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


It’s always something…

Tess had been with her mechanics the better part of two weeks between races. The list of improvements, repairs, and “squawks” was pretty long. The boys were removing the remains of the now un-used vacuum system, installing an electric attitude indicator, fixing the broken push-to-talk switch on the copilot yoke, and replacing loose rivets on the belly. The mags were out of timing, whatever that means, and half the spark plugs were replaced—the other four being cleaned and gapped. For the third time, hot and windy Kansas ripped off one of my wing walks, the windshield had come loose, and the metal around the camlocs that hold the cowl closed on the pilot’s side was suffering the effects of old age, called metal fatigue in airplane-speak.

Somehow I had bumped the throttle getting into the plane at Indy, and hit it just right (or wrong) causing the antique crystal halves to become unglued. One half promptly fell to the floor and rolled to the side where it fell down deep into the belly of the beast. The guys had to remove the seat to get to it.

The nose shimmy is back again, one of those gremlins that we can never quite track down. There must be 200 causes of Ercoupe nose wheel shimmy, and we’ve only tried 180 repairs so far.

Oh. And she needed an oil change. The fifth this year.

So after not flying for a bit, and writing a check with a lot of numbers and one comma in it, I was looking forward to having a perfectly functioning plane. At least for the flight home.

But it was not to be.

As soon as I lifted off, the nose pitched sharply down. I drew back hard on the yoke and kept her in the air. I fiddled with the trim control, but nothing happened. In a steady climb, I had heavy down-pressure. At 8,500 feet, high enough to clear the top of Rowe Mesa with comfort, I leveled out and once again tried to trim the plane. No luck. It took about ten pounds of backpressure to hold her level.


I got a good workout getting home.

On the ground, as I suspected, the trim tab was deflected for a descent, and no amount of fiddling with the lever in the cockpit changed it.

Naturally, I vented my frustration by sending a nasty email to my mechanic, who responded that they hadn’t touched the trim system in the course of their work on the plane, which of course I knew was true. Still, in a just universe, you’d expect a brief respite from repairs.

At least for the flight home from the mechanic.

A fine coat of oil

I know. White pilot shirts were a bad choice. Sure, they look great and they are cool because they reflect the sunlight. But they’re a tradition that stems from the airlines, where pilots don’t check their own oil, sump their own fuel, or otherwise get their hands dirty under the cowl.

When we drive to the airport we look sharp.

Coming home again… Not so much.

Getting grimy black Aeroshell 15/50 on our white shirts is such a common occurrence we’ve all become experts with lye soap and bleach.

It’s usually an isolated blotch on the sleeve, an oily fingerprint around a pocket button, or ramp smudges on the side or back from crawling under the wing to check something or another. But Lisa was suffering from something new. Coming home from Indy, on the ramp at Litchfield, Illinois, she was peering at the front of her shit. “What the hell…??” she asked me, pulling her shirttails away from her body to inspect them. Here and there across her shirt were little black starbursts. They looked like oil, but they were the smallest drops I’d ever seen.

“How’d you manage that?” I asked her.

She had no idea, and that night they resisted all her attempts to remove them as she washed out her flight shirt in the sink of the Baymont Inn.

The next day more starbursts appeared. The front of her flight shirt was littered with them. Hundreds of dots, each with sharp Star of Bethlehem-like points following the grain of the fabric up and down, and side to side. Lisa’s shirt looked like a black-and-white negative of the Milky Way.


We agreed that it looked like she’d been in the way of a fine spray or mist of oil, but we couldn’t imagine how or where that could have happened.

The third day the starbursts started to appear on my shirt, too, but only on the right-hand side. That’s when we realized that we must, somehow, be getting oil sprayed on us inside the cockpit as we were flying. And of course the source of that oil could only be the engine.

Now, old Continental engines like ours leak oil. (Unless they are out of it.) A while back when I bought some models of Tess. I told the model people I wanted a faithful reproduction of our baby, warts and all. They said, “So we should paint oil streaks on the belly, then?”

Not that faithful.

But it’s true that the only time we don’t have oil on the belly is when the plane is on the ground right after being washed. Thank goodness her belly is blue, so they oil doesn’t really show most of the time.


But on our epic flight to the Great Northwest Air Race we developed something new. Oil on the side of the cowl, down the fuselage, over the wings. It looked like the airplane equivalent of a bloody nose. The cause? A bad seal where the engine-driven fuel pump attaches to the engine. The seal was replaced and we never gave it another thought.

But now more oil was coming out of the top of the engine. Once again we had streaks and smears high up on the cowl, and on the ground oil dripped and pooled at the base of the central air vent above the oil cooler. That’s when it hit me: Maybe the oil was being sucked into the cabin fresh air vent in flight, spraying us with an ultra-fine mist of oil droplets, creating the monochrome Starry Night on our shirts.

At the low altitudes we fly at, the “cool” air from outside feels more like the exhaust from a clothes dryer, but without it, the heat from the firewall would surely cook us. The cabin air inlet is on the floor on the copilot side and when fully open blows more directly on the copilot than on the pilot. Lisa was tired of hot air blowing directly on her, and partly closed the vent on day three, which shot the air slightly more sideways.

That’s when stars started appearing on my shirt.

When we dropped the plane off for post-race maintenance I told my mechanic my theory. He told me he’d check into it.

He had his best poker face on.

But that’s exactly what happened, and this is what caused it: Tessie’s engine has a breather tube that runs from high up on the engine down to the bottom of the plane. It was a crude affair. A roughly shaped metal tube that jerked and twisted its way through the cowl from top to bottom. Apparently at one of the bends a clot started to form. It could have taken decades, years, months, weeks, or days. Who knows? But just like cholesterol building up inside a human artery, one day the building clot sealed off the engine breather tube, and our engine had the airplane equivalent of a heart attack.

Well, that’s probably overly dramatic. But as pressure inside the engine couldn’t escape through its usual route, it sought out the next weakest link: The fuel pump gasket.

Why the leaking oil was sucked into the air vent this time and not last time I have no idea. Maybe the older gasket failed at a different location than the newer gasket. Regardless, I’m glad to have a gasket fail. The alternative might have been a cracked engine block.

Our mechanic, Steve, created a new breather tube to replace the clogged one. Never have I seen a simple tube that was such a work of art. It’s buttery smooth and snakes its way through the engine compartment from top to bottom with lines both soft and feminine. He also cleaned out the cabin air vent tubing.

On our flight home from maintenance, I wore an older white shirt. On getting out of the plane I carefully studied my front. No Starry Night.

But, of course, I had a big blotch of oil on the left sleeve and a black line across my right epaulette where the cowl slipped and briefly touched me as I checked the oil.