Maximum bummer

I was raised in a baseball family. I think we were St. Louis Cardinals fans. I’m not sure why; we lived in southwestern Colorado. Actually, now that I think back on it, it was more than just baseball. We went to college basketball games each week, never missed a minute of the Super Bowl, and always took in the Kentucky Derby. Growing up, I only heard my father swear twice: Once when he cut through a live wire with his Swiss Army knife trying to fix a lamp (he was a college professor, and as a general rule college professors shouldn’t be allowed access to sharp objects), and the second time when he shocked me at a hockey game by standing up and shouting at the referee, “Dust off your $%&#@ glass eye, ref!”

Mom still follows baseball, which leads to many baffling conversations between the two of us. When she starts talking about blue jays and orioles, I think she’s giving me the rundown of the action at the bird feeder in her front yard. Imagine my shock when suddenly a diamondback shows up. Then a tiger. Followed by a draft dodger, some pirates, a giant, and a bunch of Indians. About the time I think I need to check mom’s pill box to ensure that she’s not doubling down on her meds, I realize that we’re not talking about the bird feeder. We’re talking about the World Series.

You see, unlike the rest of my family, I didn’t get the sports gene. It plum skipped over me. I got my mom’s blue eyes, my dad’s beard, but that whole sports thing? Nope. Now, my sisters did  get the sports gene, proof that the love of sports has no connection to gender, but no sport ever held even a flicker of interest to me.

No sport, that is, until I got exposed to the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

And even that wasn’t love at first sight. The first time I took in a Red Bull, it was in person. And I didn’t even go for the race. I went for the pre-race party. But as I was there anyway, I decided to watch the race. It was OK, I guess. But it didn’t strike me as much of a race. I mean, seriously, the planes flew one at a time? What kind of race is that?

Now for perspective, I gotta tell you about the timing of this. I had already decided to try my own hand at air racing for reasons I can no longer recall, and I had joined SARL, but I had yet to fly my first race. So I was completely innocent of, and ignorant about, my hidden competitive nature. Inheriting my mother’s sports-fan gene: Nope. Inheriting my mother’s highly competitive nature: Oh yes.

My point here is that I had yet to be swept up in air racing. But sometime after I was racing myself, I stumbled on a televised Red Bull Air Race, and found it to be a hell of a good show. The problem was that it was on an obscure third-tier sports channel, in the middle of the night, with no seeming connection to the actual race—in terms of schedule—so finding it was hit and miss. I’d watch it if I found it, but I didn’t really follow it. Not, that is, until we got a DVR. Now, like Captain Kirk talking to the Enterprise’s computer, I could simply speak into my TV remote (crazy, huh?) and say, “Record Red Bull Air Race,” and damn if it wouldn’t do it.

After that, it didn’t take long for the whole family to get hooked on the Red Bull. After all, it’s a highly digestible sport. Unlike the National Championship Air Races in Reno—which is an excellent spectator sport—with Red Bull,  there’s a limited number of racers to keep track of, and they are all pretty interesting. Plus, rather than being a single packed week once a year, the Red Bull is a series, about once a month or so for a good part of the year, like other types of league sports. The photography is awesome, the venues are amazing, the rules are clearly explained and easy to grasp, and, of course, it has airplanes with smoke systems. And inflatable pylons that burst when hit. What’s not to love?

And with the DVR, we could plan a day to watch it when we could all gather together. And planning ahead, we could, Super Bowl-style, plan parties around the races. Parties with hot wings, deep fried mozzarella sticks with marinara dipping sauce, pinwheel sandwiches, pigs in a blanket, potato skins, potato chips with sour cream and onion dip, corn chips with fiery queso dip, guacamole, veggie platters, crustless baloney sandwiches, fortune cookies, and for liquid refreshment, taking a page from Reno, we drank Basque Specials: 50% red wine, 50% diet coke.

And that was just the menu for our first Red Bull Air Race party. Granted, it was over-kill for five people.

But like any other sports fans, we got better, and we learned to create a more reasonable pile of food to sustain ourselves as we shouted and cheered from the edge of the couch as the race planes roared around the pylons. We got so swept up in the series that we even took up drinking Red Bull energy drinks.

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

That was last season. At the start of this season we decided for our party to serve foods from the host country of each race. As race day for the season launch closed in, however, my Captain Kirk computer wasn’t working. “No results found,” said the DVR, day after day.

I finally emailed my media contacts at Red Bull, and was told that the only way for people in the USA to watch the races was on the internet. Bummer.

After kicking around our options, we decided to attempt to stream the race on my mom’s big screen TV. We cooked up an Emirates feast (thank you, Google) for the season kick-off at Abu Dhabi, re-arranged her living room furniture, mixed up our Basque Specials, and sat back to enjoy our favorite sport.

Five seconds into the opening credits, the streaming video froze. Then it pixilated into electronic chaos. Our rural internet was not up the to the challenge. We dejectedly ate our saffron-infused Kabsa and drank waaaaay more red wine and coke than usual, mom’s blank big screen TV dominating the sad little gathering. Little did I know at the time that no amount of red wine and coke would drown my sorrows over the next chapter in the Red Bull Air Race, because, as you probably know by now, Red Bull has kicked their Air Race to the curb.

On May 29, forever in my book to be known as Black Wednesday, the headline at GA News read, “Red Bull calls it quits for its air races.” I was stunned. Then it got worse: Not only did Red Bull back out, they slashed the season to a mere three more races, and canceled the American race altogether. Later that same day, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who had been pestering me daily to buy tickets, announced it would be issuing refunds.

So now I’m a newly discovered sports fan without a sport to watch. And with my own Race 53 sidelined for a second season, I’m also a competitor with no competition to compete in.

Now what?

I guess I’ll have to watch a baseball game. Or maybe not. That little dirt mound in the middle can’t compete in my mind with a swaying 82-foot orange and white pylon.

And after all, I didn’t get the sports gene.


As awesome with a pen as with a lens

A shout-out to my Plane Friend Lisa F. Bentson who picked up a pen along with her camera recently, reporting from the Sport Air Racing League race pits in Terrell, Texas for General Aviation News.

One of her rockin’ images dominates the TOC (Table of Contents)…

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And page 16 of the June 20th edition is dominated by her photo spread and report!

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Wanna see more? There’s a slide show of her entire portfolio from the race online!


Throttle Tale—Part 3

Date Line: Terrell, Texas. A hot hallway on the third floor of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites

When I answered the phone, it was the woman who runs the shop that just balanced Tess’s prop, and was taking a quick peak under the panel to make sure that the throttle cable wasn’t loose.“Hey, William,” she said causally, as if asking me how the weather was at the hotel, “you don’t happen to travel with a spare throttle cable, do you?”

This. Can’t. Be. Good.

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I should have said something snarky, like, “Of course, it’s in the back with the spare cappuccino machine and the spare battery-powered back massager.” Instead, I could feel all the blood draining out of my head. The race was only two days away.

Apparently, my throttle cable had suffered a hernia. The cable is a thick wire that slides inside a flexible conduit. The conduit had ruptured where it passes through the firewall. Sometimes, when the throttle was pushed forward, it pushed the wire into the fractured down-stream section of the conduit. Other times, the wire took the path of least resistance and simply bent upward into the engine compartment, not moving the throttle arm on the carb at all.

But there was a problem. Well, a problem beyond the hernia. My heroes at Univair, who still hold the Ercoupe type certificate, and who have lots of parts and generally will make parts that they are out of, were both out of the cable my sub-species of Ercoupe—the CD model, of which only a few hundred were made—requires, and were being unclear about whether or not they would make any more. The cable might have to be rebuilt by a specialist company, and that would take time.

Augh. Not only was my head out of blood, now my stomach was churning.

The shop promised to see if they could come up with a field repair, and instead of going out for dinner, I went out for a stiff drink.

The next morning, I met with the mechanic at the hangar where Tess had been stowed for the night. He had created a patch for the throttle conduit with safety wire, some sort of shrinking aluminum tape, and God knows what else. He figured it was good for six months. I promised to get the cable either replaced or rebuilt during the impending annual. He also warned me that he had to “change the architecture” of the cable. The first half inch went from zero to full throttle. On the bright side, apparently, he felt I had lost two inches of throttle movement, so I should have more power.

I mounted up, fired her up, inched the throttle forward and pretty much redlined the engine. Tess bucked and pulled against her brakes. I inched the throttle back. No, that’s a lie. I millimetered the throttle back. I was itching to get into the air and she what she could do. But first I had to taxi over to the shop where my gear was.

Now, do you remember the opening credits of the 1960’s TV show Gilligan’s Island? Where Gilligan and the Skipper are fighting the wheel of the Minnow during the storm that maroons the passengers of the three-hour tour? Yeah. That was me trying to keep Tess on the taxiway. Huge control inputs to the left and then to the right, a discordant symphony of continuous motion.

Now I was getting spooked.

Back at the shop, I reported what I was experiencing to the mechanic, and he conceded that he found it a wild ride when he taxied her to the storage hangar the night before. And so began the trouble-shooting. I’ll spare you the details, but I have to say I was impressed with their knowledge of my strange little bird’s type and by their sensible approach. The culprit? A nearly impossible-to-reach $65 bearing at the top of the control mast. Mine had failed so completely that the mast had dropped down enough that it was no longer properly mating to the steering system. Now, when I say top of the control mast, you should picture the corner stone of a skyscraper. Basically, the damn airplane is built around this bearing.

To reach it, some mechanics strip everything out of the cockpit, including the header tank. It left me wishing my mechanics had thought to replace this cheap (for an airplane) part when they put in a new header tank last year. But this shop’s approach was different; instead of removing everything above the bearing, they essentially cut a hole in the floor of the plane and drop the mast down, then rebuild the bottom. Of course, they didn’t have the bearing it stock.

We had a pow-wow to discuss what to do next. The first thought was that no harm could really come of it. There was nothing that could fail catastrophically. The worst that could happen would be a return of the shimmy. But when I added the fact that it was getting progressively worse, we all began to worry about a loss of control on takeoff or landing. Remember, the flight controls are connected to the ground controls.

I grounded the airplane.

I’d already decided I wanted these folks to take over the annuals, but I had hoped to race this weekend, and at the Galveston Race in two weeks’ time. Terrell wouldn’t really even be that far out of my way coming home from the gulf, and in future years, as I’d be coming out to the race anyway, it would be two birds with one stone. Well, one bird with two stones. But now that wasn’t going to happen, at least not the first race. I asked if they could have her ready before Galveston, but the time was really too short, the shop schedule too full (there were Ercoupes from as far away as Florida being worked on there), and I know better than to race an airplane fresh out of annual.

I stared wishfully at the sky in silence for a moment, then told them to work her in when they could. For a second year in a row, the race season was over for me before it started.

And I’m back in airplane maintenance hell.