When the legends die

Once again, I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air & Space. My story this time: Write up my experiences in attempting to re-fly one third of the Woodrow Wilson Transcontinental Airway using nothing more than the original written instructions from the nearly 100-year-old Pilot’s Directions—a slim manual published by the Postal Department to help new pilots find their way across the country in a time before modern ariel navigation. A time, in fact, before aviation maps and charts. A time before radios. A time before the flashing airway beacons, strung out like pearls in the night, led the way.

Pilot’s Directionsis descriptive text of contact flying. Look for farmer Brown’s red barn north of town, then follow the river. Keep the small round lake to your left. Fly south one section line for every 25 west. Don’t mistake the Union Pacific railroad for the Pennsylvania Southern. That type of thing.

How much will the face of our country have changed from above in the past 100 years? Will it still be possible to navigate the wide-open spaces between Omaha and Salt Lake City using these century-old written directions? Can modern pilots even follow directions like these? I’m going to find out.

Next month.

Lisa is lending me her ‘Coupe Warbler for the mission, as he’s equipped nearly identically to an airmail plane of the era. Which is to say he hardly has any equipment at all. Lending me her plane, provided, of course, that she gets to come along on the adventure. But Lisa’s presence isn’t just for fun. Her presence is key to the mission’s success. She’ll watch my track on her iPad and ensure that I do not get us so lost that we run out of gas or blunder into modern military or restricted airspace.

In the meantime, to get ready for the flight, I’ve been living in the past. I’ve read every book about the early airmail that I can get my paws on, trying to learn more about the men, their machines, and how they flew the mail at the dawn of practical aviation. I’m focused on the few brief years when the government ran the show, before farming out the entire system to contractors, giving birth to the modern airlines. I’ve learned that the pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep from freezing in their open cockpit biplanes. That they used clotheslines for windsocks. That they sometimes landed in fields to ask farmers for directions.

And I’ve learned that they were not only bold, but smart. They experimented, pushing the envelope of aeronautical science.

Chief among these experimenters was air mail pilot Wesley Smith. It was this pilot, in fact, who was reported to have first taped a flat half-empty bottle of whiskey on the panel of his mail plane to help him keep his wings level in the clouds. Call it a First Gen attitude indicator. Apparently, many of the other pilots quickly adopted this technique. In fact, I had read about these proto-instruments in the past, and I encountered them again and again in my air mail research. Like many pilots, I took this legend as Gospel truth, and didn’t think much more about it, beyond admiring their spunk and ingenuity.

But in the midst of my research, I was reminded that Bob Hoover was famous during his air show days for pouring himself a glass of tea during barrel rolls.

So wait a second… Either liquid is true to the world of the plane, or true to the outside environment. But it can’t be both. Right? Or can it? Are the forces in a roll stronger than the forces in garden variety maneuvers? Could a half empty bottle of liquid reveal the horizon in gentle maneuvers? Help keep a plane level in fog and cloud? Or like tea, would it always be level to the floor of the plane? I’d be a pour aviation journalist if I didn’t find out the truth.

Did I say “pour?” Sorry, I meant to say “poor.”

Clearly, I needed discover the truth for myself, and set the record straight if, in fact, we’ve been deceived all these years…

 

“Bank right,” I tell Lisa, as I hold the half-empty bottle of Chivas Regal to the windscreen, “Now bank left.”

Sadly, the level of the whiskey stays parallel to the floor of the plane, the horizon snapping left and right, cartwheeling outside the windshield, beyond the straight line of brunt amber liquid in the bottle.

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“Is it working?” asks Lisa.

“Sure,” I say, “but not like we’d hoped. Instead of showing me the horizon, it’s showing me the floor of the plane. No matter what you do, it stays level.” I sigh. I’m bummed. I’m not looking forward to writing up this Plane Tale. I feel like I’ve just been given the assignment to shoot the Easter Bunny dead in his tracks. Of all the aviation legends, the un-tested whiskey bottle was always my favorite for some reason.

Likewise, I’m sorry to report, hanging your pocket watch from the roof of the plane fails to show the angle of bank. The watch always hangs straight toward the floor, regardless of how the floor is angled in relation to the horizon outside the plane.

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What’s up with this? Why does liquid level itself to the plane’s floor when the plane is canted crazily to one side? Why does a watch chain hang straight down to the plane’s floor when your eyes tell you that you could fall right out the door and plummet to your death below without even bouncing off the wing?

The answer comes down to the forces of flight. A plane in a turn is assaulted by a barrage of forces and factors: Centripetal force, the vertical component of lift, centrifugal force, weight, inertia, thrust, resultant load, g-forces, effective lift, aerodynamic axis, load factors… Here, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Image: Agostino De Marco

To be honest, I don’t know which of the myriad of forces holds the whiskey true to the plane rather than true to the horizon. It’s probably the interplay of all of them that effectively moves the forces of gravity in line with the floor of the plane, bursting our myths.

So that’s it. The legend is dead. You can’t use a half-empty bottle of whiskey to keep your wings level in the clouds. But surely, the first pilot who tried this nearly a century ago must have discovered that on the first flight. Why, then, do we have so many historians telling us that the whiskey bottle was basic equipment for air mail pilots? Was it sloppy research by a historian who was not a pilot? Did one historian write it up and the others, like lemmings, followed him over the cliff of error?

Perhaps, but I think that there’s something else at play.

The airmail was a dangerous job. A dangerous job at the dawn of Prohibition, which came into law within two years of the start of the airmail. Suddenly booze was forbidden for everyone, much less for government employees. Were the pilots simply having fun with their ground-pounder bosses? Flouting the liquor law under the guise of flying equipment?

We’ll never know, but it gets my vote. It has the flavor of truth to it.

But what the hell, in a salute to Smith and his colleagues, whatever their real motives, and to keep in the spirit of the early days of airmail, we installed a Smith Attitude Indicator in Warbler for our re-flying of the Air Mail route.

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It won’t help keep our wings level, but taking spirits into the sky will sure keep our spirits up.

 

The sequel is better

The fact that I couldn’t get the movie on DVD should have been my first clue that it was one of the worst flying flicks ever; but after reading about the movie’s real-life sequel in Smithsonian Air & Space, I just had to see the film.

More on the film in a minute; first a word or two about that sequel, because it was the real-life story that led me to the movie we’re going to talk about.

That tale in Air & Space was the story of a group of old guys who recently delivered a seventy-three-year-old C-47 Skytrain to a memorial park in China, re-flying the epic cargo route of World War II called “the hump.” The purpose of the flight was both to honor and pay tribute to the more than one thousand airmen lost flying the airlift over the Himalayas, and to deliver the plane to a new memorial park in China. To say that the aging aviators had a few problems en route would be an understatement. Not unlike Gilligan’s three-hour tour, the planned eight-day ferry flight ballooned into a more than three-month odyssey. But I’m not here to re-tell that story. Author Robert L. Willett has done a splendid job at that.

In his article, however, Willett mentioned off hand that the plane ferried to China was the same C-47 that had a starring role in the 1980s Aussie movie Sky Pirates.

A movie with a C-47?

And pirates?

I gotta see that!

And thanks to eBay, and the cast-off inventory of VHS tapes from A&C Video Movies, I got my chance.

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The movie, described by its creators as a “high-flying adventure that bounces across the Pacific,” follows a secret mission to transport a mysterious artifact from Australia to Washington to keep it safe from the Axis powers—never minding the fact they’ve just been defeated, given the timeline of the movie, which is set in the closing days of World War II.

The flick stars John Hargreaves as, Lt. Harris, whom the back of the VHS box describes as “a daredevil fighter pilot who can outfly, outfight, and outfox any enemy.” We are never told why a fighter pilot was tapped to fly a Sky Train on a top-secret mission. A fighter pilot who wears a fur-lined leather flight jacket for the entire movie. Even in the jungles of Bora Bora. His co-star is Meredith Phillips (not the Meredith of Bachelorette fame), who despite the setting of the movie at the end of World War II, has very eighties big hair. At least her wardrobe is more or less period, if you can forgive the fact that she magically changes clothing every several scenes, despite not having a suit case because she’s running for her life most of the movie.

The plot, such as it is, mixes ancient aliens, time travel, the Bermuda Triangle—well, its Pacific equivalent—the classic war movie personality conflict between the star and the officer in charge, Easter Island, a ditching at sea, the Philadelphia Experiment, a military court martial, assassination attempts, drunken pilots, a round of Russian roulette, kidnappings, car chases and a dog fight. Not necessarily in that order.

Oh. And fog. Lots of fog.

Did I mention the movie is only 88 minutes long? Although it seems a lot  longer when you’re watching it. Many of the scenes might give you déjà vu. You’ll be asking yourself: Didn’t I see that in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Why, yes. Yes, you did. Pretty much so.

On the bright side, in addition to the C-47 that would ultimately end up in a park in China, the movie also features a pair of Mustangs, a B-25 Mitchell, and a lovely Grumman Mallard; and the aviation photography is good—if not aeronautically accurate. If you can get over the scene in which Lt. Harris climbs out a hatch in the roof of the C-47 and onto the wing, inflight, to put out an engine fire (while barely ruffling his hair), you’ll enjoy the flight footage.

I can’t say if the acting is good or bad, because the characters are so cardboard and the dialog so uninspired, there’s really not much for an actor to act on.

Wait a sec. Where were the pirates? I didn’t see any pirates.

Oh. Wait. Maybe it’s the movie producer that’s the Sky Pirate. After all, the film is blatantly plagiaristic, and I can only assume that Spielberg’s peeps didn’t sue because the movie probably didn’t do well enough to make any money worth suing for. Or maybe Spielberg just felt that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

So is it really the worst flying flick ever? Nah, probably not the  worst.

But Pirates is bad enough I doubt it will ever steal its way onto DVD.

 

Ercoupe lover’s heaven

Let’s start with placards. In the flying universe, a “placard” is a small sign or plaque installed in the cockpit. It relays critical information to the pilot about the operation of the airplane. For example, a placard will tell you what fuse or circuit breaker powers which part of the plane’s electrical system. In a plane with flaps, a placard will tell you the maximum speed at which it’s safe to deploy them. In planes with complex fuel systems, placards will guide pilots in the operation of the fuel tank selector switches. In planes with retractable landing gear, placards will instruct the pilot on how to operate the system.

We have no flaps. We have no fuel selectors. And our landing gear stays in the same place all the time. Accordingly, our placards are pretty simple.

One says, “This airplane characteristically incapable of spinning.” That one was a Godsend. The government actually required the manufacturer to place the plane’s number one marketing claim on a cockpit placard. Another placard says, “Beware propeller. Leave airplane from rear of wing.” Well, never underestimate the stupidly of the human race. A third is an ON-OFF placard for the nav lights switch.

But Syd Cohen’s immaculately restored Ercoupe Scampy has an unusual placard on the panel, probably the only thing in his plane that’s not 100% authentic. It reads: “AREN’T WE LUCKY?”

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

We sure the hell are.

Lucky for lots of reasons, but foremost among them is the fact that the maker of our nearly 80-year old airplanes is still in business. Well, sort of. It’s kinda complicated, and to be honest, the story of the Ercoupe is rather sordid. Yes, like a movie starlet from the golden age of Hollywood, the Ercoupe has had a lot of husbands.

The plane started life as the brain child of a company called Engineering and Research Corporation, also called ERCO. Development began in 1936, and ERCO launched sales of the plane in 1940. After the war, when the aviation economy collapsed, ERCO decided to get out of the plane-building biz and sold the Ercoupe lock, stock, and barrel (literally) to Sanders Aviation in 1947. Next, the plane, and its all-important type certificate, was picked up by Univar Aircraft Industries in 1950. But that union didn’t last either. Her next husband was the Forney Aircraft Company in 1955. But a stable wedlock just was not to be for the Ercoupe. In 1960 Air Products Company took over, but again it was a short marriage, and in 1964 Alon Inc. bought the Ercoupe. That union lasted until 1967 when the Mooney Airplane Company purchased the plane. Then, finally, just like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the Ercoupe returned to her third husband, Univar, in 1974—where she finally settled down, the two staying together for 45 years and counting.

Of all her suitors, Univair is the only one that didn’t actually build new Ercoupes. Both in the early ‘50s, and since ‘74, Univair has focused solely on the spare parts biz.

So let’s talk about those parts.

Apparently, each time the Ercoupe took up with a new manufacturer, more than just a marriage license was involved. The bride came complete with all her household goods, including her parts inventory and the various jigs and machines used to make them.

And that’s why we’re lucky.

Unlike the owners of most really old airplanes, we have an outfit that continues to support us. To supply us with parts. Univair has all the machining tools and expertise necessary to make virtually every part that makes up the Ercoupe from the original decades-old drawings, all of which came back home with the bride. That’s cool. But they also have a large supply of what would be called “new old stock” on eBay. But still, how many original parts could possibly still be around from the 1940s?

You would be amazed. I was. I have seen the promised land, and it’s Ercoupe heaven. So this is a PlaneTale of many parts. Literally.

It all started when AOPA assigned me a Rusty Pilot Seminar at Centennial Airport, on the south side of the Denver Metro area up in Colorado. Tessie looks more like a greenhouse than an airplane right now, so flying up the east side of the Rockies to get there was out of the question.

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Catching a commercial flight would require me to drive two hours in the wrong direction, only to be delivered an hour away on the other end, so driving up was the obvious choice. And as I was driving, it would cost me nothing extra to have a copilot on the adventure, and Rio agreed to come along.

I needed to arrive a day early to set up for the seminar, but I knew we’d have some spare time, especially if we got an early start, so I cast around for something to do. And then it occurred to me: Maybe we could visit Univair, who are located on the East side of the metro area. I guess they were in my mind because we’d just recently needed to order a pile of those parts I’m lucky to be able to order. Or maybe it was because I’d been in contact with them to hit them up for donations for the Ercoupe Owners Club scholarship auction as part of my duties as the Coordinator of this year’s convention. Anyway, I reached out about dropping in, and they were gracious, inviting us to come by for a tour.

Given the age of the company (it was founded in 1946) and the fact that they focus on older airplanes, I’d sorta expected them to be in, well, you know, and older building. But in fact, when we pulled up, we found the Univair building is surprisingly modern-looking on the outside.

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And, oddly, for a plane business, Univair sits far from any modern airport. They’re located in an industrial park that’s 50% large blocky commercial buildings and 50% farmer’s fields. Actually, once upon a time, there was an airport literally next door to Univair. Called Sky Ranch, all that is left is a short stretch of crumbling asphalt called Sky Ranch Road, and two World War II vintage hangars, one of which has a control tower on the corner. The runways have evaporated, their foundations buried under warehouses. What must have been the apron is now a parking lot for a fleet of cement trucks.

Dead airports are sad, but having Univair there somehow takes the sting out of it.

We were given a complete tour, staring in the office building, where the lobby has a small museum of key famous products in glass cases, then on to the sales offices, and the printing shop where Univair keeps many otherwise lost tech publications alive. Next, we entered the machine shop. I gotta say, the Univair shop is a museum of manufacturing. They have massive, towering machines dating from the 30s and 40s. Lathes from the 70s. State of the art computerized plasma cutters. With all this gear, if they don’t have what you need in stock, they can make it; and having two engineers on staff makes that process faster. Rounding out the shop are a trailer home-sized sand blast chamber and a huge painting booth. In the Univair shipping department, they build custom crates to fit all manner of oddly-shaped parts ranging in size from jewelry-petite to assemblies larger than cars.

We also got to meet many of the Univair peeps, including the boss, who is sort of royalty, being the third generation of his family to run the place. And it must be a good place to work, as most of the people we met had been there for years.

The highlight of our tour for me was the warehouse, a dimly-lit warren of narrow passageways between towering shelves. It has the creepy but exciting feel of an Indiana Jones/Laura Croft ancient temple. Only, you know, aviation themed.

And like all Hollywood ancient temples, it was full of treasure.

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A wall of wing spars. A shelf of header tanks. A cowl side, glowing pristine aluminum with a lathe-straight hinge. A bundle of throttle cables with faded maroon Bakelite knobs, hanging off a shelf high above our heads, an airplane version of tangled jungle vines high in the trees.

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Box after box after box after box after box of Ercoupe parts. Floor to ceiling, three narrow isles worth. Boxes of things we recognized. Boxes of things we’ve bought. Boxes of things that had us scratching our heads.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

And boxes of things that left us amazed and in awe, like Ercoupe pretzel yokes, still in their original wood packing crates, each yoke wrapped in newspaper with 1946 datelines.

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But there’s more than just inventory at Univair. Out beyond the warehouse, in the backlot, there’s an odd tombstone-looking object. At first glance it appeared to be the final resting place of the nose bowl, a grey solid granite memorial carved by a sculptor into the likeness of the real thing in its prime.

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But it’s no memorial to the dead. It’s one hand of the creator, a key tool to make new living nose bowls. It’s a mold. Over it, flat sheets of aluminum are placed, then squashed down with room-sized hammering equipment to stamp out the front ends of Ercoupes, each one a clone of the previous one. I’d no idea how they were made. In fact, before seeing the tombstone, I’d never even thought about it.

The rest of the yard is overflowing with giant and slightly rusty assemblages that are hard to identify. Is that a jig for forming an Ercoupe tail? Maybe. Oh, look at this, maybe this was used to make our wings.

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Our guide tells us that when they run out of something, the proper machine tools are moved inside from the yard until the inventory is restocked, then it’s back out to the yard until needed again.

Sadly, given all that Univair has in the Ercoupe department, we’re apparently a very small part of their business; I’m told only about 3%. Luckily (Aren’t We Lucky?), Univair is polygynous—also supporting classic Aeroncas, Champs, Citabrias, Luscombes, Cessnas, Stinsons, Taylorcrafts, and the ever-popular Piper Cubs, so Univair isn’t relying solely on us ‘Coupers for their survival.

And that’s the sad truth of Ercoupes. The line has never been quite a failure, but also never quite a success for any of her many owners throughout history. Ercoupe dreams fly higher than her numbers.

Back in the warehouse once more, on a bottom shelf, I find many wooden boxes of placards, including identification placards—called Data Plates in the biz. Every plane built has one. It records the plane’s serial number and its date of manufacture.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

There were of hundreds—maybe thousands—of blank data plates in the Univair warehouse; all created many decades ago, each waiting to be riveted onto a new plane rolling off the assembly line on pristine tires. Boxes of data plates for planes never built. Just like all the thousands and thousands of other parts, railcars full of them, it shows the optimism of ERCO in the post war world. How they believed, really believed, that they’d fill the skies with our twin-tailed marvels, put their money where their mouths were, and were ready to do it.

Sadly, it was not to be. Still, by some miracle, everything we need to keep our birds flying, from parts to placards, still exists, and is only a phone call to Colorado away.

Aren’t we lucky?