Road trip—Part 2

I haven’t done this for a loooooong time. Oh. Wait. That’s really not true. I’ve never done this. At least, not like this.

I have four giant two-foot by five-foot aviation sectional charts spread out in front of me, drooping over the edges of the kitchen table. I’ve got a red felt-tip pen in my left hand. Somewhere buried under the folds of maps is an aviation plotter, and I’m trying to draw our course line on the maps.

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Back in the day, this was a common part of planning a cross-country trip. But things have changed. In today’s world, flight planning takes place on iPads. To plot our course across the nation I merely tap in the names of the airports on both ends and Poof! My course is magically drawn over a electronic map. Once in the air, a little blue airplane will move over the map showing me where I am, on the map, in real time.

So why am I messing around with paper charts?

Because good pilots like to worry. We worry about the weather. We worry about airspace. We worry about other planes. We worry about engine failures. We intentionally worry about all the bad things that could possibly happen on a flight, to a point that looks positively morbid to non-flying folk. But this worry serves a purpose. Because worrying about all of these things is only the first step. Once all the potential problems are recognized, the next step is to design plans to deal with them.

Good planning simply means that if the you-know-what hits the propeller during the flight, we’ll be prepared.

Anyway, back to my charts. I’m preparing a set of “paper” charts as a backup to our iPad and GPS. We need a way to find safe harbor in a strange land if our modern miracles fail us. “Old fashioned” paper charts seemed the sensible way to go, and thus, one less thing to worry about.

But I’m finding that it’s no simple task to transfer our 1,000-mile direct course from my trusty old iPad to my new paper charts.

In my early years of flying, before GPS, before tablet computers—hell, before normal people even had computers at all—we flew Airways. In the clear blue skies above the nation was an invisible network of highways in the sky. Scattered across the nation were hundreds of radio beacons letting pilots fly radio beams from station to station. Established routes between stations, called Victor Airways, were published on aviation charts, just like highways are on road maps.

Cross-country planning back then involved drawing lines on your map from station to station, measuring the distances with special rulers called plotters, then figuring out how long it would take you to fly each leg so you’d know how much fuel to tank up with.

On the charts, these stations were rarely more than 8 or 10 inches apart so a twelve-inch plotter did the trick. For this task, however, my vintage plotter is useless. My route is a near bee-line over 130 inches of maps. Even a yardstick wouldn’t cut it. Even a three-yard stick, if such a thing were made, wouldn’t cut it.

Oh, and to make life more interesting, aviation charts are two-sided: One side is the northern part of the section and the other side is the southern part. So unless I want to buy two sets of charts, simply laying them out and drawing a master line isn’t going to work. In fact, simply figuring which charts to buy in the first place wasn’t an easy task either.

The flight charts on a modern computer tablet are based on the paper charts, but on tablet computers the charts are seamlessly stitched together, so much so, that there’s no notation as to which paper chart you are looking at. To decide which paper charts I needed to buy for backups, I had to download high-res TIFF files from the FAA of all the charts I thought I might need, then carefully compare what I was seeing on my iPad to what I was seeing on my computer screen to figure out which charts my route passed through.

After several hours, it was clear that I needed the Albuquerque, Wichita, Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago sectional charts to have our entire route on paper. That said, we would only be cutting across the smallest corner of the Kansas City chart, about 30 miles of our route. I couldn’t see spending $9.00 for such a small part of the backup plan. Odds are we won’t even need to touch the charts in the first place. Odds that our nav systems will crash on the 30-mile corridor of the Kansas chart seemed even less.

Of course, Rio, who’s becoming a good worrier as part of becoming a good pilot, is convinced that’s exactly what will happen.

But if it does, we won’t have to fly long or far to be back in charted territory.

Sans Kansas City, I ordered the charts. And now our story comes full circle to my circular table in my kitchen, where, one leg at a time, I draw our course on the maps. On one or two, I’m able to draw a straight line on the map between two fields using a Home Depot wooden yardstick. But in most cases I have to figure out how to go from front-to-back or from map-to-map. I do this by comparing the smallest details surrounding the route as it leaves one piece of paper and enters the next.

For example, one of our refueling stops will be at Gould Peterson Municipal in Tarkio, Missouri. I choose it mainly because it’s in the right spot. Given the cargo we need to carry on this mission, we can’t carry as much fuel as I would have liked. We need to refuel every 200 miles or so. Gould Peterson is within two hundred miles of the previous fuel stop at Ellsworth, Kansans. Plus, I like the name of the company that takes care of the fuel sales at Tarkio: Wing Nuts Flying Circus Aviation. How can you travel halfway across the country and not visit a place called Wing Nuts Flying Circus?

Anyway, the next stop after Wing Nuts is at Belle Plaine Municipal in Belle Plaine Iowa, a mere 192 miles up the “road,” but on the next sectional chart. Wing Nuts is on the Omaha Chart. Belle Plaine is on the Chicago chart. In the end I have to eyeball the transition between charts… Let’s see, my course goes between Killduff and Galesburg, south of the gravel pit but north of the grain elevator… looks like we go off the map just a quarter inch south of the power line…

Then I look for the power line and other features on the next map so I’ll know the point where I’ll “fly” onto the next chart. I place a large red dot, then connect the dot to my next refueling stop. It seems to take forever, but it probably takes less than an hour in the end, and our thousand-mile course is committed to paper. Minus, of course, the 30-mile corner of the Kansas City Chart. I write on the edge of my Wichita chart: “You are now entering the Kansas Triangle.”

Now I have one less thing to worry about. And it’s time to start worrying about the next thing.

Road trip—Part 1

Rio and I are planning a cross country trip. An epic cross country trip. We’ll be making our first pilgrimage to AirVenture, the largest aviation event in the world. Last year 10,000 airplanes and half a million people descended on tiny Oshkosh, Wisconsin for the annual event.

I’ve never been before, and to be honest, I really don’t have the energy to take it on this year, either. But duty commands because this year is the 75th Anniversary of the Ercoupe type certificate, and the Ercoupe Owners Club sent out a call to arms. They want to darken the skies over AirVenture with the shadows of our twin rudders. The goal: A flying caravan of 75 aircraft to commemorate the anniversary. As I might or might not be alive for the 100th anniversary, I knew I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t participate, or, if God forbid, only 74 planes showed up.

But what makes our planned trip epic? The fact that it’s a 2,164-mile round trip in a 90-mile per hour airplane. That’s a full twenty-four hours in the cockpit. We’ll be traversing nearly half the country, both north-to-south and east-to-west, overflying the airspace of eight Southwestern and Midwestern states. We’ll leave our mountains and mesas behind, see the great plains, the bread basket of the country, fly over the mighty Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and land on the shores of Lake Michigan.

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The ever-changing countryside we’ll over-fly is previewed in the evolving colors of the aviation sectional maps that our route covers: The deep browns, tans, and yellows of the high-altitude mountain Southwest giving way to the lower altitude cream-colored plains, replaced by olive green farmlands, and finally by pale moss-green ink on the chart as the route’s altitude drops from a mile above sea level to mere hundreds of feet above the surface of the Great Lakes.

On one hand, I’m excited and eager to go. On the other hand, it scares the shit out of me. I’ll put money on the fact that it will be more fun talking about it after it’s over (and for the next 25 years), than it will be actually doing it.

I’ve never flown East of west Texas, and the closest thing I’ve ever done to a flight of this distance in a small plane was the one-way ferry trip when we brought Tessie home from California after we purchased her: A 926-mile, three-state, disaster-filled, two-week epic with many breakdowns.

How to prepare for such a journey?

Plan, plan, plan. And then plan some more. We have to think of everything from weight and balance (how many pairs of underwear can we pack before we bust our gross weight?), to refueling stops, to sun screen, to navigation, to what shoes to wear, to oil consumption, to lodging and hangar space en route, and weather, weather, weather, weather. We’ll be crossing tornado alley in the height of tornado season. And as much as I’ve always dreamed of seeing a tornado in person, I’d rather do it on the ground as it moves away from me than from the air as it heads toward me.

For pilots who usually just go up on a lazy afternoon and punch holes in the sky, this is a whole new flavor of flying.

Next time, on Plane Tales: A yardstick and an iPad.

The copilot blues

I’ve never been so bored in all my life. There’s not a thing to do. Rio is flying the plane, and doing a damn fine job of it. Of course, I’m bursting with pride. But still bored to death.

Plus, it’s hazy out, we’re flying into the sun, and he’s stolen my cap. I’ve got one hand shading my eyes, and my arm is starting to cramp. No arm rests in an Ercoupe. As soon as I get near the internet I’m getting that kid a cap of his own.

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We’re making good time with a chipper tail wind, and now we’re a good 70 miles out from our home base at SXU. Since we rolled onto course I haven’t touched the yoke or given Rio one word of advice. If this keeps up, we’ll be in Texas soon.

I’m glad he’s learning to fly, but I really wish he’d give me a turn at the controls…

The other side of the pen

I’ve been covering the news since I was just fifteen, when I was a “stringer” for the historic Greely Daily Tribune newspaper. But now I find myself the object of the news, rather than the observer reporting it.

On Monday, I was front-page news in two newspapers: The local Las Vegas Optic, and the state’s big daily, the Albuquerque Journal.

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And there’s more press coming. The next issue of the state Aviation Division’s Fly New Mexico Newsletter has an article about me, as will the Ercoupe Owners Club’s monthly Coupe Capers. Oh, right, and in an interesting twist, the newsmaker will be reporting the news as well: The prestigious Flying magazine has asked me to write up the story of what I did and how I did it.

What did I do that was so newsworthy? Not much. (In the spirit of aviation’s modest heroes, I’m working on the whole understated thing.) Oh screw that! I’m going to shout it from the top of the beacon tower! I set a world speed record!

How fast did I go? Five hundred miles per hour? Six hundred miles per hour? Seven hundred? Eight?

Uh… No.

Actually, my earth-shattering, record-setting, newsworthy speed was just 139.66 miles per hour. OK, it doesn’t sound like much, so I guess I’d better explain how aviation speed records work. Since the first decade of flight, speed records have been handicapped for the type of airplane. In today’s world that means that the guy in the Piper Cub—or the Ercoupe—doesn’t compete head-to-head with the gal in the Lear Jet. Luckily for me!

It’s a long story, and you can read all about it in the press, but I decided to do something special to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Plane Tales Plane’s type certificate. After kicking around a few ideas I decided to mark history by making history, and the result of that decision was a record-setting speed along the historic Albuquerque to Amarillo airmail route, netting a final speed—thanks to careful planning, precision flying, and strong tail winds—that exceeded all expectations. I “flew the Coupe” faster than anyone had before.

So how does it feel to be making the news instead of covering it?

It feels great, thank you for asking.