Pen tale

It was an unusual package. Probably one that would have prompted a phone call to the FBI if I’d gotten in back during the anthrax scare. It was a manila envelope, about 6×8 inches. There was no clue who sent it, or what might be inside. It was impossibly thick and impossibly light at the same time, as if filled with helium.

Like a kid on Christmas morning, I ran my fingers along its sides, squeezed it, shook it, and attempted mental telepathy to divine its contents. No wiser for my deductive skills and ESP, I finally just tore the sucker open.

Inside was a honeycomb of soft clear plastic with a deep channel holding a single gunmetal grey pen. I lifted the pen out and found my name had been laser etched onto the metal barrel. The pen was heavy, robustly made, and coated with a liquidly smooth finish. I clicked the top and the action was both smooth and solid at the same time, like the shutter on a finely made German camera. I touched the tip of the pen to a piece of scrap paper and drew a squiggle. The pen glided across the page like an Olympic figure skater over virgin ice.

It must cost a frickin fortune, and besides, I have no need for custom pens.

Still, intrigued—and admiring the moxie, investment, and clever marketing design of the unsolicited sample—I took time to read the pitch letter from National Pen that came with the sample. And the upshot of their pitch was that, through this one-time-only offer to new customers, they would whip me up a batch of these pens for only 59¢ each.

Hell, I can’t even buy crappy plastic pens at Walmart for 59¢ each, much less nice metal ones, much less nice metal ones that have been customized for me, so why not?

That night oven dinner I told the family about the pen offer and passed around the sample. It was universally admired and everyone quickly agreed on the fact that, even though we had absolutely no need for custom pens, we absolutely must order some. We also agreed that, as Plane Tales doesn’t really have a logo, per se, we should put the Race 53 wings and the Plane Tales URL on the pens.

Then came the disagreements.

First we disagreed on color, as we had the choice of black, gunmetal, navy blue, sky blue, red, green, and hideous purple. Well, it wasn’t total disagreement. No one liked the purple. The lighter sky blue was similar to some of the blues on the Plane Tales Plane, but I worried that the white laser etching wouldn’t show up as well as it would on a darker pen. Black was the best bet on this front, but everybody and his brother has black pens. And of course, there was the issue that we only had one sample and there was no real way to know how closely the colors of the actual pens would match the brochure. And so it went.

We have a lot of fun thinking things to death in our family.

In the end, the color argument was settled when we realized that the order form had a box to check for assorted colors. Next, we disagreed on how many of these pens that we didn’t need we should order, given that we had this one-time super low price and there were virtually no limits on how many pens we could buy with the coupon. I don’t think that at this point we’d even talked about what the heck we were going to do with custom Plane Tale/Race 53 pens.

How many pens did we decide to order? I embarrassed to admit to the actual number, but it was a lot. According to the tracking email from UPS, the box of pens weighed 19.6 pounds. Yeah. That’s pretty much a lifetime supply of pens.

But we got a great deal.

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A change of plans

I was supposed to be packing. And it probably looked like I was packing: The flight bags were on the bed. The carefully inventoried shirts for the trip hung on the doorknob. Debbie’s Miracle Fold was out of the box and ready to use, and various toiletries littered the bathroom counter top.

But I lacked focus. I’d half fold a shirt, and then remember I needed to replace the outdated backup sectional chart. That accomplished, I was distracted by gathering cables to charge the wolf pack of power hungry devices we travel with. The first shirt still half-folded, I found myself staring at a traveling tube of toothpaste, debating whether or not it still held enough for two people for three days.

Then, withered tube of paste still in hand, I found myself sitting in front of the computer. Again.

No, I wasn’t impulsively cruising eBay or checking to see if anyone left new comments on my latest dispatch for General Aviation News, although I’m not immune from either of those activities. Instead, I was impulsively checking the weather to see if it had changed in the last ten minutes. You see, the forecast for the Texoma Air Race was looking grim.

I had no doubt that Rio and I would get there. Sure, they were calling for some low ceilings around Childress, Texas, but nothing we couldn’t scoot comfortably under. And once again, I was facing headwinds flying East, which is rare, and had already happened to me an unfair number of times this racing season. We’d probably need to add one more fuel stop. Assuming, of course, that I actually got us packed in time to load the plane and leave.

What was I doing? Oh yes. Folding the shirts. Wait, did I remember to get out enough socks? Hmmm… I wonder how the weather is shaping up?

Race day itself wasn’t looking good for the home team. Of course, it was still three days off, and anything can happen in three days when it comes to weather. Still, if the forecasts were to be believed, we’d get there fine, but the race would likely be scrubbed, and the forecast for the next day—the official alternate “rain” day—looked just as bad. In fact, it sure looked like Rio and I could be grounded by weather in Sherman, Texas for several days.

So should we go or should we stay?

Obviously, as I was packing, I’d already made the decision to go. I had decided that since there was no safety issue in getting there, that was the only thing that mattered. If we went and sat in fog for three days, well, that would suck, but we’d have time to get to know Sherman, Texas. On the other hand, if we stayed home and the weather changed for the better and the race was run, I’d lose a ton of League points to my competition, and I’d be mad as hell.

So we were going. But that didn’t stop me from checking the weather again. And again. And Again. It was on one of these mid-packing weather checks that I got the email. It was from Pat Purcell, the Race Director for the Texoma:

“Texoma Racers, the 9th Annual Texoma Air Race has been CANCELLED… The ceiling are forecast to be solid IFR…” She went on to say that surrounding weather would make it impossible for some pilots to get to the race, and for others to get home again if they made in there in the first place. She pushed the race back a week.

A sock in one hand, and a new tube of toothpaste in the other, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was really looking forward to this race, one of the largest of the season, and one in which we were facing three stiff competitors in our Category and Class: An opportunity to really pull ahead (or fall behind). On the other hand, I knew deep down that the weather was going to interfere in the race, so I was secretly relieved.

Then it hit me that our whole calendar had just become a mess. We needed to move up some maintenance on Tessie. I needed to cancel Rio’s soaring lesson. There were bills to pay, and a story due that I was going to write in the break between races next week, that now needed to be written right now. Plus I had some commitments on my calendar that would keep me from packing the night before we’d need to leave next week, so I still needed to finish packing.

I pulled myself together and folded the shirts, organized the socks and charging cables, and started filling up our blue Sporty’s Flight Gear Navigator Bag for the trip, now more than a week away.

Then I got to work on my story, my bills, arranging for the maintenance, and all of the rest. Two days later, on the day of the cancelled race, the plane’s luggage now in a large pile in the middle of the my office floor, I pulled up the weather, and this is what I saw:

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What are the odds of that? The weathermen got it right. Oh well, at least we’re packed and ready to go. A week ahead of time.

Gosh, I hope in all the confusion that I remembered to pack the toothpaste.

A battlefield repair

Something is wrong with my engine. It sounds all right: A steady roar, deafening without a headset. It feels all right: The vibrating of the airframe rattles my bones in a steady, consistent way. Oil pressure is good. Oil temperature is good. The cylinder head temperature is normal at 375 degrees.

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But something is wrong.

My RPM is down. A lot. And so is my speed. Grandma Jones, somewhere down below me in her rusty 1962 Ford Fairlane, is driving to the grocery store faster than I’m flying.

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I fiddle with the mixture again. No luck. What little power I have is the best I’m going to get. I pulled the carb heat for the descent from 9,500 feet over New Mexico to 5,500 feet south and west of Lubbock to duck under the Lancer MOA, and while it doesn’t seem like a carb ice kind of day, there’s no harm in cycling it one more time. Just in case.

What’s carb heat? Airplane carburetors use a venturi to mix fuel vapor and air into a volatile mix that’s fed into the cylinders, where the mixture is ignited to move the pistons. Venturis lower the temperature of the incoming air by as much as 70 degrees, so it’s possible for ice to form inside a carburetor even on a warm day. To prevent this, planes are equipped with a carb heat control that simply diverts heated air from the engine to melt off this unwanted ice, should it form. The downside of using carb heat is that it robs you of power. But the only other option—when ice forms—is no power at all.

I reach down and pull the handle. It comes clean out of the dashboard. Completely. Into my hand.

Oh shit!

Naturally I try to stuff it back in, as if that will fix it and make the problem go away.

This does not work.

Fifty miles from my intended fuel stop, but with enough power (barely) to stay in the air, I decide to stick with my flight plan. Once on the ground I’ll try to find a mechanic. Now, many pilots in my predicament would use Garmin Pilot or Foreflight on an iPad to find the nearest airport known to have a good repair shop. I have an iPad with Garmin on it, but I have a problem: I have an airplane that requires a lot of attention. This is a very hands-on airplane. In fact, I’m developing a callus on my left hand from all this long distance flying to-and-from the air races.

If I take my hand off the yoke to poke at an iPad for more than 20 seconds, the plane snaps right and noses over in a good imitation of the Pappy Boyington’s Corsair rolling into a strafing run in the opening credits of the 1970s TV hit Baa Baa Black Sheep.

I choose to stay calm and fly on.

On the ground at Winston Field in Snyder, Texas, the resident mechanic is nowhere to be found. Maybe he went flying. Maybe he went fishing. Maybe he went fly-fishing. No one is sure. But a recently retired Air Force mechanic helps me diagnose the problem.

In the Plane Tales Plane, at least, the carb heat is actually held closed by a cable. Pulling the handle in the cockpit doesn’t open the heat vent, rather it releases the tension on the cable and lets the air valve flop open on its own, diverting engine-heated warm air into the carb to melt that ice.

The bracket that held the cable tight to the airbox, letting it keep the carb heat off, had simply fallen apart from old age, releasing the tension and for all practical purposes leaving my carb heat “stuck” in the “on” position. That’s a bad recipe for racing, as using carb heat reduces power by a ton. My guardian angel mechanic votes for a spot weld, but doesn’t have the gear on hand, so no kidding, he uses aircraft-grade bailing wire to rig a temporary fix, which he reckons will probably get me through my race and back home again to Tessie’s regular mechanic, who no doubt has a spot welder.

I take off again and start barnstorming my way across Texas to Taylor, just north and east of Austin, the engine running right as rain again.

Bailing wire! Who knew? Go Air Force!

Dressing for Success

It started with the disco shirt. Well, that’s what I call it anyway. For years I’ve enjoyed the pilot/safari guide/globe-trotting photographer look in my wardrobe. But shirts with epaulettes on the shoulders fall in and out of fashion, and when they are out of fashion you need to haunt sources of used, vintage clothing to find them. Places like, say, eBay.

That’s probably how I found the disco shirt, but to be honest, I really don’t remember anymore. But anyway, a number of years ago I found a shirt on eBay that looked like a military flight jacket. It was covered with various wing logos. It was totally over the top. I doubt it was created for pilots. The intended market for the shirt was probably young Euro-trash night clubbing in the discotheques of Belgrade.

I fell in love with it at once.

I bought two. One for me and one for Rio. We wore them when we flew the Plane Tales plane. All the fun of a flight jacket without the heat stroke (remember that we are based in New Mexico, where the summers can get pretty darn hot).

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But as anyone who has kids knows, they grow fast and it wasn’t long before my “little” boy couldn’t get his Flight Shirt to button up anymore. I went back to eBay to buy a larger one for him, but it was in vain. The disco shirt was gone.

What to do?

In the spirit of “if you can’t find it, build it,” I designed a similar shirt, using the logos of all of the flying organizations we belong to, and had a pair of custom shirts created at a local embroidery shop. We had such fun with them that when winter rolled around we had the same layout embroidered on some heavy weight air force-style flight jackets, and again on some light weight ones in the spring.

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Now on a flight jacket, you can literally get away with anything. I suspect you could cover every inch with patches and logos and the response from your fellow pilots would be, “Nice jacket.” Flight shirts, however, aren’t usually seen in the first place, and ours, admittedly, are a bit over the top in the second place. No problem for our normal playing around in our own back yard, but now that I’ve joined an air-racing league, I have to think about how other pilots will react to me.

Why does any of this matter? Well, as a person who has been largely self-employed all my life, I understand the power of “dress for success.” There is power in appearance, and if you dress professionally then you look professional. If you look professional, then you feel professional. And if you feel professional, you’ll act professional. It’s simple, but it works.

What all this boils down to is that I felt that in order to air race well, I needed to feel like an air racer, and that meant that I needed to look like an air racer, and to do that I needed to dress like an air racer. That’s just the way my mind works. Our shirts actually fit the bill, but only if we were at the Red Bull Air Races. Looking at photos of race award ceremonies online in years past, the SARL crowd is a bit more laid back. Polo shirts and T-shirts seem to dominate. I wanted to dress in a way I was comfortable, but as the newcomer, I didn’t want to stand out too much or make tongues wag in a negative way. After much back and forth with my crew (a.k.a. the family) we decided a new, lower profile Flight Shirt was the solution. Something more middle of the road. Something less over-the-top. Something a bit more subtle.

But not too subtle.

So for several nights we sat in the library until late at night taping printouts of various logos onto a plain white shirt to come up with a new design. It was fun. Well, fun for me and Rio and Grandma Jean and Lisa. Debbie got so frustrated with us she nearly divorced us all.

We agreed that less was more this time. We went for fewer logos and less color. First we chose the SARL logo, which is cool, and makes sense as we were making the shirts for SARL races. I contacted the chairman of the League to make sure it was OK to use the logo (it was). Next, we felt we needed a way to brag on our World Speed Record to intimidate the competition, as our plane is not likely to. After that, we thought it was appropriate to have our Race Number on the shirt, and of course we needed some sort of pilot’s wings. In the end—thanks to a very talented Russian graphic artist we found online—we combined the race number and the wings into one logo:

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The final result is a shirt that is simple, with only black thread and some red accents, and a lot of “white space.” It has a clean look, I think, but screams air racer in a subtle way.

Uh…. Can you scream subtlety? Well, I think so.

What do you think?

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Check your underwear

The checklist is in my left hand. “Oil,” I say.

“Check,” says Rio.

“GPS,” I say.

“Check,” says Rio.

“GPS battery,” I say.

“Check,” says Rio.

“Clean underwear,” I say.

“Check,” says Rio.

No, we’re not getting ready for landing. I’m a good enough pilot that no one needs a clean underwear check as part of routine operations. Instead, we’re packing for our trip to the first air race of the season, and we’re running through the “checklist” to make sure we didn’t forget to pack anything important. Like the keys to the plane. Actually, that’s not on my checklist, but I think I’ll go add it right now. I can think of nothing worse than driving to the airport at four in the morning for a daylong flight and discovering that you forgot the keys to the plane.

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As we have a long journey in a light plane, we can’t take much with us. The solution is a ground crew, who will actually leave a day ahead of the plane and meet us in Nacogdoches, Texas. The ground crew will carry everything we need at the race, and everything we need to get home again, saving us weight on the flight out—which in turn allows us to carry more fuel, which allows more time between fuel stops, which gets us to our destination faster. After the race, the ground crew will (hopefully) carry all those heavy trophies back home for us.

:-)

This checklist is simply my way of figuring out what goes in Debbie’s car for the long drive to Texas, and what goes in my car for the short drive to the airport.

“Sun screen,” I say.

“Check,” says Rio.