A wrench to the head

“Hey,” I told Rio, “that looks like the Las Vegas Airport. Pause the DVD for a sec.”

We were watching a video I stumbled across on eBay called Fly Fast! about Rare Bear, the iconic Reno Race plane that dominated the Valley of Speed for decades. It was being offered up by a seller in Sparks, Nevada for a minimum bid of $6.99 with free shipping.

Well within the don’t-need-to-ask-your-wife-first price range.

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Rio stabbed at the controls and the image froze. We both leaned forward and peered at the TV screen. Darn if it didn’t look like the terminal at KLVS, the “little” Las Vegas just twenty miles up the road from our house.

And, as it turns out, it was. Because, and I totally didn’t know this, the Rare Bare came to our home town in August of 1989 to set a three kilometer Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)-sanctioned world speed record. The highly modified Grumman F8F Bearcat ripped a hole in the skies over our hometown airport at 528.33 miles per hour, making it the fastest piston-powered plane in the world, a speed record that still stands today, 27 years after it was set.

It really bothered me that I was learning about this from a six dollar and ninety-nine cent eBay find. Because I should have known. I should have known simply because I’m a local pilot, and a FAI world speed record holder myself. And I should have known because I lived in Las Vegas in 1989, and I hung out at the airport a lot.

Oh, but it gets worse.

I should have known because back in 1989 I was a journalist working the local paper, the Las Vegas Daily Optic. As a local pilot and newsman, how could I have been totally unaware of the biggest thing in aviation to happen in town since Lindbergh landed here in 1928?

Watching the video in my warm, cozy house, I began getting that odd sensation you get when you drink too much cold medicine. You know, like your head has become a helium balloon and is floating two feet above your shoulders on a string. How could this have happened on my watch, and I missed it? It was surreal.

And as the video went on, things got worse. There was footage of Rare Bear’s famous pilot, Lyle Shelton, signing copies of the Optic, which featured a front-page picture of his plane. So it’s not like the paper missed the event.

Where the heck was I when all of this was going on?

I searched my memory banks in vain. I simply had no recall whatsoever of the event. After the movie was over, I sat and mentally tried to reassemble my past life. First I double-checked with Deb on what year we were married.

Never a good idea.

Next, I counted forward on my fingers. Yeah. I was still with the paper when Rare Bare came to town. But to be sure, I dug around in my files and found a old and faded resume—was that typed on a typewriter??—and confirmed that my position at the paper wasn’t eliminated until the spring of the following year, when the publisher decided to cut staff to save money.

So I was there, on the job, when Rare Bare made its flight. So why didn’t I remember it?

“Maybe they dropped a wrench on your head,” Rio offered helpfully.

Maybe so.

Or maybe I was on vacation. Out of state. Yeah. That might explain it. But there was no way to reassemble those kinds of details nearly three decades dead.

Or was there?

“I know how we can solve this mystery,” I told Rio. “Microfilm.”

“What the heck is microfilm?” asked Rio.

So I explained to him that microfilm is a way of archiving printed publications for long-term storage. Pages are laid out and photographed on 35mm-wide positive-image film. Months of newspapers can be condensed into a reel of film that will fit in your hand. I also told him about the sexier microfiche, index-card-sized sheets of plastic with microscopic magazine pages on them.

Then I was struck by a thought. Perhaps neither existed anymore.

“I guess it’s all done on computers nowadays,” I told Rio. Would old microfilm be scanned into computers? If not, were there still microfilm reading machines?

We went on an expedition to find out. The very next day, I picked Rio up from school and Lisa up from her office at the Community College (easy to do as Rio’s school is on the campus of the college) and we drove across town to New Mexico Highlands University, which was bedecked in purple banners and balloons for Homecoming. We found a parking spot on 8th Street a half block from the wide cascading stairs that lead up to the Donnelly Library—which itself was celebrating its 50th Anniversary.

The plan was to use the microfilm archives to see who took the photo—certainly it wasn’t me—and to see if my byline was missing from the days before and after the event, a clue that I wasn’t around. “What will you do if it turns out you took the picture?” asked Rio.

“Have a stroke,” I told him. There was no way I could have photographed an event like this and lost all memory of it.

On the second floor, in the heart of the periodicals, we found three microfilm machines and bank after bank of drawers holding film and fiche. Bank after bank of cabinets holding every paper but the one we were looking for.

Dejected, I turned around and spotted a small black cabinet standing all by itself on the opposite wall. The Las Vegas Daily Optic, on microfilm, from 1880 to last month.

I guess they still make microfilm, after all.

We searched through the drawers until we found the reel that contained August of 1989. We took the box out and pulled three chairs up in front of one of the microfilm readers.

Whereupon three very smart people couldn’t, to save our lives, figure out how to load the damn film into the stupid machine.

Lisa combed the library’s stacks and finally found an employee who figured out the machine we were trying to load was broken and took us to the “better one” in the government docs section.

Soon the past was whizzing past us, black and white, and grainy—the way the past is supposed to look. Spinning the dial on the machine, we watched the Friday TV Guide zip past. Then the supermarket insert. June 9th. I turned the dial farther to the right and the pages became a blur. I stopped at June 28th. Again I sped up the scan, and we closed in. August 10, 16, 18.

And there it was.

Monday. August 21, 1989. Lyle Shelton’s Rare Bare on the cover of the Las Vegas Daily Optic. Just like the copies we’d seen him signing on the video.

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And under the photo, my byline.

I took the picture.

I was thunderstruck. It felt like someone had dropped a wrench on my head. I stared at the slightly fuzzy image, speechless. Even faced with proof positive I had been on the scene, I couldn’t recall a single thing about the event. We flipped through the paper in both directions. The Optic ran three articles on the speed record, one the week before, one the day of the attempt, and another the next day. And in the days leading up to the record, and in the days following, my byline littered the pages of the paper.

I wasn’t on vacation.

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And to add insult to injury, the photo wasn’t really all that great. I worked at the paper as a photographer for about two-and-a-half years. I was good at it, bringing home more than a dozen New Mexico Press Association and Associated Press awards. In the time I was there, back in the days of fully manual cameras, no less, I took some amazing news photos.

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I keenly remember many of these impressive images, but I guess time and distance have led me to believe that they were the norm. Reality slapped me in the face in the quiet university library. A little girl with a rabbit. Road construction. A little girl with a dog. Seriously? Where was the Pulitzer-class kick-butt photography I remembered? I yearned to show Rio at least one amazing image on the microfilm viewer, but I couldn’t find one to be proud of.

My days as a globetrotting photographer were more mundane than my grainy, black and white memory held it out to be.

I guess Rare Bear isn’t the only thing I’d forgotten.

 

Disclaimer: I can’t really recommend the movie Fly Fast! And that’s not because it has me questioning my sanity. It just isn’t that great of a movie. I’d only give it one quarter of one star on a five-star rating system.

 

A big, beautiful map

The map nearly covered the floor. There was barely room for me to stretch out on the carpet between its edge and the freshly painted wall. Antique hardbound copies of The Aeroplane Boys held the corners of the map flat, fighting the curl that several weeks in a shipping tube created.

“This is a thing of beauty,” I told Rio and Lisa, “I’ve wanted one since I was a teenager.” My eyes roamed over the gigantic flight-planning map—the eastern half of the country pale green, morphing to moss green on the western highlands of the great plains, then transitioning to khaki, muted yellow, tan, and finally deep brown over the Rockies as the altitude rose.

The map was beautifully printed on thick, heavy paper; and laminated so dry erase markers can be used for planning without marring. The graphics are sharp and bright. The terrain jumps out, nearly 3-D. Rivers, lakes, and mountains are clear. Small magenta circles show uncontrolled airports. Blue circles show the towered fields. Military operations areas litter the country. The Bravo airspace around the county’s largest airports creates blue cookie-cutters around the sunflower-yellow splotches signifying city sprawl. Thin black lines between cities show the interstate highway system.

Pale grey circles, every 200 miles, radiate outwards from our home base, the Route 66 Airport in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

Yep, this map has been personalized just for us.

I chose 200 miles for the range rings as that’s how far we can fly, with two aboard and some cargo, before we need to alight for fuel.

Of course the map isn’t going to live on the floor. Once the curl is straightened out, and the new paint on the wall is dry, the map will take its place as the crowning jewel of our latest home improvement project: Our very own flight-planning room.

Understand that our house is small. Less than 1,500 square feet. It’s made up of two bedrooms, a combined kitchen and dining room, a living room, a small library and office with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and the other room.

The other room has served a variety of purposes over the years. Originally it was a photographic darkroom. Later it was a guest bedroom. Then a nursery for the baby. Then it was a walk-in storage closet. In it’s most recent incarnation, it was a tiny residential suite for my ailing mother-in-law, who spent the last three years of her life with us. After she passed away the room initially sat empty, then began to collect “stuff.”

Several times I asked Debs what her plan for the space was, but she wasn’t ready to think about it, so I backed off.

Then we cooked up the “48 project” as our next big Tessie adventure. Recall that first we set a World Speed Record, then we did a season of racing, so we needed to top those somehow. To do that, we cooked up a plan to make a single cross-country flight that touches down in all of the lower 48 states.

Now this is a project that’s going to require some careful planning, and I didn’t want to be doing it all on an iPad mini at the kitchen table with a pile of sticky notes on the side. As I drew a first draft of the zig-zaggy flight course on a kindergarten map of the United States that I printed out from the web, I recalled the wall-filling flight planning charts of my student pilot days. Wonderful, sprawling floor-to-ceiling maps that back in the day were found in every terminal and FBO in the land. They’re no longer made, and you rarely see them nowadays, but on our travels this race season I’ve encountered a few of the originals, faded to pale yellow with age, still on the walls of empty terminals.

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These encounters inspired me to scour the internet in search or something similar, and that’s where I found Higher Plane maps, who make a modern descendent of the maps of my youth. The new maps range in size from five feet wide by three feet high, to over eleven feet wide and more than seven feet tall.

Sadly, our little house doesn’t have an eleven-foot by seven-foot wall in it. Anywhere. But some quick tape-measure work showed me we had wall space for the middle-of-the-road six by four footer.

In the other room.

I bookmarked the site, got up my courage, and popped the question to Debbie. No not marriage. We did that nearly 30 years ago. I asked her how she would feel about turning the other room into a flight planning center where we could plan our adventures, keep track of details, and store all our flight stuff that tends to get deposited throughout the house.

Much to my surprise, she said yes.

I went back to the computer, ordered the map, and started making plans.

The other room had at some point been painted in a tan and desert orange, colors my mother-in-law detested. I told her it was her “house” and she could choose any colors she wanted, and I’d re-paint it. She chose sky blue and deep well-water blue, I suspect because my wife didn’t like the idea of a blue room one little bit. I got the room about half repainted and then never finished the job. For the life of me, I can’t recall why. Probably it was because as her health declined I simply ran out of time for painting. She required more and more care.

Or maybe it was because I really hate painting.

Anyway, the two cans of blue paint remained in the corner, the room was half-painted, and blue is not an unreasonable color to paint a flight planning room. Deb hates painting more than I do, and I was already one victory up in getting her to let me have the room, so I needed to enlist someone else to help me and keep me motived.

Enter Lisa.

And I didn’t even have to pull the Tom Sawyer trick.

The room came out awesome. Even Debs loved the way the blues harmonized and said her Mom sure picked great colors.

The other room has come to life again.

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An extra 200 miles

We were driving home from the airport. Debs had rescued me after I ferried Tess home from maintenance in Santa Fe. “The bummer,” I was telling my wife as she exited Interstate 40, “is that we’ll only be 200 miles from the Atlantic, but we just don’t have the time to go see it.”

Debbie was silent for a moment, her dark eyes pondering the horizon. “But that’s only two hours at the speeds Tessie flies, right?” she asked. “Surely you can afford two hours.”

“Sure. If it were only two hours. But we have to get there. Then we have to get back, and that will take longer with the head winds. Plus we wouldn’t want to just take a glance and leave. We’d need to add a full day. And if we did that, we wouldn’t be back on time.”

Debbie drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “I’d hate for Rio to miss the opportunity. Maybe you should just stay on the road. Don’t come home between the two races.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me. “We’d be gone… like… two weeks,” I said.

“I won’t like it,” said Deb with a sigh, “but I’ll survive.”

“Rio will miss a ton of school,” I pointed out.

“You seriously think he’d learn more in school?”

No. I didn’t.

Our next race is the Southern Nationals, in Greenwood, South Carolina. As the crow flies—if it were flying a Great Circle route—it’s 1,276 miles away. That’s a long way from New Mexico by any mode of transportation, much less an airplane that is barely faster than a car. And of course, even with GPS, you can’t really fly from point to point over that kind of distance. There isn’t always a gas station where you need one. Sometimes tall mountains get in your way, as can restricted airspace, military reservations, or giant airports around our largest cities with the mind-numbing complex airspace restrictions.

The flight plan Rio and I laid out takes us from our home base at the Route 66 Airport to Panhandle-Carson County, northeast of Amarillo, for fuel, then on to Oklahoma City to visit a pair of aviation museums and spend the night. Day two has us gassing up in Poteau, Oklahoma and then touching down for the night near Little Rock to visit a friend. Day three is a long haul with two fuel stops: Booneville Mississippi (presumably pronounced Boon-ville, not Boonie-ville), and Calhoun, Georgia before arriving in Greenwood—hopefully in time for the SARL “Low Country Boil with shrimp” the night before the race.

Quite an undertaking, in an Ercoupe, no less. But things get more complicated, as you’ll see.

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The next race after Southern is the Ghost Run Air Race in Jasper, Texas, 675 miles away for our crow. Ghost is the weekend following Southern, so even though it’s quite a bit farther south, it just didn’t make sense to me to fly “right” past it on the way home, and then turn around a few days later and fly back out to it. It also didn’t make sense to cool my heels for three or four days in southeast Texas.

In the end we cooked up an overly complex scheme. After the race in South Carolina, Rio and I would fly to Shreveport, Louisiana, hangar Tess, and hop a commercial flight home. Three days later, I’d hop another commercial flight back out, ferry Tess the hundred-ish miles from Shreveport to Jasper, fly the race, then go home. The plan saved a lot of wear-and-tear on the plane and kept Rio from missing too much school.

But now the Atlantic Ocean is beckoning. And as Debs pointed out, he’ll lean more walking an Atlantic beach himself than reading about it in a textbook.

Plus it seemed such a waste to be that close and not go the extra mile

Well… 200 miles.

 

A cheap non-death

The email was taking forever to download. Who on earth was sending me such a large file? When it finally finished, and I saw who sent it, my blood ran cold.

It was from my mechanic.

Tess was in his shop for a simple oil change. Nothing else, for once. Or so I thought. But as it often turns out with airplanes, there was an unexpected problem. While changing the oil, the boys at the shop discovered a crack in the left exhaust stack. Not just a little crack, mind you, but a deep jagged one that cut deeply into the skin of the pipe, traveling nearly around the tube around its perimeter.

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When I called my mechanic he told me that in his judgment the pipe would have “completely separated” within five hours on our upcoming cross country to South Carolina.

Replacement was the best option, provided a replacement could be found. Engine parts for seventy-year-old airplanes aren’t exactly on the shelf at Walmart. We’re luckier than most owners of old airplanes, however, because an outfit in Colorado called Univair holds the type certificate for the Ercoupe. They have a lot of “new old stock” parts in house, and if they don’t have what you need, they have all the old tools and jigs to build it for you.

The problem is that this is not a fast process.

Still, it beats haunting junkyards for parts. Some owners of orphaned planes need to own several just to ensure that they have parts as things break down.

So it wasn’t a matter of could Tess be fixed, but simply how fast. We’ve still got four races to go this season. Our rivals are ahead of us, but it’s not hopeless. Unless we miss a race. Then it would be all over for our hopes of wrenching the Production Gold Trophy from Team Ely.

I was so focused on getting the repairs done in time that I didn’t even think to stop and ask what all of this meant. But it was Lisa’s first question: “So what would have happened if the pipe had failed in flight?”

Luckily the question was in an email, so she didn’t see my deer-in-the-headlights dumbfounded expression.

Naturally, I quickly did some online research before answering her. One of the beautiful things about email is no one ever really knows for sure when you received it. It’s much easier to appear smart in email than over the phone.

I found an Advisory Circular entitled “Inspection and Care of General Aviation Aircraft Exhaust Systems.” Advisory Circulars are non-regulatory publications put out by the FAA to help interpret regulations, or educate the flying community about safety issues. One of the first things this Circular said was that exhaust system failures have led to “numerous fatalities and injuries to pilots and passengers.”

Who knew?

Of course, there’s the obvious risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. But apparently an exhaust failure can also cause a partial or complete loss of engine power. And additionally, we’re told that exhaust system failures are a leading cause of engine fires.

I emailed Lisa back, “Did I ever tell you about Advisory Circulars?”

Meanwhile, my mechanic did find a part and got it overnighted out. By week’s end, and well in time for our cross-country “commute” to the race, we were good to go. The cost?

$1,284.00

The part was about four hundred bucks. The rest was labor. It was a tricky part to get to, requiring the entire cowling and nose bowl to be removed. And removing the nose bowl requires removing the prop, and so forth. All this takes time, and thus money.

When I fired her up to bring her home the cockpit filled with an odd smell, part space heater burning off dust at first use in the autumn, part new toaster oven on its maiden voyage. But once in the air, I had to back off on my throttle. I had more power than I’ve seen in a long while. Maybe the crack had been robbing me of some performance. I couldn’t wait to get back on the race course.

A few days later, while hitching a ride with my friend Eve, she asked what our next flying adventure was, and somehow we ended up on the subject of the exhaust stack and the cost of its repair. She asked the same question Lisa did: “So what would have happened if the pipe had failed in flight?”

Of course, this time I knew the answer, having already researched it. “Well, probably nothing in our case, but theoretically exhaust problems can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning, power loss, or engine failures. All of which would suck. Particularly if all three happened at once.”

Without batting an eye Eve responded, “That repair sounds like a cheap non-death to me.”

 

The rest of the story: While carbon monoxide poisoning, power loss, and fire are all real risks for various sorts of airplanes, we were at low risk for any of the above. Our cabin leaks like a sieve, so it’s unlikely we’d be strongly affected by exhaust gasses; power loss would apparently be minimal on our plane; and fires are most common in turbocharged engines. When chatting with the guys at the shop after the repairs, they told me that on Tess all we would have been likely to suffer was a hell of a lot of noise and a partial failure of the carb heat system.

 

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Race 53 makes the big time!!!

Breaking news:

OK, I was keeping this under wraps until it really happened–because I had to keep pinching myself to believe it was true–but official Race 53 merchandise is now available at a Website near you!!! (Well, I guess they all are huh?)

During AirVenture this year the folks at Preferred Altitude pulled me aside to talk to me about creating Race 53 licensed merchandise. Naturally, I thought all the Avgas fumes had finally done in my brain.

But they were serious, and today they launched the first T-shirt. Available in three colors, I’m told.

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It’s a waaaaaaay cool logo and a great way to show your love of Ercoupes and your support for Race 53 and the gang!

Plus, I’d love it if a certain competitor of mine walked into her home airport and found a bunch of people wearing them! He-He-He-He-He….

Oh, right, the URL. Get your shirt here!