The Flight of the Phoenix

The final installment of Air Racing From the Cockpit just hit the streets. It’s part twenty. Can you believe it? I can’t. I’ve been writing professionally for nearly 40 years and I can assure you I’ve never had a gig like this! Aside from regular columns, I think the largest series I’ve ever written on one subject was four-part series.

Plus, each was given generous space and was lavishly illustrated.

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That’s over with now, but don’t be sad: I have good news. Air Racing From the Cockpit is coming back next season! Each story will be slightly shorter–web stats show modern readers don’t finish longer articles anymore–but every single issue from March until the end of the year will feature a new race adventure.

There are 18 races scheduled so far this year, and three more in the works. It will be a long and tough season. Will we score the Gold? Follow me on the pages of GA News to find out. The second season of the series starts March 23!



In the news… General Aviation News

As promised, here’s a News Bulletin for you! Don’t walk, but run to your local airport and pick up a copy of the March 24 issue of GA news…

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…and turn to page 6 in the “A” section for the first dispatch in my multi-part look at air racing from the inside!

Speaking of inside, the editors featured a nice shot of the cockpit of the Plane Tales plane to illustrate the article:

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The literary mercenary

“…he was looking for something else and decided to walk in the minefield that is called freelancing. That is a form of unemployment where you seek out piecework that will result in income. It isn’t really a job, there are no benefits, and you get to pay both halves of the payroll tax.”

–Richard L. Collins, in his Introduction to Phil Scott’s Then and Now: How airplanes got this way


Never have I read a better description of my job, my life, my existence as a writer-for-hire. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Life is good on a pen and a wing. The quest for work is a satisfying challenge, and while that double payroll tax is annoying, I can take pride in the fact that I do well enough by myself that I actually have to pay it.

Now, one of the functions of Plane Tales is to serve as a continually updating resume in my quest for that piecework that (hopefully) results in income. Every time I get an assignment, or something new of mine appears in print, I post an announcement here.

What? You didn’t notice?

Yeah. Don’t feel bad. Neither does anyone else. Ironically, as an aerial nomad, I’m the victim of mobility. Those of you who read Plane Tales on a desktop computer might have noticed the list of publications in the right-hand menu bar. Those of you who read me mobile just said: What menu bar?

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Yes, I’ve just learned that when Plane Tales displays on the smaller screens of mobile devices, all the navigation tabs (and the email link) are moved to the bottom, buried under scores of older posts where no one ever sees them. So in addition to my usual Friday Tale, I’ve decided to give you a head’s up here in the main section of the site when something new I’ve written has landed.

Today, you need to file a flight plan for the April Issue of Flight Training Magazine…


…where I have an article called, “The case of the mysterious lever.” I confess, when I saw the title and my byline in the table of contents, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I had written about. The article was one of those non-time sensitive “evergreen” pieces that editors sometimes sit on for awhile, holding them until they have some space to fill, and I’d completely forgotten about it.

What’s the lever? Well, you’ll just have to do what I did. Read my own article to find out.

Gotta run, I’m off to the minefield.


Fly Write

I, a 51-year-old aviator, and a veteran of more than three decades of wielding a pen professionally, have no excuse for not having not read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry earlier. He’s the quintessential aviation writer, renowned for his lyrical descriptions of the world a-wing. But somehow, I never made time to read him.

Then last month I was gifted a first-edition French copy of Pilote de Guerre, but despite my last name, I know only a word or two of the tongue of my ancestors. Still, the un-readable gift was a reminder of a duty undone, and it galvanized me to go to Amazon, where I scored a first edition, third printing hardcover of the English translation, entitled Flight to Arras (the same book with a very different title—the French translates to Pilot of War), for $14.95, and I’m reading it now.

St. Ex is famous in both literary and winged circles for his command of language and his ability to paint vivid pictures with words that speak to the souls of flyers and non-flyers alike. My French-reading mother assures me his command of French is unrivalled by any other author, and that every page sings.

Sometimes St. Ex waxes overly philosophical for my taste, but his prose does not disappoint. On page 79 I found the most marvelous description of a contrail I have ever read, and I just have to share it with you:

The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the water vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside.

…like a bridal veil… meteoric flight… a cirrus of icicles… cloud over the countryside… Wow! Poetry and science. Science and poetry.

That man could sure write!

Welcome to Plane Tales

I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air and Space. My story: Write up my year-long epic in buying and restoring N3976H, our 1947 Ercoupe 415 CD. The only problem? I need to do it in 1,200 words. That’s only 3.2 words per day! As you can’t even do haiku in that length, my editor has cautioned me that I might need to edit out part of the tale to keep it short enough.

I can do that.


But I need to get started. So where to start this story? Good stories don’t always start at the beginning. Sometimes they start at the end. Sometimes they start in the middle. Mine has so many twisting paths that it’s really at least five stories in one.

One place I could start would be in Steve’s Hangar…

Lead 1

“I don’t know much about airplanes,” said my friend Lisa, “but there looks to be something missing.”

“Yes,” I sighed, looking at the Ercoupe. “The tail.”

The entire tail of the airplane, with its distinctive twin rudders, was nowhere to be seen. The engine was exposed. The propeller lay on the floor of the hangar. A small crane suspended the front of the plane because the nose gear had been taken off. All the windows were missing and the panel looked like Swiss cheese— empty gaping holes where instruments should have been—wires running hither-thither. It looked more junkyard than restoration, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more depressed in my life.


You know, you need to be careful what you wish for.

Or maybe I should start the story with the pivotal event that set the wheels of fate in motion, a tiny little airplane wreck that I wasn’t even personally involved in, but affected me directly…

Lead 2

It started with a bent wheel. Some moron taxied my favorite rental plane off the edge of the runway and bent one of the wheels of the main landing gear. No big deal, but the replacement wheel had to be ordered from Germany, and the plane was out of service for a couple of weeks.

bent wheel

And I began to go through flying withdrawal.

That, in turn, led to the conversation that would change the course of my life. Well, at least the course of my life for the next twelve months. And the course of my checking account forever.

Or I could be highly creative and “trick” my reader. I really enjoy throwing people off base for a few seconds, I’m a bit of a brat that way…

Lead 3

I was hijacked. But I couldn’t enter the air piracy code—7500—into my transponder. Like many things in my “brand new” plane, the transponder wasn’t working. But it wouldn’t have helped anyway. After all, the hijacking took place in my kitchen. And the hijacker was my 87-year-old mother.

Or I could go with action…

Lead 4

It was going to be a bad landing. We were too damn high, too damn fast, and it was too damn late to do anything about it. My engine was overheating and the gas tanks were leaking. I wasn’t sure I had enough gas left to abort the landing and do a go-around. And to top it all off, with no functioning radio, I couldn’t tell the other planes in the traffic pattern what I was doing.

“Come on, come on, come on,” I urged little plane towards the runway, as if words alone could change the laws of aerodynamics and gravity. My wheels hadn’t kissed the pavement yet and I was running out of runway.

At the halfway point we hit the pavement, bounced back up into the air, ballooned, hit the pavement again with a thump, and screeched onto the runway. The cactus off the end of the threshold rushed up towards us. I stomped on the brake pedal full-force and my shoulder belt cut into my skin. And then… And then…

We were safe and sound on the ground.

Safe and sound on the ground, with bone-dry tanks, at a remote strip where they didn’t sell gasoline.

Or I could be poetic. Set the stage with intriguing imagery…

Lead 5

South of the forlorn airstrip the mountains of Mexico shimmered in the late-day heat. Nothing stirred. A faded windsock hung limply from its mast. Next to the crumbling terminal building sat a single pathetic Saguaro cactus.

Across a seemingly endless expanse of sweltering concrete sat four airplanes under a two-story-tall sun shelter that wasn’t working—its massive roof cast the cooling shadow far beyond the tied-down airplanes, and all of them sat baking in the sun. One of the planes was a little blue and white Ercoupe, and boy, was I happy to see it sitting there. I’d had nightmares for a week that I’d be standing on this very spot staring at empty pavement.

A week ago, when I had to abandon my “new” plane—out of gas and with broken radios—at this remote spot, I learned that just days before someone else’s plane had been stolen from the very spot I was parked in.

I had come back to Gila Bend, Arizona, in a Subaru full of Jerry Cans to rescue my “new” airplane.


And the winner is…

So which lead did I choose in the end? Well, you’ll just have to wait until the magazine comes out. In the meantime, welcome to Plane Tales, my new home base. The virtual airport for my pen. Here I’ll keep you up-to-date on my Fly Writing with links to new articles as they are published, expanded content, exclusive stories, and assorted adventures that take place on a Wing and a Pen!