Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid

Lisa turns and waves. She has a goofy grin on her face and her eyes are twinkling. She raises her camera to take a picture of me. I see the shutter open and close through the camera’s lens. I wave back.

This wouldn’t be the least bit remarkable if we weren’t in two different airplanes.

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

Three feet separates my wing tip from Lisa’s plane. I can see every seam, every rivet, every marking on her plane, just as clearly as if I were standing on the ramp next to it—instead of a thousand feet above the ground flying at two hundred and fifty miles per hour.

I’ve never done any formation flying before this, and I’m enthralled. As cool as it looks from the ground, nothing compares to how cool it looks from the cockpit.

Suddenly, we hit a patch of rough air. Our planes leap upwards, but amazingly, the two aircraft remain exactly in the same position relative to each other, moving as a single unit, as if they were one plane bolted together by steel beams and girders.

It’s AirVenture, and are we ever having an air venture! Lisa and I have hitched rides in the back seats of a pair of tailwheel Yak 52s belonging to the Phillips 66 Aerostars, a decade-old precision aerobatic team. We’re headed out over Lake Winnebago under gray skies, racing an approaching thunderstorm, so the Aerostars can show us their stuff.

Phillips 66 is the new primary sponsor of the Aerostars, but the company is no stranger to aviation. They’ve been making oil and gas for airplane engines since 1926. Today, Phillips 66 is one of the big players in aircraft oil, their main rival being AeroShell. I’ve been unable to figure out who has the greater market share, but my sense from what I see at airports is that Phillips is the leader in mutligrade oils, while AeroShell seems to have the lead the single-weight market, but I could be wrong about that. But one thing’s for sure, Phillips has the cooler logo:

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I study the Yak 52 Lisa is riding in, floating, unearthly, right outside my canopy. It fills my field of view.

“How on earth did you learn to do this?” I ask my pilot, “It’s frickin’ amazing.”

David “Cupid” Monroe laughs. “It’s really not that hard. You just establish a sight picture and hold it.” I’ve heard acro pilots say this before, but it never made any sense to me, and it still doesn’t, so I say nothing. “It’s just like shooting an ILS approach,” he goes on, and suddenly I get it.

In instrument flight, you use cockpit gauges to place the plane in a specific slice of airspace, and keep it there. One traditional instrument had two crossed needles. The vertical needle showed if you were drifting left or right of the runway as you approached it through the fog and clouds; and the horizontal needle told you if you were descending on the proper glide slope to clear terrain, buildings, and cell phone towers. Keeping the two needles nailed on the crosshairs kept you on the right approach.

What “Cupid” was telling me was that instead of lining up on an instrument, he was lining up his plane so that key parts of the other plane appeared through his canopy in exactly the right place, then, just like shooting an ILS, he made continuous micro corrections to hold the “sight picture”—essentially keeping his plane in the crosshairs established by the position of the leader’s plane out of the window.

Suddenly, it all seemed so simple. Something I could learn to do.

In the front cockpit of Lisa’s Yak, lead pilot Harvey “Boss” Meek makes a spinning motion with his right hand. In one smooth motion we dip down, pass beneath the leader, and come up on the opposite side. I felt like I could reach up and stroke the belly of the other plane as we slid under it.

The two planes split apart and dive for Lake Winnebago. Normally the Aerostars loop as a team in their signature tight formation, but they don’t do actual performances with deadweight journalists in the back seats, so for safety—there’s and ours—they ran the demo acrobatics wide.

“Cupid” pulls back on the stick and the Yak curves gracefully up toward the gray skies above, stands on her tail, and then we are upside down, the blue lake above us. The G-forces push me back in my seat, an airplane bear hug.

I love it.

As we slide down the back of the loop I let out a whoop of joy, just to let my pilot know I’m having a good time. Next we do a barrel roll, my all-time favorite maneuver. I enjoy them so much that I sometimes wish I owned an acrobatic plane, or that our plane was acro-capable. I don’t know if they are true, but I remember readings stories as a child of World War II fighter aces doing barrel rolls over their runways as they returned from missions. One roll for each victory.

The fun was capped off with a Half Cuban Eight, a maneuver that is more or less half a loop with half a roll.

The acrobatics were fun, but it was flying wing-tip to wing-tip out and back from the acrobatic zone that made the greatest impression on me. It was amazing and beautiful.

It made me wish that Lisa had a plane too, so that we could get some training and fly formation together. And in fact, thanks to our trip to AirVenture that just might happen.

Lisa getting a plane, that is. But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.

 

Where’s Waldo?

I’m surrounded by people. More people than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time in my life. It’s a solid mass of humanity, nearly impossible to navigate through. My eyes dart left, then right. I squeeze my way forward and scan the wall of bodies again and again, looking for the floppy hat. The red plaid shirt. Somewhere, lost in this sea of people, is my son.

It’s late Saturday afternoon at AirVenture, and the entire aviation universe (and most of the population of Wisconsin) has gathered on the flightline to take in the Blue Angles, the Night Airshow, and the famous Wall of Fire.

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I’m not worried about his safety. It’s not like I’ve misplaced a toddler. My son is a smart, mature, capable 15-year-old. But he’s a smart, mature, capable 15-year-old lost somewhere in a Where’s Waldo panorama of people.

A smart, mature, capable 15-year-old who has lost his cell phone.

People. Everywhere people. If you combined the crowds from the World Cup, the Pope’s Easter blessing, and a mob seeking free Rolling Stones tickets, I doubt it’d add up to this many faces.

Rio, planning a career as an aeronautical engineer, has spent the entire week at workshops getting hands-on perspective on aircraft building techniques. He tried his hand at three types of welding, worked with rivets and sheet metal, built wing struts with wood, and even formed composites. While he was off learning the tools of his future trade, my wing-woman Lisa and I were plying the tools of our trade, traveling across the grounds on our General Aviation News press passes, Lisa taking images and me jotting down notes for stories.

Most of Rio’s workshops ran long during the week, usually 10-15 minutes longer than their time slots, so Lisa and I weren’t worried much when we got caught in an epic traffic jam inbound for the airshow as we made our way back from visiting the Sea Plane Base.

His composite materials 101 was to end at 3:45 p.m. At 4:02 on the dot Lisa and I found the workshops and forums an empty wasteland. We both looked at our watches. Then looked around. No Rio. Huh. Thinking he went in search of food, I texted him.

A few minutes later I got a text back: This phone is at the lost and found.

Holy… shit.

Rio—somewhere—at AirVenture, on the busiest, most crowded day of the week, with no phone. As I tried to process the information the Blue Angles ripped across the sky, the crackling high pitched scream of their engines drowning out all other sound.

I knew what I had to do. I had to think like a 15-year-old.

Between jet passes Lisa and I created a battle plan using fractured sentences and gestures. The first thing that occurred to me was that he would go to Race Central. It’s a tent right on the flightline at the mouth of the race corral, where the race fleet parked after the AirVenture Cup. With Tess down for maintenance, she wasn’t there, but the other racers are the closest thing we have to family at AirVenture, and the tent the closest thing we have to a home on the grounds. I would head for Race Central while Lisa would head up to the place we had parked that morning. As we had planned to go home after Rio’s workshop and pick up the rest of the family for the night airshow, we thought he might have figured the simplest thing to do was meet us at the car. Of course, Lisa and I had moved the car in the meantime, but Rio would have had no way to know that.

I had the shorter walk, but with the crowds I arrived at the Race Tent about the same time Lisa got to “L” lot. She texted “negative contact.” I told the AirVenture Cup crew that I’d lost my copilot. They hadn’t seen him.

Where next?

Slowly, painfully, I worked my way through the crowd of crowds toward the Vintage Red Barn, where the type clubs have booths. I thought Rio might take refuge with the Ercoupe Owners Club. But when I got there the barn was empty. Meanwhile, Lisa headed for the scooter rental return booth to see if Rio had turned in his ride yet (I sacrificed exercise for education so he could be easily mobile on his own again this year).

Negative contact.

Where next? On the first day we all planned a meet-up after different missions on the west side of Boeing Plaza. Would he think to use that as a fall back rendezvous location? As I set out in that direction I got a text from Race Central. Rio spotted there. I texted back, have him stay put. I’m coming.

Their reply: He already left.

I worked my way through the throng of people, back down the flight line when a mass of polished aluminium blocked my way. The B-29 “Doc” was being brought slowly through the crowd to its parking place in Boeing Plaza.

You have got to be kidding.

I detoured deeply into the grounds, skirting the south, west, and north sides of the plaza, and finally back to the flightline. As I closed in on the Race tent I saw the familiar floppy hat that Rio bought at Reno last year.

He’d returned “home,” thank God.

We were reunited. Waldo and William in one corner of the mass of people. Together again.

 

Unfaithful

I confess. I did it. I cheated.

On my airplane.

Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I sat in another airplane’s cockpit. And like so many men before me, I can only offer the lame excuse that the other plane was so young, and pretty, and slim—that I just couldn’t help myself.

Oh, but it gets worse from there. This is more than just a taxiway fling. More than a one-air-show stand. This new girl has been on my mind. A lot. Despite hundreds of hours of loyal and faithful service on the part of the Plane Tales Plane, I find myself sneaking into my library in the middle of the night and drooling over pictures of my new would-be airborne mistress.

She has a long, thin snout. Sleek tapering lines. Low, thin wings. And a lovely empennage. No doubt the air would merely whisper around her. Her gear has smooth, rounded wheel pants. The blades of her three-bladed prop taper to wicked thin, curving tips. She has a beautiful nose, with finely chiseled air intakes; and, of course, a big spinner.

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Her canopy slides back invitingly on silky smooth rails to reveal a spacious cockpit filled with all the latest electronic goodies a pilot could desire.

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Her seats are fine leather. She has legroom, shoulder room, and headroom. And when I sat on those seats, in that cockpit, I didn’t feel merely contented and at home like I do when I climb into our old Ercoupe.

I felt younger.

I felt my inner racing pilot unleashed. I wanted to fire her up, grab her throttle, and go break some more records.

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Like many head-turning women, she’s not originally from around here, of course, which may explain her exotic looks. She’s a South African Light Sport Sling iS. And unlike many modern Light Sport planes, she’s made of metal, not plastic. Every gleaming angle and curve screams quality.

More and more since I met her, I picture myself leaping up on her wing, pulling back her canopy, sliding into her cockpit, firing up her engine, caressing her controls, and taking her off for the flight of her life.

This red and white Sling is red hot. A far cry, I’m afraid, from our Ercoupe Tessie; who’s frankly sorta dumpy by comparison. She’s a little pudgy around the middle, with a stubby, flat face and a small spinner. She has thick wings, dented and scratched, and naked wheels. Her cockpit is small and cramped.

Today I drove down to the Plane Tales airport with fantasies of the new girl dancing in my head. I pulled up outside the hangar, parked, and unlocked the towering doors. With a heave and a groan of metal the great doors slid back to reveal my faithful old airplane waiting for me.

And I felt guilty.

Tessie’s never let me down. She’s carried me far and wide on adventures big and small. And transported me to (limited) glory on her old wings, taking home a Word Speed Record and a Ercoupe Owner’s People’s Choice Award. Every flight has been a blast, and I love flying her.

I immediately felt ashamed of myself for even considering another airplane.

Right up until I got home. And then as the sun set, with Tessie not around, and no one looking, I slipped into the library and opened my Sling album; and found myself drooling over her sexy figure and daydreaming of flying her low and fast.

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Then and now

It’s a steep climb up the narrow aisle from the door in the tail to the two First Class seats behind the cockpit. Well, actually, with only nine passenger seats, they are all First Class. Rio and I went all the way to the front because none of the other passengers did, and we naturally wanted to see the cockpit of the Ford 4-AT-E Tri-Motor—the granddaddy of all commercial airliners in the sky today.

Being entranced with the tales of early aviation, I’ve always had a soft spot for the triple-engine high-wing airliner, with its one engine on the nose and two hanging down in pods below the wings. With its boxy but graceful lines, and corrugated aluminum skin, it looks both barn-roof old-fashioned and art deco modern at the same time.

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The Tri-Motors existed in a pivotal moment in time, when airlines moved from flying a rag-tag collection of wood and cloth biplanes to something we can all recognize as “modern.” And the venerable Tin Goose moved airplanes forward in scale in a way that’s hard to comprehend today. It was a monster plane for its time. I mean think about: This is an 8,000-pound metal-clad airplane with a wingspan of 74 feet. In 1929, just twenty-six years after the Wright Brother’s first flight, no less! Airlines, who had never flown anything of this size before, had to build new hangars just to accommodate the planes.

I had always wondered what it felt like to be a pioneering airline passenger, paying a princely sum to sit in a wicker chair in a noisy, cold plane; flying low and slow by our standards, but high and fast by standards of the time.

The very airplane I was now buckeling myself into came to New Mexico about six months ago, but I didn’t get wind of it until too late, and missed a chance to get a ride. As soon as I got the email announcing that it would be at AirVenture, I bought Rio and I a pair of tickets. In fact, I bought Tri-Motor tickets before I made hotel reservations.

I guess that says a lot about my priorities in life.

Anyway, the tickets cost $70 each (with an advanced purchase discount of five bucks) for a twelve-minute flight. How does that compare in cost to what a ticket would have cost when the Tri-Motors ruled the skies?

Well, according to the 5th Edition of Air Transportation: A Management Perspective by Alexander T. Wells and John G. Wensveen, back in 1929 the average airline ticket cost 12¢ per mile flown, rounded to the nearest nickel. Our Tri-Motor experience was 12 minutes in the air, so if we assume the full cruise speed of the Tri-Motor at 90 mph—granted this discounts climb and descent speeds, but this is an intellectual exercise riddled with possible errors anyway—Rio and I travelled 18 miles over Whitman Regional Airport, south to the sea plane base, out over Lake Winnebago, and back again. In 1929 an 18-mile flight, should such a silly thing have existed, would have set you back $2.15, rounded to the nearest nickel. Using an inflation calculator, that historic $2.15 in today’s money would be $30.00, so EAA charged me more than double the cost of a truly historical experience.

Was it worth it?

Yes. It was worth every penny rounded to the nearest nickel.

The chair wasn’t wicker, but everything else about the plane felt appropriately old school. The passengers all buckled it, we taxied across the grass and out onto the active runway. The pilot advanced the throttles and all three engines roared to life. Solid, powerful waves of sound filled the cabin. It was noisy, but not overwhelming. Rio, who is sensitive to sound, wore earplugs:

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I chose to fly ’20s style. It was not deafening, but you would have been hard-pressed to carry on a conversation with your seatmate on a long flight.

We began to roll. The increase in speed was steady, methodical. The tail slowly lifted. There was a brisk crosswind, but the captain kept the big bird lined up straight down the runway. Then the old giant finally lumbered into the air. It was more like slow motion levitation than the rocket-launch nose-high takeoffs we are used to in modern airliners. There was no moment where you could tell that we’d broken the hold the ground had on us. The runway just slowly dropped away. Then below me I beheld a sea of airplanes. Among them, a fleet of Ercoupes:

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The Tri-motor felt solid and steady in the air. But somehow struck me as more a creature of the ground that could fly, than as creature of the air that could also live on the ground—as many planes seem to be, Tessie included. Everything about the Tri-Motor screamed “airliner” to me: Steady, reliable, stable. Safe. But plodding as well. But as you’ll see in a minute, my notion of what an airliner is was about to be shaken to its core.

We had a great 12 minutes. In fact, it felt more like half an hour. We landed smoothly, and as the airspeed bleed off, and the tail settled to the earth, our seats seemed to recline. As soon as the props stopped spinning, the ground crew hustled us off to get the next nine paying First Class passengers aboard. But one did offer to snap a quick pic of Rio and me.

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As we wandered south through the thousands of airplanes on display, the airshow announcer, an overly enthusiastic character by nature and profession, was practically gushing as he announced that the new Airbus A-350-X-WB airliner was about to make a fly-over. I couldn’t match his enthusiasm. So what? How boring. The latest flying cattle car. Another Greyhound bus with wings. Big deal.

Then the big plane whispered down the runway past me. WFT? If his engines failed, how come he hasn’t crashed? As the behemoth sailed past, it pulled up and gracefully cartwheeled to one side, flashing Barn-swallow-like wings, and proceeded to put on a one-plane airshow that blew my mind.

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I stood transfixed and transformed, my mouth gaping open. This huge 220-foot long, 54-thousand-pound monster was a true creature of the sky.

It flew like a jet fighter!

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The evolution of the airliner is complete. First the bus that could fly, now the flying creature that can carry passengers.

But that’s not all that’s changed. Speed, capacity, and price have all reached new heights in the atmosphere as well.

The Tri-Motor flew at 90 miles per hour, much like our Ercoupe. The Airbus? Normal cruise is 561 miles per hour. And that’s not throttles to the firewall either. The Ford cost $42,000 out the factory door in the late 1920s. In today’s dollars that would be a little bit over half a million bucks. The Airbus? Get out five checkbooks. This one will set you back about 305 million dollars. Of course, instead of nine passengers, it seats 325.

We’ve come a long way since Mr. Ford’s Tri-motor, and yet, in the shadow of the great AirBus you can see the soul of the Tri-Motor, both built for the same purpose. But for the sheer joy of being in the air, even though the Airbus likes to fly more, I think I’d choose flying in the Tri-motor. I’m not sure why.

Maybe I just like my airliners lumbering.