How I missed the (flying) opportunity of a lifetime

Sunday, the day we weren’t flying in a 75-plane chain to Oshkosh, we got to the airport late. After all, we only had a twenty-minute flight down to West Bend, so there was no need to get an early start. But we found Sheboygan abuzz with activity. People were running back and forth. Engines roared. Planes jockeyed for position.

It had the vibe of a combat airfield, and immediately I had a pang of regret, followed by an uneasy feeling that I was a traitor.

Small groups of planes were doing close-order take offs. A flight of six. Then a flight of four. A glorious flight of ten roared off, one after another, lifting off into the morning light. I avoided my peers and preflighted the Plane Tales Plane.

Syd Cohen jogged by, “Are you with my flight?”

Uhh… no. We’re moving the plane down to West Bend, I admitted sheepishly. He gave me a funny look and hurried on about his business. I couldn’t look Rio in the eye.

Between squadrons of Ercoupes, we taxied the Plane Tales Plane out by herself, and without fanfare, took off solo. A flight of one. Instead of heading West towards Fond Du Lac, then north to Oshkosh, we flew east to Lake Michigan, and then south along the shore. I handed the plane off to Rio and he guided her down the coast. I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d made a bad call, but I kept running though the “logic” of my decision and could find no fault with it.

We had a pleasant flight, met our ground crew, in the person of Grandma Jean, who had two week’s luggage crammed into her Jeep Trailhawk, at the West Bend Airport, and hangered the plane.

The next morning we went to Airventure. By car.

After half an hour in a proper city bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, we were finally guided into a parking place and set off to the airfield on foot. We spent the morning poking around the massive grounds, looking at airplanes, talking to people, and taking pictures. Rio and I took a ride in an old Ford Tri-Motor, and sat in a sexy South African Sling light sport plane, which I confess I might have actually drooled on. It was a great day.

At first.

We slowly worked our way southwards along the field, ending up eventually at the “Vintage Red Barn,” the on-field HQ for the Vintage Aircraft Association, of which we are members. Here the various vintage aircraft owner’s groups had booths set up, and this is where we bumped into Larry Snyder, President of our own Ercoupe Owners Club, who was delighted to see me.

At least for two minutes.

He said something like: Oh, thank God, there you are! I don’t have anybody’s contact info and I’ve been trying to get ahold of you. At the last minute they told us they want a flight of Ercoupes in the airshow the mark the anniversary. I’ve got four pilots and planes lined up, and I want you to be the fifth.

My heart sank. The best pilots in the world compete for the honor of flying at Airventure. It’s an opportunity I never expected to have. It would have been something to be proud of until my dying day.

My plane is in West Bend, I said. There was no time to try to drive back, fetch her, and bring her up to Oshkosh.

“Well, what on earth is it doing down there?” demanded Larry.

I gave him my lame explanation. I think he called me an eff’in traitor. Or maybe he said it served me right for being an eff’in traitor. Something like that. Well-deserved salt in the wound.

My decision to not fly-in to Oshkosh cost me the opportunity to be part of this:

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OK. It didn’t really look like that. It looked like this.

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But my heart sank to its lowest level ever as I stood on the sidelines and watched the other four Ercoupes fly by to the applause of the crowd, and the cheers for our “little airplanes.”

As they peeled off one-by-one after their fly-bys, I knew that I had missed the opportunity of a lifetime. Probably the one and only chance I’ll ever have to brag I’d flown in an airshow at Oshkosh.

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Or… maybe not. After all, the 100th Anniversary of the Ercoupe is only 24 years, eleven months, and 29 days away. And Rio has promised to take me, “If you’re still well enough.”

I’ll be 77 years-old.

 

In the coming weeks: Airventure Adventures. Tales from an epic father-son trip. Plus Tessie (and Grandma Jean!) win trophies.

 

Post flight

Luckily for us, the bag that holds our headsets also holds our GPS and iPad. We’d set neither up, as we didn’t think we’d need them, but they were both in the luggage compartment. Rio reached back over the seat and fetched the two pieces of gear while I practiced my breathing exercises.

In a few minutes he had our nav system up and running and the radio chatter seemed to be dying down. I turned on a heading back to the airport. On the way back we saw quite a few members of our fleet flying in various directions and various altitudes. The pattern was busy and at least two planes cut others off, forcing extended patterns and at least one go-a-round. Finally we got a slot in the traffic pattern, number three to land. Some other minor chaos ensued and we had to extend long, but finally I was lined up on final for landing. I was shooting for mid-field to leave lots of room for the ’Coupe behind me, when it happened.

A Ryan Warbird pulled right out onto the runway in front of me, radioing, “Don’t worry little Ercoupe, I’ll be out of your way in a moment.”

It was the first time that day I wished I had guns. I would have shot the son of a bitch down.

To his credit, he was right; his powerful radial engine pulled him quickly ahead of me, but we had to land short, not long. I did a high-speed taxi to the first turnoff to clear the active runway. Then we taxied leisurely back to the apron, joined the refueling line, and shut down our engine.

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Groups of pilots, in threes and fours, began to gather along the fueling line Monday-morning quarterbacking the flight. Grousing about what went wrong, offering thoughts on how it could have gone better. Syd was already dialing the FAA to cancel our airspace reservation, but at the last minute held off to wait for everyone’s feedback. I ended up missing the bitch session, but I understand from talking to others that Syd took a lot of heat.

But in Syd’s defense, he had spent a lot of time thinking about this flight, planning this flight, and even practicing the flight. Several years ago the Piper Cub had its anniversary and did a horribly disorganized flying chain into Oshkosh. They spaced out with miles between planes, leaving arriving traffic at Airventure in endless holding patterns while the Cubs straggled in. This left the FAA reluctant to let large fleets of amateurs attempt what we wanted to do. But they gave in and granted us a block of “sanitized” airspace. The airport would be closed to everyone but us. It was up to us to be professional and arrive in good, close order, and not tie everyone else up.

The problem—as I see I after the fact—is that there’s a Law of Engineering that says that up-scaling does not work. For an aviation example of this principle, I can direct you to Samuel Langley, aviation pioneer and head of the Smithsonian at the turn of the last century. He successfully created a small steam-powered “aerodrome” that flew almost a mile up the Potomac in flight tests. Delighted with the results, he built a larger, manned model that flew straight off its launch pad, dropped straight down into the drink, and nearly drowned its pilot.

Just because something works small, doesn’t mean it works big. And, boy, were we big.

Our chain of Ercoupes, had we all been properly spaced that day as planned, would have extended 22,000 feet long above the green fields of Wisconsin. Had the hoped-for 75 planes all been participating in the practice, the chain would have been 37,500 feet long. That’s over seven miles of Ercoupes. Now, small errors in a flight of ten planes are easily fixed and adjusted. Small errors in over seven miles of planes echo with the domino effect. But that’s easy to see in hindsight.

In the end our planned mass flight was cancelled. Our disastrous practice was only 16 or so hours before the real event. I think if we could have practiced twice more we could have mastered it, but there was no time left. The decision was announced: We fly in small flights by the standard approach.

I then made what would turn out to be the worst decision of my life. I opted out. Our hotel was in West Bend, 45 miles south of Oshkosh as the seagull flies. I couldn’t see any benefit to the time and trouble it would take to fly-in, virtually on our own, for only a few days, as we had to leave Airventure early. Plus, I’d only studied the departure process, not the approach procedures, as I didn’t think I’d need them. Instead, I decided we’d redeploy the plane and drive up for the rest of the activities of our group. I’ll share the horrible ramifications of that decision next week.

But in the end, how did I feel about taking part in this glorious disaster?

Once safely back on the ground, 1.8 hours later on my Hobbs meter, the events of the day brought to mind Shakespeare. Specifically, Henry V’s Band of Brothers speech before the battle of Agincourt, “…gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap…”

I’m damn glad I was part of it, not at home snugly “abed.”

And, in honor of Henry the Fifth, and Baron Von Cohen, this is what I wrote in my logbook that night:

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Next time: The biggest mistake of my (flying) life

 

Get your little planes outta here

Things were falling apart. It was getting, perhaps, dangerous. The plan had failed, and forty-four planes, instead of flying in unison like a crack airshow team, were looking more like exhausted shoppers fighting over parking places at the mall at Christmas time.

In a word, it was a cluster fuck. OK, that’s two words. But that was only the beginning.

Our fearless leader was doing his best to hold it together, and got at least the front of the giant aerial snake of planes lined up for a straight-in approach to get us the heck back on the ground. He changed from the air-to-air frequency back to the airport frequency and made his call, “Sheboygan traffic, Ercoupe, flight of forty-four, final, runway two-two.”

That’s when it happened.

A lady pilot in a corporate jet came on the radio, and in the most rude and unprofessional example of aircraft communication I’ve heard in a lifetime of flying, said: “You should pay better attention. There are already two aircraft in the pattern ahead of you. We are landing. Take your little airplanes and go wait your turn.” Or something like that. I clearly remember the dismissive way she said “your little airplanes,” the rest might not have been properly stored in my overly-busy memory banks.

I don’t know if she’s a complete bitch or not, but she sure sounded like one. Of course, she had no way of knowing the chaos that was exploding in the sky around her. In the normal course of business most pilots have no reason to monitor air-to-air frequencies. We probably should have declared an emergency and made her take her big ol’ airplane and get the hell out of our way. Instead, she blasted right through our fleet. I pulled up and to the left as the big white jet blew through our line.

I hope she peed her pants when she found herself in the middle of a disorganized swarm of Ercoupes.

Syd led us out over the lake and then cracked. He’d had enough. He dissolved the formation and told us we were on our own to get back to the airport. Every man, and a few women, for themselves. One response over the radio was, “Best call all day. This was the most dangerous thing I’ve seen in over thirty years of flying.”

I disagree.

The next ten minutes were the most dangerous thing I’ve seen in over thirty years of flying.

Breaking the chaotic, disorganized, unruly formation was the only thing that Syd did that I can fault him for; but I can’t say what I would have done in his shoes if I’d been the leader. But after being told not to bring our maps or GPS units, we were suddenly on our own to find our way back to the airport over unfamiliar territory. But before I had a chance to let that scare me, I saw airplanes. Everywhere, airplanes.

I figured I’d just follow the ragtag line ahead of me back to Sheboygan. Then I looked to my left. The part of the formation in the thirties had broken to their left to circle back around towards the airport. The snake folded over itself. The end of the chain was coming right at us and began to pass through our line. One plane shot past my nose fifty feet above us, a second right after it just below us.

Up to that moment I was still having fun.

We’re getting the hell out of here, I told Rio. I chopped the power and pointed our nose at the deck. We dove out of the swarm of Ercoupes for the shores of Lake Michigan. I pulled out of my dive at 100 feet above the waves, and shot north just over the shoreline, craning my neck left and right. Looking above, behind, making sure no one else dove for safety like we did. The radio cracked alive again with dozens of calls from planes trying to sort themselves out.

Like a cannon shot, we barreled out of the twisting mass of planes. Then, leaving the chaos behind us, we settled into a quiet reverie and sailed up the coast like a big blue and white seagull.

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Next time, on Plane Tales: Back to terra firma.

 

Not our finest hour

Plane one rolled onto the runway. The leader made his radio call: “Sheboygan traffic, Ercoupe flight of forty-four, departing runway two-two,” and began his takeoff roll. Plane two taxied into position. Shortly he began to roll. Plane three moved up. Then four. Five. Six began to roll and Rio and I moved into position and pointed the Plane Tales Plane’s nose down the runway. I had my right hand on the throttle, my right foot on the brake. Plane six leaped into the air and I released the brake, firewalled my throttle, and we began our takeoff run.

Immediately, I could see there was a problem. Plane six was climbing like a homesick angel, quickly out-pacing us in a race to altitude. We’ve got a climb prop, so if I stood on my tail, I could get up high quickly, but at the price of speed. That would put plane eight in danger of chewing off my elevator. I picked a middle-of-the-road airspeed with some climb and some progress over the ground, and hoped for the best.

Long before the first turn, we were lagging behind, both in distance and in altitude.

Crap. The Fastest Ercoupe on the Planet is holding up the show.

I saw plane six make the first turn and I cut early to catch up. I glanced over my right shoulder and plane eight filled my back window, close on our tail and already above us. Now I could see the whole string of six planes ahead of us going into turn two. As I rolled out of turn two dead-on the assigned altitude of 1,000 feet above the airport, I could see things were not working out well at all. Some of the short chain of planes ahead were higher than we were. Some were lower. They were scattered out over 500 feet vertically.

This is some of the sloppiest flying I’ve ever seen, I remarked to Rio.

“Indeed,” he replied.

But what to do? Do I follow my wingman, no matter what? Even if he goes high or low? Or do I peg the altitude, do my best to keep him in sight? As I was mulling this over, the radio calls began. I don’t think the whole fleet was even off the ground before requests started flowing in: Leader Slow Down. Leader Speed Up. And the worst: I can’t see anyone.

And this was just the beginning.

Now, I was briefed four times for this flight. I sat through all three official briefings, the one before this flight, the two before the weather-scrubbed missions; and an informal one-on-one with Syd one night at the Lakeland College dorms where we were staying. And let me say this right now, because Syd took a lot of after-the-fact heat on his plan. There was nothing inherently wrong with the plan. Yes. It didn’t work. Yes, maybe some other plan might have. That’s easy to say in hindsight. But before our Worst Hour, I don’t think anyone could have predicted just how bad things would get.

After lagging behind the flight ahead of us since takeoff, suddenly, in an instant it seemed, plane six filled my windshield. I chopped my power, pitched my nose up to slow down but he got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. In desperation, to avoid plowing into him, I started doing sharp “S” turns across the flight path to let the planes ahead of me gain some distance.

And that’s when one of the planes behind passed me. Followed by another. I don’t know if they lost sight of me—one was a lot higher, he may not have seen me—or if they hadn’t listened at the briefing, or what. No one was supposed to pass anyone. Stay behind your Wingman. In this case, the plane ahead of you.

And if we were having this much trouble in the first dozen planes of the flight, can you imagine what was happening 20 planes back? Thirty planes back? Forty?

The radio exploded into constant chatter, plane to plane calls. Alerts, requests, advisories.

And then someone’s mike key stuck, blocking everyone’s transmissions. Now there were eight planes ahead of me, instead of the six there should have been, and I looked down to see a fast-moving ’Coupe, blazing along, just above the tree tops, seemingly oblivious to all, passing everyone.

Things were starting to get hairy. Instead of one plane ahead to keep track of, it seemed there were planes all around us. To my left and to my right. Above and below. It was, truly, a flying circus.

I’d never been so exhilarated in all my life.

 

Next time on Plane Tales: Things get even worse.