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.

 

Powerful airpower

Wow, wow, WOW! I just saw the movie Above and Beyond, and it’s truly above and beyond the typical movie experience. This is an amazing, beautiful, and informative movie that’s a joy to watch. It’s the story of the birth of the Israeli air force, and it’s an amazing tale that’s gone untold for too long.

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Probably most Americans know the rough outline of the birth of the State of Israel: The United Nations voted to “partition” Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. At once the new Jewish state was attacked by five neighboring Arab nations. The Arabs publicly vowed to finish the job Hitler started, and the world community stood by and did nothing. The Jews basically had nothing more than handguns, while the highly organized, well armed, state-of-the-art professional Arab armies had all the implements of modern warfare, including armor and aircraft.

The smart money was on the Arabs, but that was not how history played out.

That much I knew, but what I didn’t know until I saw this movie, was that Jewish pilots from around the world who had served in World War II came to the aid of the new Jewish State. Think Flying Tigers, only in the Middle East. They were called the Machal, the volunteers from abroad.

Many of these volunteer pilots had never really thought of themselves as Jewish, and most didn’t speak Hebrew. One pilot, after being shot down by Arab air forces, was then shot at by Israeli ground forces. He saved his life by yelling out the names of all Jewish foods he could think of.

And combat wasn’t the only risk to the pilots. Many of them were Americans, and our government threatened loss of citizenship for anyone who flew for Israel. The fliers had to sneak out of the country using elaborate subterfuge, sometimes with the FBI nipping at their heels.

Above and Beyond does a great job of giving the viewer just enough information about the birth of Israel to put the creation of the nascent air force into perspective, while shocking us by reminding us just how deep and pervasive anti-Semitism ran in our own society not so long ago. But the movie is riveting and beautiful, both in its story and in its storytelling. Director Roberta Grossman seamlessly blends interviews with some of the surviving pilots, archival footage, and modern computer-generated graphics into a feast for the eyes, ears, and soul.

The most amazing moment for me? To set the stage, understand that while enough countries in the world voted for partition, creating the state of Israel, only one afforded any assistance to them beyond that point. And it wasn’t us. It was, of all nations, Czechoslovakia. But this wasn’t noble on their part; it was practical. The Czech economy was in tatters and the Israelis had the only American export that they’d managed to finagle: Money. And lots of it. The Czechs also had a German Messerschmitt factory that survived World War II. It made ME-109 Fighter planes. Well, a plane that was a shadow of the ME-109. The original engine factory had been destroyed, so the workers stuffed bomber engines into the fighter’s noses, turning a fearsome Nazi warbird into a plane that might be more dangerous to her pilots than to the enemy. Many were lost on takeoffs and landings, and in other cases, with the gun synchronizer timing improperly adjusted, the planes would shoot their own propellers off. The Czech 109s were poorly built and almost impossible to handle, but Israel had no air force and was being invaded by five belligerents who did have airpower (as well as tanks, artillery and all manner of modern weapons).

Four of these fighter planes were disassembled, loaded into cargo planes that had been illegally purchased in the US and then smuggled to Czechoslovakia by way of Panama, South America, and Italy, and flown to Israel. The four fighters were then secretly re-assembled in a hangar near Tele Aviv. To maintain the element of surprise, the Israelis didn’t even risk test flights. On May 29, 1948, with the 10,000-man Egyptian army literally at the gates of Tel Aviv, these four piece-of-crap planes—called Messer-shits by their pilots—took off, and in one single sortie changed the course of world history.

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How? Hey, I’m no spoiler. Go see the film yourself.

The movie, produced by Nancy Spielberg, Steven Spielberg’s sister, is being screened at various venues around the country. Check and see if one is near you. If not, plan a cross-country trip. I promise that it will be worth your time and Avgas. It’s not too often you can learn a ton of things you never knew in 87 minutes, and enjoy yourself at the same time.

Hopefully the movie will eventually come to DVD, I’ll be the first to add it to my aviation video library.

Plane Tree

The day after Halloween last year Wal-Mart put out the Christmas trees. At the time, we thought we’d be in the airplane-renting business by December 1st, so Rio and I thought we should get the company the holiday spirit by buying a Christmas tree for the hangar. We already knew how we’d decorate it: We’d been collecting the Hallmark Sky’s The Limit airplane ornaments for several years.

It was just a matter of picking the right tree.

I got it in my head that it had to be a white tree with taxiway-blue lights. Oh, and it needed a rotating airport beacon as a tree-topper and a miniature airport at its base.

Naturally, we couldn’t find a white tree with only blue lights. Not in fashion last year. Instead we got a white tree with multicolored lights. We figured at the time that if we ended up hating it, we could remove all 300 colored bulbs from the prewired tree and replace them with blues. In the end, I think I would have liked the all-blue tree better, but I didn’t dislike it enough to go through the effort of changing that many bulbs.

Anyway, as it turned out, Tessie languished with the A&P right trough December, but it was pretty clear even early in December that we wouldn’t be in the airplane renting business anytime soon (in fact the repair and restoration of Tessie took so long that we never ended up in the airplane renting business as our partner gave up and bought a second plane).

But I digress. Back to the tree. Knowing that the hangar would be empty for the season, we decided to put the tree up in our library at home:

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I found the rotating beacon tower on eBay (it was built for Lionel train sets back in the 50s). We also got two “Plasticville” hangars and a terminal building, also built for the model train world. It was a lovely tree. Nice and tall and wide, it dominated the room like a proper Christmas tree should.

At the end of the season last year we packed it away and stored it at the hangar.

This year, Wal-Mart had the Christmas trees out two weeks before Halloween, but I put my foot down on this encroachment of holidays. But now that Christmas is just around the corner, I agreed that it was time to break out the tree. Rio and I drove down to the hangar to get it in the proper holiday spirit. I pulled the white tree out of its box and assembled its three sections. While I unfolded the various branches, Rio unboxed the planes: A Wright Flyer, The Spirit of St. Louis, a Gee Bee racer, a Beech Staggerwing, a Cessna 195, an Ercoupe of course, and many more.

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While Rio decorated, I buried a heavy-duty exterior extension cord under the gravel to power the tree in a trip-free way. When he was done, he proudly stood back and said, “So what do you think?”

I think someone shrank our Christmas tree.

Our house has “cathedral ceilings,” but an airplane hangar is a cathedral. The roof of our hangar towers some 16 feet above the floor, and the front door gapes open to the tune of 45 feet. Our library-dominating tree looked, rather, well… Here see for yourself:

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It’s not exactly a Charlie Brown tree, but the sheer volume of space makes it seem a whole lot smaller than it looked last year.

Still, each weekend when we roll back the doors during the holiday season, the tree will greet us with a warm glow and an aeronautical theme that will remind us not to let the holidays fly past.

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Score!

Got this great magazine cover on eBay to add to our Hangar Art collection:

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Who’s the babe? According to the inside cover of the July 1945 Erco employee’s magazine, “The lovely Martha Vickers, Warner Brothers’ actress, currently working in the Technicolor musical ‘The Time, The Place, and the Girl,’ matches her radiant beauty with that of the Ercoupe.”

They don’t write copy like that any more!