The Famous Flyer gets a bath

It all started when I got an email early this summer from one of my Ninety-Nine friends. Oh, just to be clear, I don’t have 99 friends. I have friends who are members of the Ninety-Nines, the women pilot’s organization. Anyway, she was writing to invite me and my “famous Ercoupe” to the annual the Land of Enchantment Fly-In in Albuquerque.

Actually… now that I re-read her email, I see that the invite didn’t include me at all. It says, “We’d LOVE to have your famous Ercoupe come to the fly-in.”

Huh. Somehow I hadn’t realized that before…

Anyway, at first I thought that it was just a generic, hey come to the air show kind of invite. But as our correspondence evolved, it was clear my friend had something else altogether in mind. She wanted the Plane Tales Plane to be one of the show’s static displays.

Now, for those of you who are new to the airshow scene, a static display is a parked aircraft set up in a central location at an airshow. Planes on static display don’t generally fly in the show—hence the name—but people can get up close, ogle the plane, sometimes touch the plane, and take lots of pictures of it.

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Not just any plane can be on static display; they are usually a rare or exceptional plane. Or, as in this case, a famous plane. Yep, a lot of folks have been talking about the Plane Tales Plane locally, on the state level, and even nationally since my recent speed records in her, so I guess she really is a famous Ercoupe.

Me, apparently, no so much so.

And, of course, this year is the 75th Anniversary of the Ercoupe type certificate, so pretty much every flying magazine in the world has had an article about Ercoupes lately, so people want to see one in the flesh, as it were.

Naturally, I was tickled that she was going to be one of the centers of attention. It was no small honor to be asked, and not an honor that I took lightly. I got right to work on an interpretive sign, which, thanks to Lisa, I learned could be made in PowerPoint and then printed on thick poster board at the FedEx Store:

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Now, I admit to being new to the whole airshow scene, but even so, I knew that if people are going to be scrutinizing your plane up close and personal, it needs to look it’s best. And that, I suspected, was a job best left to a professional. So I called the folks at Cutter, the ritzy FBO at our state’s big Class-B airport to get a price on a thorough airplane scrubbing. The answer: Three hundred bucks for a complete wash, wax, and detail job.

In for a penny, in for a pound is the motto of owning an airplane, so I dove in. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect for my money. Maybe I was pissing it away, I thought. Maybe they won’t be able to do any better than Lisa, Rio, and I do with the garden hose at the hangar. (Funny how Debs always manages to disappear when the plane needs cleaning.)

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The day before the airshow I got up at oh-dark-thirty and ferried Tessie over to Albuquerque. It was a no-wind day, the flight was fine and fast, and I didn’t make my traditional fool of myself with air traffic control. I got the plane to the right folks, paid up my three hundred smackaroos, and went off in search of a Starbucks. I’d been told to drop by Bode (pronounced Boad-ie), the folks doing the detail work for Cutter, later in the day to make sure everything was working out.

When Rio and I dropped back in six hours later we were invited past the large red and white sign that said: “Absolutely no customers allowed beyond this point.” I looked around for our plane but couldn’t see her anywhere. The only Ercoupe in the hangar was one that had just been painted. Then I noticed something funny about the ‘Coupe’s N-number. It was Tess! Beautiful, clean, Tess. So shiny you could see your reflection in her skin!

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Her wings and sides glowed. Her glass looked brand new. Her struts gleamed silver with no hint of oil. Her tires were midnight black and looked as if they had just been put on, having never kissed a runway. I stood stunned, mouth agape. She looked better than she ever had since we’ve owned her.

In fact, I didn’t know she could look so good. It was like I’d just bought a brand new airplane. There was no question I got my money’s worth.

Next time, on Plane Tales, our 68-year-old airplane has her Debutante Ball.

 

Lisa learns to fly

“The first thing you need to know,” Rio told Lisa with the air of absolute authority and expertise that only a thirteen-year-old can muster, “is that you need to keep your eyes outside the airplane. Don’t spend too much time looking at the instruments. Besides, none of them work anyway.”

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OK, it isn’t really that bad, but there are days when I question how accurate most of the dials and gauges that are supposed to keep me informed about the status of my flying machine really are. But truth be told, Orville Wright didn’t have much in the way of instruments, and most planes have more than are strictly necessary. Not only is it possible to fly mainly by looking outside the plane, it’s really how you should fly.

But why was Rio giving Lisa this sage advice about flying and the status and accuracy of the Plane Tales Plane’s instruments in the first place? Well, Lisa has been flying with me on her assorted SciFly science projects for about a year now, and this exposure to flight has had its predictable side effect: She has decided to learn to fly.

Of course, Lisa asked me to teach her how to fly, but I’m not a flight instructor, so I can’t legally do that. Actually, that’s not quite true. It’s more accurate to say I am not certified to offer her official training that she could record in a logbook and count as required instruction towards a pilot’s license. It’s actually perfectly legal for me to show her the ropes. So that’s what we decided to do. I’ll teach her some basics, then she’ll need to go find a “real” instructor for formal training.

(I have been unable to make the time to get myself certified as a flight instructor as I planned to. I still want to, mind you, but I’m finding myself up against my old adversary: There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all thing things that I must do, much less enough hours for all the things that I want to do.)

So the other day I took Lisa up for her first unofficial flying lesson. The first thing anyone should learn about flying an airplane—or so it seems to me—is to learn to simply keep the plane in the air, more or less right-side-up, and more or less going in an intended direction. This is formally known as straight and level flight.

It’s also a hell of a lot more difficult than it sounds. At least at first.

Lisa has held Tessie’s controls for brief periods of time for me in the past: “Hey, hold the plane while I take my jacket off” or, “Hold the plane while I get this headset adjusted,” “Hold the plane while I get my camera.” That kind of thing. But today we would be taking it to the next level.

We took off and headed to the southeast, where it’s nice and flat. I did a few clearing turns to make sure no one else was in the area, then told her “OK, you have the plane.”

Then I sat on my hands.

Lisa took the controls, and very quickly things got… dicey. Lisa is one of those people who keeps a journal, and she shared with me the entry she wrote that night:

At first, it was cool for about the first 15 seconds. Then true panic struck. I wrapped my hands around the yoke, and I never knew I could grip anything with such force. Every motion worked out wrong. Nose up, nose down, left wing up, left wing down, banking slow, banking faster, back the other way. I see cars on the highway. I see clouds. HOLY CRAP!!

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She began an unconscious monologue that was hysterical. Shit… shit… shit. Ah hell… then a bunch of pre-verbal mumbling sounds that were pure stress set to music. I stayed sitting on my hands as we careened around the sky: A one-plane dogfight.

I kept up a reassuring one-sided dialogue. “You’re doing fine. Yep. That’s it. OK, turn a bit to the left. That’s good. OK, a bit too much… back to the right now. Up a hair on the nose. You’re doing great. OK, push in a bit on the yoke. Yep, you are doing fine…”

All lies, of course.

Lisa was on a roller coaster of correction and hyper overcorrection. She wasn’t flying the plane so much as it was flying her. “You’re trying too hard,” I finally told her. “Relax and let me show you something. I have the plane, you follow me, keep your hands on the controls. Smooth and soft. Let her settle where you want her. Make firm corrections, but wait for them to take effect. OK? Watch the horizon. Look what happens when we turn left. And right. When we push the yoke forward, when we pull it back. Slow and steady, she loves to fly. Just show her where you want to go and she’ll take you there. Try again, you have the plane.”

And just like that, it happened. Like a bucking bronco tamed, Lisa and Tessie found mutual respect. Or in Lisa’s words again:

Tessie and I bonded!! We turned and then I just started to fly. My idea was to fly toward a distant peak without hitting it. Fortunately, it was way off in the distance so I figured I had plenty of time to settle into the experience.

With that thought, my knuckles regained color, the floor of the plane restored its natural shape, and the weight of the world was freed from every muscle from the tip of my fingers to my shoulders. It was then the unmistakable smile of gleeful joy appeared and the drunken sailor mumblings turned into hum of a different tune. It was one of pride for turning fear into empowerment and the simple joy of the moment of my First Flight! Oh Yeah!!

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And what a flight it was. For half an hour Lisa flew without any assistance from me. From my hands or my mouth. I sat with my hands now comfortably in my lap and enjoyed the view and experience of being a left-seat passenger, with puffy white clouds above us casting their cauliflower shadows on the land below.

As we approached Lisa’s mountain, she turned Tessie in a graceful arc back toward the Plane Tales Airport. At one with the plane, and flying like a pro.

Unfaithful

I confess. I did it. I cheated.

On my airplane.

Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I sat in another airplane’s cockpit. And like so many men before me, I can only offer the lame excuse that the other plane was so young, and pretty, and slim—that I just couldn’t help myself.

Oh, but it gets worse from there. This is more than just a taxiway fling. More than a one-air-show stand. This new girl has been on my mind. A lot. Despite hundreds of hours of loyal and faithful service on the part of the Plane Tales Plane, I find myself sneaking into my library in the middle of the night and drooling over pictures of my new would-be airborne mistress.

She has a long, thin snout. Sleek tapering lines. Low, thin wings. And a lovely empennage. No doubt the air would merely whisper around her. Her gear has smooth, rounded wheel pants. The blades of her three-bladed prop taper to wicked thin, curving tips. She has a beautiful nose, with finely chiseled air intakes; and, of course, a big spinner.

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Her canopy slides back invitingly on silky smooth rails to reveal a spacious cockpit filled with all the latest electronic goodies a pilot could desire.

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Her seats are fine leather. She has legroom, shoulder room, and headroom. And when I sat on those seats, in that cockpit, I didn’t feel merely contented and at home like I do when I climb into our old Ercoupe.

I felt younger.

I felt my inner racing pilot unleashed. I wanted to fire her up, grab her throttle, and go break some more records.

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Like many head-turning women, she’s not originally from around here, of course, which may explain her exotic looks. She’s a South African Light Sport Sling iS. And unlike many modern Light Sport planes, she’s made of metal, not plastic. Every gleaming angle and curve screams quality.

More and more since I met her, I picture myself leaping up on her wing, pulling back her canopy, sliding into her cockpit, firing up her engine, caressing her controls, and taking her off for the flight of her life.

This red and white Sling is red hot. A far cry, I’m afraid, from our Ercoupe Tessie; who’s frankly sorta dumpy by comparison. She’s a little pudgy around the middle, with a stubby, flat face and a small spinner. She has thick wings, dented and scratched, and naked wheels. Her cockpit is small and cramped.

Today I drove down to the Plane Tales airport with fantasies of the new girl dancing in my head. I pulled up outside the hangar, parked, and unlocked the towering doors. With a heave and a groan of metal the great doors slid back to reveal my faithful old airplane waiting for me.

And I felt guilty.

Tessie’s never let me down. She’s carried me far and wide on adventures big and small. And transported me to (limited) glory on her old wings, taking home a Word Speed Record and a Ercoupe Owner’s People’s Choice Award. Every flight has been a blast, and I love flying her.

I immediately felt ashamed of myself for even considering another airplane.

Right up until I got home. And then as the sun set, with Tessie not around, and no one looking, I slipped into the library and opened my Sling album; and found myself drooling over her sexy figure and daydreaming of flying her low and fast.

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Then and now

It’s a steep climb up the narrow aisle from the door in the tail to the two First Class seats behind the cockpit. Well, actually, with only nine passenger seats, they are all First Class. Rio and I went all the way to the front because none of the other passengers did, and we naturally wanted to see the cockpit of the Ford 4-AT-E Tri-Motor—the granddaddy of all commercial airliners in the sky today.

Being entranced with the tales of early aviation, I’ve always had a soft spot for the triple-engine high-wing airliner, with its one engine on the nose and two hanging down in pods below the wings. With its boxy but graceful lines, and corrugated aluminum skin, it looks both barn-roof old-fashioned and art deco modern at the same time.

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The Tri-Motors existed in a pivotal moment in time, when airlines moved from flying a rag-tag collection of wood and cloth biplanes to something we can all recognize as “modern.” And the venerable Tin Goose moved airplanes forward in scale in a way that’s hard to comprehend today. It was a monster plane for its time. I mean think about: This is an 8,000-pound metal-clad airplane with a wingspan of 74 feet. In 1929, just twenty-six years after the Wright Brother’s first flight, no less! Airlines, who had never flown anything of this size before, had to build new hangars just to accommodate the planes.

I had always wondered what it felt like to be a pioneering airline passenger, paying a princely sum to sit in a wicker chair in a noisy, cold plane; flying low and slow by our standards, but high and fast by standards of the time.

The very airplane I was now buckeling myself into came to New Mexico about six months ago, but I didn’t get wind of it until too late, and missed a chance to get a ride. As soon as I got the email announcing that it would be at AirVenture, I bought Rio and I a pair of tickets. In fact, I bought Tri-Motor tickets before I made hotel reservations.

I guess that says a lot about my priorities in life.

Anyway, the tickets cost $70 each (with an advanced purchase discount of five bucks) for a twelve-minute flight. How does that compare in cost to what a ticket would have cost when the Tri-Motors ruled the skies?

Well, according to the 5th Edition of Air Transportation: A Management Perspective by Alexander T. Wells and John G. Wensveen, back in 1929 the average airline ticket cost 12¢ per mile flown, rounded to the nearest nickel. Our Tri-Motor experience was 12 minutes in the air, so if we assume the full cruise speed of the Tri-Motor at 90 mph—granted this discounts climb and descent speeds, but this is an intellectual exercise riddled with possible errors anyway—Rio and I travelled 18 miles over Whitman Regional Airport, south to the sea plane base, out over Lake Winnebago, and back again. In 1929 an 18-mile flight, should such a silly thing have existed, would have set you back $2.15, rounded to the nearest nickel. Using an inflation calculator, that historic $2.15 in today’s money would be $30.00, so EAA charged me more than double the cost of a truly historical experience.

Was it worth it?

Yes. It was worth every penny rounded to the nearest nickel.

The chair wasn’t wicker, but everything else about the plane felt appropriately old school. The passengers all buckled it, we taxied across the grass and out onto the active runway. The pilot advanced the throttles and all three engines roared to life. Solid, powerful waves of sound filled the cabin. It was noisy, but not overwhelming. Rio, who is sensitive to sound, wore earplugs:

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I chose to fly ’20s style. It was not deafening, but you would have been hard-pressed to carry on a conversation with your seatmate on a long flight.

We began to roll. The increase in speed was steady, methodical. The tail slowly lifted. There was a brisk crosswind, but the captain kept the big bird lined up straight down the runway. Then the old giant finally lumbered into the air. It was more like slow motion levitation than the rocket-launch nose-high takeoffs we are used to in modern airliners. There was no moment where you could tell that we’d broken the hold the ground had on us. The runway just slowly dropped away. Then below me I beheld a sea of airplanes. Among them, a fleet of Ercoupes:

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The Tri-motor felt solid and steady in the air. But somehow struck me as more a creature of the ground that could fly, than as creature of the air that could also live on the ground—as many planes seem to be, Tessie included. Everything about the Tri-Motor screamed “airliner” to me: Steady, reliable, stable. Safe. But plodding as well. But as you’ll see in a minute, my notion of what an airliner is was about to be shaken to its core.

We had a great 12 minutes. In fact, it felt more like half an hour. We landed smoothly, and as the airspeed bleed off, and the tail settled to the earth, our seats seemed to recline. As soon as the props stopped spinning, the ground crew hustled us off to get the next nine paying First Class passengers aboard. But one did offer to snap a quick pic of Rio and me.

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As we wandered south through the thousands of airplanes on display, the airshow announcer, an overly enthusiastic character by nature and profession, was practically gushing as he announced that the new Airbus A-350-X-WB airliner was about to make a fly-over. I couldn’t match his enthusiasm. So what? How boring. The latest flying cattle car. Another Greyhound bus with wings. Big deal.

Then the big plane whispered down the runway past me. WFT? If his engines failed, how come he hasn’t crashed? As the behemoth sailed past, it pulled up and gracefully cartwheeled to one side, flashing Barn-swallow-like wings, and proceeded to put on a one-plane airshow that blew my mind.

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I stood transfixed and transformed, my mouth gaping open. This huge 220-foot long, 54-thousand-pound monster was a true creature of the sky.

It flew like a jet fighter!

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The evolution of the airliner is complete. First the bus that could fly, now the flying creature that can carry passengers.

But that’s not all that’s changed. Speed, capacity, and price have all reached new heights in the atmosphere as well.

The Tri-Motor flew at 90 miles per hour, much like our Ercoupe. The Airbus? Normal cruise is 561 miles per hour. And that’s not throttles to the firewall either. The Ford cost $42,000 out the factory door in the late 1920s. In today’s dollars that would be a little bit over half a million bucks. The Airbus? Get out five checkbooks. This one will set you back about 305 million dollars. Of course, instead of nine passengers, it seats 325.

We’ve come a long way since Mr. Ford’s Tri-motor, and yet, in the shadow of the great AirBus you can see the soul of the Tri-Motor, both built for the same purpose. But for the sheer joy of being in the air, even though the Airbus likes to fly more, I think I’d choose flying in the Tri-motor. I’m not sure why.

Maybe I just like my airliners lumbering.