Not quite home yet

Tess finally made bail. Her mechanics called to say they’d finished the latest round of repairs: The new header tank was in; the leaking oil sump quick drain had been replaced; and the fuel pump gasket was squared away. Come pick her up.

Reviewing the invoice, I saw that changing the fuel tank gobbled up thirty-two man hours. They had to disconnect the sundry fuel lines, unhook all the controls and cables in the cockpit, remove most of the radios and other modern gear, unbolt the tank from its brackets, drop it to the floor, then maneuver it up over the seat and out through the top of the canopy. Then they had to do the opposite with the new tank, then bolt it in place, reinstall the radios and other modern gear, hook up all the cockpit cables and controls, and connect all the sundry fuel lines to the new tank.

This is considered a “plug and play” installation by one Ercoupe expert I talked to about swapping header tanks.

I also noticed the shop rate had gone up ten dollars an hour from the last invoice. My pay has not. I dealt with that by buying a T-shirt that says: “Welcome to aviation. You are now broke.” It seemed like the right thing to do with the last $14.99 in my retirement fund.

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But at least the latest round was behind me. And there’s really not much left on the plane that hasn’t been either refurbished or replaced. Tess isn’t a 1947 Ercoupe any more. She’s a 2013-2014-2015-2016-2017-2018 model. All she really needs now is a new paint job. But that’s a tale for another day.

I handed my mechanic another check that had a number which included a comma, and sat down on his leather couch to check the weather. Ut-oh. It was getting windy back home. In Santa Fe it was as nice as it could be. In Santa Rosa the wind was 18 miles per hour. Gusting to 30.

I don’t like gusting, especially when the gusts are nearly double the base wind speed. It makes for unnecessarily exciting landings.

The winds were forecast to remain high until sunset. Aw, hell.

I had a decision to make. Ercoupes are great crosswind planes. Because their landing gear lets them land practically sideways, they can handle wind better than pretty much any plane out there. And I’ve landed in some pretty hairy wind. But there’s a difference between landing in hairy wind when you have to, and choosing to go and put yourself out in a hairy situation. I was confident I could do it, but was it worth it? Just to get the plane back home again?

I grumbled to myself for a while, and finally, my chief mechanic, who had been sitting politely at his desk said, “I’m going to go back to work while you make up your mind,” and then disappeared out his office door into his hangar where two Civil Air Patrol planes were getting annuals and a local flight school 172 was getting its bent firewall replaced following a nose-heavy landing by a student pilot.

I looked to the next day’s weather. It, too, was windy as the dickens. But the day after was forecast to be lovely. Doubting myself, as always when it comes to this kind of thing, I choose to wait. I wandered out into the hangar, then outside where Tess was tied down. I put her gustlock in place, grabbed the keys, buttoned up the canopy, patted her on the spinner and went back to the car.

At Starbucks thirty minutes later I found myself checking the wind again, just to reassure myself it was still windy and that I’d made a good call.

It was still windy.

I ran a few errands then headed home, to find the wind had gone home to where ever it lives as well. It was a calm evening. If I’d just waited an hour or two the flight, and landing would have been uneventful.

I kicked myself, but I also knew the old adage it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. The weather the day after tomorrow is still forecast to be lovely. And Tess is happy to wait.

 

Raid and Search

Lisa was somewhere under the plane, scooting around on the wheeled creeper checking screws and rivets on the plane’s belly. I could hear her contented humming over the dull gong—gong—gong—gong of the hangar doors as they shifted and moved in the wind. It was a blustery day out so we’d buttoned up the hangar for preflight, leaving us in dim light, but warm. I was sitting in the cockpit re-attaching the iPad mount to the panel. Its suction cups had come loose again and it fell off and banged me in the knee when I climbed into the cockpit to check the Hobbs reading.

To get the bracket positioned correctly I had to hunch down and peer upwards from underneath it, and despite having tri-focals, I couldn’t get any of the three lenses to line up right so that I could see what I was doing. I took my glasses off, reached up blindly, and set them somewhere on the glare shield above me.

Outside I heard the crunch of car tires on gravel and doors slamming. Must be the city workers either getting or depositing files in the hangar next door, I thought. Then there was a sharp wrap on the metal door. My door. I sat up straight and felt around for my glasses. Suddenly, bright sunlight flooded in as the hangar doors were yanked abruptly back, blinding me. As I blinked and squinted, the dark shapes of six uniformed men entered the hangar, three coming up on each side of the cockpit. In a deep voice one barked, “We have a warrant for your arrest.”

The happy humming from underneath the plane ceased.

I couldn’t process what was happening. “Huh?” I finally managed to squeak, my hands frantically searching for my glasses. I couldn’t recall doing anything arrest-worthy. Not recently. Not ever, really. I live a pretty square life. Could it be a case of mistaken identity? My fingers located the frames and I slipped my glasses onto my face. The towering blue blurs of the cops snapped into focus. There were two local cops, and one state cop. But the other three were two uniformed paramedics and the airport manager, who was wearing a police-style jacket and a big grin on his face.

Then all the men starting laughing.

“Just teasing,” announced the airport manager, “actually we need your help.”

Then he told me that a boy who lived next to the airport had reported that a plane taking off that morning didn’t sound right. This kid hears a lot of airplanes. Apparently some odd transmissions had been heard by someone else, and Center couldn’t raise the pair of aerial mapping planes that had been working out of SXU for the last week. The local emergency responders were worried that they had gone down. Would we mind going up and just flying around to see if we could see anything?

We wouldn’t mind. And we could do even better. The latest version of our navigation app, Garmin Pilot, will display Civil Air Patrol search grids. We could fly a search grid to the south and east of the airport, in the direction the boy saw the plane go. In no time we were in the air.

“What am I looking for?” asked Lisa.

I was a Civil Air Patrol pilot once upon a time, but my unit didn’t have an airplane assigned to it so I never flew a mission, and my search and rescue training was nearly forty years old. I searched my dim memory as I scanned the ground below and to the left of the plane. “It depends on the nature of the crash,” I told my wing woman. “Shout out if you see a plane in a field or on a road. If you see smoke, we’ll divert from the grid and check it out. If things went badly there could be nothing left but little bits and pieces, and if so, they’ll likely form a line in the direction of travel.”

It was a grim image to contemplate.

“Oh, and disturbed earth,” I added, “ like a scar of a freshly plowed field in the middle of nowhere.” I’ve seen several crash sights from the air, and none of them looked plane-like.

Lisa was silent for a moment and then said, “I hope we don’t find anything. I mean, I hope there’s nothing to find.”

Amen to that.

We’d just barely finished the first leg of our search grid when the airport manager texted Lisa to report that Center was in touch with the two mapping planes, and all was well with them. He’d checked the guest register at the terminal and the history on the gas pump, and there was no evidence of another plane leaving that day. Lacking any other evidence of a plane in distress, he was calling off the search.

Of course it was always possible that someone landed just to hit the bathroom. Didn’t sign in. Didn’t buy gas. Kids that live next to airports know what planes sound like. If I were down, I’d want people to make a decent search for me. “Tell him, thanks, but as it’s a nice day up here (it wasn’t) we’ll go ahead and finish the grid just for the fun of it.”

So we flew up one grid line, and down the next. Then up again, then down. Each line about eight miles apart, our eyes searched from Tessie’s wing roots to four miles off her wings. We flew a thousand feet off the deck, low enough to clearly see what was below, high enough to see a ways away. In some areas I could be confident there was nothing to see. In other areas filled with trees and craggy ravines I knew we could fly past a hundred downed planes and not see a trace.

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In about two and a half hours, we “searched” 960 square miles. At one point there were odd squawking noises on the emergency frequency. It wasn’t the mournful wail of an emergency locator beacon, it was more strangled. We cut across one search grid diagonally to check a network of small canyons but there was nothing to see and the choked noises on the radio went away.

The radio was silent for the rest of our search, and we saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I was glad to be there at the right time and at the right place to lend a helping hand.

Oh. Right. And I was even doubly glad that three wasn’t really a warrant for my arrest!

 

Oil leak detectives

Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.

Silly me.

Here’s the Tale: Rio and I had mapped out a good training flight. Don’t ask me the details now, I’ve already forgotten them, but I certainly remember the rest of the day. We grabbed a light breakfast, loaded up Grandma Jean and R2D2 (her oxygen concentrator), and headed out to the airport. Grandma wanted to see Lisa’s recent renovation of our Third World airport terminal and said she’d hang out there and soak in the vibe while Rio and I flew for an hour or so.

It was a lovely morning, not too early and not too late, neither too cool nor too warm, and the wind was just barely stroking the surface of the earth with a lover’s touch.

When we arrived at the hangar we parked in front of the double doors so Grandma could see her airplane. I unlocked the padlock, then I took the right door and Rio the left. We dramatically pulled the great doors open at the same time—like the curtains in an old fashioned theater at the start of the show—revealing Tess, the morning light kissing her canopy. Above her the flags in the hangar undulated gently in the morning breeze, and with her sharp wing dihedral she looked ready to jump into the air… Except for the fact that she was sitting in a puddle of her own oil.

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Damn. What’s this going to cost me?

Actually, as we know we have a soon-to-be replaced leaky gas tank, at first I mistook the dark pool for fuel. But kneeling down and running a finger through it, I found it to be slick, honey-colored oil. What the….? The pool was centered under and around the front nose gear. Where did it come from?

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Now oil leaks from Continental engines aren’t rare. Some folks joke that like a Harley, if it ain’t leaking oil, it’s surely out of oil. But this was something new. The sides of the cowl were clean, as was the front wheel pant, plane’s belly, and the hangar floor underneath the breather tube. Adding to the mystery, after our last flight the week before, Lisa and I had stayed in the hangar a good two hours, cleaning up the plane, listening to the CTAF, smoking cigars, and soaking in the whole airport vibe; and in those two hours no oil had leaked. So how did this much oil escape an engine that’s not running? And how’d it get from the engine, where it belongs, to the floor, where it does not belong?

Of course, oil is a funny thing. A little spilled oil looks like a lot. To my many-times-bitten now crazy-shy eye, it was the entire contents of the oil sump. In reality it wasn’t even enough to detect missing on the dipstick. Still, not understanding what was going on, I cancelled our planned flight. Rio thought I was being a bit of a wuss, but he didn’t argue the point, and thus began the Great Oil Leak Investigation—a tale not likely to knock Sir Arthur Conan Doyle out of first place anytime soon.

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We opened both sides of the cowl and looked for oil. Naturally, as we rarely clean the inside of the cowl, there was oil everywhere. Shining my handsome new Tessie-blue 100-lumen Eddie Bauer aluminum flashlight around inside the engine compartment I felt like an explorer of yore trying to trace the source of the Nile.

Let’s see here… These two little streams of oil seem to connect to that stain here, which seems to come from up there, so the oil must be leaking from the… alternator? No, that can’t be right! I took a ton of photos with my iPhone and emailed them to my beleaguered mechanic (who responded two days later that it didn’t look like that much oil to him, and if it was him, he wouldn’t worry about it). Then, using many pale blue paper shop towels I cleaned the inside of the engine compartment better than anyone had in the last 71 years.

I placed clean folded towels in various strategic locations and we left for the day, Rio predicting that we’d come back to a clean airplane and clean towels.

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He was half right. A couple of days later we came back to clean towels, and more oil on the floor. It was as if the oil were welling up from the concrete below the plane. I had a brief vision of the start of the Beverly Hillbillies, with me in the role of Jed Clampett, but I knew I hadn’t struck oil. Tess was leaking it from somewhere.

But where?

One of the leading contenders from the previous week had been the gasket between the fuel pump and the engine case. There was a clear sign of a leak there, but how that gasket could leak in the absence of engine pressure was a mystery to me, and now the towel below it was clean. The other contender was the valve cover on the number one cylinder, which was also leaking a drip or two, but it could hardly have been the culprit with a resting engine, and again the towel there was clean. And yet, there was fresh oil on the ground.

Adding to the mystery was the fact that oil spilling pretty much anywhere from inside the engine should come out of the bottom of the cowl where the front fork comes through the metal surrounding the engine, but oil exiting the compartment there would stain the front wheel pant, and it was clean. Complicating matters was the fact the oil had just been changed and it was still clean, making it almost transparent.

Lying on the concrete, trying to avoid getting oil on my shirt, I carefully studied the front fork. It had a smooth sheen of oil on it, as did the aft scissors assembly. Mentally, working slowly backwards, I tried to envision the path of the oil, and it led me to the oil sump drain. Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun came out, and it all made sense.

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When the engine is off the oil drains out of the case and down into the sump. The only logical place for oil to leak from when the engine is powered down is from the sump. I reached in and fussed with the quick release valve used to drain the oil out when changing oil. Of course I had no idea how it worked normally, which made it challenging to see if it wasn’t working right. Twisting, tugging, pulling, I managed to accidently open it. A gush of gold oil flowed out. Mesmerized, I watched its travels.

Eureka!

As the little stream twisted and turned around various obstacles in its path all the mysteries fell by the wayside. I’d found the source of the Nile.

Now the challenge was to figure out how on earth oil was leaking from the drain. There were three possibilities. The mechanism itself could be failing, it wasn’t closed right, or it might not be screwed on exactly tight enough. To rule out the last possibility, following instructions from one of our two mechanics, I took a paper towel and wrapped the upper part of the drain like a mummy, using a zip tie to secure the towel.

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Then I flew. And left the towel in place for a week.

When I returned, there was new oil on the floor and the towel was clean. Well, not clean, but not oil soaked. A new sump drain was ordered and my guys will put it in this week while Tess is visiting them for a new header tank. Once that’s done, I’m confident that all our maintenance woes will be behind us.

Until I open the hangar door again.

 

 

Flight instructors: The good, the bad, the ugly, and me?

I’ve taught my pair of copilots a lot about flying. In fact, both student pilot buddy Lisa and student pilot son Rio fly better than I do. If by flying you mean keeping the airplane on course and at altitude. Rio is also pretty darn good at pattern work, while Lisa is an S-turn queen. And both of them have managed a respectable take off or two.

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Neither of them, however, can land. Which is totally my fault. You see, I’ve never taught them how to. Why’s that? Well, I’m not a certified flight instructor. Not that I didn’t try to be. I even trained to be a certified flight instructor.

For one day.

Here’s the tale…

 

Date Line: September 17, 1984

KGXY, Greeley, Colorado

 

I was sporting a brand new leather flight jacket and oversized mirrored sunglasses when I pulled into the airport parking lot. The day was to warm for the jacket, but I had to look the part. As a freshly minted commercial pilot, I was there for my first lesson on how to become a certified flight instructor, which is what you did in those days as soon as you realized that—even though you had a license to get paid to fly—no one would hire you until you banked more flight time.

A lot more flight time.

Come to think of it, that’s still true today. The only difference is that nowadays this is no secret. Back then, it came as a bitter shock to me and my fellow wet-behind-the-ears commercial pilots.

But even though I didn’t understand the realities of flying jobs, I did know quite a bit about flight instructors. I had a number of them during my journey from first flight, to first solo, to student cross-country, and on to my private pilot’s license, instrument rating, multi-engine training, and finally my commercial ticket. Most of my instructors were OK. One was good. One was bad. But one was nothing short of amazing.

The amazing flight instructor was one of my professors at Aims Community College where I was a student in the aviation program. His name was Gil Harris. He’d flown Corsairs with the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, and then flew pretty much everything with wings in the years following the war. He was a small, compact man with twinkling eyes and a neatly trimmed Royal Air Force-style mustache. What little hair he had left was gray. He was modest, kind, and funny. His teaching style was magical. I learned more from that man than from all my other instructors combined. His knowledge and experience were boundless. Endless. Among other things, he taught me mountain flight, hugging towering cliffs in the heart of the Rockies to catch lift and soar like an Eagle.

It was Gil who signed me off for my commercial check ride, and I was tickled pink that he agreed to train me to be a flight instructor—just like him.

I would be 21 years old in just four days. Naturally, I thought I knew everything as I walked across the tarmac to meet Gil at N48751, a blue and white Cessna 152-II. But the Gil Harris that was waiting for me wasn’t the master aviator I was used to.

Nope. It was Gil the Hillbilly.

I guess I was expecting some sort of inspired intelligent conversation between a motived student and a master, with me being the master. That didn’t happen.

As we walked around the 152, Gil stuck his neck under the prop, his nose inside the engine cowling’s air inlet and asked, “What’s in here, Mr. Flight Instructor?”

It went downhill from there.

That night, I lay in my waterbed (remember this was 1984, a time when phones were attached to walls, there was no internet, and people slept on thick plastic bags filled with water) and tried to make sense of the day. I replayed the seven-tenths of an hour lesson again and again in my head. All the clever teaching tricks I had dreamed up to cultivate the next generation of pilots fell flat on their faces when faced with Hillbilly Gil. I was shaken to the core. I felt stupid.

And I wondered: Was Gil trying to prepare me for real world flight instruction, or was he showing me that flight instruction wasn’t for me? Next, I thought back through every instructor I’d had on my own aviation journey, and I realized that the younger ones were the worst, and that the older ones were the best. It made sense. How can you teach when you’ve really just begun to learn yourself?

I never went back for a second flight instructor lesson.

In later years (and to this day) I wondered if Gil was just trying to take my ego down a notch, or if he felt I didn’t have the Right Stuff to be a flight instructor, and knew me well enough to know how to scare me off. Or was his first flight instructor lesson with me the only instructional failure of his life? The bruised ego of my former self would like to believe that, but I doubt it. After all, he never called me to ask why I hadn’t scheduled the next lesson.

But it was moot. The seven-tenths of an hour that September morning changed the course of my life. I tired for several months to find a flying job. Any flying job. But none were to be had, and in the end I stopped flying for many years.

 

Back to school?

Of course, I’m not four days short of 21 any more. I’m well over the five-decade mark. I’m on my second logbook. And I don’t wear a leather jacket when it’s too hot.

I’ve spent much of my adult life (in addition to writing) teaching in one form or another. But I know that having extensive aviation knowledge and experience—and knowing how to teach—is a very different thing from knowing how to teach people to fly, much less land. Or that’s what I told myself. But my self-imposed limitation may have been a justification. After all, there’s actually nothing illegal about teaching some elements of flying to others while not being a certified flight instructor yourself. Plenty of pilots teach regular non-pilot passengers how to control the plane, communicate on the radio, and even land just in case something should happen to the pilot (this unofficial flight instruction can’t be logged, nor can it count toward a license).

In truth, it wasn’t the lack of official certification that held me back. Being a flight instructor school dropout, I just didn’t have a clue how to teach someone to land, and my own learning to land is lost to me in the mists of time.

I just don’t remember how I learned to land.

So I sent Rio off to a “real” flight instructor to learn. He started in sailplanes but never mastered them due to what I would call ugly instruction. Then he switched to powered flight, but his planned schedule was shot full of holes: A combination of illness, weather, and mechanical difficulties. Then his instructor got an airline job and was gone. With our own plane down for maintenance for so much of the year he had a looooong flying gap. Depressed, he told me, “I don’t think I know how to fly an airplane any more.”

About the same time that Rio’s instructor left for the airlines, Lisa went off to North Carolina for an intensive all-day, two-week training course that was to cumulate in her Light Sport check ride.

She left enthusiastically. But her enthusiasm was quickly squashed. Each night as she FaceTimed in to update us, she was increasing depressed. First off, the weather sucked. The cold she expected. She grew up in that neck of the woods. But the record snow was making her flight training a challenge. As was the fact she was flying off of a grass strip, a minor little detail the one-man flight school neglected to mention on his website, along with the fact the tail-dragger training plane had no electrical system and had to be hand-propped to start.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it was the flight instructor himself. Each time she’d ask a question he’d say, “Figure it out for yourself.” He was also 100% negative, pointing out every less-than-perfect action on her part, while never giving any supportive encouragement.

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OK, I agree that there are times when it’s good for a student to figure things out for themselves, but good teaching also entails some guidance. And motivation. When flying I can see that there are times when an instructor must point out errors so they can be avoided in the future. But I also think that maneuvers performed well should be supported to keep morale up and to give the student as sense of improvement, not to mention encouraging good flying skills.

But for Lisa that never happened, not once, and with each passing day the charming little airport cottage—a big selling point for the package deal—felt more and more like a prison cell to her. Not only was this costing her a fortune, but she wasn’t having any fun, and learning to fly, while sometimes challenging, should always be fun.

In the end, the S.O.B. didn’t even let her solo.

She was devastated.

In a deep funk she told me, “I just want to learn to land a damned airplane.”

Watching the struggles of my two favorite student pilots, I began thinking that, even though I’m not a certified flight instructor, I could do a better job teaching them to fly than the instructors they were using. Maybe, just maybe, 34 years after I dropped out of Flight Instructor School, it was time for me to go back to school.

I wonder what I did with those mirrored sunglasses?

 

Lisa adopts a terminal

We’ve seen a LOT of airports over the last few years as Tessie’s range, with two humans and lightly packed luggage, is only about 200 miles. We often refuel at out-of-the-way uncontrolled airports, many of them unmanned. Some of these fields offer amazing terminal buildings with every amenity a pilot could dream of. Others… Well, is there a word for “worse than Third World?”

And, of course, at the end of every journey we’d return to our own uncontrolled, unmanned field, look at our own somewhat sad terminal, and complain that we weren’t measuring up very well.

We’ve been doing that since 2013.

Over the holiday break Lisa decided to quit complaining and start doing. She showed up at our house with a pad of paper and a pencil to grill Rio and I about things we saw at airports that we liked the most, and things we saw at airports that we liked the least.

The bathrooms at that place in Oklahoma were disgusting. The popcorn at Dodge City is pretty darn good. Too many airports don’t have a courtesy car to get into town. The self-serve oil system—take a quart and slide a fiver under the door—at Twenty Nine Palms was Godsend. Dead bugs covered the windowsills at one south Texas airport. The coffee at Batesville rocked the house. There was no light in the bathroom at spooky airport somewhere in the Midwest. I loved the old 12-foot-wide wall planning chart at Herford. De Queen had wanted posters on the walls of the terminal. The computers were great at Belle Plaine, as was the selection of help-your-self snacks. And Smiley Johnson Municipal had a riddle you had to solve to reveal the code to the locked terminal door (we never solved it).

I figured it was all just an intellectual exercise, but the next time Lisa, Rio, and I went to the airport for some flying, Lisa went to the dollar store while Rio and I were up. When we landed there was a bottle of mouthwash and little Dixie cups in the bathroom, a pile of snacks on the countertop, and cold water and sodas in the fridge.

Lisa’s airport terminal renovation had begun.

Drinking the newly purchased cold water in our very own home terminal, we sat on the cigarette-burned sofa and looked around us critically. The little building has good bones. It isn’t even all that old. It has excellent heat in the winter and wonderful air conditioning in the summer. But it has sad and disorganized furniture, including a massive industrial literature rack featuring years-old aviation magazines, some yellowing with age. The tile floor is an unfortunate design. Even if clean, it would still look dirty. What could we do?

Well, what about some area rugs to distract the eye from that tile? Some art would go a long way in the bathroom. And maybe some curtains on the window to mask the fifth wheel trailer of the state cop who lived next door to the terminal on some sort of security-for-rent trade that ended up having his doghouse and cars block the view of the windows that used to look out onto the runway.

Surrounding the courtesy phone on the wall were old clip-art decorated signs with important local contact info, some of which had changed, with the changes noted in black magic marker. There was also a sign touting the free internet, which has been broken down for about two years.

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I decided to replace them.

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Upping the ante, I whipped out my iPhone and ordered a one-shot coffee maker that uses pods for quick and easy cups of coffee on demand. Next we re-arranged the furniture, got some paper towel holders, and covered the cigarette-burnt sofa with a serape. Then we started kicking around some Route 66 artwork, as our airport is called the Route 66 Airport because our east-west runway was originally a stretch of the famous roadway before the interstate bypassed it and the city turned that unused stretch of highway into a landing strip.

It was baby steps, but it was transformative. At each visit we’d bring something new along. And at each visit, the terminal felt more inviting every time we walked in the door.

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One day when we were hanging the new sheer curtains from Walmart, the part-time airport manager walked in. He’s a great guy, but he wears something like five hats for the city, so the airport is only one of many responsibilities for him. “Holy cow, this place looks great,” he said, staring around in wonder. We fessed up that Lisa had adopted his terminal.

“Do anything you want,” he told us, “just don’t move any walls.”

The death of the Little Dutch Boy

Remember last week when I told you that, as always with airplanes, there was a problem? Well, at risk of turning Plane Tales into the aviation version of Bob Vila’s This Old House TV series, today I have yet another Plane Problem tale.

It all started when we bought the airplane. No really, today’s feature attraction is one I’ve known about, and have been putting off, since 2013.

But before we can dig into the latest money-eater, for background you need to know that Tessie has three fuel tanks. There’s one in each wing, which is where airplane gas tanks are normally found. Somewhat uniquely, Tess’s are interconnected with no fuel selector, making the pair act like one large gas tank. Even more uniquely, there’s a fuselage tank in the nose of the plane between the engine and the instrument panel. This makes some people nervous, with all that gas in their laps, but in truth, all airplanes are just flying gasoline bombs anyway, so it’s never bothered me. In fact, I regard my fuselage tank as a great safety feature due to the way the entire fuel system is designed.

Here’s the deal: An engine-driven fuel pump draws gas up from the conjoined wing tanks and into the nose tank, which I generally call a “header” tank. Gas is then gravity-fed down to the carburetor. The fuel pump draws more gas than the engine uses, and the header tank has an overflow tube that leads back down to the wing tanks again.

Think of it like one of those chocolate fountains you see at weddings.

What makes this arrangement safe, or safer than virtually any other low wing airplane, is the fact that the engine doesn’t need the fuel pump to run. If the fuel pump conks out, the header tank can keep the engine running for an hour. In other low wing planes, if the fuel pump kicks the bucket, the engine shuts down (which is why many planes have backup fuel pumps, but I’m a great believer in catastrophic chains of failure).

So speaking of gas, pretty much since day one—or maybe it was day two—there’s been a slight odor of gas in Tess’s cockpit. My mechanics checked all the usual suspects, looking at the priming system, checking the fuel cutoffs, and making sure all the various connectors were well connected.

All was well.

Looking closer, in every nook and cranny, they finally discovered the cause: An itsy bitsy fuel seep. The header tank was oozing fuel. As pulling out the header tank pretty much entails gutting the interior of the airplane to remove it (or so we all thought at the time), which would take a ton of time, and therefore cost me a ton of money, my mechanics had little trouble convincing me to put this off. Sure, when you first opened the canopy when the plane had been sitting for a while, there’d be a whiff of fuel, but it quickly dissipated and wasn’t an issue.

Until recently.

Once we got Tess back from her months-looooong engine misadventures, I noticed that the fuel smell was worse. Much worse. When opening the canopy, a nauseating wave of fuel fumes poured forth. On our return flight from Texas on our engine break-in flight, I got a pounding headache from the fumes. When I took her in for her new engine’s first oil change, at ten flight hours, I insisted that my mechanics investigate.

Nothing new was amiss.

Meanwhile, the smell was now so strong I wondered if gas were dripping out and soaking into the carpet. My guys suggested I cover the floor with white paper between flights to see if the paper was stained when I came back.

It wasn’t.

Still, I knew the fumes had to be coming from that damn tank, somehow. And that, all evidence to the contrary, things were getting worse. I also kicked myself for not insisting that the tank be pulled and rebuilt during the long downtime of the engine rebuild. I vowed to get it taken care of once and for all at our next annual, which due to all the work that’s been done, has now been reset to the month of May.

That was at the end of November. Just the other day I was back again at my maintenance base in Santa Fe for the second oil change on the new engine. That’s when one of my guys said, “Come over here, I want you to see something.”

It’s never a good thing when an airplane mechanic wants you to see something.

Like a condemned man being led to gallows, I followed him around Tess’s nose to the pilot side. The mechanic pulled out a black flashlight and played a bright beam on the firewall. A long blue stain wandered down the slick metal.

Blue… Blue is the color of the only remaining aviation fuel in the U.S., called 100 low lead, or sometimes 100LL. Why is it blue, other than the fact that its cost per gallon gives pilots the Blues? Well, back in the day when aviation was healthier, there were many kinds of airplane gas. There was 80 octane, the 100 octane, and even a 130 octane. Various engines ran better on one or the other, and with that many gasolines available, there was always the risk that some fool line boy would put the wrong juice in your tanks with possibly tragic results. Thus, each kind of gas had its own color so you could tell if you had the right or wrong go-juice in your bird’s tanks. Eighty was red, 130 was green, and the 100 was blue.

The blue stain was telling us that the seep was no longer a seep. It was a… Well, I don’t know what to call something that’s more than a seep but less than a trickle. But it wasn’t a good sign.

Next the mechanic crawled under the dash to look at the bottom of the header tank from inside. This isn’t an easy thing to do in an Ercoupe. He lay on his back on the seat, head under the dash, legs and feet dangling out the window.

“Can some one get me my phone?” his disembodied voice floated out of the cockpit.

Odd time to choose to make a phone call, I thought, but I fetched his phone from his workbench.

It turns out he wanted to take a photo. Massive stretches of blue were staining the underside of the tank. OK, well, massive is an exaggeration. There were two or three stains the size of postage stamps. But they weren’t there a month ago.

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But that wasn’t half of it. Not by far.

Along the base of the tank, where it rests on a bracket on the inside of the firewall, was liquid gasoline. I guess my seep just became a spring. In just a hair over a month. The tank job couldn’t be put off any longer.

I asked my senior mechanic if the outfit that rebuilt our wing tank this spring also rebuilt header tanks. “I don’t know,” he replied, “but given how hard it’s going to be to get to, maybe you should consider a new one.” Then he asked if I happened to know if Univair sold new ones.

Univair, a company in Colorado, should really be called Uni-savior. They hold the Type Certificate for the Ercoupe, and although they’ve never made a single airplane, they continue to make almost every part and piece of the planes. This is why Ercoupe owners, unlike owners of other classic planes of yesteryear, don’t need to own three planes to keep one flying: Virtually every replacement part we could need can be on a UPS truck within 24 hours.

Because while Univair can make anything you need, not everything you need is always in stock. Still, better to wait six weeks than spend a lifetime searching airplane junkyards.

Standing in my mechanic’s hanger next to Tess I could almost hear the gas dripping onto the floor. Which it wasn’t. Other than in my writer’s imagination. I pulled out my phone and checked Univair’s website. There it was, the header tank, all $2,180.87 of it. Seriously? Eighty-seven cents? Why not just round it up to twenty-two hundred bucks?

I ordered it.

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Then I flew my leaky plane south to the prop shop, wondering if I’d ever get away from fixing this plane and back to just, you know, flying it. So… did I choose 47 or 48 at the prop shop? It turns out it can be pitched to 47.5. Who knew?

With that problem solved, I set about working my contacts for advice on how to pull the header tank out of the plane without completely disemboweling the cockpit, as it turns out that neither of my mechanics had ever done it. Luckily, for Tess’s version of her breed, it’s not too bad a procedure after all. The yokes come out. Various cables get disconnected, then the tank is disconnected and pretty much drops straight onto the floor, where it can be pulled out of the plane. At first glance my guys thought that the entire instrument panel and all its toys would need to be removed, but that’s not necessary. So that’s good.

Well, other than the timing, of course.

Over dinner and lots of wine at the end of the very long day, I was filling the family in on the latest debacle. When I finished, I wrapped up with a hopeful thought from one of my mechanics: At this point we’ve replaced or refurbished virtually every system on the airplane. It’s more of a 2018 Ercoupe than a 1947 Ercoupe. With a strong new power plant on the front and all major systems in ship-shape order, there would be nothing but routine maintenance to worry about going forward.

My mother wasn’t buying that. Not for a second. “I’m sure something else will break down next,” she snorted.

Maybe so. But I hope not. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will be a long time before the next episode of This Old Airplane airs on the Plane Tales Network.

 

A very Tessie Christmas

Because we live in the boonies, actually 8.3 miles due south of the boonies, we’re big fans of online shopping for the holidays. We first started shopping online several years ago, thanks to the Tessie gifts. Tessie gifts? Well, as our plane is a member of the family, she “buys” gifts for all her human family—as well as for her mechanics, the airport manager, and some flying friends. And as aviation-themed gifts aren’t readily available in the boonies, or even in the larger North Boonie farther up Highway 84, all of these presents are bought online. (Airplanes, their heads always in the clouds, apparently always give aviation-themed gifts.)

This year, as more and more things are available online, we probably did 80%, or more, of all of our holiday shopping online, and this led to a unique problem: Lots of boxes were showing up at our door. Why was this a problem? Because it wasn’t always clear who should open any given box to avoid spoiling a well thought out surprise.

Is this the bow tie I ordered for Rio? Is it something Debbie ordered for me? Or is it just the coffee we ordered for the Keurig?

Shortly before Christmas, we got a box from Rural Route Brick. It was addressed to me, but anything bought by any family member on eBay, Etsy, or Amazon ships to my name by default, so whom a package is addressed to isn’t necessarily who should open it. I racked my brain and couldn’t recall ordering anything from such a company. Maybe Debbie ordered some sort of tile or paver with our family name on it or something. The box was largish and flat, neither light nor heavy. Mystified, I left it on the bed for Deb to “safety check.”

When she got home, she reported she also didn’t recall ordering anything from Rural Route Brick, but as she’s more of the last minute shopper than I am, and I was pretty sure that I had accounted for all I had ordered, I had her open the box out of my eyesight.

Opening the box didn’t solve the mystery. Inside, there were two white plastic padded envelopes. Debs brought them to me in the library where I was writing a pitch to Flight Training Magazine on when not to file a flight plan. Each envelope had a large round Rural Route Brick sticker, and a smaller Race 53 gumball.

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Huh?

She handed me one of the envelopes, and as it passed into my hands I heard the unmistakable sound of Lego bricks clinking against each other.

Suddenly I broke from the clouds and had the runway in sight.

Lego Tessie had finally arrived.

Now, if you were a fan of my two-year Air Racing from the Cockpit series in GA News, you probably know a Race 53 fan made a Tessie Lego model, as they ran a photo of it at the end of the 2106 season. Here, for the first time, is the whole story behind that model:

Waaaaay back in December of 2015, an article appeared in Coupe Capers (the Ercoupe Owners Club monthly newsletter) about a Lego and Ercoupe enthusiast named Joey Abbott. He had created an Ercoupe model out of Lego bricks and had submitted it to the Lego Ideas website. Apparently anyone can submit a design to the site, and if it gets 10,000 votes from the public, Lego will consider it for production as an official set. Naturally I voted for the Lego Ercoupe the same day I read about it. Then I wrote the designer and told him how cool I thought it was. I also asked if I could buy one from him.

That was a no-go, as the Lego rules don’t allow designers to sell models under consideration, but Joey and I stayed in touch anyway. Sadly, his original design didn’t get the votes it needed in the time window allowed, but that put his design on the open market and we were able to strike a deal.

The design as featured on Lego Ideas was a handsome grey-body yellow-wing affair, but in the ensuing time Joey had become a Plane Tales fan and he sent me a rotatable 3-D computerized version of his original model in Tessie livery. It blew my mind.

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And I didn’t get any work done for the next two weeks ‘cause I was too busy playing with the computer model.

In no time I decided I needed two: One for home, one for hangar.

Anyway, the project dragged on for what seemed like forever, but that’s only because I didn’t really understand what went in to it. More on that in a bit. Occasionally I’d get an email from Joey with a question, and occasionally I’d email him to see if he was still alive. At one point, he sent me an image of the prototype being held in someone’s hands. It was huge! I knew the model was an exact 1:19 scale, but I had no real sense of how darn large that it really made it. For some reason, looking at the computer images and the photos of the models, I had envisioned it much smaller.

His original prototype Ercoupe model was constructed in “Lego camo,” a mishmash of crazy Lego colors where shape alone rules the day. Once this camo prototype was built, he transferred the design into an online Lego CAD program, where colors can be adjusted to match the myriad of Lego brick colors that are available for each brick.

Then the hard part begins: Sourcing the individual bricks via Bricklink, which is sort of an eBay for Lego bricks. Who knew there was an entire Lego subculture? The bricks for my pair of Tessies came from Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the UK. Designing the instructions was another challenge, apparently, and took nearly as long as getting the parts.

I’ve actually short-changed the process somewhat, but Joey lays out the whole operation on his excellent website here, and it’s well worth the read. But not until you’ve finished this Plane Tale!

Anyway, the two envelopes of bricks arrived on Christmas Eve Eve Eve. And on Christmas Eve Eve, Rio and I set to work to build the first one. We used to build a lot of Lego together when he was younger, but he seems to have largely lost interest in the fascinating but vexing brick creations. But having a Lego model of his airplane was another matter altogether.

Sitting at the kitchen table, we slit open the first envelope and out poured numbered sacks of Lego bricks. A strange mix of emotions swept over me, part memories of joyful years gone by, and part PTSD. (Lego is often harder than it appears.)

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Also in the envelope was a beautifully bound instruction manual. All 54 pages of it, detailing 104 steps to turn the 335 Lego pieces into our airplane.

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Figuring out how to create the construction manual apparently gave Joey a bit of a headache. Traditional Lego instructions are part architectural drawing, part hieroglyph. Joey’s solution was to photograph each construction step with the bricks for the next step in each picture, and then lay them out two to a page in the construction manual. It worked just like the “real” thing, meaning that at least three times we had to go back, disassemble, fix a mistake we made, and then move forward.

It was a blast.

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Rio was the assembly master; my job was that of parts gofer. As in production Lego kits of any complexity, one of the big challenges is telling the difference between similar pieces, especially the long flat types. I had to use a pencil to count how many nubs long some of the pieces were to tell the difference between a grey flat that had two rows of eight numbs vs. the ones that had ten rows of nubs. Or twelve.

As we went along the pile of bricks on the table began to get smaller…

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And the model started looking more and more like Tessie…

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Then it happened. I couldn’t find the bricks for the next step. We searched through the piles and sacks. No joy. Now what?

I figured that as Joey had packaged up the two plane kits at the same time, maybe two identical sacks of parts got put in one envelope. I went to fetch the second kit. In the meantime, Rio had the presence of mind to check the first envelope again, and sure enough there was a bag of parts that remained behind when we emptied out the package onto the kitchen table.

Just to make sure we now had them all, I reached all the way to the bottom of the envelope and found yet another packet of parts. It was small. Drawing it out I saw it had all the parts of a Lego Minifigure. A pilot. A pilot with a beard, gray hair, blue hat, and a headset. He also had a gold trophy.

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Holy cow! I had been turned into a Lego Minifigure! It was a complete and total surprise. And a wonderful one.

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As the model took shape, my mind was repeatedly blown by Joey’s attention to detail. The model had Tessie’s URL nose art. The side had her N-number. Her belly her beacon. A tiny sticker attached to the front strut touted our World Speed Record, the exact same text that appears on Tess’s front wheel pant.

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There was a complete instrument panel, dual yokes, and even her center-mounted throttle.

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It took us most of the afternoon to complete the Lego Tessie, but it was one of the best afternoons ever, and absolutely the best Christmas Eve Eve of all time. But in the end, when we were finished, just like with every production Lego kit we ever made, there was one brick left over.

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Awe, hell. We messed up somewhere. We briefly debated just dropping the wayward brick on the floor and forgetting about it, but decided that given all the effort that went in to creating the model that would be just… wrong. Back we flipped though the manual, until we figured out where the part went. We disassembled several steps, put in the wayward brick, and as the sun set, re-assembled Lego Tessie.

Then we broke out the eggnog and sat admiring our (and mostly Joey’s) handiwork. I’ve always been amazed at the objects that can be made by Lego, but building a Lego model of something I know and love so well in real life was an amazing experience, beyond a doubt my best non-flying aviation adventure of all time. Plus, when something breaks down on this Tessie, it will be an easy fix, just snapping the bricks back together!

Thanks, Joey, for the very very merry Christmas. Oh, and Tessie told me to tell you that she gives her official seal of approval to her very own “mini-me.”

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Joey tells me he’s happy to sell Tessie Lego models to any other Race 53, Plane Tales, or Ercoupe fans. You can contact Joey atjoey@ruralroutebrick.com

 

More about Joey:

Joey’s online bio reads, “Joey is an avid LEGO fan who designs and builds custom LEGO models to scale and he produces LEGO stop-motion animation videos. Joey is also a fan of vintage and modern airplanes, which are a favorite of his to design in LEGO. When he is not “LEGOing” on a project, you’ll find Joey on a local hiking trail with his family, reading a good book, or most likely, having a snack.”

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Be sure to check out his impressive Messerschmitt BF 109. He even nailed the funky landing gear and the model’s gear is retractable… just like the real thing! And if you like your Lego on the large side, his B-25 Mitchell bomber used an estimated 1,700 Lego pieces and weighs in at four pounds!!!

 

A bitch of a pitch

It was the best Ercoupe takeoff since the JATO tests of 1941. That’s when the National Academy of Sciences strapped rocket pods under the wings of an Ercoupe and lit the fuses in a series of successful tests that led to the military use of rockets to help heavy planes get off of short runways—and to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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But there were no rocket pods on Tessie’s sturdy metal wings, and we were rising off the ground at nearly 1,000 feet per minute. Granted, in other airplanes that’s nothing to write home about. But in my beloved, but heavy and underpowered ‘Coupe, the only time I’d seen a number like that was when a thunderstorm tried to suck me up into its jaws when I foolishly tried to slip under it.

So I was ecstatic about the climb rate. The new stroker engine was really showing its stuff, lifting Tess off the runway like never before.

But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem was my propeller. Oh gosh, where to start… Where to start? OK, the angle at which a propeller cuts the air is called its “pitch.” A flatter pitch bites the air in a way that creates better climb, but at the cost of speed. A steeper pitch gives more speed, but less lifting ability. Pitch also has a complicated ménage à trois relationship with torque and rpm that I don’t even pretend to understand, but the upshot of all of this was that while we had JATO-like takeoffs, we were hitting our engine’s redline at about half power. My mechanic advised me that I needed to re-pitch the prop.

What’s involved in that?

Well, fancy airplanes have variable pitch props that let the pilot change the pitch of the propellers in flight using a lever in the cockpit so that they can have both strong climb on takeoff and fast cruise in flight. Less fancy modern planes have what are called ground-adjustable propellers. The pitch can be easily and quickly changed on the ground to best fit the mission at hand.

But I have neither.

I have a metal prop whose pitch can only be changed by having an expert literally bend the metal blades to change the angle, thus “re-pitching” it. Luckily for me there’s just such an expert an hour and a half’s flight away and there’s no limit on how many times my particular model of prop can be re-pitched, other than the limits imposed by my bank account balance. Unluckily for me, this is not an exact science. It’s more of an art. Adding to the complexity of the situation, propeller performance is affected by weight, temperature, altitude, the whims of the Gods of Aviation, and who knows what else.

Of course, in my innocence at the beginning of this particular Plane Tale, I knew none of this. I trustingly flew to the prop shop and talked to the Master Metal Bender, giving him what data we had. Tessie’s prop was measured. She was wearing a 46-pitch prop. Yeah, the numbers meant nothing to me either, don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that would be considered an “extreme” climb prop for an Ercoupe, which is what she needed at our altitude with a largely worn out engine. Given our data, the prop was re-pitched to 51, which is completely at the other end of the spectrum for ‘Coupes. I now had a fast cruise prop.

And boy, was Tess ever fast. Wearing her new pitch, she cut through the air a full 10 miles per hour faster than ever! It was amazing. Race trophies danced in my eyes.

But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem this time was the runway. Tessie didn’t want to leave it. We used up thousands of feet of concrete, and then she could barely lift into the air. I had cartoon visions of Tessie furiously flapping her metal wings to get airborne.

This just wouldn’t do.

So back to the prop shop I went. The Master Metal Bender took Tess’s propeller off again and re-re-pitched. Logically, it seemed we needed to be halfway between where we’d been and where we went (although these things aren’t necessarily linear). As half way would be 48.5, and things don’t work that way, I had to choose between 48 and 49. I went with 49, on the fast side of middle of the road. OK, forget what I said a few minutes ago. We really do have to all talk more about these pitch numbers to drive the story forward. Here’s your background…

Historically the Ercoupe wisdom was that:

48 was a climb prop.

50 was a normal prop, and…

52 was a cruise prop.

But ‘Coupes have gotten fat. New electronics and gadgets have made them heaver over the decades, and that affects prop performance. While there’s no official data, for modern weights, many Coupe folks now consider that:

46 is a climb prop.

48 is a normal, prop, and…

50 is a cruise prop.

Adding to the confusion is that no one seems to know what prop best suits the stroker in an Ercoupe. Given the fact that this whole prop thing is more of an art than a science in the first place, I’m sure you can see where this is going.

So how’d the re-re-pitch go? Rio said it best when he told his grandmother that it was, “Less miserable.”

The new pitch, as expected, reduced the speed and increased the climb. But it was a marginal change at best. So we have to re-re-re-pitch. What a bitch.

So picture me standing in the Aviation Maintenance Casino. I’m standing at the propeller roulette wheel, and there are only two numbers left to bet on: 47 and 48. I know 46 is too flat. I know that 49 and 51 are too steep, and that even though we skipped 50, the change between 49 and 51 wasn’t much. This suggests that going from 49 to 48 wouldn’t net much of a change either. Of course, by the same logic, a 47 shouldn’t be much different from a 46, which was where all of our troubles started in the first place.

The Croupier calls out, “Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets…”

 

The Eternal Airplane

I’m 600 feet off the deck. Below the soil is pale burnt orange, speckled with low-lying green shrubs. I can see curious trails of footprints winding among the vegetation, always leading north. Illegal emigrants, probably. I’m less than 10 miles from the Mexican border.

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Then it occurs to me: Maybe skimming low along the surface this close to the border isn’t so smart. It might look, you know, suspicious or something.

Oh well. Too late now. If the Feds are waiting for me when I land, I have nothing to hide. Of course, the same can’t be said for Tessie. I’ve just learned that she was a smuggler in her youth.

Or maybe not.

But at a minimum, she was once owned by a smuggler, so who knows what dark dealings she might have had? Airplanes are good at hiding their secrets, but I’ve recently become determined to learn all of Tessie’s.

Here’s the tale: Our girl turns 71 this year. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with her second owner, and recently her owners from the 1980s reached out to me. They were happy to see their old plane was still flying and having an adventurous life. Anyway, chatting with them made me re-think the whole subject of airplane ownership. Properly cared for, airplanes are eternal. They live forever, so how can we really own them? I’ve noticed that the warbird crowd sometimes call themselves “custodians” or “caretakers” of their planes. They recognize that their planes will outlive them, and they view their role more as torchbearers than owners, regardless of what the paperwork says.

Perhaps that’s true of all old airplanes, not just warbirds. That gave rise to an idea for me. I’ve decided to write a biography of Tessie, a tale of her life and the story of the various people and families that were her custodians over the decades since she was built in 1947. I’m going to call the book, The Eternal Airplane.

I was able to get the names of the three previous owners simply by looking up her registration history online. One was the guy we bought her from. The next was just a name. Prior to him was the couple that reached out to me. And they gave me the name of the man they got her from. And before him? Who knows? But the FAA is good at keeping records, and hopefully as I locate each family, they can point me to the family before them. I know it will be a long (but fascinating) historical treasure hunt, one that will get more and more difficult the deeper into the past I dig. But what a story! Already I’ve learned that in addition to being a smuggler, she was Exhibit A in a major lawsuit. But that’s a tale for another day.

Back to the smuggling. Remember the man who was just a name? Using his name and the city he lived in that was listed in the FAA registry, I tried to find him. And I did.

In federal prison.

Apparently he’d gotten into some trouble in an airplane. Carrying drug money or some such.

Was I nervous about needing to talk to a convicted felon? Hell no, I was thrilled! Tessie rubbed elbows with smugglers and drug dealers! What a great story! Truth is stranger than fiction; you just can’t make up stuff like this! What other secrets are hidden in her aluminum heart? I don’t know yet, but I’m determined to find out.

Oh. And what about the feds? Were they waiting for Tessie and me when we touched down within spitting distance of the Mexican border? Nope.

But was I imagining it? Or did my delightfully scandalous girl seem to breathe a sigh of relief as I shut her engine down?