Ghost Tale

It was the day after Halloween last year, but that had nothing to do with it. The place was just Plane damn spooky. But I’m not sure why. Even the most down-on-their-luck airports usually have a vibe that appeals to pilots.

Of course the day didn’t get off to the best start with our GPS not working. And that day it mattered, because we were flying into KFSU, an airport that lies under the shelf of a huge area of military airspace called an MOA, that (in this case) starts a mere 500 feet off the ground. Access to the airport through this MOA is via a one-way horseshoe-shaped corridor of airspace seven miles wide and eleven miles deep.

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Needless to say, I didn’t want to get off course and blunder into an area where military jets were practicing low-level maneuvers at 0.9 Mach. Ercoupes and F-18s: A bad mix in any airspace.

Outside the Plane Tales Hangar, I futzed around with the Dual Electronics GPS antenna for about 15 minutes. Unplugging it. Plugging it back in. Unplugging it again. Rebooting the iPad three times. Punching vainly at the power button. All to no avail.

Finally Rio came to the rescue by saying, “Can’t we just use dead-reckoning?”

I glared at the GPS one last time for good measure, threw it back on the dashboard, and reached behind the co-pilot’s seat for the paper sectional chart. I unfolded it, then refolded it to a manageable size with our target area in the center. I studied the boundaries of the access corridor. If I kept Highway 84 on Tess’s right wingtip, I’d be flying just to the west of the corridor’s center line. Simple enough.

I shrugged my shoulder. OK. Yeah. Sure we can. Let’s go. Hand me the startup checklist.

We took off and headed southeast until we intercepted the highway and then flew along it, being alert for cell phone towers. Honestly, I’m surprised there aren’t more crashes involving these things. They sprout up like mushrooms after rain and are hard to spot from the air.

How’d we do without the GPS? Truth be told, there’s a lot of joy in just flying along a line on the ground rather than a magenta line on a glass screen. We did just fine.

KFSU was built by the US Army Air Corps at the start of World War II. Initially it served as a glider training base, and later became a major site for basic multiengine flight training for bomber pilots. By the end of the war, aircrews in B-17 Flying Forts and B-24 Liberators were training at Ft. Sumner, and the site also housed a POW camp.

I initially got interested in the airfield while researching an article on Transcontinental Air Transport, the first company to offer rapid commercial coast-to-coast transportation. It was before the Great Depression, and TAT flew passengers in Ford Tri-Motors by day and moved them by Pullman trains by night.

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Some of the literature, wrongly as it turns out, reported that the airport at Ft. Sumner was built by TAT. It wasn’t, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. So even though visiting the field wouldn’t help out my story, I still appreciated the irony that a field that was once a bustling military post had so fallen from grace that it was literally overshadowed by military airspace; and I was keen to fly the unique horseshoe into this remote island-like airport. Plus, we’d never been there before, and we’re working on a long-term project of landing at every airport in the State of New Mexico. We have a state aeronautical chart on a bulletin board on the wall of the Plane Tales Hangar that we use to track our progress.

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After shooting down the horseshoe, we overflew the KFSU at 800 feet to get eyeballs on the wind sock, which favored runway 21. The airport is service-less. It has no automated weather radio. In fact, while a handful of airplanes are said to be based there, there isn’t even any fuel for sale at the former bomber base.

We banked right and over-flew the town to get lined up for landing, with Rio fretting all the while that we were getting too close to the boundary of the MOA.

We’re fine, I told him.

“I don’t want to be met by helicopter gunships,” he grumped at me.

I think you are confusing MOAs and TFRs, I told him.

“Oh… So what happens if you go into an MOA, then?” he asked.

We might get run over by a jet.

“Yes, of course. I can see where that would be waaaaaaaaaay better than the armed helicopters,” he said, rolling his eyes.

Now back over the airport, we ran our pre-landing checklist on the downwind leg, then turned onto final approach for the faded and cracked runway. We were way too high. Never a problem in an Ercoupe. I cut the power completely and the Plane Tales Plane obediently dropped like a brick. For a plane that sure seems to like to fly, Tessie relies more on her engine than her wings. Power-off, she has the glide ratio of a crowbar.

Down we came. I glanced at our vertical speed indicator, a simple dial that shows how fast you are going either up or down.

150 feet per minute down…

250 feet per minute down…

500 feet per minute down…

The ground loomed up.

I nudged the throttle forward to arrest the descent and pulled back on the yoke, raising the nose and “flaring” the little blue and white plane. The vertical speed indicator snapped to neutral, I chopped the power and held her level right above the asphalt to bleed off my speed. When we slowed enough that our wing lost its aerodynamic magic and stopped producing lift, we dropped the remaining several inches onto the runway.

We’d arrived.

Looking at the satellite image on Google Earth during our pre-flight planning, KFSU looked like an impressive facility with three intersecting runways and acres and acres of concrete apron. Funny thing about satellite images. They almost always make things look better than they really are. One of the runways had trees growing out of it. Literally.

And on the ground the giant apron is so cracked and overgrown that it’s almost unrecognizable. The taxiways are so degraded I couldn’t recognize them and had to back-taxi on runway 21 for takeoff when we departed.

But SFU isn’t all old and decrepit. In the middle of this crumbling wasteland stands a three-story-tall white monolith with the bold red logo of NASA down the side. What? Rockets? Here?

Nope. NASA has adopted Ft. Sumner as its home base for high-altitude research weather balloon launches. And in addition to their massive new building, they’ve also retro-fitted the one remaining WW2 hangar with modern high-tech air-conditioning.

But on the day of our visit there was no one from NASA on site, nor anyone from anywhere else for that matter. It was eerily empty. But not quiet. All of the NASA gear was alive and noisy, functioning just fine in the absence of its masters.

Rio and I disembarked to explore.

The east end of the big hangar, where we parked Tessie, was locked up tight. As were all the doors along the sides, but peeking into the gaps we could see it was full of trucks and campers, not airplanes. Support equipment for the twice-yearly balloon launches. The west side was open and the gapping short end of the hanger housed a single Piper Cub with tundra wheels.

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It was the only flyable plane in evidence. In a forlorn hail shed, covered in bird droppings, sat a decaying Cessna. Its tires were flat, crumbling to dust, and its windscreen and side windows were sun-faded to pale yellow. Inside, a lightweight coat and a pair of headsets waited for the pilots, as if the plane had been flown yesterday and would be flown again tomorrow.

With enough time and money, any plane can be made to fly again, but I’m not optimistic about this little bird’s future.

But the whole site was eerily post-apocalyptic. And the longer we explored, the more the uneasy feeling grew. There were no people to be seen. Parked on the edge of the apron was a city truck, with the keys in the ignition. There were fresh hotdog buns in a shed next to a picnic table, along with three empty refrigerators. The hum of the giant air conditioners, lined up like dominos along the north side of the WW2 era Quonset-hut style super hangar, filled the air with noise like robotic crickets.

It was, frankly, creepy as hell. In the end we nearly ran for our plane.

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And it remains one of the few airports we’ve never returned to.

 

…and the winner is…

Well, the polls just closed on the big election. What? No, no, no. Not the presidential election. Not to worry, despite all the yammering in the media, that’s still a full year away. No I’m talking about the Race Number election.

What number won? Was number 1 number 1? Did our readers prefer lucky 777 over nostalgic 66? What about the “racy” 69? Or did our readers think Tessie and Herbie had some something in common other than the “ie” on the end of their names, and vote for the classic Disney number of 53?

Of course, 47 was in the race for being the Race Number, being as the Plane Tales Plane was built in 1947. Also in the running was 76, part of our “N” number; and the numbers 55 and 99 just ‘cause they are sort of cool.

Well, like all elections in America, the voter turnout was lighter than we liked. And like elections in other parts of the world, there is some suspicion that perhaps the ballot box was “stuffed” by certain parties favoring certain numbers. (Personally, I suspect Tessie of being the guilty party because there are oil stains on many of the ballots, but I guess it serves me right for leaving the ballot box in the hangar.)

And we did have one “write-in” vote cast for Race 415, with the explanation that “in a way, you represent all of the Ercoupe family.” For those of you who didn’t know it, all Ercoupes are model 415s.

But the polls are now closed, the votes are in and counted, and it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to… drum roll

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Race 53.

Yep. Tessie and I are now registered with the Sport Air Racing League as Race 53. A salute and a bow to an iconic underdog who became a champ, and perhaps an invocation to the racing gods for good luck. And let’s not kid ourselves here; this choice of Race Number might just be an effective vaccination against the macho testosterone-rich air-racing world. I think it prudent to show up expressing a good sense of humor when arriving to race in a plane not well known for its racing prowess.

Now before the election, I joked about putting classic Disney auto-racing “gumballs” on the plane, but that’s just what we ended up doing in the end. And I gotta say, I’m amazed at how great the classic race numbers look on our girl. I think they harmonize with her lines and paint very well. (Although we had to ditch Herbie’s red, white & blue stripe. The colors didn’t work out, and Tess has a plethora of stripes of her own—it was just too much.)

Still, she looks like a born racer to my eye. So be on the lookout for Race 53 on the circuit in the 2016 season.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines… Here we come.

 

Not just a plane ol’ restaurant

As soon as I saw the Ercoupe on the menu, I knew this was going to be my kind of place.

What? Oh, you misunderstood me. You can’t order an Ercoupe there, but The Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has a photo of an Ercoupe decorating the border of its dinner menu, right next to the Flying Chicken Florentine.

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And another Ercoupe picture is featured by the Chocolate Touchdown. And a third by the Runway Chunky Chicken Strips. Of course the menu art also includes Jennies, the Wright Flyer, a flying car, the Bell X-1, and military planes both new and old. It also has images of famous fliers. And sexy stewardesses.

But no other plane had two pictures, much less three. I suspected someone at The Airplane had a special fondness for Ercoupes, and this turned out to be true. More on that after dessert. Actually, let’s back up to the appetizer for a moment.

Now there’s no shortage of airplane-themed restaurants at or near airports. Most are decorated with aviation art, and many have dozens of model planes hanging from the ceiling. But the Airplane ups the ante: The restaurant is in a plane. Well part of it, anyway. And part of the plane is in the restaurant, as well, much the way old railroad cars were used for roadside diners back in the day. And the merging of plane and restaurant is a work of architectural art.

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Yep, The Airplane Restaurant is the proud owner of a Boeing KC-97, one of the largest and most powerful piston planes ever built. The KC-97 was sort of like a double-decker B-29. It had four engines, each with 28 pistons generating 3,500 horsepower per engine. In civilian clothes Pan Am flew them as Stratocruisers on the San Fran-Honolulu run. It was the first pressurized passenger plane, and reverse of a 747, had seats for 100 on the top deck and a lounge on the lower deck at the bottom of a spiral staircase.

Well, The Airplane’s airplane is a retired military job, so there’s no spiral staircase. But they’ve done a marvelous job of turning the plane into any pilot’s dream lounge.

The port wing and outermost engine are actually inside the main restaurant. I’m not sure if they built the building around the plane, or crashed the plane into the building, but the effect is wonderful. Under the wing are tables and booths. Behind it is a bar. Two sets of stairs lead up into the fuselage of the giant plane. In the back, they’ve left the refueling hardware intact (this plane served as an aerial tanker) and it’s fully visible behind a glass door. In the front, the spacious cockpit is intact and open for all takers.

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I “flew” the beast for a bit, with Rio behind me serving as the flight engineer. A precocious three-year old girl was busy flying right seat and Rio was too much of a gentleman to boot her out. By far, it is the most spacious cockpit I’ve even been in. I think it’s bigger than my office back home. Behind the cockpit, booths line both sides of the fuselage.

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And the tables are topped with shellaced sectional charts. Ironically, our table had the Albuquerque sectional on it.

I guess they were expecting us.

Downstairs, in the rest of the restaurant, the owners have taken aviation décor to the extreme the same way we have with our hangar. There are airplane models hanging from the ceilings, in display cabinets, and on every horizontal surface. Giant cockpit posters grace some walls, while other walls feature “nose art” or pictures of famous planes, famous aviators, and famous aviatrixes.

Any pilot will feel immediately at home with—if not a hair jealous of—the collection.

The staff all wear pilot shirts and mix aviation humor into their spiel. Hell, even the bathrooms have an airplane theme. Oh, not to worry, they are full-sized, but motion sensors trigger jet-plane take off noises when you open the door to enter the bathroom.

After our dinner, managing partner and pilot in command Steve Kanatzar made his way through the cabin checking on his passengers. He spied the Ercoupe logos on the sleeves of our summer flight jackets and ran to fetch a menu. “Did you see we have an Ercoupe on the menu?” he asked.

“I saw you had three,” I replied, “who’s the lady standing on the wing of the plane next to the Flying Chicken Florentine?”

It turns out the woman on the wing was his grandmother. In another photo, the two men leaning comfortably against the rear fuselage were his uncles. Kanatzar was recently able to track down his grandfather’s old Ercoupe, now residing in California, and now for sale. Sadly, he reported, the plane was suffering from corrosion. “I just can’t take on a project airplane,” he told me.

Thinking back on how much we’ve spent to get Tessie in good condition, despite the fact that our pre-buy mechanic assured us all was well, I let him in on the secret: “All Ercoupes are project airplanes.”

But maybe a restaurant in a plane is project enough for one man. But I must say, it was a project brilliantly executed.

Oh. The food. How was the food? you ask.

First Class.