Flasher… but not like you’re thinking

“Traffic, your two o’clock, three miles, seven thousand five hundred, inbound,” said the tower.

“Looking for traffic,” I replied, squinting my eyes, leaning forward in the cockpit, and scanning the sky above me at my two o’clock. Actually, I’m not supposed to say “looking for traffic.” The proper response is, “negative contact.” But looking  is commonly used by pilots, and that was what I was doing.

Looking. Desperately looking.

Then the other plane was two miles from me. Then one. Then, according to the tower, it was, “no factor.” I never did see it. In fact, having done a number of test flights in the busy Santa Fe airspace, and flying out of Santa Fe with Lisa in Warbler during her training, I’ve become aware of just how damn hard it can be to spot other airplanes. Even when they’re very close. And even when someone is telling you where to look.

And that began to worry me.

True, mid-air collisions between two airplanes are exceedingly rare, but they do happen. And we’re at much greater risk than the average airplane, because we’re a slow racer. Yes, it’s true. While Tess is literally the fastest Ercoupe in the world, we’re still among the slowest planes in the Sport Air Racing League. As such, we’re often relegated to the “short course” in races so that we can be back before the beer gets warm and the girls get cold.

Oh dear. I’m told I can’t say such sexist things anymore.

Let me try again… so that we can be back before the rest of the racers fly back to their home bases, re-fuel and clean their planes, have dinner, kiss their kids goodnight, and watch the late show.

The short course is usually just the main race with a few turns lopped off to make it shorter. The goal is to have most of the planes back about the same time for the awards. The problem is that, realistically, this means that I enter the pack somewhere in the middle of the returning racers, and I’m coming in from a different direction. Naturally we have radio procedures and safety protocols, but anything I can do to make Race 53 more visible increases everyone’s safety.

My first thought for increasing my visibility was to get a smoke system like air show planes have. I could let out a long stream of smoke as I approached the pack. Plus, it would make for a crowd-pleasing checkered-flag finish line drama. I had that thought about three years ago, but it’s no simple thing for a certified airplane to get a smoke system. There’s a lot of paperwork with the FAA. I hounded my mechanic about it for about a year and a half before he caved and agreed to take it on. But then, when we got into the nitty-gritty of it, the smoke oil tank couldn’t be installed under the baggage compartment floor like I had envisioned. It would have to be above the floor, where it would take up nearly half my storage. As much as I wanted to be able to say, “Smoke on!” it was too much of a sacrifice of Tess’s utility. And then, of course, we had our long-running series of serious maintenance headaches, breakdowns, and groundings, and I haven’t been racing much, so I hadn’t been thinking about it.

Until the other plane passed by me as unseen as a ghost plane.

Of course, we fly with flashing strobes on our wingtips and our landing lights turned on. Modern landing lights are super-bright LEDs that use precious little power and, unlike traditional light bulbs, last pretty much forever. That makes us more visible. But there’s a way to take it up a notch, and that’s the charmingly-named Wig-Wag.

A Wig-Wag controller turns your landing light system into an aerial discotheque. Only, you know, without the music from the Bee Gees. So with the plane down once again, and with plenty of time on my hands, I started researching Wig-Wags and was pleasantly surprised to quickly locate one that was actually pre-approved for our airplane. It’s called the MaxPulse, and it’s a simple solid-state control switch that gets spliced into the wiring between the lights and the master switch. It’s surprisingly affordable, as airplane stuff goes, and my mechanic thought the installation would be a breeze, as airplane stuff goes.

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All things being equal, it seemed like cheap insurance, so I said, “Let’s do it.”

The MaxPulse, once installed, will let our landing lights still work as landing lights at night, but during the day there are four different options:

  • Both the landing lights, which are mounted in the leading edges of Tessie’s wings just inside her racing stripes, can flash at the same time like giant strobe lights. Poof. Poof. Poof. Poof. Forty-four pulses per minute.
  • Or they can wag back and forth. Left one on, right one off. Right one on, left one off. This is officially called alternating, but in the common tongue, this is our Wig-Wag. It really catches the eye in the air. Poof. Piff. Poof. Piff. Also at forty-four pulses per minute. Or….
  • It can wig-wag at eight-eight pulses per minute. Poof-Piff-Poof-Piff. Or…
  • It can wig-wag at one hundred frickin’ twenty pulses per minute. PoofPiffPoofPiff.

We’ll have to experiment to figure out which option makes our speedy slow racer the most visible, but there’s no doubt that we’ll be able to light up the day.

It’s not smoke, but it’ll do.