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.

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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.

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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.

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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.