The new race season is under way, and so is my coverage of it in General Aviation News. The latest issue is at an airport near you right now!
The new race season is under way, and so is my coverage of it in General Aviation News. The latest issue is at an airport near you right now!
For Sale: Five year old Air Race. Nice time of year. Mild climate. Good location at large airport. Held during major air event. Viewed by over 200,000 attendees. For more information, call Craig Payne at Sun ‘n Fun.
OK. So I totally made up that classified ad. But what it’s selling is totally real, and you can buy it tomorrow, if you want. The Sun 40 Sprint—an aircraft speed trial that actually launches out of, and finishes at, Sun ‘n Fun’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport during the expo’s daily showcase—has been re-classified by the expo’s brass as a “sponsorable” event.
That means you can buy your very own air race. Which is not as crazy as it sounds.
Let’s suppose you own a small company that has a great aviation product that you want to sell to pilots. You’ve got your website ready to go and your inventory is just begging to be shipped. Now all you have to do is get the word out. Sure, you have a Facebook page, but like us here at Plane Tales, you only have 32 “likes.” (And we love every one of you.) So you need to advertise.
The traditional approach would be to buy an ad in one of the aviation magazines, but this is not for the faint of pocketbook, and certainly not for the bootstrapper. For instance, a 1/6 page black and white ad in AOPA’s Pilot magazine costs $3,080—and everyone who knows anything about magazine advertising knows you need to be seen again, again, and again. For a two-color ad the rate jumps to nearly four thousand bucks. Want a color photo in your ad?
Cha-Ching. $4,840 at the cash register, please.
For one ad.
So what about a booth at one of the aviation expos instead?
Sun ‘n Fun would actually be a good place to start. It’s neither as expensive nor as overwhelming as AirVenture, but it’s a huge leg up over a local airshow or fly-in. The annual Florida event draws nearly a quarter million aviation enthusiasts from all over the country who are in a nice warm location following a cold winter back home, and they are ready to take to the skies again with their hearts and wallets.
How much would a booth at Sun ‘n Fun set you back? Looking at this year’s rates, the cheapest outdoor booths are $1,390. That price includes six exhibitor badges and one parking space. If you want to be indoors, the rate is $2,350. If you need internet, it will be more. Of course, larger booths and premium locations command yet higher rates.
Still, it sounds like a deal and a half, huh? Hell, it’s cheaper than the stupid magazine ad.
Or is it? Because that’s just the cost of the empty booth. You’ll still need signs, display materials, and tradeshow giveaways. And that’s just the beginning. The show runs the better part of a week. You’ll need to pay for hotel, rental car, and food. And unless you have amazing stamina, you’ll need help.
And you have to get there, too.
This is why some companies choose to have a remote presence instead. Ben Sclair, publisher of Sun ‘n Fun Today (the show’s daily newspaper) told me that some companies find it cheaper and just as effective to advertise in his paper to reach the attendees, rather than to take on all the costs of coming in person.
Or you could buy the air show. Even I gotta admit that the Plane Tales Sprint has a nice ring to it.
I’m sure the details are negotiable, but Payne tells me he’s looking to find someone to sponsor next year’s show for around three thousand dollars. Where would your money go? To trophies and food for the racers, and to help support the event and Sun ‘n Fun’s educational mission. What would you get for your money? Well, you’d get your name out in a big way. It would be in all the adverting, all the media coverage, and if you went to Sun ‘n Fun yourself, you’d hear your company’s name again and again during the hour-long event, which is covered live by an announcer just like a baseball game.
If I had something to sell other than words, I’d jump at this opportunity in a second. I think magazine ads are great. A booth at a trade show lets you interact one-on-one with potential customers. But both are expensive. Also, there’s virtually no limit to the number of magazine ads out there, and Sun ‘n Fun has hundreds of booths. In other words, you’re part of a crowd. It’s hard to stand out.
But there’s only one Sun 40 Sprint. It’s never been for sale before, and it could be all yours—all yours. That’s what I call a hot property.
Here’s Craig’s email: email@example.com
Good news race nuts, my Air Racing from the Cockpit series has been picked up by General Aviation News for a second year! The first two installments on now up at GA New’s website, and you can look forward to a new story in every issue starting with the April 6th edition, which is at airports everywhere right now!
Photo by Lisa F. Bentson
The gull-winged Vaught F4U-4 Corsair of Black Sheep Squadron fame, arguably one of the most beautiful war planes of all time, is painted a deep glossy blue—nearly black. She sits near the hangar door, wings mimicking praying hands, folded upward towards the heavens.
The man who taught me my commercial, instrument, and mountain skills—Gil Harris—flew one of these as a Marine pilot in the Pacific during World War II. Every time I see one of the iconic fighter planes I think of him.
But now, with the spinner high above my head, I’m struck once again by just how damn big the thing is, especially for a one-man fighter. It’s over 33 feet long from nose to tail. Unfolded, the wings stretch to 41 feet. But most impressively, the top of the engine stands nearly 15 feet off the ground. This one, with her wings reaching upward literally towers over me.
And it bears my Race Number: 53.
Funny the way the aviation world is so full of connections. But it’s chilly inside the massive 64,000 square-foot-hangar, so I cut short my communion with the past and its links to the present, and move on to the next exhibit, a rare two-seat P-51 D Mustang named Friendly Ghost. Next on the flight line is a shark-mouthed P-40 Warhawk, the same type the Flying Tigers flew, but this one is in Army Air Force colors.
On the tail of the plane, a cowboy is urinating on the Rising Sun.
I admire the moxie, but I sure wouldn’t want that on my tail if the Japanese shot me down.
I turn, and in the shadow of a gleaming black twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning is another old friend. Painted bright, cheerful yellow, a tiny Piper Cub manages to hold it’s own among the massive warbirds. A sign in the windshield says that it’s a 1937 model, and that it’s the oldest flyable Piper airplane in the world.
And that’s what makes this museum special. The War Eagles Air Museum prides its self on keeping its collection aloft. Under nearly every one of the thirty-seven planes in their main hangar sits an oil pan. That’s not something you see in most air museums, where former denizens of the air are often shown as “static” displays, permanently grounded, shot and stuffed birds in a natural history diorama.
Airplanes are born to fly. I like museums that keep them flying, which is no easy thing to do. It’s much cheaper to park a plane and dust it off once a month than to keep it airworthy. It takes extra dedication to keep a collection aloft.
Next to the Cub, on a stand, is a cub engine. A 40-horse Continental A40-4. Ridiculously improbable as an aircraft engine, it’s small and simple. It looks like it belongs in a lawn mower rather than in an airplane. I have a vision of being able to tuck it under my arm and carry it to my mechanic for maintenance (although according to the internet, it weighs 150 pounds, and I’m not that strong).
Looking down the isle, it’s airplanes as far as I can see.
This world-class museum is in the unlikely location of Santa Teresa, New Mexico, population: 4,258. The village sits 30 miles west of El Paso, Texas, and six miles north of the Mexican border. Santa Teresa is Spanish for Saint Teresa, one of the patron saints of pilots.
Like I said, the universe is full of connections.
The collection of planes, like that of many airplane museums, is heavy on both military aircraft and World War II aircraft; but there is a handful of biplanes, two helicopters, a number of early fighter jets from the 50s, and a lovely DC-3. The museum is comfortably crowded, unlike the Mid-American Air Museum in Liberal, Kansas, which is uncomfortably crowded. War Eagles also has an interesting array of aviation artifacts—mementos, photos, uniforms, models, and more.
For car lovers, the museum includes a collection automobiles. In fact, they have more autos than airplanes, with more than fifty cars ranging from a 1908 Overland to a 1984 Jaguar, along with a great collection of antique gas pumps.
Rounding a corner under the wing of a twin-engine Douglas A-26 light bomber, an unusual airplane catches my eye. Suspended from the ceiling in one corner is a Cessna 140.
And it’s Mary Kay pink.
I stop and rub my eyes, then look again. Yep. A lovely shade of pastel pink. Not normally a color you see an airplane painted. Her nose and wheel pants are painted a darker pink, as are her wing tips. She’s also sporting a Race Number: 22.
Tickled pink, and I couldn’t wait to learn more about this unusual airplane.
Briefly, this is the story of Race 22, a.k.a. the “Cotton Clipper Cutie:” The small Cesena was the First Place winner of the 1954 all-women’s air race. Variously called the Women’s Air Derby, the All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, and today known as the Air Race Classic; the press at one time dubbed the long-running women’s cross country air race as the “Powder Puff Derby,” a moniker that different generations of women pilots have alternately either embraced or shunned.
The pink plane was piloted by Ruth Deerman and Ruby Hays of El Paso, now both sadly deceased. They were no strangers to the arduous race. They competed in the 1950, 1951, 1953 races without scoring a major victory, but their luck changed in 1954.
Flying from Long Beach, CA to Knoxville, TN, with nine intermediate stops, the women covered the nearly 2,000 mile route in five days, clocking an official speed of 123.9 miles an hour for the course, taking the first place slot in the 8th running of the race, and beating out fifty competitors.
The Women’s Race is a “handicapped” race, a system that places all the planes in the race on an equal footing. The winner isn’t the plane with the biggest engine; the winner is the plane with the best crew. Winning speed comes from precision flying, smart planning, finding and taking advantage of winds, and apparently, being fast on the ground, too.
According to the display, Hays, the copilot/navigator, related that—wearing a dress, nylons, a hat and gloves—she dashed from the plane at one of the checkpoints to get their log stamped and “took a spill” on some loose gravel, sliding right under the table!
She called it ignominious. But they won.
The ladies donated the historic race plane and their trophy to the museum in 1994, along with a collection of memorabilia that includes a great photo of the two women lying on the ground waxing the belly of the plane with Wonder Earth glass wax.
So did Race 22 win the derby wearing pink? Sadly, no. She was painted pink in later years. A faded period B&W photo shows the polished silver plane as she looked crossing the finish line.
But now in the pink, she’s quite the eye catcher.
The final installment of Air Racing From the Cockpit just hit the streets. It’s part twenty. Can you believe it? I can’t. I’ve been writing professionally for nearly 40 years and I can assure you I’ve never had a gig like this! Aside from regular columns, I think the largest series I’ve ever written on one subject was four-part series.
Plus, each was given generous space and was lavishly illustrated.
That’s over with now, but don’t be sad: I have good news. Air Racing From the Cockpit is coming back next season! Each story will be slightly shorter–web stats show modern readers don’t finish longer articles anymore–but every single issue from March until the end of the year will feature a new race adventure.
There are 18 races scheduled so far this year, and three more in the works. It will be a long and tough season. Will we score the Gold? Follow me on the pages of GA News to find out. The second season of the series starts March 23!
Frost on the taxiway lights. A bitter bite to the air. Winter is coming early up here in the mountains. I nudge the throttle forward for a little extra RPM to fully warm up Tessie’s engine before the race. The lead plane pulls forward, crosses in front of me, heads for the runway. Plane two pulls forward.
I’m in the eleventh position.
I tighten my shoulder belt. Then I notice my iPad mini—mounted just below the dash—is covered in fingerprints. I’ve got time to clean it real quick-like. I reach behind me and pull a lens-cleaning wipe from the pocket of the luggage compartment. I tear it open, remembering the lemon-scented hand wipes of my youth. The ones the Colonel gave out with the buckets of fried chicken.
Quickly, I wipe down the surface of the iPad. There’s a flash. My racecourse suddenly morphs. Changes. Instead of the roughly circular flight path, it looks like fallen scaffolding.
Even wrapped in a winter flight jacket, my blood runs cold.
This cannot have just happened.
Not only is my course messed up, but there’s a huge body of water where the San Juan Mountains should be. I zoom in to check the nearest city. Warsaw? My iPad squashed my race and moved it from Colorado to Poland?!
How. Can. That. Be?
Plane three has passed, plane four is pulling out. I’m freaking out.
I quickly clear the flight plan and reload it from the main menu. Again Poland. Somehow, my racecourse has been deleted and replaced with a crisscross course north of Prague, east of Berlin, west of Minsk.
I whip out my cell phone and open Garmin Pilot on the phone. The race course is fine there. If I can sync the phone’s flight plans to the iPad I’m in business, but out on the ramp, I’m too far from the FBO. I don’t have wireless.
Plane five is moving.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit!!!
I do NOT want to fly a race in the mountains on a cell phone. The race briefing printout is on the seat next to me. I have the GPS locations for all six turns. But each location’s coordinates are made up of two strings of 16 digits. There’s no time to enter them all, and one typo could cause me to bust a turn.
There goes plane six.
The waypoints! Did the actual waypoints get corrupted, too? Frantically, I go to the waypoint menu. I always program each point in separately to draw the flight plan, then I turn them off again so that they don’t clutter up the map.
As plane seven pulls out, I toggle through the Pagosa waypoints. Start. Turn 1. Turn 2. Turn 3. Turn 4. Turn 5. Turn 6. Finish. Although I can see my breath in the cockpit, I’m bathed in sweat.
Plane eight pulls out and joins the line of taxiing race planes.
Back to the map. Will my waypoints show up in Europe or Colorado? Yes! They’re in Colorado.
I try to draw the course line on the map, but in the cold air the touch screen isn’t responding.
Plane ten, Team Ely, pulls out. They’d have a good laugh if they only knew the chaos in my cockpit.
It’s my turn to taxi. I have no course, but I have the turn points. I can wing it. Literally and figuratively.
Plane after plane roars off down the runway and off onto the course. I do a rolling run up, checking my carb heat and mags. All I have left to do is set the mixture. One eye out the windscreen and one eye on the iPad, I try one last time. The screen responds to my touch. Ahead, the Elys pull sideways for their runup. I turn the yoke to swivel Tessie 45 degrees to the taxiway and bring the throttle up until the tach pegs at 2,000 rpm. Tess bucks and shakes. I ease the mixture back, slowly… slowly… slowly…
The rpm dips. I advance the mixture a hair, then throttle back. The Elys are moving into position on the runway. I advance to the hold line. I have 30 seconds left. My fingers fly across the iPad and the course line grows. From start to turn one. From turn one to turn two. From turn two to turn three…
The Elys begin their takeoff roll. The starter waves me forward. I release the brake. Turn four to turn five…
And as I line up, my finger extends the course to the finish line. I hit save.
The green flag drops. I advance the throttle to the firewall. I’m off. Racing from Pagosa Springs.
Not from Warsaw.
I thought the worst was over when Tessie broke down. That was a bad day. Not 100 miles from home, in Clovis, New Mexico, our girl wouldn’t restart after landing to wait out a line of thunderstorms.
A pair of local mechanics worked valiantly to get us back in the air so we could make our race, but it didn’t happen. After months of racing, with victory within our grasp, a “mechanical” took us out of the running. I knew that missing this one race, this late in the season, would put my competitors far enough ahead that there was no way in hell I could catch up. All my efforts—long hours, vast miles, big money—wasted.
It was a lot to process.
Once the family arrived to rescue me (via car) all the talk surrounded how “lucky” we were, and how “blessed” we were to have broken down on the ground, rather than in the air. While I don’t deny that this is true, I was pissed off that we broke down at all. We take exceedingly good care of Tessie.
This should not have happened.
I remained grumpy all the way home. Even two Mexican beers and green chili chicken enchiladas at Santa Rosa’s Silver Moon didn’t do much for my mood.
The next day I woke up with a black cloud over my head, not that it mattered much with no plane to fly. We had to leave our girl behind, tied down on the dirt outside the mechanic’s hangar at the far end of Taxiway Bravo in Clovis. It made me heartsick to drive away and leave her there.
Hopefully, she gets well soon.
I spent the next day writing up the story for General Aviation News as part of my ongoing series on air racing. After all, breakdowns are part of the story of racing. A breakdown that costs you everything you’ve strived for is an even “better” story, I suppose.
The following day was Race Day. I was up with the dawn, knowing that soon, over 800 miles away, my friends and rivals would be racing. I could picture the planes lined up on the ramp, the racers waxing their wings, putting gap tape on their cowls, warming up their engines.
And I suddenly felt painfully alone. Isolated. Left out.
It’s the first race I’ve missed since racing took over my life. I didn’t think it would get to me so badly. I had no way of knowing what was happening. Did all the planes show? What were the winds like? Did my competitor happen to have the same bad luck I did?
I was bluer than my race shirt.
There’s no fast news out of a SARL race. It’s not like we’re on Fox Sports or anything. As the minutes and hours crawled by, I awaited news from the race, checking my email every five minutes to see if one of my buddies would give me the scoop. I tried to read to while away the time. Finally, I cracked open a bottle of wine.
Rather early in the day.
In the end, I was so stressed out I actually fell asleep in a comfy chair in our library. I never sleep during the day. Unless I’m sick. But, I guess in a way I’m as sick as my plane.
And I doubt I’ll get fully well again until Tessie does.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
OK, I was keeping this under wraps until it really happened–because I had to keep pinching myself to believe it was true–but official Race 53 merchandise is now available at a Website near you!!! (Well, I guess they all are huh?)
During AirVenture this year the folks at Preferred Altitude pulled me aside to talk to me about creating Race 53 licensed merchandise. Naturally, I thought all the Avgas fumes had finally done in my brain.
But they were serious, and today they launched the first T-shirt. Available in three colors, I’m told.
It’s a waaaaaaay cool logo and a great way to show your love of Ercoupes and your support for Race 53 and the gang!
Plus, I’d love it if a certain competitor of mine walked into her home airport and found a bunch of people wearing them! He-He-He-He-He….
Oh, right, the URL. Get your shirt here!