A very capable airplane

Grandma Jean was really leaning on Rio for more information. For two years we’ve been talking about visiting all of the lower 48 states in a single cross country trip. In the Ercoupe. The rough draft of the flight plan is around 8,000 miles, and that was just connecting the dots to reach all the states.

We’d been in the process of investigating what we’d most want to see in each state, and as we made new discoveries the bright orange line zigzagging across the giant wall planning chart in our flight lounge morphed. I estimated that the final flight plan would be 12,000 miles when all was said and done, and I figured we need 45 days to fly it—accounting for the distance, the weather, seeing the sites, and not totally wearing ourselves out. It would be the father-son adventure of a lifetime. And who knows? Maybe a good book, to boot.

But now Rio wasn’t so sure he wanted to go.

And grandma wanted to know why.

Of course, at the family dinner table in front of all their relatives isn’t the best place to get teenagers to divulge their true feelings, and Rio was hemming and hawing. Personally, I suspected two possible sources of his change of heart. The first was that we had both had a mind-numbingly bad time on a headwind-fest called the AirVenture Cup. Naturally, I tried to convince him that there’s a difference between a long, slow flight in which you have to hold your course—like on a cross country air race—and a “normal” VFR cross country where you’re free to annul boredom by doing maneuvers or investigating anything interesting that you spot on the ground below. Or maybe that wasn’t it. It might simply be that, at fifteen-going-on-sixteen, there could be nothing worse than being cooped up with your father for 45 days in a tiny cockpit where shoulder room is non-existent.

At any rate, Rio dodged what I suspected were the real issues by telling his grandmother, “I just wish we had a more capable airplane, that’s all.”

The timing was wrong, so I let it go, but deep down I felt the need to defend Tessie. I’ve flown that little plane across the Rockies and up to Washington, and all the way across the American heartland and over the Appalachians and on to the East Coast.

Pretty capable.

Although, granted, not terribly efficient by modern standards.

But back to Rio. Apparently at some point after the AirVenture Cup I told him that if we launched on our trip and ended up hating it, we could always throw in the towel. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something I might’ve said. At the family dinner that night, we’d been kicking around possible sponsors to take the edge off the cost of the trip. Rio recognized, quite correctly, that if you get sponsors, you’re pretty much obligated to carry out your plane plans; and he didn’t feel like signing on for what might be a 45-day jail sentence.

A few days later, I was filling Lisa in on the latest trials of fatherhood, and she suggested I put some training wheels on the airplane. “Why don’t the two of you take a long cross country during Spring Break, just to try it on for size? Fly out for three days, then back. If you both have a grand time, you can keep planning for the big trip, if not, well, you’re not out much.”

Wise woman, that Lisa.

That night, I pitched the idea to Rio. He wanted to know how far we could go. I told him that would depend on how far we decided to fly each day. I generally view 600 miles as a good day’s work—three hops and two re-fuelings—but those can be tiring days. At 100 miles per hour, it’s easily an 8-hour day, all told. So I suggested two legs with one re-fueling. That would be a nice morning’s work, with all afternoon free to explore wherever it was we set down.

But in my heart I worried… That’s only 400 miles a day. That’s the same distance you can go in a car. Could we get anywhere with such short distances covered each day?

I went into the flight lounge. Our wall planning chart has range rings printed every 200 miles—the distance we can fly with two aboard before we need to stop for gas. I counted two rings: Four hundred miles from home base the first day. Two more rings the second day would see us 800 miles from home. Two more rings on the third day had us setting down 1,200 miles from home.

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The 1,200-mile range-ring swept up the map from Panama City, Florida, ran just west of the Appalachia Mountains, bisected the Great Lakes, took in all of the northern part of the country, swept down the Northwest just shy of Seattle, and then disappeared out to sea over the Pacific.

I called Rio in and traced my finger on the map, “We could get to New Orleans, or Atlanta, or Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Mount Rushmore, or Portland, or San Francisco, or Los Angles, or San Diego.”

He said he’d think about it. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the fact that, in three days, most of the country west of the Appalachias could be in our grasp. If that’s not a capable airplane, what is?

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.

 

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.

 

Mechanic school

Each shard of metal is ever so slightly curved. There are dozens of them lying on the table. I push them around with my fingers, getting burnt, black, nasty oil on my hands. A bit at a time, like assembling a jig saw puzzle, I recreate the ring of metal the shards once formed.

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“Yep,” says the mechanic cheerfully, “I’d say that was your problem.”

Myself, I’m somewhere between horrified and relieved. I’m horrified that this string of broken pearls came from inside my engine; while I’m relieved that approving an expensive cylinder replacement wasn’t money wasted.

Remember that weird oil thing I wrote about a few weeks ago? Right after that Tess went in for major maintenance, and my crew could find nothing wrong. But within four hours of writing that rather large check for preventative maintenance, I was making another quasi-emergency landing with redline oil pressure. Followed by another. You can read all about that adventure over at General Aviation News, but in a nutshell, things went from fine to worse in record time.

Hidden under the cowl, deep inside the front right cylinder, the piston rings were giving out. At my annual, right before this flight, all the cylinders had compressions in the 70s, which is regarded as healthy. Six hundred miles later, the front-right was at 30 and was pronounced dead on arrival by the lead mechanic at Springfield Flying Service. It gave virtually no advanced warning. It just died.

The autopsy actually raised more questions than it answered. Two of the four rings were fractured, allowing oil to flood up into the cylinder. That said, other than the oil loss, there was little to show for it. Against all odds, the cylinder was still working and the plugs weren’t fouled, which they should have been, given the 1.5 quarts of oil per hour the cylinder was guzzling. The innards of the cylinder showed exposure to extreme heat, the parts being “cooked,” according the mechanics. But I’ve never abused the engine. And if it were cooked in the past, how did it last so long? Questions without answers.

But speaking of questions and answers, laid bare and torn open, I was able to see more of Tessie’s engine than ever before. And more. I got a guided tour through her inner workings while serving as official wrench holder for the mechanic replacing the cylinder. I spent an entire day giving what (little) help I could—hold this, please hand me that… no, the one to the left—and learning. I got to meet the push rods. Saw the cams. Touched the valves.

I’ll never be a mechanic. I don’t have the right kind of mind for it. But this one day of mechanic school opened my eyes in a new way to what’s happening under the hood.

And that will make me a better pilot.

 

An evil forecast

The only light in my house is the glowing computer screen. The sun won’t rise for another hour and a half, and I don’t want to wake anyone up. I enter my username and password, and quickly type in details about my flight. I’m set to leave for the airport for a 1,200 mile cross-country flight in fifteen minutes, and I’m double checking the weather to see how much it’s changed since I went to bed.

I take a sip of bold, dusky coffee while I wait for the briefing to load.

Wind. Everywhere wind. Strong. I knew that would be the case. I’d even changed my flight plan to choose fields whose runways aligned better with the torrents that were spilling across the plains from a massive high pressure system above the Rockies into the gaping jaws of a monster low over the Midwest. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Airmet about wind.

Airmet stands for Airmen’s Meteorological Information. It’s a non-regulatory bulletin whose purpose is to alert pilots to weather that can affect flight safety. Weather needs to be pretty nasty to rate an Airmet, so when Airmets speak, wise pilots listen.

This one cautions about sustained surface winds in excess of 30 knots across my entire flight path. That translates to nearly 35 miles per hour, enough to make landings dicey and ground handling difficult. Still, by itself, it’s no reason not to go. Tessie is about as wind-proof as light airplanes get, her design letting her take on winds that would flip most other small planes.

But there’s more. Another Airmet alerts me to moderate turbulence. That makes sense. Winds tearing along the surface act like water. As they crash into obstacles on the ground, the currents of air splash high into the sky. Strong winds on the surface almost always cause a rough ride above it.

So the flight will be unpleasant, but, still, not un-doable.

The Airmet tab on my weather briefing shows there is yet one more warning. I slide my mouse up and to the right and click on it. It’s a LLWS warning. I stare at it. I’ve never seen one before, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what LLWS stands for.

Isn’t an LLWS some sort of licensed social worker?

I open up the Airmet to read it. Low Level Wind Shear. Ah. Nasty piece of business. Shear happens when the wind dramatically changes in speed or direction between two altitudes. It can be so abrupt it can cause your wing to momentarily stop flying. Near to the surface shear is dangerous as hell, and has even brought down airliners.

And the Airmet isn’t just calling for LLWS in one place. No. The LLWS warning is for hundreds of miles and includes two of my fuel stops.

I lean back in my chair. Is this flight a good idea?

High winds. Turblance. Wind shear. It’s not exactly the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it’s a lot to contend with on one flight.

I take another sip of coffee. The car is packed. I’m ready to go. Eager to go, in fact. I’m race bound, and I know my desire to make the race has the potential to interfere with my aeronautical decision making. I have no doubt that I can make the flight. Still, that’s not the right way of thinking about it.

The right way of thinking about it isn’t can I make this flight, but should I make this flight?

If I were the last pilot alive and the plague serum needed to be delivered, I’d succeed. In fact, in that scenario I’d risk worse. But it will be a difficult and stressful flight. And if I’m honest with myself, if I was just going to fly for fun, I’d stay home today. Of course, if you only fly when the weather is perfect, you won’t fly much, and certainly not far. I’ve invested a lot of time, money, and effort into the racing…

But I’ve given myself three nice-length days to make the flight. I still have the option of doing it in two longer ones.

I check the forecast for the next two days. It’s much… calmer.

I consider a bit longer, then I get up, go into the flight lounge, pull my flight shirt off over my head, and place it back on a hangar. The sky will still be there tomorrow.

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And it will be a lot more friendly.

 

Under pressure

“Something’s wrong,” I tell Lisa.

Immediately her head—which had been bee-bopping back and forth to some silent music playing in her mind—freezes, and her perpetual in-flight smile dissipates.

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“Huh? What?” she asks.

I point to the oil pressure gauge. We’ve lost oil pressure. A lot of it. The needle on the small round dial in the lower left hand corner of Tessie’s panel is in the red arc, down to around 20 pounds per square inch. Damn! Why hadn’t I noticed it dropping earlier? When was the last time I looked? I scan my instruments regularly, automatically, without thinking about it—just like breathing. They don’t even register in my mind unless they have changed a bit. But to go from green to red is a seismic change. How could I have missed that?

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Did I get distracted?

Or is it dropping that fast?

We’re just a hair over an hour out from Wilbarger County at Vernon, Texas, where we’d refueled and added oil. So we have plenty of oil. It must be a bad gauge. Unlike most pilots, I resist the temptation to thump the gauge with my finger to see if it will change its mind. Instead, I work the problem in my head, but talk out loud to keep my copilot in the loop.

The flight pad is estimating 35 minutes until our next scheduled fuel stop, based on current ground speed. But if it isn’t a bad gauge, thirty-five minutes is a long time to run an engine short of oil.

What are my options? “What’s the nearest airport?” I ask Lisa. She snatches my iPhone, which runs a backup copy of Garmin Pilot, and stabs at the screen.

“The closest is Smiley Johnson Municipal,” she says, “not too far behind us.” Good omen, I think, with a name like that. “But no services,” she adds.

Hmmm… if we need a mechanic it would be better to land somewhere that has one. The closest place with maintenance shops is Amarillo, about 20 minutes away, north and west of our current location.

The oil pressure gauge hasn’t changed. Still too damn low, but not dropping. The oil temp is normal. If we were really short on oil, it should be running hot. The engine temp is good, too.

Our gauges are telling different stories.

But which one is telling the truth? If an airplane cockpit were a democracy, the oil pressure gauge would be out-voted by the two temperature gauges.

Of course a cockpit isn’t a democracy. Far from it. I’m in absolute command—with absolute responsibility.

OK, so it looks like a bad gauge. But if it isn’t, what would cause us to be down so far, so fast? Unfortunately, the possibilities are endless. It could be we’ve sprung a leak in an oil line, cracked oil filter, or suffered some other calamity, and at this very second my engine’s life blood is draining out, smearing a slick coat of death over the belly of the plane.

Better an empty airport than an empty stretch of road in rural Texas. We could be minutes away from a bona fide emergency. It’s time to get on the ground.

I press the “NRST” button on the Flight Pad, then select Smiley Johnson. It’s only 16 miles behind us. I roll Tess into a right bank. Time to get on the ground where we can check the actual oil level. If it’s fine, we’ve not lost much time and we can lift off and be on our way. If it really is low, we can top up. If we have some sort of leak… Well, we’ll be stranded for a while, but it beats all the other alternatives—given the situation.

I throttle back to lose some altitude. The oil pressure drops to zero. My heart skips a beat.

Quickly, I throttle back up and the oil pressure recovers, but only to the top of the red line.

We fly in strained silence for what feel like an eternity. The engine sings its muffled roar. No change. No roughness. No skips. I fly with one eye out the windscreen and one eye on the oil pressure gauge.

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There it is! A narrow ribbon of concrete running north-south. Shelter from the storm that hit on a bright sunny day.

We drop into a lazy curving arc and line up. Seconds later our tires kiss the pavement, letting out their characteristic chirp. I taxi to the apron and quickly shut down. We sit for a moment, collecting our thoughts and listening to the wind buffet the top of the canopy. Then I slide the two halves of the canopy into the belly of the plane, climb out of the cockpit, step onto the wing, and drop to the ground. I walk around my left wing and kneel on the ground, looking up at the belly of the plane, half-expecting it to be dripping with fresh black oil.

Well, nothing unusual anyway. Like a Harley Davison, if a Continental C-85 isn’t leaking some oil, it’s probably completely out. But we only have the normal small smear of oil that the engine has burped out staining our underside.

Next, I open the cowling by freeing the four camlocs that hold it securely closed in flight. I peer into the engine compartment. All looks well. We’re not car-show clean (and never will be) but there’s nothing unusual to report.

Gingerly, I reach for the dipstick, being careful not to brush my hand against any of the red-hot engine components. I grip the bright yellow cap and turn it counter clockwise. Wisps of steam escape the oil sump as I pull out the dipstick. I wipe the stick with a red oil rag, then place it back in the sump and lock the cap by turning it clockwise. Then I pull it again to read the level.

It’s half what it ought to be.

Son of a bitch. The gauge wasn’t lying.

Our oil is low. But there’s no sign of it leaking. So where does that leave us? Where the hell did the oil go? And what are our options now?

I sit cross-legged on the pavement and stare at my airplane, imploring it to answer my questions. None of the facts add up. I can make no sense of bizarre layers of information.

We have a quart and a half of oil with us, which should have been enough to get us home. Now I don’t know how far it will get me, and curse myself for not having more onboard. It’s Sunday in Texas, and that means that the vast majority of airport businesses are closed. I get out my phone and start checking the hours of various shops at nearby airports.

To find one that’s not observing the Sabbath, we need to go to Amarillo. From where I sit, it’s only a hair over half an hour to Amarillo’s Tradewind Airport. With no visible sign of an oil leak, it seems a fair bet we can make it. Once there, we can see how much oil we lost, if any, en route, and then decide how to proceed.

I run my thinking by Lisa, and she agrees. We mount up and take to the air.

Topped off, our oil pressure is now good. Flying low over the Texas countryside, it holds steady. Across the south side of the city we fly, descending on final approach over a sprawling cemetery.

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On the tarmac in front of the terminal, I order fuel and two quarts of oil from the lineman. Then I free the cowl to check the oil.

It’s unchanged.

 

[From Tradewind, we flew back to our home base at Santa Rosa with normal oil consumption. The cause of our low oil is one of those airplane mysteries that will never be solved. My best guess is that some sort of bubble in the sump tricked me into thinking I had more oil than I actually did when I added oil in Vernon, TX. But we also topped up that morning before the short flight from North Texas Regional to Vernon, so that explanation really doesn’t hold water either.]

How much flying is too much?

Fifteen days. Two hundred forty five gallons of 100 low-lead avgas. Three thousand, four hundred, and seventeen miles. Forty-four point nine hours added to my logbook.

Out from our New Mexico home base to South Carolina, then down to the middle of Florida, up the Gulf Coast, across the South, and eventually home again. Yep, it’s race season, and this epic commute took in the first four races of the season. When I got home again, I was pretty much flown out.

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But that was a week ago.

Now I’m chomping at the bit. The sky is calling.

How much flying is too much? Can we pilots ever get enough? I’ve always suspected not. But I’d never given any thought to who has flown more than anyone else until I encountered this plaque at Montgomery, Alabama, where fierce winds and turbulence forced me to alight early for the day (nearly kissing the ground after I pried my bruised body out of the cockpit):

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The plaque was my introduction to John Edward Long, Jr., the pilot who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for more time as Pilot-in-Command than any other person on the planet. His total flight time? A holy-cow 64,397 hours.

Apparently, Long was a low and slow kind of pilot like me. Most of his record-breaking flight hours were in a Piper Cub, flying power line patrols less than 200 feet off the ground. He joined the Alabama Power Company in 1953, and flew for them pretty much five days a week for the next 46 years.

Long was born in 1915, a dozen years into the history of powered flight. He grew up in the age of Lindy and Post. When he was 15 years old, his grandmother gave him 50 cents to take a ride in a Ford Tri-motor, and he got bit by the aviation bug. Long started flying at age 17 in a Curtiss Robin. It was the Great Depression. Times were tough and money was tight. He washed airplanes, trading a week’s work for a half hour of flight time, and in 1939 he was granted pilot certificate number 44,202.

At 115 pounds, he was too light to be a military pilot when war broke out, so during World War 2 he served as an airplane mechanic instead. After the war he worked as a charter pilot and flight instructor before joining the power company.

According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Long filled 14 logbooks that, if added up and divided by the number of hours in a year, total up to a full seven years.

Even birds don’t spend that much of their lives in the air.

On average, from first setting foot in an airplane to hanging up his wings, he flew 961 hours a year—an astounding amount of time in the cockpit. And throughout it all, he had an amazing safety record.

Long passed away in 1999. I would have liked to have met him, but I’m glad to have at least discovered him. I count myself lucky that my long flight intersected his long career.

I’m on logbook number two now, but to be honest, I didn’t fill the first one. It just got too tattered up to use anymore. So Long’s long record is one I’ll never break, but it proves what I’ve always known: There’s no such thing as too much flying.

 

Chasing the Eclipse

A total Eclipse of the sun, astronomically, is a garden-variety event. There’s one somewhere on the planet every 18 months. The problem is, of course, that the planet is three-quarters water; and the parts that are land include Antarctica, the Amazon Jungle, China, and Timbuktu.

And if you do choose to go to Antarctica, the Amazon Jungle, China, or Timbuktu to get to one, there’s always the risk that it will be cloudy. That actually happened to me once, sort of. A few years ago we had a baby eclipse right here at home. I think the proper word for a baby eclipse is Annular, but it’s one of those in which the moon leaves the flaming edge of the sun showing, so it doesn’t get night-dark like I understand it will with a full eclipse.

We were all set up and watching the start of it with a modified solar telescope and we were standing by with welding goggles.

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Then it got cloudy.

But now the real deal is coming this summer. A total eclipse will slash across the country from northwest to southeast on Monday, August 21. That will actually be my mother’s 70th wedding anniversary. (Even though my father passed away many years ago she still marks the anniversary.)

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Image: Rice University

Although there are many good potential places to see the eclipse, apparently Carbondale, Illinois is ground zero for great observation. And it so happens that I will be in Urbana, Illinois two days before for an Air Race.

Getting to the eclipse will be easy-peasy. In fact, equipped with an airplane, we are in a good position to try to get into a position where we can see the eclipse weather-free. I can easily re-deploy 700 miles from Urbana by Sunday night. And as the eclipse starts around noon, I can hop-scotch in either direction that morning as the weather forecast shapes up.

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Image: NASA

Of course there’s a problem. We are a five-person family with a two-person airplane. For everyone to see the eclipse, we need to coordinate in advance. We won’t know the weather until that morning, realistically, but in the meantime the hotels along the path of the eclipse are apparently selling out like hot cakes.

As we studied the path of the eclipse and studied our flight charts, a flurry of thoughts flashed through my mind: Should I stand on the wing and watch the moon side across the sun? Or should I be in the air and watch the shadow race across the earth? Could I chase the shadow and watch the eclipse twice?

I went to the internet to look up the speed the shadow races across the face of the planet. Apparently this varies with the time of the day, but at midday it’s zipping along at something like 1,450 miles per hour.

Quite a bit faster than the fastest Ercoupe in the world.

Even an Eclipse Jet couldn’t keep up. That shadow is pushing Mach 2.

And while the eclipse shadow looks narrow on the map, it’s actually almost 70 miles wide. So you’d need to be pretty high up to have a sense of it as a circular shadow flashing by.

So that settled that. I’ll watch the eclipse standing on my wing, plane parked firmly on the ground. But parked where? At what airport?

Well, we’re still trying to figure that out. But we’ve ordered a five pack of eclipse glasses, ‘cause one thing is for sure: We’re flying to the eclipse.

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Image: Eclipse2017.org

 

Slow flight

Ah. So this is what it’s like to fly a hot air balloon. The view is fine, but our movement over the ground is so slow that it feels like we’re standing still. Nearby mesa tops remain stationary. Or nearly so. The minute hand sweeps across the face of my pilot’s watch and no landmark appears any nearer. Distant roads stay distant.

Frankly, it’s eerie. Having air race blood in my veins, I think I’d make a poor balloon pilot. Of course balloon pilots are immune from my current worry.

Rio consults the chart, “We’re still inside the VOR ring.”

The compass rose ring on the chart around Anton Chico VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Range) radio station is 25 miles across. We’ve been flying over this one for half an hour. Our ground speed indicator shows 36 miles per hour. This is ridiculous. And I’m starting to think about all those pilots who run out of gas and crash ten miles from their destinations.

I run the math again. In my head. Because my navigation system apparently can’t deal with speeds this slow. Normally my Garmin Pilot App displays a constantly updated ETE, or Estimated Time Enroute, telling me how much time it will take to get to my destination. Using it, I can quickly compare this remaining flight time estimate with my elapsed flight time, and know if I’ve got the gas to get where I’m going. But on this flight, anytime our ground speed drops below 45 miles per hour, the ETE screen goes blank—right when I need it the most.

Usually gas isn’t much of a worry for me, even though Ercoupes don’t have what most people would consider functional gas gauges. Instead, I know that if I put six-and-one-half inches of fuel in each wing tank I can fly for two hours. I measure the fuel depth with a clear plastic straw marked with a scale. That gives me a 200-mile range, more or less. For reserve, regulations require me to have an additional 30 minutes of fuel onboard, but my personal minimums are greater because we have a lot of open spaces between airports out here in the West. I consider my header tank to be my reserve: A full hour of fuel.

Today’s flight is only ninety miles. We’re ferrying Tess from her home base in Santa Rosa over Rowe Mesa to Santa Fe for her annual inspection. An annual inspection is a religious ritual in which you take your plane to the Maintenance Temple and make a sacrifice of a big pile of money so that the Maintenance Gods will grant you another year’s safe flying.

Yes, plane ownership is a religion.

Our speed drops. Again. We are at full power, in level flight, and our speed over the ground is—I kid you not—31 miles per hour.

IMG_5227

Luckily we’re half way to Santa Fe, because if we’d had to go this speed the whole way, the trip would have taken 2 hours and 54 minutes, leaving us with only six minutes of fuel on landing. Of course, I’d never fly the tanks that dry. I’d have aborted the attempt long before.

Still, I’ve burned through an hour of fuel already. I’ve got another hour in the wings, plus my reserve. At this speed we’ll just be tapping into the reserve on arrival. That’s OK. That’s what a reserve is for. But I confess, I’ve never bucked a headwind like this one, and I never thought I’d be worrying about fuel on a ninety-mile flight.

So what’s up with that? We’re flying into the teeth of an eighty-mile per hour gale, that’s what. A silent gale. An invisible gale. It’s sunny and the air is calm with only the occasional jolt to remind us we are passing through a fluid medium rather than sitting on a mountaintop taking in the view.

More bizarrely, Santa Fe is reporting calm winds. And even though my nav system is on strike about our arrival time, it still shows my altitude above the ground: We’re only 1,600 feet up. I consider dropping lower to try and get out of the winds but there are two problems. First, the terrain is rising and with both Rio and I aboard we’re close to our upper weight limit. That means Tess doesn’t climb well. Actually, even lightly loaded she’s not a fast climber. She’s not the kind of plane you want to barnstorm rising terrain in.

And the second problem is wind shear.

Wind shear is a violent difference in wind between two altitudes. And if you’re in 80 mile per hour winds at only 1,600 feet and it’s calm at the surface, it’s very likely that there will be a wind shear boundary between you and the surface. Wind shear can affect aircraft lift, so passing through it can cause a plane to momentarily stop flying and start falling. As I didn’t know how close to the surface the wind shear would be, I didn’t want to chance it. So we kept crawling over the ground up in the wind.

Rio jerks forward in his seat three times, like a jockey trying to urge a stubborn horse onwards. “Come on,” he growls.

I laugh. Then I run the numbers in my head again and start considering my options if our speed drops into the twenties. Can the head wind get so strong that we’d be moving forward through the air at 110 miles per hour but moving backwards over the ground?

Yes. Yes it can, but rarely this low. Winds that strong are usually high up in the atmosphere where airliners roam. Still if it gets much worse we won’t have the fuel to continue.

What then?

Plan A is to turn tails and run for home. As soon as I reverse course I know my 31 mph ground speed will jump to 190 mph as the headwind becomes a tailwind.

We can get home quickly. Very quickly.

Plan B is to turn south and strike out for the nearest airport for refueling, then climb back into the wind and slug it out again. But I comfort myself that even at 31 miles per hour, we can make it to Santa Fe.

Then our ground speed drops to 29 miles per hour.

But only for an instant. Then it increases to a blazing 35 miles per hour. I stay the course.

And we make it. Two-point-one hours on the Hobbs for a ninety-mile trip. Average time for the course: 42.86 miles per hour.

A most un-airplane like speed.