Battling to see the eclipse

Poet Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, but I think German military genius Helmuth von Moltke said it best: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

And so it was with me and my overly-elaborate plans to watch the Great American Eclipse. I’ll spare you the picayune details, but the original battle plan involved a ballet of our airplane, Southwest Airlines flights, rental cars, and hotel reservations in Urbana and Omaha. Why Urbana? There was an air race there the Saturday before the eclipse. Why Omaha? I honestly can’t remember anymore.

Looking back on it now, it all seems ridiculous. But it made sense at the time we planned it, and it was the result of countless hours of family dinnertime conversation. I guess as well as having too many chefs in the kitchen, we suffer from having too many generals in the war room.

At any rate, in March I made the hotel reservations. I made the rental car reservations. I made the airline reservations. I ordered our eclipse glasses. Five pair. My first contact with the enemy came within days of these maneuvers, when I tired to arrange for a hangar for Tess in Urbana.

“Race? What race?” asked the airport manager. Apparently, the race director had neglected to discuss the event with the host airport. One thing led to another, and the race was scrubbed.

I cancelled the hotel reservations. I cancelled the rental car reservations. I cancelled the airline reservations.

My second contact with the enemy came in April. Suddenly, the race was on again. I re-made the hotel reservations. I re-made the rental car reservations. I re-made the airline reservations.

But the war was far from over.

My third contact with the enemy came in May when my engine started burning more oil than gas. That battle was a protracted one, but by July it was clear we’d have no airplane for our airplane-centric battle plan. So back to the dawning board we went. Now too close to the Great Eclipse to find hotels anywhere near the zone, we kept Omaha in the plan, cancelling the Urbana part of the campaign. Ironically, in the end, the Urbana race was cancelled yet again, this time at the last minute. Had we still had our plane, we would have been well on our way out. Clearly the Fates—normally great air racing fans—must have decided they wanted to watch the eclipse instead.

But back to our evolving battle plan. Planeless, we kept Omaha in the picture, and decided to drive from our home base to our near-to-the-eclipse hotel rooms.

Then our Field Marshal became a casualty of war. Mom pushed herself a bit too hard at the State Senior Olympics, winning both a gold medal in the 90-94 age category and a case of dehydration that came with a two-day hospital stay.

IMG_3601

The next week was AirVenture. She had a grand time there, until she collapsed at the EAA Museum. More ER visits followed, and somewhere in the midst of these medical skirmishes, she picked up a nasty case of bronchitis.

As the moon and the sun converged, it was clear to me that she’d be in no shape to travel. I decided I couldn’t ask either of my sisters to miss out on the eclipse, so I elected to stay home with mom and ordered the rest of the troops onward.

Then the fog of war got thicker. Lisa had a work conflict and couldn’t be gone as long as the new plan took to execute. I tired for last-minute commercial air tickets into Omaha, but the laws of supply and demand were in full force. Tickets that usually run around $200 were over $1,500. In the end, Debs and Rio drove to Omaha in a leisurely fashion fitting Debbie’s energy levels, while Lisa did a last-minute solo power-drive up to Wyoming. Mom and I stayed home with our eclipse glasses determined to be satisfied with a partial eclipse.

And what about the classic nemesis of aviators, the weather? Mom and I in New Mexico, Rio and Debs in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Lisa on the banks of the Platte River in Wyoming all watched the eclipse under clear, cloudless skies.

Rio and Debs—and Lisa a state over—were all bathed in eerie quasi darkness for two and a half minutes while mom and I, with popcorn and red wine, sat in her bird garden with our cardboard glasses watching the sun turn into a crescent, trying to convince ourselves it was a hair darker in the desert around us.

IMG_1529

It wasn’t.

But determined to experience that mid-day darkness I missed out on, I’m already planning for the next eclipse.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid

Lisa turns and waves. She has a goofy grin on her face and her eyes are twinkling. She raises her camera to take a picture of me. I see the shutter open and close through the camera’s lens. I wave back.

This wouldn’t be the least bit remarkable if we weren’t in two different airplanes.

IMG_0154

Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

Three feet separates my wing tip from Lisa’s plane. I can see every seam, every rivet, every marking on her plane, just as clearly as if I were standing on the ramp next to it—instead of a thousand feet above the ground flying at two hundred and fifty miles per hour.

I’ve never done any formation flying before this, and I’m enthralled. As cool as it looks from the ground, nothing compares to how cool it looks from the cockpit.

Suddenly, we hit a patch of rough air. Our planes leap upwards, but amazingly, the two aircraft remain exactly in the same position relative to each other, moving as a single unit, as if they were one plane bolted together by steel beams and girders.

It’s AirVenture, and are we ever having an air venture! Lisa and I have hitched rides in the back seats of a pair of tailwheel Yak 52s belonging to the Phillips 66 Aerostars, a decade-old precision aerobatic team. We’re headed out over Lake Winnebago under gray skies, racing an approaching thunderstorm, so the Aerostars can show us their stuff.

Phillips 66 is the new primary sponsor of the Aerostars, but the company is no stranger to aviation. They’ve been making oil and gas for airplane engines since 1926. Today, Phillips 66 is one of the big players in aircraft oil, their main rival being AeroShell. I’ve been unable to figure out who has the greater market share, but my sense from what I see at airports is that Phillips is the leader in mutligrade oils, while AeroShell seems to have the lead the single-weight market, but I could be wrong about that. But one thing’s for sure, Phillips has the cooler logo:

Phillips66_Aviation_Aerostars

I study the Yak 52 Lisa is riding in, floating, unearthly, right outside my canopy. It fills my field of view.

“How on earth did you learn to do this?” I ask my pilot, “It’s frickin’ amazing.”

David “Cupid” Monroe laughs. “It’s really not that hard. You just establish a sight picture and hold it.” I’ve heard acro pilots say this before, but it never made any sense to me, and it still doesn’t, so I say nothing. “It’s just like shooting an ILS approach,” he goes on, and suddenly I get it.

In instrument flight, you use cockpit gauges to place the plane in a specific slice of airspace, and keep it there. One traditional instrument had two crossed needles. The vertical needle showed if you were drifting left or right of the runway as you approached it through the fog and clouds; and the horizontal needle told you if you were descending on the proper glide slope to clear terrain, buildings, and cell phone towers. Keeping the two needles nailed on the crosshairs kept you on the right approach.

What “Cupid” was telling me was that instead of lining up on an instrument, he was lining up his plane so that key parts of the other plane appeared through his canopy in exactly the right place, then, just like shooting an ILS, he made continuous micro corrections to hold the “sight picture”—essentially keeping his plane in the crosshairs established by the position of the leader’s plane out of the window.

Suddenly, it all seemed so simple. Something I could learn to do.

In the front cockpit of Lisa’s Yak, lead pilot Harvey “Boss” Meek makes a spinning motion with his right hand. In one smooth motion we dip down, pass beneath the leader, and come up on the opposite side. I felt like I could reach up and stroke the belly of the other plane as we slid under it.

The two planes split apart and dive for Lake Winnebago. Normally the Aerostars loop as a team in their signature tight formation, but they don’t do actual performances with deadweight journalists in the back seats, so for safety—there’s and ours—they ran the demo acrobatics wide.

“Cupid” pulls back on the stick and the Yak curves gracefully up toward the gray skies above, stands on her tail, and then we are upside down, the blue lake above us. The G-forces push me back in my seat, an airplane bear hug.

I love it.

As we slide down the back of the loop I let out a whoop of joy, just to let my pilot know I’m having a good time. Next we do a barrel roll, my all-time favorite maneuver. I enjoy them so much that I sometimes wish I owned an acrobatic plane, or that our plane was acro-capable. I don’t know if they are true, but I remember readings stories as a child of World War II fighter aces doing barrel rolls over their runways as they returned from missions. One roll for each victory.

The fun was capped off with a Half Cuban Eight, a maneuver that is more or less half a loop with half a roll.

The acrobatics were fun, but it was flying wing-tip to wing-tip out and back from the acrobatic zone that made the greatest impression on me. It was amazing and beautiful.

It made me wish that Lisa had a plane too, so that we could get some training and fly formation together. And in fact, thanks to our trip to AirVenture that just might happen.

Lisa getting a plane, that is. But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.

 

Where’s Waldo?

I’m surrounded by people. More people than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time in my life. It’s a solid mass of humanity, nearly impossible to navigate through. My eyes dart left, then right. I squeeze my way forward and scan the wall of bodies again and again, looking for the floppy hat. The red plaid shirt. Somewhere, lost in this sea of people, is my son.

It’s late Saturday afternoon at AirVenture, and the entire aviation universe (and most of the population of Wisconsin) has gathered on the flightline to take in the Blue Angles, the Night Airshow, and the famous Wall of Fire.

FullSizeRender

I’m not worried about his safety. It’s not like I’ve misplaced a toddler. My son is a smart, mature, capable 15-year-old. But he’s a smart, mature, capable 15-year-old lost somewhere in a Where’s Waldo panorama of people.

A smart, mature, capable 15-year-old who has lost his cell phone.

People. Everywhere people. If you combined the crowds from the World Cup, the Pope’s Easter blessing, and a mob seeking free Rolling Stones tickets, I doubt it’d add up to this many faces.

Rio, planning a career as an aeronautical engineer, has spent the entire week at workshops getting hands-on perspective on aircraft building techniques. He tried his hand at three types of welding, worked with rivets and sheet metal, built wing struts with wood, and even formed composites. While he was off learning the tools of his future trade, my wing-woman Lisa and I were plying the tools of our trade, traveling across the grounds on our General Aviation News press passes, Lisa taking images and me jotting down notes for stories.

Most of Rio’s workshops ran long during the week, usually 10-15 minutes longer than their time slots, so Lisa and I weren’t worried much when we got caught in an epic traffic jam inbound for the airshow as we made our way back from visiting the Sea Plane Base.

His composite materials 101 was to end at 3:45 p.m. At 4:02 on the dot Lisa and I found the workshops and forums an empty wasteland. We both looked at our watches. Then looked around. No Rio. Huh. Thinking he went in search of food, I texted him.

A few minutes later I got a text back: This phone is at the lost and found.

Holy… shit.

Rio—somewhere—at AirVenture, on the busiest, most crowded day of the week, with no phone. As I tried to process the information the Blue Angles ripped across the sky, the crackling high pitched scream of their engines drowning out all other sound.

I knew what I had to do. I had to think like a 15-year-old.

Between jet passes Lisa and I created a battle plan using fractured sentences and gestures. The first thing that occurred to me was that he would go to Race Central. It’s a tent right on the flightline at the mouth of the race corral, where the race fleet parked after the AirVenture Cup. With Tess down for maintenance, she wasn’t there, but the other racers are the closest thing we have to family at AirVenture, and the tent the closest thing we have to a home on the grounds. I would head for Race Central while Lisa would head up to the place we had parked that morning. As we had planned to go home after Rio’s workshop and pick up the rest of the family for the night airshow, we thought he might have figured the simplest thing to do was meet us at the car. Of course, Lisa and I had moved the car in the meantime, but Rio would have had no way to know that.

I had the shorter walk, but with the crowds I arrived at the Race Tent about the same time Lisa got to “L” lot. She texted “negative contact.” I told the AirVenture Cup crew that I’d lost my copilot. They hadn’t seen him.

Where next?

Slowly, painfully, I worked my way through the crowd of crowds toward the Vintage Red Barn, where the type clubs have booths. I thought Rio might take refuge with the Ercoupe Owners Club. But when I got there the barn was empty. Meanwhile, Lisa headed for the scooter rental return booth to see if Rio had turned in his ride yet (I sacrificed exercise for education so he could be easily mobile on his own again this year).

Negative contact.

Where next? On the first day we all planned a meet-up after different missions on the west side of Boeing Plaza. Would he think to use that as a fall back rendezvous location? As I set out in that direction I got a text from Race Central. Rio spotted there. I texted back, have him stay put. I’m coming.

Their reply: He already left.

I worked my way through the throng of people, back down the flight line when a mass of polished aluminium blocked my way. The B-29 “Doc” was being brought slowly through the crowd to its parking place in Boeing Plaza.

You have got to be kidding.

I detoured deeply into the grounds, skirting the south, west, and north sides of the plaza, and finally back to the flightline. As I closed in on the Race tent I saw the familiar floppy hat that Rio bought at Reno last year.

He’d returned “home,” thank God.

We were reunited. Waldo and William in one corner of the mass of people. Together again.

 

Agonizing choices

It was the last straw in a pretty big haystack. The email from my mechanic read, “that might not work with our time limits,” going on to explain that the engine monitor I had chosen to protect our overhauled engine could take four weeks to get to him. Apparently they are airplane-specific devices, made and programed to order.

The time limit he was talking about was my return to flight deadline, and it was set by the race schedule. If I missed the mid-August race I’d be fatally behind in championship points, with no chance at all of standing at the top of the podium. Actually, to be honest, I really couldn’t afford to miss even a single race. With this new wrinkle, I would be missing four.

I got up from my desk and wandered back into the flight lounge. I stared at the wall-sized map. Gazed at the dry-erase checkered flags marking each race. Studied the calendar below the map.

What were my options?

The first flight of the overhauled engine needed to get to low altitude—and quickly—to set the piston rings properly during the engine break-in. I had planned to use the mid-August race in Urbana, OH, as the break-in flight. But now I wouldn’t have an engine monitor in time for that.

I could make the flight without it, and install it when I got back. But… no. That’s crazy. I don’t want to do the break-in without the benefit of a good engine monitor.

I could choose a different monitor. But I spent a lot of time looking at the options. I don’t really like any of the others. And I don’t want to spend thousands on a monitor I don’t like just to get back in the races.

So if I miss the Urbana race, what then? The next week I’m in Albany, OR, teaching for AOPA. The weekend after that is the T-bird race in Arizona, which requires a high altitude flight to reach—the very worst thing for breaking in the new engine. That takes me to September 9th. Galveston. A perfect venue to break in the new engine. But now I’m missing five races.

No coming back from that far behind.

I curse under my breath as I realize that my chain of decisions on our engine problems has led directly to this moment. A moment of failure. A moment in which all I worked for is wasted. The flags and the calendar show only five races left after Galveston. To make up the lost points, I’d need to defeat ten planes in each race. Not going to happen. There just aren’t that many people racing in my category and class.

It’s over.

My quest for the Gold is finished.

Now what? I decide to go to Galveston. It’s a perfect engine break-in flight. The race is a cool zigzag back and forth across the bay. Plus Debbie and Rio love the city. And of course, I need to go to the final race of the season. I have enough points that I’m pretty sure that this late in the season I can count on coming in second place nationwide. At least I’ll be a two-time National Champion, and there’s nothing worse than a 2-time champ not showing up to receive his trophy.

But the other four races? They really aren’t worth the money it would cost to get to them, with no chance of moving into the top slot. As much as I love racing, I just can’t justify the cost without the chance of reaching my goal.

I pick up the eraser, and one by one, erase the races. From my map.

From my world.

IMG_0332