Annual angina

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be rich to buy an airplane. The Plane Tales Plane, for instance, cost waaaaaay less than most new cars (and less than many used ones, come to think about it). Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of planes that you do need to be rich to buy, but plane ownership should not be confused with country club membership. It’s not an exclusive club when it comes to airplane ownership. While it’s possible to spend a couple of million on an airplane, there are also planes to be had for ten grand.

I don’t know how airplane owners got the rep of being rich. I really don’t. People don’t assume the guy with the bass boat is rich. Or the neighbor with the big hulking RV in his driveway. People spend their “disposable” income on all kinds of recreational toys than rival or exceed the cost of buying a plane without being accused of being exorbitantly wealthy.

I suspect it’s jealously.

It pisses me off sometimes, although I suspect my wife actually likes the faux status of “rich” that owning a plane confers on us.

Anyway (for myth busting) buying a plane doesn’t require a lot of money, plus if you want to finance, even old planes often have 15-year terms on loans, so you’re not looking at much out-of-pocket each month. And flying a plane isn’t as expensive as you’d think, either, especially if you are careful about the plane you choose. I was admiring a surprisingly cheap for-sale jet warbird in my mechanic’s shop a few months ago, and one of the workers actually snorted, “That thing will burn more gas taxiing out to the end of the runway than your Ercoupe will burn in a year!”

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In our case, we usually burn just under five gallons of gas per hour. With Avgas at $4.70 a gallon at our airport, and a small bit of oil thrown in, I fly for about $25 an hour. What else can you possibly do that is this much fun for twenty-five bucks?

But there is one aspect of owning a plane that just plane hurts the pocket book. Oh. Wait. I meant to say just “plain” hurts. And that’s airplane maintenance. Pretty much anything that needs to be done on a plane must be done by licensed mechanics who are able to command fees that make licensed plumbers and licensed electricians look like bargain-basement minimum-wage workers by comparison.

And there is always maintenance to be done on a plane, even when its working perfectly. Federal law requires every plane to undergo an annual inspection every 12 months. An annual is no mere pop-the-hood-and-check-the-oil operation. It’s a major tear-down that peers deep into the plane’s guts to make sure all is working as it should, and that nothing has worn out, worked loose, or fallen off. Even if absolutely nothing is found that needs to be taken care of, my annual runs me a hair over one grand. But annuals can easily run double, triple, quadruple if some “squawks” are found.

Hence my annual angina over my annual. I’m never sure how much it’s going to cost, or how long it will take. (And I start having withdrawal symptoms if I’ve not flown in over a week.) This year, I already know the annual will be more than double of last year’s when the only thing they found wrong was a burned-out light bulb on the right wing. Our funky antique Stromberg carburetor is developing a personality and needs to be sent out to a specialist to be rebuilt, at a cost nearly equal to the annual itself. And our engine needs some work. As does our prop, which is handled by a different kind of licensed airplane mechanic. The left aileron has a bit more play in than I’d like. We have some nose gear shimmy on landing. The vertical speed indictor is off.   There’s a loose rivet on the belly. And on it goes.

(Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be pilots… Fer’ God’s sake send them off to plane mechanic school instead!)

Now I know that the older the plane, the cheaper it is to buy, but the more expensive it is to maintain. And the newer the plane, the more expensive it is to buy, but the cheaper it is to maintain. An actuary—like my nephew—would tell you to buy new(er). So why didn’t I? Partly because that wasn’t an option for me, but largely because I had no clue what I was getting into.

Anyway, it’s that time of year again. Next week on Tuesday, weather gods permitting, I’ll fly Tess over the hump of Rowe Mesa into Santa Fe, and turn over the keys and my wallet to my mechanic. Then I’ll have to hitch a ride back to our empty hanger at SXU to pick up my (more expensive than my airplane) Jeep.

The hangar sure is going to feel empty this December while the mechanics are working on Tessie. But I guess that will only serve to remind me that while I may not be rich when it comes to how much money I have in my bank account, my life could not possibly be any richer.

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Turn on a dime

It’s been said by some—although certainly not by me—that some girls need a firm hand. And that others need a light touch. I don’t know much about girls anymore; I’ve been married to the same wonderful woman for more than half my years on the planet. but I think the saying is true of airplanes.

And my airplane certainly needs a firm hand. A delicate touch on Tessie’s yoke gives a meandering, sloppy turn. But a fast, assertive, abrupt flick of her controls gives me a crisp fighter-plane response.

As we approach the first turn of the racetrack, I’m all eyes outside the plane. Lisa, who’s serving as race copilot, has her eyes glued to the iPad inside the plane. “Three clicks out,” she says. “Two clicks… One click… Prepare to turn…”

Our goal on today’s practice run is to turn as tightly as possible around our waypoints. The steeper the bank of the turn, the tighter the turn radius is. The tighter the run turn radius, the tighter we stay to the course. Keeping tight to the course gives us a competitive edge over someone who turns wider. Minutes, seconds sometimes, win races. And we’re all about races at the moment.

Lisa starts the countdown, “Three… Two… One… Turn-turn-turn!!!”

I twist the yoke firmly left. Pull sharply back. The horizon snaps sidewise. G-forces push us back in our seats. Blue sky off our right wingtip. The world cartwheels below our left tip. I pull back more, placing the left sparkplug cover dead-on the sharply canted horizon. I know this holds me level in the turn. I glace left and the ground seems straight below me, although the plane is actually banked only 45 degrees from the horizon.

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I love the feeling of a steep turn. And so too, it seems, does my girl who likes a firm hand.

“And rollout!” calls out Lisa. Another sharp, firm twist. This time to the right. The horizon spins clockwise like a carnival ride. I push the nose forward as we scream out of the turn. With a quick glance at the iPad, I see we’re dead on course. I switch hands on the yoke, holding it with my right and give Lisa a flying high-five with my left.

Then it’s back to the plodding work of keeping on course and on altitude, which—done right—generates some pride in a job well done, but isn’t as much fun.

Meanwhile, my left hand holds the yoke (firmly of course) and I look ahead to the next turn.

 

Back to school

It’s not hot but I’m sweating. And I’m tense. I thought this was going to be fun—in fact I’d looked forward to this flight all week—but it’s proving, well, hard.

I glace at the steam gauge instruments. Oil pressure in the green. Oil temp good. Cylinder head temp below redline. Engine RPM at 2300. Altimeter pegged at fifty-five hundred feet. Vertical speed indicator showing 100 foot per minute down, which means we are straight and level (gotta get that damn thing fixed). Now a quick scan of the sky around us, ahead of us, above us, behind us. Earlier I’d spotted a V-22 Osprey and a big cargo tanker from Cannon Air Force Base skimming the ground off to the south, but now a lone turkey vulture and I have the skies to ourselves. Back in the cockpit my eyes flick to the iPad Mini.

I’m off course.

I curse under my breath. I’m failing miserably at the most basic of airmanship tasks: Flying a set course while holding a set altitude. Yep, years of wandering around the sky enjoying the view have eroded my basic skill set. Which of course is why—although I was never a good student and was always looking out the window—I’ve gone back to school.

Well, OK, I confess this isn’t a real school. But I’m treating it like it is.

Rio and I have been studying the Sport Air Racing League stats to try and get a better idea of how much competition the competition is going to be. In our class and category, it’s going to be tough. We’ll be competing against every plane with an engine of 130 horsepower or less. We have 85 horses, so against a 130 we are, simply put, toast. But against a competitor of equal power it could be a real down-to-the-wire race; and I knew that among equally matched aircraft the one that wins will be the one that’s flown better. But, in the context of an air race, what does “flown better” mean? And just where does one look to learn how to race?

In the iconic Disney salute to air racing, the movie Planes, Dusty Crophopper’s would-be coach Chug uses a book called Air Racing for Dummies. Sadly, this seminal work of literature is pure fiction. I know this because I actually checked Amazon to see if it really existed. Had it, I would have bought a copy.

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Lacking a dummies book (or a mentor) I had to write my own syllabus.

Now, there are all kinds of air racing, but luckily for me, the kind of racing I’ve signed up for is not overly complex. I’m not dodging pylons and doing half-loops like the Red Bull air racers. Instead, it’s just a matter of flying an old-fashioned course, and doing it as fast as possible. The fastest plane takes off first, and the slowest plane takes off last (to avoid a lot of passing of planes on the course). You fly against the clock, and the fastest member of each class takes the gold.

So, the way I see it, the competitive advantages are only two: Speed and precision. For speed you need to run your engine at its highest (safe) power setting. For the Plane Tales Plane, that means throttle full forward, which still won’t red-line the engine. Controlling the air-fuel mixture to best effect can give us an edge, too. That’s half the recipe for speed. Because the secret is that there’s more to speed than power.

In an airplane, the flip side of speed is drag. Drag is a vampire that sucks the life out of speed, so you do whatever you can do to minimize drag. Wax the wings. Keep the canopy closed tight. Don’t bolt a GoPro camera onto the wing.

Speed overlaps my second principle of air racing, precision, when it comes to altitude. Making a plane climb is a slow business. It robs speed. For maximum speed, then, you don’t go any higher than you need to go. And you want to nail your target altitude and stay there. Thus, most of the races are flown at 500 feet, the minimum altitude above any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure allowed by Federal Aviation Administration regulations. A lot of pilots (who aren’t afraid of heights, but are often afraid of the ground) get antsy down low, but we are used to it. It’s a benefit of flying a plane that can’t go high no matter how hard you try.

So peddling as fast as you can, keeping the plane as slick as possible, and staying close to the ground all buy you some speed over someone with a more leisurely engine setting in a draggy plane flying higher. That leaves only one other variable you can control, and that is how well you stay on course. Keeping tightly to the course line gets you there faster. If you wander off course you lose time. Maybe seconds. Maybe minutes.

To win, I need to fly fast and I need to fly well. My own personal dummies book tells me this translates into being able to hold course and altitude with maximum precision. Easy enough.

Or so I thought.

Luckily, I decided some practice might be a good idea. So I laid out a test course on my Flight Pad.

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Naturally I thought I’d “ace” the course the first time. Instead I’m drenched with sweat; my altitude is up, down, all around. I’m left of course, right of course. High again. Now low.

Both in altitude and in spirits.

Of course I understand that this is only my first day in back in school. And it’s a nasty, bumpy, fiercely windy day. Although who’s to say that a race day might not be nasty, bumpy, and fiercely windy as well?

Afterward, on the ground over a Negra Modelo and a quesadilla at Joseph’s, I review the flight on CloudAhoy, a GPS-based cockpit recorder that lets me Monday morning quarterback my flights. My altitude control is hardly winning:

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I swirl the deep brown Mexican beer around the chilled glass, then take a healthy slug. Yep, it looks like I’ll be in school for a while to come.

Oh well. At least this is one school where looking out the window is actually encouraged.

 

The best (flying) party ever?

I’m a VIP. I know this is true because the black and silver badge around my neck says so.

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But I’m actually a party crasher.

Yes. It’s true. I have no real right to be here tonight, which of course makes it doubly fun. Sorta like getting into a bar when you are underage or ditching school for the first time. Not that I ever did either of those things.

I’ve crashed the Cirrus Aircraft pre-race party at the final leg of the Red Bull Air Race. How did I do that? By being a member of a secret organization that has a lot of pull: the Hat in the Ring Society.

Actually, HITR is no secret, but a surprising number of pilots don’t know about it. The Society is a part of the AOPA Foundation, whose mission is to preserve general aviation as the national treasure that it is. Most Americans don’t realize this, but our freedom to fly is somewhat unique in the world; most countries severely restrict flying by members of the general public. We have that right here only because organizations like AOPA have fought for decades to preserve it. (For non-pilot readers, AOPA—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association—is the AARP of the general aviation world in terms of power, clout, and lobbying for good flying causes.)

I’ve been a card-carrying member of Hat in the Ring for a couple of years now. Oh. Wait. No I’m not. We don’t have membership cards. But I do have the logo embroidered on my flight jacket…

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…and I’m a member in good standing, which in some months is no small trick for a freelance writer, because Hat in the Ring is an organization of “philanthropist-pilots” that has a minimum dues of a thousand bucks a year.

Yeah, when I first heard about the cost of membership, I had the same reaction you probably just did. But then I read a piece by then-foundation head Bruce Landsberg challenging pilots to do more. The sad truth is that the dues we pay as AOPA members are barely enough to keep the lights on at headquarters. The mission of the organization is paid for by donations above and beyond the dues. Most donations are onesie-twosie and are given toward specific causes, like lobbying congress for medical reform. But Hat in the Ring is sorta like subscription donation, and the money goes into the Foundation’s general fund.

Anyway, long story short(er), Landsberg framed the dues in a different way. He asked pilots if the freedom to fly was worth the cost of a single flight a month. And then he further speculated about what AOPA would be able accomplish if every pilot gave the cost of one flight a month.

I was sold on the spot and became the poorest of the Foundation’s big donors. But as such, I’ve been given some special status as AOPA, frankly, spoils Hat members. We get special seating at events, get special access to the brass, and get invited to special members-only events.

And that’s how I crashed the Cirrus party. Hat members were invited to a behind-the-scenes tour of the race pits at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway the day before the final race of the 2015 Red Bull season (along with being given free tickets to the race). We were also set to meet with Red Bull Air Race pilot Michael Goulian, himself a Hat member. As soon as I got the invite, I booked a hotel room in Vegas.

Anyway, I’m not quite clear how it happened, but something with the schedule of the practice runs on the course at the Speedway led to our original tour being cancelled. Instead we got wrapped into the Cirrus Party. Lucky us. Because I’m here to tell you, Cirrus Aircraft knows how to throw a party.

Remember that VIP badge I showed you at the start? As a working journalist I have quite a collection of similar badges, as nearly every event I’ve ever been to has given me some sort of badge to wear. Generally they are paper. Sometimes plastic. The all-time best was the Medicine X badge from Stanford, billed by organizers as the first conference badge ever that “didn’t suck.” It was a vinyl smart badge with engineered interactivity using QR codes that also contained the conference schedule. It was very cool.

But the folks at Cirrus Aircraft topped even that. My badge to the Pre-race is made, kid you not, of metal.

Yeah. I know. It’s ironic that the airplane builder that abandoned metal for plastic in making their planes should abandon plastic in favor of metal for their party favors.

But I, for one, loved it. I’ve always admired classy advertising. I like a thick paper stock. A slick design. Varnished photos in a brochure. An embossed business card. I can recognize a brochure or a business card printed on a home printer from a mile away, and it sends me the message that someone is too cheap to invest in his or her business.

Cirrus, on the other hand, is clearly not afraid to invest, and the market has rewarded them. Their SR-series planes have been the best-selling single-engine four/five place aircraft for the last dozen years, and this summer they delivered their 6,000th airplane to a customer. Not too shabby for a company operating in what some people regard as the sunset of general aviation, and in a recession, no less.

But back to the party. I’m told the party was for 300 people, but I don’t think it was a full house. About half the folks there were wearing the black shirts of Cirrus employees, and I know for a fact that there were 45 “Hats” and/or Hat guests (like Debs and Rio) in attendance. And the rest? Who was the party really thrown for? Cirrus employees were vague about that, saying only that it was for people Cirrus valued. My guess was that it was for existing customers, and more importantly, to woo potential future customers.

The party was in the Media Center, a building that sits smack-dab in the middle of the speedway. We arrived there in three chartered beer-and-soda equipped busses that barely fit through the tunnels that pass under the racetrack. As the sun set and the giant stadium lights lit the arena like a second sun, we toured the temporary hangars that housed the 14 planes of the “master class” racers.

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The party itself featured food, booze, and virtual reality headsets that let us “fly” the racecourse. It was an experience real enough that I kept grabbing for a stick that wasn’t there. Four of the race pilots themselves came to the party, and we also got a sneak peak—via video—of what it’s like flying Cirrus’s new personal jet.

The whole event was built around not just owning a Cirrus airplane, but living a nebulous thing called “The Cirrus Life™.” (Yeah, no kidding; they trademarked it.) What is this Cirrus Life? Think Playboy. Only co-ed. And for us older folks. So, basically a high-class family-friendly lifestyle without the naked girls.

Well, that was my take, anyway. The Cirrus Life is officially described as: Increased productivity. More face time. More family time. There are many powerful lifestyle and business advantages of personal flying in a Cirrus aircraft.

Damn. I should get a job writing for these folks. They are good!

And in keeping with the theme of all things fine, speed, and The Cirrus Life, the cirrus marketing department hired an outfit called Dream Racing to take the most VIPish of the VIPs on rides around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche supercars.

We weren’t part of that illuminati. After all, we don’t own a Cirrus and aren’t likely to anytime soon, given the slow state of medical reform and the fact that aviation writers rarely earn anything close to six-figure-incomes. Cirrus planes are simply out of my league, with a base price of half a million bucks, and fully tricked-out easily $800 K or more. Still, as the night wound down, one of the Cirrus peeps asked if any of us wanted a car ride. I was about to agree when Debs cut me down with a piercing look of her deep brown eyes and I quickly declined.

Rio, however, jumped on the opportunity. Sadly, though, they wouldn’t let him go. He’s only 13 and the minimum age for the rides is 15. He was bummed, but at least I know now what to get him for his birthday two years hence. He handed his ticket to his mother and told her to take his seat. She hesitated for a second then a twinkle of excitement glinted in her eyes.

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Here’s a picture of Debs breaking my World Speed Record. On the ground.

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So speaking of Cirrus, what do I think of their airplanes? Well, I’ve never flown one, but Rio and I tried one on for size on the ramp at AOPA Colorado this year, and I can honestly say it was the roomiest airplane I’ve ever sat in—with the exception of the Stratocruiser, which, ironically, was on the same trip. Of course, that’s really not a fair comparison. But amongst GA airplanes (which are not famous for being roomy in the first place) the Cirrus really is a cut above. It felt very much more like sitting in a family car than in a typical light airplane. Even the back seats looked to have legroom.

I also appreciate the fact that Cirrus had the courage to pioneer the idea of “real” airplanes having airframe parachutes. While it might seem an obvious safety feature to have a large parachute that can gently lower a wounded airplane to the ground, the idea ruffled a lot of pilot feathers the wrong way when it was introduced. The idea flew in the face of a hundred years of macho save-the-day-against-all-odds pilot culture. But now, many years and 334 saves later (including 104 people living the Cirrus Life), I think most pilots see the wisdom of the airframe parachute.

Bottom line: If the third-class medical goes through in a way that will benefit me—I think it will go through, but I also think it won’t benefit me—and should I write a New York Times best seller, the Cirrus will be on my short list for the next family airplane. Both because it is a good plane, and because I think I might enjoy a little more of the Cirrus Life.