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.

Me ’n Jenny

I’m late for a secret rendezvous. For a glass of wine with a lady I’ve been in love with for many years. I glance at my pilot’s watch with its E6B ring around the face. I’ll barely make my connection, much less our tryst. It will have to wait for another day.

I fight my heavy carryon bag up the stairs that lead from the commuter planes to the main concourse, and—suddenly—there she is. Waiting for me. I stop in my tracks and stare at her. Drinking her in. “Hi, Jenny,” I say.

She’s really not all that pretty, with a flat nose, sagging belly, and small rear end; but for some reason I can’t explain, I find her beautiful. And I’m not the only pilot to feel that way. There’s just something about the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” that we pilots can’t help but love.

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Most times that I pass though Denver International I stop to have a glass of wine with this particular Jenny, which hangs from the ceiling on wires just outside of the CRÚ Wine Bar on concourse B. She’s painted dark green, and her roost is just high enough in the shadows of the ceiling that many airline passengers, their heads in their iPhones, don’t even see her as they scurry by beneath her fabric-covered wings. That’s a pity, because she’s hung low enough that you can nearly hear the roar of her engine, echoing from the distant past, as she buzzes right over your head.

Every time I see her, I want to reach up and touch her. To stroke her skin. To connect with all that history in her wooden bones. To share something with the first generation of pilots.

But she’s hung just out of reach.

I slowly walk under her, tilting my head back, my eyes upwards, drinking in every detail. The naked wood and twine of her landing gear. The bicycle-like wheels. The leather surrounding the two open cockpits. The maze of wires holding her two wings together. Even though her flying days are over, it makes me smile that she’s still in the air, where airplanes belong. And I can’t help but fantasize about climbing into her rear cockpit, firing up that old liquid-cooled V-8 engine, and flying her away. But from all accounts, not only is she not much to look at, but she’s not even that great in the air, either.

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Another glance at my watch. Crap! Gotta go, Jenny. I’ll see you next time. And I jog off down the concourse to catch my next flight.

Alien Octopus

Let’s see… the clutch is the one on the left. I rest my right foot on the brake, push the clutch to the floor with my left, fiddle with the stick for a moment to make sure the battered white truck is in first gear not third, then slowly lift my left foot while moving my right foot to the accelerator.

For a guy who flies an airplane with no rudder pedals, it’s a lot of footwork.

“Don’t pop the clutch in front of the guys,” Lisa teases me from the backseat, “you’ll ruin your reputation as a national champion racer.”

I shoot her a dirty look in the rearview mirror then gently pull out of the parking lot and out onto Aviation Drive without embarrassing myself. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve driven a stick. They say it’s like riding a bike, but it’s been more than quite a few years since I’ve been on one of those things, too. “Nice work, Dad,” says Rio from shotgun.

And with that, the Three Musketeers are off on another loony adventure.

Out on the highway I work my way up through the gears. Third. Fourth. Fifth. I settle in at 60 miles and hour and look in the mirror to see how our cargo is riding. Sticking up out of the bed of Lisa’s “ranch truck” is the brass-colored oval oil sump of our up-side-down Continental C-85 engine. It looks like some sort of alien creature looking in the back window of the crewcab pickup. “How’s our cargo doing?” I ask.

To save a few bucks, which will be less than drops in this particular bucket, we’ve elected to deliver our old engine from our mechanics in Santa Fe up to Alamosa, Colorado—140 miles due north—where the shop of the master rebuilder is located. The engine is oddly shaped so my guys decided to drop it into Lisa’s truck up-side-down. They put three worn out airplane tires in the bed, rolled the engine crane over, gently lowered the engine, tilting it downwards so that it rested on the prop hub, then pushed it over on its back, the top of the engine resting on the three tires. We then used Tessie’s traveling tie-down straps to secure the engine into the bed.

Lisa turns her head to study our cargo. “Looks good,” she reports, “but if the aliens invade they’ll think we captured their leader. Then we’ll really be in trouble.” And she’s right. The inverted Continental looks remarkably like some sort of alien octopus. The oil sump only needs eyes and a mouth to be fully animated, the tubes that hold the push rods looking like arms leading down to the coiled tentacles of the cylinders.

Well, I guess with only four arms it’s an alien quadropus, not an octopus.

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It’s a warm summer day and the truck’s recently repaired air con has conked out again. We roll down all the windows and keep our speed low so we can hear ourselves think. Impatient Texans roar around us. The view is splendid and the day cools as we climb up into the southern reaches of the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square mile basin a mile and a half above sea level. Ringed by mountains that rise to above 14,000 feet, the valley is home of the Great Sand Dunes and potato and barley farmers. If you’ve ever drunk Coors beer, odds are the barley that made it came from the San Luis Valley.

By mid afternoon we roll into the parking lot of the Alamosa airport to drop off our cargo. They let us in the security gate and linemen use airplane-parking hand signals to guide Lisa, who took over as pilot-in-command at the Colorado border, as she backs the pickup into the hangar, gently navigating between a tug and a Mooney. One lineman slowly raises his hands above his head until his arms form an “X” and Lisa shuts down.

In no time the old engine is unloaded from the back of the truck and bolted prop-plate-down onto a rolling stand, ready for the dismantling process to begin.

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Parts of the old engine will be moved to the “new” one. Some will be rebuilt, others discarded and replaced. Still at least some of the soul of the engine that drove us to victory in a World Speed Record and a season of Air Racing will live on in the new engine.

I like that.

Speaking of the “new” engine, I was keen to see it. The rebuilder, a solid, compact man with a grey mustache, lined face, and short-cropped hair hidden under a camouflage baseball cap was surprised at first by the request but quickly warmed up to the idea and gave us a complete tour of his shop, showing us the used case we’d ordered to speed up the process. As far as any of us knew, there was nothing wrong with our old case (although there could be), but the new-to-us one wasn’t that much money in the greater scheme of things, and it bought a lot of time.

I guess I was expecting a dirty, oily, scratched up case painted in “Continental Gold” color. Instead I was greeted by softly glowing aluminum. The two halves of the case had been spit open and stripped down to bare metal, looking fresh off the assembly line, not like objects that date from the 1950s.

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The master builder was pleased with the case, saying it was one of the better ones he’d ever seen, which in turn made me more than pleased with the course of action I had chosen. Then he showed us the brand new crankshaft, the retooled connecting rods, and the new pistons.

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We’re using a Supplemental Type Certificate process to place newer 0-200 engine parts into a C-85 crankcase. It’s done simply for parts availability, but many owners report more power as a result. Rio asks questions about the differences in the parts and we’re told that the new crankshaft is slightly wider than the old one, giving the engine a deeper stroke, resulting in more displacement. “The hot rod crowd calls engines like these strokers,” the master builder tells us.

I’ve heard the muscle car crowd talk about stroker engines, but I was completely clueless about what it met, other than it sounded cool and maybe had something to do with power.

“So we’ll have the airplane version of a stroker engine?” I ask.

The master builder thinks about it for a moment, then a hint of a smile tugs at the edge of his lips. His blue eyes twinkle. “I guess you will, at that.”

From alien octopus to hot-rod engine. That sounds like a worthwhile upgrade to me.

 

Snakes on a Plane 2

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OK. I confess. It wasn’t on the plane. But it was snakes this time. Well, one snake, anyway.

As you might recall, our airport is built on a wildlife sanctuary. Not a bonafide official one, but a for-all-intents-and-purposes one. We have deer, coyotes, rabbits, lizards, turtles, and birds of every feather from crows to quail to vultures. And—I had been warned a year or two ago—rattlesnakes, although I had yet to see one.

That changed one fine day recently, and this is the tale:

I drove down to Santa Rosa to prep the plane for an upcoming mission. I parked right in front of the towering hangar doors, got out of the hotrod, and unlocked the padlock. I opened the latch and gave the left door a shove. With a metallic groan, the door rumbled open. Suddenly I heard the telltale dry rattle that all desert dwellers recognize: Rattlesnake.

I froze.

I froze not because I’m afraid of rattlesnakes, but because—kid you not—the best way to get bitten by one is to step on it; and I knew I was close to stepping on this one because rattlesnakes only rattle when they feel threatened, and they don’t feel threated unless you are about to step on them.

Then all was silent. I scanned both sides of the door. No sign of the snake. I gingerly stepped back, reached as far out as I could, and nudged the door. Again the rattle of dry bones in dead leaves, and then the snake slithered out from under my door where it had been resting in the shade.

He, or maybe she, I don’t know how to tell, was smallish as rattlers go. Not even a yard long, and slender. Its head was shaped like a triangle, it had dark diamonds on its brown back, and a raccoon-like tail. It was a Western Diamondback. They’re the most common rattler in my neck of the woods, and have a reputation for being the most ill tempered of the rattlesnake family.

Some people kill rattlers on sight, but I bear them no ill will. They have the same right to space on the planet as I do, and given appropriate respect, they are no danger. And of course, this snake posed zero risk to my airplane. In fact, it was probably hunting mice, which if they move into an airplane, can cause a great deal of damage. On the other hand, the damn rattlesnake is poisonous, so it’s not my first choice for pest control.

The bottom line was I wasn’t interested in killing this one, but I sure didn’t want it in my hangar, either.

The snake was still, tail toward the hangar door, about a foot away. I could ignore it and it would most likely go on its way. But there was always a chance that it might decide to move into the hangar. The way our doors work, it was unlikely that the snake could get inside when they are closed, but when they are wide open there is nothing to stop it, and I didn’t want to spend all day with one eye on it, nor did I want to chase it around the hangar if it came in to enjoy my shade.

I decided to shoo it off.

I fetched a broom and started thumping the ground behind its tail to encourage it to mosey on its way.

The snake stayed glued to the spot. I poked it with the broom but rather than flee it snapped itself into a coil and faced me, ready for a fight. I know that, when coiled, a rattler can strike about a third of its length; and although it was a small one, I went back into the hangar for a longer broom, determined to sweep this stubborn snake somewhere else. But as soon as I gave it a push the snake changed strategy. It bolted for the half-open door and slithered under it again where I couldn’t see it.

This was not working out the way I planned.

I set down the broom. I’d have to open the door fully and get serious with this snake. I started to push. There was a frantic rattling and the door hesitated. I shoved harder and the rattling stopped abruptly, then the door moved smoothly. As it slid open I discovered the poor snake, neatly be-headed by the door’s wheels, a feat I couldn’t have accomplished intentionally had I tried to set it up.

I felt a tiny bit badly. It wasn’t my intention to kill the snake. But I also felt a bit of relief. Now I didn’t have to worry about a rattlesnake in the hangar.

Or a snake in the plane.

 

The sad truth of the Lindbergh “we”

We’re in Miami, Oklahoma, and I’ve never been so lonely in my life. That’s because the “we” is just Tess and me. And she’s not even with me, actually. She’s snug in a hangar out at the airport and I’m stuck all by myself at the Hampton Inn under low grey skies that mimic my mood.

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This trip has been going downhill since before it started.

It was supposed to be a father-son adventure across half of the county to run a race out over the islands of Lake Erie, but Rio fell ill and didn’t feel recovered enough to make the long trip. Lisa, Rio’s normal flight crew substitute, had other commitments; and Debs wasn’t going to leave her sick baby’s side—so I was on my own.

Oh, well, I told myself, it’s only for a few days. But I never made it to the race, and the few days grew to a week. And more. Engine problems stranded me for days far from home, and once fixed, I still couldn’t go home. A replacement cylinder needs to be broken in, and this obligates me to remain at low altitude. Solo with only the plane for company, “we” are following the rivers of the Midwest ever southward toward the Gulf of Mexico, and it feels like the plane and I have been away from home for years.

Actually, flying solo is oddly restful. Planes do make good company in flight. They talk to you and require your attention. They are also fun to be with. But on the ground, at the end of the day, the fun ends.

I take my meals by myself, with only my phone for company. How pathetic — checking email two dozen times waiting for my entree. I explore new communities off the beaten path, visit tiny museums, poke my head into funky shops. But with no one to share the experiences with, they are all empty adventures. This lonely journey makes me realize that aviation is sweetest shared.

I hope it’s a long, long time before I have another flight where “we” is just the plane and I.

 

Small treasures

Confession: I like museums; and I especially like unlikely museums. Take, for example, the humble-looking blue-roofed metal building near the entrance of the North Texas Regional Airport. This structure—easily mistaken for a low-rent industrial building—is the home of the Perrin Air Force Base Historical Museum. It’s an airplane museum, and a whole lot more. But to understand that, you need to know a few things about the unlikely history of the base.

Back in the 1940s, the county fathers of Grayson County north of Dallas hoped to attract some sort of federal facility to provide jobs and money to the community. They dispatched County Judge Jake J. Loy on a pilgrimage to Washington D.C. to convince the feds to build a munitions factory on a piece of land they conveniently owned in the middle of nowhere, between the towns of Dennison and Sherman.

He failed.

But he did score an Army Air Force training base instead. And thus was born Perrin Field.

It actually opened before World War II, but like most of the 783 Army Air Force fields built in the continental U.S. during the war, it was shuttered almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.

But the Perrin story didn’t end there. Unlike most of the AAF bases, which got turned over to local communities to serve as municipal airports, Perrin got a second lease on military life.

The base reopened a few years later during the Korean conflict, and evolved to become a major training base for the United States Air Force during the cold war. It stayed active until 1971, when finally, like its World War II brothers, it was turned over to the local community and ultimately became North Texas Regional Airport.

But while it was open, because it was a large military base in a warm climate, retirees from all branches of the service settled in the area to take advantage of the base’s medical facilities and discount base exchange.

Which brings us back to our museum. Run by the non-profit Perrin Field Historical Society, its charter is to “record and preserve the story of Perrin Field during thirty years of operating as a active military installation.”

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And it does that through a splendid collection of artifacts donated by service men (and women) who worked at the base.

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The collection ranges from uniforms, to training aids, to an honest-to-God jet training airplane. Cases and cases of fascinating artifacts fill the building, which is run by cheerful volunteers who guide you through the collection answering questions and pointing out things you might otherwise miss, like the fact that the picture of the P-40 on the wall isn’t a picture. It’s cross-stitch.

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And it’s not just Air Force Stuff. Remember all those retirees from other braches of the service I told you about? Retired Marines, Soldiers, and Seaman have been generous with their memorabilia. In fact, the museum volunteers tell me it’s not unusual for them to show up at work in the morning and find—like an abandoned baby on the doorstep—a box of artifacts sitting by the front door. One time, they arrived to find an anonymously donated military surgeon’s kit, complete with morphine from the 1950s!

The kit, minus the morphine now, is on display.

Like many small museums, you can get up close and personal with the collection and there are plenty of things for children and the young at heart to get hands-on with.

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So should you find yourself in Dennison-Sherman (hey, it could happen), make time to spend a few hours at this little treasure of a museum.

 

Weight and balance for grown-ups

I think we’ve talked a time or two about the importance of weight and balance when flying general aviation aircraft. The simple fact is that virtually no light plane ever manufactured can lift a full load of people as well as a full load of fuel into the sky at the same time.

If you want to carry more people, you need to carry less fuel.

If you want to carry more fuel, you need to carry fewer people.

That’s the weight in weight and balance. The whole balance part of the weight and balance dance is about ensuring that the load is placed in the airplane correctly so that it’s neither too tail-heavy nor too nose-heavy to fly safely.

I’ve been doing weight and balance since I was seventeen years old.

The military does it too, at least for cargo planes. And I’ve watched flight attendants juggle passengers on small commuter planes, but never in a million years would it have occurred to me that it’s an issue for airliners had I not been on a Southwest Airlines flight out of Houston, Texas on Super Bowl Sunday.

What? Did I attend the Super Bowl? No. Not my cup of tea. Houston just happened to be where I changed planes heading farther east. But I did enjoy the good-natured ribbing between Falcons and Patriots fans flying into the city.

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The airplane was a Boeing 737, arguably the most successful airliner since the DC-3. Boeing has been making these short- to medium range twinjets since 1967. Over the intervening years there has been a blizzard of variations, including a military cargo version and a personal jet version, called the BBJ for Boeing Business Jet. Can you imagine owning a one hundred-foot long personal jet with a ramp weight of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds?

I wonder what the annual on that would cost? (The Plane Tales Plane is still in the shop for her annual, so thinking about such things actually cheers me up.)

Boeing has sold over ten thousand of these airliners to operators in 190 countries, according to Wikipedia. Stats there show 737s are operated by more than 500 airlines globally, and apparently, at any second on your wristwatch there are 1,250 of them in the air at the same time. All told, the 737 makes up a quarter of the global fleet of airliners.

And apparently it too is incapable of lifting both a full load of fuel and a full load of passengers into the air at once. I know this because after we’d sat—properly buckled in with our belts low across our laps as instructed—at the gate for the longest time, the Captain came on the intercom, and explained that we had, uh… a… you know… a problem.

Fuel is cheaper in Houston than it is in New Orleans or Orlando, the plane’s next two stops, he explained, so the airline topped up the tanks with cheap gas while on the ground in Texas. The problem was that the plane’s manifest showed a three-quarters full plane, but then the rest of the seats sold out at the last minute.

The plane was now too heavy.

Apparently, weight and balance matters to the big boys, too. Just like small planes, airliners aren’t always able to lift full seats and full tanks into the wild blue yonder.

The Captain told us that de-fueling takes forever so they decided the simplest solution was two fold. First, some people would need to de-plane. Then the rest of us would fly at lower than usual altitude to New Orleans, which is less fuel-efficient. He reported that by the time we got there this would get us within our max landing weight, which we’d exceed on takeoff.

I was surprised and delighted that he gave such a detailed explanation to his passengers.

First, the seven standby passengers were given the boot. But Southwest still needed five more passengers to take the next flight. After an offering of a $500 bounty, five hands shot up. Mine wasn’t one of them. I wanted to be on the barnstorming airliner. Typically, 737s fly at 35,000 feet. On this flight we’d be at 12-15,000 feet, according to the Captain. That I had to see.

But this really doesn’t sound like a good business practice, does it? To find out, I decided to run the math myself. A 737 can hold 7,837 gallons of Jet-A. I checked the price per gallon for Houston. Of course, my sources don’t show airline discounts, but I could fly in and buy a gallon for $5.50. At that price, if I flew in my personal BBJ—if I was rich enough to own one—and filled it up, I’d spend $43,103.50.

Holy cow.

Farther east in the Big Easy, sure enough the price jumps to seven bucks a gallon. Now my tank-up costs $54,859.00—nearly $12,000 more. I have such small gas tanks in the Plane Tales Plane that I don’t bother to divert for cheaper fuel, but when you have big tanks to fill, it can really make a difference!

As we taxied out to the runway I was still amazed how little difference there is between Ercoupe and Airliner.

 

For more about weight and balance, read my article The Weight and Balance Jungle in the June 2015 issue of Flight Training Magazine. Even non-pilots will enjoy it. It has elephants and monkeys. And whiskey.

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The Christmas tree blues

We actually owned an Ercoupe Christmas tree ornament before we owned an Ercoupe. This is the tale…

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I don’t quite remember how I stumbled on Hallmark’s “The Sky’s the Limit” series. Probably I was on eBay looking for something else. Or maybe just killing time. But since 1997 Hallmark has been producing remarkably detailed miniature models of famous civilian airplanes, mostly from the Gold Age of Flight, adding one per year, every year since. Planes like the Spirit of St. Louis, the Beech Staggering, a Gee Bee racer, Howard Hughes’ H-1, The Lockheed Vega, and… the Ercoupe.

I bought one of the Hallmark planes. Then another. And then another. And as I customarily do, I went crazy and over the period of a few months scored the entire collection, onsie-twosie on eBay, with no clear idea what I was going to do with them. At first they turned one of our library shelves into a miniature apron, where they next began to collect dust.

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It wasn’t long before Debbie put her foot down on the tiny air force. In her view, they were Christmas ornaments and Christmas ornaments had no business being out all year long. I suppose some sort of deal was brokered, but the upshot was that we would have an airplane Christmas tree that year.

Somehow, Rio and I got it in our heads that this tree needed to be white with blue taxiway-colored lights. Naturally, that was the year that white trees with blue lights went out of fashion. All we could find was a white tree with multicolored lights.

I hate multicolored lights.

But we bought it anyway, figuring we could always change the bulbs later, if we wanted to.

That first year the plane tree was in our library, multicolored lights and all, and was our home’s only tree. By the next year, we had a bigger Ercoupe. And a hangar. The multicolored white tree moved to the hangar to keep the airplane company.

And now my years begin to run together, because while I know it’s not true, owning an airplane has so changed our lives that it seems that we must have always owned one. But at any rate, when we set it up last year, or maybe it was the year before, one of the strings of attached lights had failed, leaving a large chunk of tree dark. No amount of troubleshooting and bulb changing seemed to help. And by the end of the season last year, yet more portions of the lighting system had failed. The tree was more dark than light.

Clearly something needed to be done.

I decided the simplest solution was to just buy some new lights and drape them on the tree this year. My flight crew, however, insisted that we remove all the old lights first. So I brought the tree home from our hangar, and Rio, Lisa, and I, working with wire clippers and a third of the artificial tree each, started pruning the old lights off. It took us hours (and a lot of egg nog) and made us all glad we didn’t work in a Chinese Christmas tree sweat shop, having to attach the damn things in the first place.

De-lightified, the tree then rode around in the back of my Jeep until Black Friday, when, instead of fighting the crowds in retail stores, we went flying. Just for fun. After securing the plane, it was time to trim the tree.

Rio and Lisa rigged the blue lights, then parked the tree in the designated corner. Then one plane at a time, Rio hung the tiny air force from its branches. He placed the Ercoupe ornament at a 90-degree angle. “That’s Dad in a race turn,” he told Lisa.

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And when he was done, I closed the hangar doors, with us inside. And we all got the blues.

In a good way.

 

A wrench to the head

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, but it gets worse.

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

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

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

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

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

Never a good idea.

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

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

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

Maybe so.

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

Or was there?

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

“What the heck is microfilm?” asked Rio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess they still make microfilm, after all.

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

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

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

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

And there it was.

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

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And under the photo, my byline.

I took the picture.

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

I wasn’t on vacation.

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

A self-serve affair

Given the choice, I’d never land at a tower-controlled airport again in my life. I’m a competent pilot, perhaps even skilled. I know my stuff and I fly—and communicate—professionally.

At least I do in uncontrolled airspace when no one is around to appreciate it.

But when I fly into an airport with a tower, I go to pieces. I stumble on my words, mis-broadcast my location, and just generally make a fool of myself. I can’t tell you how many caustic controllers I’ve been exposed to.

“November three niner seven six hotel, I show you as left downwind, not right downwind.”

Crap. You’re right.

“November three niner seven six hotel, I assume you meant to say runway 22?”

Crap. I did.

“November three niner seven six hotel, did you mean to say west?”

Crap. Can I just go home now? I need a drink.

Accordingly, when we travel cross-country, I avoid controlled airports like the plague. But by doing that we, by default, are landing at smaller, less-used airports. Such airports vary a great deal in their quality and available services. Some are desolate strips of asphalt with only a rusty self-serve gas pump. Others are robust centers of commerce with swank pilot’s lounges and dozens of on-field businesses. In short, Inever know what to expect.

My Garmin Pilot app gives me some clues, and the AirNav website can be a handy resource, but if I’m planning to spend the night, there’s no substitute for calling ahead to see what things are going to be like on the ground. Are there transient hangars? Tie downs? Will any of the local hotels pick us up? Is there a crew car? Are the gas pumps 24-hour, and if not, how early in the morning can we buy gas?

Warning when crossing Texas: An astounding number of airports don’t sell gas on Sundays.

Sometimes when I call, I get a real airport manager. Sometimes, an answering machine. Other times, a guy named Hal answers the phone, “It’s Hal, what’s up?” Once when I dialed the airport number I got the local Police Department. Another time, the municipal golf course. So I wasn’t fazed in the least when the number for the Holbrook Municipal Airport connected me with the city offices.

The same can’t be said for the lady who answered my call.

“Good morning,” I said, quite chipper on my second cup of French Roast coffee, “my name is William Dubois. I’m one of the pilots coming in for next week’s air race and I was wondering if there were any hangars available for a couple of nights?”

There was a long silence. Then the lady says, “This is the municipal offices… the airport is pretty much a self-serve affair.”

I immediately imagined a desolate strip of asphalt with only a rusty self-serve gas pump.

But the city lady rallied and put me on hold while she asked around. It turned out there were hangars, but they were all full. I thanked her for her time and booted up Google maps. I zoomed in on Holbrook and switched to a satellite view. To my surprise, I could see at least 35 tie-down spots painted on an expansive ramp. It didn’t look like as much of a self-serve affair as I’d been led to believe.

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Image from Google Maps

But on the ground the next week, things looked different. I’m not sure if “forlorn” or “desolate” would a better word to describe the hot, dry, wind-swept field, with its cracked asphalt runway and dirty, dingy terminal.

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I taxied in, parked at the self-serve pump, heaved myself up out of the cockpit, climbed onto the wing, and dropped down to the pavement. In the back of my mind, the classic western whistle from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly played in my head. WeeWe-Woo…wah, wah, wah.

A twin engine “freighter” sat to one side, surrounded by orange plastic cones. Other than that, there was so sign of life. In the terminal, the Asian freight dog (pilot slang for cargo pilots who fly small planes to remote areas, often bringing the UPS Next Day Air packages to places, like, say, Holbrook) was sitting at a long conference table updating his logbook. He was unshaven and eating a banana. He was wearing nothing but his underwear.

Boxers, thank goodness.

I nodded politely and made my way across the grimy carpet to the bathrooms that I won’t even describe.

Following my reconnoiter of the terminal (I was hoping for vending machines, as the weather had delayed me and I was starving, but there were none to be found), I gassed up, parked Tessie, and tied her down with the chains attached to the pavement in one of the 34 available parking spots. Then I gathered up my gear for the walk to the hotel. Thanks to my research, I knew there was no hotel pick-up, no crew car, no help of any kind at this self-serve affair. It’s not the kind of place I’d normally stop for the night, but this was the starting line for the Thunderbird 150 Air Race, so I really didn’t have much of a choice. That said, it was only a half-mile walk to the hotel I had reservations at. Or it would have been a half-mile walk if I could have gotten out of the airport.

The “pass through” gate was chained and padlocked shut, and the automatic gate didn’t respond to any of the three un-marked buttons on the control box. The freight dog, barefoot and still in his undies, was now outside the terminal smoking a cigarette. “Hey, do you happen to know how to open the gate?” I called over to him.

Apparently, not only did he not know how to use the gate, but he didn’t speak English, either. I couldn’t help but wonder if he flew the twin in his underwear.

There was barbed wire atop the gate, so climbing over wasn’t an option. I could pull the gate far enough inward that I might just be able to squeeze out. Or just might get stuck for life.

I went back into the dim terminal. The dirty windows filtered the bright sunlight down to a dull glow more film noir brothel than airport terminal. There was a faded to yellow CRT monitor, sans computer, on the desk. A pile of 2014 Fly Low magazines sat in one corner. Incongruently, a brand new Charlie Bravo calendar hung in the center of one wall, properly opened to September, on this, the second day of the month. It was the only sign that the terminal hadn’t been abandoned years before.

There were no signs, no phone numbers, nothing posted about how to escape the airport.

The terminal was attached to an old hangar. Though the gaps in the door I spied two ultra lights, a low-wing piper, and a gleaming chrome Luscombe 8. Next to the hangar was a tiny house with two fairly new trucks parked in front. As I walked up, a woman came out with an ice chest. She seemed surprised to see me. I don’t know if it was because they so rarely got visitors or if it was because, unlike the other pilot on the field, I was wearing all my clothes.

I asked her about the gate and she called for her husband. I never got the story on who these people were exactly, but he told me what button to press. I walked back past the hangar and the terminal to the gate and pressed the red button. Nothing happened. I walked past the gate and the terminal and the hangar back to the house.

The husband walked back with me, pulled the cover off of the gate control, disconnected it, and pulled the gate open manually. “Damn thing only works for about two weeks at a time,” he told me. I noticed it was the same style of gate control we have at my home airport. It breaks down with about the same frequency.

By now it seemed like I’d been at the airport longer than it took me to fly to it. But at least, free from the airport’s perimeter fence, I was now slowly on my way to the hotel. As I walked up the dusty street, the airport couple zoomed by. They waved cheerfully, but didn’t stop to ask if I needed a ride.

I gotta say, all things being equal, it’s not my favorite airport of all the ones that I’ve visited.

But I’d rather go back there a hundred times than talk to air traffic control even once.