An aeronautical feast for the eyes

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

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

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

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

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

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

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.


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

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

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



Happiest of Thanksgivings

Happy Thanksgiving! OK. Yeah, right. I know Thanksgiving Day was really yesterday, so I guess I need to say either happy Thanksgiving +1, or happy belated T-day. Either way, as this is the regular publication day closest to the big day, I decided to use it for my T-day post

Today, of course, is actually the oddly named “Black Friday,” and you might expect that with Tess in the Airplane Hospital for extensive repairs after our October mishap, and considering the fact that there’s not been much flying happening in this flying family over the last year, I might be in a mood to match the name of the day today.

But that’s not the case.

First, for anyone who missed the memo, Tess will fly again. The cost of repairs is nearly as much as she cost in the first place, but given all the upgrades we’d undertaken, I had insured her for more. It was a bit of a drawn-out process, with at one point an AIG insurance adjuster complaining to me that “it’s such an old airplane,” to which I bit my tongue and didn’tsay, “Well we sure pulled the wool over your eyes on the plane’s age when you insured it, didn’t we?”

But repairs are now finally underway, so that’s good news, and a huge relief. Of course, it won’t be fast. As we speak, Tess is back in Santa Fe, looking more a wreck than an airplane. Everything forward of the firewall is gone. The prop and cowl are off, the engine dangles on a crane like the corpse of a hanged convict, and the bent engine mount lies on the floor to one side.


Next, dozens of rivets need to be drilled out to remove large skin panels between the firewall and the front of her wings on each side, exposing the bent stringers—metal supports that run nose to tail—that need to be replaced. New skins need to be cut and formed to the proper shape and riveted onto the fresh stringers. Then a brand new engine mount must be attached and the engine re-hung, which entails reconnecting all the disconnected plumbing and electrical wires. And of course, her main landing gear needs to be reconstructed, as well. This is going to be a loooooong process.

Adding to the potential triggers of a black mood, the next hospital bed over from Tess at the Airplane Hospital is occupied by my second favorite flying machine—Lisa’s boy Warbler. Ironically, Lisa decided to hangar him in Las Cruces for the Ercoupe Nationals, rather than park him on the ramp. I say ironically, because rather than giving shelter as a hangar should, Warbler got damaged by Lisa’s bid to protect him from damage. You see, the FBO hired a guy to paint the hangar, and the painter guy decided there was no reason to take the planes out of the hangar before he sprayed paint all over the place.

Warbler’s glass was destroyed. All of it. The windshield, side doors, top door, back windows. Thousands of pin prick-sized melted pockets in the plexi.

So there’s plenty to be in a black mood about for Black Friday. But instead, I’ve used the downtime to count my blessings. Other than becoming much poorer since becoming an airplane-owning family (and who’s to say we wouldn’t have just pissed the money away on something else, anyway?), and being occasionally stressed out, the airplane has been nothing but healthy dividends on the investment—at least with the proper perspective.

Tessie has changed all our lives. She’s taken us to beautiful places where we’ve had amazing adventures and met fabulous people. It’s only been a few short years—half a dozen if I’m counting right—but it seems like forever. I don’t really have a clear sense of “pre-Tess.” It seems like she’s been part and parcel of the family forever.

For that, I’m thankful this Thanksgiving season. Thankful for the flights of beauty and fun over these past few years, and Thankful that my future promises many more.


Real games with toy planes

I spent hours flying Tess and Warbler above the southern New Mexico desert scouting the route. Hours more getting just the right pictures of it. I spent days designing and laying out the beautifully printed knee boards for the race pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit how I paid for those.


I carefully plotted the race course on Google Earth Pro, measured the legs, then applied the proper math to compensate for the turn radius of the planes. I worked out handicaps for the three sizes of engines under the cowls of Ercoupes. I created an Excel spread sheet to calculate the speeds based on the start and finish times, and to automatically handicap the planes. I worked out the marshalling order, created timing sheets, bought a pair of atomic clocks, a green start flag, and a checkered finish line flag.

I had three beautiful trophies made for the fastest planes. Tall skinny towers a topped with cups like the air race trophies of old. Then I had custom medals struck for each pilot that flew, so that everyone would win something.


I also, in SARLtradition, found the cutest little pig with wings for the slowest plane.


I connected with a local talent scout and recruiteda group of models that became known as the Derby Dolls to set the NASCAR-with-wings tone I was after.

Sure, the rare opportunity to fly into highly restricted air space and land at Spaceport America was the real reason most of the pilots were coming to the 42ndErcoupe Owners Club Nationals; but to me, the signature event was my air race—which I named the 1stNational Ercoupe Air Derby. Needless to say, I had secret fantasies of it becoming an annual event, maybe even a league someday.

Twenty-one of the forty-eight planes coming to the convention signed up for my Derby, and I realized that I had on my hands the largest race of like-kind planes since the 1930s.

I was on cloud nine.

Cloud nine itself, however, was at 200 feet. AGL. Apparently, despite all my careful planning, I forgot to make the appropriate offering to the weather gods.

Arrival day at the national convention varied between low IFR and garden variety IFR most of the day, with a brief gasp toward the end of the day of the most marginal Marginal VFR I’ve even seen. Only one brave soul made it in. As twilight crept in at the end of the day, I stood out on the cold, wet apron and looked at the small collection of Ercoupes. Instead of the expected 48 planes that would have over-flowed the ramp, I had six, only two of which had entered the Derby.

It was decision time. The weather for race day looked fine, but most of my racers were MIA, trapped by hurricane-whipped moisture all across the country, and there was no way that they’d make it in before the scheduled dawn briefing. I considered moving the race, but it was like trying to re-arrange jigsaw puzzle pieces. It just couldn’t be done. There were too many other events that needed to take place when they were scheduled.

I was about to cancel the first ever National Ercoupe Air Derby when my buddy Lisa, who is a certified frickin’ genius, had a suggestion. In the swag bags for the convention were toy balsa wood gliders from the state Aviation Division. Why not create some sort of Air Derby with them? After all, we had no shortage of pilots. Men and women who locked their fogged-in hangar doors, jumped in their cars and drove in, or jumped on commercial flights and rented cars to reach the convention.

Lisa got out a piece of paper and started scribbling. She thinks best on paper. Longest throw… Most accurate throw… Number of throws to complete a “pylon” course…


The next day, when I should have been marshalling twenty-one Ercoupes onto Taxiway Alpha at KLRU, I was setting up orange cones on the ramp in front of EAA Chapter 555’s hangar, roughly mimicking the layout of the real race. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. Then my cell phone starting ringing and the assorted crises that befall convention coordinators started befalling me.

Chief among these was the Spaceport. They needed to know precisely how many people were coming the next day, their names, states, blood types and genotypes; and who was stepping off a plane and who was stepping off a bus. And they needed to know RIGHT now!

Of course, I’d given them this information weeks ago, but now with the weather, it was a moving target. On a borrowed laptop I started throwing together a new spreadsheet (not having the sense to bring the one I had previously made with me) and began to code pilots by: Cancelled, switched from air to ground, still coming by air, and unknown at present.

I knew our fearless leader, club director Larry Snyder, was trapped in Tucumcari, having failed to reach my home base of SXU by a few miles before weather forced him to retreat. He emailed, “Had to turn back. Solid wall of rain and maybe 1 mile visibility.” A pity. Our hotels and restaurants are better. I knew I had a handful of planes in eastern New Mexico, and the story of those pilots trying to find a rental car is worthy of a Plane Tale of its own someday. And I knew that eight planes were bottled up together at Willcox, AZ, more than had reached the convention itself.

I also had one pilot who was missing. The night before, Flight Service called to ask if he’d arrived. His flight plan was overdue and not closed. He hadn’t. I tossed and turned all night worrying about him, and it gnawed at me the next day. When he eventually showed up I was so happy to see him, I gave him a giant bear hug.

The rest of the fleet? Who knew? Certainly not me. Working from a tattered, folded, damp print out of the master registration list, I struggled to update the Excel spread sheet, while answering my phone every ten minutes (have you noticed that cell phone batteries never die when you want them to?) and alternately talking to members with a wide variety of questions, issues, comments, and suggestions. I was starting to, you know, stress out a little, when I heard it.

I heard the sound of a party.

Happy voices. Laughter. Cheers. The sounds were drifting into the EAA hangar from the ramp.

I got up and stuck my head out the door. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the Basal Wing Derby pilots. The wind was up, snatching the light gliders. One pilot used tape to increase his weight. Another swore her secret was to aim low and throw low. It was getting competitive, to say the least, but everyone was having a blast. The Derby Dolls were on hand working the green and checkered flags, and Lisa was keeping point totals on two giant sheets of poster board that kept flapping in the wind.

I was witnessing the birth of a new aviation sport.


At the end of the trio of competitions, the Derby Dolls gave out the custom Air Racer medals to each person who participated in all three Basal Wing events, and presented the tall skinny trophies a topped with cups to the top three scoring pilots.

EOC_photo_14b copy

Talk about salvaging a disaster! Not only did our members have a blast, probably more people had more fun than if my race had gone off as planned. Of course, that’s not stopping me from planning the 2ndNational Ercoupe Air Derby for next year. You know, with real airplanes this time. But still… I think I’ll ask the state for another handful of those basal gliders next year.

Just in case.


Ready for her close-up

It all started when I decided I needed a pretty girl. After asking around, the pretty girl expert convinced me that, really, three pretty girls would be better than one. He called it, “Critical mass.” And so it came to pass that three scantily-clad models ended up in my cockpit.

Well, Tessie’s cockpit.

20180907-_DSC0148 copy

Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

I was banished to the far side of the apron.

Like many a good tale, it all started in a bar. En route to a SARL air race a couple of years ago, I was eating pig’s ears nachos (don’t knock them until you try them) in an Arkansas bar, when I had a revelation. On the wall was a gigantic high-def TV showing a NASCAR race. Holy cow. And people think air racing is dangerous! Anyway, the winner of the day—a clean-cut, baby-faced pup who looked barely old enough to drive—was surrounded by hot, leggy, busty blondes with bare midriffs, low-cut necklines, and super-short skirts when he accepted his trophy.

Now that’s the way to win a race.

Then I got to thinking about the Kentucky Derby. There’s always a babe involved in giving the horse the flowers and the jockey the trophy, right?

So what the hell is wrong with us air racers? Surely, we rate as high as the Sport of Kings and the King of TV sports. I vowed right then and there that if I ever hosted an air race, I’d make sure there was some eye candy on hand at the podium.

Then, and I don’t remember how this happened, but probably it also involved a bar, I agreed to be the coordinator of the National Ercoupe convention. It’s turned into a full-time job, interfered no end with my writing work, and stressed me out beyond belief. I’ve had to arrange for hotel rooms, transportation, fuel discounts, tiedowns, donations for our charity auction, T-shirts, patches, signs and banners, name tags, and food, food, food. Oh. And booze, of course.

But I’ve put together a program I’m pretty proud of that includes an awesome resort HQ, a group fly-out to Spaceport America, and a banquet at an airplane museum. And, because it was my convention to do with what I please, and I’m an air racer, I decided to include a little air race as part of the fun. Which is why I needed the pretty girl.

Which, in today’s world, of course, can be an edgy subject.

I started with the lady who runs the economic development department for the City of Las Cruces, the host city. She’s a head-turner herself, but as a woman with a PhD, I didn’t think she had the right personality for the job, if you know what I mean. But I explained the tradition of babes and races and the atmosphere I was after, and asked her for help. I had considered a modeling agency, or University cheerleaders, and I even thought there might be a local beauty queen, a Miss Las Cruces or whatever. The city lady connected me with the pretty girl expert—a man connected to all levels of talent and events in southern New Mexico. He understood what we needed at once. “So it’s like a car show,” he said, “only with wings.”


I originally figured I just needed one girl to hand out the trophies, but the pretty girl expert convinced me otherwise with his critical mass argument. One girl in a short skirt in front of a bunch of old men can feel… well… uncomfortable. But in a pack, girls apparently come alive. Strength in numbers. I could see the logic. I signed on for three, but then was told I’d better have four to ensure that three showed up. Apparently, these aren’t the most dependable sorts of people.

So who are these girls? The pretty girl expert felt the best solution for my event was amateur models. Some of these models are young ladies who aspire to be professional models. Others just find the action fun and exciting. Feminists will disagree, but trust me, there are women who enjoy being the center of attention based solely on their looks. They like it, know how to work it, and it’s good for their egos–so if everyone enjoys it, where’s the harm?

These girls, now known as the Derby Dolls, will wave the green and checkered flags, circulate through the crowd to pose for selfies with the pilots, present the medals and trophies to the racers, and basically just create the ambiance of the NASCAR race I watched over pig’s the ears nachos in an Arkansas bar.

Now, I’m not sure how the next part of our tale happened, but in recruiting the pretty girls, the pretty girl expert contacted a pretty girl photographer that he knew. The photographer had lots of pictures of pretty girls with cars. And lots of pictures of pretty girls with motorcycles. But no pictures of pretty girls with airplanes, which, clearly, his portfolio needed. Nor did his models have any pictures of themselves with airplanes, which, clearly, they needed, too. So I was asked, if the photographer would donate his time and round up some pretty girls, would I bring a different type of pretty girl to the photo shoot?


Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

So my favorite blue and white pretty girl became a prop with a prop. The photographer also brought out some high-testosterone rolling stock and created a variety of settings with Tess, the models, and the hotrods.

20180907-_DSC0146 copy

Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

It didn’t take long for the airport community to take an interest in the action, either. In particular, in the hangar next to the photo shoot, is a helicopter maintenance facility; and their mechanics lined up on the edge of the apron to watch the fun, even brining out a boom box, playing the Top Gun sound track for the models to jam to.

The entire process wasn’t like anything I’d ever been exposed to. It took forever to get the plane parked just right, longer for the models to change their clothes and touch up their makeup, then we had to wait for the right light, or pull the plane out of passing sprinkles of rain.

The girls were dressed… well, borderline trashy, in a flashy teen-fantasy pin-up kind of way; but the photographer, while knowing how to pose them, was 100% respectful.


It was interesting watching the shooter communicate with the models, watching his hand signals letting them know when he was going to press the shutter, sharing the previews on the back of the camera, watching the models recognize—even on that tiniest of screens—that one lock of hair was out of place.

They were all “car people,” the models, the photographer, and the drivers who came out with the hot rods, a separate subculture from us plane people. It was fascinating, like visiting another country. But we all got along great and what I thought would take an hour or two ran all day long and didn’t end until the sun was setting.

So how was my day with three models? Not what you’d expect.


Lisa F. Bentson, Zia Aerial Imaging

The models showed zero interest in me, a National Champion Air Racer—which is probably just as well. They paid attention as I told them how to safely get in and out of Race 53 without hurting themselves or Tess, but that was about it.

But you know what? I doubt that puppy-faced NASCAR driver got any attention either, and I got one hell of a Plane Tale out of the deal.

Plus, I have a pretty girl… well, three… for my race.

20180907-_DSC0077 copy

Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios


Politics, but not as usual

Col. Martha McSally wasted her time and money writing to me, but I’m glad she did, because, boy, is this ever a plane tale!

It all started at my mailbox in the post office. Nestled in a pile of bills and mail order catalogs from outfits I’ve never ordered from is a thickish envelope from Arizona. Inside is a letter and a card. The card is a thick, lovely, deep rich red with a cut-out of an A-10 Warthog on it. I’m intrigued.


I open the card, and like the pop-up books of my childhood, the A-10 takes flight.

This is the coolest thing ever!


But what’s it for?

Ah. The good Colonel is running for the U.S. Senate. In Arizona? So why the heck is she writing to me? The dead frequently vote in my state of New Mexico, but neither our living nor our dead have reputations for voting in other people’s states, even ones a short flight away.

Her letter to me says she served in the USAF for 26 years and was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat; and that she then went on to log a total of 350 combat hours. She’s also a U.S. Congress Woman. Impressive. But I wonder if her campaign has filed the wrong flight plan in contacting me? I read on.

Her letter states, “I’ve sent you the enclosed pop-up replica of the A-10 ‘Warthog’ that I flew in combat to bring us back to our core roots—national security—while I seek to enlist your personal help and support.”

Then she asks me for $2,700.

In fact, not only does she ask me for $2,700, she asks me to “rush” her a check before I even put her letter down to prominently display my new pop-up A-10 Warthog. That struck me as an odd amount of money to ask for, but it turns out that’s the maximum that the Federal Election Commission allows youto give a candidate in each of his or her elections; and she’s fishing for the most money she can get. She says that it cost her over five million dollars to “dominate the GOP primary” and she needs to rebuild her war chest for the next phase of the battle. Ya gotta love all this military language.

I did prominently display my new pop-up A-10 Warthog, but I didn’t send her a check.

Now, here at Plane Tales we follow the old rules of the Western stage coaches: We don’t talk politics. But I will say this: As a general rule I don’t donate to political campaigns. I think there’s too much money in elections, and I’m not going to make the problem worse. Even if I were going to make an exception, I don’t think it would be to help fund a race in a neighboring state.

But I will say: Thank you, Colonel, for your service to our nation.

And thank you for the cool card.


Bull, but not like you think

My bedtime reading this month is Gordon Baxter’s Bax Seat. He’s a hoot to read. If you’ve never experienced him, file a flight plan to Amazon and pick up a copy of one of his books. Right now, I’m knee deep in the chapter, “A little orange-and-white airplane,” about his first airplane.

It’s a love story.

As a side note—and Bax was famous for his side notes—he mentions that his plane was born February 27, 1968, which makes her a Pisces. That struck a chord with me, but to be honest, I’d never thought twice about Tess’s Zodiac sign. I put the book down and headed for a computer.

My little blue-and-white love is, as it turns out, a Taurus.


Sidney Hall, 1824 from

Not knowing—or caring—much about horoscopes and the like, I had to do some research. According to Uncle Google, Taurians are reliable (ha!), practical, ambitious, and sensual (how true). Oddly, they are apparently earth signs, which seems odd to me for an airplane. I wasn’t sure how all this was stacking up, and it wasn’t improving my option about all things Zodiac until I picked up two little tidbits.

The first was the Taurus motto: “Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy.” Now that describes airplane ownership! And the second was the perfect love matches. Apparently, the top matches for a Taurus are Virgo, Capricorn, or Pisces.

I’m a Virgo.

Tess’s owner, Grandma Jean, is a Capricorn.

And Rio, Tess’s next caretaker, is a Pisces.

Sounds to me like matches made in the heavens.


Low altitude sickness and battle drones

Buzzing shrilly, like a swarm of angry wasps, the drone hovers over our dining room table.

Well, OK. “Hover” would be an exaggeration. Careen-wildly-back-and-forth would be more accurate. Despite my best efforts, and my drone pilot license, things could be going better. “Left, left, left,” says Lisa, then a second later, “right-right-right!” The drone bounces off the light fixture, grazes the patio door, then dives unexpectedly on our gray tabby, Cougar.

Cougar lets out a yowl and dashes for cover, his tail puffing up like a raccoon. The Siamese had the unusual good sense to take cover as soon as she heard the drone’s four motors start.

I add power and the drone surges upwards, slamming into the ceiling. I back off on the throttle and the palm-sized drone stabilizes for a moment, about six inches above our heads, then starts drifting toward Grandma Jean. Rio grabs a spatula to protect her. I add power again and the drone smoothly rises and becomes firmly entangled in the light fixture that hangs over the dinner table. The drone screams and bucks, freeing dust bunnies from the light, while I fumble with the controls to shut it off.


“Hmmm…” says Lisa.

Grandma Jean is silent, and Debbie, now that the coast is clear, returns her attention to her iPhone. Rio sighs, sets down the spatula, and rolls his eyes, “We really need to get you two back in the air.”

Yes. I’m suffering from low altitude sickness.

As is my wing-woman. That happens to pilots who spend too much time on the ground.

I set the drone’s controller down and gaze up at the drone. It’s one of a pair. This one has a tan camo paint job. Its partner sports green camo. Yep. They’re Battling Drones, designed for two-player dog fighting. Each drone is equipped with an infrared “cannon” so that they can shoot at each other. According to the box, when you hit your opponent, the other drone is temporarily disabled and its controller will light up, make noise, and vibrate to alert the pilot to the hit. Three hits and you win the dogfight.

Of course, the box also says each has a 6-axis gyroscope to make the drones easy to fly and keeps them stable. Allegedly, the drones can hover, move forward, backward, side-to-side, up and down, and make 360-degree flips. There’s even a high-speed flight mode.


It seemed the perfect distraction for a grounded, highly competitive pilot. In fact, I was so excited to try them out that I didn’t clear the dinner dishes before the maiden flight, even though the manual says, “It is recommended to operate the Battling Drone in a wide open space. The ideal space should have a 200-foot radius.”

But rather than cheering me up, the dangling drone has added to my depression. How am I ever going to master this diminutive hypersensitive aircraft enough to fly it in a controlled manner, much less actually shoot down my opponent with it?

Debbie casts one eye up at the dangling drone and suggests that perhaps our empty hangar might be a better place to train for the upcoming drone war.

“Count me in,” says Grandma Jean.


Getting ready to race

“One minute out,” said Lisa.

“45 seconds out,” said Lisa.

“30 seconds out,” said Lisa.

I griped the yoke horn firmly with my left hand, and wrapped my right hand around the throttle.

“15 seconds out,” said Lisa.

“Now,” said Lisa.

I snapped the yoke to the left and down. The horizon cartwheeled to the right. We rolled.

Ten degrees.

Fifteen degrees.

Twenty degrees.

Thirty degrees. I started pulling back to hold Tessie’s nose on the horizon.

Forty-five degrees. The controls began to get heavy.

Sixty degrees. A quick glace left. The ground seemed straight below, spinning around the wing tip. The airspeed began to fall off. The G-forces started pushing me back in my seat.

“Roll out!” commanded Lisa.

I spun the yoke back to the right, pushing forward at the same time, and the horizon dropped back to straight and level like the falling curtain at the theatre. The G-forces relaxed their grip. The airspeed began to recover.

“Crap,” said Lisa. We’re waaaay off again.”

So much for science. And technology had failed us twenty minutes earlier.

Lisa and I are trying to perfect the perfect race turn. Having received the official racecourse for the third SARL race of the season, we now know we need to make a pair of 120-degree heading changes on the roughly triangular racecourse. Figuring out that the heading changes were 120 degrees took us more time than it should have, especially considering that Lisa is an honest-to-God college professor. Of course, she’s a biologist, not a mathematician. In the end we ditched the calculus and laid a kindergarten protractor over the flight chart to determine how many degrees we had to turn through to get from one heading to the next.


Smart people often over-think things. Often the simplest solutions are the best. This would also prove true of the current problem Lisa and I were trying to over-think at 7,000 feet above the New Mexico desert.

Now, as you already know, there is no book called Air Racing For Dummies, and our competition is hardly going to share their secrets, so we are on our own to develop a plan to win. Because we are handicapped as air racers by having a slow plane, we are always looking for ways to gain seconds over the competition. One bright idea I had was to make our turns sharp. A plane making a “standard” turn takes two minutes to traverse a circle. A steeper bank drops that time. It also cuts the turn radius, the amount of real estate over the ground that the plane uses up making the turn. So a steep turn should keep us tighter to the course and give us an advantage over a plane making a more shallow turn. The downside is that air speed drops in steep turns, so it may be a wash, but steep turns are fun, and we got into this whole race business in the first place to have fun.

We originally played with 45-degree bank turns, but we’ve now upped the ante to 60-degrees of bank. It’s only 25 percent more angle, but it’s twice the fun. Oh. Right. And it should also cut the turn radius even more. Of course, the steeper the turn, the more it slows the airspeed, so it may be academic, but, again, I point you to the fun factor.

The angle of bank part of the plan is going fine, but we needed a way to know when to rollout of the turn. We’d tried eyeballing it on the Flight Pad (my iPad Mini streaming a Garmin GPS) but it updates too slowly and we lacked precision. Sometimes we rolled out early, other times late. I did some research and re-learned the forgotten rule of thumb that you should “lead” your rollout by half your bank angle. For a 60-degree bank, you’d roll the plane out when it’s 30-degress from its intended heading. When I read this, I realized at once that my otherwise useless-in-the-modern-world Directional Gyro (DG) all of a sudden had a new lease on life.

The DG is a descendant of the compass. Because compasses misbehave under a number of circumstances, and most especially in turns, the DG tracks and reports an airplane’s heading to help make course changes more precise. It’s a 360-degree ring, much like our kindergarten protractor, that rotates as the plane turns. Back in the days before GPS and moving maps on tablet computers, the DG was a key instrument in cross country flight.


I think you can see where this is going.

Yes. The plan was to set the DG to zero as we approached the turn, and use it to track how many degrees we’d turned, and then roll out smack on course.

It didn’t play out that way.

The first failure was the whole-set-to-zero thing. Due to the nature of gyroscopes, friction, and the fact that the stupid planet is rotating, DGs suffer from something called precession, which means they don’t hold their settings very well over time, creeping about 15 degrees per hour from their set course. Back in the day, we’d just periodically correct them using the compass. But as Lisa and I approached our first turn, the precession wasn’t 15-degrees per hour. It was more like 15 degrees per minute. Probably worse. We could see it moving, like the sped-up clock in the intro sequence of the old black and white Twilight Zone episodes.

Clearly our DG had a mechanical issue. Serves me right for buying a rebuilt one to save money.

The second failure was that the gyro, that wouldn’t stay still on a straight course like it’s supposed to, froze solid in a turn, now refusing to move when it should be. It was doing the exact opposite of what it was designed to do. To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. We flew along in silence for long minutes. Each brainstorming in silence.

Finally, Lisa said, “Let’s use time instead.”

And so we started experimenting. It was like an airborne version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. First we tried 10 seconds, but it was too hot and we overshot. Next we tried eight seconds. Still too much. Then five seconds. Not enough turn. Finally six seconds was just right.

But how to track time in the cockpit during a solo race, while managing the steep turn and all that goes with it? A dash mounted timer? Some sort of metronome? Remembering the protractor, we decided to test the simplest solution:

“One minute out,” said Lisa.

“45 seconds out,” said Lisa.

“30 seconds out,” said Lisa.

I griped the yoke horn firmly with my left hand, and wrapped my right hand around the throttle.

“15 seconds out,” said Lisa.

“Now,” said Lisa.

I snapped the yoke to the left and down. The horizon cartwheeled to the right. We rolled.

“One-one thousand,” I said out loud, “two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four-one thousand, five-one thousand, six-one thousand.”

I spun the yoke back to the right, pushing forward at the same time, and the horizon dropped back to straight and level like the falling curtain at the theatre.

I held course and let the data from the GPS catch up. The map on the touch screen jerked, flashed, then settled down.

And we were dead on course.


Post flight

Luckily for us, the bag that holds our headsets also holds our GPS and iPad. We’d set neither up, as we didn’t think we’d need them, but they were both in the luggage compartment. Rio reached back over the seat and fetched the two pieces of gear while I practiced my breathing exercises.

In a few minutes he had our nav system up and running and the radio chatter seemed to be dying down. I turned on a heading back to the airport. On the way back we saw quite a few members of our fleet flying in various directions and various altitudes. The pattern was busy and at least two planes cut others off, forcing extended patterns and at least one go-a-round. Finally we got a slot in the traffic pattern, number three to land. Some other minor chaos ensued and we had to extend long, but finally I was lined up on final for landing. I was shooting for mid-field to leave lots of room for the ’Coupe behind me, when it happened.

A Ryan Warbird pulled right out onto the runway in front of me, radioing, “Don’t worry little Ercoupe, I’ll be out of your way in a moment.”

It was the first time that day I wished I had guns. I would have shot the son of a bitch down.

To his credit, he was right; his powerful radial engine pulled him quickly ahead of me, but we had to land short, not long. I did a high-speed taxi to the first turnoff to clear the active runway. Then we taxied leisurely back to the apron, joined the refueling line, and shut down our engine.


Groups of pilots, in threes and fours, began to gather along the fueling line Monday-morning quarterbacking the flight. Grousing about what went wrong, offering thoughts on how it could have gone better. Syd was already dialing the FAA to cancel our airspace reservation, but at the last minute held off to wait for everyone’s feedback. I ended up missing the bitch session, but I understand from talking to others that Syd took a lot of heat.

But in Syd’s defense, he had spent a lot of time thinking about this flight, planning this flight, and even practicing the flight. Several years ago the Piper Cub had its anniversary and did a horribly disorganized flying chain into Oshkosh. They spaced out with miles between planes, leaving arriving traffic at Airventure in endless holding patterns while the Cubs straggled in. This left the FAA reluctant to let large fleets of amateurs attempt what we wanted to do. But they gave in and granted us a block of “sanitized” airspace. The airport would be closed to everyone but us. It was up to us to be professional and arrive in good, close order, and not tie everyone else up.

The problem—as I see I after the fact—is that there’s a Law of Engineering that says that up-scaling does not work. For an aviation example of this principle, I can direct you to Samuel Langley, aviation pioneer and head of the Smithsonian at the turn of the last century. He successfully created a small steam-powered “aerodrome” that flew almost a mile up the Potomac in flight tests. Delighted with the results, he built a larger, manned model that flew straight off its launch pad, dropped straight down into the drink, and nearly drowned its pilot.

Just because something works small, doesn’t mean it works big. And, boy, were we big.

Our chain of Ercoupes, had we all been properly spaced that day as planned, would have extended 22,000 feet long above the green fields of Wisconsin. Had the hoped-for 75 planes all been participating in the practice, the chain would have been 37,500 feet long. That’s over seven miles of Ercoupes. Now, small errors in a flight of ten planes are easily fixed and adjusted. Small errors in over seven miles of planes echo with the domino effect. But that’s easy to see in hindsight.

In the end our planned mass flight was cancelled. Our disastrous practice was only 16 or so hours before the real event. I think if we could have practiced twice more we could have mastered it, but there was no time left. The decision was announced: We fly in small flights by the standard approach.

I then made what would turn out to be the worst decision of my life. I opted out. Our hotel was in West Bend, 45 miles south of Oshkosh as the seagull flies. I couldn’t see any benefit to the time and trouble it would take to fly-in, virtually on our own, for only a few days, as we had to leave Airventure early. Plus, I’d only studied the departure process, not the approach procedures, as I didn’t think I’d need them. Instead, I decided we’d redeploy the plane and drive up for the rest of the activities of our group. I’ll share the horrible ramifications of that decision next week.

But in the end, how did I feel about taking part in this glorious disaster?

Once safely back on the ground, 1.8 hours later on my Hobbs meter, the events of the day brought to mind Shakespeare. Specifically, Henry V’s Band of Brothers speech before the battle of Agincourt, “…gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap…”

I’m damn glad I was part of it, not at home snugly “abed.”

And, in honor of Henry the Fifth, and Baron Von Cohen, this is what I wrote in my logbook that night:



Next time: The biggest mistake of my (flying) life


Dropping Chickens, Chapter 2

Depressed at our total failure, we brainstormed “the bombing problem” around our kitchen table as we sipped from bottles of Lisa’s homemade beer. I grilled her over and over again on her observations. We looked at the data she collected and recorded, the compass sightings of each falling chicken.


It was clear that the chickens were traveling a much shorter forward distance than we’d expected, but we weren’t sure by how much. Lisa was stationed at the edge of the target zone, observing the drops at an oblique angle as we approached.

Realizing that this was going to take a long time to work out, but happy to have an excuse for frequent flying, we developed a new test protocol. It was time to get scientific. This time, instead of targeting the center of the apron, we’d fly well south of it. In fact, we wouldn’t aim for it at all. When we were abeam Lisa’s location on the ground we’d release the chicken so she could get more precise measurements on the distance of the forward motion.

We also lowered the bombing altitude from 1,000 feet AGL to only 500 foot AGL, and decided to slow the plane to 80 miles per hour. We were removing as many variables and difficulties as we could. Once we understood the basic physics involved, we’d slowly increase altitude and develop a comprehensive strategy for hitting the target.

When the second batch of rubber chickens arrived, we packed a picnic and headed for the airport. I was fully prepared to lose another full batch of chickens, and had bookmarked the eBay seller to make it easier to reorder. This time Mom joined Lisa as a second official observer.

Debs chickened out.

Our observers on station and the bomb bay fully loaded with rubber chickens—OK, you got me, we put the chickens in the baggage compartment behind the seat—Rio and I barreled down the runway and lifted into a cool, calm early morning sky. We leveled out at 500 feet, banked right in a long lazy turn to get lined up with our target and made a radio call warning any other planes that might be in the area that we’d be conducting low-level operations over the airport.

I reached back behind me and grabbed the first chicken for Rio. He unwound the long, red plastic surveyor’s tape streamers that were tied to each talon. We knew that the streamers would change the aerodynamics of the fall, but decided that the benefits of actually observing the fall, and (hopefully) recovering at least some of the $9.00 chickens outweighed the change in performance. Our idea was that once we were coming close to hitting our target, we’d do away with the streamers and make whatever adjustments were required.

Rio fed the streamers out of his window first. I looked back over my shoulder and could see the twin six-foot snakes of plastic dancing and snapping in the wind, as if trying to grab our rudders. I lined up on the south side of the apron and as we approached told Rio, “Get ready… get ready… not yet…” Then, with Lisa off my wingtip below I called out, “Drop, drop, drop,” and Rio shoved the rubber chicken out the window. I banked sharply right, shoved the throttle to the firewall, pulled the nose up, and craned my head over my shoulder, but I couldn’t see anything.

“Hot damn!” crackled Lisa’s voice in my earphones. Then, “Uh… I meant to say, Chicken Ground to Chicken Air, you scored a near miss. The ordinance fell nearly straight down.”

“Say again?” I radioed.

“Near miss. Hold on.” I rolled the plane back over to the left and orbited the apron. I could see Lisa, in her bright orange vest and green hardhat, jogging across the pavement. She reached the corner and went out into the weeds, no more than five feet. I could see her jumping up and down and waving, then saw the bright red streamers at her feet. “To heck with the science, she radioed. Just drop right over the target and see what happens.”

“Give me another chicken,” said Rio. I reached back to grab another, throttled back to slow the plane down, and turned tail on the airport to get back in position for another run. Rio unwound the streamers and fed them out the window. This time I put the spinner dead center on the tarmac, then leaned forward in my seat to peer down over the leading edge of the left wing, trying to judge when to order the drop. The target would be out of sight when I was right over it. As the apron disappeared from view I counted five seconds to myself and gave the drop order.

“You sunk my battleship,” radioed Lisa.

We ran two more runs, and both hit the tarmac. Then we landed to admire our handiwork. I pulled up to the fuel pumps and shut down. I hauled myself up out of the deep cocoon of the cockpit and sat on the back of the seat. Leaning forward and resting my arms on the top of the bubble windshield, I took in the view. Three crumpled piles of surveyor’s tape sat in lumps on the pavement, hints of yellow rubber chickens peaking through the tangled masses. I had expected the tape to splay out from the chickens, but each one was buried by its own streamers. Lisa was already measuring the distance from the target to each pile. One missed by 154 feet, a second by 154. The closest of the tarmac strikes was 130 feet from the center of the target.

Now we were getting somewhere. From total failures who couldn’t even hit the airport to a 75% success rate in hitting the apron, the First New Mexico Chicken Bombing Squadron was well on its way to victory.

Post flight, hangin’ in the hangar and eating our picnic, Lisa, once again the scientist, tried to make sense of the day’s successes. While Rio happily munched on chips and salsa, fresh veggies and onion dip, nuts, and beef jerky, Lisa studied her data and “flew” over her notes with a Hallmark Sky’s the Limit Ercoupe Christmas ornament as a visual aid.


Of course, none of us had really expected the chickens to travel 747.58 feet forward from the drop point, but they had to have some forward motion. Or so we thought. But the observations and the day’s successes indicated that the chickens—contrary to all laws of physics—might actually be falling behind the spot where we released them. Up range, instead of down range.

That should not be possible in this universe. But it sure looked to be the case.

Finally we developed a theory. Maybe… Maybe… Maybe the rubber chickens were so light, and had such a large surface area that the slipstream—the vortices of wind coming off our propeller—was actually cancelling out the forward motion of the rubber chickens and blowing them back behind us, where they then slowed down and fell more or less straight down, like a chicken dropped from a hot air balloon, rather than a record-fast Ercoupe.

On the drive home we happily made plans for the next weekend. With the new data we had, I was now confident not only in being able to hit the airport, and the apron, but in being able to strike the very target blanket itself, laid out in the center of the tarmac.

Of course, I warned Rio that despite our hard work and practice, no doubt some fool who signed up at the last minute and never dropped a thing out of his plane would likely get lucky and win. Ever the optimist, he ignored me and cleared room for the rubber chicken trophy on one of the bookcases in his bedroom.

But the next day I got an email from the conference organizer. The airport fathers had put the kybosh on our fun. They decided to prohibit the chicken drop from going forward. They felt that so close to the big gathering of airplanes at Oshkosh, it might be unsafe.

I say that is chick-shit of them.