Not quite ready for prime time

35 miles per hour…

40 miles per hour…

45 miles per hour…

Oil pressure good. Engine cylinder and exhaust temps coming up, but in range.

50 miles per hour…

55 miles per hour…

We’re at the top of the green arc. Tessie should be able to fly.

60 miles per hour…

65 miles per hour…

The control tower zips past on my left as we barrel down the runway.

70 miles per hour…

75 miles per hour…

We’re still glued to the runway, speeding down the blacktop like a dragster without the slightest hint that the plane is ever going to fly. Ahead, the band of lights marking the end of the runway is fast approaching.

I smile ear-to-ear.

Yes! This is the way it should be! Properly rigged, with the main landing gear appropriately sprightly, holding the twin tails the designated height off the tarmac, the ‘Coupe’s wing has zero angle of attack on the ground. In other words, if you want the plane to fly, you need to pull the nose up.

Of course, I don’t want to fly. Not yet anyway. Flying will come later. After all, Tessie’s wings haven’t seen the light of day in many months, and I’ve learned from experience that rather than assume that everything will be all right when a shop declares that an airplane is fixed and ready to go, you should assume that nothingwill be right following maintenance.


And these last few months of maintenance were like no other maintenance Tess has ever seen.

Parts of her that haven’t been seen by human eyes since she was built in 1947 were exposed to the light of day again as the very skin and bones of her nose were removed and replaced, her engine sitting for months on a pair of sawhorses. Her engine, naturally, is back on, sitting in a new engine mount. But every hose, cable, and wire was disconnected and then re-connected—and that means there’s no end of potential trouble.

So this time I decided to take a stepwise approach to returning to the air. First, I taxied lazily around the ramp, spinning slow motion doughnuts at low RPM, assuring myself that the complex control interlinkages were functioning. Going straight forward the ailerons were flat and the control yokes straight and true to the beckoning horizon. In a turn, one alerion flipped skyward and the other pointed to the earth, as the yin-yang of aerodynamics commands. Looking back over my shoulder I could watch the twin rudders flip left then right as I danced across the tarmac.

Naturally, given my hard-earned distrust of this particular aircraft engine, I kept one eye on the oil pressure gauge the whole time, but all was well.

Next, I asked the tower for a high-speed taxi test: Basically, to run down their runway as fast as possible without lifting off. This puts more air over the control surfaces, lets the engine run at higher power, and hopefully—while you’re still safely on the ground—shakes loose anything that might fall off. It’s as close to a test flight as you can come without actually flying. Which I didn’t want to do. Yet.

Which is a good thing, because, right now, I’m running out of runway.

I slide the crystal art deco throttle handle back, down to the base of the throttle quad, tap the brakes, and exit the runway.

My high-speed taxi test is complete. Next will come the flying.

But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.


Plane Parenting

Rio just had his wisdom teeth out. All four of them. At once. That should have been a blessing, but due to a snafu with the surgeon’s prescriptions, the pharmacy, and our distance from civilization, he was without any sort of pain meds for about two hours after the general anesthesia wore off.

I’ll spare you my distress over his distress. Parenting: It’s not for wimps.

On the same day, I got an email from my mechanic about my sick airplane. Tess was supposed to be ready for test flight in a few days, but the team has been having a hard time getting the cowl and nose bowl to fit properly after the engine was installed in its brand-new engine bracket and mounts. Well, one thing led to another and it turns out that the engine is out of alignment with the fuselage, and spacers need to be ordered to get it to point forward, not downward.

I’ll spare you my distress over this stress. Airplane ownership: It’s not for wimps.

This morning, it occurred to me that owning an airplane is, in fact, much like being a parent. Or that being a parent is, in fact, much like owning an airplane. I suppose it depends on which came first in your life. Here are just a few examples, feel free to chime in with more via comments:

Airplanes & Kids:  No matter how old they are, you worry about them. (All. The. Time.) The only difference is that you tend to worry a little less about your children as they age, and a little more about your airplane as it ages!

Kids & Airplanes:Keep your mind alive. They force you to never stop learning. Kids ask questions that challenge your knowledge, while airplanes never stop teaching you about themselves.

Airplanes & Kids:Get sick or break bones at the worst possible time. Always the worst possible time. And visits to the doctor are expensive; and that’s true even for routine checkups. The only difference is that the airplane doctor costs more than the kid’s doctor!

Kids & Airplanes:Take you to places you never imagined existed. Literally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Airplanes & Kids: Eat more than you could possibly have imagined before you had them.

Kids & Airplanes: Amaze and delight you when you least expect it.

Airplanes & Kids: Demand time, attention, money, and love.

Kids & Airplanes:Love you back, unconditionally. No matter what your faults as a human and a pilot are.

Airplanes & Kids:No matter how rich you are, you really can’t afford them.

Kids & Airplanes:Even though you can’t afford either, you really should have at least one of each.

Being a parent of a child—or an airplane—is rewarding, expensive, amazing, and stressful. And I wouldn’t trade either experience for the world.


The perfect gift

Jigsaw puzzles were a big deal in the Dubois Clan when I was growing up. We did them frequently, and it was serious business with specific rules of engagement set down and enforced by my very Victorian Father. Each member of the family got to study the box cover art in turn. One time. For sixty seconds. Then the box was hidden away. Next, the pieces were all spread out and flipped right side up, then the border had to be built before any other construction took place. Lord help you if you found two pieces that went together before the border was complete.

Actually… those are the only rules I can remember, but knowing my father, there must have been others. Most likely, these traditions came from his father. In respect for the past, I try to enforce the same rules in my family, but I live with a pack of anarchists, so it doesn’t work out very well.

Despite that, I find puzzle building fun, and the process brings the Fam together in a unique and social way. Still, it seems we do them most often when we are snowed in, which tends to happen around the first of the year each year. Of course, being a flying family, we have a weakness for aviation-themed puzzles. Last year at Christmas we did a puzzle of Santa loading up a Piper Cub in lieu of his sleigh. The year before that it was a puzzle of an antique airplane poster.

But this year we had the ultimate puzzle, and the story starts a good ten weeks before Christmas when, after writing a rather large check to get repairs started on the family plane following a hard landing, I was having a moment of quiet desperation with my checking account. I emailed both my sisters to cancel holiday gift exchanges. My eldest sister, who’s also having a tight year agreed at once, but our middle sib wrote to say, sorry, but she’d already gotten something for us.

I was annoyed. Who on earth has their Christmas shopping out of the way in late October, fer crying out loud? “If I don’t get it done early,” was her reply, “I don’t get it done.”

Anyway, the promised box showed up shortly before Christmas, neatly wrapped in holiday themed paper, with a card that read, “To Tessie and Family.” I dutifully deposited the package under the tree—after giving it the traditional inquiring shake that told me that either the post office had completely and utterly destroyed my sister’s gift, or that the gift was a jigsaw puzzle.

It was a puzzle. But not just any puzzle. It was mypuzzle. A personal puzzle. A puzzle of Tessie. A montage of pics of my favorite plane taken from various online magazines. Tessie flying. Tessie on a snow-covered taxiway. Tess, a.k.a. Race 53 making a “race takeoff.” Tess in her art-filled hangar, Rio and I proudly standing on either side. It must have been a lot of work.

I was blown away.

And sure enough, right after Christmas we got a huge snow storm and we broke out the puzzle. We spread the pieces on the table, starting flipping them right side up—all 1,014 of them, and then I hid the damn box. It was a diabolically delightful puzzle. Tess, according to Rio, is “Fifty shades of blue,” to start with, and the light was different in each of the photos of our baby. OK. Clearly, this is part of the nose bowl, but from which image? Ah ha! This is the landing gear. But is it the landing gear from the race footage or from the picture of the plane parked on the snowy taxiway?

Oh, and not only are there fifty shades of blue airplane, but the puzzle also featured fifty shades of blue sky. It ended up being, by far, the hardest—but funest—puzzle I’ve even built. My sister really knocked it out of the park with this gift.

But in addition to putting together a machine I love, piece by piece, I had another first. I got to pick up the pieces of, well, me!