Supergirl and the aviation hex

From his hospital bed, Lisa’s latest instructor assured her that she wasn’t hexed. Although, given her turbulent ride toward a pilot’s license, no one could blame her for beginning to wonder…

Yes, Lisa’s new instructor, who had proclaimed that she could “probably pass” her checkride, but wanted to strengthen her skill in a few key areas before he signed her off, had what we were told was a minor motorcycle accident. A minor motorcycle accident that shattered his collar bone, punctured his lung, and left him grounded until sometime in October.

That’s a long time, but it’s probably moot anyway, given that it’s now high summer, and the density altitude in Santa Fe often approaches Warbler’s service ceiling. But seriously, getting a pilot’s license shouldn’t be this hard. Not that Lisa’s hexed, or anything.

Still, Lisa soldiers on, spending her weekends sleeping in her hangar at SXU and flying in the cool early morning hours, practicing for her checkride. At least that’s what she’s doing until her solo endorsement runs out at the end of this month. Then she’ll be required to fly with yet another flight instructor—who will have to get familiar her plane before he or she learns that Lisa can fly just fine, thank you—to get an extension on her student solo privileges. That’s a frickin’ hassle, but hardly a hex. It’s just the FAA.

Last weekend, I was in the neighborhood of the airport in the early morning, so I decided to drop in for a cup of coffee with my plane friend. It took me a while to get into the airport. The security gate which has been broken and left wide open for three quarters of a year, is now fixed and I couldn’t remember the stupid gate code. I kept punching in the code from my ATM card and wondering why I was getting neither money nor access. I don’t actually believe in hexes, but this long-plagued gate could well be the exception to the rule.

Car window open, and cursing myself for having such a poor memory for numbers, I heard a familiar aircraft engine: A soft baritone with distinctive high notes. Warbler!I looked to the runway just in time to see Lisa’s Armycoupe lifting off and climbing high into the sky, chrome propeller flashing in the early morning sun. I stuck my head out of the window for a better view as the little plane flew by: Brown-green body, bright yellow wings, dark grey glass over the cockpit, the large red Fifanella midway down the fuselage, and another flash of yellow on his tail feathers. I smiled. Lisa’s Warbie is a hell of a nice-looking bird.


After looking up the gate code to my own airport on the internet using my phone, which is apparently smarter than I am, I get through the high security chain-link fence and park in front of my hangar. As I pull the massive doors open, they let out a heaving groan, like a sleepy giant reluctant to get out of bed. A breath of trapped of warm air escapes and I step inside to survey my domain: Part art gallery, part museum. Framed art and memorabilia cover nearly every inch of the walls. My air race trophies are on one side, a post-flight bar on the other. Flags hang from the towering ceiling, gently swaying to and fro. I walk across the mirror-like concreate pad, then my feet crunch across the gravel as I make my way to the back of the hangar to take a seat at the workbench. There’s no airplane in my airplane hangar, and as I look around I find the empty space a huge, lonely void. Usually, I love being here, but today a melancholy mood settles over me. In the last year, I can count on my fingers the number of days that Tess has been in her nest. Not that she’s hexed, or anything. Well… maybe…

I look at my watch. Damn. It’s too early to break out the Aviation Gin for a gin and tonic.

Lisa’s voice crackles on the radio, “Santa Rosa route sixty-six traffic, Erco niner four one-one six, left downwind, runway eight, touch and go, Santa Rosa.” I get a cigar from the humidor, tuck a folding camp chair under my arm, and trudge around the hangar to Lisa’s runway-view side of the building to watch the show. I set up in a narrow ribbon of shade outside her doors and settle in. Here comes Warbler. Down, down, down. Nearly silent, his engine close to idle for the descent. Then, as his wheels reach out for the runway, his engine comes to life, and he skims along above the pavement. Lisa is getting the feel of ground effect. Lisa and Warbler flash by and I light my cigar. Atta-girl, Lisa!

After she lifts off and turns left into the traffic pattern, I lose sight of her. She’s eclipsed by the hangar, but I can still hear Warbler’s soft growl above and behind me. I can picture where Lisa is in the pattern. She’s midfield. Now turning base. Now final. Here comes Warbler again. Down, down, down once more. Nearly silent again, his engine close to idle for the descent. This time his wheels chip as Lisa touches down. Then up comes the throttle as she starts her touch-and-go. His nose comes up, then he climbs slowly, at a crazy-steep angle. Ah. She’s practicing the technique for a short-field takeoff with an obstacle near the end of the runway.

I take another puff on my cigar, and as Lisa and Warbler fly past, a feeling of pride washes over me. Watching her alone in the air, in perfect command of her airplane, I’m like a proud papa of a newborn baby—although one with nobody to pass cigars out to. Not that I can really take credit for teaching Lisa to fly. Sure, I introduced her to flying. Showed her the basics. Perhaps served as a mentor, or at least a sounding board throughout her long journey. But it was others who honed her skills. Rick and Steve, who taught her to read and ride the winds in a sailplane. Greg, who while he basically robbed her, and didn’t teach her much, at least exposed her to grass and tailwheels. Larry, who patiently guided her out of despair to the brink of her license, but then Flew West right before the job was done. And finally, the wonderful motorcycle maniac, a perfectionist with much to teach.

As the pale blue cigar smoke wafts around my head, and the dull drone of Warbler’s engine fades into the distance, I consider Lisa’s long path to her license. She’s sure has had more than her share of bad luck and expense on this project. On top of multiple instructors, she’s had an unusual number of bad weather days in a state known for its good weather; her Ninety-Nine’s scholarship papers mysteriously disappeared; Warbler had a number of truly bizarre breakdowns; and now—with all these delays—her written exam is about to expire.

OK, so maybe there is a hex. A small one, at any rate.

But through it all, Lisa soldiers on. As she always has. She’s the first in her family to go to college, and she took it all the way to a master’s degree. She’s a cancer survivor. A black belt. Warbler makes another pass. I can almost feel the mix of joy and concentration emanating from the cockpit as Lisa and Warbler rise back up off the asphalt.

Really and truly, I realize, it’s not me nor anyone else who’s taught Lisa to fly. She’s taught herself how to fly, the same way she’s done everything in her life. By hard work. By study. By practice. By perseverance. And, to be frank, also with a good dose of mule-headed stubbornness. Yeah, it’s been a long journey, but Lisa is made of steel.

Yeah, she’ll get that license.

Up against this girl, that poor hex doesn’t stand a chance.


Bucket fingers and “brilliant” aviation law

You know how some people just talk too much? Well, I write too much. I can go on for page, after page, after page, after…

And that’s a bad thing for a man living in the Twitter Universe, where reader attention spans grow shorter each month. I used to believe that if you wrote well, your reader would stick with you. Not true, apparently. One of my online editors can track how far through an article my readers go. “You lose most of them after the second page,” she told me about a piece I wrote that clicked through four “pages.”

Well, crap.

Of course, like most professional writers, I don’t think in terms of pages. I think in terms of word counts. This is probably because back in the day, we were all paid by the word. Literally. Your word count was your paycheck. That was largely replaced decades ago by pay-per-piece, with the length of pieces counted by their typewritten pages. But now, with our typewriters collecting dust, and our computers sporting a variety of type fonts, styles, sizes, and margins—word counts have returned as a handy universal way to measure the size of a written piece.


Image: Amazon

Personally, I’m perfectly happy writing 6,000 words. Most modern editors, on the other hand, want 800. Or even less. I think you can see my problem.

Anyway, today I decided to share something with you that fell on the cutting room floor, as it were, while I was trying to prune down a typically long piece I wrote to a size that readers might, you know, actually read. It was this month’s column for Questions from the Cockpit, at GA News, and it deals with the origin of aviation right-of-way rules. I’m not going to be a spoiler, you’ll just have to wait until the column hits the streets later this month to read all about that; but I didn’t have enough words to re-tell a wonderful Plane Tale I discovered from the earliest days of aviation. Setting the stage, you need to know that back before Federal regulation of civil aviation, some of the states tried to create laws regarding them new-fangled air-e-o-planes them pesky birdmen was buzzin’ around in.

Henry Woodhouse, in his 1920 Textbook of Aerial Laws, wrote that these attempts often ended badly, understatedly saying, “Most of the state laws proposed overlooked the fact that to enforce aerial laws requires a staff of experts, as well as an aerial police.” The lack of an aerial police force certainly didn’t stop the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, although, as you’ll soon see, the lack of experts turned out to be a serious stumbling block for the commonwealth’s law enforcement officers.

It happened in 1913, only a decade after Orville broke the laws of gravity over the sands of Kill Devil Hills, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed its Act to Regulate the Use of Aircraft. The Act set down procedures for aircraft registration, established right of way rules, set minimum altitudes for crossing over various sized communities and cities, created regulations about landing on highways and public parks (verboten except in an emergency), and required pilots to get a license from the Massachusetts Highway Commission.

Woodhouse tells us what happened next: “After the act went into effect an aviator applied for a license and was told that no provision had been made for a board of experts to conduct the necessary examination,” so he could not be given a license. Naturally, he flew without one. And naturally, was arrested for flying without a license—an action punishable under the Act by a fine of not less than $10 and not more than $500 ($258 x to $12,900 adjusted for inflation), along with a possible six months in the slammer.

Holy flying cow. That’s a harsher penalty than you’d get today!

Now, in the interest of keeping my word count down today, I’ll cut to the happy ending. Woodhouse tells us, “When it was explained that he had applied for the license but the Commonwealth was not prepared to give it to him, he was discharged.”

See? Sometimes there is justice when dealing with aviation bureaucrats. Well, at least once. Back in 1913…