In the news… General Aviation News

As promised, here’s a News Bulletin for you! Don’t walk, but run to your local airport and pick up a copy of the March 24 issue of GA news…

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…and turn to page 6 in the “A” section for the first dispatch in my multi-part look at air racing from the inside!

Speaking of inside, the editors featured a nice shot of the cockpit of the Plane Tales plane to illustrate the article:

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Wasted time

We were low and fast, the dam at Santa Rosa Lake falling behind our twin tails as I rolled out waaaaaay off course. The day was grim and grey, matching my mood. I don’t often suffer depression when flying, but my spirits were lower than my altitude.

I took me nearly 20 miles to figure out what went wrong. It was the wind, of course. Something I probably learned the first day in flight school thirty-five years ago, and then forgot since. Our timed turns were a disaster because I forgot to account for the effect of wind on a turning airplane.

All of our practice, and all of our hours of playing with math and protractors was a waste of time—the one thing an air racer can’t afford to waste. My six-second turn only worked in calm air. In a left-hand turn, a crosswind from the left pushes the plane away from the turn, requiring more time. A crosswind from the right pushes the plane into the turn, reducing the time needed.

My directional gyro now a paperweight, my GPS not accurate enough, my compass funky in turns, and my plan to use time as my secret weapon now in shambles—I had nowhere left to turn to make the perfect turn. And I was out of time to come up with a new plan. The first race is a week away.


As the sun crept up over a distant cloudbank crouched on the horizon, it dawned on me: Pilots pre-date instruments. At the dawn of flight, the mind of the aviator held the key to success. I would just have to wing it.

Thank goodness I have two wings. I’m going to need them to pull this off.


The literary mercenary

“…he was looking for something else and decided to walk in the minefield that is called freelancing. That is a form of unemployment where you seek out piecework that will result in income. It isn’t really a job, there are no benefits, and you get to pay both halves of the payroll tax.”

–Richard L. Collins, in his Introduction to Phil Scott’s Then and Now: How airplanes got this way


Never have I read a better description of my job, my life, my existence as a writer-for-hire. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Life is good on a pen and a wing. The quest for work is a satisfying challenge, and while that double payroll tax is annoying, I can take pride in the fact that I do well enough by myself that I actually have to pay it.

Now, one of the functions of Plane Tales is to serve as a continually updating resume in my quest for that piecework that (hopefully) results in income. Every time I get an assignment, or something new of mine appears in print, I post an announcement here.

What? You didn’t notice?

Yeah. Don’t feel bad. Neither does anyone else. Ironically, as an aerial nomad, I’m the victim of mobility. Those of you who read Plane Tales on a desktop computer might have noticed the list of publications in the right-hand menu bar. Those of you who read me mobile just said: What menu bar?

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Yes, I’ve just learned that when Plane Tales displays on the smaller screens of mobile devices, all the navigation tabs (and the email link) are moved to the bottom, buried under scores of older posts where no one ever sees them. So in addition to my usual Friday Tale, I’ve decided to give you a head’s up here in the main section of the site when something new I’ve written has landed.

Today, you need to file a flight plan for the April Issue of Flight Training Magazine…


…where I have an article called, “The case of the mysterious lever.” I confess, when I saw the title and my byline in the table of contents, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I had written about. The article was one of those non-time sensitive “evergreen” pieces that editors sometimes sit on for awhile, holding them until they have some space to fill, and I’d completely forgotten about it.

What’s the lever? Well, you’ll just have to do what I did. Read my own article to find out.

Gotta run, I’m off to the minefield.


We interrupt our regularly scheduled program…

Extra, Extra, Read all about it! Race season set to launch in 12 days!

And you’ll be there with me. Yep. General Aviation News will be following me and Tess as we try to win gold this year in the Sport Air Race League. The first “Dispatch,” by yours truly, was filed online today, and will also be in the print version of the magazine when it comes out later this week.

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Quoting the Editor, “The first race launches April 2 in Nacogdoches, Texas (KOCH). Follow William’s racing adventures throughout the season here and in the print pages of General Aviation News.”

I’ve added a link on the right margin (waaaaaaaay at the bottom for you mobile users–more about that in a couple of days) under the the World Record Category. The link is called Air Race Adventures and it takes you to my author page at General Aviation news where you can read the latest Dispatch or catch up on older ones.

Ladies and gentlemen… Start your engines…

It’s time to race!



Getting ready to race

“One minute out,” said Lisa.

“45 seconds out,” said Lisa.

“30 seconds out,” said Lisa.

I griped the yoke horn firmly with my left hand, and wrapped my right hand around the throttle.

“15 seconds out,” said Lisa.

“Now,” said Lisa.

I snapped the yoke to the left and down. The horizon cartwheeled to the right. We rolled.

Ten degrees.

Fifteen degrees.

Twenty degrees.

Thirty degrees. I started pulling back to hold Tessie’s nose on the horizon.

Forty-five degrees. The controls began to get heavy.

Sixty degrees. A quick glace left. The ground seemed straight below, spinning around the wing tip. The airspeed began to fall off. The G-forces started pushing me back in my seat.

“Roll out!” commanded Lisa.

I spun the yoke back to the right, pushing forward at the same time, and the horizon dropped back to straight and level like the falling curtain at the theatre. The G-forces relaxed their grip. The airspeed began to recover.

“Crap,” said Lisa. We’re waaaay off again.”

So much for science. And technology had failed us twenty minutes earlier.

Lisa and I are trying to perfect the perfect race turn. Having received the official racecourse for the third SARL race of the season, we now know we need to make a pair of 120-degree heading changes on the roughly triangular racecourse. Figuring out that the heading changes were 120 degrees took us more time than it should have, especially considering that Lisa is an honest-to-God college professor. Of course, she’s a biologist, not a mathematician. In the end we ditched the calculus and laid a kindergarten protractor over the flight chart to determine how many degrees we had to turn through to get from one heading to the next.


Smart people often over-think things. Often the simplest solutions are the best. This would also prove true of the current problem Lisa and I were trying to over-think at 7,000 feet above the New Mexico desert.

Now, as you already know, there is no book called Air Racing For Dummies, and our competition is hardly going to share their secrets, so we are on our own to develop a plan to win. Because we are handicapped as air racers by having a slow plane, we are always looking for ways to gain seconds over the competition. One bright idea I had was to make our turns sharp. A plane making a “standard” turn takes two minutes to traverse a circle. A steeper bank drops that time. It also cuts the turn radius, the amount of real estate over the ground that the plane uses up making the turn. So a steep turn should keep us tighter to the course and give us an advantage over a plane making a more shallow turn. The downside is that air speed drops in steep turns, so it may be a wash, but steep turns are fun, and we got into this whole race business in the first place to have fun.

We originally played with 45-degree bank turns, but we’ve now upped the ante to 60-degrees of bank. It’s only 25 percent more angle, but it’s twice the fun. Oh. Right. And it should also cut the turn radius even more. Of course, the steeper the turn, the more it slows the airspeed, so it may be academic, but, again, I point you to the fun factor.

The angle of bank part of the plan is going fine, but we needed a way to know when to rollout of the turn. We’d tried eyeballing it on the Flight Pad (my iPad Mini streaming a Garmin GPS) but it updates too slowly and we lacked precision. Sometimes we rolled out early, other times late. I did some research and re-learned the forgotten rule of thumb that you should “lead” your rollout by half your bank angle. For a 60-degree bank, you’d roll the plane out when it’s 30-degress from its intended heading. When I read this, I realized at once that my otherwise useless-in-the-modern-world Directional Gyro (DG) all of a sudden had a new lease on life.

The DG is a descendant of the compass. Because compasses misbehave under a number of circumstances, and most especially in turns, the DG tracks and reports an airplane’s heading to help make course changes more precise. It’s a 360-degree ring, much like our kindergarten protractor, that rotates as the plane turns. Back in the days before GPS and moving maps on tablet computers, the DG was a key instrument in cross country flight.


I think you can see where this is going.

Yes. The plan was to set the DG to zero as we approached the turn, and use it to track how many degrees we’d turned, and then roll out smack on course.

It didn’t play out that way.

The first failure was the whole-set-to-zero thing. Due to the nature of gyroscopes, friction, and the fact that the stupid planet is rotating, DGs suffer from something called precession, which means they don’t hold their settings very well over time, creeping about 15 degrees per hour from their set course. Back in the day, we’d just periodically correct them using the compass. But as Lisa and I approached our first turn, the precession wasn’t 15-degrees per hour. It was more like 15 degrees per minute. Probably worse. We could see it moving, like the sped-up clock in the intro sequence of the old black and white Twilight Zone episodes.

Clearly our DG had a mechanical issue. Serves me right for buying a rebuilt one to save money.

The second failure was that the gyro, that wouldn’t stay still on a straight course like it’s supposed to, froze solid in a turn, now refusing to move when it should be. It was doing the exact opposite of what it was designed to do. To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. We flew along in silence for long minutes. Each brainstorming in silence.

Finally, Lisa said, “Let’s use time instead.”

And so we started experimenting. It was like an airborne version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. First we tried 10 seconds, but it was too hot and we overshot. Next we tried eight seconds. Still too much. Then five seconds. Not enough turn. Finally six seconds was just right.

But how to track time in the cockpit during a solo race, while managing the steep turn and all that goes with it? A dash mounted timer? Some sort of metronome? Remembering the protractor, we decided to test the simplest solution:

“One minute out,” said Lisa.

“45 seconds out,” said Lisa.

“30 seconds out,” said Lisa.

I griped the yoke horn firmly with my left hand, and wrapped my right hand around the throttle.

“15 seconds out,” said Lisa.

“Now,” said Lisa.

I snapped the yoke to the left and down. The horizon cartwheeled to the right. We rolled.

“One-one thousand,” I said out loud, “two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four-one thousand, five-one thousand, six-one thousand.”

I spun the yoke back to the right, pushing forward at the same time, and the horizon dropped back to straight and level like the falling curtain at the theatre.

I held course and let the data from the GPS catch up. The map on the touch screen jerked, flashed, then settled down.

And we were dead on course.


Flight Plans

Orange dots litter the map on my iPad. Most of them are in Texas. On the far side of Texas, hundreds of miles away.


In case you didn’t get the memo, Texas is a big place. Yep, it’s a whole ‘nother country.

I’m doing flight planning. Sort of. It’s not so much planning a flight, which is an aviation mainstay that involves picking a route, determining altitudes, studying the airspace, locating likely fuel stops and availability, reading up on the details of the various airports you might land at, choosing alternatives, and keeping an eye on the weather. I’ll do all of that later. Right now I’m doing a more basic type of flight planning.

You see, each dot is an air race this season. The closest one is only 211 miles away. The farthest is 877. Most are between 500 and 600 miles away. No problem for an airplane, right?

Despite being a race plane because we said so, Tessie really isn’t all that fast. At least not by modern standards. When her type was developed in the late 1930s, she was a regular speed demon. In a time when most roads (or runways for that matter) weren’t paved, and the typical car traveled at 40 miles per hour, a 100-mile-per-hour plane was a marvel. Today, with ribbons of asphalt letting cars travel between 75 and 85 miles per hour, depending on the state, our speed is not such a big deal.

Anyway, you don’t need to be a pilot to do the math. If an air race is 700 miles away, it will take you seven hours to get there, right?

Uh… Wrong. For several reasons. First, we aren’t actually free to fly as the crow flies. There are physical obstacles, restricted chunks of airspace, military operations areas, and more that can cause us to deviate from a straight course. Plus, even with tanks full to the brim, our girl can only fly for a bit over four hours before her engine coughs, dies, and we drop out of the sky. This means we need at least one fuel stop, which adds time, and sometimes changes the route, as there never seems to be a gas pump, or an airport, where you need one. Related to the fuel and range issue is the fact that I can’t fill Tessie’s tanks to the brim if I want to bring along a toothbrush and some clean underwear, much less the company of a copilot or non-pilot navigator.

In the past our solution to the weight and range issue—which is really sort of one-and-the-same—has been to take a page from our ballooning brethren: We utilize a ground crew to carry luggage and meet us at the other end, which also provides handy local ground transportation between airports and hotels and for sight-seeing. As an added benefit, this lets me shake up the roster of copilots to give everyone some playtime on a big trip.

So permit me to re-introduce you to my cast of characters, of which there are only four, from which I draw a ground crew. First is Rio, my pre-adult son, now old enough to command a plane solo, but not old enough to drive a car, drink (legally), or vote. Old enough to do all four of those things is my good friend, partner in aviation mischief, and certified student pilot, Lisa. And rounding off the women in my life is my wife of nearly three decades, Debbie, who likes the status of owning an airplane more than actually flying in it much of anywhere; and my mother Jean, who actually owns Tessie, but is happier traveling great distances on wheels rather than on wings.

I think you can see where all this is headed. Yes, our “flight planning” is a complex ballet of school schedules, work schedules, family obligations, money, and the shear physical energy of my potential ground crew.

And the races pile up. There are six in the months of April and May, at one point hitting every weekend for three weeks in a row. Some are too far away to drive to in a single day, even given the advantages of interstate highways and airplane-like speed limits, requiring extra hotel stays en route for the ground crew. As you can imagine, the kitchen table is littered with sheets of paper, notes in pencil, red ink, and black ink. Circles, arrows, brackets, and scribbles adorn the sheets. It’s more chaos than organization at this point.

Have we got a plan yet? Uh… not so much. But I’m working on it. And to be honest, planning flights is the next-best thing to flying them.

The only thing everyone agrees on is that they all want to go to the first race of the season to kick things off, and all go to the last race of the season to see if we get to carry home a trophy. A trophy that will need to be transported back to the hangar by the ground crew, because the one I hope to win won’t fit in our plane.

Even if I make the copilot ride home in the car.

Ground glide

Rio and I are at the kitchen table on a Monday afternoon. A wicked winter storm has the state in its chilly grip, sending him home from school early and me home from work. The Glider Flying Handbook is open on the table in front of me, and my brain hurts.

We’re only up to Chapter 3, taking turns reading sections out loud to each other, and already it has been a mind-bending voyage of discovery. Everything about gliders is so much the same and yet so much different from the planes I’ve spent my life in and around. It’s fascinating. And confusing. And right now I’m hung up on the four forces of flight, something I first “learned” when I was seventeen.

The four forces are: Lift, gravity, thrust, and drag. In normal flight, lift and gravity oppose each other, allowing the plane to remain in one place in the sky; while thrust overcomes drag to pull the plane through the air. In most planes, thrust comes from the engine. But gliders aren’t most planes, and most gliders don’t have engines. Which begs the question: In a glider, where does the thrust come from?

I rubbed my temples and read again, “The glider does this by converting the potential energy that it has accumulated into kinetic energy as it glides downward… In essence, the gravity vector becomes the horizontal forward thrust vector component.” I gazed out at the snow and tried to use mental alchemy to convert the words on the page to gold in my head.

It wasn’t working. “Thrust vector component…” I mumbled out loud, more to myself than to Ree.

“Ah!” said Rio. “Gravity is the engine.” The sky outside didn’t clear, but the clouds in my brain did. In an instant, the sun came out in my head. Gravity is the glider’s engine. It was mind-blowing. Profound. Beautiful. And much better worded by Rio than by the FAA’s written-by-committee handbook.

Later that snowy morning we’d learn the next mind-blowing fact about gliders: They always fall.

How can that be? A glider can sail so high into the atmosphere that the pilot has to wear oxygen, so how can it be falling? Quoting from the FAA’s good book again: “A glider is always descending in the air. This allows development of thrust by the energy conversion process. The objective of a glider pilot is to remain in air rising faster than the glider must descend to maintain flying speed.”

This fact clicked with me right away, but it was taking Rio longer. In the end, I had to break out the canoe. Figuratively speaking. Last year, in speaking with the media about my World Speed Record, I developed the canoe analogy to explain the differences between airspeed and ground speed. It goes something like this: If you paddle a canoe across a be-stilled pond at five miles an hour, you’ll travel along the shore at five miles an hour. If instead, you paddle the canoe at five miles an hour down a rushing stream that’s going ten miles an hour, you’ll zip past the bank at fifteen miles per hour, because you are traveling a certain speed through a body of water that’s also in motion. The same thing happens in the air. If you are flying 100 miles per hour through a body of air that’s traveling at 50 miles per hour, you travel over the ground at 150 miles per hour.

Gliders just take this principle and stand it on end. Hey, the sky is three-dimensional, and air not only travels over the ground, but it also moves up and down. If a glider is falling through a column of air that’s rising faster than the plane is falling, it just hitched a ride in an upbound elevator because the speed upwards is greater than the speed of the drop. Just making up some numbers: If the glider is falling at 100 feet per minute, surrendering to gravity to create thrust, and it enters a column of air rising at 300 feet per minute, the glider will travel upwards at 200 feet per minute as it “falls” through the rising air.

Very fricken’ cool. I was amazed and thrilled. My mind was alive with possibilities.

Then we turned the page and started reading about the differences between the laminar boundary layer and the turbulent boundary layer among air molecules flowing over an airfoil, and my brain froze up again.

Matching the wintery landscape outside our windows.