A wrench to the head

“Hey,” I told Rio, “that looks like the Las Vegas Airport. Pause the DVD for a sec.”

We were watching a video I stumbled across on eBay called Fly Fast! about Rare Bear, the iconic Reno Race plane that dominated the Valley of Speed for decades. It was being offered up by a seller in Sparks, Nevada for a minimum bid of $6.99 with free shipping.

Well within the don’t-need-to-ask-your-wife-first price range.

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Rio stabbed at the controls and the image froze. We both leaned forward and peered at the TV screen. Darn if it didn’t look like the terminal at KLVS, the “little” Las Vegas just twenty miles up the road from our house.

And, as it turns out, it was. Because, and I totally didn’t know this, the Rare Bare came to our home town in August of 1989 to set a three kilometer Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)-sanctioned world speed record. The highly modified Grumman F8F Bearcat ripped a hole in the skies over our hometown airport at 528.33 miles per hour, making it the fastest piston-powered plane in the world, a speed record that still stands today, 27 years after it was set.

It really bothered me that I was learning about this from a six dollar and ninety-nine cent eBay find. Because I should have known. I should have known simply because I’m a local pilot, and a FAI world speed record holder myself. And I should have known because I lived in Las Vegas in 1989, and I hung out at the airport a lot.

Oh, but it gets worse.

I should have known because back in 1989 I was a journalist working the local paper, the Las Vegas Daily Optic. As a local pilot and newsman, how could I have been totally unaware of the biggest thing in aviation to happen in town since Lindbergh landed here in 1928?

Watching the video in my warm, cozy house, I began getting that odd sensation you get when you drink too much cold medicine. You know, like your head has become a helium balloon and is floating two feet above your shoulders on a string. How could this have happened on my watch, and I missed it? It was surreal.

And as the video went on, things got worse. There was footage of Rare Bear’s famous pilot, Lyle Shelton, signing copies of the Optic, which featured a front-page picture of his plane. So it’s not like the paper missed the event.

Where the heck was I when all of this was going on?

I searched my memory banks in vain. I simply had no recall whatsoever of the event. After the movie was over, I sat and mentally tried to reassemble my past life. First I double-checked with Deb on what year we were married.

Never a good idea.

Next, I counted forward on my fingers. Yeah. I was still with the paper when Rare Bare came to town. But to be sure, I dug around in my files and found a old and faded resume—was that typed on a typewriter??—and confirmed that my position at the paper wasn’t eliminated until the spring of the following year, when the publisher decided to cut staff to save money.

So I was there, on the job, when Rare Bare made its flight. So why didn’t I remember it?

“Maybe they dropped a wrench on your head,” Rio offered helpfully.

Maybe so.

Or maybe I was on vacation. Out of state. Yeah. That might explain it. But there was no way to reassemble those kinds of details nearly three decades dead.

Or was there?

“I know how we can solve this mystery,” I told Rio. “Microfilm.”

“What the heck is microfilm?” asked Rio.

So I explained to him that microfilm is a way of archiving printed publications for long-term storage. Pages are laid out and photographed on 35mm-wide positive-image film. Months of newspapers can be condensed into a reel of film that will fit in your hand. I also told him about the sexier microfiche, index-card-sized sheets of plastic with microscopic magazine pages on them.

Then I was struck by a thought. Perhaps neither existed anymore.

“I guess it’s all done on computers nowadays,” I told Rio. Would old microfilm be scanned into computers? If not, were there still microfilm reading machines?

We went on an expedition to find out. The very next day, I picked Rio up from school and Lisa up from her office at the Community College (easy to do as Rio’s school is on the campus of the college) and we drove across town to New Mexico Highlands University, which was bedecked in purple banners and balloons for Homecoming. We found a parking spot on 8th Street a half block from the wide cascading stairs that lead up to the Donnelly Library—which itself was celebrating its 50th Anniversary.

The plan was to use the microfilm archives to see who took the photo—certainly it wasn’t me—and to see if my byline was missing from the days before and after the event, a clue that I wasn’t around. “What will you do if it turns out you took the picture?” asked Rio.

“Have a stroke,” I told him. There was no way I could have photographed an event like this and lost all memory of it.

On the second floor, in the heart of the periodicals, we found three microfilm machines and bank after bank of drawers holding film and fiche. Bank after bank of cabinets holding every paper but the one we were looking for.

Dejected, I turned around and spotted a small black cabinet standing all by itself on the opposite wall. The Las Vegas Daily Optic, on microfilm, from 1880 to last month.

I guess they still make microfilm, after all.

We searched through the drawers until we found the reel that contained August of 1989. We took the box out and pulled three chairs up in front of one of the microfilm readers.

Whereupon three very smart people couldn’t, to save our lives, figure out how to load the damn film into the stupid machine.

Lisa combed the library’s stacks and finally found an employee who figured out the machine we were trying to load was broken and took us to the “better one” in the government docs section.

Soon the past was whizzing past us, black and white, and grainy—the way the past is supposed to look. Spinning the dial on the machine, we watched the Friday TV Guide zip past. Then the supermarket insert. June 9th. I turned the dial farther to the right and the pages became a blur. I stopped at June 28th. Again I sped up the scan, and we closed in. August 10, 16, 18.

And there it was.

Monday. August 21, 1989. Lyle Shelton’s Rare Bare on the cover of the Las Vegas Daily Optic. Just like the copies we’d seen him signing on the video.

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And under the photo, my byline.

I took the picture.

I was thunderstruck. It felt like someone had dropped a wrench on my head. I stared at the slightly fuzzy image, speechless. Even faced with proof positive I had been on the scene, I couldn’t recall a single thing about the event. We flipped through the paper in both directions. The Optic ran three articles on the speed record, one the week before, one the day of the attempt, and another the next day. And in the days leading up to the record, and in the days following, my byline littered the pages of the paper.

I wasn’t on vacation.

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And to add insult to injury, the photo wasn’t really all that great. I worked at the paper as a photographer for about two-and-a-half years. I was good at it, bringing home more than a dozen New Mexico Press Association and Associated Press awards. In the time I was there, back in the days of fully manual cameras, no less, I took some amazing news photos.

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I keenly remember many of these impressive images, but I guess time and distance have led me to believe that they were the norm. Reality slapped me in the face in the quiet university library. A little girl with a rabbit. Road construction. A little girl with a dog. Seriously? Where was the Pulitzer-class kick-butt photography I remembered? I yearned to show Rio at least one amazing image on the microfilm viewer, but I couldn’t find one to be proud of.

My days as a globetrotting photographer were more mundane than my grainy, black and white memory held it out to be.

I guess Rare Bear isn’t the only thing I’d forgotten.

 

Disclaimer: I can’t really recommend the movie Fly Fast! And that’s not because it has me questioning my sanity. It just isn’t that great of a movie. I’d only give it one quarter of one star on a five-star rating system.

 

Aero archeology

I just got the bad news from the doctor. My engine has a year to live.

Oh. Wait. Don’t cry. Aircraft engines are more like cats. They have a strange immortality of sorts that grants them second, third, and sometimes fourth lives. You see, unlike dogs and humans, engines can be rebuilt. Made as new. Given a fresh life.

My engine is a Continental C-85-F. According to the company that gave birth to her, her life span is 1,800 hours. At that point they wash their hands of any responsibility and say the engine should be rebuilt. This is a big deal. The engine is dissembled. All the inside parts are cleaned, rebuilt, or replaced. The cylinders and pistons are thrown in a large trashcan and replaced with new ones. The spark-creating magnetos follow suit. In the end, for all practical purposes, you have a brand new engine.

For 1,800 hours. Then you have to do it again.

Still, we typically fly between 75 and 100 hours a year, which is much more than the fleet in general. A rebuilt engine will last me two decades. And now that I think about it, I’m not sure that I will last two more decades. So I guess the good news is that so long as I keep the Plane Tales Plane (and don’t buy a second plane) I’ll never have to live through another rebuild as long as I live. So that’s the black cloud’s silver lining.

The black cloud itself is $15,000 and two months of downtime. I’m not sure which is worse.

Complicating things somewhat are the missing logbooks. Planes have both engine and airframe logs, but given Tessie’s advanced age (69 this year) some of the logs, thus some of her history, is missing and therefore a mystery. One of those mysteries is the exact number of hours on the engine as mechanics past replaced hour-counting tachometers without noting the numbers logged on the replacement tachs. Were they zeroed? Were they used with counts of other engines? Were they reset to match units they replaced? No one knows and the logs are mute. This means that maybe our engine will live two more years, not one.

Another mystery is: When did the current engine join the airplane? She should have rolled out of the factory with a 75-horse engine, but now she has an 85. Where did it come from? A cryptic entry in a logbook from 1964 provides a tantalizing clue even while deepening the mystery.

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Inside the front cover, with no date, is the following entry: This engine installed in Ercoupe 3976H.

It goes on to say that the engine was rebuilt at 1,858 hours. The serial numbers match the engine in the Plane Tales Plane. But there are two ways to read those five words. Are they telling us the engine was already installed in the plane and was rebuilt, or that they installed a freshly rebuilt engine into the plane? Was the entry made at the start of the logbook, or at the end? The first actual entries (with no dates) show an engine time of 294 hours. The log ends in 1991 with an entry at 1,710 hours. To me that suggests that the engine was, in fact, overhauled in 1964, and probably again before we got her. My Continental is on her third life, getting ready for her fourth.

Tessie’s third owner sent me some copies of old documents he had from the 50s. His pilot’s log shows that he was flying two Ercoupes at the time and he carefully noted that the other one had a 75-horse engine, but that Tess had an 85. This gives us circumstantial evidence that Tessie had an 85, possibly her current one, as far back as 1953. Giving us more clues, back in those days pilots logged flight hours via tachometer time, so while it’s not an official engine log, we “know” that her 85 horse engine had 193 hours on it in January of 1953. Adding to the evidence for the origin of her 85 being the 1950s, we also just learned that Tessie’s prop, based on its serial number, was one of the very early McCauley aluminum propellers, and most likely dates from the early 1950s. A separate mystery is when her wings were coated with metal, photos of 3976H in the 1950s show her factory fabric-covered wings were still on at that time.

But back to the engine, if the 85-horse engine joined the plane sometime in the early 1950s, it begs the question: What happened to her original engine? I can’t see why someone would replace a perfectly good engine with one only 10 horsepower larger, and yet it would appear that sometime in the first 3-5 years of her life, someone did.

I think this is one of those mysteries we’ll never know the answer to. Oh well. Every girl needs her secrets. Even ones with only a year to live.

Powerful airpower

Wow, wow, WOW! I just saw the movie Above and Beyond, and it’s truly above and beyond the typical movie experience. This is an amazing, beautiful, and informative movie that’s a joy to watch. It’s the story of the birth of the Israeli air force, and it’s an amazing tale that’s gone untold for too long.

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Probably most Americans know the rough outline of the birth of the State of Israel: The United Nations voted to “partition” Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. At once the new Jewish state was attacked by five neighboring Arab nations. The Arabs publicly vowed to finish the job Hitler started, and the world community stood by and did nothing. The Jews basically had nothing more than handguns, while the highly organized, well armed, state-of-the-art professional Arab armies had all the implements of modern warfare, including armor and aircraft.

The smart money was on the Arabs, but that was not how history played out.

That much I knew, but what I didn’t know until I saw this movie, was that Jewish pilots from around the world who had served in World War II came to the aid of the new Jewish State. Think Flying Tigers, only in the Middle East. They were called the Machal, the volunteers from abroad.

Many of these volunteer pilots had never really thought of themselves as Jewish, and most didn’t speak Hebrew. One pilot, after being shot down by Arab air forces, was then shot at by Israeli ground forces. He saved his life by yelling out the names of all Jewish foods he could think of.

And combat wasn’t the only risk to the pilots. Many of them were Americans, and our government threatened loss of citizenship for anyone who flew for Israel. The fliers had to sneak out of the country using elaborate subterfuge, sometimes with the FBI nipping at their heels.

Above and Beyond does a great job of giving the viewer just enough information about the birth of Israel to put the creation of the nascent air force into perspective, while shocking us by reminding us just how deep and pervasive anti-Semitism ran in our own society not so long ago. But the movie is riveting and beautiful, both in its story and in its storytelling. Director Roberta Grossman seamlessly blends interviews with some of the surviving pilots, archival footage, and modern computer-generated graphics into a feast for the eyes, ears, and soul.

The most amazing moment for me? To set the stage, understand that while enough countries in the world voted for partition, creating the state of Israel, only one afforded any assistance to them beyond that point. And it wasn’t us. It was, of all nations, Czechoslovakia. But this wasn’t noble on their part; it was practical. The Czech economy was in tatters and the Israelis had the only American export that they’d managed to finagle: Money. And lots of it. The Czechs also had a German Messerschmitt factory that survived World War II. It made ME-109 Fighter planes. Well, a plane that was a shadow of the ME-109. The original engine factory had been destroyed, so the workers stuffed bomber engines into the fighter’s noses, turning a fearsome Nazi warbird into a plane that might be more dangerous to her pilots than to the enemy. Many were lost on takeoffs and landings, and in other cases, with the gun synchronizer timing improperly adjusted, the planes would shoot their own propellers off. The Czech 109s were poorly built and almost impossible to handle, but Israel had no air force and was being invaded by five belligerents who did have airpower (as well as tanks, artillery and all manner of modern weapons).

Four of these fighter planes were disassembled, loaded into cargo planes that had been illegally purchased in the US and then smuggled to Czechoslovakia by way of Panama, South America, and Italy, and flown to Israel. The four fighters were then secretly re-assembled in a hangar near Tele Aviv. To maintain the element of surprise, the Israelis didn’t even risk test flights. On May 29, 1948, with the 10,000-man Egyptian army literally at the gates of Tel Aviv, these four piece-of-crap planes—called Messer-shits by their pilots—took off, and in one single sortie changed the course of world history.

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How? Hey, I’m no spoiler. Go see the film yourself.

The movie, produced by Nancy Spielberg, Steven Spielberg’s sister, is being screened at various venues around the country. Check and see if one is near you. If not, plan a cross-country trip. I promise that it will be worth your time and Avgas. It’s not too often you can learn a ton of things you never knew in 87 minutes, and enjoy yourself at the same time.

Hopefully the movie will eventually come to DVD, I’ll be the first to add it to my aviation video library.

$100 Huevos Rancheros

Ree and I popped over to Tucumcari today to visit a pilot friend and take her to brunch. The morning was lovely, and we set out for SXU just as the sun was beginning to paint the sky a riot of pinks, reds, and oranges. A distant straggler from the previous night’s line of thunderstorms was retreating to the east, dragging a trail of virga over the mesa tops. High wispy cirrus clouds topped the dome of the sky.

We lifted off smooth as an elevator and turned due East… Straight into the sun.

Memo to self: Avoid early morning flights due East.

25 minutes of squinting and sunburn later, we finally caught up to the the straggler storm and stole some much-needed shade from it. Just shy of our destination we rolled off course and dropped down to the tree tops to search out a probable airmail beacon site, but came up dry. Based on our past finds (I don’t think I got around to blogging it yet, but farther west Rio and I found two more sites a few weeks ago), we knew the folks that built the beacon towers had a fondness for the high ground. Anyway, looking at the marked location of our current target on the old charts, and studying the terrain on our GPS, I was absolutely positive I could find this site in two seconds. The GPS showed a lone butte of the type the beacon service was fond of.

But when we got there, there was no lone butte. The land below our wings was a virtual village of buttes, cerittios, hills and hillocks. The damn thing is down there somewhere, but finding it would have to wait until we had more time. We had a brunch date. We peeled off and pointed our nose to Tucumcari, airport ID TCC.

I love TCC. It’s kinda long in the tooth now (like many New Mexico airports), but at one time it was a happenin’ place. They have two good runways, a large terminal, a lovely old-school beacon tower with the big rotating light, dozens of old hangars, shops, and hail sheds–mostly empty–and, my favorite feature, a fueling island.

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Back in the day, at busy airports, islands like this one made it possible to fill up a lot of planes quickly and easily. The pump is in the middle and a long hose can reach any point on the island. You don’t have to wait in line for the previous guy to leave before you get your plane filled up. Today, Tess was the only visitor, and the lineman was good natured about putting a gallon and a half in each wing. Hey, it wasn’t much, but we always try to support any airport we land at.

Over brunch our pal, whom I’ll call “Betty,” filled us in on her adventures at the big EAA fly-in at Oshkosh, and then we started talking about planes. She’s into both Ultralights and Light Sports and has built, five, I think. I asked her how she got into airplanes. “Oh, I started with RC planes,” she told me. For those of you who don’t know, RC stands for Radio Controlled, and while some folks might regard these as toys, nothing could be farther from the truth. RC planes are miniature planes that do everything their larger people-carrying cousins can do. Including crash. Trust me, I know about this, having four times crashed Rio’s RC helicopter

“I still have some, would you like to pop by my place on the way back to the airport and see them?” Betty asked.

I glanced at my watch and glanced at Rio, who bobbed his head up and down. OK, we got time and the boy wants to see the planes. Why not?

So we went. OMG, what a collection! Betty had nearly 50 RC planes hanging from the ceilings of every room of her house. Some were HUGE. All were beautiful. The detail was immaculate. She had a twin-engine Cessna 310 that must have a had a wing span of four feet. There was a Pitts. A Cub. A F4 Phantom. Float planes. An anphib. High wings. Low wings. Bi wings. Even a frickin’ airliner for crying out loud!

She built every one of them herself. Some from kits, some from plans, some from scratch. I was stunned. But my favorite was an amazing shiny silver Ercoupe, flying upside down from her living room ceiling (above a large HO scale electric train set that took up nearly every square foot of the room). At the controls was Barbie. Buggs bunny was the co-pilot.

Betty saw me gazing lovingly at the silver ‘Coupe. “That was the first plane I ever built,” she told me with pride. “I built it from scratch. No plans. No kit. It flies good too.” I was absolutely floored. Trust me on this, I spend a lot of time looking at Ercoupes. And Betty got every detail, every curve, every contour, every detail exactly perfect, right down the the spark plug covers. Her Ercoupe was a masterpiece.

That’s what’s great about the aviation world. It’s full of unexpected connections. Her first “plane” was an Ercoupe.

So was mine.

Finding history…

Everyone has heard of the Transcontinental Railway, but have you heard of the Transcontinental Airway? You haven’t? Shame on you. Well, not to worry, in my role as part-time amateur aviation historian, I’m here to help.

In an era before radio navigation, the United States government created a series of air routes marked by a chain of lighted beacon towers. It was a massive, amazing, expensive undertaking. They built 53-foot-high towers every 10 to 15 miles, from coast-to-coast! Pilots flying the night mail used the system to find their way safely over the darkened landscape by flying from point of flashing light to point of flashing light.

Can you imagine what that must have been like, alone in the dark in an open-cockpit biplane, bone-chilling wind whistling through the wires that held wings of cloth and wood together, following a flashing chain of pearls below?

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The beacon towers sat on massive brightly-painted concrete arrows that literally pointed the way by day. Built between 1923 and 1933, the final network of towers and arrows was made up of more than 1,500 sites lighting 18,000 miles of airmail routes. At the start of World War II, fears of Japanese air raids, combined with the advent of radio navigation, led to the shuttering of the beacon system. Then the need for raw materials for the war effort led to most of the towers being dismantled for their steel. Over the following years, time and the elements set in, and today the location of most of the sites is a mystery.
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I became interested in the transcontinental airway because in the Western part of our state we have one of the few remaining beacon towers, now fully restored, as part of a museum. I had thought an interesting angle would be to fly out to it following the original airmail route, visit the site, then write up a story that blended the flight, the history, and the existing museum and try to sell it to a magazine. (My eldest sister, also a professional writer, thinks it’s idiocy to write anything before you sell it, but I do some of both.)

I’m still planning to do that story, but in doing my initial research for it, I discovered that one of the early airmail routes, the Los Angeles-Amarillo Airway, actually passed a few miles south of my house. At one time there were a dozen beacons and even an intermediate airfield nearby. Holy cow! I wish that airfield were still there, it would mean a 10-minute commute to the family Ercoupe, not a 45-minute one!

Anyway, nobody around here knew anything about the field, so I decided to search for the site myself. I used antique aeronautical charts I purchased on eBay, satellite images on Google Earth, modern GPS, and aerial search techniques that I learned twenty-five years ago in the Civil Air Patrol.

For weeks we burned holes in the sky to no avail. To be honest, we weren’t even sure what we were looking for. Might we be so remote that the towers are still standing? If not the tower, maybe the support shed? And, hey, just what kind of altitude do you need to be at to see one of these arrows, if there was even one to be seen in the first place?

But we struck out time and time again, and I began to believe that the sites were buried under decades of blowing sand, grass, and juniper trees and might never be found. Not, at least, by the likes of us.

But today, criss-crossing empty fields and mesa tops at 100 feet above the ground, canopy open and wind in our hair, Rio and I spotted one of the 30-foot-long stone arrows from the air.

After much whooping, high-fiving, fist-pumping, and generalized happy chaos in the cockpit, we flew IFR–I Follow Roads–to figure out how to get “boots on the ground” at the site. After we landed, hangared Tess, and did all our post-flight stuff, we hit the truckstop for critical supplies (Doritos, water, and beef jerky) and went four-wheeling.

And four hours later…

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Flying the Air Mail, now those were the days of High Adventure! But this… this wasn’t too shabby either!