The year flew by

My favorite kind of calendar is those square jobs that dedicate their entire surface area to telling you what day it is, and nothing else. No pithy sayings. No motivational poetry. No graphics. No kittens and puppies. Just a big, bold number and the day of the week. Pure. Elemental. Basic.

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Every day is a fresh start. You literally tear off the day before and throw it away. There’s something cathartic about leaving the past behind in such a hands-on, mechanical way.

And now with only two sheets left—today and tomorrow—it’s a reminder that 2016 is also about to enter the dustbin of history, inspiring me to look back on my year. But with all my calendar pages in the landfill, how am I to do that?

Luckily for me, we pilots are required to keep a log of all of our flights to prove training, experience, and currency. I poured a second cup of coffee and sat down at my desk and began to slowly flip though the green pages of the log.

In 2016, I filled four pages of tightly spaced lines with tiny, cramped, handwritten script. The logbook records 252.9 hours of aerial adventures for the year.

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Is that a lot? Well, it depends on who you are. An airline pilot would probably fly that much in a few months (they are limited to 1,000 hours per year); while the average for general aviation pilots nationwide is 35 hours a year—although that figure includes people like me who fly more, so the typical pilot flies a lot less.

My eyes slid slowly down the columns of scribbles, and as I reread the brief, Tweet-like entries, the flights came alive for me again. The blue sky above the canopy. The dull roar of the engine through my headset. The throb of power that pulses through the airframe. The sun twinkling off the waxed surface of the wings. And the magical feeling of slicing through the air in defiance of all logic, levitating above the ground in a metal object that weighs over a thousand pounds.

The year’s first flight was on January 8th. My logbook shows I ferried Tessie back from maintenance in Santa Fe. My logbook notes the plane was, “hot and fast,” complete with a smiley face, but I see the flight time was nearly two hours—twice what was needed.

I must have gone sightseeing on the way home. No big surprise; the previous flight was five weeks before. She had been in her annual inspection and I must have been thirsty for the sensation of flight after such a long dry spell.

My logbook ends the year yesterday with a flight to nowhere. I went up and practiced race turns near our home airport so I wouldn’t get rusty in the off-season. Rio came along with me but stayed on the ground learning to fly his Christmas toy drone inside the empty hangar next to ours.

In between these bookend flights are endless adventures. The first, if you missed it, was an early January beer run of sorts to Kansas, flying low and hot to break in a new engine cylinder. The following month, in February, we flew up to 10,000 feet, just to prove we could. Then I flew Rio to his flying lesson (he had taken up gliders), although later in the year he decided that airplanes without engines weren’t right for him. March saw race practice, and in April it was off to the far eastern borders of Texas for our first race, a 7.5-hour flight. It was followed by two more the same month.

May saw us flying over the Gulf of Mexico on a race trip that logged 22.6 hours in the air with the commute to the race, the practice run, the race itself, and the flight home—all in five days. It also was the month a speed mod went south on us in a big way.

June had me racing down the Mississippi River. Literally. And then turning around and flying across the Rocky Mountains and up to Washington State. I was in the air 12 days that month. It was heavenly. Naturally, in July we took the required pilgrimage to aviation’s Mecca: AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

In August we were on display at the state’s largest fly in, but it was a slow month for flying, with few hours logged. September saw us flying to the west twice, once for an air race in Arizona and the second time for a race in the southern Colorado Rockies. On that second flight I spent a lot of time in the plane, but very little time flying it, being stranded by weather at a desolate unmanned airstrip in the middle of nowhere.

October is the scantiest month of the year in my logbook, with a paltry 1.1 hours logged. What’s up with that?

The log told the story in a format that’s not changed in my lifetime: Date. Aircraft Type. “N” number. Where the flight started. Where it stopped. Then there’s not-quite two inches to add a “remark.”

The remark on the flight of October 3rd is, “break down.” Yeah. Our girl sat out the month in Clovis, not even 100 miles from home.

With the coming of November we were in the air again, to Grove, Oklahoma, and down into southern Texas for races, then wrapping up the month helping the family student pilots practice their landings.

December was more practice, race practice for me, pattern work for Lisa, and landing practice for Rio.

It was a good year. Next week, at the start of the New Year, it’s off to Santa Fe to drop Tess off for her annual inspection, bringing us full circle.

Time for a new calendar. Time for a new logbook page.

Wine and balance

For you non-pilot readers (I love you!) there’s a thing called weight and balance we pilots are supposed to do before every flight. It’s a series of mathematical machinations that are used to make sure the plane is not too heavily loaded and that whatever load it’s carrying is positioned so that the aircraft won’t be too nose nor too tail heavy to fly safely.

In the old days we used complex charts, slide rules, and pencil and paper to confirm that we were safe to fly. Now there are a slew of modern electronic options and apps for the purpose.

Is this really necessary for the small, car-like planes most of us fly? Damn straight! Most four-seat airplanes can’t actually fly with four people, some baggage, and full fuel—so this becomes important. Even the Plane Tales Plane is incapable of flight with two of us onboard and all three of her fuel tanks full to the brim.

For us at Plane Tales, it’s really all about the weight. As a two-seat, side-by-side airplane, the balance side of the equation for Tessie really doesn’t come into play as she has no backseat. I just need to make sure that no more than 75 pounds of baggage goes into the luggage compartment and I’m good to go on balance. Weight, on the other hand, has a huge impact on us, but perhaps not the impact you’d expect. We can actually pack the plane to her gills if we want to, but if we do, we won’t be able to go very far.

You see, every pound in the cockpit means a pound less fuel in the tanks. Actually, we pilots don’t think in pounds, we think in six-pound units. That’s because a gallon of aviation gasoline weighs six pounds. [Technically, it weighs 6.01, a difference which would matter in very large planes, but with the typical fuel loads in general aviation airplanes the difference is marginal, so we use the easier-to-manage six pound figure for weight and balance calculations.]

In the Plane Tales Plane, as we burn something in the neighborhood of six gallons per hour, each gallon of fuel gives us 10 minutes of flying time. At our current performance, in no-wind conditions, that gallon of gas will take us 18 miles.

It doesn’t sound like a much. And it isn’t. For six pounds. But consider what a typical travel suitcase weighs. The airlines cap carry-on luggage at 50 pounds per bag. Putting a 50-pound suitcase in Tessie would reduce her range by one hundred and fifty miles!

This is why we are the kings of packing light. Every ounce we save lets us fly farther without refueling. Refueling is kinda fun, because you see all kinds of places you’ve never seen before, but it’s always time consuming with approach, pattern entry, landing, taxiing, talking to the airport bums and answering the obligatory “does your ‘Coupe have rudder peddles” question. (She doesn’t.) Plus, many times there simply isn’t an airport where you really need one, so a cross-country flight can become a serpentine zigzag affair resulting in the elapsed travel time of an oxcart.

So if we really need to get somewhere far, far away, we need as much gas in the tanks as we can safely muster.

Now, I need to divert from our course to talk about my wife. She actually enjoys flying. At least now and then. For short periods of time. When the air is absolutely calm. And when I’m content to limit the bank angle of turns to about five degrees.

The rest of the time, visions of fiery crashes dance in her head, and she pictures Rio an orphan. Accordingly, she’s the least-flying member of the family, and because of that, I’m never 100% sure how much aviation lore and knowledge is actually in her head.

But recently, I learned that, in her quiet way, she has been paying close attention.

Second diversion: There’s nothing that I enjoy more at the end of a long day than a nice glass of red wine. Or two. And sometimes three. This is a mission easily accomplished at home. But during the last race season we had some problems. There are dry counties that aren’t marked on aeronautical charts (they should be). There are strange liquor laws in some states about where wine can be sold. And on what days. And at what time of day. In short, wine shops proved to be in shorter supply than airports on our travels. Plus, there’s the problem of what to do with a partly un-consumed bottle of wine on the road. And sometimes the cost of wine in far-flung locations was more than the cost of the Avgas the plane was drinking.

The obvious solution was to bring our wine with us as part of our luggage.

But wine weighs. In fact, as a pure liquid, it weighs more than aviation gasoline. Wine tips the scales at 10 pounds per gallon. And worse yet, the typical packaging of wine is in glass bottles.

And glass bottles are heavy. More on that in a minute.

Plus there was the problem of multi-day trips. There was no way we could carry enough wine for long journeys, but I could at least protect myself from wine-free zones by carrying enough to cover me for one dry landing, and attempt to resupply “on the road.”

Bottles being out due to the weight and balance, I tried wine “miniatures” first. They come in both plastic and glass. I sent Debs to town with orders to find the plastic bottles. They were light enough but suffered the Goldilocks syndrome, with one bottle being too little, two bottles being not quite enough, but three bottles being too much. And traveling with a wine-drinking copilot the number of miniatures needed ended up requiring math harder than the most complex weight and balance equation.

Next, I considered boxed wine, but the boxes typically hold the equivalent of four bottles of wine and were excessively heavy. I didn’t want to have to choose between wine and clothes. I’ve never flown naked, and I don’t see why one couldn’t (with enough sunscreen) but it would be excessively embarrassing (and probably illegal) at fuel stops.

So the problem was one of those that seemed to be eluding a solution until the day Debbie came home triumphantly with something new. It was called a “brick” of wine, and sure enough, is about the size and shape of a typical construction brick. It held the equivalent of two bottles of wine, enough to fuel the crew for a typical cross-country. “How much weight do you think this will save over a pair of bottles?” she asked me.

“Let’s find out,” I replied, and got out our kitchen scale and two bottles of wine.

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The pair of bottles weighed in at 5.7 pounds. The box at 3.5 pounds. Debs had saved us a full 2.2 pounds and added just a hair over six and a half miles to our range.

My non-pilot wife had worked out the perfect wine and balance.

 

Happy birthday, Airplane!

Tomorrow flying—as we know it—turns 113 years old. According to Wikipedia, there are only 21 people left alive on the entire planet who were born before that day: December 17, 1903. The rest of us were born after heavier-than-air powered flight was a fact.

Many an early barnstorming pilot considered himself Civis Aerius Sum, a Citizen of the Air. But really, in a world in which at any given time there as many as 10,000 planes in the air, we are all citizens of the air 113 years after wood, canvas, metal, and true grit first crawled into the sky.

Of course, most people know the sweeping elements of the story of the pair of bicycle mechanics from Dayton who used the scientific method, experimentation, and even an early wind tunnel to unlock the secrets of the airfoil. And any pilot on the planet, and many non-pilots as well, recognize their iconic design in a flash.

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Source: Silodrome.com

But here are some stats on that first airplane you might not have thought about:

The wingspan of the Flyer is 40 feet, only two feet more than a brand spanking new Cirrus SR22. The Flyer’s length is 21 feet, nearly identical to Tessie—the Plane Tales Plane. The Flyer tipped the scales at 605 pounds empty, about the same as a modern Bush Cat light sport airplane.

So while planes have undeniably grown up, they really haven’t grown larger—at least not in the general aviation category.

Of course there’ve been some performance improvements in the century-plus since that first flight, (many of them made by the Wrights themselves). But in just considering the plane that started it all, the Flyer boasted a top speed of only 30 miles per hour, a speed at which few modern planes can even sustain flight. And her service ceiling—how high into the sky she could fly—was a paltry 30 feet.

Most modern pilots get exceedingly sweaty palms flying at 30 feet.

I can read statistics like that, but I can’t really get my modern aeronautical head around them. Nor can I truly envision a 12-second, 120-foot “flight” as being world-changing. It was so short, so brief, and so low, that the entire event could have taken place inside a modern airliner!

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Image from the children’s book Flight by Donald S. Lopez, Time-Life Books

By comparison, in my near-antique of an airplane that rolled off a factory assembly line just 34 years after Orville’s flight, I can fly 17,600 times the length of the jetliner, up to heights two miles above of the surface of the sea, at four times the Flyer’s maximum speed. And my performance is paltry compared to newer planes in the general aviation fleet.

The speed of airplane development since the First Flight is nothing short of supersonic. We are truly blessed, and tomorrow every pilot should take a silent moment to thank the brothers from Dayton.

And then we should take to the air to mark the occasion. I will.

 

The Christmas tree blues

We actually owned an Ercoupe Christmas tree ornament before we owned an Ercoupe. This is the tale…

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I don’t quite remember how I stumbled on Hallmark’s “The Sky’s the Limit” series. Probably I was on eBay looking for something else. Or maybe just killing time. But since 1997 Hallmark has been producing remarkably detailed miniature models of famous civilian airplanes, mostly from the Gold Age of Flight, adding one per year, every year since. Planes like the Spirit of St. Louis, the Beech Staggering, a Gee Bee racer, Howard Hughes’ H-1, The Lockheed Vega, and… the Ercoupe.

I bought one of the Hallmark planes. Then another. And then another. And as I customarily do, I went crazy and over the period of a few months scored the entire collection, onsie-twosie on eBay, with no clear idea what I was going to do with them. At first they turned one of our library shelves into a miniature apron, where they next began to collect dust.

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It wasn’t long before Debbie put her foot down on the tiny air force. In her view, they were Christmas ornaments and Christmas ornaments had no business being out all year long. I suppose some sort of deal was brokered, but the upshot was that we would have an airplane Christmas tree that year.

Somehow, Rio and I got it in our heads that this tree needed to be white with blue taxiway-colored lights. Naturally, that was the year that white trees with blue lights went out of fashion. All we could find was a white tree with multicolored lights.

I hate multicolored lights.

But we bought it anyway, figuring we could always change the bulbs later, if we wanted to.

That first year the plane tree was in our library, multicolored lights and all, and was our home’s only tree. By the next year, we had a bigger Ercoupe. And a hangar. The multicolored white tree moved to the hangar to keep the airplane company.

And now my years begin to run together, because while I know it’s not true, owning an airplane has so changed our lives that it seems that we must have always owned one. But at any rate, when we set it up last year, or maybe it was the year before, one of the strings of attached lights had failed, leaving a large chunk of tree dark. No amount of troubleshooting and bulb changing seemed to help. And by the end of the season last year, yet more portions of the lighting system had failed. The tree was more dark than light.

Clearly something needed to be done.

I decided the simplest solution was to just buy some new lights and drape them on the tree this year. My flight crew, however, insisted that we remove all the old lights first. So I brought the tree home from our hangar, and Rio, Lisa, and I, working with wire clippers and a third of the artificial tree each, started pruning the old lights off. It took us hours (and a lot of egg nog) and made us all glad we didn’t work in a Chinese Christmas tree sweat shop, having to attach the damn things in the first place.

De-lightified, the tree then rode around in the back of my Jeep until Black Friday, when, instead of fighting the crowds in retail stores, we went flying. Just for fun. After securing the plane, it was time to trim the tree.

Rio and Lisa rigged the blue lights, then parked the tree in the designated corner. Then one plane at a time, Rio hung the tiny air force from its branches. He placed the Ercoupe ornament at a 90-degree angle. “That’s Dad in a race turn,” he told Lisa.

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And when he was done, I closed the hangar doors, with us inside. And we all got the blues.

In a good way.

 

Doing the Wright thing

The view is lovely, but I’m bored to death. Rio is flying and I’m sitting on my hands with my mouth zipped shut, at his request. His mastery of the plane in flight is absolute. His turns are liquidly smooth, the nose nailed to the horizon. Damn, that kid can really fly.

But land?

Well, that’s another problem, and it’s really all my fault. I should have taught him how to land long ago, but I rationalized that I wasn’t an instructor, and that I didn’t know how to go about it. It was something a pro should do.

But I’ve come to realize that I was just making excuses.

The real reason I haven’t taught Rio to land is that I love flying—most especially the takeoffs and landings—too much to share the plane as much as I should. That makes me a Certified Bad Parent, so I’m working on that negative aspect of my personality, and trying to change it. And as a first step, this day is dedicated solely to takeoff and landing practice for Rio.

I’m just along for the ride.

Rio guides us through the traffic pattern and slowly slides the throttle back abeam the numbers. As the plane descends, I’m once again struck by his innate sense of power management: When to cut back a bit, when to bring in a bit more power. But as he turns to final, the problems begin. We’re too high; he’s turned too early. As we close in on the runway, we’re waaaaay off to the right. Rio continues the descent, seemingly unaware that we’ll end up landing in the grass. Very near the security fence. I slide my left hand out from under my leg so that I can get to the yoke quickly if I need to, and attempt to beam ESP-style messages through my son’s headset and into his brain.

It doesn’t work.

Down we come. 100 feet… 75 feet… 50 feet… 25 feet…

Rio flicks the mike button and transmits, “Santa Rosa Route 66 traffic, seven-six hotel, landing abort.” Then over the intercom adds, “Crap!” He throttles up, holding the nose level. The descent stops and Tessie builds speed. He holds her low until we flash over the southern security fence, then he gently pitches the plane up and climbs back up to the pattern altitude.

Again, the fluid turn, more ballet than airmanship. He reduces the power and lines the plane up parallel to the runway. I offer to run the throttle or the radio, but he says, quite rightly, that he needs to learn to do it all, and on this cold sunny morning it suddenly strikes me that he’s more stubborn than his mother and I combined.

And that’s a lot of stubborn.

He flicks the microphone. “Santa Rosa Route 66 traffic.” His voice is confident and smooth, pitched a bit deeper than his normal speaking voice. “Erco three-niner-seven-six hotel, left downwind, runway one-niner, full stop landing.” Then he adds over the intercom, in his normal voice, “Hopefully.”

We end up doing two more aborted landings. Rio’s face getting more strained with each. His jaw is set tight, his eyes narrowed. I can tell he’s pissed. Mad at himself. Upset that he can’t do it perfectly the first time, every time. He’s his own harshest critic. From my side of the plane I can see that each landing set-up is better than the one before. He’s learning from his mistakes and incorporating the lessons progressively into each attempt. But he doesn’t want to hear it from me.

Now we’re coming down, down, down again. We’re to the right of the centerline, but at least we’re over the pavement. We’re a bit high and a bit fast, but we’ve got runway to burn. I’m not worried. It’s not textbook, but it’ll be safe. But at the last second the flare gets away from him. He doesn’t pull the nose up quite far enough, quite soon enough, and the rapidly descending plane slams onto the runway with a bone-jarring shudder, and then springs right back into the air. We return to earth, but bounce right off the runway into the air a second time. Then a third.

Bounce, bounce, bounce; down the runway we go. More a rabbit hopping down the runway than a proper airplane landing.

Video of the actual landing(s) by Lisa F. Bentson

The third time being the charm, and our excess energy dispersed, Tess stays on the runway and we do a clean, smooth rollout.

“Well, that was the worst landing since the Wright brothers,” muttered Rio, clearly disgusted with himself.

“Which one of the three did you think was so bad?” I asked Rio, and in spite of himself, he’s able to manage a laugh.

“Come on,” I urge, “let’s go do it again.”

And so we taxi back around to the scene of the crime and take off again. A takeoff better than his first. And I sit on my hands, zip up my mouth. I look up through the canopy at the deep blue sky, painted with high altitude cirrus clouds. Below, pinion and juniper. Yellow rock and red soil.

Then I turn to study Rio in the seat beside me. Fourteen going on forty. Quiet. Serious. Focused. More man than boy now, with sideburns to his jaw. In his hands the plane is a living thing, flying with the grace of an eagle.

And I’m no longer bored. I’m thrilled. Thrilled to be able to share this with him.

Thrilled to be able to teach him to fly. And to land.