Happy birthday, Airplane!

Tomorrow flying—as we know it—turns 113 years old. According to Wikipedia, there are only 21 people left alive on the entire planet who were born before that day: December 17, 1903. The rest of us were born after heavier-than-air powered flight was a fact.

Many an early barnstorming pilot considered himself Civis Aerius Sum, a Citizen of the Air. But really, in a world in which at any given time there as many as 10,000 planes in the air, we are all citizens of the air 113 years after wood, canvas, metal, and true grit first crawled into the sky.

Of course, most people know the sweeping elements of the story of the pair of bicycle mechanics from Dayton who used the scientific method, experimentation, and even an early wind tunnel to unlock the secrets of the airfoil. And any pilot on the planet, and many non-pilots as well, recognize their iconic design in a flash.


Source: Silodrome.com

But here are some stats on that first airplane you might not have thought about:

The wingspan of the Flyer is 40 feet, only two feet more than a brand spanking new Cirrus SR22. The Flyer’s length is 21 feet, nearly identical to Tessie—the Plane Tales Plane. The Flyer tipped the scales at 605 pounds empty, about the same as a modern Bush Cat light sport airplane.

So while planes have undeniably grown up, they really haven’t grown larger—at least not in the general aviation category.

Of course there’ve been some performance improvements in the century-plus since that first flight, (many of them made by the Wrights themselves). But in just considering the plane that started it all, the Flyer boasted a top speed of only 30 miles per hour, a speed at which few modern planes can even sustain flight. And her service ceiling—how high into the sky she could fly—was a paltry 30 feet.

Most modern pilots get exceedingly sweaty palms flying at 30 feet.

I can read statistics like that, but I can’t really get my modern aeronautical head around them. Nor can I truly envision a 12-second, 120-foot “flight” as being world-changing. It was so short, so brief, and so low, that the entire event could have taken place inside a modern airliner!


Image from the children’s book Flight by Donald S. Lopez, Time-Life Books

By comparison, in my near-antique of an airplane that rolled off a factory assembly line just 34 years after Orville’s flight, I can fly 17,600 times the length of the jetliner, up to heights two miles above of the surface of the sea, at four times the Flyer’s maximum speed. And my performance is paltry compared to newer planes in the general aviation fleet.

The speed of airplane development since the First Flight is nothing short of supersonic. We are truly blessed, and tomorrow every pilot should take a silent moment to thank the brothers from Dayton.

And then we should take to the air to mark the occasion. I will.


Operation: Promise

I was using part of my lunch hour to check the weekend weather when one of my colleagues dropped by to give me her condolences on Mick’s passing. Her keen sky-blue eyes caught sight of the weather maps on the company computer and she asked what I was up to. I launched into a perhaps inappropriately enthusiastic description of my plans to take Mick for a ride. We got a second chance, thanks to the crappy weather, I told her, the snow was so bad her internment was delayed. Looks like we can take her for her last flight after all.

A horrified shadow crossed my colleague’s face, but she maintained her composure. As I could see her carefully choosing her next words, I was internally analyzing the potential weirdness of my plan. Finally my colleague said, “Aren’t there… ummm… you know… laws or something that you need to be careful about?”

Oh, I told her, We’re not scattering her ashes, we’re just taking the urn for a ride before it’s buried.

My colleague literally collapsed against the door frame of my office, “Cremated! Cremated!! Oh thank God! I didn’t realize she was cremated! I was picturing you strapping her corpse into the plane!!”

OK. Now that would be just… wrong.

Sunday dawned clear and bright with not a breath of wind. I gently lifted Mick’s heavy urn into the Plane Tales Plane and placed the bouquet of flowers that Deb had made from the wreaths and sprays that decorated the altar at her mother’s service on the seat next to the urn.


Then I preflighted Tess. I checked the oil and added a half-quart. I made sure no mice or birds had made nests in the engine, drained a few ounces of blue av-gas out of each fuel tank’s sump drain to ensure that no water had gotten into the system, then did a walk-around—gently caressing the leading edges of her wings, prop, and tail, and checking the hinges of all the control surfaces. Then I pulled the hangar doors wide open and pulled Tessie out into the sunshine. It was a great day to fly.

As we taxied out, Deb stroked the urn, “Time to fly, Mom.”

Just shy of the runway, we stashed Mick safely in the luggage compartment behind our seats, did our run up, set our radios, and tried to synchronize our GPS to our iPad. With no luck.

“Now what?” asked Deb.

We do this old-school, I replied, we fly by landmark. Then I made my radio call, pushed the throttle forward, and rolled out onto Runway 01.

I lined up smartly on the center line and advanced the throttle smoothly to the firewall. Tess began her takeoff roll, and then suddenly everything went deafeningly silent. The engine stopped. The propeller lazily spooled down and stopped turning. The plane slowly coasted to a stop about fifty feet down the runway.

What the…?

We sat there in the middle of the runway in the bright beautiful sunshine in dead silence, stunned, while my mind tried to process what had just happened. I had a momentary vision of Tony dragging Mick across the tarmac to their car. I shook my head to clear the thought, shut everything down, then turned everything back on and pulled the starter. The engine obediently roared to life.

I made a U-turn and taxied back to the runup area. I tested, and fiddled, and ran the throttle up and down. Everything seemed fine. I still have no idea what happened. At least it happened on roll out, not 50 feet in the air.

We took off and the engine ran fine for the rest of the day.

Snow still decorated much of the landscape below, and the cool early morning air was decently smooth. We hit the occasional bump, reminders that the air is alive, but nothing too disconcerting. We sailed over Santa Rosa Lake, then I aimed Tessie’s nose for the distant notch in Apache Mesa that I knew would lead us to Las Vegas.

We cruised up the Gallinas River Canyon, slowly gaining altitude, popped out the other end and soared over Las Vegas at 1,000 feet above the city. Around we went, once, twice, thrice.


I climbed slowly, thinking it might be a nice day to visit Hermit’s Peak, but at 8,000 feet ripples of wind coming off the tops of the San de Cristo mountains turned the air into a churning torrent of turbulence that shook and jolted our tiny craft like a raft in a stormy sea. I slid the throttle back and let Tessie drop back under the layer of angry air, and turned for Storrie Lake where we planned to drop the bouquet in one last ritual for our departed crew member.


As we approached the target, I slid my door down halfway into the belly and an icy blast of wind tore though the cockpit. I reached up and slid Deb’s door up and over to the left until it touched mine, leaving her side open like a car’s window. I leveled the wings and realized that I had no idea when to drop the flowers to “hit” the lake. Get ready, I told Deb as the lake filled the windscreen. As the shoreline passed under our nose, I told her Now and she reached out and let the flowers go into the slipstream. The bouquet disappeared in an explosion of ivory pedals and green leaves.

Over the lake now, I could see that it was frozen over. I slid the copilot’s door back down to the right and pulled mine up into place. The icy breath of Father Winter was choked off and the distant roar of the engine through my headset was the only sound. I throttled back and banked right into a shallow turn. (Debs isn’t a lover of steep adrenalin turns like Rio, Lisa and I are.) We gently corkscrewed down, down, down, down. I scanned the ice but saw no sign of Mick’s flowers. Maybe we missed the lake and they were buried in the snowbanks on the shore. Maybe the bouquet disintegrated into individual flowers that fell like snowflakes onto the ice, each too small to see from our lofty perch above. We’ll never know.

But were getting low. Low on altitude, low on fuel. I powered up, lifted the right wing and turned for the Las Vegas field.

We’d kept our promise, in spirit, at least. I guess Tony finally decided to let Mick have her flight. And I’m sure that as we took her mortal remains for her first flight, her spirit took wing on her final flight, to be with Tony again, somewhere in the sky, high above us.

Is too late better than never?

For decades Mick, my mother-in-law, was pissed at my father-in-law over an airplane ride. I never learned the exact details, but apparently sometime in the early 1960’s a latter-day barnstormer came to the sleepy burg of Las Vegas, New Mexcio, offering plane rides. Mick, in her younger years, had a great sense of adventure and was always up for something new and exciting. But my father-in-law, Tony, was a more cautious type who “knew” that all planes crashed. He was so sure of this fact that in his whole life he never once flew in any plane, large or small.

I don’t know the exact sequence of events, but apparently Mick was strapped into the plane and ready to go when Tony literally dragged her out of the airplane, across the tarmac to their car, and took her home. I’m not sure if she had gone to the airport with friends and he got wind of it and followed, or if they went together with him thinking they were just going to watch the plane and she signed up while he was in the bathroom, or if he was initially OK with her flying and then got wet feet. But apparently it caused quite the scene. She was embarrassed and humiliated, and to top it off, she didn’t get her plane ride. She was still mad as hell about the incident twenty-seven years later when I joined the family, still mad for another decade until my father-in-law died, and still simmered for another 15 years after he was gone.

Mick was pretty good at not letting anything go.

So naturally, when we started shopping for an airplane, I promised Mick her long-overdue plane ride. She was very clear that she wanted to circumnavigate Vegas from the air; and I was very clear that it would need to be a perfect flying day to make it happen. After all, this was a woman who got airsick on porch swings.

But it’s a promise I never kept, damn it.

One thing after another always seemed to get in the way. Of course the Plane Tales Plane spent the first six months of her life with us in the A&P’s shop. Along with other members of the family, Mick visited Tessie at the mechanic’s shop, and you could see a glint of anticipation and longing in her eye. But while Tess got progressively fixed up, Mick progressively fell apart. Her assorted degenerative diseases began to take their toll on her body and mind. Walking became harder and harder, stairs a nearly impossible challenge. I had my handyman install a grandiose double-sided ramp for access to the house and pondered how I’d get the frail lady up onto Tess’s wing and over the high fuselage wall and into the cockpit. Getting into an Ercoupe is something like getting onto a horse. Well, worse. More like getting into one of those boxes on top of an elephant.

Then Mick’s dementia began to come and go like the tide. One week she’d be laughing, telling jokes, and making keen—if wicked—observations about the latest shenanigans of the local politicians. The next week she’d come out of her quarters and ask who I was and what was I doing in her house. (She was actually living in my house, but there’s no point in arguing with someone who doesn’t recognize you…) I desperately wanted her first flight to happen on a “good” week and hoped the experience would imprint on her failing mind so that she’d be able to remember it. I also worried about safety issues. Sometimes her behavior was bizarre and bordered on violent. What if she flipped out on me and grabbed the controls on short final?

And the obstacles didn’t stop there. We bought our plane after a decade of drought and perfect flying weather 365 days a year. Naturally as soon as we owned a plane, the drought promptly ended, and we’ve had some of the most airplane-unfriendly weather I’ve ever seen. Much needed rain soaked the parched desert and left Tess trapped in her hangar. Then we had fog. For days. Seriously? Fog in New Mexico? I got good at checking the dew point spread when checking the weather. When it wasn’t foggy, it was windy. And not just a little bit windy. One day the windsock on our back porch literally flew away. To add insult to injury, the weather had vexing timing: What good weather days we had never seemed to line up with my flying days.

The one time that weather was great and Mick was in fine shape, I came down with a nasty flu bug. I idly wondered if the spirit of my dead father-in-law was still trying to prevent Mick’s flight.

The delays and re-scheduled flights became the norm, and every time our mission was “scrubbed,” I just said to myself that it was no problem, we can still do this another day.

But that day never came.

At Christmas this last year, Mick was happy, smiling, and engaged. She talked more than I’d heard her talk in months. Once again I got out my calendar, looked at available dates, and optimistically wrote “Fly Mick” on a Saturday January 24th, and drew a starburst circle around it like I’d done so many times before.

She died Saturday, January 17th.

She was cremated, and following local tradition, services were set for the soonest day available—in this case the following Thursday.

It occurred to me that while it was too late to keep my promise in a meaningful way, I could still keep it in spirit. Cautiously, I breached the subject with my grieving spouse: What do you think of taking your Mom’s ashes for the flight we kept promising her?

Somewhat to my surprise, Debs loved the idea. We arranged to pick up the urn the day before the service, and planned an early morning flight. Mick would fly to her own funeral.

But my father-in-law’s ghost struck again! The night before Mick’s funeral, a fierce blizzard hit. Dawn arrived with blowing snow and near zero visibility. Driving with the guest of honor in our Jeep, we barely made it to the church on time. I was pretty down on myself about not being more aggressive at getting her into the air as promised while she was still alive.


Mick’s ashes were supposed to be interned immediately following the services, but the blizzard worsened to the point that the priest decided to delay the internment. The professionally perpetually glum gentleman from the mortuary pulled me aside at the end of the service. He held out the red and brass urn, and said to me, “It looks like you get a second chance to take your mother-in-law for her flight.”

Next time on Plane Tales: Will Mick finally get her flight, or was it never meant to be?


Lost Lambs–Chapter 3

35 miles per hour…

40 miles per hour…

45 miles per hour…

50 miles per hour…

55 miles per hour. Tessie will fly now, if I let her.

60 miles per hour. I hold her on the runway for a bit longer.

65 miles per hour. I ease the yoke back and she slides off the runway so smoothly that for a few seconds, even I’m not sure if we’re still barreling down the centerline of the blacktop or sailing through the air.


Then her nose angles upwards and she’s in her element. I hold her at 70 miles an hour, her best rate of climb, and the earth falls away below us. I start a mild banking turn to the right. How ya’ doing, Adrian? I ask, my own voice echoing inside my headset. This is his First Flight in a small plane.

“I think I’m going to have to take flying lessons,” he says and smiles ear to ear.

Roger that.

He’s holding the critter-tracking antenna out his window, hugging it close to the plane’s side, and reports no problems keeping it in place–but I can tell that we are paying a drag penalty. Tess is a bit sluggish, and she’s climbing more slowly than usual.

In a long, lazy 360-degree turn back the way we came, park a wing off of Highway 84 just outside the airport, and fly South along the roadway. Lisa’s brilliant idea is that we should try to search for a transmitter at a known location before we go off into the wild and try to locate one on a moving and missing turtle. It’s such an obviously scientific approach that none of the rest of us even thought of it.

Of course she is a real scientist, after all.

So today, about 15 miles on down the road, Rio, Lisa, and Jennie (Adrian’s sweetie and another field biologist whom he met while trapping Green Anacondas in South America) are waiting for us. They have two transmitters of the same kind that are on the two missing turtles, and our mission today is to learn about how far away we can “hear” the signals, what antenna angle and placement works best, and how precisely we need to be lined up with the transmitter to get that signal.

Turtle Air to Turtle Ground, I call out on the open-use air-to-ground frequency of 122.850 megahertz, We’re airborne and en route to your location. Over.

“Turtle Ground to Turtle Air,” comes back a very masculine voice over my headset. I’m shocked for a moment, before I realize that my little boy ain’t so little any more. “We read you loud and clear, over.”

Normally I might plug my iPod into the hidden port on Tessie’s panel and play our flight mix: The Theme from the Aviators, Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron, Ride of the Valkyries, Leaving on a Jet Plane, and more. But today, we need to listen for the pings of the transmitters and chat with our ground crew.

The bummer is that the smaller turtle, Leigh, is wearing a small transmitter that we can’t pick up until we are right on top of it. I can see Rio and the gang on the ground, waving their hands above their heads in greeting before we can hear the stupid transmitter.

We do a number of fly-bys, trying out different altitudes and angles. It will be a miracle if we find the small turtle. Once again, I’m grateful that Adrian chose a critter that lives in the water rather than one that roams the land. So long as I keep Tess’s nose pointed at the meandering river, I think we’ve got a chance.


After about 45 minutes of tests, Adrian unplugs his headset from the tracking radio and plugs it into Tessie’s panel. “OK,” he says, “I’m going to try the larger transmitter now.” I’m feeling a bit gloomy about our prospects, but tell him I’ll fly south for a few miles, do a 180-degree turn and head back to the ground crew. To catch the smaller transmitter we needed to be within a few hundred yards. I’m assuming we might be able to hear the large one at a mile out.

I turn the plane using a shallow bank angle. It takes longer, but just being in a small plane for the first time is excitement enough for most people. Only a jackass does wild maneuvers with a First Flyer aboard. As we roll out on course, Adrian gives me a thumbs up. He has the signal already, and we’re a good five miles out.

I key the mike button on the yoke with my left thumb. Turtle Air to Turtle Ground, we have the signal from the large transmitter.

Rio forgets his radio protocol: “You frickin’ kidding, right? We can’t even hear your engine yet. Where the heck are you?”


When the Tale Continues: Weather Woes delay the search.