First Solo

Confession: I don’t remember my first solo—even though every pilot is supposed to. The date is immortalized in my logbook, April the 23, 1982. As is the plane, N6633R, a Beach Sundowner, and the name of the instructor who trusted me no to kill myself: John F. Miller.

But the actual flight, which every pilot will tell you was such a powerful experience that they will never forget it, is a blank.

About all I can remember about that day is worrying about my shirt.

You see, there’s a tradition in aviation that your shirt is torn off your back after your first solo. Well, there useto be that tradition. With lady pilots on the rise, its been modified to a more civilized cutting off of your shirt tails instead. It basically symbolizes getting though by the skin of your teeth.

Anyway, my only memory of April 23rdwas Miller telling me to pull to the side of the runway. Then, engine still running he opened the door and stepped out onto the wing. “What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Three times around the patch,” he told me, “you’re on your own.”

I was wearing my brand new—and far too expensive for my budget—tan Arrow pilot shirt, that I had just bought mail order through Sporty’s Pilot shop. I knew if I soloed, Miller would destroy the shirt. “No way,” I shouted over the idling engine, “this is a brand new shirt. Get back in the plane.”

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I don’t remember how long we argued, with him crouched on the wing and me stubbornly refusing to solo, but eventually he promised to leave my  @#%!&$  shirt alone if I’d just get the hell up in the air and solo the plane.

I could bring another shirt the next day for the ritual.

And so I did. Solo. And bring another shirt the next day. An ugly bright kelly green T-shirt I hated. Years later, when I paid a visit it, along with dozens and dozens of others was still on the wall of the flight school.

I remember all of that. But the flight? My first time in the air by myself? The flight indelibly printed on the minds of all aviators?

It’s a complete blank.

 

I wish I could fly like that

An ear-piercing scream reverberated across the hangar deck. I stood transfixed, horrified and fascinated as I watched the bright yellow box pitch upward then roll completely upside down. More screams. Terror mixed with pure joy.

Roller coaster screams.

The yellow box pitched violently down, then rocked side to side. Adrenaline surged into my blood stream. My mouth began to water. I wanted to join in the fun. Rio sighed deeply. “Go on, dad,” he said, giving me a gentle push on the small of my back, “go break your neck if you want to, but I’m having no part in it.”

I reached for my wallet, my right foot stepping toward the long line of teenagers. But my left foot stayed rooted firmly in place, as if riveted to the metal deck of the aircraft carrier. Damn this sense of parental responsibility! We were aboard CV-41, the USS Midway, which is docked permanently in San Diego Harbor as an awesome must-see-at-least-once-in-your-life museum; it was a Friday afternoon and there must have been double her original crew of 4,101 aboard—all tourists. The hangar deck looked like the mall at Christmas. I couldn’t leave my 12-year-old alone in that throng while I flipped myself upside down for fun. And deep down, maybe I was worried about embarrassing myself in front of all those teens. Much as I like to think I do, I wasn’t sure I had the Right Stuff.

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I looked one last time at the pitching boxes (they had a full squadron of them), then sighed and turned toward the Fantail Café. “Come on, kiddo,” I said, as I turned my back on the delighted screams, “let’s go get some lunch.”

Actually, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen one of the twisting, turning boxes. My first encounter with one was just the day before at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, an awesome must-visit-at-least-twice-in-your-life museum. Somewhere between the Spitfire and the Apollo program was a bored teenager standing in front of an empty black box, a truncated windowless mini-van on giant hydraulic brackets.

A sign indicated it was a flight simulator ride. “Let’s take it up for a spin,” I said to Rio.

He wasn’t so sure. He hemmed and hawed.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I told Rio, “it’s not like I can turn it upside down on you.”

“Actually,” said the bored teenager, who could have cared less if we bought a ride or not, “you can turn it upside down.”

Adrenaline surged into my blood stream. My mouth began to water. Now I really wanted to take the simulator up for a test flight; and now Rio really didn’t want to go. Somehow I talked him into it, but from the second the teenager locked us into the dark ride, Rio ran a constant monologue of “don’t you dare flip us upside down, don’t you dare flip us upside down, don’t you dare flip us upside down.”

A child of few words in general, I think it’s the most speech I’d heard come out of his mouth at one time in his entire life.

In the end, I ended up flying straight and level for the duration of the ride, while simulated Jap Zeros flashed by, taking pot shots at us.

It was pathetic. The ego of my inner-barnstormer was bruised, to say the least.

But the rest of the visit to the museum was great.

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Flash forward two years. AOPA has sent me to Los Angles and I’m caught in a busload full of senior citizens at the delightful Museum of Flying at the embattled Santa Monica Airport.

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As the seniors flow past, following their docent, I’m left alone in the large central foyer of the museum. And that’s when I see it: Squeezed in between large models of race planes and an honest-to-God Lockheed Vega 5B with a mannequin of Amelia Earhart in it, is a truncated windowless mini-van on giant hydraulic brackets. There’s no line. No child to worry about. Nothing to stop me.

And yet… and yet, for some reason I didn’t “fly” it. Maybe because it wouldn’t be fun alone. Or maybe because, as much as I like the idea of being bold enough to flip a simulator upside down, I don’t know if I really have the Right Stuff to do it, and, of course, I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of all of those senior citizens.

Still, I wish I could fly like that.

Without screaming, of course.

 

Once upon a leather jacket

“But it’s brown, not black,” I wailed, my prepubescent voice cracking with the last word. But there was no convincing my father. His son was not, not going to wear a leather jacket. Period. Only hoodlums and troublemakers wore leather jackets. I stood sadly by the rack of jackets for the longest time, caressing the buttery soft chocolate brown leather, drinking in the lines of the jacket with my eyes. The epaulets. The sleeve pocket. The fuzzy fur collar. The jacket was reminiscent of the ones the B-17 crews wore in my favorite books. Heroes, surely. Not hoodlums and troublemakers. But I knew that once my father dug his heals in, there was no changing his mind, and the annual new clothes for the new school year shopping trip ended with me wearing a Colorado-proper nylon ski jacket. One that I hated all year.

In the decades since, I’ve learned that my father was right: People do pre-judge you by what you wear. But that hasn’t stopped me from owning any number of leather jackets, some brown and some black.

That said, I don’t think I ever really bonded with a jacket in the way I’m sure I would have bonded with that first bomber jacket that my father refused to buy me. In my mid-20s I had a beautiful black Harley Davidson jacket, complete with fringe. Oddly, my father never said I looked like a hoodlum wearing it, but I surely must have. As is appropriate for a hoodlum jacket, I suppose, someone stole it from my car. About the time Rio was born I was wearing a soft, lightweight black leather with zip-off sleeves. I was much heavier then, and when I lost weight, the jacket had to be shelved. It was replaced with an orange plasticy faux leather auto-racing jacket with a Nehru collar from Burlington Coat Factory. I still wear it now and then, but not often. It’s handsome, but it doesn’t breathe the way real leather does. That’s why leather makes a great fashion accessory; you can wear it over a wide range of temperatures and neither freeze nor roast while looking great.

And don’t kid yourself. We pilots like to look great. From our pilot watches that we don’t really need, to our oversized pilot sunglasses that mimic the goggles of old, to our flight jackets, which, come to think about it, we don’t really need either.

I recently read that flight jackets, at least as American pilots think of them, got their start in World War I, when the U.S. Army created something called the Aviation Clothing Board. The Board designed and issued leather flight jackets to protect the pilots of open cockpit biplanes from the elements. But it was World War 2 that may well have been the heyday of the leather flight jacket, and all the flight jackets on the market today bear some resemblance to the jackets of the Greatest Generaton.

How many jackets are there on the market? Dozens. Hundreds, probably. Made in both brown and black, most feature big dual-entry hand pockets on the front, and may have epaulets on the shoulders. Some have fur collars. Many have knitted wool cuffs around the wrists and waist. Some are as thick and stiff as armor, others as soft and flexible as silk. And I had been doing just fine without one.

Until Duluth.

February before last, AOPA sent me to Duluth to teach a Rusty Pilots Seminar. Duluth is lovely, but I can’t recommend a February visit. I actually survived the sub-zero temps in my nylon flight jacket with its Nascar-style brightly colored logos (although I learned to appreciate the value of a good knit hat), but while I was there I first spied a leather flight jacket that would trigger lust in my heart for something similar.

The seminar was held at the Cirrus factory, and one of the Cirrus executives had an amazing fight jacket. It was a well broken-in brown bomber, with the Cirrus logo on the left chest embroidered directly onto the leather using a color of thread almost identical to the jacket. The effect was both subtle and dramatic. It caught the eye like embossed leather, only in reverse. It blew my mind.

As Cirrus has a reputation for creating awesome image items—never say “no” if you are invited to one of their parties—my first assumption was that the company had these jackets created for all their brass, but in the conversation I struck up with the executive about the jacket, I learned that actually, he’d had the jacket for many years and that his wife had taken it to a local embroidery shop to have the logo added after Cirrus hired him. Up until that point, I didn’t realize that leather could be embroidered on. I filed it in my brain under things to think about.

Fast-forward one year. I’m suffering from an image issue. I now work three days per week at a community college, teaching language arts to high school dropouts. As a high school dropout myself (maybe dad was right about the bad effect of leather jackets) I find the work highly rewarding. I spend the rest of my time writing, flying, and writing about flying. But this gives me sorta of a split personality, which has created no end of wardrobe confusion. I know what pilots wear. I know what writers wear. I know what normal college professors wear, but adult education is different… So what the hell to wear?

Nothing in my wardrobe felt quite right. Then one day I woke up and realized that I needed a leather flight jacket. And not just any leather flight jacket, but a black one. The perfect thing for teaching high school dropouts & hanging out with pilots. And just to make it special and unique, I’d take a page from the Cirrus executive’s wife and “logo it up,” black on black.

Of course the lady who runs the local embroidery shop is fond of bright color. I figured she’d think I was crazy. But first, I had to choose the jacket. I knew I didn’t want a fur collar, I wanted one with snaps to keep it firmly in place. And I didn’t want knit sleeves either. I had to have epaulets, of course. I didn’t want chest pockets, as I envisioned large monochrome logos on the chest. I love sleeve pockets, but they are more common on cloth and nylon flight gear. And as I have arms a bit too long for my body, I needed a jacket that would come in a Large-Long size. I started scouring the internet, and I also started looking at jackets during my travels. And by far, the best-looking leather flight jackets out there are the ones worn by Southwest Airlines pilots. Their jackets are a sharp-looking modern take on the flight jackets of yore, and the design looks good on an amazing range of body types. Southwest has tall skinny pilots, short stocky ones, and the occasional Captain with a beer belly. And they all wear the same jacket to good effect. And darn if I didn’t find it for sale at the iconic Sporty’s Pilot Shop, in their Southwest Airlines Pilot Store page. Oh. That link is for the whole store. Here’s the link to the jacket.

But, like all quality leather jackets, it wasn’t cheap. And I’m becoming so myself, so I held off buying it for months. Finally, trapped in Michigan with a sick kid for a full week (a tale for another day), with nothing to do but listlessly surf the internet, I caved. I worried about ordering a jacket online, as I couldn’t try it on, but I knew that Sporty’s was good about returns, so I felt I had nothing to loose.

It was waiting for me when I got home. It’s one of those armor heavy leather jackets. The leather is thick and creaks wonderfully as you move. Like a good pair of boots, it’s a jacket that’s going to take some time to break in, but it will last a lifetime. And, of course, it has that wonderful new-leather smell that they have yet to perfect as a men’s cologne. It was a good fit, and I felt like a bulletproof P-51 pilot in it. The only shock was how much landscape the large front pockets ate up. I wouldn’t have as much chest area to cover in my monochrome logos as I thought I would have. As it turns out, that wasn’t an issue.

While in Las Cruces to take delivery of Lisa’s new plane, Warbler, or maybe it was on the trip we took down several weeks before that for the pre-buy inspection, Rio sat down with me at the hotel to plan a logo layout for the new-me jacket. Right away we realized that many of the logos that adorn our other flight jackets simply won’t “work” in a single color, they rely on their different colors to create their principle graphical patterns. Iin the end, we chose the Sport Air Racing League logo for the right chest, our Race 53 wings and the text “National Champion” for the left chest, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale world record-holder logo for the right sleeve, and the Erco logo for the left sleeve. I wished I could have put our large “Ercoupe Racing” logo on the back that some of our other jackets have, but Rio and I agreed that it wouldn’t “work.”

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The next week I met with my color-loving embroiderer, and to my surprise, she got into the project and had several ideas, including some ways to modify the large back logo to make it work black-on-black. She explained that as the embroidery machines change the angle of the treads to create designs, light hits the threads in different ways, letting a black-on-black logo still show detail that you wouldn’t expect is possible. Here, see for yourself:

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A week later the jacket was done, and it’s the perfect look for a flying-teaching-writing man. Now I’m all set with a brand new image to match my complicated life. Well… Almost. Because, well, darn it. Now my shoes just don’t match my jacket. And Nothing in my wardrobe feels quite right.

So what kind of footwear do flying-teaching-writing people wear? Maybe I need a pair of those airline pilot boots, it sure works for those Southwest pilots…

 

Tessie’s first nest

Tomorrow, our girl turns 71 years old. Her data plate shows that she was manufactured on May 5, 1947. I gotta say, for her age she don’t look half bad!

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Naturally, every year on this date we throw a Tessie party, along with everyone else in New Mexico.

What? Oh. Sorry. I wasn’t clear. We’re not that famous. The rest of the state isn’t celebrating Tessie Day with us. They are celebrating Cinco de Mayo, which is something akin to a Mexican Fourth of July, which just happens to fall on Tessie’s birthday. Actually, come to think of it, it’s Tessie’s Birthday that just happens to fall on Cinco de Mayo, which honors the Mexican Army’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, a full eighty-five years before our girl rolled off the assembly line in Riverdale, Maryland.

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Now, just to be clear, I don’t think that most people here in New Mexico have a strong affinity to our southern neighbor, they just like a good excuse for a party, so Cinco do Mayo has been Americanized and secularized, featuring Mexican Beer, Margaritas, and our idea of Mexican food (which generally isn’t available in Mexico itself).

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Logo courtesy North DelaWHERE Happening

Keeping in step with the rest of the state, we mark Tess’ B-day with Margaritas, chips and salsa, guacamole, some Chile con Queso, steak Tampico, and—of course—birthday cake with ice cream. After which, we usually kick back and watch an aviation movie or two, just to keep in the spirit of our high-flying version of Cinco de Mayo.

Now, seventy one years is a long time. For a machine, a person, a building. For pretty much anything, really. Still, Tess flies great and I feel nothing but safe in her cockpit. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the age of airplanes recently. Partly that’s because a segment of the aviation press has been wailing and gnashing their teeth about the aging of America’s general aviation fleet (the average age GA airplane 36.9 years old); while the other half of the aviation press is lauding the efforts of individuals who restore classic planes of the golden age, and of outfits like the Commemorative Air Force who keep World War II aircraft alive and well and flying.

As I fly an airplane nearly twice as old as the average in the fleet, I’m obviously biased, but it’s clear to me that airplanes—properly cared for—are eternal. In fact, the oldest airworthy plane in the world is now 109 years old. It’s a Bleriot XI, built just six years after the Wright Brothers first flight!

And one day, as I was thinking about the eternal nature of airplanes and the owners who came before me, it occurred to me that it was possible that all of Tessie’s previous owners might still be alive. A dual biography drifted into my head: Telling the story of the airplane by telling the stories of all her owners. It would be a fascinating walk back though time, sort of a history of general aviation, showcasing the changes in our industry and society, and changes in Tess herself over her long seven-decade journey. The book would be a way of showing the eternal nature of airplanes, and how that all of us who “own” planes are really caretakers of their legacy for a time. Mortals cannot own the immortal. It’s a sweeping canvas, but it would be a tale told through the lens of one single airplane and the people touched by it.

Based on our title search when we bought Tess, plus some wonderful correspondence from previous owners who reached out to us over the years, I knew that Tess had at least six owners before us, and maybe more. It was a manageable project, and the more I thought about it, the more excited I got.

I made a list of questions, and hoping that many of the previous owners might still have period photos of Tess, fired off letters to all the previous owners I was aware of, then I got down to some serious research. With the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA.

Now, you need to know that the FAA has a long memory. In fact, the FAA’s memory (and records) extend waaaaay back in time to the point where they weren’t even called the FAA. They were called the CAA, or Civil Aeronautics Authority. And it is in seventy-one year old CAA records, microfiched and stored by the FAA, that Tessie’s earliest days are recorded. With the help of my mechanic, I was able to buy a CD disc of all these records. The disc has digital copies of every scrap of paper the CAA and FAA ever had on N3976H, or as her first Bill of Sale calls her, NC 3967H.

That discovery was a delight to me, as I didn’t realize “my” girl was old enough to wear an “NC” number, which was the standard name badge of civil aircraft between the world wars. She wears the NC number, at least in her paperwork, until 1953, the first year I happen to have a historic picture of Tess, and by then she’s wearing a standard, modern “N” number.

Fascinating stuff, this history.

But quickly things started to fall apart. Instead of a half dozen or so owners, the CAA and FAA records showed a long train of love affairs between my girl and other men. Tess really got around in her youth—which I suppose may be part of the story of general aviation, too—but her owner roster includes more than twenty people! Meanwhile, my two oldest contacts didn’t respond to my letters. Neither, too, did the convicted drug smuggler currently in federal prison who once owned her. (Was Tess used in an elicit manner? Darn, I sure wanted to know!)

So things have slowed down, but I haven’t given up on the book. No way. It has too many possibilities. But rather than writing families, it’s clear I’m going to be spending time in dusty archives in small town libraries and newspapers. And the first stop will be a homecoming for Tessie at her first home airport: Guymon, Oklahoma, in the panhandle.

Because that’s where my oldest predecessor, one Mr. R.V. Wadley, took NC 3976H home to after buying her directly from the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO) on the 20th of May, 1947.

Tessie was just fifteen days old.

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But in staring my research on Guymon, the name of the city rung a bell. I couldn’t place it but Rio thought that maybe we’d been there, so I did a “places” search in Photos, the software that organizes and stores the millions of digital photos that I never get around to editing. (I should at least delete the accidental pics of my feet and the photographs of the insides of my pockets.) And lo and behold, guess what?

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Yep. July 22, 2016, enroute to the AirVenture Cup and the big bash at Oshkosh, Rio and I apparently landed and refueled at Tessie’s original home airport.

And she didn’t even tell me.

I wonder what other secrets she’s keeping from me?

 

Flight instructors: The good, the bad, the ugly, and me?

I’ve taught my pair of copilots a lot about flying. In fact, both student pilot buddy Lisa and student pilot son Rio fly better than I do. If by flying you mean keeping the airplane on course and at altitude. Rio is also pretty darn good at pattern work, while Lisa is an S-turn queen. And both of them have managed a respectable take off or two.

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Neither of them, however, can land. Which is totally my fault. You see, I’ve never taught them how to. Why’s that? Well, I’m not a certified flight instructor. Not that I didn’t try to be. I even trained to be a certified flight instructor.

For one day.

Here’s the tale…

 

Date Line: September 17, 1984

KGXY, Greeley, Colorado

 

I was sporting a brand new leather flight jacket and oversized mirrored sunglasses when I pulled into the airport parking lot. The day was to warm for the jacket, but I had to look the part. As a freshly minted commercial pilot, I was there for my first lesson on how to become a certified flight instructor, which is what you did in those days as soon as you realized that—even though you had a license to get paid to fly—no one would hire you until you banked more flight time.

A lot more flight time.

Come to think of it, that’s still true today. The only difference is that nowadays this is no secret. Back then, it came as a bitter shock to me and my fellow wet-behind-the-ears commercial pilots.

But even though I didn’t understand the realities of flying jobs, I did know quite a bit about flight instructors. I had a number of them during my journey from first flight, to first solo, to student cross-country, and on to my private pilot’s license, instrument rating, multi-engine training, and finally my commercial ticket. Most of my instructors were OK. One was good. One was bad. But one was nothing short of amazing.

The amazing flight instructor was one of my professors at Aims Community College where I was a student in the aviation program. His name was Gil Harris. He’d flown Corsairs with the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, and then flew pretty much everything with wings in the years following the war. He was a small, compact man with twinkling eyes and a neatly trimmed Royal Air Force-style mustache. What little hair he had left was gray. He was modest, kind, and funny. His teaching style was magical. I learned more from that man than from all my other instructors combined. His knowledge and experience were boundless. Endless. Among other things, he taught me mountain flight, hugging towering cliffs in the heart of the Rockies to catch lift and soar like an Eagle.

It was Gil who signed me off for my commercial check ride, and I was tickled pink that he agreed to train me to be a flight instructor—just like him.

I would be 21 years old in just four days. Naturally, I thought I knew everything as I walked across the tarmac to meet Gil at N48751, a blue and white Cessna 152-II. But the Gil Harris that was waiting for me wasn’t the master aviator I was used to.

Nope. It was Gil the Hillbilly.

I guess I was expecting some sort of inspired intelligent conversation between a motived student and a master, with me being the master. That didn’t happen.

As we walked around the 152, Gil stuck his neck under the prop, his nose inside the engine cowling’s air inlet and asked, “What’s in here, Mr. Flight Instructor?”

It went downhill from there.

That night, I lay in my waterbed (remember this was 1984, a time when phones were attached to walls, there was no internet, and people slept on thick plastic bags filled with water) and tried to make sense of the day. I replayed the seven-tenths of an hour lesson again and again in my head. All the clever teaching tricks I had dreamed up to cultivate the next generation of pilots fell flat on their faces when faced with Hillbilly Gil. I was shaken to the core. I felt stupid.

And I wondered: Was Gil trying to prepare me for real world flight instruction, or was he showing me that flight instruction wasn’t for me? Next, I thought back through every instructor I’d had on my own aviation journey, and I realized that the younger ones were the worst, and that the older ones were the best. It made sense. How can you teach when you’ve really just begun to learn yourself?

I never went back for a second flight instructor lesson.

In later years (and to this day) I wondered if Gil was just trying to take my ego down a notch, or if he felt I didn’t have the Right Stuff to be a flight instructor, and knew me well enough to know how to scare me off. Or was his first flight instructor lesson with me the only instructional failure of his life? The bruised ego of my former self would like to believe that, but I doubt it. After all, he never called me to ask why I hadn’t scheduled the next lesson.

But it was moot. The seven-tenths of an hour that September morning changed the course of my life. I tired for several months to find a flying job. Any flying job. But none were to be had, and in the end I stopped flying for many years.

 

Back to school?

Of course, I’m not four days short of 21 any more. I’m well over the five-decade mark. I’m on my second logbook. And I don’t wear a leather jacket when it’s too hot.

I’ve spent much of my adult life (in addition to writing) teaching in one form or another. But I know that having extensive aviation knowledge and experience—and knowing how to teach—is a very different thing from knowing how to teach people to fly, much less land. Or that’s what I told myself. But my self-imposed limitation may have been a justification. After all, there’s actually nothing illegal about teaching some elements of flying to others while not being a certified flight instructor yourself. Plenty of pilots teach regular non-pilot passengers how to control the plane, communicate on the radio, and even land just in case something should happen to the pilot (this unofficial flight instruction can’t be logged, nor can it count toward a license).

In truth, it wasn’t the lack of official certification that held me back. Being a flight instructor school dropout, I just didn’t have a clue how to teach someone to land, and my own learning to land is lost to me in the mists of time.

I just don’t remember how I learned to land.

So I sent Rio off to a “real” flight instructor to learn. He started in sailplanes but never mastered them due to what I would call ugly instruction. Then he switched to powered flight, but his planned schedule was shot full of holes: A combination of illness, weather, and mechanical difficulties. Then his instructor got an airline job and was gone. With our own plane down for maintenance for so much of the year he had a looooong flying gap. Depressed, he told me, “I don’t think I know how to fly an airplane any more.”

About the same time that Rio’s instructor left for the airlines, Lisa went off to North Carolina for an intensive all-day, two-week training course that was to cumulate in her Light Sport check ride.

She left enthusiastically. But her enthusiasm was quickly squashed. Each night as she FaceTimed in to update us, she was increasing depressed. First off, the weather sucked. The cold she expected. She grew up in that neck of the woods. But the record snow was making her flight training a challenge. As was the fact she was flying off of a grass strip, a minor little detail the one-man flight school neglected to mention on his website, along with the fact the tail-dragger training plane had no electrical system and had to be hand-propped to start.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it was the flight instructor himself. Each time she’d ask a question he’d say, “Figure it out for yourself.” He was also 100% negative, pointing out every less-than-perfect action on her part, while never giving any supportive encouragement.

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OK, I agree that there are times when it’s good for a student to figure things out for themselves, but good teaching also entails some guidance. And motivation. When flying I can see that there are times when an instructor must point out errors so they can be avoided in the future. But I also think that maneuvers performed well should be supported to keep morale up and to give the student as sense of improvement, not to mention encouraging good flying skills.

But for Lisa that never happened, not once, and with each passing day the charming little airport cottage—a big selling point for the package deal—felt more and more like a prison cell to her. Not only was this costing her a fortune, but she wasn’t having any fun, and learning to fly, while sometimes challenging, should always be fun.

In the end, the S.O.B. didn’t even let her solo.

She was devastated.

In a deep funk she told me, “I just want to learn to land a damned airplane.”

Watching the struggles of my two favorite student pilots, I began thinking that, even though I’m not a certified flight instructor, I could do a better job teaching them to fly than the instructors they were using. Maybe, just maybe, 34 years after I dropped out of Flight Instructor School, it was time for me to go back to school.

I wonder what I did with those mirrored sunglasses?

 

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.