Real games with toy planes

I spent hours flying Tess and Warbler above the southern New Mexico desert scouting the route. Hours more getting just the right pictures of it. I spent days designing and laying out the beautifully printed knee boards for the race pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit how I paid for those.

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I carefully plotted the race course on Google Earth Pro, measured the legs, then applied the proper math to compensate for the turn radius of the planes. I worked out handicaps for the three sizes of engines under the cowls of Ercoupes. I created an Excel spread sheet to calculate the speeds based on the start and finish times, and to automatically handicap the planes. I worked out the marshalling order, created timing sheets, bought a pair of atomic clocks, a green start flag, and a checkered finish line flag.

I had three beautiful trophies made for the fastest planes. Tall skinny towers a topped with cups like the air race trophies of old. Then I had custom medals struck for each pilot that flew, so that everyone would win something.

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I also, in SARLtradition, found the cutest little pig with wings for the slowest plane.

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I connected with a local talent scout and recruiteda group of models that became known as the Derby Dolls to set the NASCAR-with-wings tone I was after.

Sure, the rare opportunity to fly into highly restricted air space and land at Spaceport America was the real reason most of the pilots were coming to the 42ndErcoupe Owners Club Nationals; but to me, the signature event was my air race—which I named the 1stNational Ercoupe Air Derby. Needless to say, I had secret fantasies of it becoming an annual event, maybe even a league someday.

Twenty-one of the forty-eight planes coming to the convention signed up for my Derby, and I realized that I had on my hands the largest race of like-kind planes since the 1930s.

I was on cloud nine.

Cloud nine itself, however, was at 200 feet. AGL. Apparently, despite all my careful planning, I forgot to make the appropriate offering to the weather gods.

Arrival day at the national convention varied between low IFR and garden variety IFR most of the day, with a brief gasp toward the end of the day of the most marginal Marginal VFR I’ve even seen. Only one brave soul made it in. As twilight crept in at the end of the day, I stood out on the cold, wet apron and looked at the small collection of Ercoupes. Instead of the expected 48 planes that would have over-flowed the ramp, I had six, only two of which had entered the Derby.

It was decision time. The weather for race day looked fine, but most of my racers were MIA, trapped by hurricane-whipped moisture all across the country, and there was no way that they’d make it in before the scheduled dawn briefing. I considered moving the race, but it was like trying to re-arrange jigsaw puzzle pieces. It just couldn’t be done. There were too many other events that needed to take place when they were scheduled.

I was about to cancel the first ever National Ercoupe Air Derby when my buddy Lisa, who is a certified frickin’ genius, had a suggestion. In the swag bags for the convention were toy balsa wood gliders from the state Aviation Division. Why not create some sort of Air Derby with them? After all, we had no shortage of pilots. Men and women who locked their fogged-in hangar doors, jumped in their cars and drove in, or jumped on commercial flights and rented cars to reach the convention.

Lisa got out a piece of paper and started scribbling. She thinks best on paper. Longest throw… Most accurate throw… Number of throws to complete a “pylon” course…

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The next day, when I should have been marshalling twenty-one Ercoupes onto Taxiway Alpha at KLRU, I was setting up orange cones on the ramp in front of EAA Chapter 555’s hangar, roughly mimicking the layout of the real race. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. Then my cell phone starting ringing and the assorted crises that befall convention coordinators started befalling me.

Chief among these was the Spaceport. They needed to know precisely how many people were coming the next day, their names, states, blood types and genotypes; and who was stepping off a plane and who was stepping off a bus. And they needed to know RIGHT now!

Of course, I’d given them this information weeks ago, but now with the weather, it was a moving target. On a borrowed laptop I started throwing together a new spreadsheet (not having the sense to bring the one I had previously made with me) and began to code pilots by: Cancelled, switched from air to ground, still coming by air, and unknown at present.

I knew our fearless leader, club director Larry Snyder, was trapped in Tucumcari, having failed to reach my home base of SXU by a few miles before weather forced him to retreat. He emailed, “Had to turn back. Solid wall of rain and maybe 1 mile visibility.” A pity. Our hotels and restaurants are better. I knew I had a handful of planes in eastern New Mexico, and the story of those pilots trying to find a rental car is worthy of a Plane Tale of its own someday. And I knew that eight planes were bottled up together at Willcox, AZ, more than had reached the convention itself.

I also had one pilot who was missing. The night before, Flight Service called to ask if he’d arrived. His flight plan was overdue and not closed. He hadn’t. I tossed and turned all night worrying about him, and it gnawed at me the next day. When he eventually showed up I was so happy to see him, I gave him a giant bear hug.

The rest of the fleet? Who knew? Certainly not me. Working from a tattered, folded, damp print out of the master registration list, I struggled to update the Excel spread sheet, while answering my phone every ten minutes (have you noticed that cell phone batteries never die when you want them to?) and alternately talking to members with a wide variety of questions, issues, comments, and suggestions. I was starting to, you know, stress out a little, when I heard it.

I heard the sound of a party.

Happy voices. Laughter. Cheers. The sounds were drifting into the EAA hangar from the ramp.

I got up and stuck my head out the door. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the Basal Wing Derby pilots. The wind was up, snatching the light gliders. One pilot used tape to increase his weight. Another swore her secret was to aim low and throw low. It was getting competitive, to say the least, but everyone was having a blast. The Derby Dolls were on hand working the green and checkered flags, and Lisa was keeping point totals on two giant sheets of poster board that kept flapping in the wind.

I was witnessing the birth of a new aviation sport.

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At the end of the trio of competitions, the Derby Dolls gave out the custom Air Racer medals to each person who participated in all three Basal Wing events, and presented the tall skinny trophies a topped with cups to the top three scoring pilots.

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Talk about salvaging a disaster! Not only did our members have a blast, probably more people had more fun than if my race had gone off as planned. Of course, that’s not stopping me from planning the 2ndNational Ercoupe Air Derby for next year. You know, with real airplanes this time. But still… I think I’ll ask the state for another handful of those basal gliders next year.

Just in case.

 

One hell of a crunch

The ink was still wet on my Private Pilot’s license back in the spring of 1980 when I rolled the Piper Archer onto final for Runway 03 at KDRO southeast of Durango, Colorado. I was wearing my new headset, the first one I ever purchased. Not a sensible one, mind you. Not one that would help reduce the din in a cockpit installed behind the ultimate noise maker. No. The one I bought was a one-ear, corporate jet pilot-style headset with a skinny boom mike.

It wasn’t practical, but, damn, I looked good wearing it.

It also featured something totally new to me: A push-to-talk switch that attached to the yoke with a piece of Velcro. Prior to that, all my aviation radio experience was using CB radio-style microphones that hung on a clip at the bottom of the panel.

The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: The runway wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Rather, it was a dozen feet lower. As the plane lost lift, instead of softly kissing the asphalt, it dropped sickeningly from the sky with a rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late. I gripped the yoke tightly, accidently triggering the new push-to-talk switch and, as the plane hit the pavement with teeth jarring effect, broadcast the word “Crunch” for the whole world to hear.

It’s one of those things people never let you live down.

Fast forward to last week. After an hour or so of flying Tess for the pure joy of plying the sky, I was returning to my home base. It was late morning as the clouds were lazy and didn’t want to get out of bed, hanging low to the ground for hours after the sun rose. But now they were small, widely scattered, and high. The wind was light from the south. There were a few bumps, but nothing to write home about.

I rolled onto final for Runway 19. The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: Someone had moved the runway.

At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with. After more than 782 hours flying this airplane, I somehow set up my worst landing since 1980. Instead of softly kissing the asphalt, Tessie dropped sickeningly from the sky with that rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late.

She slammed down on the pavement with teeth jarring effect. I heard a double crunch from the landing gear, left and right. Felt the punch. Up the gear strut, across the main spar, up into the seat, and through my spine. Then Tess sprang back into the air before dizzyingly falling to earth a second time, for a second pair of crunches. A second pair of seismic shocks. Again, I was catapulted into the air. Power now fully up, she wallowed for a moment, then regained her airplane pride and shot down the runway, slowly gaining altitude. I banked wide and slow, coming back over the runway to reassure myself that I hadn’t left any parts of my landing gear behind, then came around into the pattern and landed again. Which, with two bounces, I guess was the third landing of the day. This time the runway was where it was supposed to be and Tess kissed the pavement softly.

I taxied to the apron and shut down. The latent reverberation of the pair of heavy hits still quivering in my spine, I thanked the ghost of designer Fred Weick for his decision to build the ‘Coupe with robust trailing link landing gear. I slid the door down into the belly, climbed out onto the right wing and dropped to the ground. I ducked under the wing and inspected the gear. It looked fine. Irrationally, I looked up at the bottom of the wing. Nope. No dents in the wing from the gear. I moved around to the other side. It was fine, too. Then I looked to the nose gear.

It was not fine. Not fine at all.

I stared dumbfounded at my nose wheel faring, which appeared to have been nearly shot away by Arab terrorists.

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What… the… hell…?

But that was only the beginning. The big story wasn’t the blown-out back of the faring. No, the big story was at the other end. The very tip of the nose faring was chipped away. Hardly damage worth looking at, it took me a few minutes to process the cause: My own propeller had taken a bite out of the faring.

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I stood to one side and studied the back of my spinner. It wasn’t parallel with the nose, a sure sign of an issue with the engine mounts. Over time, the rubber mounts tend to compress from the weight of the engine and need to be replaced, but these are only six months old. Still, I popped open the cowl, and sure enough, the engine mounts had collapsed. I guess the impact of the hard landing squashed them like bugs. I could feel my wallet getting lighter by the moment.

I had no idea.

The prop now clear of the nose faring, I taxied back to my hanger and emailed my mechanic, who in addition to being an A&P, holds the prestigious IA, or Inspection Authority. I let him know what happened and sent him photos. Then more photos. Then more photos still. He judged the plane safe to ferry. Two days later, I delivered Tess to the two men I had been hoping not to see for a few months, and they got to work. They meticulously inspected the inside of the engine compartment, looking at the firewall for wrinkles (none), each joint of the engine mount for cracks (none), and who knows what else. Then they got to work changing the mounts, discovering in the process that I’d managed to bend the robust pair of bolts in the bottom mounts.

Quite the crunch.

When it was all done, the spinner back still wasn’t perfectly parallel to the cowl, suggesting one of two possibilities: Either it never was, or the entire engine mount had been bent. My guys told me to fly for a while and see if the trim, handling, or speed had changed.

I flew home.

Now we have to detour into envy for a minute, before the rest of the story unfolds. My hangar neighbor, Lisa, has a very different hangar from mine. My hangar has a largely gravel floor, with only a small square of concreate for the plane’s landing gear to perch on. I have some power plugs. But no lights. None of this ever bothered me.

Until Lisa moved in next door.

You see, her hangar has wall-to-wall concrete, and bright, wonderful lights on the ceiling. It’s also insulated. Apparently, at some point in the distant past, NASA used to launch weather balloons from our airport, and they upgraded one of the hangars. NASA is now gone and the upgraded hangar is Warbler’s nest.

I never needed lights until I spent some time in Lisa’s hangar. But not wanting to attempt to install many banks of fluorescent tubes twenty feet off the ground (I know my limits… sometimes), I purchased some work lights on a tripod from Home Depot while the guys were changing the engine mounts on Tess. After landing, I set up the tripod, attached the lights, and plugged them in. My hangar was filled with soft, warm, wonderful halogen-fueled light. It was so stunningly beautiful I decided to pull up a chair and simply soak in the view.

And that’s when I saw it.

Actually, at first, I thought it was just a trick of the light. An artifact of light, shadow, and reflection. Forward of the wing root was a perfect triangular depression in Tessie’s aluminum skin.

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Eventually, concern trumped entropy, and I rose from my chair, aided by my lightened wallet, and made my way to the plane. I softly ran my fingers along her side and sickeningly felt them side deeply into the depression. This was no trick of the light.

More emails. More photos.

The diagnosis: Structural Damage.

 

Ready for her close-up

It all started when I decided I needed a pretty girl. After asking around, the pretty girl expert convinced me that, really, three pretty girls would be better than one. He called it, “Critical mass.” And so it came to pass that three scantily-clad models ended up in my cockpit.

Well, Tessie’s cockpit.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

I was banished to the far side of the apron.

Like many a good tale, it all started in a bar. En route to a SARL air race a couple of years ago, I was eating pig’s ears nachos (don’t knock them until you try them) in an Arkansas bar, when I had a revelation. On the wall was a gigantic high-def TV showing a NASCAR race. Holy cow. And people think air racing is dangerous! Anyway, the winner of the day—a clean-cut, baby-faced pup who looked barely old enough to drive—was surrounded by hot, leggy, busty blondes with bare midriffs, low-cut necklines, and super-short skirts when he accepted his trophy.

Now that’s the way to win a race.

Then I got to thinking about the Kentucky Derby. There’s always a babe involved in giving the horse the flowers and the jockey the trophy, right?

So what the hell is wrong with us air racers? Surely, we rate as high as the Sport of Kings and the King of TV sports. I vowed right then and there that if I ever hosted an air race, I’d make sure there was some eye candy on hand at the podium.

Then, and I don’t remember how this happened, but probably it also involved a bar, I agreed to be the coordinator of the National Ercoupe convention. It’s turned into a full-time job, interfered no end with my writing work, and stressed me out beyond belief. I’ve had to arrange for hotel rooms, transportation, fuel discounts, tiedowns, donations for our charity auction, T-shirts, patches, signs and banners, name tags, and food, food, food. Oh. And booze, of course.

But I’ve put together a program I’m pretty proud of that includes an awesome resort HQ, a group fly-out to Spaceport America, and a banquet at an airplane museum. And, because it was my convention to do with what I please, and I’m an air racer, I decided to include a little air race as part of the fun. Which is why I needed the pretty girl.

Which, in today’s world, of course, can be an edgy subject.

I started with the lady who runs the economic development department for the City of Las Cruces, the host city. She’s a head-turner herself, but as a woman with a PhD, I didn’t think she had the right personality for the job, if you know what I mean. But I explained the tradition of babes and races and the atmosphere I was after, and asked her for help. I had considered a modeling agency, or University cheerleaders, and I even thought there might be a local beauty queen, a Miss Las Cruces or whatever. The city lady connected me with the pretty girl expert—a man connected to all levels of talent and events in southern New Mexico. He understood what we needed at once. “So it’s like a car show,” he said, “only with wings.”

Exactly.

I originally figured I just needed one girl to hand out the trophies, but the pretty girl expert convinced me otherwise with his critical mass argument. One girl in a short skirt in front of a bunch of old men can feel… well… uncomfortable. But in a pack, girls apparently come alive. Strength in numbers. I could see the logic. I signed on for three, but then was told I’d better have four to ensure that three showed up. Apparently, these aren’t the most dependable sorts of people.

So who are these girls? The pretty girl expert felt the best solution for my event was amateur models. Some of these models are young ladies who aspire to be professional models. Others just find the action fun and exciting. Feminists will disagree, but trust me, there are women who enjoy being the center of attention based solely on their looks. They like it, know how to work it, and it’s good for their egos–so if everyone enjoys it, where’s the harm?

These girls, now known as the Derby Dolls, will wave the green and checkered flags, circulate through the crowd to pose for selfies with the pilots, present the medals and trophies to the racers, and basically just create the ambiance of the NASCAR race I watched over pig’s the ears nachos in an Arkansas bar.

Now, I’m not sure how the next part of our tale happened, but in recruiting the pretty girls, the pretty girl expert contacted a pretty girl photographer that he knew. The photographer had lots of pictures of pretty girls with cars. And lots of pictures of pretty girls with motorcycles. But no pictures of pretty girls with airplanes, which, clearly, his portfolio needed. Nor did his models have any pictures of themselves with airplanes, which, clearly, they needed, too. So I was asked, if the photographer would donate his time and round up some pretty girls, would I bring a different type of pretty girl to the photo shoot?

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

So my favorite blue and white pretty girl became a prop with a prop. The photographer also brought out some high-testosterone rolling stock and created a variety of settings with Tess, the models, and the hotrods.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

It didn’t take long for the airport community to take an interest in the action, either. In particular, in the hangar next to the photo shoot, is a helicopter maintenance facility; and their mechanics lined up on the edge of the apron to watch the fun, even brining out a boom box, playing the Top Gun sound track for the models to jam to.

The entire process wasn’t like anything I’d ever been exposed to. It took forever to get the plane parked just right, longer for the models to change their clothes and touch up their makeup, then we had to wait for the right light, or pull the plane out of passing sprinkles of rain.

The girls were dressed… well, borderline trashy, in a flashy teen-fantasy pin-up kind of way; but the photographer, while knowing how to pose them, was 100% respectful.

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It was interesting watching the shooter communicate with the models, watching his hand signals letting them know when he was going to press the shutter, sharing the previews on the back of the camera, watching the models recognize—even on that tiniest of screens—that one lock of hair was out of place.

They were all “car people,” the models, the photographer, and the drivers who came out with the hot rods, a separate subculture from us plane people. It was fascinating, like visiting another country. But we all got along great and what I thought would take an hour or two ran all day long and didn’t end until the sun was setting.

So how was my day with three models? Not what you’d expect.

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Lisa F. Bentson, Zia Aerial Imaging

The models showed zero interest in me, a National Champion Air Racer—which is probably just as well. They paid attention as I told them how to safely get in and out of Race 53 without hurting themselves or Tess, but that was about it.

But you know what? I doubt that puppy-faced NASCAR driver got any attention either, and I got one hell of a Plane Tale out of the deal.

Plus, I have a pretty girl… well, three… for my race.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

 

Politics, but not as usual

Col. Martha McSally wasted her time and money writing to me, but I’m glad she did, because, boy, is this ever a plane tale!

It all started at my mailbox in the post office. Nestled in a pile of bills and mail order catalogs from outfits I’ve never ordered from is a thickish envelope from Arizona. Inside is a letter and a card. The card is a thick, lovely, deep rich red with a cut-out of an A-10 Warthog on it. I’m intrigued.

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I open the card, and like the pop-up books of my childhood, the A-10 takes flight.

This is the coolest thing ever!

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But what’s it for?

Ah. The good Colonel is running for the U.S. Senate. In Arizona? So why the heck is she writing to me? The dead frequently vote in my state of New Mexico, but neither our living nor our dead have reputations for voting in other people’s states, even ones a short flight away.

Her letter to me says she served in the USAF for 26 years and was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat; and that she then went on to log a total of 350 combat hours. She’s also a U.S. Congress Woman. Impressive. But I wonder if her campaign has filed the wrong flight plan in contacting me? I read on.

Her letter states, “I’ve sent you the enclosed pop-up replica of the A-10 ‘Warthog’ that I flew in combat to bring us back to our core roots—national security—while I seek to enlist your personal help and support.”

Then she asks me for $2,700.

In fact, not only does she ask me for $2,700, she asks me to “rush” her a check before I even put her letter down to prominently display my new pop-up A-10 Warthog. That struck me as an odd amount of money to ask for, but it turns out that’s the maximum that the Federal Election Commission allows youto give a candidate in each of his or her elections; and she’s fishing for the most money she can get. She says that it cost her over five million dollars to “dominate the GOP primary” and she needs to rebuild her war chest for the next phase of the battle. Ya gotta love all this military language.

I did prominently display my new pop-up A-10 Warthog, but I didn’t send her a check.

Now, here at Plane Tales we follow the old rules of the Western stage coaches: We don’t talk politics. But I will say this: As a general rule I don’t donate to political campaigns. I think there’s too much money in elections, and I’m not going to make the problem worse. Even if I were going to make an exception, I don’t think it would be to help fund a race in a neighboring state.

But I will say: Thank you, Colonel, for your service to our nation.

And thank you for the cool card.