A self-serve affair

Given the choice, I’d never land at a tower-controlled airport again in my life. I’m a competent pilot, perhaps even skilled. I know my stuff and I fly—and communicate—professionally.

At least I do in uncontrolled airspace when no one is around to appreciate it.

But when I fly into an airport with a tower, I go to pieces. I stumble on my words, mis-broadcast my location, and just generally make a fool of myself. I can’t tell you how many caustic controllers I’ve been exposed to.

“November three niner seven six hotel, I show you as left downwind, not right downwind.”

Crap. You’re right.

“November three niner seven six hotel, I assume you meant to say runway 22?”

Crap. I did.

“November three niner seven six hotel, did you mean to say west?”

Crap. Can I just go home now? I need a drink.

Accordingly, when we travel cross-country, I avoid controlled airports like the plague. But by doing that we, by default, are landing at smaller, less-used airports. Such airports vary a great deal in their quality and available services. Some are desolate strips of asphalt with only a rusty self-serve gas pump. Others are robust centers of commerce with swank pilot’s lounges and dozens of on-field businesses. In short, Inever know what to expect.

My Garmin Pilot app gives me some clues, and the AirNav website can be a handy resource, but if I’m planning to spend the night, there’s no substitute for calling ahead to see what things are going to be like on the ground. Are there transient hangars? Tie downs? Will any of the local hotels pick us up? Is there a crew car? Are the gas pumps 24-hour, and if not, how early in the morning can we buy gas?

Warning when crossing Texas: An astounding number of airports don’t sell gas on Sundays.

Sometimes when I call, I get a real airport manager. Sometimes, an answering machine. Other times, a guy named Hal answers the phone, “It’s Hal, what’s up?” Once when I dialed the airport number I got the local Police Department. Another time, the municipal golf course. So I wasn’t fazed in the least when the number for the Holbrook Municipal Airport connected me with the city offices.

The same can’t be said for the lady who answered my call.

“Good morning,” I said, quite chipper on my second cup of French Roast coffee, “my name is William Dubois. I’m one of the pilots coming in for next week’s air race and I was wondering if there were any hangars available for a couple of nights?”

There was a long silence. Then the lady says, “This is the municipal offices… the airport is pretty much a self-serve affair.”

I immediately imagined a desolate strip of asphalt with only a rusty self-serve gas pump.

But the city lady rallied and put me on hold while she asked around. It turned out there were hangars, but they were all full. I thanked her for her time and booted up Google maps. I zoomed in on Holbrook and switched to a satellite view. To my surprise, I could see at least 35 tie-down spots painted on an expansive ramp. It didn’t look like as much of a self-serve affair as I’d been led to believe.

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Image from Google Maps

But on the ground the next week, things looked different. I’m not sure if “forlorn” or “desolate” would a better word to describe the hot, dry, wind-swept field, with its cracked asphalt runway and dirty, dingy terminal.


I taxied in, parked at the self-serve pump, heaved myself up out of the cockpit, climbed onto the wing, and dropped down to the pavement. In the back of my mind, the classic western whistle from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly played in my head. WeeWe-Woo…wah, wah, wah.

A twin engine “freighter” sat to one side, surrounded by orange plastic cones. Other than that, there was so sign of life. In the terminal, the Asian freight dog (pilot slang for cargo pilots who fly small planes to remote areas, often bringing the UPS Next Day Air packages to places, like, say, Holbrook) was sitting at a long conference table updating his logbook. He was unshaven and eating a banana. He was wearing nothing but his underwear.

Boxers, thank goodness.

I nodded politely and made my way across the grimy carpet to the bathrooms that I won’t even describe.

Following my reconnoiter of the terminal (I was hoping for vending machines, as the weather had delayed me and I was starving, but there were none to be found), I gassed up, parked Tessie, and tied her down with the chains attached to the pavement in one of the 34 available parking spots. Then I gathered up my gear for the walk to the hotel. Thanks to my research, I knew there was no hotel pick-up, no crew car, no help of any kind at this self-serve affair. It’s not the kind of place I’d normally stop for the night, but this was the starting line for the Thunderbird 150 Air Race, so I really didn’t have much of a choice. That said, it was only a half-mile walk to the hotel I had reservations at. Or it would have been a half-mile walk if I could have gotten out of the airport.

The “pass through” gate was chained and padlocked shut, and the automatic gate didn’t respond to any of the three un-marked buttons on the control box. The freight dog, barefoot and still in his undies, was now outside the terminal smoking a cigarette. “Hey, do you happen to know how to open the gate?” I called over to him.

Apparently, not only did he not know how to use the gate, but he didn’t speak English, either. I couldn’t help but wonder if he flew the twin in his underwear.

There was barbed wire atop the gate, so climbing over wasn’t an option. I could pull the gate far enough inward that I might just be able to squeeze out. Or just might get stuck for life.

I went back into the dim terminal. The dirty windows filtered the bright sunlight down to a dull glow more film noir brothel than airport terminal. There was a faded to yellow CRT monitor, sans computer, on the desk. A pile of 2014 Fly Low magazines sat in one corner. Incongruently, a brand new Charlie Bravo calendar hung in the center of one wall, properly opened to September, on this, the second day of the month. It was the only sign that the terminal hadn’t been abandoned years before.

There were no signs, no phone numbers, nothing posted about how to escape the airport.

The terminal was attached to an old hangar. Though the gaps in the door I spied two ultra lights, a low-wing piper, and a gleaming chrome Luscombe 8. Next to the hangar was a tiny house with two fairly new trucks parked in front. As I walked up, a woman came out with an ice chest. She seemed surprised to see me. I don’t know if it was because they so rarely got visitors or if it was because, unlike the other pilot on the field, I was wearing all my clothes.

I asked her about the gate and she called for her husband. I never got the story on who these people were exactly, but he told me what button to press. I walked back past the hangar and the terminal to the gate and pressed the red button. Nothing happened. I walked past the gate and the terminal and the hangar back to the house.

The husband walked back with me, pulled the cover off of the gate control, disconnected it, and pulled the gate open manually. “Damn thing only works for about two weeks at a time,” he told me. I noticed it was the same style of gate control we have at my home airport. It breaks down with about the same frequency.

By now it seemed like I’d been at the airport longer than it took me to fly to it. But at least, free from the airport’s perimeter fence, I was now slowly on my way to the hotel. As I walked up the dusty street, the airport couple zoomed by. They waved cheerfully, but didn’t stop to ask if I needed a ride.

I gotta say, all things being equal, it’s not my favorite airport of all the ones that I’ve visited.

But I’d rather go back there a hundred times than talk to air traffic control even once.

How I got the pilot shirt blues

Well shit. I can’t see a damn thing.

What? No, I’m not lost in the clouds. I mis-spoke. I can see most of what I need to see just fine. There’s the mesa below me, red and yellow rock speckled with green Juniper and Piñon. Above, the cobalt blue high-altitude sky, strewn with artic-white clouds. My speed is just under 100 miles per hour. I’m in a slow climb. The tach is solid, well under redline. My oil pressure and temp are good.

But I can’t see my attitude indictor. My brand-new, fully electric $3,000 digital attitude indicator.

Its screen is white. Well, maybe there’s a hint of electronic blue sky and brown earth, but I have to lean forward and squint to make it out. That’s not going to cut it in a race when I’m trying to scream around a turn point with minimum ground track.


Actually, there’s nothing wrong with the instrument. The problem is my wardrobe.

As it turns out, my white pilot shirt reflects so much light in my sun-soaked cockpit that my fancy-pants new instrument becomes one massive blot of glare. Who knew?

I fly north. Then south. East. West. Sun to the nose. Sun to the tail. It makes precious little difference. I try shading the instrument, but that doesn’t not help. It’s picking up glare from me, not from the sun above. I am not a happy camper. You could even say I have the blues.

Little did I know I was about to get a lot bluer.


The next flight…

I’m flying up the Rio Grande River. The electronic attitude indictor is glowing brightly now. I still can’t believe the “fix,” so I reach behind into the baggage compartment and grab my white flight jacket. I drape it over my chest. The attitude indicator disappears, its computer-like screen showing nothing but white. The sun isn’t even shining on the jacket; the white surface just kicks off that much glare in my greenhouse-like cockpit. I drop the jacket into my lap and the screen springs to life. I pull the jacket up again and the glare blots out the instrument’s screen. I drop the jacket and the screen is clear as a bell.


The only change is that I’m not wearing a white shirt. I’m wearing a blue shirt. A pale blue shirt.

White shirt, no instrument. Pale blue shirt, no problem. It’s revolting. Mother suggested I just wear a pale blue bib over my white flight shirt to block the glare when I’m flying.


Air racers do not wear bibs.

Lisa suggested I just wear a vest. Less embarrassing, but it sounds like a recipe for heat stroke to me.

I knew what I had to do.

I had to get serious about getting the blues.


Fashion consultants

When I first started flying, pilot shirts came in white, tan, and blue. The tan seems to have suffered some sort of mass extinction event, but I’m not sure I’d care. The Plane Tales Plane is white and blue on the outside; and blue, grey, and black on the inside.

No earth tones.

So I went looking for blue pilot shirts and was surprised to find that 99% of the suppliers no longer carry them. But luckily for me the small, friendly and fast Garff Shirts still does. Garff is a one-man operation run by a pilot who serves as the First Officer (copilot) for a regional airline, but amazingly he often gets stuff to me faster than the bigger players.

Once again, as soon as the shirt arrived, I assembled my fashion consultants in the form of Rio, who really just wanted dinner, and Lisa, who had just nearly amputated her finger trying to cut the tag out of her new flight suit. “Don’t drip blood on the shirts,” I told her, as I spread out samples of nearly every shirt we’d ever had made before on the sofa.

There are problems with changing from a white shirt to a blue shirt. I couldn’t just send it off to the embroidery shop and tell them to make another. First off, many of the logos on our flight shirts have white backgrounds. If you sew the logo onto a blue shirt, suddenly it has blue where white should be and doesn’t look right. But there’s more.

Things just look different on blue than they do on white.

We had to start from scratch. We printed out various logos and laid them on the shirt to see what they looked like. Rio was most grim about our prospects, but he can be a bit Eeyore-like, especially when he wants dinner. Lisa, despite her hand wrapped in a bloody paper towel, was more optimistic.

In the end it took dinner. And lots of wine. But I could see that we had a good-looking shirt coming together. A shirt that will allow me to see where I’m going. In style.


Back again

The gust came out of nowhere. With a loud clatter the sign toppled over. Race 53 pens scattered across the asphalt. Preferred Altitude business cards swirled about my legs like a school of angry Piranhas.

But the wind wasn’t done with me yet.

As I lifted the display easel off of the tarmac, a second gust of wind snatched the three-foot by two-foot sheet of foam core, tearing it off the easel and sending it sailing through the air. To my horror it flew, dagger-like, straight toward a half-built GlaStar parked near by. The pilot-owner had spent the last two years drilling holes for rivets and I sure as hell didn’t want my sign scratching his paint the first time he displayed the plane. As I dashed after the sign I heard a second crash and glanced over my shoulder to see our other easel resting on Tessie’s tail.

One second before striking the GlaStar, the wind slackened and dropped the sign to the deck under the plane’s left wing. I ducked under the wing and stomped on the sign to pin it to the ground. Shouts behind me. I turned and saw the sun canopy for the Angel Flight booth, a giant blue pyramid with four skinny aluminum poles at each corner, rising from the ground, slowly spinning as it lifted into the sky above the airport parking lot. It reminded me of the lunar lander with its spider-like landing gear. The canopy reached an altitude of about 30 feet, then the dust devil released it, and the canopy slowly drifted back down, now a parachute.

It was the strangest flight I’ve ever seen. And a bizarre end to another awesome day at Double Eagle II Airport on the northwest side of Albuquerque. Like last year, we’d been invited to be one of the show’s static displays—airplanes front and center for visitors to get up close and personal with. Also, like last year, we started the event by flying into the “big” airport, the Albuquerque International Sunport, the day before, and visiting with both Cutter Aviation and Bode Aero for a makeover. They spent all day washing and waxing and buffing Tessie until she looked like she just rolled off the assembly line. Then, before the sun rose, Rio and I lifted off of the 150 foot wide, 13,793-foot long Runway 08 (between airliners), and headed across the sleeping city for the Fly-In.



It was a grand day. Not too hot, not too cold. Just enough of a breeze to keep the air fresh, but not enough (until the end) to cause our giant signs—one about last year’s world speed record, and one about this year’s air racing—to escape from their water jug-weighted easels.

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A good-sized crowd turned out again this year and our plane was first on the line as people came in the gates.

Our whole gang was on hand. Grandma Jean sat in her official Air Racer folding chair under an umbrella and chatted with passers-by. Rio cruised the trade show and watched a 3-D printer making airplane parts and EAA key chains. Debbie alternately took in the sights and charmed visitors. Lisa snapped pictures and manned the Ninety-Nines booth in the exhibit hangar. I took the time to attend one of the three pilot seminars offered, but mainly I leaned on Tessie’s top cowl and chatted with the folks passing by.

Some had questions:

Is it true Ercoupes don’t have rudder pedals? Yep.

What do Ercoupes cost? Not much to buy, a lot to maintain.

How long have you owned her? I don’t, she’s my mother’s airplane.

Seriously? You race? How-frickin-cool! Indeed.

Others had stories to tell. An elderly World War II vet flew Hellcats off the Yorktown in the Pacific theater. After the war he owned an Ercoupe. At least he did until a problem forced him down in a wheat field. Plane and pilot were fine. But the wife wasn’t.

She made him sell the Coupe.

But the kids were the greatest. Kids automatically love airplanes and are full of questions about them. The bolder children I boosted up on the wing to look into Tessie’s cockpit. A few sat in the pilot’s seat to try her on for size. With the shyer ones, I sat cross-legged on the ground under her spinner—at kid altitude—to talk with them one-on-one about airplanes.

Again and again and again throughout the day I heard, “What a beautiful airplane.” And at the end of the day, we were awarded the coveted people’s choice award. Not a bad coup for a ‘Coupe, especially considering we were parked next to a cherry Stearman biplane.


A fun day. Such fun that even the wind wanted to drop by for a visit.


Photo by Larry Bell