Merry Christmas (in pictures)

Merry Christmas! This year Christmas falls on Friday, our regular publication day, and it occurred to me that in all probability very few people would be reading blogs on Christmas day. Naturally, they’ll all be out flying.


What to do? I didn’t want to skip the post completely, but I didn’t want to cut into people’s holiday flying time. Then it occurred to me that this would be a case where a picture might be the better solution than a thousand word post. The first image to come to mind was our Ercoupe Christmas tree ornament:


But then I decided that I wanted to spread holiday cheer in the form of a good laugh, so here’s my favorite holiday cartoon from Chicken Wings, the famous online & syndicated aviation cartoon:


© Michael and Stefan Strasser

This famous holiday cartoon comes in Christmas cards for your favorite pilot (but order early for next year, I see they sold out this year). And as we always strive to do things bigger and better around here, a couple of years ago I reached out to the Chicken Wings folks and asked them if they could make this “frame” into a poster for me. They did, and it’s now an annual tradition to display it in our hanger for the holiday season.


Meanwhile, next year, Christmas falls on a Sunday, so the Friday before I’ll tell you the story of day Santa came to visit our hangar…


Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good flight!


Maintenance musings

As maintenance issues and costs mount, I enter the holiday season second-guessing every airplane purchase decision I ever made. Or put in a more holiday way, how can I help but play chess with the Ghost of Christmas Past when my annual inspection falls at the happiest time of the year?

Yes, I’ve come to realize that even though I’ve been flying airplanes for 35 years, since I was seventeen years old, in fact, I didn’t learn one damn thing in all that time about buying and owning them. Don’t get me wrong. I tried to learn, but some fields of knowledge require a degree from the U-of-K, the University of Hard-Knocks. You can read about how to buy a plane everyday until the cows come home, the sunsets, and the moon rises for months—I did—and you’ll still be woefully unprepared for the real world realities.

Here’s the reader’s digest version of the conventional wisdom of plane buying: Define your mission before you shop. Don’t be dissuaded by a pretty face. Do a title search. Pay the big bucks for a pre-buy inspection. Be patient.

I did all that. Here’s how it’s worked out for me:

Mission. Defining your mission means taking a hard look at the kind of flying you really do. It makes no sense to own a six-seat light twin if you generally fly alone in the local area. By the same token, if you need to fly regularly for businesses more than 500 miles from home, a Piper Cub is a bad choice. My mission required a Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). My checkbook required an older “legacy” model. I actually read a book, ironically titled Legacy Light Sport Aircraft You Can Afford to Buy and Fly, to help me get a better grip on the options, of which there were seven makes: Aeronca, Ercoupe, Interstate, Luscombe, Piper Cub, Porterfield, or Talyorcraft. The Ercoupe ended up being the best mission-fitting plane. Among the legacy models, I still believe that. But every time something breaks, wears out, or needs to be replaced for any other reason, I can’t help wondering if I shouldn’t have evaluated modern LSAs, too.

I do a lot of wondering about that this time of year.

Moving on. Related to mission definition is avoiding a pretty face. You’d think that a good way to shop for an airplane would be to go to an airport and see what’s for sale, but you’d be wrong. It’s too easy to fall in love with the wrong plane that way. Sensible airplane buying requires a cold heart, and sometimes a cold shower. I did that right. I never met Tessie in the flesh before I made the deal. I defined my mission, spent months trying to find a plane that fit my requirements, made dozens of calls to sellers, and even inked two deals that fell apart (more on that in a minute) before we bought our plane. I had seen pictures, of course, and a pilot friend whose work took him to the part of the country where she was based test flew her for me.

Our title search was fine, and I paid the owner to ferry the plane to a prebuy mechanic. This was the third time I had done that. Two other deals fell apart when deal-killing issues were discovered on the prebuy. I was spending a lot of money on airplane mechanics for a guy who didn’t own an airplane, but I was saving myself from a bigger financial disaster.

Or so I thought.

Yes, I was in a Spock-like zone of logic on this purchase, and cocky-proud of myself. But things broke down on the third prebuy. The highly recommended prebuy guy on this deal missed a ton of potentially deal-killing squawks. Of course, in all fairness he found a ton of things that were fixed to make the sale, too, so maybe it’s just 20-20 hindsight that’s making me bitter.

And patience. Did I get impatient in the end? Maybe, but I think not. I took six months, walked away from two deals when they turned sour, and avoided a dozen others early in the process. I followed the plane-buying checklist to the letter, but discovered in the end that correspondence school is no way to learn about buying an airplane.

You have to attend the U-of-K.

Yes, I’m sorry to tell you that when it comes first-time airplane ownership, you just don’t know what you’re getting into until it’s too late to get out. I know it’s one dollar total I should never look at (much less add up) but when I think about how much money we’ve spent on our old bird I can’t help but wonder if I could have been flying that sexy Sling, who’s siren song hasn’t yet released its hold on my soul. Of course, if I’d known the true cost of owning this plane, I would not have bought her, so it’s not quite relevant. Plus, even a new plane still has required maintenance, so it’s not like you can truly add up all the money you’ve ever spent on an old plane and say you could have applied it to the purchase of a new one. And, even with all the unexpected costs we’ve weathered, we are nowhere near the cost of a brand-spanking new LSA. That will take another couple of years. But the Ghost of Christmas Future has been whispering in my ear about that.

So do I regret buying this plane? Sometimes, for brief periods, yes. And I kick myself for not being smarter. But when my musings turn dark, like today, all I need to do is look at this picture:

DSC_6751 2

And all my dark thoughts fly away on those beautiful wings of white and blue.

Down time

The Plane Tales hangar is sadly empty. Well, that’s not quite true. Anyone who has seen our hangar knows it’s chock full of art and artifacts and is therefore never technically empty. What I meant to say is that it’s missing the one key element of any good hangar: An airplane.


Yep, Tess is off “visiting friends” (her mechanics) this month, and it’s anyone’s guess when she’ll be back. There is so much to do this year that my chief mechanic was afraid to even talk to me about turn-around time. So to make use of our idle we-should-really-be-flying time, Rio, Lisa, and I are doing the next best thing. We are watching flying DVDs.

No, it’s not Ace’s High or The Great Waldo Pepper—or the highly regarded and more appropriate One Six Right—with popcorn. This is serious TV. The three of us are watching the Sporty’s Pilot Shop ground school series, Learn to Fly.

Ground school? Yep, ground school is the part of an aviation education that teaches you all the non-fly-the-plane stuff related to flying that you need to know to fly. Physics, navigation, meteorology, airspace, regulations, weight and balance, and more. It also teaches you what you need to know to pass the written and oral exams for a pilot’s license. (Getting a pilot’s license entails three tests: A written; an oral; and a flight test called a check ride.)

There’s good reason for Lisa and Rio to be watching ground school DVDs. Lisa will need to take her test sooner than later, and while there’s not much point in Rio taking it yet, as he can’t solo for a bit over two more years—when he turns 16—there’s no harm in his mastering the material early so he can breeze right though the test when the time comes.

But what about me, you ask? Aren’t you already already a licensed pilot? Yes I am, and as such I’ll never have to re-take the written test, even though I first passed it back before cell phones were invented. So why would I go back to ground school? Well, there’s a lot to be said for the old adage that a pilot’s license is only a license to learn. Good pilots should never stop learning, there is so much to know. And besides, I’m having fun learning with two of my four favorite people.

So what do I think of the series so far? Well, to be honest, I’m a bit underwhelmed, but we’re only on the first disc. The series was billed as having “award-winning video in and around planes—not in a class room.” Sounds great, but so far we have a lot of footage of a man standing in front of a plane giving a lecture. And a lot of footage of a man sitting inside a plane giving a lecture. Yeah, technically it’s “in and around planes,” not “in a class room,” but…

Still, I’m having a good time, and Rio—who’s not much for school and tests—is even enjoying pausing the DVD for the interactive quizzes at the end of each section. And either we’re pretty damn smart or Sporty’s is doing a better job than I just gave them credit for, because we’ve passed most of the quizzes so far.

So while we’re suffering from an empty hangar this month, at least we’re not suffering from empty minds, and we’re still getting our weekly flying “fix.”


Statistics that are just plane nuts

“What’s up with the bottle of coconut water?” my Mom asked as she sat down at the dinner table, pointing at a bottle of Vita Coco that Rio had scored at Walmart, of all places. It was his second attempt to see what coconut water tasted like. In his first attempt, his mother brought home an actual coconut with a label that basically said: Don’t drink the water from this coconut.


Debs isn’t the label-reading sort.

The undrinkable coconut still languishes in the back of our fridge, months after she bought it. Apparently the water of immature green coconuts is what you drink, not the liquid inside the hard-shell brown coconuts. Who knew? But, anyway, that’s how the family dinner conversation got started on coconuts rather than on my Mother’s two favorite subjects: The race for the president; or the latest plane crash.

Mom joins us for dinner six nights a week. She usually arrives as we’re starting to cook, and jumps right in without preamble: “You heard about the plane crash in (fill in the blank), right?” Then she launches into whatever gory details and pseudo-expert opinions they’ve been hashing over all day on MSNBC.

As she goes on, often at length, it’s actually possible to watch my wife begin to stiffen up, her movements morphing from their usual fluid grace to awkward mannequin-like jerks. You see, plane crashes are my wife’s worst fear.

Well, not plane crashes in general, but fear of one particular plane crashing. And any reminder that planes can—and sometimes do—come down out of the sky in a bad way just serves to feed her fear that someday a pretty blue and white classic with twin tails might do the same.

Now, Debbie’s fear is specific. She doesn’t worry about me crashing with Rio, or with Lisa, or with Mom, or with anyone else we take for a flight. (Remember that the Plane Tales Plane is a two-seater, so the whole family can never fly together.) No, Debbie only worries about she and I crashing. And it’s more a maternal instinct worry than a self-perseveration worry. Her fear is leaving Rio an orphan.

So Deb is never 100% relaxed when she flies with me. The slightest bump of turbulence causes her to gasp. The slightest odd noise makes her jump in her seat. I’ve learned that steep turns are definitely out, and that shorter flights are the best choice.

Naturally, I’m always on the lookout for ways to (1) put her fear into what I would regard as a realistic perspective, a task I always fail at; and (2) to do anything possible to increase our safety. We took a Ninety-Nines Flying Companion Seminar, and I’ve been diligently teaching all my “co-pilots” how to handle the plane on their own. Rio landed brilliantly the other day. I also I bought a GPS personal locator beacon for the plane, and Rio and I built a survival kit designed for the environment we fly over: Arid and either very hot or very cold. (The goal was to have it weigh the same as one gallon of gas and keep two people alive for three days. It ended up weighing closer to two gallons, but it’s in the luggage compartment for every flight.)

Oops, I deviated from course there a bit, back to our Tale. So as I said, the Vita Coco threw Mom off her regular track. While I was cutting veggies for the salad, I filled her in on the back-story on why there was a bottle of coconut water on the table. That’s when Deb turned from the stove and said, “Did you know that 260 people a year get killed by falling coconuts?”

I digested this statement for a moment, then said, That seems improbable. You mean like, walking down the beach minding your own business, and thump-whack you’re a gonner?


Huh. Well, coconuts are heavy, and coconut palms are tall. I guess it would be a bit like having the iconic anvil dropped on your head. And there are both a lot of people on the planet, and a lot of coconuts, too. So the more I thought about it, the less improbable it seemed that coconut impacts could send a few hundred people a year to meet their maker.

But then I remembered something. The National Transportation Safety Board just released the latest general aviation accident statistics, and there were 253 fatal general aviation accidents in 2014. That meant that it was more likely that Debbie would be killed by a falling coconut than in a falling Ercoupe.

So that’s what I told her.

First her eyes twinkled. Then she snickered. Then she laughed out loud. “Maybe I worry too much,” she said.

I think so.

Then my mother switched the subject to the latest political news from the presidential race.


Epilogue: So the bad news, dear readers, is that we really don’t know how many people are killed every year by falling coconuts. Debbie had heard 260, but when I researched coconut fatalities for this post, the most common (and disputed) number on the internet is 150 deaths per year. Apparently this number came from a company that sells some sort of travel insurance policy to cover you for injury or death from falling coconuts. In point of fact, people are killed by falling coconuts, but no one actually collects statistics on the number of these sorts of fatalities.

But even though the coconuts may be a myth, Debbie is still more likely to die from falling off a ladder, drowning in her own bathtub, or succumbing to food poisoning that she is to die in a general aviation airplane.

As for me, this got me thinking if I’d rather my obituary featured a plane crash or a coconut-cracked noggin. On one hand, if a pilot dies in a plane crash, many will assume he didn’t have the “Right Stuff.” On the other hand dying from a coconut whack is so bizarrely random and pointless to be almost comical (unless it happens to someone you love).

I guess I’d have to choose walking away from the crash, after having saved all souls aboard via brilliant flying, and then being struck in the head by a falling coconut that was jarred loose when the plane hit the beach. That would at least give me ironic hero status of dying while saving the day, and bring two unlikely statistics full circle into one heck of a Plane Tale.