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.