Lisa taxied up, shut down her engine, pulled off her headset, and stuck her head out the window. “Wanna fly today?” she called out.

Hell yeah.


I started toward Warbler’s right wing, but Lisa unbuckled her seat belt, and slid over to the right hand side, making elaborate gestures that I should fly from the left. I reversed course around Warbie’s twin tails, mounted the left wing and stepped down into the cockpit.

I’ve now got enough time in Warbler that I’m starting to feel at home in his spartan cabin.

I buckled in, adjusted my oil-stained Hat in the Ring Society baseball cap, slid my headset over my ears, and pulled the engine-start checklist out from the side pocket. Warbler’s procedures are so simple that a checklist is hardly necessary—there are only a few items on it—but it’s important to maintain good habits, and to set a good example.

I reach under the instrument panel and open the main fuel valve. Then I reach back over the seat to turn on the master switch, which is in the luggage compartment. I push the throttle in a quarter of an inch. Push the mixture and carb heat knobs all the way forward. Switch the ignition to both, shout “Clear!”, and give a healthy pull on the starter.

Warbler rumbles to life, through my headset his engine sounding midway between a lawn mower and a Harley Davidson.

“It’s starting to get bumpy,” Lisa warns me. And sure enough, ten minutes later, 100 feet off the runway, Warbler hits the first pothole.Thump!  The seatbelt digs into my gut. Then his left wing wallows downward, followed by unexpected lift on the tail. The sky gremlins were toying with us as a bored cat with a trapped mouse. It’s hardly alligator-wresting turbulence, but it’s bumpy enough to make one second guess a pleasure flight. It’s not like we needed to get the plague serum to Nome or anything.

I briefly debate returning to the field and getting started on a gin and tonic, but instead, I head an unusual direction. To avoid crossing the town, Lisa normally practices her maneuvers south and east of SXU. My race practice course is north and east. For some reason, today I decide to overfly the city and head out to the southwest, in the general direction of Vaughn, the next community over, about 40 miles away. It has an un-maned airport—N17—with no services, not even a bathroom; but if you’re hungry and land there, you can call Penny’s Diner and they’ll send a busboy or hostess over to pick you up, and will return you to your plane later.

As we wing over the flatter terrain outside of town the turbulence settles down, then subsides. Santa Rosa sits snuggled down in a rift carved by the Pecos River. Wind racing across the arid land tumbles down into the rift then belches upwards again in the general vicinity of the airport. The disturbed flow reaches far beyond the town to the east on most days, and I had just come to accept it as the cost of doing businesses around here. I was amazed at how still the sky upwind of the city was.

We fly writers overuse the literary device “smooth as glass,” but that’s what it was.

Below me, a wide ranch road, a ribbon of white across the landscape, beckoning. I cross the road, bank left, turning a full 180 degrees to re-cross the road, then bank right to reverse the maneuver, then bank left again, then right. Like a quilter sewing two pieces of patchwork together, I stich up the two sides of the road from the sky.

Now the road below angles right, then left, then farther left. My S-turns bend and twist to match the snaking road below—my 180’s sometimes 240s and other times 120s. Warbler’s nose stays glued to the horizon as I bank his wings first right, then left, then right again. The maneuver is smooth. Unbroken. Graceful. Fluid. Joyful.

I’m no longer flying Warbler. He and I are flying as a unit. One organism.

We’ve bonded.


Lisa’s first emergency (and my first heart attack)

OK, it wasn’t really an emergency. And I didn’t really have a heart attack. But we both had a heart-stopping moment, that’s for sure. Here’s the Tale…

As regular readers know, the official Plane Tales airplane has been down for maintenance for a loooooong time. For so long, in fact, that new readers can’t be blamed for wondering if I fly at all. They probably think that I’m just one of those pretenders who puts on an aviator shirt each morning before he hits the tequila. That’s actually true, but I’m also keeping my skills from atrophying, thanks to the kindness of my plane pal Lisa, who lets me fly her Warbler once a week after her solo practice session. Lately, I’ve been working on improving my Lazy-8s.

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This week, to save MoGas, we drove to the airport together before dawn. I helped her preflight her plane as the sun rose, then off she went. While Lisa taxied out, I busybodied around the hangar. I changed a light bulb, restocked the fridge with water and the humidor with fresh cigars, and I killed four scorpions. Like hangars everywhere, we have spiders, but being a desert ecosystem, we also have their more primitive cousins. Personally, I have nothing against scorpions, but I’m unwilling to share my sacred aviation space with them.

Warbler’s engine warmed up and the runup done, Lisa made her radio call and pulled out onto the runway. I stepped out of the hangar to watch her takeoff. I heard Warbler’s engine smoothly increase in volume and watched him steadily accelerate down Runway 19. Lisa rotated, leveled off into ground effect for a short time, and then started to climb. About mid-field, his engine suddenly went silent.

So too, did the rest of the world.

No dogs barked. No cars honked. No crickets chirped. Time stood still.

But gravity didn’t.

In dead silence Warbler drifted back down out of the sky and disappeared behind the trees.

Still, silence reigned.

That’s when I had the heart attack. Then, that out of the way, I dashed for the handheld. Did Lisa have enough runway? Or was she down in the Juniper trees off the end of the threshold? Or worse yet, in broken, scattered pieces in the canyon just beyond? Trying not to sound panicky, I made a radio call. “Niner-four-one-one-six, Santa Rosa Unicom.”


“Niner-four-one-one-six, Santa Rosa Unicom, do you read?”

More silence. Whereupon, the handheld, which hadn’t been in its charger, let out a burst of static and died.

Seriously? I bolted for my car, tore out of the hangar side of the airport, shot up Airport Road, blew through the stop sign at U.S. 84, barreled down the highway to the official entrance to SXU, and set a new land speed record getting to the gate at the Terminal. As I frantically punched my ATM code into the gate control, I saw Warbler taxi leisurely by.

Relief flooded over me. Relief, followed by a brief flare of anger. Obviously, his engine was fine. What the hell? If she was going to practice an aborted takeoff—and who does that?—she should have announced it on the radio!

Rules be dammed, once through the gate, I turned on my emergency blinkers and pursued her up the taxiway. She didn’t return to the runup area. Instead, she crossed 19 on Charlie and headed back for the hangars.

OK. So something was wrong. But what could it be? I hung on her six and we crossed the airport as if she were towing me with an invisible rope. Back at the hangar she shut down and I jumped out of the car.

“What happened??” I demanded, climbing up on the wing.

“Didn’t you hear my call?” she asked, perplexed. She had heard the call I made right before my handheld died, and responded. Who knows why I didn’t hear it. She was on the far side of the airport, that’s nearly two miles away, and there’s no straight line of site. Maybe it’s too much to ask of a handheld.

“I lost my airspeed indictor,” she said, pointing at the instrument panel. Apparently, the takeoff had started normally, but as she made her post-lift off scan she was shocked to see her airspeed indicator giving her the middle finger. It read zero. She had no clue how fast or slow she was flying.

Lisa said she remembered the time it happened to me, and decided in a flash that her best option was to get down fast. She chopped the power and put Warbie back on the runway. “It wasn’t the best landing I ever made,” she said, sheepishly.

I disagree.

I think it was the best landing ever.


A welcome escape

I was at GSP, a lovely little Class Charlie airport midway between Greenville and Spartanburg in South Carolina. The blue shirts had just decimated my luggage, thanks to the bastards at American Airlines, who punished me for getting a reasonable airfare on Expedia by not including my TSA Pre✓ known traveler number on my boarding pass.

Shoes off.

Computer out.

Flightpad out.

Crap, no zip lock bag for my single tube of toothpaste.

Don’t you know you have to take projectors out of their cases? How would I know such a thing? I’ve been Pre✓ for years, plus I don’t see a sign telling me this. Smile at the nice blue shirt and apologize for being so ignorant.

Swab for explosives.


Don’t you know that you have to take speakers like these out of their cases? How would I know such a thing? I’ve been Pre✓ for years, plus I don’t see a sign telling me this. Smile at the nice blue shirt and apologize for being so ignorant.

More swabbing. More x-raying.

Finally, satisfied that I was no threat to national security, they handed me back my bag. Open. Its contents heaped high on either side, overflowing over its aluminum sides. Granted, fitting all the gear, cables, and adaptors I need to schlep for a Rusty Pilot Seminar into the case requires finesse that combines three-dimensional thinking and jigsaw puzzle skills; and—like a Rubik’s cube—is a process that tolerates no miss-steps. I gathered the dismembered remains of my luggage into my arms and sought out a bench to re-assemble it.

It had been hot and humid out, leaving me wilted; my day had just hit the 14-hour mark; and my flight didn’t board for another two hours.

I needed a drink.

The first thing I encountered in the “grand hall” of the GSP terminal was a Chick-fil-A. They don’t serve booze at Chick-fil-A, and besides, they were closed. I guess because it was a Sunday. Next door was a hotdog place, but as I’d stayed at a Drury the night before. I’d had my quota of hotdogs for the year. Not that I’m complaining. There was also a Wolfgang Puck. But it was crazy-crowded, and somehow looked more expensive than the typical over-priced airport eatery & drinkery.

I continued my patrol. At the far end of the grand hall a large sign said: ESCAPE. Actually, I’m really not feeling all that trapped, but thank you anyway. As I closed in, I made out a second, smaller word: LOUNGE. Ah! Now you are a-speakin’ my language. A vague memory percolated through my head. I’ve seen an Escape Lounge before. It was at Reno-Tahoe. I recalled it being waaaaay over budget for me. Still, there’s no harm in asking…

I sauntered in and inquired what the scoop was. The young lady manning the fort asked if I had a Platinum American Express card. If I had one, entry was free. Or maybe not. That damn card has a $550 annual fee. No, I have no Amex, I have no Amex today. All I have is a debit card from the First Bumpkin Bank of New Mexico, and an AOPA Mastercard.

Not surprisingly, neither of those granted access.

She showed me three pages of other cards that would give me a discount. I don’t know what’s in your wallet, but none of them were in my wallet. I’d have to pay the standard walk-up fee of $45 if I wanted to escape the grand hall. I dunno…I asked for clarification on what I’d get for my dinero. Access to the bar and the buffet. A cozy retreat with a view. High-speed Wi-Fi. Bountiful charging ports.

OK: Down to the business at hand. Tell me more about that bar.

It’s a two-tiered bar. There are complimentary offerings and premium offerings. You pay more for the premium, but I gotta say, at least at my end of the economy, I found the complimentary offerings to be pretty primo. Robert Mondavi Private Select cabernet sauvignon, along with white and sparkling wine options. A choice of bourbons and whiskeys: Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Jameson, or Canadian Club. Three Svedka vodkas. Beefeater gin and Bacardi rum. Johnnie Walker Red scotch. Jose Cuervo Silver tequila, plus Baileys Irish Cream, Kahlua, and a cognac I’d never heard of: Remy Martin VSOP. For beer drinkers they had Michelob Ultra, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Creek Trifecta IPA—all draft.

Hell, a man could live there for years!


But I still hesitated. Then the hostess had a light bulb moment. Was I a triple-A member? Why, yes, yes, I am. Will that get me in for free?

Of course not.

But AAA, combined with a “first time visitor discount” would drop the cover charge from $45 to $35. I was powerful thirsty, and this was starting to sound like a pretty good deal for an airport terminal, post-security. All you can drink and eat, plus refreshments for my thirsty electronics? I whipped out my First Bumpkin Bank of New Mexico debit card, wondering for a second if I shouldn’t have used my AOPA card. It has some sort of rewards program I’ve never been able to wrap my head around.

But I have to say: What a wonderful escape. It was quiet. Comfortable. Cool. There was a fabulous view of the apron out the windows, and the inside walls were bedecked with gloriously silent big screen TVs displaying a real-time map of inbound and outbound flights, alternating with the arrival and departure screens from the concourse.

I got my much-needed drink (followed by a refill… or two or three). Then I checked out the food. It tended toward small bites, but they were delicious and there’s no limit on how much you stuff into your face. The onsite chef had prepared steak chimichurri, grilled salmon, truffle risotto, devilled eggs, watermelon feta salad, a charcuterie board, a wicked-good spicy tortilla soup, chicken almond salad, pretzel bread sticks, muffins, cobblers, pies, and cakes. And because it’s the south: Boiled peanuts. Don’t knock them until you try them. Plus, sodas, tea, etc. It all tasted as good as it sounds.


It sure beat the hell out of hanging out in the concourse, and cost me no more than a typical airport meal with a drink or two.

According to their website, Escape Lounges are also found at: Bradley, CT, Minneapolis, Oakland, Providence, and Sacramento; as well as in the United Kingdom at East Midlands, London, and Manchester. One thing’s for sure: Anytime I’ve got a couple hour layover at any of those airports you’ll find me making my escape.

Do you think they’ll give me a frequent escaper discount instead of a first-time visitor discount?