Get your mitts on the latest issue of AOPA’s Fight Training and go straight to page 38!
Last year, Lisa, Rio, and I went undercover. Twice. Well, once and a half, come to think of it. Here’s the Tale: As part of our General Aviation News series on air racing, we covered the National Air Races at Reno, and the grand finale of the Red Bull World Championship—which last year was held at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At Reno we had legitimate press credentials, but we also joined the exclusive Checkered Flag Club as full members.
So that was the one-half undercover. Why did we do that?
Well, while Rio covered the race pits and Lisa shot the race action from out on the pylons and on the ramp, the focus for my pen was on the race experience of spectators—especially the value of clubs like Reno’s Checkered Flag. Hence our memberships.
Then, for Red Bull, I decided to compare their Sky Lounge to Reno’s Checkered Flag Club. So the whole family went undercover with me to experience it, with none of us appling for press credentials. In hindsight, I probably should have written a single compare-and-contrast story, as the formula was somewhat the same and drew some negative feedback from readers, but going that route would have made for an article longer than any modern publication would run, what with reader attention spans getting shorter and shorter with each passing year.
Anyway, this year, exclusive clubs being out of the budget with all the repairs to Race 53, we applied for proper press credentials for the Red Bull. (We missed Reno altogether as AOPA’s Santa Fe regional fly-in was the same weekend. Really, who the heck schedules a fly-in the same weekend as the National Air Races???!) Anyway, Lisa and I were accepted by Red Bull, but poor Rio was rejected because he’s a teenager. This was especially embittering to him as his first published photo was of a Red Bull Air Race. And we wonder why we can’t get teens interested in aviation… But that’s a story for another day.
Still, Rio likes the Red Bull Air Races as a spectator as well, so he decided to come with us to watch from the stands while Lisa and I did the press thing. On the drive out, as we were—I kid you not—drinking Red Bulls, we wondered if the Red Bull folks would give free Red Bull drinks to the press. You see, as members of the Sky Lounge last year, we had full access to all-you-can-drink complimentary Red Bull. In fact, that’s what got us hooked on the stupid caffeinated energy drink in the first place. Prior to last year, none of us were Red Bull drinkers. Now, Red Bull is only trumped by Red Wine in our diets, which come to think of it, also flowed freely at the Sky Lounge.
But I digress. On one hand, it seemed like throwing Red Bulls at the press would be a smart thing to do. It couldn’t cost Red Bull much, and a happy press is more likely to give, well, good press, right? On the other hand, most outfits don’t do much for the media. Reno? They give the press water and granola bars.
Well, when we got to Ft. Worth, not only did we discover that the 60-odd credentialed media got free all-we-could-drink Red Bull, but we also had an awesome perch above the Sky Lounge on the 9thfloor of the swanky Speedway Club, giving us a stunning view of the race course.
The race planes zoomed into Gate 4 actually below us, then screamed up into their vertical turn maneuvers right beside the press centre. It may not have been all that great for the photographers (shooting though glass is a problem) but for writers like me it was awesome. Although, I think I was the only real writer there. Most of the media folks were shooters or video folks. Anyway, the press box also had catered breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks. If I had wanted to, I could have covered the entire event in absolute comfort. All I was missing was alcohol.
Needless to say, a great view, free food, and a forecast for race day of temperatures in the 40s got Rio’s temperature up even more over the lack of press recognition. Meanwhile, the press passes Lisa and I had gave us access to most of the venue, including a brief time set aside for to interview the racers in the pits, and roof access for photographers above race control. We also got a tour of race control and had the opportunity to go inside one of the inflatable pylons.
You can check out our coverage in the next GA News, but back to the Red Bull part of this Red Bull story. We drank five sugar free Red Bulls coming out. That was all the dollar store had left in inventory. Looking at all those coolers and mini-fridges full of Red Bull, and selfishly thinking about my upcoming airplane repair bills, I told Lisa, “We should be sure to grab a few cans for the trip back home.” So every time I knew I was going to pass the car in the media parking lot on my various travels back and forth across the grounds over the next couple of day, I’d grab a few and toss them into the trunk.
Lisa did the same. There were a lot of coats and what not in the trunk and I didn’t realize how many of the blue and silver cans were piling up until it got cold and I needed every jacket we brought.
Oh my. Feeling a bit guilty, I asked our press contacts just how many cans of Red Bull that Red Bull gives away each race season, figuring I could justify our “sampling program” by being an infinitesimal drop in a larger ocean. The media folks didn’t know, but promised to get with the marketing folks, who got back with the media folks, who got back with us that this information is a trade secret.
Well, there are no secrets here at Plane Tales, so if the marketing department is trying to figure out why five times more sugar-free Red Bulls were drunk by the press on a few cold days in Ft. Worth than at any other race in the series, we’re the guilty parties.
But, I suspect it will work out for Red Bull in the long run. If we got hooked by a few freebies last year, can you imagine what this stash will do to us?
I can see us now. Sitting on the street corner across from their Corporate HQ in Fuschl am See in Austria, sporting a hand-written sign on cardboard: Addicted and homeless. WILL WORK FOR RED BULL.
The latest FAA Safety Briefing has my take on where LSA fits into the world of Birds of a Different Feather.
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 OpenClipArt.org
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.
GA News readers demanded to know the rest of the (engine) story. The problem is, I don’t really know…. But I did my best on this, the 36th installment of my Air Racing from the Cockpit series.
I’m 600 feet off the deck. Below the soil is pale burnt orange, speckled with low-lying green shrubs. I can see curious trails of footprints winding among the vegetation, always leading north. Illegal emigrants, probably. I’m less than 10 miles from the Mexican border.
Then it occurs to me: Maybe skimming low along the surface this close to the border isn’t so smart. It might look, you know, suspicious or something.
Oh well. Too late now. If the Feds are waiting for me when I land, I have nothing to hide. Of course, the same can’t be said for Tessie. I’ve just learned that she was a smuggler in her youth.
Or maybe not.
But at a minimum, she was once owned by a smuggler, so who knows what dark dealings she might have had? Airplanes are good at hiding their secrets, but I’ve recently become determined to learn all of Tessie’s.
Here’s the tale: Our girl turns 71 this year. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with her second owner, and recently her owners from the 1980s reached out to me. They were happy to see their old plane was still flying and having an adventurous life. Anyway, chatting with them made me re-think the whole subject of airplane ownership. Properly cared for, airplanes are eternal. They live forever, so how can we really own them? I’ve noticed that the warbird crowd sometimes call themselves “custodians” or “caretakers” of their planes. They recognize that their planes will outlive them, and they view their role more as torchbearers than owners, regardless of what the paperwork says.
Perhaps that’s true of all old airplanes, not just warbirds. That gave rise to an idea for me. I’ve decided to write a biography of Tessie, a tale of her life and the story of the various people and families that were her custodians over the decades since she was built in 1947. I’m going to call the book, The Eternal Airplane.
I was able to get the names of the three previous owners simply by looking up her registration history online. One was the guy we bought her from. The next was just a name. Prior to him was the couple that reached out to me. And they gave me the name of the man they got her from. And before him? Who knows? But the FAA is good at keeping records, and hopefully as I locate each family, they can point me to the family before them. I know it will be a long (but fascinating) historical treasure hunt, one that will get more and more difficult the deeper into the past I dig. But what a story! Already I’ve learned that in addition to being a smuggler, she was Exhibit A in a major lawsuit. But that’s a tale for another day.
Back to the smuggling. Remember the man who was just a name? Using his name and the city he lived in that was listed in the FAA registry, I tried to find him. And I did.
In federal prison.
Apparently he’d gotten into some trouble in an airplane. Carrying drug money or some such.
Was I nervous about needing to talk to a convicted felon? Hell no, I was thrilled! Tessie rubbed elbows with smugglers and drug dealers! What a great story! Truth is stranger than fiction; you just can’t make up stuff like this! What other secrets are hidden in her aluminum heart? I don’t know yet, but I’m determined to find out.
Oh. And what about the feds? Were they waiting for Tessie and me when we touched down within spitting distance of the Mexican border? Nope.
But was I imagining it? Or did my delightfully scandalous girl seem to breathe a sigh of relief as I shut her engine down?
Check out the “mobile-friendly” version of my latest for FAA Safety Briefing. It’s got this cool cascading set of graphics between the text sections as you scroll through the article. What article, you ask? Link Trainer, to Desktop, to Redbird: The Evolving Role of Flight Simulation, which was part of the recent Sim City issue!
Well, hell. It’s over. I mean, I knew it was coming… But I didn’t know today would be the day. I sigh and set my phone down on the kitchen table. Drain my wine glass. A strong cold wind rattles the windows, matching my sombering mood. Maybe one more glass tonight, as a nightcap.
As a yearcap. Well, a nearly twoyearcap.
Yes, the final chapter of Air Racing From the Cockpit debuted online tonight at General Aviation News. I was checking the website on my phone because the battery on my FlightPad was low. Of course, that final chapter won’t appear in the print version until the October 5th issue, but the end of the journey is official, and damn, am I ever going to miss it.
It’s been an extraordinary series for me—as a pilot, as a writer, as a person. Starting off as an assignment to write a few articles about what it’s like to join the Sport Air Racing League (SARL), for both the magazine and the website, Air Racing From the Cockpit blossomed into a mind-boggling 34-part series that dominated huge chunks of the publication, sometimes spreading over four full pages, my words illustrated by the work of my amazing photographer pal Lisa.
The series was actually scheduled to run even longer, following all the races this year, which would have brought the total up to 40 installments, but my on-going engine problems cut that short. Actually, I’m the one who made the call to wrap up early. Sure, mechanical troubles are part of the story of airplanes, but I knew my readers were more interested in racing than wrenching. Fans of Air Racing From the Cockpit would quickly tire of Air Racing From the Maintenance Shop, so I felt a duty to end the series well.
Still, a 34-part series? Who the hell gets to write a 34-part series? I’m still pinching myself.
The entire body of work totals up to something like 60,000 words. That’s book length. About the same number of words that a typical novel has. So what about that? Will I turn it into a book?
Clip art Courtesy Clipart Panda
No, I don’t think so. First off, that’s cheating. At least that’s how I feel about it. I hate it when a writer dusts off a bunch of old stuff, stitches it together, and calls it a book. Books need to be crafted as a single cohesive unit. I guess, since this is really one long story, it would read better than a book full of Dear Abby columns, but it still doesn’t seem right to me. It wouldn’t be an honest labor for a wordsmith. Plus, from a practical standpoint, why would anyone buy something they could read online for free? All the dispatches are right here, all you have to do is scroll back in time a few pages to get to the beginning.
Of course, there are a book-full of events, encounters, excursions, and escapades that happened between the pages of Air Racing from the Cockpit that didn’t make it into print. That’s a book I am considering. Writing the story of the story, as it were, using the Races as a scaffolding on which to hang a whole new work.
(So, if there are any book publishers out there interested, you know where to find me! Oh, and if you don’t, there’s an email link on the top left above if you’re on a desktop… If you are on a mobile device, it gets bumped to the bottom somewhere.)
Meanwhile, it’s not like GA News has kicked me to the curb. I’ve got some Reno coverage coming up and I’ll be writing about the season finale of the Red Bull Air Races. Plus, I’ve got an article that compares air racing to poker. Just wait and see.
But I’ll miss “my” series. I had the time of my life writing it, and I hope you enjoyed reading it. But it’s time to move on. All good things (and times) come to an end. What’s ahead?
I don’t know yet, but my editor had a suggestion. She wrote me, saying: “We’ll just have to find a new obsession for you to write about.”