Potholes in the sky

Thump! The seat belt dug into my waist. The vertical speed indicator’s needle swung down as if broken. Bam! Now the nose of the plane jerked upwards. Then the plane disappeared out from under me, dropping like a roller coaster car. I levitated out of my seat and my headset slammed against the Plexiglas above me.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” I cursed softly under my breath. I cinched the shoulder belt as tight as it would go and looked up to see if I had broken the window. I hadn’t.

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It was a rough day in the skies above eastern New Mexico. Planted fields, dark green, sucked in the hot sunlight like solar collectors, radiating out towers of rising air above them. Lighter, fallow fields had less heat rising above them. As we flew over patches of earth of differing colors, we passed through columns of rising air moving at different speeds. Meanwhile, in the sky above me, the opposite thing was happening. Scattered cumulous clouds of varying sizes were generating columns of falling air, downdrafts, each of a different speed and size. To top off my misery, a strong wind was gushing over the terrain like water over stones in a mountain stream, striking mesas and buttes, splashing currents of wind high into the atmosphere, then crashing back down again.

Three flavors of turbulence. It was wild. And there was nothing to do but ride it out.

I had my left hand wrapped around the yoke and my right hand wrapped around the windshield brace, which I’d covered in a piece of grey foam rubber pipe insulation from Home Depot for just such an occasion. I didn’t fight the winds, beyond keeping the plane rightside up. I’d lose 500 feet. Then gain 800. Then lose 300. And gain 200. A blue and white feather in the wind. Trying to hold an altitude would just be hard on the airframe and on the engine.

Altitude control a lost cause, I worked on my attitude control. My personal attitude. Flying in turbulence isn’t really much fun, but I tried to tell myself that people pay good money for being bounced around at amusement parks, and here I was getting it for free, and for a lot longer than any carnival ride. And then I remembered.

I really don’t like amusement parks.

 

Eating local

“Where’s the best place to eat around here?” I asked the lineman.

“Well, we’ve got an Applebee’s,” he replied with great pride, “about four miles down the road, on the left, you can’t miss it.”

Rio and I exchanged a critical look. “Uh… any thing more local?” I pressed, “We’ve got an Applebee’s back home, and we always like to try something we can’t get at home when we’re traveling.”

The lineman seemed befuddled by this. “Well… what are you in the mood for?”

Now, Lisa and I made that mistake a few weeks ago when we were in the mood for a steak in a town that didn’t have good steaks. I parried, “What’s the local specialty?”

The lineman hesitated. Fidgeted with his pen, and finally said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Clearly he’d never had this sort of conversation before. Clearly my new plan of when in Rome, eat what the Romans are eating, wasn’t working out too well either. The conversation started to go downhill from there, so I placed our fuel order and signed for the crew car.

At the hotel I asked the front desk clerk, “Where’s the best place to eat around here?”

“We have an Applebee’s,” she replied with upbeat enthusiasm, “about two miles down the road, on the left, you can’t miss it.”

“Uh… anything more local?” I pressed, “we’ve got an Applebee’s at home and we always like to try something new when we’re traveling.”

The clerk bit her lip, “That’s pretty much the best place in town.”

I found that hard to believe, but I didn’t press her further.

The gas gauge on the crew car was on “empty,” and remembering the time in Liberal, Kansas when the crew car gave up the ghost on us and left us stranded, we stopped at a station next to the hotel to add a few gallons. I asked the guy at the gas station where a good place to eat was. You guessed it: Applebee’s. When I pressed for local flavor he said, “Well, we’ve got a bunch of Mexican places that are pretty all right.”

We are from New Mexico. This was Texas. Even the best Mexican food in Texas is bound to disappoint.

And you know what? In the end, the Applebee’s was very good.

When in Rome… even if the Romans are eating at Applebee’s.

Applebee's

A race for home

It looked like I had another race on my hands. I had just won one, the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race in Terrell, Texas, the day before, and now I was on my way home. But this time I wasn’t racing other men and machines, I was racing the elements.

The forecast called for fog in the morning so I got a late start. The weathermen were wrong. There was no fog. They also called for a few thunderstorms in the late afternoon. They were wrong about that, too: Both in how many there would be, and when they’d develop.

Back in the day, the sky a mystery over the horizon, flying must have been frightening. But thanks to near-real time radar on my iPad in the cockpit, I can see a storm a hundred miles away. Two hundred. I can see further than I can fly. So from far, far away, as I flew west, I was able to see the storm grow.

Actually there were many storms, but most posed no threat. Out from Plainview, Texas, they sprouted to the north and south of my course. I watched them billow and grow off my wings, giving me cooling shade and painting my radar first green, then orange, then red as they towered into the atmosphere, higher and higher.

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They were beautiful, but no threat. I slid between and below them as they grew into monsters, but before they turned ugly. My worry was dead ahead. West of my destination a thunderstorm started to grow. It looked like it was barreling down on my home base as I was thundering towards it from the opposite direction.

The race was on.

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I was doing 111 miles per hour. A good, strong thunderstorm can move a more than half that speed, so they can cover some ground pretty quickly. Plus, storms tend to kick wind out ahead of them. I expected to meet the front’s headwinds before I landed. The race looked to be a close one.

As we both closed in on the airport, the storm and I, I was pulling ahead on the radar. But in the real world it looked different. I was able to watch a menacing shadow from the storm’s anvil move across the landscape like an invading army, and on the final stretch I passed into the shadow, looking up from my cockpit at high, turbulent clouds above me as I made my turn to final approach.

On the ground the bright day turned to dim twilight, and the windsock snapped and groaned against the wind. The sky turned an evil shade of darkest grey. I quickly re-fueled, taxied to my hangar, and got the plane inside, sheltered from the sky.

Then, apparently deprived of its prize, the storm suddenly moved north, not leaving so much as single drop of rain. The sun came back out again and the wind died to a whisper.

 

A desperate Weight & Balance

I squished the water out of my pilot’s shirt as best I could, using my hands, then carefully laid it out on a towel on the bathroom floor. Next, I rolled up the shirt inside the towel. Then I jumped up and down on top of it, marching back and forth on the roll in my bare feet. I flipped the rolled towel over and shuffled back and forth on the other side.

No, I’m not trying out for the grape-mashing night shift at the winery; it was simulated laundry day for a cross-country flight.

Welcome to my world, where laundry and aviation collide.

Here’s the deal: Every plane ever made has its limits—speed, range, and how much it can carry. In aviation, how much a plane can carry is called its “useful load.” Useful load includes the crew, the cargo, and the fuel. It may surprise you to lean that most four-seat airplanes don’t have enough useful load to carry four people and full tanks of gas.

Aviation is about making choices.

The Plane Tales Plane is no different. If I’m in her alone, I can tank up. But even the skinniest of copilots requires a reduction in fuel. Adding cargo makes the equation even worse. Every pound that goes in the baggage compartment means one less pound of fuel in the gas tanks. If you’re interested, it works out that every six pounds of cargo costs me one gallon of gas, or about 10 minutes of flight time, or about sixteen and a half miles of reduced range.

Ya gotta love math to be a pilot.

Generally this isn’t a problem. At least until recently. Our old missions had us flying around the neighborhood, where a light fuel load wasn’t a liability. But now that we’re traveling to distant cities to race, we have two problems. The first is that we need to fly farther than ever before, and while there are a lot of airports in the country (4,814 public-use ones at last count), they are not as common as gas stations. There are vast swaths of “fuel deserts,” especially out here in the sparsely populated Southwest. You need to carry enough fuel to get to the next gas pump. The second problem is clothes. One shirt, one pair of pants, one pair of socks, one pair of underwear don’t really weight that much. But on a five-day trip, with two people, it’s more fabric than the Plane Tales Plane can carry.

We’ve gotten around the cargo weight problem in the past by having a ground crew carry clean clothes and other items not strictly needed in-flight, but needed in-trip. When Rio and I flew down to Nacogdoches, we only carried tooth brushes, one tube of tooth paste, two spare T-shirts, and a change of underwear—just incase we got weathered in somewhere and had to spend the night.

But now that we’re facing several long flights with no ground crew, I’ve had to dive deeper than ever into packing light. Hence the laundry simulation: To see if it would be realistic to wash one set of clothes in a hotel room sink each night.

When I unrolled the towel to inspect the shirt, I found that the towel had sucked most of the water out of the fabric. It was damp dry. I hung the shirt on my awesome collapsible lightweight aluminum travel hanger (three ounces) that I bought online from Houzz, hung the hangar on the shower rod, and set a kitchen timer for 60 minutes.

Compact Aluminum Hanger

 

An hour later the shirt was still damp, but noticeably direr. I reset the timer.

In four hours the shirt was wearable. In six it was dry. Also, much to my surprise, it looked as crisp and wrinkle-free as it does coming out of our clothes dryer (thank you Van Heusen!). Now we are saving some serious weight, which means extending our range, which means fewer fuel stops, which means less en route time to reach a race.

Of course, we live in a dry climate. Will this hare-brained scheme work in humid southern Texas? We won’t know until we try.

Maybe I’ll pack an extra shirt the first time out…