When the legends die

Once again, I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air & Space. My story this time: Write up my experiences in attempting to re-fly one third of the Woodrow Wilson Transcontinental Airway using nothing more than the original written instructions from the nearly 100-year-old Pilot’s Directions—a slim manual published by the Postal Department to help new pilots find their way across the country in a time before modern ariel navigation. A time, in fact, before aviation maps and charts. A time before radios. A time before the flashing airway beacons, strung out like pearls in the night, led the way.

Pilot’s Directionsis descriptive text of contact flying. Look for farmer Brown’s red barn north of town, then follow the river. Keep the small round lake to your left. Fly south one section line for every 25 west. Don’t mistake the Union Pacific railroad for the Pennsylvania Southern. That type of thing.

How much will the face of our country have changed from above in the past 100 years? Will it still be possible to navigate the wide-open spaces between Omaha and Salt Lake City using these century-old written directions? Can modern pilots even follow directions like these? I’m going to find out.

Next month.

Lisa is lending me her ‘Coupe Warbler for the mission, as he’s equipped nearly identically to an airmail plane of the era. Which is to say he hardly has any equipment at all. Lending me her plane, provided, of course, that she gets to come along on the adventure. But Lisa’s presence isn’t just for fun. Her presence is key to the mission’s success. She’ll watch my track on her iPad and ensure that I do not get us so lost that we run out of gas or blunder into modern military or restricted airspace.

In the meantime, to get ready for the flight, I’ve been living in the past. I’ve read every book about the early airmail that I can get my paws on, trying to learn more about the men, their machines, and how they flew the mail at the dawn of practical aviation. I’m focused on the few brief years when the government ran the show, before farming out the entire system to contractors, giving birth to the modern airlines. I’ve learned that the pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep from freezing in their open cockpit biplanes. That they used clotheslines for windsocks. That they sometimes landed in fields to ask farmers for directions.

And I’ve learned that they were not only bold, but smart. They experimented, pushing the envelope of aeronautical science.

Chief among these experimenters was air mail pilot Wesley Smith. It was this pilot, in fact, who was reported to have first taped a flat half-empty bottle of whiskey on the panel of his mail plane to help him keep his wings level in the clouds. Call it a First Gen attitude indicator. Apparently, many of the other pilots quickly adopted this technique. In fact, I had read about these proto-instruments in the past, and I encountered them again and again in my air mail research. Like many pilots, I took this legend as Gospel truth, and didn’t think much more about it, beyond admiring their spunk and ingenuity.

But in the midst of my research, I was reminded that Bob Hoover was famous during his air show days for pouring himself a glass of tea during barrel rolls.

So wait a second… Either liquid is true to the world of the plane, or true to the outside environment. But it can’t be both. Right? Or can it? Are the forces in a roll stronger than the forces in garden variety maneuvers? Could a half empty bottle of liquid reveal the horizon in gentle maneuvers? Help keep a plane level in fog and cloud? Or like tea, would it always be level to the floor of the plane? I’d be a pour aviation journalist if I didn’t find out the truth.

Did I say “pour?” Sorry, I meant to say “poor.”

Clearly, I needed discover the truth for myself, and set the record straight if, in fact, we’ve been deceived all these years…

 

“Bank right,” I tell Lisa, as I hold the half-empty bottle of Chivas Regal to the windscreen, “Now bank left.”

Sadly, the level of the whiskey stays parallel to the floor of the plane, the horizon snapping left and right, cartwheeling outside the windshield, beyond the straight line of brunt amber liquid in the bottle.

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“Is it working?” asks Lisa.

“Sure,” I say, “but not like we’d hoped. Instead of showing me the horizon, it’s showing me the floor of the plane. No matter what you do, it stays level.” I sigh. I’m bummed. I’m not looking forward to writing up this Plane Tale. I feel like I’ve just been given the assignment to shoot the Easter Bunny dead in his tracks. Of all the aviation legends, the un-tested whiskey bottle was always my favorite for some reason.

Likewise, I’m sorry to report, hanging your pocket watch from the roof of the plane fails to show the angle of bank. The watch always hangs straight toward the floor, regardless of how the floor is angled in relation to the horizon outside the plane.

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What’s up with this? Why does liquid level itself to the plane’s floor when the plane is canted crazily to one side? Why does a watch chain hang straight down to the plane’s floor when your eyes tell you that you could fall right out the door and plummet to your death below without even bouncing off the wing?

The answer comes down to the forces of flight. A plane in a turn is assaulted by a barrage of forces and factors: Centripetal force, the vertical component of lift, centrifugal force, weight, inertia, thrust, resultant load, g-forces, effective lift, aerodynamic axis, load factors… Here, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Image: Agostino De Marco

To be honest, I don’t know which of the myriad of forces holds the whiskey true to the plane rather than true to the horizon. It’s probably the interplay of all of them that effectively moves the forces of gravity in line with the floor of the plane, bursting our myths.

So that’s it. The legend is dead. You can’t use a half-empty bottle of whiskey to keep your wings level in the clouds. But surely, the first pilot who tried this nearly a century ago must have discovered that on the first flight. Why, then, do we have so many historians telling us that the whiskey bottle was basic equipment for air mail pilots? Was it sloppy research by a historian who was not a pilot? Did one historian write it up and the others, like lemmings, followed him over the cliff of error?

Perhaps, but I think that there’s something else at play.

The airmail was a dangerous job. A dangerous job at the dawn of Prohibition, which came into law within two years of the start of the airmail. Suddenly booze was forbidden for everyone, much less for government employees. Were the pilots simply having fun with their ground-pounder bosses? Flouting the liquor law under the guise of flying equipment?

We’ll never know, but it gets my vote. It has the flavor of truth to it.

But what the hell, in a salute to Smith and his colleagues, whatever their real motives, and to keep in the spirit of the early days of airmail, we installed a Smith Attitude Indicator in Warbler for our re-flying of the Air Mail route.

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It won’t help keep our wings level, but taking spirits into the sky will sure keep our spirits up.

 

Music to my ears

As I drove down Airport Road the distinctive howl of a twelve-cylinder Merlin filled my ears. It came from the left, shot overhead, and disappeared to my right like a cannon shot. I ducked and slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt.

Holy crap! I’ve been buzzed by a Mustang!

Then two more in close succession: Vaaaavooooom!!! Vaaaavooooom!!!

I looked to the right. To the left. Then I leaned forward on my steering wheel and looked up. The sky was empty.

Next, the growl of a heavy metal radial buzzed by, shaking the car, and I remembered: I had left the car stereo on full blast when I left the hangar, but the CD was between tracks so I’d forgotten I had it on. It was Reno on Record 3blaring out of my Alpine Speakers, not real airplanes tearing up the sky. Sheepishly, I turned down the stereo, tapped the accelerator, headed on down the road again, glad that I was alone and no one had seen me ducking phantom planes.

Well, not phantom. The planes are real enough. They just aren’t here. Not now. Their growls, whines, and roars were captured in high fidelity recordings as they passed Pylon One during the National Air Races in Reno in 1990, 1991, and 1992 and put on CD by AirCraft Records.

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Yep, our new fav in the music department is unlike any CD I’ve ever owned. It’s made up of nothing but airplane noises. Apparently, the original Reno on Record, and its sequel Reno on Record 2, were both a mix of airplane sounds and interview clips with racers, but according to the promotional literature inside the CD cover, “We have answered the request of many of you for a version of Reno on Record with little or no talking. This is it. On ROR 3 you will hear nothing but the beautiful, raw sounds of Merlins, 3350s, 4360s and much, much more.”

Who on earth would want an hour’s worth of nothing but engine sounds?

Well, as it turns out, people like me! Although I didn’t know that until I bought a copy. I discovered this wonderful CD quite by accident, and I’m sure glad I did. I was actually looking for whiskey when it happened. Well, more correctly a whiskey decanter. Back in the ‘70s the McCormick whiskey folks made several commemorative decanters that were sold at the National Air Races. One, which I scored on eBay, looks like a race pylon. A second one looks like a radial engine with a three-bladed prop. I’d seen pictures of it, but I was having a hard time finding one for sale. Of course, I had a saved search to alert me if one was listed, but over the years I’ve found that sometimes the best successes, when it comes to buying collectables, happen when you come across something that’s not listed quite the way everyone expects—so if I’m bored, I’ll just do some random surfing with very broad search terms, flipping through a few pages to see what I see.

Thus it was that I stumbled upon Reno on Record, the record. No kidding, I found an old-fashioned vinyl LP record, called Reno on Record. It was from 1986 and was billed as having “actual sound recordings and interviews from the National Air Races in Reno.” I thought it was very clever creating a record that recorded Reno and was called Reno on Record. However, it was priced well beyond the impulse purchase range and deep into the “ask your wife first” range, so I decided to see if I could find it priced more economically somewhere else.

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Photo: eBay seller Susaninpgh

I didn’t. But I did find CDs of Reno on Record 2 and Reno on Record 3. As ROR 3 was heaps cheaper, I bought a copy to check it out, not being sure why I did so. After all, who would want to sit around listening to airplane noises? The CD arrived promptly, but languished on my desk for weeks. Then the flight school sent both Rio and Lisa home with their pre-solo exams, an open book take home test, on the same weekend.

Airplane noises in the background seemed just right for ambiance.

And boy was it. As we sat around the kitchen table working through the Skyhawk’s POH, looking up FARs, pawing through the AIM, and scratching our heads over tricky weight and balance problems, race planes screamed around the track in the living room. It was inspiring. The perfect background noise for the task at hand. Of course, because we were studying, we had the volume down.

That was fun. But the CD really shines when you pump up the volume, which is what we did while working in our planeless hangars to give them the proper aviation feel. Quoting the AirCraft Records folks,“the thunder of the hot-rodded WWII fighters of the Unlimited Class will be ripping up your living room and alienating your neighbors as they pass in front of your nose and out of your speakers.”

Luckily, at the airport, we have no neighbors to alienate, but I appreciated the rebel sentiment. But living room or hangar, when you crank up the volume on this music you’ll smell the dust, oil, and avgas of Reno.

This is one damn fun CD. If you like airplanes, I think you’ll be surprised by how much pleasure you can get from having them roar by in the background. Get a copy and see what it does for your soul on a foggy day, or how your flying friends react to it at your next hangar party.

My rating: Five stars. No, wait. I think instead of stars, I’ll give it five Ercoupes.

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