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.

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.