The milk run for wine

We flew low and hard. I’m using the Lindberg We here, as I was alone in the plane. Alone, but not alone, as I had the plane for company. Her retooled engine, overhauled carb, and newly flattened propeller combined to create a comforting roar that was oddly musical as she tore her way through the sky.

I had lifted off at dawn, Tessie springing into the air with renewed vigor, even with a full load of fuel, and I had to force her nose down to keep her low to the ground, as advised by our mechanic. The mission (beyond restocking our wine cabinet) was to “set” the rings in our new piston, and this is done by keeping the pressure in the cylinder high—a project made more challenging by flying out of an airport nearly a mile above sea level. In this case, altitude was the enemy.

The sun rose as I skimmed over mesas and canyons towards the Texas border, and about 45 minutes after takeoff I dropped off of the escarpment and down into the flatlands. From here through the Oklahoma panhandle, and into Kansas, you can forgive our ancestors for believing that the world was flat. Even from above, there is nothing about the great plains of the Midwest to suggest that they reside on a giant sphere. The land is a smooth, near-featureless expanse in all directions. A expanse that seems to go on forever.

Lower and lower we flew as the terrain slowly and steadily dropped in altitude beneath our wings. My main tasks were watching out for those pesky cell phone towers, and keeping track of my theoretical fuel consumption, based on ground speed. Ercoupes don’t have reliable gas gauges and there’s no real way in flight to check how much is in the wing tanks. I stayed on task, and resisted the urge to carve lazy circles in the winter air.

At one point, after refueling at Liberal, I spied a lake off to my left that appeared to be covered in snowballs, and could not resist the urge to investigate. As Tess and I approached, the snowballs exploded into a giant flock of Snow Geese, who wheeled and turned beneath us in formation flight to escape the roar of Tessie’s engine.

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But all in all, it was what military pilots used to call a milk run. The same would not be true of the return trip. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I landed at Great Bend, the Centerline Aviation lineman greeted me with, “We haven’t seen you for a little while. Welcome back.” It wasn’t artifice. Next he asked if a minor mechanical problem we’d had when we last passed through had gotten resolved.

That’s the wonderful thing about aviation: It gives you an extended family.

After getting Tess gassed up and secured in the giant surplus B-29 hangar for the night, I headed into town to complete the other part of my mission: Restocking the wine rack.

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At the Rosewood outlet the manager recognized me and we chatted for a time. As much as I love my Cooper Prophets, I’d been noticing that recently my pallet was sliding away from smoother Malbec-like wines to slightly sharper cabs. What followed was a wine tasting that left me wishing I had room for two cases of wine, not just one.

Seriously, I don’t think these people make a bad wine. Of course some I liked better than others. In the end I took home a mixed case made up of:

Coosa Pat, a Portuguese Cabernet Sauvignon.

Chicka Star Buck, a Bonorda Malbec.

Angel with a Gun, an Amarone.

Peponita Pop Top, a Pinot Noir.

And of course I got one more bottle of my beloved Cooper Prophets, the Nebbiolothat started all of this. Oh, and one bottle of a yummy chocolate raspberry desert wine (in a sexy skinny bottle) for Debs called Boo Koo Good Time. Remember, all these wines are named for race horses, which tend to have racier names than airplanes do.

I see many special occasions in my future.

Then I checked the weather, and turned in for the night, having no clue that the next day would be no milk run. Or even a wine run, for that matter. But I would be running from something, all right, before the first hour of the flight was over.

 

Next time, on Plane Tales: If the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane, what does the weather in Kansas do?

 

Ultimate beer run

It was love at first sip. The wine was bold. But smooth. It carried a range of flavors that was a symphony for the taste buds. It also didn’t hurt that it was only nine bucks a glass, and was paired with the best steak I’d ever had in my life.

That’s one of the grand things about aviation: You just never know what you’ll discover on an overnight fuel stop.

The wine was called Cooper Prophets, and it’s made by the Rosewood Winery in Great Bend, Kansas. Beyond making one the best reds I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink, it turns out that Rosewood also has the distinction of being a winery with a cause. Their staff is made up of developmentally disabled people. Making wine is both therapy and gainful employment.

My first brush with the wine was on my way to the Ercoupe 75th Anniversary gathering and the massive annual air-meet at Oshkosh. I jotted down the oddball name of the wine on the margin of a flight log (all Rosewood wines are named after race horses raised by their sister operation, Rosewood Ranch) and somewhere in the middle of Missouri, grounded by fog and low clouds, I went online to try to order a case so it would be waiting for us on our return home. No joy. Rosewood does not sell online.

Not to be deterred when it comes to good wine, I re-routed our return flight to stop over in Great Bend a second time, and as soon as we landed we jumped into the Centerline Aviation crew car and headed for Rosewood’s retail “wine cellar” in downtown Great Bend. But as it turned out, Rosewood isn’t licensed to export their product out of state, and between Rio and I, fuel, and tee-shirts and tooth brushes, we literally could not carry even a single bottle back with us. This is one of the disadvantages of antique airplanes. Built in the days when people were smaller and lighter, and when there was virtually no cockpit gadgetry, they don’t have much carrying capacity—what we call “useful load” in aviation. When you add in modern conveniences like, say, a radio or a starter, it only gets worse.

What to do? It was either leave Rio behind, or leave the wine behind.

In the end I bought the wine and then hit the streets to make friends with Kansasions to try to find someone to ship it home to me. It was a lot of work, and a little nerve-wracking, but eventually my wine reached me. Oh, I forgot to mention, it might be cheap by the glass, but by the bottle, it turned out to be the most expensive wine I’ve ever purchased. We saved each bottle for special occasions.

It’s amazing how many special occasions we have in our household.

So we were down to two bottles when the Plane Tales Plane went into the shop for her recent epic annual inspection (not a special occasion, although I suspect my mechanic might have broken out a bottle of his best when he saw me taxi up), and then she cracked a cylinder (also not a special occasion).

Sorry it’s taking so long to get to the point of the story, but it’s complicated.

So as it turns out, new cylinders have a special break-in procedure. Basically, you need to run the engine hard for the first ten hours or so. High power. Low altitude. Minimum landings. Short taxiing. In a nutshell, the recipe for a road trip, which in aviation we call a “cross country.”

In the old days, to plan a cross country like this I would have sat down at the kitchen table and spread out a sectional chart. Or, if I’d been at the airport, I would have gone to a planning chart: Huge 7-foot tall maps of the United States that covered entire walls. Most terminals used to place a screw in the map at their location. Attached to the screw was a piece of string with knots tied into it every hundred miles or so. You could swing the string around to estimate the distances to faraway places.

Instead, I sat down on the living room couch with an iPad Mini. And a glass of cheap wine. I need a trip of around 400 miles, the theoretical maximum distance I can go with full tanks, a legal reserve, and no copilot. (I’m flying solo until the engine is safely broken in.)

“Maybe I could fly over to Dalhart for breakfast,” I told Rio. I simultaneously laid my left index finger over our homebase on the touch screen, and my right finger over Dalhart. Two simulated black pushpins appeared on the screen, with a line drawn between them. Only 154 miles. “Not far enough,” I sighed.

“You could go to Amarillo again,” suggested Rio. There’s a great restaurant on the field, and a dynamite little airplane museum to make the trip worthwhile. I checked the distance. It was around 200 miles.

“Still too close,” I said, then looking at the chart, and talking more to myself than to Rio, added, “I wonder what’s further east…?”

“Well you could just fly to Great Bend and pick up another case of that wine you love.”

Three hundred ninety seven miles.

The boy’s a genius.

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Next time on Plane Tales: A milk run of a beer run.

 

Taking wing

It was freaking cold. Snow covered the apron, taxiways, and even the runways themselves. The Santa Fe tower’s ATIS was warning pilots to use “braking precautions.” The sky was a wild mix of stunning crystal white and azure blue, angry and beautiful at once. It was not a good day for a picnic.

But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a great day to fly.

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After more than a month with her mechanics, it was time for the Plane Tales Plane to come home. Some low patchy clouds scuttled above the airport, rushing from west to east to reach some unknowable appointment in their private world, but the ceiling was high enough, the horizon was bright, and the forecast back at our home base was positively optimistic.

I zipped my midnight-blue winter flight jacket up to my Adam’s apple and trudged through the thin layer of snow to the back of the plane, where I did a little one-legged dance to try to knock the snow off of one shoe before climbing up onto the wing to get into the cockpit. Having nearly cut my leg to the bone slipping off of the wing last summer at Great Bend, Kansas—thanks to dew on the wing walk—I’ve learned to be careful in bad weather.

Even though Tessie had been on the ramp only long enough for a fuel truck to show up and top off her tanks, her metal skin was cold enough to make my fingers tingle, and my breath mimicked the clouds above as I slid into the cockpit. I pulled off my knitted cap and put on my headset. Cold plastic to warm ears. Still, even frozen, the cockpit felt warm and welcoming. Sliding into my seat behind the yokes felt like coming home after a long trip abroad.

I clicked the waist belt into place, then lengthened the shoulder belt to wrap around my thick winter wardrobe. Time to start the engine:

Crack the throttle. Mixture full rich. Mags to both. Two slow steady “shots” of prime to fill the empty cylinders with vaporized fuel. Master on. Beacon on.

I pull the lawn-mower style starter and the six-foot prop on the nose of the Plane Tales Plane turns over once, twice, three times—picking up speed. The engine catches. Wheezes for a moment. Coughs once and then roars to life. The prop dissolves into a blur of motion and the deep Brrrrrowl…. of the engine, steady and strong, is music for the soul. The little plane bucks once, straining against her brakes, eager to be on her way.

The needle on the oil pressure gauge sprang to life and the rest of the plane’s systems followed suit. Cleared by the tower, and cautioned about ice and snow, I ventured out into a world of white, so different from our normal ecosystem of blacktop and yellow lines. I used the taxi lights like fence posts, mute guides to the approximate location of taxiway slumbering beneath its blanket of snow.

It was time to take wing.

I pulled onto the wide expanse of Runway 20, gauging the centerline by the runways lights standing on the snow like military sentinels. Then I throttled up and quickly accelerated across the white expanse. I held her on the ground well past her flying speed, then barely eased back on the yoke.

Tessie leapt into the air like a tiger. The airport fell away beneath us and in a heartbeat we were up among the clouds. She soared like an angel, rising faster than I’d ever seen before. Maybe it was the cold air, the light load, or the refurbished engine and prop.

Or maybe it was a leap for joy.