Racing with Voodoo

This season, I’m racing with Voodoo. What? Oh. No. Sorry. Not the famous Reno Racing plane by the same name. I’m talking about a speed modification that uses some aerodynamic Voodoo to improve Tess’s performance in our never-ending quest to crack the mac barrier in an Ercoupe. Or at least just go fast enough to securely maintain our title of the World’s Fastest Ercoupe, and to keep those pesky Cesena 150s and 152s behind our twin tails in the SARL races.

IMG_4124

So this might be our sketchiest speed mod yet, but here’s the tale: One of the bad things about having your plane in the shop is that you spend too much time sitting at home thinking about airplanes, instead of being out at the airport having fun with them. And thinking about airplanes at home often entails surfing through various online catalogs of airplane stuff, and discovering things that you were perfectly happy not owning when you didn’t know they existed, but now can’t live without.

This is why I now have Wig-Wag lights on Tess. But they’re not the only thing we added while waiting for our nose strut to be rebuilt, and then waiting for UPS to locate said strut after they lost it.

I also added Voodoo Propeller Tape to Tessie’s prop. Well, that’s what I call it, anyway. It’s officially called a Propeller Vortelator. It’s a distant cousin of the aerodynamically unlikely vortex generator, which is a small plastic or metal fin which, when glued to your wing along with a bunch of other little fins, does amazing things. Things like lower your stall speed, improve controllability, reduce your takeoff run, and more. How on earth do they do that?

Well, that’s what I was told, anyway. Apparently, the little fins create mini vortexes of air that delay flow separation in the boundary layer, and…

Yeah, like I said, magic.

So when I read about something similar for propellers, it didn’t strike me as impossible. Hey, if a bunch of fins on a wing can work magic on the airflow and improve performance, why wouldn’t something similar work on the prop? A prop is just a perpendicular spinning wing, after all. The advertising copy for the Vortelator—which is made by Aircraft Development, the same folks that make the Slick Air coating that we use to reduce airframe drag—say that, “Vortelators will cause the boundary layer to stay attached to the propeller surface for a greater distance, and to keep the boundary layer thinner. The net result of these two actions is that it reduces both the profile drag and skin friction drag components of the parasite drag.” Going on, they said that the Vortelators are placed on the most inefficient high drag areas of the prop, making it more efficient across its span. As I didn’t understand what they were saying, that didn’t impress me much.

But they also said it would improve my speed by 2 to 4 mph. ThatI understood.

I placed an order.

Now, I knew the Vortelator was some sort of tape, but I couldn’t tell much about its form factor from the pictures at Aircraft Spruce’s website. I think I pictured a row of mini vortex generators, or a quasi-washboard ribbon. I’m sure you can picture my disappointment when my box of Voodoo Propeller Tape arrived, and I discovered that it was nothing more than a piece of flat, thin, clear self-sticky plastic tape—cut in a zig-zag pattern.

IMG_5320

Seriously? I was about to send it back in disgust, but decided to do some more research first. The first thing I found was that I couldn’t find anyone who had actually used it. Rather, all I could find were people who hadn’t used it, but nevertheless felt justified in trashing the mere idea. They’re probably the same people who poo-pooed vortex generators when they were first introduced, then later quietly installed them on their planes.

Next, I discovered something called turbulator tape, which is a big deal with the sailplane crowd. Apparently, most current production sailplanes use it to improve aerodynamics, and many older ones are retrofitted. Guess what? Yeah. It’s nothing more than a piece of flat, thin, clear self-sticky plastic tape—cut in a zig-zag pattern.

Hmmm… Those sailplane folks sure know their aerodynamics, even if they don’t have propellers.

But there’s more: The RC model crowd rave about zig-zag tape. Granted, their planes don’t have pilots in them, but they are honestly and truly miniature aircraft. And zig-zag tape is even used in archery to improve airflow of the tail “feathers” of modern carbon fiber arrows for increased accuracy. Who knew?

And although Voodoo Propeller Tape sure looks disappointing to the naked eye, in all things aerodynamic, small changes can net big results. So maybe some thin zig-zag sailplane/model plane/archery tape near the hub of Tess’s prop might make that ol’ piece of aluminum work better.

What the heck, it didn’t cost that much, it’s already paid for, it’s STC’d for my prop (which only means the government thinks that the product is safe, not that it actually works), and my wrench turners don’t want much to install it. And who knows? Maybe it will make Tess shoot through the air like an arrow. Rather than sending it back, I had my team put it on the prop.

IMG_1660

So this season, we’re racing with Voodoo.

 

Welcome, again

I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air and Space. My story: Write up my…

Wait a sec. I’m having some déjà vu here.

Oh, yes, that’s exactly how I started the very first Plane Tale, back on August 22, 2014! But I guess it’s appropriate to start this story exactly the same way as I started that one, as I’m having exactly the same problem: I’ve got too big a story to tell, and too little space to tell it in. What’s the story this time? It’s the tale of my re-flying the transcontinental air mail route, using nothing more for navigation than the original 100-year-old written instructions.

Re-flying it, of course, in an Ercoupe.

Hey, it’s practically an air mail plane. Same speed and range. Open cockpit with the doors down in the belly, and as you’ll learn when my story eventually hits the streets, many of the mail planes—even though they started off as biplanes—ended up morphing into monoplanes through a bizarre series of circumstances.

But this time, Plane Tales Plane fans, it’s not a Tessie adventure. I choose Lisa’s “Warbler” for the mission, as he’s equipped just like the mail planes of old, which is to say he’s got practically no equipment at all.

IMG_1606

Of course, it wasn’t a 100% primitive flight. Lisa rode shotgun, armed with an iPad and GPS because, as you know, in today’s skies there are military operations areas, restricted airspaces, towered airports, and thousands of pesky cell phone towers that didn’t exist back at the dawn of flight. Although, interestingly, phone lines were a leading crash-causing hazard back in the day, so the damn phone has been the nemesis of the aviator for a hundred years.

But back to the story. At least this time, I’ve only three totally separate “leads” that I’m agonizing over. Which is better than back in ’14, when I was agonizing over FIVE different leads.

One place I could start, of course, would be at the beginning…

 

Lead 1

I’m standing in Parking Lot 5 of the Scott Campus of the University of Nebraska Omaha. It’s a cold, grey evening, with low ceilings and spitting rain. I look around at the towering buildings on all sides, and it’s hard to imagine that this was once the site of an airfield on the western outskirts of the city. If I’d been flying the Omaha-to-Cheyenne air mail back in the glory days, this would’ve been my starting point.

Now you need a permit to park your car here.

All that’s left to show that an airport once existed beneath my feet is a forlorn metal plaque erected by the Nebraska State Historical Society. It faces a busy street.

In the morning I’ll use modern GPS to arrive in the air above this very spot, but after that, I’m going to attempt to re-fly a full third of the transcontinental air mail route using nothing but the original technology: Written instructions that are nearly 100 years-old.

 

Lead 2

But, of course, there’s no law that says you have to tell the story in the order that it occurred, and sometimes that’s not the best way to go about it. For instance, I could start in the heat of the flight, with the true meat of the story, and fill in the background as I go along…

The directions for the early air mail pilots say, “Almost directly west will be seen black irregular peaks in the Laramie Mountains. Fly over the mountains just to the north of these peaks.”

I look up. The entire horizon, from south to north is nothing butblack irregular peaks.

I read the paragraph again. Then I stick my head out of the airplane, into the slip stream. There’s no need to. It just seems like something a real air mail pilot would do in a situation like this. The cold blast pushes my goggles into my face and tugs at the edges of my Perrone leather flying helmet.

It doesn’t help me figure out which peaks I’m supposed to fly north of.

And this is just the beginning. Beyond the Laramie Mountains is the Medicine Bow Range, the 12,500-foot Elk Mountain, and the Sierra Madre. Not to mention the ragged, rocky, snow-coved peaks of the Wasatch Range that guard the west-bound approaches into Salt Lake City. And the only thing I have to guide me through these mountains is a book of written instructions set down almost one hundred years ago.

I’m beginning to think that this isn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had.

 

Lead 3

Or maybe it would be better to share the feel of the flight. To invite the reader into the cockpit,t to come along for the ride…

Cold air pours into the cockpit in a torrent. It slashes through my heavy leather barnstormer jacket, soaks through my gloves, seems to whisk away the fabric of my canvas pants, and swirls into my shoes. Only my head, secure in its new fleece-lined leather flying helmet, escapes. It’s going to be a looooongtwo-hour flight.

And we haven’t even left the ground yet.

I turn to my safety pilot, Lisa, and watch a small scrap of paper waft up from some hidden recess in the floor, orbit her head once, then be sucked out of the cockpit. Her arms are folded tightly across her chest, gloved hands in her armpits. Her legs are pressed closely together, drawn up close to the seat. She looks miserable.

“You know,” I say into my boom mic, my voice sounding far way in my headset, “the early air mail pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep warm in their open cockpits.”

She gives me a cold look, but I’m sufficiently chilled to be immune from it. “If you’re done with the sports section,” she says sarcastically, “I’ll take it now.”

Of course, despite months of planning for this adventure, I didn’t think to bring any newspapers for insulation. But I did bring a book.

 

And the winner is…

So which lead did I choose in the end? Well, you’ll just have to wait until the magazine hits the streets to find out. In the meantime, welcome newcomers, and welcome back, regular readers. I’m aviation writer William E. Dubois and this is Plane Tales, my ongoing home base. The virtual airport for my pen. Here, I’ll continue to keep you up-to-date on my Fly Writing with links to new articles as they are published, expanded content, exclusive stories, and assorted adventures that take place on a Wing and a Pen!

 

Another return

It’s a bit hazy, but other than that, I have no complaints about the sky. If there are any clouds out there, they’re hiding behind the distant horizon. The air is delightfully still: Hardly a breath of wind stirs the ground. I’m glad. I don’t want the sky gods messing with today’s mission.

It’s too important.

Rio and I are comfortably crammed into Tessie’s cockpit, a space never intended for the width of two fully-grown modern men. If I could change one thing about the Ercoupe it would be more shoulder room and more leg room, which I guess is actually two things. But I’ve adapted to both shortages, and have learned to live with the cozy cockpit. Our shoulders stuck together as if velcro’d into a single unit, I reach forward to slide the throttle up. The EGT’s advance, the tach springs alive, and Tess starts to roll. I can feel pressure building in the elevator, the yoke becoming heavier. I push it forward to keep Tess glued to the runway until I’m ready for her to fly.

Faster and faster we go, runway lights now zipping past like scared rabbits running for cover. The white needle of the airspeed indictor is in the green arc. I ease back on the yoke and Tess’s nose lifts, then her mains break with the ground, our shadow falling away beneath us. And, after a long hiatus, Rio is in the air again.

He hasn’t flown in 114 days. First, just shy of his First Solo, he had a chain of lessons cancelled one right after the other: Weather, instructor down with the flu, maintenance issues on the rental plane, and on it went. Every Monday he’d get out his sacrificial shirt, only to have to put it away again for the next week. Then Rio himself was down for maintenance for a couple weeks, having his wisdom teeth—all four of them—removed. He was just about to go back into the air again in early April, when tragedy struck: His CFI, a wonderful (if slightly crusty) seventy-two-year-old instructor named Larry, was killed in a plane crash on a training flight. I haven’t written about how his loss affected my families, both the family under my roof, and my airport family. My pen is not up to the task. All I’ve been able to manage so far is the title,The Windsock was at Half Mast,which popped into my head at his memorial service at the airport: A crowded affair held in a large hangar where his beloved black-and-white Citabria, now an orphan, stood watch over a table of photos of Larry, arranged around his favorite oil-stained baseball cap.

IMG_0987

Lisa, who flew with him right before the crash, and is the last person on the planet to see Larry alive, wore her grief on her sleeve, but Rio—who’s more stoic to start with—didn’t talk much about what he was feeling. I didn’t push, but I worried. It was his first loss as a young adult of someone he was close to.

Lisa figured Larry wouldn’t want her to quit, and with grim determination climbed back into the cockpit to continue her training, only to be cut off at the knees by the labyrinth of regulation that surrounds our industry. You see, she had only one more flight with Larry before the “checkride” for her license. But with Larry Flying West, she’d have to find a new instructor to sign her off for the test. A new instructor who would first need to learn about Warbler’s capabilities and oddities, and then confirm that she could perform all the skills necessarily to pass her checkride.

But there’s more. Her solo endorsement, the logbook page that allowed her to practice in her own plane by herself, expired. She was so close to finishing, Larry had seen no reason to update it. So now, if I’m not around to help, all she can do is sit in the cockpit and make airplane noises.

And that’s not the end of Lisa’s troubles. Following the crash, the examiner who was to administer her test announced he’d no longer offer checkrides for the Light Sport ticket. With no way to practice, no one to instruct her, and no one to give her the test for her license, Lisa has a lot stacked up against her, and all of this coming just when she was within spitting distance of completing her training and joining the family of licensed pilots.

Meanwhile, with the school closed down to deal with the loss, and Tess down for maintenance, Rio had no plane to fly. And so the days ticked by with Rio’s feet on the ground. And days turned into weeks, weeks into months.

Finally, with Tess back in service, and a pair of long cross countries planned to the last of the spring SARL races, I talked to Rio about his role in the flights, to which he responded, “I don’t even know if I can fly anymore.”

I assured him that it would take no time at all to knock the rust off.

He gave me a surprisingly cold look for someone with warm brown eyes. Then he told me he wasn’t worried about rust. He told me didn’t know if—once back in a small plane—he’d “completely fall apart” emotionally, or not. A few days later I overhead him telling his grandmother that “many pilots” never flew again after something like this happened.

There was only one way to find out. Sooner or later, he’d have to go up into the sky, face his grief, and find out if it was overpowering, or not. He agreed it was time. We drafted a set of ground rules. I’d be left seat, handle the take off, and slowly climb to 7,000 feet. After that he’d take the controls. If at any point, he was uncomfortable, we’d immediately return to the airport.

I didn’t even want to contemplate what would happen next if that turned out to be the case. I tipped-toed around my fears, never letting them take full shape.

Passing through 5,500, just off the end of Runway 19, I turn down the Pecos Canyon, following the river below. Power strong. Tach below the red. Huh, cylinder number two is running a little on the warm side. Oil pressure and temperature good. We’re climbing sedately at 250 feet per minute. I cast a sideways glance at my copilot. Rio’s face is impassive. Carved in marble. I never know what that kid is thinking.

Passing through 6,000 feet, we continue in companionable silence. The air is a smooth as churned butter. I know this because Debbie bought Rio and I a small hand-cranked butter churn for Christmas.

Passing through 6,500 feet, I tweak the trim to lower Tess’s nose a hair, and side the throttle back to her cruise setting.

Leveling off at 7,000 feet I say, “You have the plane,” letting go of the yoke and holding both my hands up the same way I would if a robber jumped out of the bushes with a gun, demanding my wallet.

“I have the plane,” Rio responds, the first words he’s spoken since he buckled his seat belt and secured his shoulder harness before I started Tess’s engine.

We continue flying straight and level, Rio’s face impassive. Still marble.

For a long time, we drone on through the sky, flying south. Then, ever so gently, he turns the plane to the right. To a west bound course. And after yet more time, another turn. Left this time. Shallow. A three-sixty. Still his face is impassive. I don’t know what’s going on inside his soul, but there’s nothing wrong with his flying. I lean back, stop worrying about the plane, try not to worry about Rio, and focus on enjoying the view.

Rio continues a series of gentle, shallow turns, with long periods of flying straight and level in between them. He’s flying less aggressively than he used to, but he’s precise. And he’s showing no signs of wanting to head back. We’ve been up for over an hour now, and we’re far to the southeast of the field. Our wing tanks just dipped below one-eighth, and I begin to worry about our fuel supply.

But without my saying anything, Rio reaches up to the FlightPad, places his thumb and index finger on the touch screen, then spreads them apart, zooming the field of view outward. He nods his head to himself and gently banks Tess back to the northwest, toward home.

Above the field he gives the plane back to me. We’d agreed in advance that landing practice can wait for another day. I fly the pattern, touch down, taxi to the fuel pump, and shut down. We pull our headsets off, slide the doors down into the belly of the plane, and sit for a moment.

“How did you feel?” I ask.

“OK,” he says.

I don’t know what to say next, and finally decide on, “Well, that’s good. Did you enjoy they flight?”

Rio thinks for a moment, then says, “Surprisingly, yes.”

Welcome back. My son: Civis Aerius Sum, still a citizen of the air.