For the love of “steam gauges”

“But what I don’t understand,” said Lisa, her face earnest and serious, “is where the steam that runs these things comes from.”

It was one of those speed bump moments that sometimes happens in conversations.

We’d been talking avionics, which is a fancy word for instruments that go in airplanes. Increasingly, over the last few years, most modern avionics are computer screens called “glass” or “glass cockpits” in the flying world; while the older traditional round-dial flight instruments are now universally called “steam gauges.”

I have no idea where the label “steam gauge” came from, but I suspect it started out as a slur perpetrated by glass cockpit salesmen that eventually went mainstream—losing its negative connotation in favor of a nostalgic fondness. But Lisa, a razor-sharp scientist by education and profession, tends to take things literally, and assumed it was a functional label. I could almost see her doing a mental inventory of her new plane, confused about where the water tank for the steam gauges could possibly be hiding, and how often she should refill it.

Of course, old-school flight instruments do not, in fact, run on steam. They run on either air pressure or electricity, depending on the model and type of instrument. I suppose that if the label “steam gauge” wasn’t a conspiracy of the glass cockpit crowd, maybe the term came about because, for some, all those wonderful round gauges reminded them more of the cab of an old-fashioned steam engine than that of a modern flying machine.

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But I’m here to defend the airplane steam gauge, because in reality, it’s anything but old fashioned. Rather, the steam gauge is a modern marvel. Now, if you’re a lover of high-res color moving screens, just hear me out, because a traditional flight instrument is an absolute miracle of graphical presentation that you might not have appreciated, one unrivalled in human history, and not deserving the lowly title that it’s now saddled with.

Think about it. A true steam gauge, on a boiler in a basement in a Third World country somewhere, is nothing more than a single needle that tells you how close the steam tank is to blowing its lid. Aircraft steam gauges, on the other hand, can tell us how our planes are orientated within a three-dimensional environment; if we are on course or off; and can even guide us to fog-shrouded runways—keeping us correctly lined up on the runway while descending safely through space without hitting anything on the ground.

Try that with a steam gauge out of a Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 locomotive.

And there’s more. Not only do aircraft steam gauges display an amazing range of data, they do so in a way that allows for a six-second scan, literally taking six seconds to take in all the various instruments to assure that all is well with the flight. How is that even possible? Because aircraft-quality steam gauges are actually carefully engineered hieroglyphic interfaces.

Now wait a minute, you say. Aren’t hieroglyphics those funky symbols in the Pharos’s tomb? The ones no one can read?! Well, yes and no. It’s true that the meaning of some ancient hieroglyphics is lost to time, giving the word hieroglypha quasi-enigmatic connotation, but in its purest form, a hieroglyphic system of writing uses symbols to form words and concepts. In other words, picture writing. And we all know that a picture tells a thousand words, making it the fastest way to communicate a lot of data. After all, we humans are visual creatures.

Here, let me give you an example of another great steam gauge, one that pre-dates the world of aviation, to illustrate what I’m talking about. If you were born before 1972, you were probably raised with the granddaddy of all hieroglyphic instruments: The wrist watch. A traditional wrist watch (not the pilot type with all sorts of unnecessary dials to make us look smarter than we are) has one dial and two hands. A scale on the dial shows half the day, twelve hours. Overlaid on that scale is a second scale that shows sixty minutes. One of the two hands of the watch indicates where we are in hours during the day by pointing to the hour scale, and the other hand indicates how far through that hour we are by pointing to the minute scale. A fancy model ups the ante with a third hand for tracking seconds.

It sounds mind-numbingly complex when laid out in words, but in action it brilliantly does what the best graphical interfaces do: It paints a picture. Quickly. Once you learn its language, you can “read” it without thought. At a mere glance, you “know” what time it is. On the other hand, if you look at a digital watch that says 3:59 p.m., you have to think.

And thinking takes time. Who has time for that?

Especially in an airplane.

That’s one of the things I love about airplane steam gauges. The instruments collectivity paint a picture of my airplane in the sky. Without needing to think about it, I know, as if I were glancing at my watch, that all is well—or that something isn’t right. That’s a pretty sophisticated interface. One that, like the wrist watch, thrives best on simplicity.

Airplane steam gauges keep it simple. They are visual Haiku.

Of course, glass instruments have graphics, too, but there’s no Haiku to be found there. It’s more like an epic poem. They display a ton of information, and for me anyway, that’s part of their problem. I have a hard time seeing the trees for the forest, or the forest for the trees. All that brilliant color and fancy graphics just doesn’t click in my brain the way a good set of steam gauges do. But maybe that’s just my age. For digital natives, I’m sure it’s different.

Another thing I like about steam gauges, and this would hardly be a reason for choosing them, is that I think they look better on the ground. Yeah, I know that’s not where they matter, but when walking around the ramp, poking my nose up against the windows to look into various cockpits, steam gauges give a parked airplane a business-like look. Sure, the tires are flat on that old Cherokee chained to the cracked and weed-infested far end of the ramp. Yeah, its paint is worn, fading, and peeling; and there’s a bird’s nest in the engine cowl—but the cockpit is alive with possibilities. Compare that to the shiny new Cirrus over by the fuel pump. Powered off, its blank cockpit looks like an abandoned black and white television set in the back of the Salvation Army store. Glass makes planes seem dead on the ground.

In a similar fashion, I like climbing into a cockpit that looks ready to go before my finger strokes the master switch.

But neither my fondness for the steam gauge as a concept, nor my joy in sliding into a cockpit that looks ready to go, had any bearing on my recent decisionto remove the several pieces of glass we had installed and replace them with (horrors!) steam gauges.

Nope. It was completely pragmatic. Our plane, Tessie, is a flying greenhouse. She has glass (the kind you look through, not the modern instrument kind) in front. Glass to the right. Glass to the left. Glass above. Glass behind. It’s a lovely bubble of view. It also doesn’t have even an inch of shade. Nor does our panel have a sun shade, or room for one.

The result? Glare. Epic glare. The only time I can read a glass panel display is when the plane is in the hangar. Oh. Right. I can’t read it there either, because the plane isn’t running. This was never a problem with the steam gauges of old. They have glass faces, but something about the material used in them resists glare, while something about the material used in modern glass cockpit displays seems to attract glare the way a magnet attracts iron filings.

So I’m not a luddite. And while I’m an aficionado of the classics, that had no bearing on my decision. I just want to be able to read the story my airplane is telling me. And for this plane, for this pilot, steam gauges are the only way to go

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go refill the water tank.

 

Yellow Beard, the cross-dressing pirate

It sounded simple. Lisa loves her new Ercoupe “Warbler,” but there are a few things about his look she’s decided to change. First off, he wears Royal Air Force colors, and despite what Lisa’s Ancestry DNA report revealed about some unexpected British heritage, she’s an American Girl. So Warbler is resigning his RAF commission later this summer, and joining the U.S. Army Air Corps.

His Brit wing rondels will be replaced with Air Corp stars, then, to girl-up the little warbird a bit, his large fuselage rondels will be covered up with the Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) mascot, the girl-geminin “Fifinella.”

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I think it’s going to be an awesome look for both Lisa and Warbler.

Those plans in the works, the only remaining problem was Warbler’s tail. There was a rectangular RAF logo on the outside of both of his oval vertical stabilizers. The shape was all wrong, but they couldn’t be removed as they were painted on.

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What to do?

After several sessions of sitting in her hangar with an adult beverage studying Warbler’s tail, Lisa decided the solution was to paint the stabilizers to match his wings. We all agreed that was the solution, but it didn’t go any farther than that until the intercom broke down.

Lisa, Rio, and I had gotten up at 4 a.m. to beat the heat and fly Warbler—Tess still being out of action, now at a different maintenance shop, a tale for another day. Anyway, back to the story. With the intercom crapped out, we could hardly do any flight instruction, as neither student would hear a word I was saying! Sitting in Warbler’s cockpit in front of Lisa’s hangar, I was able to order a replacement from Amazon, of all places, but it would take two days for it to arrive. We are not yet to the age of near instantaneous delivery of Amazon goodies by drone.

So there we were. All dressed up and nowhere to go. Now what? Well, why not paint the vertical stabilizers? They really aren’t that big. How hard could it be?

I hear many of you laughing in the background.

As with many (most?) of our misadventures, things didn’t go as planned. First, Rio and Lisa went out to the local hardware store for yellow paint while I worked to install new yoke grips in Warbler’s cockpit. Apparently, the store didn’t have much to choose from when it came to yellow paint, and the sample they brought back, when sprayed on a removed inspection plate, was lemon drop yellow. Now, before all of this, I didn’t give yellow much thought, but as it turns out there are 1.6 million different shades of yellow, and whatever shade of yellow Warbler’s wings are, they ain’t lemon drop yellow. Thus began the Yellow Quest. I’ll spare you the painful details, but it involved 247 miles of driving, a hardware store, and auto parts store, and a farm and ranch supply house. The good news is that after several false starts, we found a color of spray paint that was an exact match to Warbler’s wings.

It ended up being the next day before we took on the actual painting, Rio bowing out as he couldn’t make sense of getting up at 4 a.m. to paint; whereas Lisa and I, knowing that we’ve been running triple-digit temps the last few days, knew it was the only sensible time for the project.

We arrived at Lisa’s hangar before sunrise with bundles of old newspapers, plastic sheeting, and blue painter’s tape. The last few days had been calm, but as we had chosen to paint, gale was blowing. The winds, 26 miles per hour and gusting to some crazy-high number, tugged at the wind sock and rattled the hangar doors like giant gongs.

Spray painting outside was out of the question. But we didn’t think it would be a big deal to do it in the hangar. It was such a small area to paint. We taped off Warbler’s tail, and (luckily) draped the rest of the plane under plastic sheeting, then got to work.

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Lisa did the paint shaking Macarena then handed me one of the two cans. She went first, but her spray nozzle failed. Nothing came out, and when she took her finger off the top, the nozzle popped out and sailed across the hangar like a champagne cork on New Year’s Eve.

My turn. I carefully held the can upright, aligned my distance, and deftly applied one sweeping stroke of yellow to the brown-green tail.

Nothing changed.

Another burst. There was still no visible yellow.

A third burst. Then fourth. Then a fifth. Finally, a pale sheen of yellow, barely detectable against the army brown-green, revealed itself. I looked up and the lights of the hangar were faint and distant. A dense yellow fog drifted above me.

Oh dear.

Well, forge on. In about 15 minutes, I finally had a good first coat on Warbler’s vertical stabilizer and a really good final coat on me. As I cracked the hangar doors to let the yellow cloud out, Lisa took one look at me and starting laughing. Every grey hair on my head, beard, and arms was now straw yellow.

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She dug out a dust mask. “Here, Yellow Beard,” she insisted, “wear this.” (Who travels with dust masks?) But it was a good thing; otherwise the cilia in my lungs would no doubt be Club Cadet Yellow like a large portion of my body and my old painting clothes, which being old and threadbare, suffered a structural failure on the second coat when I bent down to reach the portion of the stabilizer below the tail. I heard the unmistakable sound of denim tearing, but after quickly checking my six, and finding nothing, I ignored it and kept working.

After the second coat of paint, Lisa—a mischievous twinkle worthy of Fifinella in her eyes—asked me, “So how do you like wearing that ballroom gown?”

Huh?

The left seam of my shorts had given way, from the waist to the hem. Naturally, being Lisa, she alternately teased me about the torn shorts and the yellow beard the rest of the day.

But at least Warbler’s new tail came out looking swell.

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And now you know the tale of Warbler’s tail, and that of Yellow Beard, the cross-dressing pirate in his ballroom gown.

Break out the oxygen

Damn. The ground looks so far away. “This crazy altitude is going to give me a nosebleed,” I tell Rio.

Rio, now a somewhat intolerant teen, rolls his eyes, “It’s not that bad, Dad.”

Rio’s in the left seat. I sit up straighter in my seat to see out over his wing at the airport, far, far, far below. “Break out the oxygen,” I insist.

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“We don’t have oxygen, Dad. Besides, it’s only two hundred feet higher.”

Which, I know, means we’re 5,791 feet above sea level. The FAA doesn’t require pilots to use oxygen until we top 12,500 feet, and then only if we stay up there for more than half an hour. It’s at 14,000 feet that the pilot must don the mask no matter what. I’m not sure what Tessie’s service ceiling is, but I’m guessing we couldn’t get to 14,000 feet even if we filled her up with helium and lashed her to a weather balloon.

Still. The airport looks too small. In my mind I chant:I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am. I do not like this new pattern altitude. I would not like it here or there. I would not like it anywhere.

After I’ve been flying a landing pattern altitude of 800 feet above the ground for thirty-seven years, the powers-that-be have gone and raised it to 1,000 feet. It actually isn’t as capricious as it sounds. For years about half of the non-towered airports out there have used my beloved 800 feet, while the other half have been using 1,000 feet. As there’s no way with a quick glance at the chart to know which an airport is using, it’s led to a dangerous mix of aircraft flying at different altitudes in the pattern at some busy airports. So really, they had to standardize it for safety.

I just wish they’d chosen 800 feet.

But they didn’t. And now I have to learn to land all over again. As do Rio and Lisa, who were just beginning to master buttery smooth landings from 800 feet. Now, it seems that no matter how we change our power settings, we still come in 200 feet high.

Of course, the new pattern altitude isn’t actually law. It’s a highly recommended best practice recommended by what’s called an Advisory Circular. Out here on our own we could just keep doing whatever the hell we want to do, and no one would be the wiser.

But that wouldn’t be right.

It is for the best, I can see that. Plus when we travel we really need to be on the same page as everyone else. We—I—just need to buckle down and learn how to do this.

But, damn, I know it’s only 200 feet higher, but everything looks so much smaller, so far below. “Let’s try eighteen hundred RPM this time,” I tell Rio as we come abeam the numbers and need to start our descent

Then I add, “And tomorrow I’m bringing your grandmother’s oxygen tank.”

 

A symphony of sound

Check list in my left hand, I flip the stainless steel switch upwards with my right index finger.

WeeeewhoooOOO responds the airplane, her jet engine springing to life, spooling up.

Wait a sec. This isn’t a jet. It’s a frickin’ Ercoupe. I look left. No jet over there. I look right. No jet over there, either. I look forward. No jet in front of me. I crane my neck around to look out the pair of large windows behind me. No jet behind me. I’m alone on the ramp. What the Sam Hill is going on here?

Then I realize: It’s the gyro in the new electric attitude indicator. My guys musta wired it to the master switch so that it springs to life when I wake the plane up. I cock one ear to the side and listen to the sound. I like it. It has a business-like tone. Sorta the airplane equivalent of the rumble of a muscle car’s engine.

It’s higher pitched and lower volume than the muscle car, of course, but it sounds very plane-like. Oddly musical. The opening bars of an aviation love song.

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Credit:Seattle Symphony

Even though I know what it is, the increasing tempo of the gyro’s hymn isn’t a sound I’ve heard before. Typically, instruments with spinning gyros are hooked up to an avionics switch. The engine is long running before they are turned on, so the distinctive jet whine of a gyro coming on duty is lost in a flood of noise from firing cylinders and spinning propellers. Sure, on the back end of a flight, after the throaty voice of the engine is silenced, I’ve heard gyros spooling down, but it’s a different sound. A winding down. A closing bell. An increasing stillness.

So this is a new form of poetry, and while I wonder why the attitude indicator was connected to the master switch, rather than to the radios or position lights, I like it, and I’m looking forward to hearing the gentle jet whine at the start of each flight. It’ll be Tessie’s new way of greeting me.

My finger moves to the next switch, flipping it up and turning on the flashing lights on my wingtips, a warning to all nearby that I’m about to start my engine. I crack the throttle. The gyro has stabilized at its full speed. The rising song has leveled out to a constant whine. Not angry and sharp like insect wings, it’s more of a hum. An aggressive, businesses-like hum. I slide the mixture control full forward, ensure that the carb heat is closed, and turn the ignition switch two clicks to the right.

The engine is cold, so I prime the carburetor with two shots. Then, right hand on the throttle, foot on the brake, I press the starter button. A weed whacker-like sound drowns out the gyro hum and the prop starts lazily spinning round and round.

The engine doesn’t catch.

I let go of the starter. After two months on the ground in maintenance, Tess’s engine has gotten lazy. The only sound in the cockpit is the jet whine hum of the new gyro. I give Tess another quarter shot of prime, confirm that the ignition switch is properly set, and press the starter again.

The weed whacker.

The spinning prop.

The engine coughs once. Hesitates. Then roars to life, smothering the delicate business-like hum of the gyro, ending the overture and starting the symphony.

It’s time to fly.