An aeronautical feast for the eyes

A stubby Gee Bee Sportster, all engine. A green and yellow Laird Super Solution, a biplane so aerodynamically clean it looks poured from water, not built from wood and fabric. Ahh…. The Curtis R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle used to capture the Schneider Trophy. A Travel Air Mystery Ship in iconic fire engine red, black racing scallops on the leading edges of the wings and cowl gracing the plane with the illusion of streaking motion, even while parked. A Curtiss Jenny, so ugly and ungainly it’s beautiful. A sleek Spartan Model 7, a sexy Staggerwing, and a pudgy but oddly endearing Culver Cadet. Then, glistening like a mirror, the bullet-like Hughes H-1 Racer. And in a place of honor, the plane that started it all: The Wright Flyer.

No, it’s not the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

And it’s an aeronautical feast for the eyes, its plastic branches covered in airplanes: A complete collection of all twenty-two Hallmark The Sky’s the LimitChristmas ornaments. Since 1997 the card giant has been churning out amazing replica airplane ornaments, featuring one new civilian airplane per year. Have I been collecting them since the beginning? No, and like everything else aviation around here, it all started with an Ercoupe…

Back in 2013, when we were shopping for a real Ercoupe, Debbie found The Sky’s the Limit‘Coupe ornament on eBay. Being the cheapest Ercoupe we’d seen up to that point, she bought it for me.

The diminutive, but highly detailed, resin model sat on my desk to keep me inspired during my lengthy plane buying odyssey. But—as often happens with our family—one thing led to another, and Rio and I became obsessed with hunting down every last one of the annual miniature planes; and since then, we’ve purchased each year’s new issue. In Year One of our airplane ornament hysteria, the family Christmas tree in our house was all airplane. Debs tolerated that.

The next year, the airplanes banned by the mistress of the house in favor of more traditional holiday decor, I decided to put up a Christmas tree in the hangar to share the holiday spirit with Tessie.

Of course, the problem with a hangar Christmas tree is that, unless you have the good fortune to live in one of those airpark communities where your hangar is connected to your house, you only see the hangar tree a few times during the Christmas tree season.

Still, I gamely put up the hangar tree each year since. Until this year. Because this year I had an epiphany. (Appropriate, given the season.) This year I decided to put up the hangar tree in the newly “renovated” terminal, so that not only would we enjoy it on our flying days, but so too could all the passing pilots who land for fuel, snacks, and a clean bathroom.

So armed with eggnog, Bourbon, a plate of cookies, and one of our Red Bull Sky Lounge Boxanne Bluetooth speakers (when you turn it on, you hear Jim DiMatteo’s voice say, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on!”) the entire clan descended on the SKU terminal.

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

With Grandma Jean “supervising,” we put up the three-part white faux tree. Then Debs fluffed up the branches while Lisa and I untangled the lights. I always wrap the damn things into a neat coil at the end of each season, but during the year of storage some sort of black magic intervenes to turn the bundle into a tangle. What’s up with that?

The tree up and the lights finally strung without stringing myself up, my responsibilities were discharged and I kicked back to enjoy the vibe of family, friends, music, and aviation. Debs and Rio took the fleet of planes from their cardboard hangars, setting each one on the table as if parked on a miniature ramp, then flew each one to the tree and carefully taxied them into position.

When they were done, we set up the O Gauge Plasticville Airport terminal and hangar buildings under the tree, and then argued about how to arrange the pair of tarpaper runways. Should they look good or be true to the compass?

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.

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Then, finally done, the cookies reduced to crumbs and the eggnog running low, we turned off the overhead lights and sat warm and cozy, bathed in the cold blue taxiway-colored light of the terminal tree, and soaked in the sight.

The un-racer-looking Howard DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan,” whose long legs won the 1935 Bendix Trophy, white against the white tree. A silver and blue Cessna 195. The bird of prey-like twin engine Cessna 310. Lindy’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. The big radial Monocoupe 110, a long-winged Stinson Reliant, a Christmas red Lockheed Vega, and a humble Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a miniature of the one Rio is flying out of Santa Fe.

And of course, an Ercoupe. An Ercoupe in a Christmas tree that my true love gave to me.

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A tale of two cowls… well, three, actually

Houston, we have a cowl problem. As, it seems, do all Ercoupes. Our problem started with a nose cowl crack. We’d just bought Tess, and the crack was brought to my attention during the first of her many, many rounds of maintenance.

My options were to buy a used replacement nose cowl from the Ercoupe junkyard guy for $500 bucks (which would probably crack, too), buy a new cowl from Univair for $1,200 bucks (which would probably crack, also), or have my guys “patch” it.

Silly me, I opted for the patch, and when Tess came home from her mechanics, her beautiful, flat nose was covered in brass rivets. It looked like Machine Gun Kelly strafed us on the runway.

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This was just days before our first Ercoupe convention, and I was mad as hell. It was not the first impression I wanted to make. I spent the afternoon sitting on an upside-down bucket with a Q-tip and a can of metallic touchup paint, painstakingly covering each and every one of the 43 brass-colored rivets with dark blue paint. It was slow going. Metallic paint doesn’t like to stay stirred. Or to stick to brass. In the end, while my handiwork wouldn’t pass close inspection, or win a Lindy at Oshkosh, from any respectable distance it didn’t look too terribly bad.

But since then, every year it seems, a new crack develops, and more rivets get shot into the nose bowl. Rather than Machine Gun Kelley, on close inspection, it now looks like an inebriated Elmer Fudd blasted Tessie’s nose with his double-barreled shotgun.

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Truth be told, there’s actually no original metal left at all. I’m flying behind a solid mass of rivets.

Now, not to whine about money (again), but I think I might have mentioned that while Ercoupes are very affordable to buy—less than most cars—the problem with airplanes is that, sorta like kids, the real costs start when you bring them home from the hospital. All these patches weren’t cheap. I could have easily bought two new nose cowls for what I’ve paid in patches over the years.

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In fact, that’s what my mechanic mentioned sorta off hand as he handed me the latest invoice. Naturally, the next day, a new crack developed.

Normally, at this point the decision would have been obvious, but there are extenuating circumstances. The first is that there’s an airplane paint job on my horizon. And I was sorta thinking about replacing the entire cowl, not just the nose bowl, before the painting, as it’s all in pretty bad shape. But that aside, even if I just wanted to get a new nose bowl, it doesn’t make much sense to pay to have it painted when the whole plane is going to be painted in a few years, nor would it make sense to leave unprotected metal out in the elements just because a paint job is on the horizon.

But that’s not all. Now there are three options for new cowls. Univair still has the original thin aluminum nose bowl, but Alpha, who bought up a lot of mods from Skyport when they shut down, nearly have FAA approval for two more options. One is the original-style nose bowl, but made of a reportedly more crack-resistant fiberglass. It also promises to be cheaper. And additionally, they are bringing back a product called the Kinney Speed Bowl. It’s also a fiberglass bowl, but with a much larger air intakes for improved cooling.

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I was drawn to the Kinney for two reasons: We live in a hot desert; and the word “speed” was in the title.

That said, Rio thinks the Kinney bowls are the ugliest things in the world and, “The worst thing a man could do to an Ercoupe.” To be honest, I couldn’t quite picture how our girl would look with one on it, so I started Googling pictures of Ercoupe nose bowls.

And that’s when I discovered this:

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Image courtesy Machine Age Lamps

Which is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Yeah. That’s a real-life Ercoupe nose cowl turned into a steampunk lamp. What’s the story behind it?

The lamp is the creation of Darin Carling. His brother Shawn runs an outfit called Machine Age Lamps in Lakeville, Minnesota. The brothers grew up on a small farm in rural North Dakota, so they were good at fixing stuff, creating stuff, or re-purposing stuff. Farm folk like that wouldn’t go out and buy a new cowl.

I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but I wasn’t raised on a farm.

Anyway, after leaving the farm, Shawn, in his own words, spent the next 25 years “miscast” in corporate America, until one year at Christmas when he built his father a “unique” lamp out of old tractor parts. His dad dug it, as did everyone else who saw it, and one thing led to another.

“Another,” in this case, being the fact that his work is lighting Gordon Ramsey’s Restaurant. The one in Hong Kong.

Shawn’s highly successful company creates one-of-a-kind lamps from salvaged antique industrial, agricultural, nautical, and aircraft parts and gauges. The ‘Coupe cowl light was created by brother Darin, who was encouraged by Shawn to build some items for the businesses.

Darin told me he didn’t want to copy anybody else’s work, including his brother’s, and that it took him a long time to “come up with solid ideas of my own.” But wow, did he ever. Darin says, “We are interested in history and in all things mechanical, and old airplanes are as good as it gets.”

The ‘Coupe lamp actually started with a Cessna nose cowl. Darin says, “A few years ago I purchased a Cessna nose cowling from someone with no idea what I was going to do with it. It sat in my living room for 6 months before I started working on it. The first ones did not have lights as props but rather lights coming out the front and hanging down in almost an exhaust pipe fashion. They were kind of cool, but not quite what I wanted. One day I was looking for new light bulbs online and found these very large bulbs. I thought ‘just maybe they could be propellers!’ I made a prototype and it was on display at the Minnesota State Fair and everyone loved it. After that, we started to fine tune and dress them up with vintage emblems, real aviation gears, and valve covers.”

Darin, an aviation lover since childhood, has a deep desire not only to create art, but also to be true to history. “I also do my best to have all the parts make sense,” said Darin, “for example I only put Franklin valve covers in my Stinson cowls. History is very important to me, and to the people that buy our projects.” The Ercoupe lamp has vintage Continental valve covers and assorted engine gears for a cool look.

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Darin says he always keep track of where the cowls come from and, “If I can get history, I pass that along. One cowl I’m working on now has a photo copy of the bill of sale for the plane back in 1953.” That being said, I can happily report that no Ercoupes were harmed in the making of the ‘Coupe Cowl lamp. Darin bought the cowl from the friend of an Ercoupe owner in Michigan. Apparently, like me, the airplane owner was having a cowl problem. Unlike me, he had the sense to buy a new one.

Is Darin a pilot? Not yet, although his father worked for the FAA and brother Shawn has his ticket. Darin tells me he’s finished his ground school.

But back to the lamp. How does it work? Despite the old parts, all the electric components are brand new. The Ercoupe lamp is equipped with UL approved wiring, a dimmer switch, and a heavy-duty grounded lamp cord, although Darin says some airplane cowl customers have chosen to have electricians hardwire the lamp for “a clean cordless look,” controlling the lamp through a wall switch.

In the case of the cowl lamps, Darin builds a steel frame inside to support the soft metal cowls, which are either buffed or powder coated. The frame has mounting holes drilled on 16-inch centers to match up with the standard wall studs, allowing it to be hung “just like a picture.” Darin also covers the back of the cowl with sheet metal, painting the inside of it black. “When peeking in the cowl, I wanted the illusion of looking in a real plane,” said Darin, “and you would not get that if the painted wall showed through.”

So how do those crazy bulbs hold up? Darin says he’s yet to see one burn out, and some of the lamps in his house have been blazing away for three years. That said, “I always ship my cowls with three bulbs, just in case.” Will we see more Ercoupe art from Darin? “I would love to do more Ercoupe art,” Darin tells me, “I researched the Ercoupe and found it’s history to be very cool.”

Meanwhile, did I ever find a picture that helped me decide what Tess would look like with an entirely different kind of cowl? No. So for now we’ll probably just keep patching the patches. But I do know one thing: Once we decide what to do, I’ll turn our old one over to Darin and commission him to turn it into some sort of lamp for our hangar.

Maybe I’ll have him drill out the hundreds of rivets and have him put a little Christmas light in each hole. Or maybe not.

It would be blinding.

 

[Editor's Note: Darin tells Plane Tales that between our interview with him and going to press on this story the Ercoupe Nose Bowl Lamp sold to a private collector. But while you missed out on this lamp we're told that Machine Age Lamps has scored three more non-flight worthy Ercoupe nose bowls from the Ercoupe Junkyard guy, so more 'Coupe lights are coming!]

 

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.

 

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Race 53 makes the big time!!!

Breaking news:

OK, I was keeping this under wraps until it really happened–because I had to keep pinching myself to believe it was true–but official Race 53 merchandise is now available at a Website near you!!! (Well, I guess they all are huh?)

During AirVenture this year the folks at Preferred Altitude pulled me aside to talk to me about creating Race 53 licensed merchandise. Naturally, I thought all the Avgas fumes had finally done in my brain.

But they were serious, and today they launched the first T-shirt. Available in three colors, I’m told.

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It’s a waaaaaaay cool logo and a great way to show your love of Ercoupes and your support for Race 53 and the gang!

Plus, I’d love it if a certain competitor of mine walked into her home airport and found a bunch of people wearing them! He-He-He-He-He….

Oh, right, the URL. Get your shirt here!

Not just a plane ol’ restaurant

As soon as I saw the Ercoupe on the menu, I knew this was going to be my kind of place.

What? Oh, you misunderstood me. You can’t order an Ercoupe there, but The Airplane Restaurant in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has a photo of an Ercoupe decorating the border of its dinner menu, right next to the Flying Chicken Florentine.

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And another Ercoupe picture is featured by the Chocolate Touchdown. And a third by the Runway Chunky Chicken Strips. Of course the menu art also includes Jennies, the Wright Flyer, a flying car, the Bell X-1, and military planes both new and old. It also has images of famous fliers. And sexy stewardesses.

But no other plane had two pictures, much less three. I suspected someone at The Airplane had a special fondness for Ercoupes, and this turned out to be true. More on that after dessert. Actually, let’s back up to the appetizer for a moment.

Now there’s no shortage of airplane-themed restaurants at or near airports. Most are decorated with aviation art, and many have dozens of model planes hanging from the ceiling. But the Airplane ups the ante: The restaurant is in a plane. Well part of it, anyway. And part of the plane is in the restaurant, as well, much the way old railroad cars were used for roadside diners back in the day. And the merging of plane and restaurant is a work of architectural art.

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Yep, The Airplane Restaurant is the proud owner of a Boeing KC-97, one of the largest and most powerful piston planes ever built. The KC-97 was sort of like a double-decker B-29. It had four engines, each with 28 pistons generating 3,500 horsepower per engine. In civilian clothes Pan Am flew them as Stratocruisers on the San Fran-Honolulu run. It was the first pressurized passenger plane, and reverse of a 747, had seats for 100 on the top deck and a lounge on the lower deck at the bottom of a spiral staircase.

Well, The Airplane’s airplane is a retired military job, so there’s no spiral staircase. But they’ve done a marvelous job of turning the plane into any pilot’s dream lounge.

The port wing and outermost engine are actually inside the main restaurant. I’m not sure if they built the building around the plane, or crashed the plane into the building, but the effect is wonderful. Under the wing are tables and booths. Behind it is a bar. Two sets of stairs lead up into the fuselage of the giant plane. In the back, they’ve left the refueling hardware intact (this plane served as an aerial tanker) and it’s fully visible behind a glass door. In the front, the spacious cockpit is intact and open for all takers.

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I “flew” the beast for a bit, with Rio behind me serving as the flight engineer. A precocious three-year old girl was busy flying right seat and Rio was too much of a gentleman to boot her out. By far, it is the most spacious cockpit I’ve even been in. I think it’s bigger than my office back home. Behind the cockpit, booths line both sides of the fuselage.

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And the tables are topped with shellaced sectional charts. Ironically, our table had the Albuquerque sectional on it.

I guess they were expecting us.

Downstairs, in the rest of the restaurant, the owners have taken aviation décor to the extreme the same way we have with our hangar. There are airplane models hanging from the ceilings, in display cabinets, and on every horizontal surface. Giant cockpit posters grace some walls, while other walls feature “nose art” or pictures of famous planes, famous aviators, and famous aviatrixes.

Any pilot will feel immediately at home with—if not a hair jealous of—the collection.

The staff all wear pilot shirts and mix aviation humor into their spiel. Hell, even the bathrooms have an airplane theme. Oh, not to worry, they are full-sized, but motion sensors trigger jet-plane take off noises when you open the door to enter the bathroom.

After our dinner, managing partner and pilot in command Steve Kanatzar made his way through the cabin checking on his passengers. He spied the Ercoupe logos on the sleeves of our summer flight jackets and ran to fetch a menu. “Did you see we have an Ercoupe on the menu?” he asked.

“I saw you had three,” I replied, “who’s the lady standing on the wing of the plane next to the Flying Chicken Florentine?”

It turns out the woman on the wing was his grandmother. In another photo, the two men leaning comfortably against the rear fuselage were his uncles. Kanatzar was recently able to track down his grandfather’s old Ercoupe, now residing in California, and now for sale. Sadly, he reported, the plane was suffering from corrosion. “I just can’t take on a project airplane,” he told me.

Thinking back on how much we’ve spent to get Tessie in good condition, despite the fact that our pre-buy mechanic assured us all was well, I let him in on the secret: “All Ercoupes are project airplanes.”

But maybe a restaurant in a plane is project enough for one man. But I must say, it was a project brilliantly executed.

Oh. The food. How was the food? you ask.

First Class.