A TV show you might have missed

My Hispanic father-in-law studied the latest home-repair mess I’d made for a long time before he finally sighed and said, “You college-educated white guys aren’t very good at this kind of thing, are you?”

That was almost thirty years ago. And ever since then, the family joke is that I’m the star of a late-night cable TV show called the College-Educated White Guy Handyman. A show featuring a weekly home repair or improvement disaster. In my defense, home repair skills take a lengthy education of their own, and mine was limited to watching my college professor father blow a chunk out of his Swiss Army knife cutting through a live wire while trying to replace the plug on a table lamp.

As time goes by, I have gotten better, but usually my first attempt at doing any kind of repair or improvement goes awry. A recent case in point: Our hangar floor.

Now there are two things you need to know. The first is that the airport will let me deduct the cost of any improvements to our hangar from our rent, and the second is that while traveling the country in two seasons of racing, we saw some pretty swank hangars.

Oh. And a third thing. I’ve been suffering hangar floor envy ever since Lisa and I connected our hangars. You see, she has a wall-to-wall cement floor. I have a gravel floor with a 15×15 foot concreate pad for Tess to rest on. Of course, I didn’t know it was 15×15 until too late. I think my non-college educated Hispanic handyman father-in-law told me something about measuring twice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

About two months ago, I got it in my head that I could trump Lisa’s expanse of concreate if my humble pad of concreate were more swank than her concreate. How would I do that? Well, really swank hangars have really swank epoxy floor coverings. Some glow like mirrors, others have interesting patterns, but all of them are tough as diamonds and as an added benefit, their non-absorbent surfaces reduce oil spill clean-ups to a simple flick of a towel.

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I don’t recall how, but I recently discovered that there is a do-it-yourself version of this swank floor covering called Rocksolid from Rust-Oleum. How hard could it be?

I watched the YouTube video and judged it to be no more difficult than painting, and with Tessie out of the hangar for extensive repairs, this would be a good time to take it on. On my next trip to Santa Fe to take Rio to his flight lesson (and to check on the status of aforementioned repairs), I planned to buy a hangar-floor-in-a-box.

And this is where we get to measuring.

Standing in Home Depot in Santa Fe, I had no earthly idea how big my pad in Santa Rosa was. This mattered, because Rocksolid come in two sizes: The one-car garage size, with the kit covering 200-250 square feet; and the two-and-a-half car garage size, with the kit covering 450-500 square feet.

Picture me in Home Depot trying to astrally project myself to my hangar.

I decided that although the hangar itself is huge, the concreate pad in the middle was much smaller than a one-car garage. And I was so convinced of this that it didn’t even occur to me to measure it later on, even though I had several opportunities to do so between the time I bought the smaller kit, and when it was warm enough to break it out and paint it on.

Of course, any of you who are sharp at math know that 15×15 equals 225 square feet, smack dab in the middle of the theoretical range of what the kit will cover.

I’ll spare you the details of the various trials and tribulations of preparing the concreate: Sweeping, hosing, scrubbing with degreasers, more hosing, scrubbing with dish soap, more hosing, etching with acid, more hosing. Instead, let’s jump straight to the main event. Actually, I’ll spare you the details of the main event, too. Just suffice it to say the goop is the thickness of maple syrup but you are to spread it as thin as paint. And that my cement pad is full of ridges and channels and cracks and dips. And the roller was a magnet for the nearby gravel. And that the handle of my roller brush broke. And the foam bush they gave me with the kit delaminated.

Yes, let’s skip all of that stress-fest and go right to the final chapter. Here, let me show you:

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Yes, that’s right. I ran out of swanky Rocksolid material pretty much right at the 200 square foot mark.

Measure first. Who knew? Oh. That’s right. My father-in-law.

 

An aeronautical feast for the eyes

A stubby Gee Bee Sportster, all engine. A green and yellow Laird Super Solution, a biplane so aerodynamically clean it looks poured from water, not built from wood and fabric. Ahh…. The Curtis R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle used to capture the Schneider Trophy. A Travel Air Mystery Ship in iconic fire engine red, black racing scallops on the leading edges of the wings and cowl gracing the plane with the illusion of streaking motion, even while parked. A Curtiss Jenny, so ugly and ungainly it’s beautiful. A sleek Spartan Model 7, a sexy Staggerwing, and a pudgy but oddly endearing Culver Cadet. Then, glistening like a mirror, the bullet-like Hughes H-1 Racer. And in a place of honor, the plane that started it all: The Wright Flyer.

No, it’s not the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

And it’s an aeronautical feast for the eyes, its plastic branches covered in airplanes: A complete collection of all twenty-two Hallmark The Sky’s the LimitChristmas ornaments. Since 1997 the card giant has been churning out amazing replica airplane ornaments, featuring one new civilian airplane per year. Have I been collecting them since the beginning? No, and like everything else aviation around here, it all started with an Ercoupe…

Back in 2013, when we were shopping for a real Ercoupe, Debbie found The Sky’s the Limit‘Coupe ornament on eBay. Being the cheapest Ercoupe we’d seen up to that point, she bought it for me.

The diminutive, but highly detailed, resin model sat on my desk to keep me inspired during my lengthy plane buying odyssey. But—as often happens with our family—one thing led to another, and Rio and I became obsessed with hunting down every last one of the annual miniature planes; and since then, we’ve purchased each year’s new issue. In Year One of our airplane ornament hysteria, the family Christmas tree in our house was all airplane. Debs tolerated that.

The next year, the airplanes banned by the mistress of the house in favor of more traditional holiday decor, I decided to put up a Christmas tree in the hangar to share the holiday spirit with Tessie.

Of course, the problem with a hangar Christmas tree is that, unless you have the good fortune to live in one of those airpark communities where your hangar is connected to your house, you only see the hangar tree a few times during the Christmas tree season.

Still, I gamely put up the hangar tree each year since. Until this year. Because this year I had an epiphany. (Appropriate, given the season.) This year I decided to put up the hangar tree in the newly “renovated” terminal, so that not only would we enjoy it on our flying days, but so too could all the passing pilots who land for fuel, snacks, and a clean bathroom.

So armed with eggnog, Bourbon, a plate of cookies, and one of our Red Bull Sky Lounge Boxanne Bluetooth speakers (when you turn it on, you hear Jim DiMatteo’s voice say, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on!”) the entire clan descended on the SKU terminal.

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

With Grandma Jean “supervising,” we put up the three-part white faux tree. Then Debs fluffed up the branches while Lisa and I untangled the lights. I always wrap the damn things into a neat coil at the end of each season, but during the year of storage some sort of black magic intervenes to turn the bundle into a tangle. What’s up with that?

The tree up and the lights finally strung without stringing myself up, my responsibilities were discharged and I kicked back to enjoy the vibe of family, friends, music, and aviation. Debs and Rio took the fleet of planes from their cardboard hangars, setting each one on the table as if parked on a miniature ramp, then flew each one to the tree and carefully taxied them into position.

When they were done, we set up the O Gauge Plasticville Airport terminal and hangar buildings under the tree, and then argued about how to arrange the pair of tarpaper runways. Should they look good or be true to the compass?

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.

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Then, finally done, the cookies reduced to crumbs and the eggnog running low, we turned off the overhead lights and sat warm and cozy, bathed in the cold blue taxiway-colored light of the terminal tree, and soaked in the sight.

The un-racer-looking Howard DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan,” whose long legs won the 1935 Bendix Trophy, white against the white tree. A silver and blue Cessna 195. The bird of prey-like twin engine Cessna 310. Lindy’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. The big radial Monocoupe 110, a long-winged Stinson Reliant, a Christmas red Lockheed Vega, and a humble Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a miniature of the one Rio is flying out of Santa Fe.

And of course, an Ercoupe. An Ercoupe in a Christmas tree that my true love gave to me.

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Frigid Flight

First the thick T-shirt from Eddie Bauer. Next, a heavy polo-style sweater, also, probably, from Eddie Bauer. After that comes the scarf. Then my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. I’m getting ready for a frigid flight. I slide my hands into warm gloves. According to the internet, it’s 17° F at our homebase. On the ground. And the sky gets colder the higher you go up.

I finish by pulling my thick Fly Duluthknit cap down over my ears. They really know how to make hats in northern Minnesota. Of course, my friends in northern Minnesota are laughing their asses off right now if they’re reading this—they wear short sleeve dress shirts at 17 degrees. I’ll bet they don’t even reach for their extra warm, thick, and wonderful artic-proven Fly Duluth knit caps until the mercury goes seriously into the negative. But we Southwesterners have thinner blood, and this is the first real cold snap of the season. So I’m not even remotely acclimated to the fact it’s winter. Heck, the cabin heater hose in Tess is still disconnected.

Luckily, however, I had the foresight to plug in her electric engine pre-heater. I did not, however, have the foresight to bring a hammer with me to the airport. Why would this matter? Because the padlock to Tessie’s hangar is entombed in ice like the alien in The Thing from Another Worldwhen I arrive.

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I get out my phone and amend my flight plan for a later departure. Luckily for me, the ice-clad lock proves less an obstacle than it appears; but my real problems have just begun.

As I push on the left hangar door, it starts to open with a crunching groan, hesitates, then rattles back, pouring cold, blue early winter morning light into my frozen hangar. I push on the right door. It grudgingly moves two feet and then jams solid. I pull back. No go. It’s stuck. Stuck fast.

Great. I can only get half my airplane out.

Debbie starts optimistically sweeping the snow from the short stretch of crumbling asphalt in front of Tessie’s wheels while I hack, swear, kick, and chop at the ice that’s lined the right door’s tracks. A north-facing hangar is only a good idea in three out of four seasons.

At long last, both doors stand open to the frigid world. Time to make ready for flight. Weird things happen to airplane metal and plastic at temperature extremes on both ends, so I do a more cautious than usual preflight. The elevator moves smoothly. The ailerons do not. But that’s a good thing on an Ercoupe. Their ailerons are interlinked to their rudders and their nosewheels. With Tess’s nosewheel planted firmly on the frozen ground, her ailerons and rudders would move freely only if they were horribly broken. The oil level is good. I pull off a glove and reach in to caress a cylinder to ensure that the engine heating system is working. It’s hot to the touch, burning my finger.

I check the fuel levels with a Fuelhawkstraw. They’re much lower than I expect, until I remember that fuel contracts significantly when it’s cold. In fact, in his bid to win the 1946 Bendix Air race by flying non-stop, Paul Mantz dropped containers of dry ice into a fuel truck to contract the gasoline so he could squeeze more of the fuel into the tanks of his heavily modified Mustang, Race 46.

It worked. He took the Gold that year. And the next. And the next.

I, however, decide that it’s prudent to add a few galloons before I take off into the white wonderland that stretches between here and Santa Fe.

Tess ready, I pull her out onto the crunching snow and button up the hangar. Or try to. I’ve carelessly left the open lock dangling from the door latch, and dripping water from the towering hangar roof has sloshed into the innards of the lock, freezing solid, blocking the lock as if it were full of cement. Rio takes the glacial lock to the Jeep and holds it close to the air vent, heater on high to thaw it out, while I amend my flight plan for a second time.

Debs worries that I’ll pick up ice on the wings. She’s been watching Air Disasters with Rio, Grandma, Lisa, and me. Not to worry, baby, that only happens in clouds. The sky is pale blue today, the ceiling of a baby boy’s nursery, with not a hint of a cloud. Even if there had been a cloud, it would probably freeze solid and crash to earth in a shower of broken crystals.

Finally, screaming metal doors closed again, lock thawed, I carefully mount the wing and step into my refrigerator of a cockpit. I’m prepared for a long, cold flight. Fuel open. Master on. Beacon on. Throttle cracked. Mags to both. Two shots of prime. Press the starter.

The prop spins round and round, then she starts with less complaint than I banked on, given the temperature. I taxi across the snow, throwing up less of a blizzard than I expected, darn it, then make my way to the runup area to wait for all the engine parts to come to heated harmony.

Finally, the oil temp in the green, I do my run up and pull onto the runway. It seems that no sooner than I push the throttle forward we are airborne, climbing like a jet fighter, the frigid air turbocharging my engine and airfoils, Tess’s white wings stretching out over a white world below.

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Pilots may not, but airplaneslovecold air.

But quickly I discover that this flight is not the frigid episode of Ice Pilotsthat I expected. In the cloudless sky, the sun filters though my greenhouse of a canopy, and with my newly re-connected heater duct keeping my feet toasty I actually start getting, well, too warm.

So I reverse the winterization process. I take off my headset, and ears momentarily assaulted by 113 decibels of pounding cylinders, pull off my thick Fly Duluth knit cap. Next, gripping a fingertip in my teeth, I slide my warm gloves off my hands. Then I slither out of my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. Finally, I remove my scarf.

Liberated from the frozen ground, high in the winter sky, basking in bright sunlight, my frigid flight turns out to be comfortably warm

For body and for soul.

 

Real games with toy planes

I spent hours flying Tess and Warbler above the southern New Mexico desert scouting the route. Hours more getting just the right pictures of it. I spent days designing and laying out the beautifully printed knee boards for the race pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit how I paid for those.

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I carefully plotted the race course on Google Earth Pro, measured the legs, then applied the proper math to compensate for the turn radius of the planes. I worked out handicaps for the three sizes of engines under the cowls of Ercoupes. I created an Excel spread sheet to calculate the speeds based on the start and finish times, and to automatically handicap the planes. I worked out the marshalling order, created timing sheets, bought a pair of atomic clocks, a green start flag, and a checkered finish line flag.

I had three beautiful trophies made for the fastest planes. Tall skinny towers a topped with cups like the air race trophies of old. Then I had custom medals struck for each pilot that flew, so that everyone would win something.

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I also, in SARLtradition, found the cutest little pig with wings for the slowest plane.

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I connected with a local talent scout and recruiteda group of models that became known as the Derby Dolls to set the NASCAR-with-wings tone I was after.

Sure, the rare opportunity to fly into highly restricted air space and land at Spaceport America was the real reason most of the pilots were coming to the 42ndErcoupe Owners Club Nationals; but to me, the signature event was my air race—which I named the 1stNational Ercoupe Air Derby. Needless to say, I had secret fantasies of it becoming an annual event, maybe even a league someday.

Twenty-one of the forty-eight planes coming to the convention signed up for my Derby, and I realized that I had on my hands the largest race of like-kind planes since the 1930s.

I was on cloud nine.

Cloud nine itself, however, was at 200 feet. AGL. Apparently, despite all my careful planning, I forgot to make the appropriate offering to the weather gods.

Arrival day at the national convention varied between low IFR and garden variety IFR most of the day, with a brief gasp toward the end of the day of the most marginal Marginal VFR I’ve even seen. Only one brave soul made it in. As twilight crept in at the end of the day, I stood out on the cold, wet apron and looked at the small collection of Ercoupes. Instead of the expected 48 planes that would have over-flowed the ramp, I had six, only two of which had entered the Derby.

It was decision time. The weather for race day looked fine, but most of my racers were MIA, trapped by hurricane-whipped moisture all across the country, and there was no way that they’d make it in before the scheduled dawn briefing. I considered moving the race, but it was like trying to re-arrange jigsaw puzzle pieces. It just couldn’t be done. There were too many other events that needed to take place when they were scheduled.

I was about to cancel the first ever National Ercoupe Air Derby when my buddy Lisa, who is a certified frickin’ genius, had a suggestion. In the swag bags for the convention were toy balsa wood gliders from the state Aviation Division. Why not create some sort of Air Derby with them? After all, we had no shortage of pilots. Men and women who locked their fogged-in hangar doors, jumped in their cars and drove in, or jumped on commercial flights and rented cars to reach the convention.

Lisa got out a piece of paper and started scribbling. She thinks best on paper. Longest throw… Most accurate throw… Number of throws to complete a “pylon” course…

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The next day, when I should have been marshalling twenty-one Ercoupes onto Taxiway Alpha at KLRU, I was setting up orange cones on the ramp in front of EAA Chapter 555’s hangar, roughly mimicking the layout of the real race. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. Then my cell phone starting ringing and the assorted crises that befall convention coordinators started befalling me.

Chief among these was the Spaceport. They needed to know precisely how many people were coming the next day, their names, states, blood types and genotypes; and who was stepping off a plane and who was stepping off a bus. And they needed to know RIGHT now!

Of course, I’d given them this information weeks ago, but now with the weather, it was a moving target. On a borrowed laptop I started throwing together a new spreadsheet (not having the sense to bring the one I had previously made with me) and began to code pilots by: Cancelled, switched from air to ground, still coming by air, and unknown at present.

I knew our fearless leader, club director Larry Snyder, was trapped in Tucumcari, having failed to reach my home base of SXU by a few miles before weather forced him to retreat. He emailed, “Had to turn back. Solid wall of rain and maybe 1 mile visibility.” A pity. Our hotels and restaurants are better. I knew I had a handful of planes in eastern New Mexico, and the story of those pilots trying to find a rental car is worthy of a Plane Tale of its own someday. And I knew that eight planes were bottled up together at Willcox, AZ, more than had reached the convention itself.

I also had one pilot who was missing. The night before, Flight Service called to ask if he’d arrived. His flight plan was overdue and not closed. He hadn’t. I tossed and turned all night worrying about him, and it gnawed at me the next day. When he eventually showed up I was so happy to see him, I gave him a giant bear hug.

The rest of the fleet? Who knew? Certainly not me. Working from a tattered, folded, damp print out of the master registration list, I struggled to update the Excel spread sheet, while answering my phone every ten minutes (have you noticed that cell phone batteries never die when you want them to?) and alternately talking to members with a wide variety of questions, issues, comments, and suggestions. I was starting to, you know, stress out a little, when I heard it.

I heard the sound of a party.

Happy voices. Laughter. Cheers. The sounds were drifting into the EAA hangar from the ramp.

I got up and stuck my head out the door. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the Basal Wing Derby pilots. The wind was up, snatching the light gliders. One pilot used tape to increase his weight. Another swore her secret was to aim low and throw low. It was getting competitive, to say the least, but everyone was having a blast. The Derby Dolls were on hand working the green and checkered flags, and Lisa was keeping point totals on two giant sheets of poster board that kept flapping in the wind.

I was witnessing the birth of a new aviation sport.

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At the end of the trio of competitions, the Derby Dolls gave out the custom Air Racer medals to each person who participated in all three Basal Wing events, and presented the tall skinny trophies a topped with cups to the top three scoring pilots.

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Talk about salvaging a disaster! Not only did our members have a blast, probably more people had more fun than if my race had gone off as planned. Of course, that’s not stopping me from planning the 2ndNational Ercoupe Air Derby for next year. You know, with real airplanes this time. But still… I think I’ll ask the state for another handful of those basal gliders next year.

Just in case.

 

Ready for her close-up

It all started when I decided I needed a pretty girl. After asking around, the pretty girl expert convinced me that, really, three pretty girls would be better than one. He called it, “Critical mass.” And so it came to pass that three scantily-clad models ended up in my cockpit.

Well, Tessie’s cockpit.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

I was banished to the far side of the apron.

Like many a good tale, it all started in a bar. En route to a SARL air race a couple of years ago, I was eating pig’s ears nachos (don’t knock them until you try them) in an Arkansas bar, when I had a revelation. On the wall was a gigantic high-def TV showing a NASCAR race. Holy cow. And people think air racing is dangerous! Anyway, the winner of the day—a clean-cut, baby-faced pup who looked barely old enough to drive—was surrounded by hot, leggy, busty blondes with bare midriffs, low-cut necklines, and super-short skirts when he accepted his trophy.

Now that’s the way to win a race.

Then I got to thinking about the Kentucky Derby. There’s always a babe involved in giving the horse the flowers and the jockey the trophy, right?

So what the hell is wrong with us air racers? Surely, we rate as high as the Sport of Kings and the King of TV sports. I vowed right then and there that if I ever hosted an air race, I’d make sure there was some eye candy on hand at the podium.

Then, and I don’t remember how this happened, but probably it also involved a bar, I agreed to be the coordinator of the National Ercoupe convention. It’s turned into a full-time job, interfered no end with my writing work, and stressed me out beyond belief. I’ve had to arrange for hotel rooms, transportation, fuel discounts, tiedowns, donations for our charity auction, T-shirts, patches, signs and banners, name tags, and food, food, food. Oh. And booze, of course.

But I’ve put together a program I’m pretty proud of that includes an awesome resort HQ, a group fly-out to Spaceport America, and a banquet at an airplane museum. And, because it was my convention to do with what I please, and I’m an air racer, I decided to include a little air race as part of the fun. Which is why I needed the pretty girl.

Which, in today’s world, of course, can be an edgy subject.

I started with the lady who runs the economic development department for the City of Las Cruces, the host city. She’s a head-turner herself, but as a woman with a PhD, I didn’t think she had the right personality for the job, if you know what I mean. But I explained the tradition of babes and races and the atmosphere I was after, and asked her for help. I had considered a modeling agency, or University cheerleaders, and I even thought there might be a local beauty queen, a Miss Las Cruces or whatever. The city lady connected me with the pretty girl expert—a man connected to all levels of talent and events in southern New Mexico. He understood what we needed at once. “So it’s like a car show,” he said, “only with wings.”

Exactly.

I originally figured I just needed one girl to hand out the trophies, but the pretty girl expert convinced me otherwise with his critical mass argument. One girl in a short skirt in front of a bunch of old men can feel… well… uncomfortable. But in a pack, girls apparently come alive. Strength in numbers. I could see the logic. I signed on for three, but then was told I’d better have four to ensure that three showed up. Apparently, these aren’t the most dependable sorts of people.

So who are these girls? The pretty girl expert felt the best solution for my event was amateur models. Some of these models are young ladies who aspire to be professional models. Others just find the action fun and exciting. Feminists will disagree, but trust me, there are women who enjoy being the center of attention based solely on their looks. They like it, know how to work it, and it’s good for their egos–so if everyone enjoys it, where’s the harm?

These girls, now known as the Derby Dolls, will wave the green and checkered flags, circulate through the crowd to pose for selfies with the pilots, present the medals and trophies to the racers, and basically just create the ambiance of the NASCAR race I watched over pig’s the ears nachos in an Arkansas bar.

Now, I’m not sure how the next part of our tale happened, but in recruiting the pretty girls, the pretty girl expert contacted a pretty girl photographer that he knew. The photographer had lots of pictures of pretty girls with cars. And lots of pictures of pretty girls with motorcycles. But no pictures of pretty girls with airplanes, which, clearly, his portfolio needed. Nor did his models have any pictures of themselves with airplanes, which, clearly, they needed, too. So I was asked, if the photographer would donate his time and round up some pretty girls, would I bring a different type of pretty girl to the photo shoot?

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

So my favorite blue and white pretty girl became a prop with a prop. The photographer also brought out some high-testosterone rolling stock and created a variety of settings with Tess, the models, and the hotrods.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

It didn’t take long for the airport community to take an interest in the action, either. In particular, in the hangar next to the photo shoot, is a helicopter maintenance facility; and their mechanics lined up on the edge of the apron to watch the fun, even brining out a boom box, playing the Top Gun sound track for the models to jam to.

The entire process wasn’t like anything I’d ever been exposed to. It took forever to get the plane parked just right, longer for the models to change their clothes and touch up their makeup, then we had to wait for the right light, or pull the plane out of passing sprinkles of rain.

The girls were dressed… well, borderline trashy, in a flashy teen-fantasy pin-up kind of way; but the photographer, while knowing how to pose them, was 100% respectful.

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It was interesting watching the shooter communicate with the models, watching his hand signals letting them know when he was going to press the shutter, sharing the previews on the back of the camera, watching the models recognize—even on that tiniest of screens—that one lock of hair was out of place.

They were all “car people,” the models, the photographer, and the drivers who came out with the hot rods, a separate subculture from us plane people. It was fascinating, like visiting another country. But we all got along great and what I thought would take an hour or two ran all day long and didn’t end until the sun was setting.

So how was my day with three models? Not what you’d expect.

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Lisa F. Bentson, Zia Aerial Imaging

The models showed zero interest in me, a National Champion Air Racer—which is probably just as well. They paid attention as I told them how to safely get in and out of Race 53 without hurting themselves or Tess, but that was about it.

But you know what? I doubt that puppy-faced NASCAR driver got any attention either, and I got one hell of a Plane Tale out of the deal.

Plus, I have a pretty girl… well, three… for my race.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

 

Tessie’s first nest

Tomorrow, our girl turns 71 years old. Her data plate shows that she was manufactured on May 5, 1947. I gotta say, for her age she don’t look half bad!

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Naturally, every year on this date we throw a Tessie party, along with everyone else in New Mexico.

What? Oh. Sorry. I wasn’t clear. We’re not that famous. The rest of the state isn’t celebrating Tessie Day with us. They are celebrating Cinco de Mayo, which is something akin to a Mexican Fourth of July, which just happens to fall on Tessie’s birthday. Actually, come to think of it, it’s Tessie’s Birthday that just happens to fall on Cinco de Mayo, which honors the Mexican Army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, a full eighty-five years before our girl rolled off the assembly line in Riverdale, Maryland.

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Now, just to be clear, I don’t think that most people here in New Mexico have a strong affinity to our southern neighbor, they just like a good excuse for a party, so Cinco do Mayo has been Americanized and secularized, featuring Mexican Beer, Margaritas, and our idea of Mexican food (which generally isn’t available in Mexico itself).

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Logo courtesy North DelaWHERE Happening

Keeping in step with the rest of the state, we mark Tess’ B-day with Margaritas, chips and salsa, guacamole, some Chile con Queso, steak Tampico, and—of course—birthday cake with ice cream. After which, we usually kick back and watch an aviation movie or two, just to keep in the spirit of our high-flying version of Cinco de Mayo.

Now, seventy one years is a long time. For a machine, a person, a building. For pretty much anything, really. Still, Tess flies great and I feel nothing but safe in her cockpit. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the age of airplanes recently. Partly that’s because a segment of the aviation press has been wailing and gnashing their teeth about the aging of America’s general aviation fleet (the average age GA airplane 36.9 years old); while the other half of the aviation press is lauding the efforts of individuals who restore classic planes of the golden age, and of outfits like the Commemorative Air Force who keep World War II aircraft alive and well and flying.

As I fly an airplane nearly twice as old as the average in the fleet, I’m obviously biased, but it’s clear to me that airplanes—properly cared for—are eternal. In fact, the oldest airworthy plane in the world is now 109 years old. It’s a Bleriot XI, built just six years after the Wright Brothers first flight!

And one day, as I was thinking about the eternal nature of airplanes and the owners who came before me, it occurred to me that it was possible that all of Tessie’s previous owners might still be alive. A dual biography drifted into my head: Telling the story of the airplane by telling the stories of all her owners. It would be a fascinating walk back though time, sort of a history of general aviation, showcasing the changes in our industry and society, and changes in Tess herself over her long seven-decade journey. The book would be a way of showing the eternal nature of airplanes, and how that all of us who “own” planes are really caretakers of their legacy for a time. Mortals cannot own the immortal. It’s a sweeping canvas, but it would be a tale told through the lens of one single airplane and the people touched by it.

Based on our title search when we bought Tess, plus some wonderful correspondence from previous owners who reached out to us over the years, I knew that Tess had at least six owners before us, and maybe more. It was a manageable project, and the more I thought about it, the more excited I got.

I made a list of questions, and hoping that many of the previous owners might still have period photos of Tess, fired off letters to all the previous owners I was aware of, then I got down to some serious research. With the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA.

Now, you need to know that the FAA has a long memory. In fact, the FAA’s memory (and records) extend waaaaay back in time to the point where they weren’t even called the FAA. They were called the CAA, or Civil Aeronautics Authority. And it is in seventy-one year old CAA records, microfiched and stored by the FAA, that Tessie’s earliest days are recorded. With the help of my mechanic, I was able to buy a CD disc of all these records. The disc has digital copies of every scrap of paper the CAA and FAA ever had on N3976H, or as her first Bill of Sale calls her, NC 3967H.

That discovery was a delight to me, as I didn’t realize “my” girl was old enough to wear an “NC” number, which was the standard name badge of civil aircraft between the world wars. She wears the NC number, at least in her paperwork, until 1953, the first year I happen to have a historic picture of Tess, and by then she’s wearing a standard, modern “N” number.

Fascinating stuff, this history.

But quickly things started to fall apart. Instead of a half dozen or so owners, the CAA and FAA records showed a long train of love affairs between my girl and other men. Tess really got around in her youth—which I suppose may be part of the story of general aviation, too—but her owner roster includes more than twenty people! Meanwhile, my two oldest contacts didn’t respond to my letters. Neither, too, did the convicted drug smuggler currently in federal prison who once owned her. (Was Tess used in an elicit manner? Darn, I sure wanted to know!)

So things have slowed down, but I haven’t given up on the book. No way. It has too many possibilities. But rather than writing families, it’s clear I’m going to be spending time in dusty archives in small town libraries and newspapers. And the first stop will be a homecoming for Tessie at her first home airport: Guymon, Oklahoma, in the panhandle.

Because that’s where my oldest predecessor, one Mr. R.V. Wadley, took NC 3976H home to after buying her directly from the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) on the 20th of May, 1947.

Tessie was just fifteen days old.

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But in staring my research on Guymon, the name of the city rung a bell. I couldn’t place it but Rio thought that maybe we’d been there, so I did a “places” search in Photos, the software that organizes and stores the millions of digital photos that I never get around to editing. (I should at least delete the accidental pics of my feet and the photographs of the insides of my pockets.) And lo and behold, guess what?

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Yep. July 22, 2016, enroute to the AirVenture Cup and the big bash at Oshkosh, Rio and I apparently landed and refueled at Tessie’s original home airport.

And she didn’t even tell me.

I wonder what other secrets she’s keeping from me?

 

Raid and Search

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

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

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

The happy humming from underneath the plane ceased.

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

Then all the men starting laughing.

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

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

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

“What am I looking for?” asked Lisa.

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

It was a grim image to contemplate.

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

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

Amen to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lisa adopts a terminal

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

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

We’ve been doing that since 2013.

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

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

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

Lisa’s airport terminal renovation had begun.

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

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

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

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I decided to replace them.

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

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

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

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

Have plane, will travel

I was all business, but it wasn’t a business trip. After all, that would be illegal. The Federal Aviation Regulations strictly prohibit the business use of Light Sport flying, even banning flying “in furtherance of a business.” Apparently, something as harmless-sounding as flying yourself to a business-related tradeshow, rather than driving, is verboten. But I’m not even in a gray area; the only business I’m engaged in today is monkey business—and rather than be in furtherance of anything, it’s sure to lose money.

OK. Let me back up. I need to give you some background so you’ll understand my non-biz mission.

The family airplane is actually my 92-year-old mother’s. As an Ercoupe owner, she’s a member of the Ercoupe Owners Club, or EOC. Every year the EOC holds a national convention and fly-in.

I think you can see where this is going…

Right. This year the EOC is coming to New Mexico. My involvement started with doing a quick review of the airports in the state for the club’s president, and recommending a short list of good locations. It ended with my somehow agreeing to be the coordinator of this year’s convention.

I’m still not sure how that happened. I’m not even an Ercoupe owner, fer crying out loud. I must have been drinking.

Anyway, the first choice of location for “my” convention is Las Cruces International Airport. Don’t let the name fool you, it ain’t Kennedy. In fact, it’s an uncontrolled airport, which is a requirement for a convention site, as many of our members just won’t deal with towered fields. It’s also about as low an elevation as you can get in my state at 4,457 feet above sea level. Most folks don’t realize that the bulk of New Mexico is a mile or more above sea level, which matters to airplane performance. In fact, it matters enough that we’ve moved the annual convention from mid-summer to late fall to avoid the issues of density altitude, where hot days effectively make high places, well… higher… at least as far as airplane performance is concerned.

But back to Las Cruces. It’s a lovely airport outside of town, with lots of ramp space and a vibrant airport community. Las Cruces itself has a ton of interesting things to do. I have a list of great things to do that can easily fill three conventions, so I’m going to have to make some hard choices. Plus, to the east is White Sands National Monument, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History; a short distance north is Spaceport America; and a short distance south—just a few scant miles from the Mexican border—is an awesome airplane museum called War Eagles. The museum is right on the field of another presumptuously named uncontrolled field: the Doña Ana County International Jetport. We could have a fly-out adventure to it, or, as you can rent the entire museum after hours, we might be able to have our annual banquet there amongst its collection of airplanes. Later in the day, I plan to drive my rental care down to the museum and talk to them about the possibilities. But before I can do that, I need to get the blessing of the airport management to host the convention at their field in the first place.

And that’s why I’m flying down the Rio Grande Valley this morning.

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I could have driven, but it seemed to me that if you’re going to an airport for a meeting about holding a gathering of airplanes, you should show up in an airplane. Besides, it’s a five-hour drive from my home, but only a three-hour flight, which made it a great excuse to fly.

I’ve got a meeting with the airport manager in the late morning. I’m hoping to secure permission not only to come, but also to let some of our members camp on the field with their planes. I’m also hoping to get permission to host a flour-bombing contest, where pilots chuck small paper bags of flour out of their planes to try to hit a target. It’s sorta like the aborted chicken-dropping contest I wrote about a while back, with the added fun that when the “bombs” hit, there’s an “explosion.”

The Las Cruces Airport now 15 miles out, I start running down a mental checklist. Oh. Not that kind of checklist. Nothing to do with the flight. It’s a checklist for the things I need to do when I get on the ground.

  • Arrange fuel and hanger for Tess
  • Meet with Airport Manager
  • Pick up rental car
  • Drive down to War Eagles Museum

Then it strikes me: There’s no reason to drive. I have an airplane at my disposal! At least so long as I limit its use to monkey business.

 

The air race blues

Waves of heat pour out of the turbine’s giant twin exhaust pipes. The distinctive whine of the engine increases in pitch and the orange plane turns towards me, displaying her array of bright blue-white landing and anti collision lights.

The race is starting.

I didn’t make it off the ramp and back to race central in time. I tuck in next to the wing of a sad faded Comanche with flat tires to be sure I’m well clear of everyone’s props, and stand back to watch the show. One by one, the race fleet taxies by, a parade of power. The air quivers as spinning props shred it. It’s thrilling.

And thoroughly depressing.

The last race of the 2017 season is underway and, for the first time ever, I’m watching a Sport Air Racing League event from the sidelines. On the ground. Yeah, I’m still planeless. Well, not technically planeless. I still have a plane, it just doesn’t have an engine mounted on the front of it at the moment, so I drove to this event.

So why did I go to an air race if I can’t race? Well, it was the right thing to do. I’m still, believe it or not, the National Silver Champ for production airplanes despite missing a large chunk of the season. It would be bad form to not go and accept my trophy.

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The last plane passes, the pilot waving to me. I give him a thumbs up, then walk slowly across the tarmac to watch the fleet take to the air. They skim down the runway at 30-second intervals, lift off, turn right, and climb toward the course. One racer activates his smoke system, dragging an ash grey contrail behind him as he arcs up into the sky. It’s beautiful. I feel a pang of jealousy. I nearly succeeded in getting a smoke system, but last-minute problems meant it would have taken up more than half the luggage compartment, rather than being installed under the floor like I envisioned, and I couldn’t bring myself to lose that much utility for the sake of fun. Every great once and a while, I’m practical.

The last plane away, silence descends on the airport. I make my way back to Taylor’s Ford Hangar, where the race HQ is set up, to await the fleet’s return. All morning long a beehive of activity, the hangar is now nearly empty. Lonely. It was a great morning catching up with friends, colleagues, and competitors—most of whom I’ve not seen in many months. And it was wonderful being around airplanes again all morning. Soaking in their vibes, their varied lines, their smells, their sounds. But standing on the ground watching the action take off without me was hard. And now, shrouded in silence, my mood darkens to match the overcast sky.

Deep in my chest a dull ache starts, then somewhere in the back of my mind a spark of anger, mixed with unchanneled resentment, flares. I’m happy, sad, angry and wistful all in the same breath.

Damn, I know what this is. I’ve got the air race blues.