One hell of a crunch

The ink was still wet on my Private Pilot’s license back in the spring of 1980 when I rolled the Piper Archer onto final for Runway 03 at KDRO southeast of Durango, Colorado. I was wearing my new headset, the first one I ever purchased. Not a sensible one, mind you. Not one that would help reduce the din in a cockpit installed behind the ultimate noise maker. No. The one I bought was a one-ear, corporate jet pilot-style headset with a skinny boom mike.

It wasn’t practical, but, damn, I looked good wearing it.

It also featured something totally new to me: A push-to-talk switch that attached to the yoke with a piece of Velcro. Prior to that, all my aviation radio experience was using CB radio-style microphones that hung on a clip at the bottom of the panel.

The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: The runway wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Rather, it was a dozen feet lower. As the plane lost lift, instead of softly kissing the asphalt, it dropped sickeningly from the sky with a rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late. I gripped the yoke tightly, accidently triggering the new push-to-talk switch and, as the plane hit the pavement with teeth jarring effect, broadcast the word “Crunch” for the whole world to hear.

It’s one of those things people never let you live down.

Fast forward to last week. After an hour or so of flying Tess for the pure joy of plying the sky, I was returning to my home base. It was late morning as the clouds were lazy and didn’t want to get out of bed, hanging low to the ground for hours after the sun rose. But now they were small, widely scattered, and high. The wind was light from the south. There were a few bumps, but nothing to write home about.

I rolled onto final for Runway 19. The approach was lovely. The flare simply beautiful. There was only one problem: Someone had moved the runway.

At least that’s the only explanation I can come up with. After more than 782 hours flying this airplane, I somehow set up my worst landing since 1980. Instead of softly kissing the asphalt, Tessie dropped sickeningly from the sky with that rollercoaster/broken elevator/falling out of a tree house kind of feel. I shoved the throttle forward, but it was too late.

She slammed down on the pavement with teeth jarring effect. I heard a double crunch from the landing gear, left and right. Felt the punch. Up the gear strut, across the main spar, up into the seat, and through my spine. Then Tess sprang back into the air before dizzyingly falling to earth a second time, for a second pair of crunches. A second pair of seismic shocks. Again, I was catapulted into the air. Power now fully up, she wallowed for a moment, then regained her airplane pride and shot down the runway, slowly gaining altitude. I banked wide and slow, coming back over the runway to reassure myself that I hadn’t left any parts of my landing gear behind, then came around into the pattern and landed again. Which, with two bounces, I guess was the third landing of the day. This time the runway was where it was supposed to be and Tess kissed the pavement softly.

I taxied to the apron and shut down. The latent reverberation of the pair of heavy hits still quivering in my spine, I thanked the ghost of designer Fred Weick for his decision to build the ‘Coupe with robust trailing link landing gear. I slid the door down into the belly, climbed out onto the right wing and dropped to the ground. I ducked under the wing and inspected the gear. It looked fine. Irrationally, I looked up at the bottom of the wing. Nope. No dents in the wing from the gear. I moved around to the other side. It was fine, too. Then I looked to the nose gear.

It was not fine. Not fine at all.

I stared dumbfounded at my nose wheel faring, which appeared to have been nearly shot away by Arab terrorists.

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What… the… hell…?

But that was only the beginning. The big story wasn’t the blown-out back of the faring. No, the big story was at the other end. The very tip of the nose faring was chipped away. Hardly damage worth looking at, it took me a few minutes to process the cause: My own propeller had taken a bite out of the faring.

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I stood to one side and studied the back of my spinner. It wasn’t parallel with the nose, a sure sign of an issue with the engine mounts. Over time, the rubber mounts tend to compress from the weight of the engine and need to be replaced, but these are only six months old. Still, I popped open the cowl, and sure enough, the engine mounts had collapsed. I guess the impact of the hard landing squashed them like bugs. I could feel my wallet getting lighter by the moment.

I had no idea.

The prop now clear of the nose faring, I taxied back to my hanger and emailed my mechanic, who in addition to being an A&P, holds the prestigious IA, or Inspection Authority. I let him know what happened and sent him photos. Then more photos. Then more photos still. He judged the plane safe to ferry. Two days later, I delivered Tess to the two men I had been hoping not to see for a few months, and they got to work. They meticulously inspected the inside of the engine compartment, looking at the firewall for wrinkles (none), each joint of the engine mount for cracks (none), and who knows what else. Then they got to work changing the mounts, discovering in the process that I’d managed to bend the robust pair of bolts in the bottom mounts.

Quite the crunch.

When it was all done, the spinner back still wasn’t perfectly parallel to the cowl, suggesting one of two possibilities: Either it never was, or the entire engine mount had been bent. My guys told me to fly for a while and see if the trim, handling, or speed had changed.

I flew home.

Now we have to detour into envy for a minute, before the rest of the story unfolds. My hangar neighbor, Lisa, has a very different hangar from mine. My hangar has a largely gravel floor, with only a small square of concreate for the plane’s landing gear to perch on. I have some power plugs. But no lights. None of this ever bothered me.

Until Lisa moved in next door.

You see, her hangar has wall-to-wall concrete, and bright, wonderful lights on the ceiling. It’s also insulated. Apparently, at some point in the distant past, NASA used to launch weather balloons from our airport, and they upgraded one of the hangars. NASA is now gone and the upgraded hangar is Warbler’s nest.

I never needed lights until I spent some time in Lisa’s hangar. But not wanting to attempt to install many banks of fluorescent tubes twenty feet off the ground (I know my limits… sometimes), I purchased some work lights on a tripod from Home Depot while the guys were changing the engine mounts on Tess. After landing, I set up the tripod, attached the lights, and plugged them in. My hangar was filled with soft, warm, wonderful halogen-fueled light. It was so stunningly beautiful I decided to pull up a chair and simply soak in the view.

And that’s when I saw it.

Actually, at first, I thought it was just a trick of the light. An artifact of light, shadow, and reflection. Forward of the wing root was a perfect triangular depression in Tessie’s aluminum skin.

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Eventually, concern trumped entropy, and I rose from my chair, aided by my lightened wallet, and made my way to the plane. I softly ran my fingers along her side and sickeningly felt them side deeply into the depression. This was no trick of the light.

More emails. More photos.

The diagnosis: Structural Damage.

 

Ready for her close-up

It all started when I decided I needed a pretty girl. After asking around, the pretty girl expert convinced me that, really, three pretty girls would be better than one. He called it, “Critical mass.” And so it came to pass that three scantily-clad models ended up in my cockpit.

Well, Tessie’s cockpit.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

I was banished to the far side of the apron.

Like many a good tale, it all started in a bar. En route to a SARL air race a couple of years ago, I was eating pig’s ears nachos (don’t knock them until you try them) in an Arkansas bar, when I had a revelation. On the wall was a gigantic high-def TV showing a NASCAR race. Holy cow. And people think air racing is dangerous! Anyway, the winner of the day—a clean-cut, baby-faced pup who looked barely old enough to drive—was surrounded by hot, leggy, busty blondes with bare midriffs, low-cut necklines, and super-short skirts when he accepted his trophy.

Now that’s the way to win a race.

Then I got to thinking about the Kentucky Derby. There’s always a babe involved in giving the horse the flowers and the jockey the trophy, right?

So what the hell is wrong with us air racers? Surely, we rate as high as the Sport of Kings and the King of TV sports. I vowed right then and there that if I ever hosted an air race, I’d make sure there was some eye candy on hand at the podium.

Then, and I don’t remember how this happened, but probably it also involved a bar, I agreed to be the coordinator of the National Ercoupe convention. It’s turned into a full-time job, interfered no end with my writing work, and stressed me out beyond belief. I’ve had to arrange for hotel rooms, transportation, fuel discounts, tiedowns, donations for our charity auction, T-shirts, patches, signs and banners, name tags, and food, food, food. Oh. And booze, of course.

But I’ve put together a program I’m pretty proud of that includes an awesome resort HQ, a group fly-out to Spaceport America, and a banquet at an airplane museum. And, because it was my convention to do with what I please, and I’m an air racer, I decided to include a little air race as part of the fun. Which is why I needed the pretty girl.

Which, in today’s world, of course, can be an edgy subject.

I started with the lady who runs the economic development department for the City of Las Cruces, the host city. She’s a head-turner herself, but as a woman with a PhD, I didn’t think she had the right personality for the job, if you know what I mean. But I explained the tradition of babes and races and the atmosphere I was after, and asked her for help. I had considered a modeling agency, or University cheerleaders, and I even thought there might be a local beauty queen, a Miss Las Cruces or whatever. The city lady connected me with the pretty girl expert—a man connected to all levels of talent and events in southern New Mexico. He understood what we needed at once. “So it’s like a car show,” he said, “only with wings.”

Exactly.

I originally figured I just needed one girl to hand out the trophies, but the pretty girl expert convinced me otherwise with his critical mass argument. One girl in a short skirt in front of a bunch of old men can feel… well… uncomfortable. But in a pack, girls apparently come alive. Strength in numbers. I could see the logic. I signed on for three, but then was told I’d better have four to ensure that three showed up. Apparently, these aren’t the most dependable sorts of people.

So who are these girls? The pretty girl expert felt the best solution for my event was amateur models. Some of these models are young ladies who aspire to be professional models. Others just find the action fun and exciting. Feminists will disagree, but trust me, there are women who enjoy being the center of attention based solely on their looks. They like it, know how to work it, and it’s good for their egos–so if everyone enjoys it, where’s the harm?

These girls, now known as the Derby Dolls, will wave the green and checkered flags, circulate through the crowd to pose for selfies with the pilots, present the medals and trophies to the racers, and basically just create the ambiance of the NASCAR race I watched over pig’s the ears nachos in an Arkansas bar.

Now, I’m not sure how the next part of our tale happened, but in recruiting the pretty girls, the pretty girl expert contacted a pretty girl photographer that he knew. The photographer had lots of pictures of pretty girls with cars. And lots of pictures of pretty girls with motorcycles. But no pictures of pretty girls with airplanes, which, clearly, his portfolio needed. Nor did his models have any pictures of themselves with airplanes, which, clearly, they needed, too. So I was asked, if the photographer would donate his time and round up some pretty girls, would I bring a different type of pretty girl to the photo shoot?

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

So my favorite blue and white pretty girl became a prop with a prop. The photographer also brought out some high-testosterone rolling stock and created a variety of settings with Tess, the models, and the hotrods.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

It didn’t take long for the airport community to take an interest in the action, either. In particular, in the hangar next to the photo shoot, is a helicopter maintenance facility; and their mechanics lined up on the edge of the apron to watch the fun, even brining out a boom box, playing the Top Gun sound track for the models to jam to.

The entire process wasn’t like anything I’d ever been exposed to. It took forever to get the plane parked just right, longer for the models to change their clothes and touch up their makeup, then we had to wait for the right light, or pull the plane out of passing sprinkles of rain.

The girls were dressed… well, borderline trashy, in a flashy teen-fantasy pin-up kind of way; but the photographer, while knowing how to pose them, was 100% respectful.

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It was interesting watching the shooter communicate with the models, watching his hand signals letting them know when he was going to press the shutter, sharing the previews on the back of the camera, watching the models recognize—even on that tiniest of screens—that one lock of hair was out of place.

They were all “car people,” the models, the photographer, and the drivers who came out with the hot rods, a separate subculture from us plane people. It was fascinating, like visiting another country. But we all got along great and what I thought would take an hour or two ran all day long and didn’t end until the sun was setting.

So how was my day with three models? Not what you’d expect.

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Lisa F. Bentson, Zia Aerial Imaging

The models showed zero interest in me, a National Champion Air Racer—which is probably just as well. They paid attention as I told them how to safely get in and out of Race 53 without hurting themselves or Tess, but that was about it.

But you know what? I doubt that puppy-faced NASCAR driver got any attention either, and I got one hell of a Plane Tale out of the deal.

Plus, I have a pretty girl… well, three… for my race.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

 

Politics, but not as usual

Col. Martha McSally wasted her time and money writing to me, but I’m glad she did, because, boy, is this ever a plane tale!

It all started at my mailbox in the post office. Nestled in a pile of bills and mail order catalogs from outfits I’ve never ordered from is a thickish envelope from Arizona. Inside is a letter and a card. The card is a thick, lovely, deep rich red with a cut-out of an A-10 Warthog on it. I’m intrigued.

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I open the card, and like the pop-up books of my childhood, the A-10 takes flight.

This is the coolest thing ever!

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But what’s it for?

Ah. The good Colonel is running for the U.S. Senate. In Arizona? So why the heck is she writing to me? The dead frequently vote in my state of New Mexico, but neither our living nor our dead have reputations for voting in other people’s states, even ones a short flight away.

Her letter to me says she served in the USAF for 26 years and was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat; and that she then went on to log a total of 350 combat hours. She’s also a U.S. Congress Woman. Impressive. But I wonder if her campaign has filed the wrong flight plan in contacting me? I read on.

Her letter states, “I’ve sent you the enclosed pop-up replica of the A-10 ‘Warthog’ that I flew in combat to bring us back to our core roots—national security—while I seek to enlist your personal help and support.”

Then she asks me for $2,700.

In fact, not only does she ask me for $2,700, she asks me to “rush” her a check before I even put her letter down to prominently display my new pop-up A-10 Warthog. That struck me as an odd amount of money to ask for, but it turns out that’s the maximum that the Federal Election Commission allows youto give a candidate in each of his or her elections; and she’s fishing for the most money she can get. She says that it cost her over five million dollars to “dominate the GOP primary” and she needs to rebuild her war chest for the next phase of the battle. Ya gotta love all this military language.

I did prominently display my new pop-up A-10 Warthog, but I didn’t send her a check.

Now, here at Plane Tales we follow the old rules of the Western stage coaches: We don’t talk politics. But I will say this: As a general rule I don’t donate to political campaigns. I think there’s too much money in elections, and I’m not going to make the problem worse. Even if I were going to make an exception, I don’t think it would be to help fund a race in a neighboring state.

But I will say: Thank you, Colonel, for your service to our nation.

And thank you for the cool card.

 

High fliers

We’re perched atop the dome of the sky, the world below stretching out to infinity. In my mind’s eye I can nearly picture the curve of the earth, gently sliding off left and right like the slope of a gentle hill.

This is a whole ‘nother kind of flying for Tess, altogether. Not our usual down in the dust barnstorming. As the altimeter slides past 11,000 feet I pause to wonder what her service ceiling—the maximum point above the earth that Tessie’s engine and airfoils can deliver her to—really is. Yeah, I know the book value is 13,000 feet. The book, in this case, being the Wikipedia entry on Ercoupes. When Tess was built, owner’s manuals, at least for airplanes, hadn’t been invented yet. But every ‘Coupe is different. What can my girl really do?

At 11,300 feet above the oceans of the earth, she’s still showing no signs of slowing down. Part of me wants to take her to the apex of her capability, just for the science of it, but I’m already stretching the law as it is. You see, the part of my license I’m flying on caps me at 10,000 feet above sea level, with one exception, which is the one I’m using now. The rules let sport pilots, or pilots flying under the light sport privileges of any higher license, exceed 10,000 feet when it’s necessary to go higher to stay 2,000 feet above the ground—like for instance, when crossing a mountain range—which is what I’m preparing to do now.

Of course, even though I’m climbing steadily, fiddling with the fuel-air mixture of the engine as I rise to keep it running strong, it’s no fast process. If I stayed exactly 2K above the ground the whole way, I’d smack right into Mount Terrell about half way up. So I got a head start on my climb as we headed down the Sevier River Valley south of Spanish Fork, getting ready to cross from the Western Slope of the Rockies, over the Great Divide, to the East Slope. I have faith that the FAA, now more safety focused than letter-of-the-law focused, will judge me to be in the spirit of the law.

Unless I were to attempt 13,000 feet to cross a 9,318-foot mountain pass. That would be stretching their good nature too far, I suspect, and not be in the spirit of the law whatsoever. So I stop climbing and turn left toward the gap in the mountains.

Beneath our belly the ground is now more than five thousand feet below, but that number rapidly unwinds as the terrain rears up. Forty-five hundred… four thousand… three thousand five hundred… three thousand feet… two thousand five hundred… The mountain is climbing faster than I ever would have been able too. Over the apex of the saddle between the eleven-thousand-foot peaks, my GPS shows me at a legal and comfortable 1,982 feet above the rocks below.

As I pass out of the mountain’s jaws I slide the throttle backward and Tess drops down from the heavens like a fallen angel. Our course is Eastbound, so I let her fall to 9,500 feet above the world’s oceans, which here in the heart of the country are  more than a thousand miles away, then I bring the power back up to hold the altitude, relishing the feeling of being on top of the world.

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Fully legal both in spirit and the letter of the law, but still a high flier.

 

Milestones

I happened to look down at just the right moment to catch the odometer roll 4,000. It was pure luck. The impending event wasn’t even on my mental horizon. Not true of my father. He kept a hawk-like eye on his odometer, and every time there was a big roll coming he’d announce it well down the road and all three of us kids (always in the back) would unbuckle and cluster in a pack behind his seat, looking over his shoulder in awe as the chain of numbers quickly rolled over, died, and zeros took their places.

This odometer, however, was taking its sweet time. Of course, I guess it’s not really an odometer, which is a device for measuring miles driven in a car. This is a similar-looking device on Tess’s tachometer that measures the total run time of her engine in hours. Still, as the word “odometer” is derived from the ancient Greek words hodós, meaning trip, and métron, meaning measure; my aerial odometer is still in the spirit of the word—measuring trips though the sky.

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High above Canyon Lands, watching the 9s lazily replaced with zeros, I was momentarily a small child in my father’s Chevrolet Vista Cruiser again, looking over his shoulder to watch the odometer mark another milestone of family travel as he barreled down some desolate road in Indian Country.

Tess now has 4,000 hours of plying the sky. Which, for a small airplane, is a fair number, more than average for an Ercoupe. That girl just loves to fly. Of course, I know that the number is largely fantasy. The chain of four black numbers and one white one are all driven by the RPM of the engine, meaning it turns more slowly during idle and taxi, and faster during full-power climb outs. It’s also not Tess’s original tach, nor do we have all her logbooks so we can really know how much flight time she has, but all of that said, her mechanic set the numbers on her aerial odometer to his best guess of her total airframe time.

So the slow motion replacement of 3,999.9 with 4,000.0 might not have happened at the true instant she surpassed her four-thousandth hour, but it’s close. And a pretty cool experience.

My father would have loved it.

Today, my personal odometer is also rolling over, marking both another year on the planet and in the sky above it. Yep. Our usual Friday publication date just happens to land on my birthday this year. My odometer just rolled from 54.9 to 55.0, or it will a little after lunchtime this afternoon.

To be honest, I don’t give my age much thought, at least not since I had to stop lying about it to buy beer. But with Tess rolling 4K, and me marking a birthday, I couldn’t help but engage in a flight of fancy about age. Tess’s birthday, based on the date stamped on her manufacturing plate, is May 5, 1947, making her 71 this year. Airplanes being eternal, she’ll be 100 years old in 2,047. That will be under Rio’s watch, although at 84, I could very well still be around.

I would very much like to fly her on her 100thbirthday.

And if by some miracle I live to be 100 years old, Tess would then be 116 years old; which is kinda funny, as I always think of her as so much older than I; but really, she’s only a hair more than a decade and a half up on me.

Still, could Tess really last more than a hundred years?

Why not? Flight as we know it turns 115 years old this December with the anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, and the airplane that made that flight still exists in the Smithsonian, although granted it’s not flying—but I bet it could. And plenty of airplanes much older than Tess still ply the skies.

Properly cared for, their years and hours roll on. One thing is for sure, when my aerial odometer gets ready to roll five thousand, I’ll be paying close attention.

With the spirit of my father looking on over my shoulder.

 

Text (1) if you are alive; text (2) if you are dead

I open my logbook. A moth flies out. Well, at least someoneis flying.

Actually, thanks to my buddy Lisa losing her mind and buying an airplane, I’ve been in the air almost every week—except for those three weeks when Warbler was broken down. But flying with Lisa nowadays isn’t reallyflying. Her skill level has crossed that magic plateau every pilot-in-training experiences: One hour it looks hopeless, the next hour it all comes together, and she’s been flying like an ol’ pro ever since.

So my flying with Lisa isn’t so much flying, as riding in an airplane enjoying the view. But, still, it’s not a bad way to spend a morning. And the way the FAA regs are written, I still get to log the time. But what I’m lacking is some logging of flight in my soul, and there’s only one plane to do that in: Tessie.

But it’s been a bad year for poor Tess. We had that five-month engine rebuild debacle; then the prop repitch, re-repitch, re-re-repitch; then the weird oil leaks; then the leaky header tank; then the radio problems; then the stuck controls; then the broken exhaust; then the wing gas tank rebuild; then the problems with the elevator adjustment; and… Did I leave anything out? Probably. I try not to think about these things too much, and the aviation maintenance suicide prevention hot line at the NFFAis really getting tired of my calls.

After coming out of a six-week-long annual in June, Tess immediately began to overheat. Badly. There was much back and forth about possible causes, and in the end, I made the decision to let a different maintenance team take a crack at the issue. Mere days out of her annual I delivered Tess to a field on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico and then waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Of course, I’m not very good at waiting. And it’s not like I just sat idlily by. I called and emailed. And always there was an excuse for the delay. And always a promise of a new date. Finally, at the two month point the Eastern Planes guys admitted they had not even startedthe promised work.

I blew a gasket, got in a car (with wife and child in tow to bring the car back home), and went to go pick up the damned airplane. When I got there and tried to start Tess, she had no oil pressure. They pulled the top plugs and the oil filter and had me swing the prop with the mags off, using the starter. This should have pumped oil. It didn’t. It looked like the oil pump, hidden deep down inside the engine case, had died.

It was less than sixty hours old.

I’m sure you can imagine my state of mind.

As a last-ditch effort, they plugged the breather tube and applied compressed air to the oil system and we tried again. We struck oil. It was a gusher. They decided it was something called an “air lock” somewhere in the oil system, or maybe some debris. I don’t know about that, but afterward my mystery overheating disappeared.

I flew Tess home without incident. Then I flew her hard the next day, just trying to overheat her. She was as good as new. The old Tessie was back, and both she and I were thirsty for adventure.

We didn’t have long to wait.

Because that very same afternoon—as I sat in the back seat of Deb’s Jeep as the nuclear family drove to Albuquerque to fetch Grandma Jean, who was flying home commercially after a visit to sister number two and family in Colorado—I was checking my email. There was a ton of chatter on the Sport Air Racing League discussion board about the upcoming weekend’s race. I guess I must have been grumbling out loud about missing out on the action because Deb turned her head and said: “Go.”

I grumbled there wasn’t time. I’d have to leave in 12 hours.

“Go,” said Debbie.

I’d have to do laundry, and pack, and flight plan, and…

“Go, already,” said Debbie.

So I did. After crazy-fast late-night prep, Lisa and I are now south of Santa Fe with five hundred miles to go, enjoying a smooth early morning ride, and watching the temperature gauges like hawks, when I get a text on my Apple watch.

It says: “Are you dead?”

Well, that wasn’t quite what it said. It really said: “Leidos Flt Svc Advisory–N3967H–TRACK LOST@241252–If not in distress–Contact Flt Svcs.”

Which is pretty much the same thing as, “Are you dead?”

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But it’s not the type of text you expect to get in an airplane. At least I didn’t expect it, nor had I ever seen anything like it before. Now, for quick background on this first-time-for-me text, you need to know that after writing an article on flight plans, I got inspired and started using the modern and super-easy flight plan filing system where everything is done by computer and smart phone, a methodology which ideally suits my antisocial personality (and least when it comes to talking to authority). And a totally new-for-me option is to link my flight plan and my Spot GPS tracker. If the tracker stops tracking—i.e. moving—then rescue efforts are started right away, rather than waiting until after you’re overdue and presumed missing en route.

Apparently, our tracker had stopped tracking.

We dug the tracker out of the back, and sure enough, it had lost the signal. We re-booted it. No joy. The batteries were too low. To flight service we were flying along just fine one minute, and the next we had vanished. Needless to say, we needed to check in and let them know notto launch search and rescue.

But I’ve gotten so used to dealing with flight service via text message, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to contact them using something as old fashioned as a radio. I mean, seriously, I can open and close my flight plans by texting single letters and numbers to them. Why on earth couldn’t they have just texted: TRACK LOST, text (1) if you are OK, text (2) if you need help?

But that wasn’t an option. In my mind’s eye I could see the slide in my Rusty Pilots PowerPoint presentation that shows the universal frequency for flight service. But my mind’s eye apparently needs bifocals; as I couldn’t focus on the long—for me—unused frequency.

“You have the plane,” I told Lisa.

She quickly grabbed the controls, “I have the plane.”

I whipped out my phone (thankfully we were near civilization and I had three bars). I used Google to look up the frequency for Flight Service:122.2. You’d think I could remember a number like that) and proceeded to make my usual fool of myself on the radio. “Uh… hello? Flight service, are you there? Yes, we’re fine. Umm.. thanks for asking. How are you? Oh, right, I’m the pane you’re worried about. I got your text. We’re not dead. It’s just the battery that went dead. Don’t call out the guard or anything. Err…Thanks again. Uh… have a nice day.”

OK, it wasn’t quite that bad, but the exchange felt awkward to me, and less professional than I envision myself. Still, they were happy to know we were still in the air, and wished us a good flight.

And the rest of it was. The plane behaved. The weather behaved. Not only were we alive, but I felt alive again.

 

The triumphant return of Warbler

“You warned her,” said Debbie.

“Seeing all we’ve been through up close and personal, you’d think she’d have known better,” said Mom.

“This is what she gets for buying an Ercoupe,” said Rio.

My family is lacking in, you know, basic human compassion. Sure, I knew that sooner or later—probably sooner—Lisa’s Warbler would suffer his first breakdownon her watch. But still, I felt badly for her.

Now, you may recall that the consensus from all the experts we phoned, after pushing Warbler almost a mile across the airport to get him back to his nest, was that he was suffering from a stuck valve; albeit one that was manifesting in a way that no one had really heard of before, what with the prop stuck fast turning one direction, and freely spinning in the other.

But they were all wrong.

This is the Tale: The very next weekend Lisa’s mechanic drove over from Santa Fe with a trunk load full of tools. He did some tests, poked, prodded, and basically did all the stuff that airplane doctors do to sick airplanes. Rio and I hung out in the back of Lisa’s hangar, rocking back and forth in her rocking camp chairs, staying out of the way, and pretending to surf the internet on our iPads.

Really, we were eavesdropping—drinking in every word.

After a bit, her wrench-turner decided to fire up the plane. We helped pull Warbler out of his hangar and he fired right up. Lisa was in the cockpit, the mechanic, Rio, and I arranged in a loose ring around the plane, heads cocked, ears aimed at the engine. It sounded, well, not quite right. Or did it? I’d rarely been outside of Warbler listening to his powerplant sing.

This was followed by a comic series of hand signs and pantomimes between Lisa and her mechanic. It became pretty clear that they weren’t speaking the same language. The various finger pointing, hand swirling, and gestures mimicked two drunken deaf people leaving a bar and arguing in sign language over whether or not to call a cab. She was saying that in the cockpit, the noise was back. He was saying that outside, it sounded fine.

Rio looked at me and shrugged one shoulder. At least he and I were talking the same language.

Eventually Lisa throttled up and then we all knew something was amiss. In Warbler’s tongue, he made it clear that something was very wrong with his engine. The mechanic moved his hand quickly back and forth across his throat and suddenly he and Lisa were speaking the same language. She cut the engine.

I was secretly relieved. Airplanes sometimes behave themselves for their mechanics, only to act up again as soon as the “parent” is out of the room. I was afraid the man would find nothing, leave, and suddenly Warbler would be back to his antics. At least—no matter what the problem might be—the mechanic was now witness to it, could hopefully figure it out, and then fix it.

The sun beating down, we pushed Warbler back into the shade of his hangar. The mechanic started rocking the prop back and forth when some movement in the engine compartment caught his eye. I missed what he said, but a moment later his head was inside the engine compartment on one side, and Lisa’s head was inside the engine compartment on the other side.

Now, if you don’t already know this, the latest and greatest in airplane engines is about as technically evolved as a 1932 gasoline-powered lawn mower. They haven’t changed much in eons. Of course, Warbler’s engine is only one year younger than Warbler himself. He was born in 1946, and his current engine rolled off the Continental assembly line a year later in 1947. I guess engines can’t really roll off of assembly lines, now can they? Well, however it was moved off, it was originally bolted onto the nose of a brand-spanking-new Cessna 140. That airplane later got an upgrade to a more powerful engine, and the cast-off original engine from that plane somehow found its way to Lisa’s plane in the following decades.

And you think your family history is complicated.

But back to engine tech: An airplane engine generates power from controlled explosions of a gas and air mixture in each cylinder, which drives the piston downwards. The match for these explosions is the spark plug. Airplane spark plugs get their sparks from spinning magnets called magnetos. If the magneto were to stop, the pulses of electricity they make would stop, the spark plugs would stop sparking, and the airplane’s engine would stop. Which would be bad.

Accordingly, airplanes have two magnetos. Just for in case.

The magnetos are bolted to the back of the engine and are driven by gears inside the crankcase. Once the engine is running, itis spinning the mags that keep it running. It’s really quite clever. At least until one of your two magnetos comes completely apart.

And that’s what happened to Warbler. All four screws that held the two clamshell halves of the right magneto together were missing, the case had come apart, and the mechanism was shredded and stripped.

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Luckily—if these kinds of breakdowns can have any luck about them at all—the damage was to the outside end of the mag, not the part where it attaches to the engine. Those gears were all fine.

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The solution was ordering a new mag. Well, returning the half-demolished “core” and purchasing a refurib’d replacement. “What’s this going to cost me?” Lisa asked her mechanic.

He shrugged, “I dunno. Probably a thousand bucks.” Then after a few beats of silence he added, “All airplane parts cost a thousand bucks.”

Of course, add to that two house calls, as Warbler isn’t flyable with one mag off, and the innards of his engine exposed to the elements…

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Her mechanic wrapped up the damaged mag in a small blanket, like an orphan baby, and drove away in a cloud of dust. Tess still broken down in another city, there was nothing left to do but break out the bourbon.

Now I know what you are thinking: How the heck could all four screws work loose? Did someone forget to replace them after working on the mag? We’ve asked ourselves that; over and over and over again. But like the question about whether or not there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, this is one of those questions we will never likely learn the answer to. On the surface, it looks like a maintenance failure. Like someone forgot to put the screws back in. But looking though the logs, the mags hadn’t been worked on for a looooongtime. So on the one hand it seems unlikely that all the screws could fall out, but on the other hand, if they were never there, how could the plane have flown so long?

Before every takeoff, pilots independently check both mags by using the ignition key to run what is called a mag check. Lisa was religious about doing hers. The right mag always ran rougher, as one or the other of the pair often do in airplanes, but the darn thing was always running. Heck, it was running when she did the engine runup for her mechanic right before the whole mess was discovered. We spent a lot of time talking about the flight hours and the various maintenance log entries from before and after Lisa took over as caretaker of Warbler.

In fact, we spent the next two weeks doing nothing but that until her mechanic came back to SXU with a shinny “new” mag. He bolted it on, then fussed around with the prop and a small beeping box, adjusting the timing of the mag so it would spark neither too early nor too late.

When he was done, it was out into the sun for Warbler, for an engine test. He sang his throaty song, clear and bright. Even on the right mag alone. Problem solved, right?

Not necessarily. The problem with the mag didn’t rule out the possibility that there was alsoa valve problem. One that wouldn’t show up until after the engine had been running at full power for a while. A test flight was needed.

Now, Lisa’s mechanic is a pilot, too. Some flying mechanics insist on test flying their work, others don’t. He’s one of those that don’t.

As we hadn’t broken out the bourdon yet, I pulled up my big boy pants, pulled on my Chuck Yeager boots, and climbed into Warbler’s cockpit.

“Stay within gliding distance of the runway,” Lisa’s mechanic told me.

Roger that.

I spent the next half hour circling the field by myself, bored to death. It was bumpy as the dickens. Finally, fuel running low, Warbler and I returned to earth. There was no valve problem.

Lisa paid off her mechanic and he disappeared in a cloud of dust. She turned to me and said, “I really need to fly. You know, not train. Just. Go. Fly. Understand?”

I understood. We climbed in, belted in, and headed out. She carefully checked her mags and ran up her engine. The takeoff on Runway One-Ninner was smooth and as she turned and flew down the Pecos River Canyon south of the airport the choppiness I’d experienced in the atmosphere over the airport disappeared.

I turned and looked at Lisa at Warbler’s helm, and watched a metamorphosis take place. For the last two weeks, Lisa had been a woman of stone. Her eyes narrow, scowling, dull and flint-like. Her jaw tight, the usual smile absent, replaced by a horizon-straight slit. Her shoulders hunched tight to her neck. Now that all began to melt away. Her shoulders relaxed and dropped, her eyes widened and lit afire anew, and a smile danced at the corners of her mouth, slowly spreading like the growing dawn until her entire face was a picture of pure joy.

The magic of flight was erasing the stresses of doubt, fear, and expense that had hung over her like a dark shadow for the last two weeks.

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Yeah. They have their challenges, but this is why we own airplanes.

 

Bull, but not like you think

My bedtime reading this month is Gordon Baxter’s Bax Seat. He’s a hoot to read. If you’ve never experienced him, file a flight plan to Amazon and pick up a copy of one of his books. Right now, I’m knee deep in the chapter, “A little orange-and-white airplane,” about his first airplane.

It’s a love story.

As a side note—and Bax was famous for his side notes—he mentions that his plane was born February 27, 1968, which makes her a Pisces. That struck a chord with me, but to be honest, I’d never thought twice about Tess’s Zodiac sign. I put the book down and headed for a computer.

My little blue-and-white love is, as it turns out, a Taurus.

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Sidney Hall, 1824 from OpenClipArt.org

Not knowing—or caring—much about horoscopes and the like, I had to do some research. According to Uncle Google, Taurians are reliable (ha!), practical, ambitious, and sensual (how true). Oddly, they are apparently earth signs, which seems odd to me for an airplane. I wasn’t sure how all this was stacking up, and it wasn’t improving my option about all things Zodiac until I picked up two little tidbits.

The first was the Taurus motto: “Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy.” Now that describes airplane ownership! And the second was the perfect love matches. Apparently, the top matches for a Taurus are Virgo, Capricorn, or Pisces.

I’m a Virgo.

Tess’s owner, Grandma Jean, is a Capricorn.

And Rio, Tess’s next caretaker, is a Pisces.

Sounds to me like matches made in the heavens.

 

Turbulence Tale

Wolf Creek Pass (way up on the great divide) behind me, I dropped the Robin’s egg blue Piper Warrior down into the loving arms of the San Luis Valley. The air was smooth, the hard part of the trip was behind me. I trimmed the plane for level hands-off flight, sat back, and pulled a Camel Hard Pack and a Zippo from the sleeve pocket of my flight jacket. I tapped a cancer stick free of the box, lit up, then snapped the lighter shut one-handed, enjoying the satisfying snap-clunksound of the Zippo as I exhaled a stream of blue-grey smoke towards the cabin roof.

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Ain’t life grand? What a view. I inhaled deeply, the tip of the cigarette glowing bright orange for a moment, and scanned my instruments. What a lovely panel, midnight black with a bank of avionics that exceeded my net worth five times over. Enough dials, switches, and needles to make me feel like I was a full-grown adult flying a corporate jet, not a teenage boy in a four-seat put-put.

The next order of business was lunch. I tore open a bag of Fritos and positioned them on my lap. I was reaching for the can of Pepsi when Bam!

My seat belt dug into my gut. My head hit the ceiling. And a cloud of yellow Frito chips levitated out of the bag, dancing, suspended in air around my face like a swarm of giant mosquitos, turning and twisting as if in the zero gravity of space.

Then everything was deathly still. The plane calm. Fritos rained noiselessly down from the ceiling, bouncing off the throttle quad, the glare screen, and the empty copilot’s seat. Holy shit. I looked left. The left wing was still on. I looked right. The right wing was still on. Hand shaking, I gently took the yoke. Gentle bank left. Gentle bank right. Nose up. Nose down. Everything is working as it should. What the hell…?

Then I realized: I’d just had my first encounter with clear air turbulence, what pilots call a pot hole in the sky. It was just an angry patch of air in an otherwise friendly atmosphere. I’ve learned since, by experience, that these isolated butt-kickers pack a bigger wallop than the turbulence you get when the whole sky is in chaos, but I’m not sure why. It’s just one of those things.

I scooped the Fritos from the copilot’s seat into my mouth, and thought better of opening the can of Pepsi, just in case another pot hole was lurking ahead in the deep blue sky.

When I landed at KGXY, after slipping over the last bastion of the Rockies at La Veta Pass and flying IFR up Interstate 25, I parked at the furthest tiedown spot from the Imperial Aviation building so I could surreptitiously clean up the mess. Everybody smoked in their planes in those days. But Fritos? That was a no-no.

I thought I did a pretty good job, but about three days later one of the instructors stopped me on the ramp, “Hey, Wil, the weirdest thing happened the other day. I dropped one of the checklists on the floor when I was pre-flighting Eight Two Charlie and there was a ton of Fritolay chips under the pilot’s seat. You know anything about that?”

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“Nope,” I lied with a straight face, “if I was going to have Fritos in the plane, I’d eat them, not pour them out on the carpet under the seat. But I do smoke in the plane all the time.”

“Yeah, yeah, well, we all do that,” said the instructor, snapping his Zippo shut one handed and blowing a stream of blue-grey smoke towards the flight line. His eyes narrowed as he studied the distant horizon, “Huh, I wonder where the heck those chips came from?”

 

A new organization for real pilots

“Excuse me, lady, is this where the meeting of the N-F-F-A is being held?” I asked, adjusting my flight jacket, the one that’s never been flying, and looking around hopefully for people who look, you know, something like me.

You see, it’s not just birds of a feather that flock together, we humans do, too. We enjoy the company of people who are, well, like us. And when it comes to flying, there’s no end of such organizations, I know, because at one time or another, I’ve been a member of most of them, including:

 

The Airborne Law Enforcement Association.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, known as AOPA.

The Aviation Association of Santa Fe.

The Brodhead Pietenpol Association.

The Civil Air Patrol, or CAP.

The Commemorative Air Force.

The Ercoupe Owners Club.

The Experimental Aircraft Association, known as EAA.

The Hat in the Ring Society.

The International Aerobatic Club.

The National Aeronautic Association, known as the NAA.

The Reno Air Racing Association.

The New Mexico Pilots Association.

The Silver Wings Fraternity.

The Society of Aviation and Flight Educators, known as SAFE.

The Sport Air Racing League, or SARL.

The Vintage Aircraft Association.

 

My, my, my. I’m quite the little joiner, aren’t I? And I’ve probably been a member of seventeen other flying organizations that I’ve completely forgotten about. But that said, I’ve let my membership in most of these outfits lapse. Why? Well, I don’t really fit in. Or more correctly said, none of these associations, clubs, coalitions, confederations, cooperatives, federations, fraternities, guilds, leagues, organizations, and societies fit me. They don’t serve the needs of pilots like me. And I bet I’m not the only one.

So I decided to start my very own organization.

An organization for mutual support for real pilots and real flying. One that will give us kinship of common cause. One that will show us that we are not alone. One that will give us the support of our peers. One that will let us share our experiences with sympathetic ears, and get the counsel of the more experienced. One that genuinely represents our needs and helps us with the true realities that go hand-in-hand with the dual dreams of flight and of airplane ownership. One that recognizes the painful side of flight and the dark side of airplane ownership. Yes, an association that will keep the dream of flight alive for its members while their planes languish in the hangars of their mechanics.

In short, a club for people like me with airplanes that always seem to be broken down.

I’m going to call it the Non-Flying Fliers Association, or, in the aviation tradition of abbreviating everything, the NFFA. Our motto will be “All the same money, none of the fun.” I even came up with a swank logo:

 

Sick Ercoupe art

 

I couldn’t wait. I fired off emails to all my pilot friends. They all thought the new association was a great idea, but none of them could spare any money for dues.

All their planes are broken down.