Our finest hour

Boy, was it a sight to see. One for the history books. Forty-four Ercoupes lined up along the taxiway of Runway 22 in Sheboygan. A half-mile chain of planes. Twin tails gleamed in the afternoon sun. Engines rumbled. The excitement in the air ran high. Once lined up, we cocked our craft at 45-degree angles, so the prop wash from our run-ups wouldn’t blast the plane behind us. We advanced our throttles, checked our mags, our carb heat, oil pressure, and the rest. Imagine the roar of 44 Continental engines at once. I tweaked my mixture control, not sure if it really made a difference so close to sea level, and we were ready.

This was finally it. After two postponements due to weather, it was time to practice our mass fly-in to Airventure at Oshkosh. Hopes were still high that some late arrivals would give us 75 planes to mark the 75th Anniversary of the ’Coupe. Rio and I had flown over a thousand miles to take part in making, and marking, history. Others came from as far away as Oregon and California.

The plan was simple. Elegant. Well tested, at least on smaller fleets of airplanes. We’d fly in 500-foot intervals in one long chain of planes. The lead plane, to be flown by conference organizer and Ercoupe guru Syd Cohen, would taxi onto the active runway and begin his takeoff roll. As soon as he started rolling, plane two would taxi onto the runway and hold. When the pilot of plane two could see light under the landing gear of plane one, he’d advance his throttle to the firewall and start his takeoff roll. As soon as he started moving, plane three would taxi out and hold until he could see light under plane two. And so on. We’d climb to 1,000 feet AGL and follow the plane in front of us. If the plane ahead started getting bigger, we’d slow down. If the plane ahead started getting smaller, we’d speed up.

Of course not all Ercoupes are created equal. Some have 65-horse engines. Some have 75s. Others still 85s or 90s. Some engines are young and strong. Others, old and weak. To level the playing field, a number of 90-degree turns were built into the flight plan. If you were lagging behind, you’d cut the corner to catch up. If you were paced right, you’d do a sharp “pattern turn” right where the plane ahead of you turned.

Our mission briefing was clear. No maps. No GPS. And no frickin’ selfies. Eyes outside, and follow your wingman. It sounded simple enough.

Rio and I were plane seven. I looked back over my left shoulder. Ercoupes as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of the grainy black-and-white newsreel footage of World War II bomber fleets readying for take off.

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It was our finest hour.

The next hour… Not so much.

Because within 30 minutes, instead of a well-managed fleet of World War II bombers, we looked more like a World War I combat mêlée with planes soaring, diving, and swooping across the sky. It was truly a flying circus, minus the shooting.

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Our finest hour dissolved into an epic disaster that will be the talk of the Ercoupe community for decades.

I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

What happened? Well, that’s next week’s tale, right here, at Plane Tales.

 

Next time: Baron Von Syd and the Flying Circus

 

The flight home

If all has gone according to plan, Rio and I are at the big airshow at Oshkosh this weekend. For today’s post, for the first time in print, is Rio’s report to his school on his summer vacation 2013, the year we bought the Plane Tales Plane. Rio, then eleven-years-old, traveled to California with me to co-pilot the new plane home. Things didn’t go exactly as planned. Here is the story through his eyes, as recorded by him at the time….

Chapter 1—The trip to LA

A guest post by Rio A. F. Dubois

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We woke up early in the morning and started on our way from Denver. Me, my Dad, and my Grandma are going to Los Angles to pick up an airplane and ferry it back home. We drove and drove and drove and drove for hours and hours and hours through the breath-taking scenery of Colorado and then through the many faces of Utah. Then across small corners of Arizona and Nevada, ending up in Las Vegas. We had decided to spend the night in there, but the only rooms available were in casinos

“Casinos are much too noisy,” said Dad, “we would never get a restful night’s sleep.” We all agreed and we continued on our way. We planned to stop in Primm, Nevada, but that turned out to be the last batch of casinos before we hit the border. By this time we were all grumps, tired, and hungry.

We crossed the border and we got to Baker, California, but there wasn’t a decent hotel in sight. Continuing on through California, we hit Barstow, stopping at a 50’s-sytle all-night diner for a malt, but ended up with a shake. We finally stayed at a Hampton Inn there in Barstow.

In the morning we drove on to LA and in Redlands met Bobby, the pre-buy mechanic. Bobby let us in through the airport gates. It was time for him to go to lunch, so it gave us a chance to look at our airplane. When I first saw the plane it was without its frontal cowling on, so we could see the engine of the aircraft. The front of the plane looks sort of like a triangle and it has very long wings which sort of tilt up. It has a dual rudder tail, tricycle gear, and an old fashioned war-style canopy.

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When Bobby returned he asked us if we would take his invoice to Professor Peterson, the plane’s previous owner. It took forever for Bobby to write his invoice, but once he was done we went on to Flabob airport.

In Flabob we met Professor Peterson and purchased the plane. Then the professor took us to the Flabob guest quarters. I opened the door and it was so hot I ran out before I could even see the place. I found a drinking spigot, but accidently turned the knob too hard. Water poured on my face and into my head.

Then the Professor took us out to dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory.

Chapter 2—The night in LA

After dinner my Dad and I explored the airport were we saw an old-fashioned DC-3 and probably one of the most shiniest Cessenas you’ve even seen. And it must not have been flown a lot, because somewhere on the plane it said “airport bum.”

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We saw another Ercoupe, a lot like ours, but this one was painted black and yellow and said “Texas Bumble Bee.”

Flabob looks like one of those older military airports, in fact, I was expecting to see a giant B-17 flying out of one of those hangars.

The night at Flabob was not a pleasant one. The bed was a hard as sleeping on a wing. I gave up and moved to the couch. On the couch I lied awake feeling like the house was cold, ratty, and lifeless. I wondered if it bothered me that right outside the door was an airplane graveyard—a place filled with trashed up planes that hadn’t been flown for years—or if it was just the feeling of the place.

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In the morning we moved to a hotel called the Ayres Hotel. The place was very nice, Mexican-themed, although after Flabob, even a box would have looked nice.

When Dad got back from his flight training he came back sweaty and covered with oil. Me and Grandma asked what happened. He changed his pants and old us. “When we got back down, the plane’s engine would not stop. My instructor said turn off the mixture, turn off the mixture, but the mixture would not budge for it had been wired shut. My instructor went to go get Bobby. We tied everything, eventually it came to cutting off the fuel shut off.”

Bobby quickly fixed the plane.

The instructor also said that the radio was weak. So we took it to an avionics shop, where the man tested the radio and the transponder. But during that time we forgot to turn off the master switch. And then Bobby said that after that repair we never did test the engine, so Bobby said lets test it now. But since the master switch was still on, the plane’s battery was dead.

Bobby removed the battery and put it in his charger for the night. Bobby and the radio man then pushed Dad and the plane back over to Bobby’s hanger like a go-cart.

Chapter 3—The takeoff day

The next morning we showed up before the sun had even arisen. It looked like LA was completely asleep. We opened up Bobby’s hangar and turned on the lights. Dad put the battery back in while grandma “supervised.” While Dad was putting in the battery I was trying to get his camera to work right. I tried every possible angle, but still, I couldn’t get the camera to work. But Dad figured out it was apparently in video mode. So instead of getting a great picture I got a video of grandma supervising Dad putting in the battery.

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Then we fueled up the plane. After doing an engine test, we took off. It was a very nice view. We had the canopy closed. About ten minutes later, we opened the canopy to cool off. The wind rushing into the cockpit of the plane was awesome. It was quite a rush flying with an open canopy.

We landed in Twenty Nine Palms, the best landing we had ever done, and ate a nice breakfast bar at the airport.

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After adding a quart of oil that we bought on the honor system at the unmanned airport, we took off and left for Lake Havasu. We were flying at first with our navigational instruments, but then the mountains got so high we could no longer read them on our VOR. So we had to do what was called “dead reckoning,” using maps. But we made it to Lake Havasu and had a fairly good landing.

It was very hot there. A nice gentleman brought us two bottles of water, while I was still trying to get out of the airplane. We fueled up the plane. It was so hot we scrambled into the plane like one of those old fashioned movies where they are rushing to get into the car to make their getaway.

We fired up the plane, but the engine went THUMP.

I left dad in the dust in the airplane, trying to get out a quickly as I could. The plane’s skin was so hot it was like touching hot rocks. I’m amazed I didn’t burn my hand. They told us it was 117 degrees that afternoon.

Then we waited hours in the mechanic shop. When the plane was fixed we took off.

The turbulence was so bad, we got bounced around like a basketball being dribbled. Our little Ercoupe could not take it anymore, we turned back before we could even make it out of Lake Havasu.

We stayed at a Hampton Inn, again, strangely. We got up in the dark and went the airport. It felt a little cooler, but it was still very hot.

We waited for civil twilight, and when it was time, the engine went THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP and did not start. I said to dad, “Did you remember to turn the key?” It turns out he had not. So the engine fired up. It was powerful roar. The sweetest sound in the world.

We took off and flew over London Bridge. That was kind of fun seeing it from the air.

On the trip south, I ate my first meal on an airplane, a sack breakfast from the Hampton Inn. It turned out to be less of a nightmare than I originally thought. It was a glass-calm morning and we seemed to be moving pretty fast. It was nice and cloudy over the sun, so it wasn’t very hot in the cockpit.

I was a little nervous about the fuel and kept asking dad, “How’s the fuel? How’s the fuel?” For some reason I felt nervous that we might run out of fuel. A lot of the time I kept staring at the belly tank float. Dad kept reading me off the fuel gauge, which seemed fine. But suddenly it started dropping.

Over Gila Bend, it seemed like our fuel was dropping like a rock. We circled Gila Bend airport to see if we could see fuel tanks. We could not, so we radioed one of the airplanes that was taking off. We could hear them, but they could not hear us. That’s when we found out that the radio was not working. The fuel was already too low, we had no other choice but to land in Gila Bend.

We came in high because there were two other planes waiting to take off and we couldn’t talk to them because the radio was dead. The first plane took off while we were lining up for landing and we worried the second plane would pull in front of us.

The landing was probably one of the worst ever. We hit the ground and thumbed back up again, then we hit the ground again. We even worried about the tires. It’s a good thing Ercoupes have such good shock absorbers. We were going pretty fast. I was a little worried we would run out of runway. Dad hit the brakes. My shoulder belt held me in place. In fact, if we had no belt at all on that landing I would have been flung out of the canopy.

Chapter 4—Abandon ship

It turned out there was no fuel at Gila Bend. We called the airport manager, who was quite grumpy because he said we woke him up. He said to talk to Jesus, the airport keeper. But we could not wake up Jesus.

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We had decided this trip was beginning to become a nightmare and took a town car into Phoenix, and hopped on the next Southwestern flight home.

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Dropping Chickens, Chapter 2

Depressed at our total failure, we brainstormed “the bombing problem” around our kitchen table as we sipped from bottles of Lisa’s homemade beer. I grilled her over and over again on her observations. We looked at the data she collected and recorded, the compass sightings of each falling chicken.

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It was clear that the chickens were traveling a much shorter forward distance than we’d expected, but we weren’t sure by how much. Lisa was stationed at the edge of the target zone, observing the drops at an oblique angle as we approached.

Realizing that this was going to take a long time to work out, but happy to have an excuse for frequent flying, we developed a new test protocol. It was time to get scientific. This time, instead of targeting the center of the apron, we’d fly well south of it. In fact, we wouldn’t aim for it at all. When we were abeam Lisa’s location on the ground we’d release the chicken so she could get more precise measurements on the distance of the forward motion.

We also lowered the bombing altitude from 1,000 feet AGL to only 500 foot AGL, and decided to slow the plane to 80 miles per hour. We were removing as many variables and difficulties as we could. Once we understood the basic physics involved, we’d slowly increase altitude and develop a comprehensive strategy for hitting the target.

When the second batch of rubber chickens arrived, we packed a picnic and headed for the airport. I was fully prepared to lose another full batch of chickens, and had bookmarked the eBay seller to make it easier to reorder. This time Mom joined Lisa as a second official observer.

Debs chickened out.

Our observers on station and the bomb bay fully loaded with rubber chickens—OK, you got me, we put the chickens in the baggage compartment behind the seat—Rio and I barreled down the runway and lifted into a cool, calm early morning sky. We leveled out at 500 feet, banked right in a long lazy turn to get lined up with our target and made a radio call warning any other planes that might be in the area that we’d be conducting low-level operations over the airport.

I reached back behind me and grabbed the first chicken for Rio. He unwound the long, red plastic surveyor’s tape streamers that were tied to each talon. We knew that the streamers would change the aerodynamics of the fall, but decided that the benefits of actually observing the fall, and (hopefully) recovering at least some of the $9.00 chickens outweighed the change in performance. Our idea was that once we were coming close to hitting our target, we’d do away with the streamers and make whatever adjustments were required.

Rio fed the streamers out of his window first. I looked back over my shoulder and could see the twin six-foot snakes of plastic dancing and snapping in the wind, as if trying to grab our rudders. I lined up on the south side of the apron and as we approached told Rio, “Get ready… get ready… not yet…” Then, with Lisa off my wingtip below I called out, “Drop, drop, drop,” and Rio shoved the rubber chicken out the window. I banked sharply right, shoved the throttle to the firewall, pulled the nose up, and craned my head over my shoulder, but I couldn’t see anything.

“Hot damn!” crackled Lisa’s voice in my earphones. Then, “Uh… I meant to say, Chicken Ground to Chicken Air, you scored a near miss. The ordinance fell nearly straight down.”

“Say again?” I radioed.

“Near miss. Hold on.” I rolled the plane back over to the left and orbited the apron. I could see Lisa, in her bright orange vest and green hardhat, jogging across the pavement. She reached the corner and went out into the weeds, no more than five feet. I could see her jumping up and down and waving, then saw the bright red streamers at her feet. “To heck with the science, she radioed. Just drop right over the target and see what happens.”

“Give me another chicken,” said Rio. I reached back to grab another, throttled back to slow the plane down, and turned tail on the airport to get back in position for another run. Rio unwound the streamers and fed them out the window. This time I put the spinner dead center on the tarmac, then leaned forward in my seat to peer down over the leading edge of the left wing, trying to judge when to order the drop. The target would be out of sight when I was right over it. As the apron disappeared from view I counted five seconds to myself and gave the drop order.

“You sunk my battleship,” radioed Lisa.

We ran two more runs, and both hit the tarmac. Then we landed to admire our handiwork. I pulled up to the fuel pumps and shut down. I hauled myself up out of the deep cocoon of the cockpit and sat on the back of the seat. Leaning forward and resting my arms on the top of the bubble windshield, I took in the view. Three crumpled piles of surveyor’s tape sat in lumps on the pavement, hints of yellow rubber chickens peaking through the tangled masses. I had expected the tape to splay out from the chickens, but each one was buried by its own streamers. Lisa was already measuring the distance from the target to each pile. One missed by 154 feet, a second by 154. The closest of the tarmac strikes was 130 feet from the center of the target.

Now we were getting somewhere. From total failures who couldn’t even hit the airport to a 75% success rate in hitting the apron, the First New Mexico Chicken Bombing Squadron was well on its way to victory.

Post flight, hangin’ in the hangar and eating our picnic, Lisa, once again the scientist, tried to make sense of the day’s successes. While Rio happily munched on chips and salsa, fresh veggies and onion dip, nuts, and beef jerky, Lisa studied her data and “flew” over her notes with a Hallmark Sky’s the Limit Ercoupe Christmas ornament as a visual aid.

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Of course, none of us had really expected the chickens to travel 747.58 feet forward from the drop point, but they had to have some forward motion. Or so we thought. But the observations and the day’s successes indicated that the chickens—contrary to all laws of physics—might actually be falling behind the spot where we released them. Up range, instead of down range.

That should not be possible in this universe. But it sure looked to be the case.

Finally we developed a theory. Maybe… Maybe… Maybe the rubber chickens were so light, and had such a large surface area that the slipstream—the vortices of wind coming off our propeller—was actually cancelling out the forward motion of the rubber chickens and blowing them back behind us, where they then slowed down and fell more or less straight down, like a chicken dropped from a hot air balloon, rather than a record-fast Ercoupe.

On the drive home we happily made plans for the next weekend. With the new data we had, I was now confident not only in being able to hit the airport, and the apron, but in being able to strike the very target blanket itself, laid out in the center of the tarmac.

Of course, I warned Rio that despite our hard work and practice, no doubt some fool who signed up at the last minute and never dropped a thing out of his plane would likely get lucky and win. Ever the optimist, he ignored me and cleared room for the rubber chicken trophy on one of the bookcases in his bedroom.

But the next day I got an email from the conference organizer. The airport fathers had put the kybosh on our fun. They decided to prohibit the chicken drop from going forward. They felt that so close to the big gathering of airplanes at Oshkosh, it might be unsafe.

I say that is chick-shit of them.