Just got my copy of the July Flight Training, and guess who wrote the cover story?
It started innocently enough. I got an email from Larry Snyder, Executive Director of the Ercoupe type club. He’d decided it was high time, for the first time, to have the club’s National Fly-in and convention in the West, and he liked the sound of New Mexico. Probably because he’d never been to New Mexico before and wanted to see it for himself.
Anyway, as pretty much the only active members from the state (we’ve been to the last three conventions: Wisconsin, Texas, and Tennessee) I guess it was natural he thought of my gang. He wanted our opinions as to which city in our fair state would work best as a host city. He wanted a place that would have parking for 40 aircraft, had lodging, a banquet site, and “something interesting to do in the area.” His only caveat was that it had to be an uncontrolled field. Many of our members, apparently, just don’t “do” towers. I confess, even I tend to flight plan around them.
That night after dinner I spread the state aeronautical chart out on the kitchen table and we started kicking around ideas. The no controlled airports restriction eliminated our arguably most interesting city: Santa Fe. It also wiped out our largest city: Albuquerque. So too, did it eliminate Roswell and Farmington.
Of course, we would have loved to host at our home base of KSXU, but no way do we have room for 40 planes. Plus, to be honest, other than our hangar, there’s not that much “interesting to do in the area.” It also didn’t take long for us to rule out the entire mountainous northern part of the state. While I manage to get around just fine in Tess, she has a climb prop and in my teens I was trained in mountain flight techniques (which use sail plane tactics to overcome the fact very few planes can out-climb the Rockies). I didn’t want “flat land” members getting into trouble, and I knew that some Coupes have smaller engines than Tess, and that they are in various states of health.
And in point of fact, even the “flat” areas of New Mexico’s southern half are nearly a mile above sea level, and this is made worse by the fact that we have hot summers. Hot air is thin. You might remember from high school physics that hot air expands. This has the effect of making high places higher as far as airplane wings and engines are concerned. We agreed that any Ercoupe convention in New Mexico needed to be in the autumn when it is cooler.
Casting our eyes over the southern part of the state chart, the city of Las Cruces stood out, along with Carlsbad (of Cavern fame) and Alamogordo. The problem with Alamogordo is that it’s surrounded by the restricted air space of the White Sands Missile Range; and the problem with Carlsbad is that, short of the Caverns, there’s not much to do there.
Las Cruces, on the other hand, has no shortage of interesting things to do, including close proximity to: A great airplane museum, a great rocket museum, White Sands National Park, and Spaceport America; and the whole area is infused with the Spanish charm of Southern New Mexico. It seemed a slam-dunk. I passed our “findings” on to Larry.
I should have seen the next salvo coming, but I confess that I didn’t.
Larry wrote back that he loved the sound of Las Cruces and added, “Do you know of anyone who could be a local ‘point man’ for a Las Cruces convention? I’d like to do it, but I don’t see how I can organize a convention from 1,000 miles away.”
I don’t know a soul in Las Cruces. I felt the jaws of the bear trap snap shut on my leg. The “D” from Dubois just got put in Drafted.
With a deep groan I wrote back and said I’d didn’t know anyone down there, but I’d do it.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but those are Plane Tales for another day.
“But it’s brown, not black,” I wailed, my prepubescent voice cracking with the last word. But there was no convincing my father. His son was not, not going to wear a leather jacket. Period. Only hoodlums and troublemakers wore leather jackets. I stood sadly by the rack of jackets for the longest time, caressing the buttery soft chocolate brown leather, drinking in the lines of the jacket with my eyes. The epaulets. The sleeve pocket. The fuzzy fur collar. The jacket was reminiscent of the ones the B-17 crews wore in my favorite books. Heroes, surely. Not hoodlums and troublemakers. But I knew that once my father dug his heals in, there was no changing his mind, and the annual new clothes for the new school year shopping trip ended with me wearing a Colorado-proper nylon ski jacket. One that I hated all year.
In the decades since, I’ve learned that my father was right: People do pre-judge you by what you wear. But that hasn’t stopped me from owning any number of leather jackets, some brown and some black.
That said, I don’t think I ever really bonded with a jacket in the way I’m sure I would have bonded with that first bomber jacket that my father refused to buy me. In my mid-20s I had a beautiful black Harley Davidson jacket, complete with fringe. Oddly, my father never said I looked like a hoodlum wearing it, but I surely must have. As is appropriate for a hoodlum jacket, I suppose, someone stole it from my car. About the time Rio was born I was wearing a soft, lightweight black leather with zip-off sleeves. I was much heavier then, and when I lost weight, the jacket had to be shelved. It was replaced with an orange plasticy faux leather auto-racing jacket with a Nehru collar from Burlington Coat Factory. I still wear it now and then, but not often. It’s handsome, but it doesn’t breathe the way real leather does. That’s why leather makes a great fashion accessory; you can wear it over a wide range of temperatures and neither freeze nor roast while looking great.
And don’t kid yourself. We pilots like to look great. From our pilot watches that we don’t really need, to our oversized pilot sunglasses that mimic the goggles of old, to our flight jackets, which, come to think about it, we don’t really need either.
I recently read that flight jackets, at least as American pilots think of them, got their start in World War I, when the U.S. Army created something called the Aviation Clothing Board. The Board designed and issued leather flight jackets to protect the pilots of open cockpit biplanes from the elements. But it was World War 2 that may well have been the heyday of the leather flight jacket, and all the flight jackets on the market today bear some resemblance to the jackets of the Greatest Generaton.
How many jackets are there on the market? Dozens. Hundreds, probably. Made in both brown and black, most feature big dual-entry hand pockets on the front, and may have epaulets on the shoulders. Some have fur collars. Many have knitted wool cuffs around the wrists and waist. Some are as thick and stiff as armor, others as soft and flexible as silk. And I had been doing just fine without one.
February before last, AOPA sent me to Duluth to teach a Rusty Pilots Seminar. Duluth is lovely, but I can’t recommend a February visit. I actually survived the sub-zero temps in my nylon flight jacket with its Nascar-style brightly colored logos (although I learned to appreciate the value of a good knit hat), but while I was there I first spied a leather flight jacket that would trigger lust in my heart for something similar.
The seminar was held at the Cirrus factory, and one of the Cirrus executives had an amazing fight jacket. It was a well broken-in brown bomber, with the Cirrus logo on the left chest embroidered directly onto the leather using a color of thread almost identical to the jacket. The effect was both subtle and dramatic. It caught the eye like embossed leather, only in reverse. It blew my mind.
As Cirrus has a reputation for creating awesome image items—never say “no” if you are invited to one of their parties—my first assumption was that the company had these jackets created for all their brass, but in the conversation I struck up with the executive about the jacket, I learned that actually, he’d had the jacket for many years and that his wife had taken it to a local embroidery shop to have the logo added after Cirrus hired him. Up until that point, I didn’t realize that leather could be embroidered on. I filed it in my brain under things to think about.
Fast-forward one year. I’m suffering from an image issue. I now work three days per week at a community college, teaching language arts to high school dropouts. As a high school dropout myself (maybe dad was right about the bad effect of leather jackets) I find the work highly rewarding. I spend the rest of my time writing, flying, and writing about flying. But this gives me sorta of a split personality, which has created no end of wardrobe confusion. I know what pilots wear. I know what writers wear. I know what normal college professors wear, but adult education is different… So what the hell to wear?
Nothing in my wardrobe felt quite right. Then one day I woke up and realized that I needed a leather flight jacket. And not just any leather flight jacket, but a black one. The perfect thing for teaching high school dropouts & hanging out with pilots. And just to make it special and unique, I’d take a page from the Cirrus executive’s wife and “logo it up,” black on black.
Of course the lady who runs the local embroidery shop is fond of bright color. I figured she’d think I was crazy. But first, I had to choose the jacket. I knew I didn’t want a fur collar, I wanted one with snaps to keep it firmly in place. And I didn’t want knit sleeves either. I had to have epaulets, of course. I didn’t want chest pockets, as I envisioned large monochrome logos on the chest. I love sleeve pockets, but they are more common on cloth and nylon flight gear. And as I have arms a bit too long for my body, I needed a jacket that would come in a Large-Long size. I started scouring the internet, and I also started looking at jackets during my travels. And by far, the best-looking leather flight jackets out there are the ones worn by Southwest Airlines pilots. Their jackets are a sharp-looking modern take on the flight jackets of yore, and the design looks good on an amazing range of body types. Southwest has tall skinny pilots, short stocky ones, and the occasional Captain with a beer belly. And they all wear the same jacket to good effect. And darn if I didn’t find it for sale at the iconic Sporty’s Pilot Shop, in their Southwest Airlines Pilot Store page. Oh. That link is for the whole store. Here’s the link to the jacket.
But, like all quality leather jackets, it wasn’t cheap. And I’m becoming so myself, so I held off buying it for months. Finally, trapped in Michigan with a sick kid for a full week (a tale for another day), with nothing to do but listlessly surf the internet, I caved. I worried about ordering a jacket online, as I couldn’t try it on, but I knew that Sporty’s was good about returns, so I felt I had nothing to loose.
It was waiting for me when I got home. It’s one of those armor heavy leather jackets. The leather is thick and creaks wonderfully as you move. Like a good pair of boots, it’s a jacket that’s going to take some time to break in, but it will last a lifetime. And, of course, it has that wonderful new-leather smell that they have yet to perfect as a men’s cologne. It was a good fit, and I felt like a bulletproof P-51 pilot in it. The only shock was how much landscape the large front pockets ate up. I wouldn’t have as much chest area to cover in my monochrome logos as I thought I would have. As it turns out, that wasn’t an issue.
While in Las Cruces to take delivery of Lisa’s new plane, Warbler, or maybe it was on the trip we took down several weeks before that for the pre-buy inspection, Rio sat down with me at the hotel to plan a logo layout for the new-me jacket. Right away we realized that many of the logos that adorn our other flight jackets simply won’t “work” in a single color, they rely on their different colors to create their principle graphical patterns. Iin the end, we chose the Sport Air Racing League logo for the right chest, our Race 53 wings and the text “National Champion” for the left chest, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale world record-holder logo for the right sleeve, and the Erco logo for the left sleeve. I wished I could have put our large “Ercoupe Racing” logo on the back that some of our other jackets have, but Rio and I agreed that it wouldn’t “work.”
The next week I met with my color-loving embroiderer, and to my surprise, she got into the project and had several ideas, including some ways to modify the large back logo to make it work black-on-black. She explained that as the embroidery machines change the angle of the treads to create designs, light hits the threads in different ways, letting a black-on-black logo still show detail that you wouldn’t expect is possible. Here, see for yourself:
A week later the jacket was done, and it’s the perfect look for a flying-teaching-writing man. Now I’m all set with a brand new image to match my complicated life. Well… Almost. Because, well, darn it. Now my shoes just don’t match my jacket. And Nothing in my wardrobe feels quite right.
So what kind of footwear do flying-teaching-writing people wear? Maybe I need a pair of those airline pilot boots, it sure works for those Southwest pilots…
“Gentlemen, start your engines,” is not a command I’ll get to hear this year. The race season, for me, has ended before the first swing of the propeller. I love the sport and I was rarin’ to go, my bags were half packed for the first race. It’s even a short season, but as it turns out, well, damn it, my checkbook is even shorter.
Two seasons of racing with family in tow, neglect of work in lieu of racing, a downturn in opportunity, and a long string of expensive “mechanicals” on Race 53 have tapped me out. I’m drowning in red ink.
I did my best to ignore reality, of course, but in the end, there was no escaping it. First, I toyed with cutting out just the more distant races. Then going to just the closest ones. But the more I looked at it, the more I realized that even that was out of reach.
I even considered running just one race, I probably could have afforded that, but I realized that for me, one race would be harder than none. Harder on my soul, that is. This racing, you see, is like a drug. You can never get enough. At least I can’t. One taste would just fuel the thirst for another, and another, and another.
And like any addict I’d no doubt take stupid measures to get my next “fix.”
So I packed it in. Called it off. Took my hat back out of the ring. Scratched the races I’d signed up for. I deleted the flight plans and erased the checkered race flags from the big wall chart in our flight lounge.
I’ll keep my League membership. Keep the big black and white “53” gumball on the wings and fuselage. But, for this season at least—and probably more—I’ll have to be content to be an armchair racer, watching from the sidelines, waiting for the times to be posted to see where my friends and rivals are placing, imaging where I’d be in the lineup. Seeing their championship points build on the leaderboard while hoping to catch glimpses of their trophies on Facebook.
Or maybe I won’t even have the strength for that. It might be too much like smelling the distant cookout when you are starving in the woods.
Do I have regrets? Sure. Plenty. I’m bummed we won’t be able to see how much better (if at all) the 0-200 Stroker delivers compared to Race 53’s old engine. Plus the Fac6 Category is really heating up. There’s some serious competition now at the bottom of the pack. Damn. That would have been fun.
This year, too, SARL has introduced a handicapped element to some races, leveling the playing field between production planes. Handicapping erases the element of the airplane itself. That leaves pilot skill as the only factor when it comes to winning or losing a race. In theory, in a handicapped race, Tessie could trump Mike Patey’s 400+ mile per hour turbine terror Turbulence.
Wouldn’t that be something to see?
Oh. Wait. So far, this handicapping thing is just for the production crowd and Turbulence runs in the Experimental Category. Still, it would have been interesting to see if me, or my friendly nemesis from last year, Charles Cluck of Race 35, is the “better” pilot. My mother and my wife are convinced I am, but that’s just family loyalty. That guy is a hell of a pilot. The Brits learned the hard way not to mess with men who wear kilts.
Still, I would have relished the challenge.
But I realized that if I tried to race there’d be no flying money for anything else. I’d fly ten trips in the year, most on credit, and Tess would end up being relegated to the lowly status of Hanger Queen the rest of the year. Better, I decided, to settle on racing a cloud every weekend than run a few sparse races and twiddle my thumbs most weekends.
So there won’t be a continuation of my Air Racing from the Cockpit series form GA News here at Plane Tales like I hoped, but I’m sure I can think of something to talk about.
And at least, while the ravens of racing are crying “nevermore” for me on the circuit, my blue and white bird will still continue to race around the skies.
Tomorrow, our girl turns 71 years old. Her data plate shows that she was manufactured on May 5, 1947. I gotta say, for her age she don’t look half bad!
Naturally, every year on this date we throw a Tessie party, along with everyone else in New Mexico.
What? Oh. Sorry. I wasn’t clear. We’re not that famous. The rest of the state isn’t celebrating Tessie Day with us. They are celebrating Cinco de Mayo, which is something akin to a Mexican Fourth of July, which just happens to fall on Tessie’s birthday. Actually, come to think of it, it’s Tessie’s Birthday that just happens to fall on Cinco de Mayo, which honors the Mexican Army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, a full eighty-five years before our girl rolled off the assembly line in Riverdale, Maryland.
Now, just to be clear, I don’t think that most people here in New Mexico have a strong affinity to our southern neighbor, they just like a good excuse for a party, so Cinco do Mayo has been Americanized and secularized, featuring Mexican Beer, Margaritas, and our idea of Mexican food (which generally isn’t available in Mexico itself).
Logo courtesy North DelaWHERE Happening
Keeping in step with the rest of the state, we mark Tess’ B-day with Margaritas, chips and salsa, guacamole, some Chile con Queso, steak Tampico, and—of course—birthday cake with ice cream. After which, we usually kick back and watch an aviation movie or two, just to keep in the spirit of our high-flying version of Cinco de Mayo.
Now, seventy one years is a long time. For a machine, a person, a building. For pretty much anything, really. Still, Tess flies great and I feel nothing but safe in her cockpit. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the age of airplanes recently. Partly that’s because a segment of the aviation press has been wailing and gnashing their teeth about the aging of America’s general aviation fleet (the average age GA airplane 36.9 years old); while the other half of the aviation press is lauding the efforts of individuals who restore classic planes of the golden age, and of outfits like the Commemorative Air Force who keep World War II aircraft alive and well and flying.
As I fly an airplane nearly twice as old as the average in the fleet, I’m obviously biased, but it’s clear to me that airplanes—properly cared for—are eternal. In fact, the oldest airworthy plane in the world is now 109 years old. It’s a Bleriot XI, built just six years after the Wright Brothers first flight!
And one day, as I was thinking about the eternal nature of airplanes and the owners who came before me, it occurred to me that it was possible that all of Tessie’s previous owners might still be alive. A dual biography drifted into my head: Telling the story of the airplane by telling the stories of all her owners. It would be a fascinating walk back though time, sort of a history of general aviation, showcasing the changes in our industry and society, and changes in Tess herself over her long seven-decade journey. The book would be a way of showing the eternal nature of airplanes, and how that all of us who “own” planes are really caretakers of their legacy for a time. Mortals cannot own the immortal. It’s a sweeping canvas, but it would be a tale told through the lens of one single airplane and the people touched by it.
Based on our title search when we bought Tess, plus some wonderful correspondence from previous owners who reached out to us over the years, I knew that Tess had at least six owners before us, and maybe more. It was a manageable project, and the more I thought about it, the more excited I got.
I made a list of questions, and hoping that many of the previous owners might still have period photos of Tess, fired off letters to all the previous owners I was aware of, then I got down to some serious research. With the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA.
Now, you need to know that the FAA has a long memory. In fact, the FAA’s memory (and records) extend waaaaay back in time to the point where they weren’t even called the FAA. They were called the CAA, or Civil Aeronautics Authority. And it is in seventy-one year old CAA records, microfiched and stored by the FAA, that Tessie’s earliest days are recorded. With the help of my mechanic, I was able to buy a CD disc of all these records. The disc has digital copies of every scrap of paper the CAA and FAA ever had on N3976H, or as her first Bill of Sale calls her, NC 3967H.
That discovery was a delight to me, as I didn’t realize “my” girl was old enough to wear an “NC” number, which was the standard name badge of civil aircraft between the world wars. She wears the NC number, at least in her paperwork, until 1953, the first year I happen to have a historic picture of Tess, and by then she’s wearing a standard, modern “N” number.
Fascinating stuff, this history.
But quickly things started to fall apart. Instead of a half dozen or so owners, the CAA and FAA records showed a long train of love affairs between my girl and other men. Tess really got around in her youth—which I suppose may be part of the story of general aviation, too—but her owner roster includes more than twenty people! Meanwhile, my two oldest contacts didn’t respond to my letters. Neither, too, did the convicted drug smuggler currently in federal prison who once owned her. (Was Tess used in an elicit manner? Darn, I sure wanted to know!)
So things have slowed down, but I haven’t given up on the book. No way. It has too many possibilities. But rather than writing families, it’s clear I’m going to be spending time in dusty archives in small town libraries and newspapers. And the first stop will be a homecoming for Tessie at her first home airport: Guymon, Oklahoma, in the panhandle.
Because that’s where my oldest predecessor, one Mr. R.V. Wadley, took NC 3976H home to after buying her directly from the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) on the 20th of May, 1947.
Tessie was just fifteen days old.
But in staring my research on Guymon, the name of the city rung a bell. I couldn’t place it but Rio thought that maybe we’d been there, so I did a “places” search in Photos, the software that organizes and stores the millions of digital photos that I never get around to editing. (I should at least delete the accidental pics of my feet and the photographs of the insides of my pockets.) And lo and behold, guess what?
Yep. July 22, 2016, enroute to the AirVenture Cup and the big bash at Oshkosh, Rio and I apparently landed and refueled at Tessie’s original home airport.
And she didn’t even tell me.
I wonder what other secrets she’s keeping from me?