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.