The sequel is better

The fact that I couldn’t get the movie on DVD should have been my first clue that it was one of the worst flying flicks ever; but after reading about the movie’s real-life sequel in Smithsonian Air & Space, I just had to see the film.

More on the film in a minute; first a word or two about that sequel, because it was the real-life story that led me to the movie we’re going to talk about.

That tale in Air & Space was the story of a group of old guys who recently delivered a seventy-three-year-old C-47 Skytrain to a memorial park in China, re-flying the epic cargo route of World War II called “the hump.” The purpose of the flight was both to honor and pay tribute to the more than one thousand airmen lost flying the airlift over the Himalayas, and to deliver the plane to a new memorial park in China. To say that the aging aviators had a few problems en route would be an understatement. Not unlike Gilligan’s three-hour tour, the planned eight-day ferry flight ballooned into a more than three-month odyssey. But I’m not here to re-tell that story. Author Robert L. Willett has done a splendid job at that.

In his article, however, Willett mentioned off hand that the plane ferried to China was the same C-47 that had a starring role in the 1980s Aussie movie Sky Pirates.

A movie with a C-47?

And pirates?

I gotta see that!

And thanks to eBay, and the cast-off inventory of VHS tapes from A&C Video Movies, I got my chance.

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The movie, described by its creators as a “high-flying adventure that bounces across the Pacific,” follows a secret mission to transport a mysterious artifact from Australia to Washington to keep it safe from the Axis powers—never minding the fact they’ve just been defeated, given the timeline of the movie, which is set in the closing days of World War II.

The flick stars John Hargreaves as, Lt. Harris, whom the back of the VHS box describes as “a daredevil fighter pilot who can outfly, outfight, and outfox any enemy.” We are never told why a fighter pilot was tapped to fly a Sky Train on a top-secret mission. A fighter pilot who wears a fur-lined leather flight jacket for the entire movie. Even in the jungles of Bora Bora. His co-star is Meredith Phillips (not the Meredith of Bachelorette fame), who despite the setting of the movie at the end of World War II, has very eighties big hair. At least her wardrobe is more or less period, if you can forgive the fact that she magically changes clothing every several scenes, despite not having a suit case because she’s running for her life most of the movie.

The plot, such as it is, mixes ancient aliens, time travel, the Bermuda Triangle—well, its Pacific equivalent—the classic war movie personality conflict between the star and the officer in charge, Easter Island, a ditching at sea, the Philadelphia Experiment, a military court martial, assassination attempts, drunken pilots, a round of Russian roulette, kidnappings, car chases and a dog fight. Not necessarily in that order.

Oh. And fog. Lots of fog.

Did I mention the movie is only 88 minutes long? Although it seems a lot  longer when you’re watching it. Many of the scenes might give you déjà vu. You’ll be asking yourself: Didn’t I see that in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Why, yes. Yes, you did. Pretty much so.

On the bright side, in addition to the C-47 that would ultimately end up in a park in China, the movie also features a pair of Mustangs, a B-25 Mitchell, and a lovely Grumman Mallard; and the aviation photography is good—if not aeronautically accurate. If you can get over the scene in which Lt. Harris climbs out a hatch in the roof of the C-47 and onto the wing, inflight, to put out an engine fire (while barely ruffling his hair), you’ll enjoy the flight footage.

I can’t say if the acting is good or bad, because the characters are so cardboard and the dialog so uninspired, there’s really not much for an actor to act on.

Wait a sec. Where were the pirates? I didn’t see any pirates.

Oh. Wait. Maybe it’s the movie producer that’s the Sky Pirate. After all, the film is blatantly plagiaristic, and I can only assume that Spielberg’s peeps didn’t sue because the movie probably didn’t do well enough to make any money worth suing for. Or maybe Spielberg just felt that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

So is it really the worst flying flick ever? Nah, probably not the  worst.

But Pirates is bad enough I doubt it will ever steal its way onto DVD.

 

Ercoupe lover’s heaven

Let’s start with placards. In the flying universe, a “placard” is a small sign or plaque installed in the cockpit. It relays critical information to the pilot about the operation of the airplane. For example, a placard will tell you what fuse or circuit breaker powers which part of the plane’s electrical system. In a plane with flaps, a placard will tell you the maximum speed at which it’s safe to deploy them. In planes with complex fuel systems, placards will guide pilots in the operation of the fuel tank selector switches. In planes with retractable landing gear, placards will instruct the pilot on how to operate the system.

We have no flaps. We have no fuel selectors. And our landing gear stays in the same place all the time. Accordingly, our placards are pretty simple.

One says, “This airplane characteristically incapable of spinning.” That one was a Godsend. The government actually required the manufacturer to place the plane’s number one marketing claim on a cockpit placard. Another placard says, “Beware propeller. Leave airplane from rear of wing.” Well, never underestimate the stupidly of the human race. A third is an ON-OFF placard for the nav lights switch.

But Syd Cohen’s immaculately restored Ercoupe Scampy has an unusual placard on the panel, probably the only thing in his plane that’s not 100% authentic. It reads: “AREN’T WE LUCKY?”

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

We sure the hell are.

Lucky for lots of reasons, but foremost among them is the fact that the maker of our nearly 80-year old airplanes is still in business. Well, sort of. It’s kinda complicated, and to be honest, the story of the Ercoupe is rather sordid. Yes, like a movie starlet from the golden age of Hollywood, the Ercoupe has had a lot of husbands.

The plane started life as the brain child of a company called Engineering and Research Corporation, also called ERCO. Development began in 1936, and ERCO launched sales of the plane in 1940. After the war, when the aviation economy collapsed, ERCO decided to get out of the plane-building biz and sold the Ercoupe lock, stock, and barrel (literally) to Sanders Aviation in 1947. Next, the plane, and its all-important type certificate, was picked up by Univar Aircraft Industries in 1950. But that union didn’t last either. Her next husband was the Forney Aircraft Company in 1955. But a stable wedlock just was not to be for the Ercoupe. In 1960 Air Products Company took over, but again it was a short marriage, and in 1964 Alon Inc. bought the Ercoupe. That union lasted until 1967 when the Mooney Airplane Company purchased the plane. Then, finally, just like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the Ercoupe returned to her third husband, Univar, in 1974—where she finally settled down, the two staying together for 45 years and counting.

Of all her suitors, Univair is the only one that didn’t actually build new Ercoupes. Both in the early ‘50s, and since ‘74, Univair has focused solely on the spare parts biz.

So let’s talk about those parts.

Apparently, each time the Ercoupe took up with a new manufacturer, more than just a marriage license was involved. The bride came complete with all her household goods, including her parts inventory and the various jigs and machines used to make them.

And that’s why we’re lucky.

Unlike the owners of most really old airplanes, we have an outfit that continues to support us. To supply us with parts. Univair has all the machining tools and expertise necessary to make virtually every part that makes up the Ercoupe from the original decades-old drawings, all of which came back home with the bride. That’s cool. But they also have a large supply of what would be called “new old stock” on eBay. But still, how many original parts could possibly still be around from the 1940s?

You would be amazed. I was. I have seen the promised land, and it’s Ercoupe heaven. So this is a PlaneTale of many parts. Literally.

It all started when AOPA assigned me a Rusty Pilot Seminar at Centennial Airport, on the south side of the Denver Metro area up in Colorado. Tessie looks more like a greenhouse than an airplane right now, so flying up the east side of the Rockies to get there was out of the question.

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Catching a commercial flight would require me to drive two hours in the wrong direction, only to be delivered an hour away on the other end, so driving up was the obvious choice. And as I was driving, it would cost me nothing extra to have a copilot on the adventure, and Rio agreed to come along.

I needed to arrive a day early to set up for the seminar, but I knew we’d have some spare time, especially if we got an early start, so I cast around for something to do. And then it occurred to me: Maybe we could visit Univair, who are located on the East side of the metro area. I guess they were in my mind because we’d just recently needed to order a pile of those parts I’m lucky to be able to order. Or maybe it was because I’d been in contact with them to hit them up for donations for the Ercoupe Owners Club scholarship auction as part of my duties as the Coordinator of this year’s convention. Anyway, I reached out about dropping in, and they were gracious, inviting us to come by for a tour.

Given the age of the company (it was founded in 1946) and the fact that they focus on older airplanes, I’d sorta expected them to be in, well, you know, and older building. But in fact, when we pulled up, we found the Univair building is surprisingly modern-looking on the outside.

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And, oddly, for a plane business, Univair sits far from any modern airport. They’re located in an industrial park that’s 50% large blocky commercial buildings and 50% farmer’s fields. Actually, once upon a time, there was an airport literally next door to Univair. Called Sky Ranch, all that is left is a short stretch of crumbling asphalt called Sky Ranch Road, and two World War II vintage hangars, one of which has a control tower on the corner. The runways have evaporated, their foundations buried under warehouses. What must have been the apron is now a parking lot for a fleet of cement trucks.

Dead airports are sad, but having Univair there somehow takes the sting out of it.

We were given a complete tour, staring in the office building, where the lobby has a small museum of key famous products in glass cases, then on to the sales offices, and the printing shop where Univair keeps many otherwise lost tech publications alive. Next, we entered the machine shop. I gotta say, the Univair shop is a museum of manufacturing. They have massive, towering machines dating from the 30s and 40s. Lathes from the 70s. State of the art computerized plasma cutters. With all this gear, if they don’t have what you need in stock, they can make it; and having two engineers on staff makes that process faster. Rounding out the shop are a trailer home-sized sand blast chamber and a huge painting booth. In the Univair shipping department, they build custom crates to fit all manner of oddly-shaped parts ranging in size from jewelry-petite to assemblies larger than cars.

We also got to meet many of the Univair peeps, including the boss, who is sort of royalty, being the third generation of his family to run the place. And it must be a good place to work, as most of the people we met had been there for years.

The highlight of our tour for me was the warehouse, a dimly-lit warren of narrow passageways between towering shelves. It has the creepy but exciting feel of an Indiana Jones/Laura Croft ancient temple. Only, you know, aviation themed.

And like all Hollywood ancient temples, it was full of treasure.

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A wall of wing spars. A shelf of header tanks. A cowl side, glowing pristine aluminum with a lathe-straight hinge. A bundle of throttle cables with faded maroon Bakelite knobs, hanging off a shelf high above our heads, an airplane version of tangled jungle vines high in the trees.

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Box after box after box after box after box of Ercoupe parts. Floor to ceiling, three narrow isles worth. Boxes of things we recognized. Boxes of things we’ve bought. Boxes of things that had us scratching our heads.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

And boxes of things that left us amazed and in awe, like Ercoupe pretzel yokes, still in their original wood packing crates, each yoke wrapped in newspaper with 1946 datelines.

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But there’s more than just inventory at Univair. Out beyond the warehouse, in the backlot, there’s an odd tombstone-looking object. At first glance it appeared to be the final resting place of the nose bowl, a grey solid granite memorial carved by a sculptor into the likeness of the real thing in its prime.

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But it’s no memorial to the dead. It’s one hand of the creator, a key tool to make new living nose bowls. It’s a mold. Over it, flat sheets of aluminum are placed, then squashed down with room-sized hammering equipment to stamp out the front ends of Ercoupes, each one a clone of the previous one. I’d no idea how they were made. In fact, before seeing the tombstone, I’d never even thought about it.

The rest of the yard is overflowing with giant and slightly rusty assemblages that are hard to identify. Is that a jig for forming an Ercoupe tail? Maybe. Oh, look at this, maybe this was used to make our wings.

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Our guide tells us that when they run out of something, the proper machine tools are moved inside from the yard until the inventory is restocked, then it’s back out to the yard until needed again.

Sadly, given all that Univair has in the Ercoupe department, we’re apparently a very small part of their business; I’m told only about 3%. Luckily (Aren’t We Lucky?), Univair is polygynous—also supporting classic Aeroncas, Champs, Citabrias, Luscombes, Cessnas, Stinsons, Taylorcrafts, and the ever-popular Piper Cubs, so Univair isn’t relying solely on us ‘Coupers for their survival.

And that’s the sad truth of Ercoupes. The line has never been quite a failure, but also never quite a success for any of her many owners throughout history. Ercoupe dreams fly higher than her numbers.

Back in the warehouse once more, on a bottom shelf, I find many wooden boxes of placards, including identification placards—called Data Plates in the biz. Every plane built has one. It records the plane’s serial number and its date of manufacture.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

There were of hundreds—maybe thousands—of blank data plates in the Univair warehouse; all created many decades ago, each waiting to be riveted onto a new plane rolling off the assembly line on pristine tires. Boxes of data plates for planes never built. Just like all the thousands and thousands of other parts, railcars full of them, it shows the optimism of ERCO in the post war world. How they believed, really believed, that they’d fill the skies with our twin-tailed marvels, put their money where their mouths were, and were ready to do it.

Sadly, it was not to be. Still, by some miracle, everything we need to keep our birds flying, from parts to placards, still exists, and is only a phone call to Colorado away.

Aren’t we lucky?

 

An aeronautical feast for the eyes

A stubby Gee Bee Sportster, all engine. A green and yellow Laird Super Solution, a biplane so aerodynamically clean it looks poured from water, not built from wood and fabric. Ahh…. The Curtis R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle used to capture the Schneider Trophy. A Travel Air Mystery Ship in iconic fire engine red, black racing scallops on the leading edges of the wings and cowl gracing the plane with the illusion of streaking motion, even while parked. A Curtiss Jenny, so ugly and ungainly it’s beautiful. A sleek Spartan Model 7, a sexy Staggerwing, and a pudgy but oddly endearing Culver Cadet. Then, glistening like a mirror, the bullet-like Hughes H-1 Racer. And in a place of honor, the plane that started it all: The Wright Flyer.

No, it’s not the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

And it’s an aeronautical feast for the eyes, its plastic branches covered in airplanes: A complete collection of all twenty-two Hallmark The Sky’s the LimitChristmas ornaments. Since 1997 the card giant has been churning out amazing replica airplane ornaments, featuring one new civilian airplane per year. Have I been collecting them since the beginning? No, and like everything else aviation around here, it all started with an Ercoupe…

Back in 2013, when we were shopping for a real Ercoupe, Debbie found The Sky’s the Limit‘Coupe ornament on eBay. Being the cheapest Ercoupe we’d seen up to that point, she bought it for me.

The diminutive, but highly detailed, resin model sat on my desk to keep me inspired during my lengthy plane buying odyssey. But—as often happens with our family—one thing led to another, and Rio and I became obsessed with hunting down every last one of the annual miniature planes; and since then, we’ve purchased each year’s new issue. In Year One of our airplane ornament hysteria, the family Christmas tree in our house was all airplane. Debs tolerated that.

The next year, the airplanes banned by the mistress of the house in favor of more traditional holiday decor, I decided to put up a Christmas tree in the hangar to share the holiday spirit with Tessie.

Of course, the problem with a hangar Christmas tree is that, unless you have the good fortune to live in one of those airpark communities where your hangar is connected to your house, you only see the hangar tree a few times during the Christmas tree season.

Still, I gamely put up the hangar tree each year since. Until this year. Because this year I had an epiphany. (Appropriate, given the season.) This year I decided to put up the hangar tree in the newly “renovated” terminal, so that not only would we enjoy it on our flying days, but so too could all the passing pilots who land for fuel, snacks, and a clean bathroom.

So armed with eggnog, Bourbon, a plate of cookies, and one of our Red Bull Sky Lounge Boxanne Bluetooth speakers (when you turn it on, you hear Jim DiMatteo’s voice say, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on!”) the entire clan descended on the SKU terminal.

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

With Grandma Jean “supervising,” we put up the three-part white faux tree. Then Debs fluffed up the branches while Lisa and I untangled the lights. I always wrap the damn things into a neat coil at the end of each season, but during the year of storage some sort of black magic intervenes to turn the bundle into a tangle. What’s up with that?

The tree up and the lights finally strung without stringing myself up, my responsibilities were discharged and I kicked back to enjoy the vibe of family, friends, music, and aviation. Debs and Rio took the fleet of planes from their cardboard hangars, setting each one on the table as if parked on a miniature ramp, then flew each one to the tree and carefully taxied them into position.

When they were done, we set up the O Gauge Plasticville Airport terminal and hangar buildings under the tree, and then argued about how to arrange the pair of tarpaper runways. Should they look good or be true to the compass?

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.

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Then, finally done, the cookies reduced to crumbs and the eggnog running low, we turned off the overhead lights and sat warm and cozy, bathed in the cold blue taxiway-colored light of the terminal tree, and soaked in the sight.

The un-racer-looking Howard DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan,” whose long legs won the 1935 Bendix Trophy, white against the white tree. A silver and blue Cessna 195. The bird of prey-like twin engine Cessna 310. Lindy’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. The big radial Monocoupe 110, a long-winged Stinson Reliant, a Christmas red Lockheed Vega, and a humble Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a miniature of the one Rio is flying out of Santa Fe.

And of course, an Ercoupe. An Ercoupe in a Christmas tree that my true love gave to me.

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A real zero

He’s slow to pick up speed. The off-white hand of the airspeed indicator is creeping up the dial ever so slowly, as if the landing gear were rolling over wet grass, not over smooth asphalt. Huh. The power is good. The Tach reading right where it should be. The roar of the engine steady and strong through the heavy walls of my headset. The runway stripes are zipping toward me, under me, with increasing vigor. The yoke is light in my hand. My senses tell me I’m picking up speed. But the airspeed indicator says I’m only going… thirty-five miles per hour?

Boy, these big, wide runways really mess with your senses. I glace left. There’s a lot of asphalt beyond the wingtip. Santa Fe’s Runway 20 is twice the width of my home base’s widest runway. That’s an extra 75 feet.

Still… Warbler is eating up quite a bit of this wide runway… here comes the north ramp already… and I’m still on the ground. Not that there’s a shortage of runway in front of me, but what’s going on here? Power is good. Engine sounds fine. Still, here we are, more than a thousand feet down the runway and I’m going only 40 miles per hour. How can that be? Think! The plane is light. Quarter tank of fuel in each wing. No cargo… Only me onboard.

Ah, here we go! The nose is finally lifting… But wait. I’m still at 40. He shouldn’t be ready to fly yet. Not in these conditions. There’s hardly any headwind worth mentioning. This is all very strange. Very unusual.

The runway center stripes zip under the cowl with increasing urgency.

Tentatively, I pull back on the yoke and Warbler leaps from the runway, a stone shot from a trebuchet. Holy cow! The wings rock as I pass through an air pocket, I level them and steal a quick glance at the panel. My airspeed is now zero.

Zero?

The airspeed dial’s off-white needle is pointing straight up, giving me the middle finger.

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What.   The.   Hell… ?

They say it takes five seconds for a pilot to recognize when something has gone terribly wrong in an airplane, and to react to it. I don’t know if that’s true. I didn’t time it. But I can testify that there’s definitely a deer-in-the-headlights moment while the brain deals with the unexpected. Before the body springs into action.

Of course, I hardly sprang into action. Actually, I did nothing. In hindsight, I should have chopped power and dropped back onto the runway. Assuming that I had had enough of it left to safely land and stop. I can’t say whether I did or didn’t, because I never considered it. Instead, I simply flew the plane, which is a legitimate response, and one of the first things you’re taught to do when something goes wrong.

At that moment, while I was processing all the conflicting data around me, the tower called, “Ercoupe 116, turn southwest, proceed on course.”

I think not. Time to end this test flight and get back on the ground. I thumbed the mike button, “Uh… 116 would like to return to the field.”

The response was immediate: “Make right traffic, Runway 20.”

Up to this second, I’ve been flying on auto pilot. Not a fancy mechanical marvel, but the martial arts muscle memory of tasks repeated time and again until the body does what’s needed without the brain wasting a neuron on it. But now it’s sinking in that I have no idea if I’m slow, fast, or just right. It’s a perverted aeronautical version of Goldie Locks and the Three bears.

Of course, in the old days pilots didn’t have airspeed indicators. Planes predate all of our gadgets. What was it my forbearers did to judge speed? Oh yes. They listened to the song of the slipstream across the bracing wires, the iconic “wind in the wires.”

No wires on an Ercoupe.

It suddenly dawns on me that rather than being an annoyance, this is a potentially dangerous situation. Sure, unlike most planes, if they get too slow ‘Coupes don’t stall. Not if they’re rigged right. Of course, Warbler has a brand-new tail. That’s what I’m doing today. I’m conducting a FAR 91.407 (b) post-major maintenance test flight to ensure that his flight characteristics haven’t changed. To ensure that he is  rigged right. Still, even perfectly rigged ‘Coupes develop what’s often called “profound” sink rates when they get too slow. Something to be avoided close to the ground like I am.

I’m not scared. Not at all. I’ve got a lot of time in these birds, and a fair bit in this very serial number. But I know I’ve got to think smart. I keep the throttle to the fire wall and hold the nose near the horizon. Screw the climb rate. Screw the pattern altitude. Gentle bank right. Level off. The runway drops behind my twin tails. Now a second turn. Nice and easy.

Should I let the tower know? They already suspect trouble. I told them this was a post-maintenance shakedown when I called for clearance. Should I advise them that I’ve lost my airspeed indicator and have no clue if I’m flying 55 miles an hour or 110? Well, what good would that do? It would seem to them a bigger emergency than it really is for me. For me in this plane.

I’m cleared to land. I’ve stayed high, kept the power up, and held the nose low. I know this makes me fast. Fine. I’ll bleed off the speed when I’ve got asphalt inches below my wheels. Down, down, down I come. The giant, wide runway rises up to greet me. I pull back on the yoke and Warbler skims the runway like a stone skipping over the calm waters of a pond, floating forever as taxiway lights shoot by on either side, then he gently settles to earth, rubber kissing the asphalt, still—according to his airspeed indictor—traveling at zero miles per hour.