Old flames

When men talk about having “unfinished business,” it’s usually in reference to a woman who was on their sexual radar that somehow eluded radar lock. Many married men don’t even regard sleeping with a lady they had unfinished business with as cheating on their spouses. I guess the rationalization is that the would-be relationship pre-dated their vows, so that makes it OK. But I’m not here to talk about ethics. Rather, I have a confession to make: I, myself, have unfinished business.

But it’s not with a woman.

It’s with an airplane.

The story begins in the spring of 1981 when I started my flight training in a ratty old Citabria. It was a fabric-covered high wing tail dragger from the mid 60s with a tandem design. I sat in the front and my half-deaf flight instructor sat behind me, shouting at me, pounding his fist on my shoulder, and generally making me a nervous wreck.

But that’s a story for another day.

The Citabria and I were flying out of KGXY, the Greeley-Weld County airport well north of Denver. Back in those days it was the busiest uncontrolled airport in the state, with two flight schools and scores of privately owned airplanes. Every few days as I walked to the Citabria’s hangar I passed an open hangar that held a gleaming Beechcraft Duchess.

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Image: Air Associates of Kansas

She was a sleek, modern, four-seat powder blue two-engine airplane, called a “twin” in the biz. Her panel was a blizzard of dials, instruments, and readouts. Between the front seats sat a bulky quadrant with twin throttles, twin mixture controls, and twin prop controls.

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Image: AvSim

This was a real man’s airplane.

I was seventeen at the time, and I fell in love. Well, maybe it was lust.

Every night as I lay down to sleep in my basement bedroom I dreamed of flying the blue Duchess through sapphire skies between towering white clouds. I could feel my right hand wrapped around those twin throttles, thrusting them forward, feeling the force of her engines push me back into the pilot’s seat.

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Image: AvSim

Many of my friends had Farrah Fawcett pinup posters on their bedroom walls. I had a colored 8×10 of the Duchess, carefully clipped out of Pilot Magazine.

She fueled my dreams of flying and I couldn’t wait until I had enough experience to climb behind the yoke of a twin. In those days, you weren’t a “real” pilot until you were twin-rated.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1983. By then I’d earned my Private ticket and my instrument rating, I was building time toward my Commercial license, and I was finally standing on the wing of a twin-engine airplane, getting ready for my first lesson.

The wing I was standing on did not, however, belong to the sleek Duchess of my teenage fantasies.

Instead, it belonged to a battered Piper Apache, older than I was. Outside, her paint was a faded and chipped, butter yellow in color. Her tires were nearly bald. She sat on the tarmac slightly lopsided. Inside, her vinyl seats were cracked, the fabric on her walls threadbare and water stained. Her instruments were arranged in a seemingly random manner on a charcoal-grey panel that might once have been black. The throttles I had dreamed of wrapping my hands around were broken Bakelite plastic, and the trim controls were above my head, literally, on the cabin ceiling. She was so underpowered that if I had lost one engine, the other one would have carried me only to the scene of the crash. It’s true. Her single-engine service ceiling was about 500 feet below the mile-high Colorado terrain.

I couldn’t wait to fly her.

I did 10.8 hours in that old Apache and loved every minute of it. She was a battered and abused veteran, for sure, but she was a real plane and I was on the verge of finally becoming a real pilot.

But it was not to be.

When I showed up for my check ride with the FAA Examiner, he told me that the rules had changed. If I took my ride that very day, my multi-engine rating would forever be part of my Private license. It wouldn’t upgrade to my Commercial ticket. He advised me to wait, take my Commercial check ride in the twin, kill two birds with one stone, and be a Commercial multi pilot. I took his advice.

My instructor called me a pussy, and accused me of being afraid of the checkride. And she was a lady instructor, mind you.

Then, before I had enough hours for my Commercial check ride, the flight school sold the old Apache and I never got my multi-engine rating, a wound that still festers to this day.

I need a multi-engine rating now like I need a hole in my head. But still, sometimes, I don’t feel like a real pilot without it. But there was nothing to be done about it. I returned to flying under what’s called the Light Sport Rule, which only allows for single engine airplanes.

I did this because during my last absence from flying I developed a minor health issue (at least minor as in terms of affecting my ability to fly) that would have made getting a standard pilot medical time-consuming and terribly expensive. The Light Sport Rule circumvented that and let me use my driver’s license in lieu of a medical.

But now the medical rules have changed, and suddenly, a universe of airplanes is now available to me. Or will be in after May 1st.

Will we trade Tessie in on a more capable aircraft? Hell no. She’s family and I’ve come to love her, shortcomings and all. I don’t think I could ever enjoy flying any other plane as much as I enjoy flying the ‘Coupe.

But one morning recently I woke up and realized that there was nothing stopping me from completing my unfinished business with the twins, and becoming a multi-engine pilot. Thirty-four years late.

Well, nothing stopping me but time and money, that is.

I spent a day online looking at my options. In the end I found a guy in a location that was convenient to my race schedule who is offering an accelerated multi-engine add-on at a reasonable price. Well, reasonable for twin-engine flight training, anyway. And he was using an Apache. I signed up. It won’t be the Duchess of my teen fantasies, but it will be a reunion with an old friend of sorts.

And when I’m done, I’ll finally be a “real” pilot.

 

The year flew by

My favorite kind of calendar is those square jobs that dedicate their entire surface area to telling you what day it is, and nothing else. No pithy sayings. No motivational poetry. No graphics. No kittens and puppies. Just a big, bold number and the day of the week. Pure. Elemental. Basic.

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Every day is a fresh start. You literally tear off the day before and throw it away. There’s something cathartic about leaving the past behind in such a hands-on, mechanical way.

And now with only two sheets left—today and tomorrow—it’s a reminder that 2016 is also about to enter the dustbin of history, inspiring me to look back on my year. But with all my calendar pages in the landfill, how am I to do that?

Luckily for me, we pilots are required to keep a log of all of our flights to prove training, experience, and currency. I poured a second cup of coffee and sat down at my desk and began to slowly flip though the green pages of the log.

In 2016, I filled four pages of tightly spaced lines with tiny, cramped, handwritten script. The logbook records 252.9 hours of aerial adventures for the year.

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Is that a lot? Well, it depends on who you are. An airline pilot would probably fly that much in a few months (they are limited to 1,000 hours per year); while the average for general aviation pilots nationwide is 35 hours a year—although that figure includes people like me who fly more, so the typical pilot flies a lot less.

My eyes slid slowly down the columns of scribbles, and as I reread the brief, Tweet-like entries, the flights came alive for me again. The blue sky above the canopy. The dull roar of the engine through my headset. The throb of power that pulses through the airframe. The sun twinkling off the waxed surface of the wings. And the magical feeling of slicing through the air in defiance of all logic, levitating above the ground in a metal object that weighs over a thousand pounds.

The year’s first flight was on January 8th. My logbook shows I ferried Tessie back from maintenance in Santa Fe. My logbook notes the plane was, “hot and fast,” complete with a smiley face, but I see the flight time was nearly two hours—twice what was needed.

I must have gone sightseeing on the way home. No big surprise; the previous flight was five weeks before. She had been in her annual inspection and I must have been thirsty for the sensation of flight after such a long dry spell.

My logbook ends the year yesterday with a flight to nowhere. I went up and practiced race turns near our home airport so I wouldn’t get rusty in the off-season. Rio came along with me but stayed on the ground learning to fly his Christmas toy drone inside the empty hangar next to ours.

In between these bookend flights are endless adventures. The first, if you missed it, was an early January beer run of sorts to Kansas, flying low and hot to break in a new engine cylinder. The following month, in February, we flew up to 10,000 feet, just to prove we could. Then I flew Rio to his flying lesson (he had taken up gliders), although later in the year he decided that airplanes without engines weren’t right for him. March saw race practice, and in April it was off to the far eastern borders of Texas for our first race, a 7.5-hour flight. It was followed by two more the same month.

May saw us flying over the Gulf of Mexico on a race trip that logged 22.6 hours in the air with the commute to the race, the practice run, the race itself, and the flight home—all in five days. It also was the month a speed mod went south on us in a big way.

June had me racing down the Mississippi River. Literally. And then turning around and flying across the Rocky Mountains and up to Washington State. I was in the air 12 days that month. It was heavenly. Naturally, in July we took the required pilgrimage to aviation’s Mecca: AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

In August we were on display at the state’s largest fly in, but it was a slow month for flying, with few hours logged. September saw us flying to the west twice, once for an air race in Arizona and the second time for a race in the southern Colorado Rockies. On that second flight I spent a lot of time in the plane, but very little time flying it, being stranded by weather at a desolate unmanned airstrip in the middle of nowhere.

October is the scantiest month of the year in my logbook, with a paltry 1.1 hours logged. What’s up with that?

The log told the story in a format that’s not changed in my lifetime: Date. Aircraft Type. “N” number. Where the flight started. Where it stopped. Then there’s not-quite two inches to add a “remark.”

The remark on the flight of October 3rd is, “break down.” Yeah. Our girl sat out the month in Clovis, not even 100 miles from home.

With the coming of November we were in the air again, to Grove, Oklahoma, and down into southern Texas for races, then wrapping up the month helping the family student pilots practice their landings.

December was more practice, race practice for me, pattern work for Lisa, and landing practice for Rio.

It was a good year. Next week, at the start of the New Year, it’s off to Santa Fe to drop Tess off for her annual inspection, bringing us full circle.

Time for a new calendar. Time for a new logbook page.

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.

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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!

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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.

 

A wrench to the head

“Hey,” I told Rio, “that looks like the Las Vegas Airport. Pause the DVD for a sec.”

We were watching a video I stumbled across on eBay called Fly Fast! about Rare Bear, the iconic Reno Race plane that dominated the Valley of Speed for decades. It was being offered up by a seller in Sparks, Nevada for a minimum bid of $6.99 with free shipping.

Well within the don’t-need-to-ask-your-wife-first price range.

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Rio stabbed at the controls and the image froze. We both leaned forward and peered at the TV screen. Darn if it didn’t look like the terminal at KLVS, the “little” Las Vegas just twenty miles up the road from our house.

And, as it turns out, it was. Because, and I totally didn’t know this, the Rare Bare came to our home town in August of 1989 to set a three kilometer Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)-sanctioned world speed record. The highly modified Grumman F8F Bearcat ripped a hole in the skies over our hometown airport at 528.33 miles per hour, making it the fastest piston-powered plane in the world, a speed record that still stands today, 27 years after it was set.

It really bothered me that I was learning about this from a six dollar and ninety-nine cent eBay find. Because I should have known. I should have known simply because I’m a local pilot, and a FAI world speed record holder myself. And I should have known because I lived in Las Vegas in 1989, and I hung out at the airport a lot.

Oh, but it gets worse.

I should have known because back in 1989 I was a journalist working the local paper, the Las Vegas Daily Optic. As a local pilot and newsman, how could I have been totally unaware of the biggest thing in aviation to happen in town since Lindbergh landed here in 1928?

Watching the video in my warm, cozy house, I began getting that odd sensation you get when you drink too much cold medicine. You know, like your head has become a helium balloon and is floating two feet above your shoulders on a string. How could this have happened on my watch, and I missed it? It was surreal.

And as the video went on, things got worse. There was footage of Rare Bear’s famous pilot, Lyle Shelton, signing copies of the Optic, which featured a front-page picture of his plane. So it’s not like the paper missed the event.

Where the heck was I when all of this was going on?

I searched my memory banks in vain. I simply had no recall whatsoever of the event. After the movie was over, I sat and mentally tried to reassemble my past life. First I double-checked with Deb on what year we were married.

Never a good idea.

Next, I counted forward on my fingers. Yeah. I was still with the paper when Rare Bare came to town. But to be sure, I dug around in my files and found a old and faded resume—was that typed on a typewriter??—and confirmed that my position at the paper wasn’t eliminated until the spring of the following year, when the publisher decided to cut staff to save money.

So I was there, on the job, when Rare Bare made its flight. So why didn’t I remember it?

“Maybe they dropped a wrench on your head,” Rio offered helpfully.

Maybe so.

Or maybe I was on vacation. Out of state. Yeah. That might explain it. But there was no way to reassemble those kinds of details nearly three decades dead.

Or was there?

“I know how we can solve this mystery,” I told Rio. “Microfilm.”

“What the heck is microfilm?” asked Rio.

So I explained to him that microfilm is a way of archiving printed publications for long-term storage. Pages are laid out and photographed on 35mm-wide positive-image film. Months of newspapers can be condensed into a reel of film that will fit in your hand. I also told him about the sexier microfiche, index-card-sized sheets of plastic with microscopic magazine pages on them.

Then I was struck by a thought. Perhaps neither existed anymore.

“I guess it’s all done on computers nowadays,” I told Rio. Would old microfilm be scanned into computers? If not, were there still microfilm reading machines?

We went on an expedition to find out. The very next day, I picked Rio up from school and Lisa up from her office at the Community College (easy to do as Rio’s school is on the campus of the college) and we drove across town to New Mexico Highlands University, which was bedecked in purple banners and balloons for Homecoming. We found a parking spot on 8th Street a half block from the wide cascading stairs that lead up to the Donnelly Library—which itself was celebrating its 50th Anniversary.

The plan was to use the microfilm archives to see who took the photo—certainly it wasn’t me—and to see if my byline was missing from the days before and after the event, a clue that I wasn’t around. “What will you do if it turns out you took the picture?” asked Rio.

“Have a stroke,” I told him. There was no way I could have photographed an event like this and lost all memory of it.

On the second floor, in the heart of the periodicals, we found three microfilm machines and bank after bank of drawers holding film and fiche. Bank after bank of cabinets holding every paper but the one we were looking for.

Dejected, I turned around and spotted a small black cabinet standing all by itself on the opposite wall. The Las Vegas Daily Optic, on microfilm, from 1880 to last month.

I guess they still make microfilm, after all.

We searched through the drawers until we found the reel that contained August of 1989. We took the box out and pulled three chairs up in front of one of the microfilm readers.

Whereupon three very smart people couldn’t, to save our lives, figure out how to load the damn film into the stupid machine.

Lisa combed the library’s stacks and finally found an employee who figured out the machine we were trying to load was broken and took us to the “better one” in the government docs section.

Soon the past was whizzing past us, black and white, and grainy—the way the past is supposed to look. Spinning the dial on the machine, we watched the Friday TV Guide zip past. Then the supermarket insert. June 9th. I turned the dial farther to the right and the pages became a blur. I stopped at June 28th. Again I sped up the scan, and we closed in. August 10, 16, 18.

And there it was.

Monday. August 21, 1989. Lyle Shelton’s Rare Bare on the cover of the Las Vegas Daily Optic. Just like the copies we’d seen him signing on the video.

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And under the photo, my byline.

I took the picture.

I was thunderstruck. It felt like someone had dropped a wrench on my head. I stared at the slightly fuzzy image, speechless. Even faced with proof positive I had been on the scene, I couldn’t recall a single thing about the event. We flipped through the paper in both directions. The Optic ran three articles on the speed record, one the week before, one the day of the attempt, and another the next day. And in the days leading up to the record, and in the days following, my byline littered the pages of the paper.

I wasn’t on vacation.

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And to add insult to injury, the photo wasn’t really all that great. I worked at the paper as a photographer for about two-and-a-half years. I was good at it, bringing home more than a dozen New Mexico Press Association and Associated Press awards. In the time I was there, back in the days of fully manual cameras, no less, I took some amazing news photos.

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I keenly remember many of these impressive images, but I guess time and distance have led me to believe that they were the norm. Reality slapped me in the face in the quiet university library. A little girl with a rabbit. Road construction. A little girl with a dog. Seriously? Where was the Pulitzer-class kick-butt photography I remembered? I yearned to show Rio at least one amazing image on the microfilm viewer, but I couldn’t find one to be proud of.

My days as a globetrotting photographer were more mundane than my grainy, black and white memory held it out to be.

I guess Rare Bear isn’t the only thing I’d forgotten.

 

Disclaimer: I can’t really recommend the movie Fly Fast! And that’s not because it has me questioning my sanity. It just isn’t that great of a movie. I’d only give it one quarter of one star on a five-star rating system.

 

Ghost Tale

It was the day after Halloween last year, but that had nothing to do with it. The place was just Plane damn spooky. But I’m not sure why. Even the most down-on-their-luck airports usually have a vibe that appeals to pilots.

Of course the day didn’t get off to the best start with our GPS not working. And that day it mattered, because we were flying into KFSU, an airport that lies under the shelf of a huge area of military airspace called an MOA, that (in this case) starts a mere 500 feet off the ground. Access to the airport through this MOA is via a one-way horseshoe-shaped corridor of airspace seven miles wide and eleven miles deep.

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Needless to say, I didn’t want to get off course and blunder into an area where military jets were practicing low-level maneuvers at 0.9 Mach. Ercoupes and F-18s: A bad mix in any airspace.

Outside the Plane Tales Hangar, I futzed around with the Dual Electronics GPS antenna for about 15 minutes. Unplugging it. Plugging it back in. Unplugging it again. Rebooting the iPad three times. Punching vainly at the power button. All to no avail.

Finally Rio came to the rescue by saying, “Can’t we just use dead-reckoning?”

I glared at the GPS one last time for good measure, threw it back on the dashboard, and reached behind the co-pilot’s seat for the paper sectional chart. I unfolded it, then refolded it to a manageable size with our target area in the center. I studied the boundaries of the access corridor. If I kept Highway 84 on Tess’s right wingtip, I’d be flying just to the west of the corridor’s center line. Simple enough.

I shrugged my shoulder. OK. Yeah. Sure we can. Let’s go. Hand me the startup checklist.

We took off and headed southeast until we intercepted the highway and then flew along it, being alert for cell phone towers. Honestly, I’m surprised there aren’t more crashes involving these things. They sprout up like mushrooms after rain and are hard to spot from the air.

How’d we do without the GPS? Truth be told, there’s a lot of joy in just flying along a line on the ground rather than a magenta line on a glass screen. We did just fine.

KFSU was built by the US Army Air Corps at the start of World War II. Initially it served as a glider training base, and later became a major site for basic multiengine flight training for bomber pilots. By the end of the war, aircrews in B-17 Flying Forts and B-24 Liberators were training at Ft. Sumner, and the site also housed a POW camp.

I initially got interested in the airfield while researching an article on Transcontinental Air Transport, the first company to offer rapid commercial coast-to-coast transportation. It was before the Great Depression, and TAT flew passengers in Ford Tri-Motors by day and moved them by Pullman trains by night.

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Some of the literature, wrongly as it turns out, reported that the airport at Ft. Sumner was built by TAT. It wasn’t, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. So even though visiting the field wouldn’t help out my story, I still appreciated the irony that a field that was once a bustling military post had so fallen from grace that it was literally overshadowed by military airspace; and I was keen to fly the unique horseshoe into this remote island-like airport. Plus, we’d never been there before, and we’re working on a long-term project of landing at every airport in the State of New Mexico. We have a state aeronautical chart on a bulletin board on the wall of the Plane Tales Hangar that we use to track our progress.

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After shooting down the horseshoe, we overflew the KFSU at 800 feet to get eyeballs on the wind sock, which favored runway 21. The airport is service-less. It has no automated weather radio. In fact, while a handful of airplanes are said to be based there, there isn’t even any fuel for sale at the former bomber base.

We banked right and over-flew the town to get lined up for landing, with Rio fretting all the while that we were getting too close to the boundary of the MOA.

We’re fine, I told him.

“I don’t want to be met by helicopter gunships,” he grumped at me.

I think you are confusing MOAs and TFRs, I told him.

“Oh… So what happens if you go into an MOA, then?” he asked.

We might get run over by a jet.

“Yes, of course. I can see where that would be waaaaaaaaaay better than the armed helicopters,” he said, rolling his eyes.

Now back over the airport, we ran our pre-landing checklist on the downwind leg, then turned onto final approach for the faded and cracked runway. We were way too high. Never a problem in an Ercoupe. I cut the power completely and the Plane Tales Plane obediently dropped like a brick. For a plane that sure seems to like to fly, Tessie relies more on her engine than her wings. Power-off, she has the glide ratio of a crowbar.

Down we came. I glanced at our vertical speed indicator, a simple dial that shows how fast you are going either up or down.

150 feet per minute down…

250 feet per minute down…

500 feet per minute down…

The ground loomed up.

I nudged the throttle forward to arrest the descent and pulled back on the yoke, raising the nose and “flaring” the little blue and white plane. The vertical speed indicator snapped to neutral, I chopped the power and held her level right above the asphalt to bleed off my speed. When we slowed enough that our wing lost its aerodynamic magic and stopped producing lift, we dropped the remaining several inches onto the runway.

We’d arrived.

Looking at the satellite image on Google Earth during our pre-flight planning, KFSU looked like an impressive facility with three intersecting runways and acres and acres of concrete apron. Funny thing about satellite images. They almost always make things look better than they really are. One of the runways had trees growing out of it. Literally.

And on the ground the giant apron is so cracked and overgrown that it’s almost unrecognizable. The taxiways are so degraded I couldn’t recognize them and had to back-taxi on runway 21 for takeoff when we departed.

But SFU isn’t all old and decrepit. In the middle of this crumbling wasteland stands a three-story-tall white monolith with the bold red logo of NASA down the side. What? Rockets? Here?

Nope. NASA has adopted Ft. Sumner as its home base for high-altitude research weather balloon launches. And in addition to their massive new building, they’ve also retro-fitted the one remaining WW2 hangar with modern high-tech air-conditioning.

But on the day of our visit there was no one from NASA on site, nor anyone from anywhere else for that matter. It was eerily empty. But not quiet. All of the NASA gear was alive and noisy, functioning just fine in the absence of its masters.

Rio and I disembarked to explore.

The east end of the big hangar, where we parked Tessie, was locked up tight. As were all the doors along the sides, but peeking into the gaps we could see it was full of trucks and campers, not airplanes. Support equipment for the twice-yearly balloon launches. The west side was open and the gapping short end of the hanger housed a single Piper Cub with tundra wheels.

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It was the only flyable plane in evidence. In a forlorn hail shed, covered in bird droppings, sat a decaying Cessna. Its tires were flat, crumbling to dust, and its windscreen and side windows were sun-faded to pale yellow. Inside, a lightweight coat and a pair of headsets waited for the pilots, as if the plane had been flown yesterday and would be flown again tomorrow.

With enough time and money, any plane can be made to fly again, but I’m not optimistic about this little bird’s future.

But the whole site was eerily post-apocalyptic. And the longer we explored, the more the uneasy feeling grew. There were no people to be seen. Parked on the edge of the apron was a city truck, with the keys in the ignition. There were fresh hotdog buns in a shed next to a picnic table, along with three empty refrigerators. The hum of the giant air conditioners, lined up like dominos along the north side of the WW2 era Quonset-hut style super hangar, filled the air with noise like robotic crickets.

It was, frankly, creepy as hell. In the end we nearly ran for our plane.

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And it remains one of the few airports we’ve never returned to.

 

The flight home

If all has gone according to plan, Rio and I are at the big airshow at Oshkosh this weekend. For today’s post, for the first time in print, is Rio’s report to his school on his summer vacation 2013, the year we bought the Plane Tales Plane. Rio, then eleven-years-old, traveled to California with me to co-pilot the new plane home. Things didn’t go exactly as planned. Here is the story through his eyes, as recorded by him at the time….

Chapter 1—The trip to LA

A guest post by Rio A. F. Dubois

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We woke up early in the morning and started on our way from Denver. Me, my Dad, and my Grandma are going to Los Angles to pick up an airplane and ferry it back home. We drove and drove and drove and drove for hours and hours and hours through the breath-taking scenery of Colorado and then through the many faces of Utah. Then across small corners of Arizona and Nevada, ending up in Las Vegas. We had decided to spend the night in there, but the only rooms available were in casinos

“Casinos are much too noisy,” said Dad, “we would never get a restful night’s sleep.” We all agreed and we continued on our way. We planned to stop in Primm, Nevada, but that turned out to be the last batch of casinos before we hit the border. By this time we were all grumps, tired, and hungry.

We crossed the border and we got to Baker, California, but there wasn’t a decent hotel in sight. Continuing on through California, we hit Barstow, stopping at a 50’s-sytle all-night diner for a malt, but ended up with a shake. We finally stayed at a Hampton Inn there in Barstow.

In the morning we drove on to LA and in Redlands met Bobby, the pre-buy mechanic. Bobby let us in through the airport gates. It was time for him to go to lunch, so it gave us a chance to look at our airplane. When I first saw the plane it was without its frontal cowling on, so we could see the engine of the aircraft. The front of the plane looks sort of like a triangle and it has very long wings which sort of tilt up. It has a dual rudder tail, tricycle gear, and an old fashioned war-style canopy.

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When Bobby returned he asked us if we would take his invoice to Professor Peterson, the plane’s previous owner. It took forever for Bobby to write his invoice, but once he was done we went on to Flabob airport.

In Flabob we met Professor Peterson and purchased the plane. Then the professor took us to the Flabob guest quarters. I opened the door and it was so hot I ran out before I could even see the place. I found a drinking spigot, but accidently turned the knob too hard. Water poured on my face and into my head.

Then the Professor took us out to dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory.

Chapter 2—The night in LA

After dinner my Dad and I explored the airport were we saw an old-fashioned DC-3 and probably one of the most shiniest Cessenas you’ve even seen. And it must not have been flown a lot, because somewhere on the plane it said “airport bum.”

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We saw another Ercoupe, a lot like ours, but this one was painted black and yellow and said “Texas Bumble Bee.”

Flabob looks like one of those older military airports, in fact, I was expecting to see a giant B-17 flying out of one of those hangars.

The night at Flabob was not a pleasant one. The bed was a hard as sleeping on a wing. I gave up and moved to the couch. On the couch I lied awake feeling like the house was cold, ratty, and lifeless. I wondered if it bothered me that right outside the door was an airplane graveyard—a place filled with trashed up planes that hadn’t been flown for years—or if it was just the feeling of the place.

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In the morning we moved to a hotel called the Ayres Hotel. The place was very nice, Mexican-themed, although after Flabob, even a box would have looked nice.

When Dad got back from his flight training he came back sweaty and covered with oil. Me and Grandma asked what happened. He changed his pants and old us. “When we got back down, the plane’s engine would not stop. My instructor said turn off the mixture, turn off the mixture, but the mixture would not budge for it had been wired shut. My instructor went to go get Bobby. We tied everything, eventually it came to cutting off the fuel shut off.”

Bobby quickly fixed the plane.

The instructor also said that the radio was weak. So we took it to an avionics shop, where the man tested the radio and the transponder. But during that time we forgot to turn off the master switch. And then Bobby said that after that repair we never did test the engine, so Bobby said lets test it now. But since the master switch was still on, the plane’s battery was dead.

Bobby removed the battery and put it in his charger for the night. Bobby and the radio man then pushed Dad and the plane back over to Bobby’s hanger like a go-cart.

Chapter 3—The takeoff day

The next morning we showed up before the sun had even arisen. It looked like LA was completely asleep. We opened up Bobby’s hangar and turned on the lights. Dad put the battery back in while grandma “supervised.” While Dad was putting in the battery I was trying to get his camera to work right. I tried every possible angle, but still, I couldn’t get the camera to work. But Dad figured out it was apparently in video mode. So instead of getting a great picture I got a video of grandma supervising Dad putting in the battery.

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Then we fueled up the plane. After doing an engine test, we took off. It was a very nice view. We had the canopy closed. About ten minutes later, we opened the canopy to cool off. The wind rushing into the cockpit of the plane was awesome. It was quite a rush flying with an open canopy.

We landed in Twenty Nine Palms, the best landing we had ever done, and ate a nice breakfast bar at the airport.

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After adding a quart of oil that we bought on the honor system at the unmanned airport, we took off and left for Lake Havasu. We were flying at first with our navigational instruments, but then the mountains got so high we could no longer read them on our VOR. So we had to do what was called “dead reckoning,” using maps. But we made it to Lake Havasu and had a fairly good landing.

It was very hot there. A nice gentleman brought us two bottles of water, while I was still trying to get out of the airplane. We fueled up the plane. It was so hot we scrambled into the plane like one of those old fashioned movies where they are rushing to get into the car to make their getaway.

We fired up the plane, but the engine went THUMP.

I left dad in the dust in the airplane, trying to get out a quickly as I could. The plane’s skin was so hot it was like touching hot rocks. I’m amazed I didn’t burn my hand. They told us it was 117 degrees that afternoon.

Then we waited hours in the mechanic shop. When the plane was fixed we took off.

The turbulence was so bad, we got bounced around like a basketball being dribbled. Our little Ercoupe could not take it anymore, we turned back before we could even make it out of Lake Havasu.

We stayed at a Hampton Inn, again, strangely. We got up in the dark and went the airport. It felt a little cooler, but it was still very hot.

We waited for civil twilight, and when it was time, the engine went THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP, THUMP and did not start. I said to dad, “Did you remember to turn the key?” It turns out he had not. So the engine fired up. It was powerful roar. The sweetest sound in the world.

We took off and flew over London Bridge. That was kind of fun seeing it from the air.

On the trip south, I ate my first meal on an airplane, a sack breakfast from the Hampton Inn. It turned out to be less of a nightmare than I originally thought. It was a glass-calm morning and we seemed to be moving pretty fast. It was nice and cloudy over the sun, so it wasn’t very hot in the cockpit.

I was a little nervous about the fuel and kept asking dad, “How’s the fuel? How’s the fuel?” For some reason I felt nervous that we might run out of fuel. A lot of the time I kept staring at the belly tank float. Dad kept reading me off the fuel gauge, which seemed fine. But suddenly it started dropping.

Over Gila Bend, it seemed like our fuel was dropping like a rock. We circled Gila Bend airport to see if we could see fuel tanks. We could not, so we radioed one of the airplanes that was taking off. We could hear them, but they could not hear us. That’s when we found out that the radio was not working. The fuel was already too low, we had no other choice but to land in Gila Bend.

We came in high because there were two other planes waiting to take off and we couldn’t talk to them because the radio was dead. The first plane took off while we were lining up for landing and we worried the second plane would pull in front of us.

The landing was probably one of the worst ever. We hit the ground and thumbed back up again, then we hit the ground again. We even worried about the tires. It’s a good thing Ercoupes have such good shock absorbers. We were going pretty fast. I was a little worried we would run out of runway. Dad hit the brakes. My shoulder belt held me in place. In fact, if we had no belt at all on that landing I would have been flung out of the canopy.

Chapter 4—Abandon ship

It turned out there was no fuel at Gila Bend. We called the airport manager, who was quite grumpy because he said we woke him up. He said to talk to Jesus, the airport keeper. But we could not wake up Jesus.

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We had decided this trip was beginning to become a nightmare and took a town car into Phoenix, and hopped on the next Southwestern flight home.

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Book a flight for this great read

Normally, coming of age tales make me want to barf. Partly because I was born old, or so says my mother, (so I never needed to come of age), and partly because they tend to be sappy-sentimental-trash.

That’s why Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage sat in the tower of need-to-read books by my bedside for a good half-year or more before I cracked it open. I bought the story of two brothers flying a Piper Cub coast-to-coast in the 60’s on a whim after reading that their very cub had been found and restored. I’m impulsive that way.

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But once I finally started reading it, I found I couldn’t put it down, and I wished I hadn’t put it off so long.

Why? Well, for one thing it’s superbly well-written. And for another, it’s a great story from a great age in general aviation. The Buck boys made the 1966 flight from New Jersey to California in a Piper Cub that didn’t even have a radio. But everywhere they went there were airports, fuel, and “geezers” who gave them tips on flying the local area.

It was wonderful, but it saddened me, too, as I realized how much has changed since then. How much the vibrancy of general aviation has faded. The three airports closest to my home base are open, but empty. They don’t sell fuel. No one is around when you land. Some of them feel as eerie as ghost towns.

The book traces the weeklong adventures of pilot in command Kern Buck—age 16 at the time—and the author, his younger brother. The boys became an overnight media sensation during the trek, but then like so many aviation sensations, they disappeared from collective memory as quickly as they appeared. It wasn’t until three decades later that Rinker Buck wrote the story of the flight. I’m astounded at his ability to remember so much from so long ago. He captures a time a place lost to us while recounting how the flight created a lifetime bond between him and his older brother, and helped them both navigate their complex relationship with their demanding father—an old barnstormer who taught both boys to fly.

The book carried me aloft and along in their noisy, drafty, vibrating cub; and the story kept me engaged. Night after night I stole some solo time after dinner to read a few pages, then later selected an alternate bedtime to fly deeper into the 351-page volume. As I came towards the end of the book, a sense of sadness overcame me, I didn’t want it to end. And last night, when I closed the cover after reading the last page, a wave of depression came over me.

Now what on earth will I do with my free time?

A book that good is a rare treat indeed. So “book” a flight with Flight of Passage. You won’t regret the trip.

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.

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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?

 

How I became a pilot

After two generations of college professors, I came along. The high school dropout.

Yes. It’s true. But my mother, God bless her, never gave up on trying to make sure I got a degree.

This was a very long time ago, and my memory is a bit sketchy on the details, but as I recall I was too busy trying to get established as a writer to bother with school. One of my high school counselors–in an disastrous attempt to motivate me–said, “Well, if you’re not even going to try, you should just drop out!”

Really? I can do that?

My mother was furious.

Anyway, during one of my breaks from traveling and writing, I’d swung by the homestead for food and laundry facilities. Mom had clipped a story out of the Rocky Mountain News. It seems that Colorado State University had created a bachelor’s degree in crop dusting. Wouldn’t I find that interesting work?

I often read about pilots who had wanted to fly since they were tiny children. That wasn’t me. I mean, airplanes are cool, but so are ships, and subs, and tanks, and all other manner of machinery. The earliest job I can recall wanting to have “when I grew up” was that of marine biologist. I have no idea why, and I’m still not clear on what it is they do. I guess having grown up in the mountains of Colorado, the sea just seemed romantic, and being a scientist sounded like less work than being a swabbie. Anyway, although I had not nursed a life-long desire to be a pilot, at that very moment in time, being a crop duster didn’t sound like a bad way to make a living, and I was practically starving as a writer.

I called the dean and chatted with him. I’ve completely forgotten what he told me, but I guess I must have needed a private pilot’s license to get into the program, because I ended up in the aviation program at the local community college. I never did go down to State, and have never crop dusted–although I still think it sounds like fun. But on April 21, 1981, I first took the to sky in the maroon Citabria N8785, with Duffy, a half-deaf grey-haired flight instructor who made me a nervous wreck by shouting at me from the back seat.

Glorious? Hardly. For the first few flights I was certain that I’d fall through the flimsy floor to my death. I even had nightmares about it.

But I was a natural pilot and lived happily ever after in aviation, right? Uh… no. It would be a rocky road with many fits and starts, and many long breaks in my training. I didn’t solo until the following year, didn’t get my private ticket until the spring of ’83, my instrument and commercial ticket until ’84.

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But in the end, the high school dropout earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in Aviation Technology. I wrote a resume and hit the airports to get a job as a pilot.

Which didn’t happen.

The hard lesson I learned was that while a commercial pilot’s license made it legal for you to be paid to fly, no one will actually hire a freshly-minted pilot. I was only offered one job: As First Officer an a light twin engine air ambulance. The problem? It didn’t pay.

No. Literally. It didn’t pay. At all. Not a dime. They were doing me a favor by letting me build hours, or so they said.

Looking back on it, in those times that was probably true. But I needed to eat. Life demanded a break from the air so I could earn a real income. So was that the end of the flying of my youth?

Hardly.

But the next chapter of this Plane Tale can wait for another day.