Paint tale

“What on earth happened to your paint?” asked our league photographer in her heavy English accent, pointing to several naked places about the size of a dime on Tessie’s left wing

“Oh, I accidently plowed through a flight of baby peacocks at the last race,” I replied, being careful to keep a poker face.

There was a long silence while she processed this, then she said, “I was under the impression that peacocks didn’t fly very high…?”

“They don’t. And your point?” I asked.

I think I told someone else I ran down some baby flying squirrels. In truth, I have no idea where the paint went, or where, how, and when the dozens of other missing paint flakes disappeared. All I know is that Tess is beginning to shed paint like a cat sheds fur in the spring. And that can only mean one thing: Her paint job is reaching the end of its service life, expiring, dying; and that means there’s a new paint job in my future.

Which is both scary and exciting at the same time. But mainly scary.

An airplane’s paint job is more than mere decoration. It’s protective. It keeps the metal from being damaged by the elements. So it’s important, and beyond some point, it’s not something that can be safely put off. But getting an airplane painted is nearly as much work as buying an airplane in the first place, and in our case might cost nearly as much. Why scary? Well, for one thing, there are hundreds of paint shops to choose from, and the offerings and quality vary a lot. As do the prices and the potential for disaster. I’ve read several articles on the whole process, a couple of which—focusing on all that can go wrong—sent me into a nearly cationic state with worry.

But done right, as I understand it, the process goes something like this: First, all the old paint needs to be stripped off. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think this was done on Tess’s last paint job or two. Under that pretty blue and white is buff yellow, and in some places green is peeking through. Some shops use chemical strippers to remove the layers of old paint, others use high pressure water, while others still use something called “vacuum blasting.”

Once down to the bare metal, any damaged skin discovered lurking under the paint needs to be fixed, along with any dents and dings, much like auto body repair. Naturally the control surfaces need to be removed to get the old paint off the edges and get the new paint on, as well as all the inspection ports and the like. I read one case where the plane was put back together wrong and crashed right after leaving the paint shop!

Once all of that pre-paint work is accomplished, the new paint is applied, sometimes many layers of it, depending on the design, plus whatever top coats you choose. As you can imagine, protecting the interior and glass requires much taping and paper.

So much for scary. What about the exciting part? Well, that’s scary, too: What paint scheme do you choose? Getting a paint job opens up a universe of possibility. An overwhelming universe. It used to be that airplane paint was pretty pedestrian: White with a stripe. What color would you like your stripe? Tess’s current paint job is actually higher end than that, but now planes come airbrushed with artwork resembling show cars, tattoos, and more.

I’ve seen some pretty drool-worthy paint jobs in my travels. Check out this paint job of the inner race plane shedding its warbird skin like a snake:

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So what to do? Tess is sort-of a famous plane. She set a World Speed Record that still stands, and is a well-publicized two-time National Champion race plane. Does that obligate me to simply re-do the livery she sports now? Maybe use a sparkly white instead of gloss? Or should I update the scheme? Or can I let my imagination run wild? I mean, really, what would the perfect Ercoupe paint scheme look like? When I look at the Coupes gathered at our national fly-ins, I’m not that impressed with most of their paint jobs. That’s sad. They are cool-looking airplanes. They deserve cool looking paint jobs. But what would that look like, exactly? And what if I were wrong? I’d hate like hell to take a chance, try to design something, then detest the way the plane looks every time I open the hangar doors.

Not sure what I wanted to do, at AirVenture this last summer I prowled the paint vendor’s booths and talked to many of them, and I also attended a few workshops on the painting process. One of them was led by a scheme designer.

What on earth is a scheme designer, you ask?

It’s not some sort of con man, as the name implies. Think of scheme designers as architects. They are part artist, part draftsmen. They create designs for airplane paint jobs and translate them into precise instructions for the paint shops. One, named Craig Barnett, particularly impressed me. He runs an outfit called Scheme Designers, which does paint jobs for airlines and aircraft manufacturers—and he’s even designed the paint schemes for many of AOPA’s sweepstakes planes. And Craig had an offer for me I couldn’t refuse: For a flat rate, he’d create an unlimited number of paint schemes for our plane, letting us explore the “entire universe of possibilities.” I figured if AOPA trusted him, I could trust him. I hired him on the spot.

Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people, so it took a looooooong time until I saw any exploration of my universe.

Anyway, at AirVenture, Craig looked at photos of Tess’s current paint job, which he declared to be 1970s Mooney-esqe. Fair enough. He asked what I wanted and I said I had no idea, which was why I was hiring him. He said he needed a little more to go on than that, and suggested I send him pictures of planes I liked. Or even cars. I didn’t have anything that visual in mind, so instead we talked concept. For starters, I asked him to create a modern, updated version of Tess’s current livery. Then I wanted something race-themed with checkered flags. He told me that he hated the checkered race flag look, but OK. Then I said, perhaps a muscle car look. I told him to avoid art deco or warbird, as there are a number of Ercoupes that have gone that way (successfully) and I wanted to do something different. I also told him to design one scheme completely based on the lines of the plane.

The first thing he did was send us out paint chips of aviation paints. Dozens of colors. The rainbow and more. As a family, we decided to stay with cool colors, leaning toward the blue and white we are used to (and would match the interior), but we threw in black and a kick-butt sparkly silver as options. In fact, most of the colors we chose were sparkly.

After that, we didn’t hear from Craig for a looooooong time.

Half a year after I hired him, just about when I was ready to abandon any hope we’d ever see anything, we got our first look.

This is his update of Tessie’s current look:

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I especially like what he did with the rudders, as I always felt that little triangle back there didn’t fit the rest of the design scheme very well. Filling in the area in front of the triangle really tied it in for me. I also like what he did with the nose pant, making it two tone. So that’s Tess, as we know her, updated.

He also created a slightly more whimsical version:

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And playing up the “Herbie” race number theme he submitted this Love Bug meets Ercoupe scheme:

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I like it, but wouldn’t use it, though I might consider it in different colors:

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The grey isn’t grey. It’s the kick-butt sparkly silver. From any distance it would look like polished aluminum. But the paint job that blew my mind was this hotrod racer one:

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I love the silver and black race flag motif. I adore the way it follows the gill-like edge of our cowl and wraps up onto her back. For a man who hates the race flag look, Craig sure nailed it. And the subtle flames licking down the side from the engine compartment completely blew my mind, as did the perfect placement of the bold race number on her flank. I miss the two-tone nose pant from the updated design, but I can see that it would be just too much if we did that, and I’m not sure about the bars on the rudders. Still, this is just a first draft. Any and all details can be tweaked.

I’d love to fly a low pass in this baby, and taxi into the race parking in it. It would be the ultimate racing Ercoupe look. Heads would turn, jaws would drop. We’d be the envy of every racer, even in our humble Ercoupe.

I couldn’t wait to show Rio. I was sure he’d love it as much as I did. His reaction? He shrugged one shoulder and said, “It doesn’t do much for me. I don’t think I want a race flag look.”

I was crushed.

Why does his opinion matter? Well, because, in point of fact, it’s his damned airplane. Or nearly so. The title to the family airplane is currently held by Grandma Jean. I sometimes (well often, actually) refer to Tess as my plane, but she isn’t and never will be. Mom has willed her airplane straight to my son Rio, bypassing me completely. It wasn’t that I’m a bad son, she helped her other grandchildren with their college, but Rio is the youngest and she didn’t think she’d still be around. It was her way of making things even. But the end result for me is that despite all the blood sweat and tears I’ve but into the little beast, I’ll never own her. Now, if mom dies before Rio’s 25… or maybe it’s 23, I can’t remember… then I serve as the airplane’s trustee until he comes of airplane-owning age. But that’s it.

So while I could talk the current owner into a paint scheme that I like that he doesn’t, or could, in theory, acting in my role as future trustee, paint it any frickin’ way I want, it would be a mean butt-head thing to do. Given the cost and complexity of painting an airplane, Rio will need to live with our choice a long time.

Of course, I’m still the only licensed pilot flying Tess, and I’ll be damned if I’ll arrive at a race in a pink plane with purple polka dots—not that he’s suggested any such thing—my point simply being the two of us have to agree on a paint scheme. And I’m finding that now that Rio is becoming a young man, he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his old man very often. Serves me right for encouraging him to have a brain of his own.

Luckily Tess doesn’t need paint tomorrow, because this is going to be a looooong process. Poor Craig. He really has his work cut out for himself this time.

My family lives in a big universe.

 

Next week: Rio and I finally agree on something.

A new perspective on Santa’s commute

That looks unfriendly. Over there. To the right. The clouds are reaching down for the ground in a lover’s embrace, a curtain of grey-white cutting off my view of the horizon. When I first spied it, the curtain was parallel to my course, but now it’s converging, its far tip pointing like a finger to my home airport.

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A look at the radar shows a cigar-like yellow-orange echo, easily 20 miles long, mimicking what I’m seeing out the windscreen, confirming that the storm is heading to the same place I’m going. I’m 18 minutes out. I advance my throttle from cruise power to its race setting.

The race is on. The race against the weather.

As I close in on SXU it’s clear I’ve lost. The weather is the winner. The curtain slices across my path eight miles out. As I close in on it, it takes on an unusual look. At first, I thought it was rain… but no. It’s not streaky enough. It churns oddly. Uncloud like. It’s clumpy. Could it be smoke? There’s a controlled burn to the southside of the airport today, but the AWOS reports the wind is blowing the other way. Smoke from the fire should be going away from me, not toward me. And besides, how would smoke show up on the radar? I look back over my shoulder and the curtain extends to the far horizon behind me, not thinning. Doesn’t smoke usually dissipate as it drifts away from its fire? Still, clearly, smoke it must be. What else could it be? Maybe the surface winds are different from the winds aloft. Maybe a few hundred feet up they change direction. Hmmm… I must be alert for wind shear.

I close in on the plume, I can see through it, but not well. The land beyond is indistinct. I can see it’s a narrow band, but I’m surprised how opaque it is. Well, no worry. I can sort of see through it, and clearly at this speed I’ll blow through to the clear air beyond it in a matter of seconds. I turn slightly off course to the south to hit the column straight on, and prepare myself for the odor of burning grass and weeds.

As Tess and I plunge into the cloud, it turns into a dizzying swarm of white insects, then a white out. Snow! I’ve flown into an aerial blizzard! My forward visibility is gone in the flash of an eye, dashing through snowflakes at 100 miles per hour makes them as optically solid as London fog. Out my left side I see clusters of flakes churn and tumble as I blast through their mass, and then as suddenly as it started, I’m in the clear again.

I bank left to get back on course, flying side by side with the falling snow. So you are snow. Not smoke. Not rain. Not cloud. I’ve heard of how impossible snow is to fly in, but I’ve never experienced it. Now close, but not in the plume, I can see the flakes falling and I marvel at the long thin band of snow and wonder how it can fall over so many miles in such a pencil-like band.

No wonder Santa needs a beacon light.

“Let’s race!”

Our last air race was… gosh… when? Let me check my author index over at GA News… Wow. Seriously? The AirVenture Cup? Last summer? And that wasn’t even in our own airplane!

No wonder I’ve been such a grump lately.

But to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether or not that would be my last race. Sure, I still wear my race jacket with it’s many patches and logos, and when strangers at cocktail parties ask me what I do for a living I tell them I’m an air racer, but in truth my air racing future has been in serious doubt. At the end of last season when I drove out for the Championship awards and my colleagues asked me if I’d race in 2018, my stock answer was: I will always race. At least some. Will I shoot for the championship again? I haven’t decided yet.

But the truth was that I knew I couldn’t afford another try. Hell, I could barely afford the first try much less the last try. This racing is expensive, with the travel, the hotels, the food, the booze, and the wear and tear on the airplane. Last year, in my determination to win Gold, it was racing First for me all spring. I passed up the chance to refill my bank account teaching seminars in favor of empting it out with more racing. Then the maintenance issues started and I missed race after race after race after race while the money drained out of my checking account like water from a bathtub after a long soak.

It’s iconic. Last season there were a record number of races on the books, and a record amount of work available to me. This season, the number of races is modest and the work nearly non-existent. Had I only known, I could have taken last year off from racing, worked my tail feathers off, and have easily banked enough to pay for this season.

(((Sigh)))

Well, that’s hindsight for you, fickle little bitch that she is.

Anyway, this year I knew that work, not racing, needed to come First, and one of my jobs is teaching Rusty Pilot Seminars for AOPA. The seminars are three-hour gigs in various parts of the country, which almost always fall on Saturdays, the same day of the week as most air races. In advance of each quarter AOPA asks me (and the other instructors) which weekends we are available. Last season, I blocked out all the race weekends. That was a lot of weekends, and I didn’t end up teaching much. But, as I said, it was racing First.

When the racing season was announced for this year and I saw that, except for April, it was pretty much one race per month, I briefly toyed with blocking off all the race dates to keep my options open, but I stuck to my guns: Work First. Still, I drew the little race flags over each host airport on our big laminated wall planning chart, marked the race dates on our wall calendar, and penciled them lightly into my desk calendar.

Then I tried not to give them a second thought. I didn’t even check the league website every night at the dinner table to see who had signed up for each race, like I did nightly the last two seasons. I buried active thinking about air racing in some dark recess of my mind and pretended they didn’t exist.

The fly in the ointment was a commitment I made after reading my email following one to many glasses of wine. I promised one of the publications I write for that I’d go to Sun ‘n Fun, a stupid thing to do as the assignment will nowhere nearly pay for my costs of going. But still, it’s the one major aviation event Rio has never attended, so there’s the side benefit of being a good father.

But here’s where it gets complicated: The Sport Air Racing League (SARL) season kicks off with a race into Sun ‘n Fun. Given that I have to be there anyway, shouldn’t I race in?

Maybe. Maybe not. I can hop onto a Southwest Airlines flight and be in Florida in half a day. Flying Tess to Florida is a two or three day project, and arguably more expensive. What to do… What to do?

In the end, I decided to let Fate decide for me. I made no travel plans one way or another. When the days-available request for the quarter arrived from AOPA, I told them I was available every weekend except the weekend I’d be in Sun ‘n Fun, and that even that weekend I could teach one at Sun ‘n Fun if they wanted me to.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. And didn’t think too much about the racing. I tuned it out. Then, just before lunch a few days ago my assignments came in for the quarter. Oh wait. Not assignments. Assignment. As in one. I think I mentioned that work was nearly non-existent this year. Ironically, this one one gig is on a race weekend, but it wasn’t in April. I was free to run the Sun ‘n Fun race.

And actually, there’s more than one race. There’s a short pre-race in typical “round Robin” SARL style launching from Sandersville, GA; followed the next day by one of the two cross-country races of the season, this one down to Sun ‘n Fun. So I could, quite literally, get two races for the cost of one. Plus, there’s the speed trial out of Sun ‘n Fun that I ran last year. It’s not sanctioned by SARL, so I don’t get championship points for running it, but it’s still a hoot. So I had the opportunity to race three times in nearly as many days. There was no work lost, but it would add to the cost. So what to do?

Debs was off to town for groceries and Lisa was teaching at the college, so my Council of War was limited to Rio and Grandma Jean. Over salads and red wine for lunch I laid out the situation. Mom didn’t hesitate, “Let’s race!” she said firmly, thumping her wine glass down on the table for emphasis. I turned to Rio, who shrugged one shoulder and said, “I don’t see any harm in it.”

Unlike the rest of the clan, he was never fully infected by the racing bug.

“OK,” I said, and went to the library to throw my hat into the ring. I went to the SARL website, pulled up the first race, clicked on the I Am Racing! tab and entered my name, race number, and class.

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I hit the return key to submit my entry, and a wave of pure euphoria swept over me.

I’m racing again.