resume our mission.

The best little hangar in Texas

If you ever find yourself in Amarillo (Hey, it could happen), you owe it to yourself to visit the Texas Air & Space Museum. Don’t let the name fool you; this is not a branch of the giant Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. In fact, Texas A&S might have the dubious distinction of being the smallest airplane museum in the nation. Certainly, it’s the smallest I’ve ever visited. The day I was there they had exactly seven airplanes to look at.

A waste of time, you say?

Hardly. You can’t judge a museum by the size of its collection. Instead, variety, condition, display, and access separates the men from the boys for me. Nothing irritates me more than a museum where all the planes sit behind ropes with signs saying, do not touch.

At Texas A&S, even though it’s guided tour-based, access is tremendous. I was free to climb on the wing of an Ercoupe, sit in the pilot’s seat of a space shuttle trainer (a modified Gulfstream jet that has space shuttle controls on the left side of the cockpit and standard airplane controls on the right side), and try my hand on the ceiling mounted throttle of a Viet Nam era Caribou.

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I had a blast!

The wee museum’s collection includes a bailing wire and duct tape ultra-light that looks like it fell right out of one of Leonardo da Vinci’s note books, a wood-rotor “M*A*S*H” chopper, and a home built miniature stagger-wing biplane that covered itself in glory at the Reno Air Races in the late 60s and early 70s.

Speaking of Reno, one fascinating plane at the museum is a highly modified Soviet Yak-11 that was built to kick butt at the famous annual race. The plane’s original empennage was replaced the tail feathers of a Lockheed T-33 jet fighter, the wings were shortened to mere stubs, and the cockpit was moved faaaaaaaaar aft in the style of the race planes of the 1930s. On the business end of the monster, the builders placed an 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone engine capable of churning out 4,000-horse power. Yes. That would be the engine from a DC-7 airliner. On a single-seat race plane.

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The plane, modestly named “Mr. Awesome” qualified, flying the course more than 400 mph, but unfortunately at her top speeds proved unstable. Instead of kicking butt at Reno, it had a tendency to kick its pilot’s butts instead. Mr. Awesome crashed and was rebuilt several times before being donated to the museum.

Texas A&S also has a lovely DC-3, but not just any DC-3. They have the only airplane that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one of the few movable objects on the list, along with the cable cars in San Francisco.

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In addition to the seven airplanes, they have several interesting engines, cones from space rockets, and an impressive inventory of aviation memorabilia, including an extensive collection of wonderful airplane models, many of them hand-made out of paper.

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The Texas Air & Space Museum is small today, but they dream big in Texas. The Museum’s board has acquired a sprawling complex of abandoned industrial buildings just south of the international airport for their future home.

There’s no fee to tour the museum, but they ask for donations. I like people who dream big so I gave them fifty bucks.

They all nearly fainted.