The Eternal Airplane

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.

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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?

 

Sweet!

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!

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All good things (and times) come to an end

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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!