Cutting a shortcut

Yellow-gold sparks flowed like a fountain from the tip of the Dremel tool, as small beads of metal bounced off my face. Luckily, I had an old pair of safety goggles from Lisa protecting my eyes. It was slow going, cutting the old metal, so my writer’s imagination wandered.

First I was a steel mill worker, forging raw iron. Then a commando, cutting through the barricades on the beaches of Normandy the day before the invasion. Next a safe cracker after the gold and diamonds just beyond…

“How’s it goin’?” interrupted Lisa, bringing me sharply back to reality.

I set the Dremel on the platform of the stepladder, and studied my progress. I’d managed to cut a good five inches. I had three feet to go. “This might take a while,” I told her, then fired up the Dremel again, its high-pitched soprano electric whine dropping to baritone as I touched the whirling cutting blade to the metal wall in a fresh shower of sparks. The Dremel moved right to left, awkward for a lefty, bringing back a memory from last year’s OMG Facts Calendar that some ridiculously large number of left-handed people are killed each year by right-hand optimized power tools.

Hmmmm….

Well. The job must be done: Lisa and I are on a mission of unification. Bringing together two separate peoples. Really, an act of absolute selflessness.

OK. Well. That’s a lie. We’re just making a short cut. Here’s the deal: Even though our hangars are separated only by a thin sheet of metal, we are literally distant neighbors at the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport.

This is because of the architecture of airplane hangars.

Our airport has just one hangar building, a six-plane type (although our two planes are the only ones there) called a “T-hangar” because it’s built out of T-shaped jigsaw puzzle pieces, with three interlocking Ts to a side. The top of the T accommodates wings as wide as forty-two feet. The base of the T accommodates the far skinnier tail of an airplane.

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Image: Teachspan

A T-hangar is a way to efficiently pack more planes per square foot of hangar, as the Ts interlock with a bit of room left over on each end, and little space is wasted. If you just strung six airplane-sized garages together, you’d have a much larger building and a couple of planeloads of wasted space.

Now, in our case, I have the end hangar on the North and Lisa has the end hangar on the South. Even though Superman would have no problem seeing though the wall that separates us, it’s a surprisingly long hike around the end of building to get from her hangar to mine and vice versa. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but you’d be surprised when we are both at the airport how often one of us needs something that’s in the other’s hangar. Plus, when we are both in one of hangars with the other hangar open, we can’t help but worry a bit about the security of the airplane next door.

“We should just cut a damn hatchway in the wall between our hangars,” Lisa said one afternoon after coming back from the other side with the wrong screwdriver.

I started studying the wall. It was made up of door-width metal panels, connected to each other with large nuts and bolts, then connected to a heavy frame work. The walls aren’t “load bearing,” meaning that removing one would have no effect on the structure. Of course the walls are crazy high, 18 or 20 feet. But surely cutting the bottom seven feet off of one panel wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Thus began operation shortcut. We had all kinds of worries, including, what the heck kind of metal is this, can it be cut without lasers and plasma torches, and will those 40-year-old nuts ever free themselves from their sister bolts?

As it turns out, it was a one-hour job. Or would have been if I’d remembered the right accessories the first time we drove down to do it, and if I hadn’t broken one of the said accessories on the second attempt.

Still, the cutting went well, the nuts and bolts gave way quickly under the power of our socket wrenches and skinny arms, and in no time I was able to gently lower a sheet of metal slowly into my hangar to reveal:

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My neighbor!

Of course, we had the proper blessing, and our work is largely reversible by bolting the section back into place and using some duct tape to seal the thin cut should either of us ever move away. In the mean time, we were able to bolt the panel we removed to one of Lisa’s naked walls (she needs an art intervention) where it is safe, won’t get lost, and won’t fall on anyone’s head.

And I wasn’t killed by a right-handed power tool.

 

Something we could agree on

It was colder than forecast. You can’t trust weatherman and psychics. The easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propeller, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Earlier that afternoon, we’d come to the hangar to deal with some electrical connection issues on the new engine monitor. I sat on a stool with my head under the cowl, my iPhone on speaker, while tech support guided me through the process of checking the wire connections. That actually worked out OK, partly thanks to the fact that we had earlier watched a YouTube video on how to use the hand-held electrical tester that we’ve owned for years and never used.

It was one of those things I bought because an airplane owner is supposed to have one.

The electrical gremlins subdued for the moment, the sun was getting low in the sky, and we had to zip our jackets up. We probably should have called it a day, but I was too excited about our race propeller to have the sense to wait for a warmer day to finish the job. As far as I was concerned, now that the work was done, it was time for some fun.

Fun being painting the black checks onto last week’s white prop tips to finish our new race prop look. Before Rio changed his mind.

I used a seamstress-style cloth measuring tape to mark the centerline of the prop, then drew a thin pencil line from the tipity-tip of the blade to the end of the white paint I applied last week. Next, I carefully lined up the first of the blue painter’s tape squares, making sure its edges lined up exactly with the edge of the white paint and the pencil line, then smoothing it firmly along its edges and lightly in the middle. I need it tight on the edges so the paint lines will be sharp and clean, but light enough that it won’t pull part of the white paint off when I remove it, which would cause me a great deal of pain and stress.

The square didn’t quite reach to the edge, so I added a second piece to extend it a sixteenth of an inch or more.

Then I applied three more squares, bending the tape around the edges of the propeller blade as I worked my way up toward the tip. Then I repeated the process on the other end of the prop. The tape masks off four squares of the white paint. When I hit the prop tips with Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, the exposed white squares will be painted black. When I remove the tape, revealing the protected white squares beneath, I’ll have my very own Barnstormer Propeller. At least that’s the plan. And it won’t be an authentic reproduction. Or, well, maybe it will be.

Anyway, just looking at the checkerboard pattern created by the tape, I was optimistic the final product would look good.

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While Rio and Lisa started covering the canopy with cleaning rags to protect the glass from errant spray paint, I added a few more strips of blue tape to the prop to protect the main blade from over-spray.

We buttoned up the hangar. Lisa held a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to catch the overspray and Rio held a shop light.

Remembering the running paint issue from last week, I tried to go lightly. But the damn black paint is a different beast from the white paint. The can spat the paint out in large droplets, leaving a splattered look. I tried patting them flat with a paper towel, but that created a rough look. We had to wipe some of the squares off and start again.

Then the sun set.

And the mercury dropped.

The paint dried slowly between applications.

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I had thought two light coats would do, as the paint is so much darker than the white, but it took three. Our feet getting cold, we retreated to the terminal building while we waited for the final coat to set enough that I could remove the tape.

But when we returned, working by the headlights of my hot rod, the easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propellor, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I picked at the tape from the back of the blade, finally freeing a corner. Holding it between two fingers, I began to pull, stretching the tape as I went.

Slowly, stubbornly, the first three pieces came off, revealing magically sharp lines between my white and black checkers. Then it happened.

One of the squares took a large chunk of white paint off with it. My hopes for a beautiful Barnstormer Propeller crashed and burned.

But it was the only one that gave me trouble. The rest came out perfect:

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So I’ve got one touch up for another day, but I went home more happy than upset. The next day I had to fly to Santa Fe. In the daylight, on the tarmac, the final effect blew my mind:

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And later than night as Rio and I disagreed on paint schemes, he told me, “Well, Dad, at least we agreed on the propeller.”

Something we can agree on

Sporty’s Pilot Shop has been around as long as I can recall. As a student pilot in the early 1980s I can remember taking a break from my studies of aviation weather, cross country flight planning, and the FARs by thumbing through their full color mail order catalog; drooling at all the wonderful things that were out of my reach.

Leather flight jackets, pilot watches that cost more than my car, and those short boots airline pilots used to wear.

Of course they had practical things, too. Kneeboards, a folding navigation plotter, airspace memory cards, and little rotating plastic calculators to help you figure out the best runway to land on.

And they had mysterious things only airplane owners would need. Tow bars, oxygen systems, cowl plugs, and engine heaters. A back seat air conditioner?

I still get the Sporty’s catalog. And I still thumb through it when I need a mental break from more serious work. They also send me their newer Wright Brother’s Collection catalog, which is more gift oriented. Cool aviation décor and art, books, videos, clothing, and more. In the most recent edition this photo caught my eye:

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The trio of props were called “Barnstormer Propellers.” According to the add copy, the handcrafted solid wood propellers are “authentic reproductions,” which if you think about it, is an oxymoron.

But naturally I was taken with the race flag prop.

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I could totally see Tess, a.k.a. Race 53, sporting race flag prop tips. Of course, given Rio’s recent reaction to race-themed paint schemes, I didn’t hold out much hope that he’d agree. Still, I tore out the page to show it to him later.

To my surprise, when he looked at it, he was OK with it. He actually thought it would look good, as did his mother and our buddy Lisa. It then it fell to me to figure out how to make it happen. Thanks to a combination of a poor paint choice by a previous owner, and a poor choice of cleaning materials by us, we’ve actually had to repaint the prop tips once before. As I recall, it went badly.

But that’s a paint tale for another day.

The plan for this cosmetic speed mod was simple enough, mask off the tip, sparingly spray paint it white, somehow mask off white checks with some sort of tape, then spay over sparingly with black paint, and voilà!

Off to Home Depot we went. Or maybe it was Lowes. Anyway, after showing our driver’s licenses to prove we were old enough to buy one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white spray paint and one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, Lisa and I stood in front of a towering edifice of rolls of painter’s tape in every width and length imaginable. “Too bad,” I said to Lisa, “that they don’t make this stuff in pre-cut squares.”

And then it occurred to me: Maybe they did. A quick Google search on my iPhone proved that an angel had just whispered in my ear: 3-M blue painter’s tape comes in a dizzying array of squares and rectangles. But what size of square did we need?

We agreed we’d need to be standing in front of the prop to figure that out.

The next week, after some approach-to-landing training for Lisa, she got out a pad of three-inch sticky notes and stuck them on the prop. It didn’t work out too well. For one thing, putting enough of them on to give a checkered flag look ate up a third of the prop. Too big. Next she cut them down to 2.5 inches, for a momma bear effect. Better, but not just right. At two and a quarter inches, we judged the size of the squares to be perfect.

Naturally, 2.25 inches is the only size of tape squares not made.

Back to the drawing board. Well, cutting board.

In the end, we decided that two inches was the ticket.

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And standing in the hangar, I ordered the squares from Amazon. “They’ll be here Wednesday,” I told Lisa. Then thinking for a moment said, “Wanna get the white paint on now?”

“Sure,” said my wing woman, “it’ll give the white paint plenty of time to set before we do the black.”

So we covered every inch of glass on the plane with cleaning rags—as I said, we’ve had some bad experiences with spray paint in the past—and got to work.

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We carefully calculated how far down the prop the race checkers should go (eight inches) then spent some time trying to figure out how to get the tape perfectly perpendicular to propeller. I then ran my finger back and forth over the edge of the tape to ensure it was down tightly for a sharp paint edge, and lightly attached several more strips of painter’s tape to protect the main body of the prop from over-spray.

Next, we closed the hangar doors down to a crack to let in light, but no wind. Lisa held up a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to protect the plane, and I starting shaking the can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint for the required 60 seconds.

Then, using short, sweeping bursts, I got a lovely coat of smooth white paint over the tip of the propeller. I set the paint can down and pushed the hangar door open to let in more light. A cloud of floating Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint particles was sucked out into the breeze like exhaled cigarette smoke. I inspected my paint job. Generally speaking, I’m a poor handyman, but everyone once and a while things work out for me perfectly.

This was not one of those times.

Almost at once, the paint began to run, forming a thick artery of paint on the smooth surface. I let out a choked wail and dashed for the roll of heavy blue paper shop towels that lives in the tool cabinet. Luckily, the prop being so smooth, the thick layer of paint wiped clean off with several strokes.

On the second try, hangar door cracked, paint shaken for sixty seconds, I painted just a kiss of paint onto the prop tip. Then we did the other side. After letting the hangar exhale paint smoke a second time, we inspected the tips. The white paint look grey and thin, but it wasn’t running. We kicked back and started a pair of cigars to let the paint dry, then hit the tips again, drank some whiskey to let the second coat set, then hit the tips a third time, and so forth.

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Four light coats did the trick. The last phase was to remove the tape. Naturally I had visions of the tape pulling a large part of the paint on the prop off with it, but no, it came off perfectly clean.

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So far, so good. How’d the blue tape squares and black paint work out? I don’t know. We haven’t done the second half of the job yet. I guess that will be next week’s Plane Tale.

See you then and here.

 

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.

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“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.

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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.

 

Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid

Lisa turns and waves. She has a goofy grin on her face and her eyes are twinkling. She raises her camera to take a picture of me. I see the shutter open and close through the camera’s lens. I wave back.

This wouldn’t be the least bit remarkable if we weren’t in two different airplanes.

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

Three feet separates my wing tip from Lisa’s plane. I can see every seam, every rivet, every marking on her plane, just as clearly as if I were standing on the ramp next to it—instead of a thousand feet above the ground flying at two hundred and fifty miles per hour.

I’ve never done any formation flying before this, and I’m enthralled. As cool as it looks from the ground, nothing compares to how cool it looks from the cockpit.

Suddenly, we hit a patch of rough air. Our planes leap upwards, but amazingly, the two aircraft remain exactly in the same position relative to each other, moving as a single unit, as if they were one plane bolted together by steel beams and girders.

It’s AirVenture, and are we ever having an air venture! Lisa and I have hitched rides in the back seats of a pair of tailwheel Yak 52s belonging to the Phillips 66 Aerostars, a decade-old precision aerobatic team. We’re headed out over Lake Winnebago under gray skies, racing an approaching thunderstorm, so the Aerostars can show us their stuff.

Phillips 66 is the new primary sponsor of the Aerostars, but the company is no stranger to aviation. They’ve been making oil and gas for airplane engines since 1926. Today, Phillips 66 is one of the big players in aircraft oil, their main rival being AeroShell. I’ve been unable to figure out who has the greater market share, but my sense from what I see at airports is that Phillips is the leader in mutligrade oils, while AeroShell seems to have the lead the single-weight market, but I could be wrong about that. But one thing’s for sure, Phillips has the cooler logo:

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I study the Yak 52 Lisa is riding in, floating, unearthly, right outside my canopy. It fills my field of view.

“How on earth did you learn to do this?” I ask my pilot, “It’s frickin’ amazing.”

David “Cupid” Monroe laughs. “It’s really not that hard. You just establish a sight picture and hold it.” I’ve heard acro pilots say this before, but it never made any sense to me, and it still doesn’t, so I say nothing. “It’s just like shooting an ILS approach,” he goes on, and suddenly I get it.

In instrument flight, you use cockpit gauges to place the plane in a specific slice of airspace, and keep it there. One traditional instrument had two crossed needles. The vertical needle showed if you were drifting left or right of the runway as you approached it through the fog and clouds; and the horizontal needle told you if you were descending on the proper glide slope to clear terrain, buildings, and cell phone towers. Keeping the two needles nailed on the crosshairs kept you on the right approach.

What “Cupid” was telling me was that instead of lining up on an instrument, he was lining up his plane so that key parts of the other plane appeared through his canopy in exactly the right place, then, just like shooting an ILS, he made continuous micro corrections to hold the “sight picture”—essentially keeping his plane in the crosshairs established by the position of the leader’s plane out of the window.

Suddenly, it all seemed so simple. Something I could learn to do.

In the front cockpit of Lisa’s Yak, lead pilot Harvey “Boss” Meek makes a spinning motion with his right hand. In one smooth motion we dip down, pass beneath the leader, and come up on the opposite side. I felt like I could reach up and stroke the belly of the other plane as we slid under it.

The two planes split apart and dive for Lake Winnebago. Normally the Aerostars loop as a team in their signature tight formation, but they don’t do actual performances with deadweight journalists in the back seats, so for safety—there’s and ours—they ran the demo acrobatics wide.

“Cupid” pulls back on the stick and the Yak curves gracefully up toward the gray skies above, stands on her tail, and then we are upside down, the blue lake above us. The G-forces push me back in my seat, an airplane bear hug.

I love it.

As we slide down the back of the loop I let out a whoop of joy, just to let my pilot know I’m having a good time. Next we do a barrel roll, my all-time favorite maneuver. I enjoy them so much that I sometimes wish I owned an acrobatic plane, or that our plane was acro-capable. I don’t know if they are true, but I remember readings stories as a child of World War II fighter aces doing barrel rolls over their runways as they returned from missions. One roll for each victory.

The fun was capped off with a Half Cuban Eight, a maneuver that is more or less half a loop with half a roll.

The acrobatics were fun, but it was flying wing-tip to wing-tip out and back from the acrobatic zone that made the greatest impression on me. It was amazing and beautiful.

It made me wish that Lisa had a plane too, so that we could get some training and fly formation together. And in fact, thanks to our trip to AirVenture that just might happen.

Lisa getting a plane, that is. But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.

 

Small treasures

Confession: I like museums; and I especially like unlikely museums. Take, for example, the humble-looking blue-roofed metal building near the entrance of the North Texas Regional Airport. This structure—easily mistaken for a low-rent industrial building—is the home of the Perrin Air Force Base Historical Museum. It’s an airplane museum, and a whole lot more. But to understand that, you need to know a few things about the unlikely history of the base.

Back in the 1940s, the county fathers of Grayson County north of Dallas hoped to attract some sort of federal facility to provide jobs and money to the community. They dispatched County Judge Jake J. Loy on a pilgrimage to Washington D.C. to convince the feds to build a munitions factory on a piece of land they conveniently owned in the middle of nowhere, between the towns of Dennison and Sherman.

He failed.

But he did score an Army Air Force training base instead. And thus was born Perrin Field.

It actually opened before World War II, but like most of the 783 Army Air Force fields built in the continental U.S. during the war, it was shuttered almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.

But the Perrin story didn’t end there. Unlike most of the AAF bases, which got turned over to local communities to serve as municipal airports, Perrin got a second lease on military life.

The base reopened a few years later during the Korean conflict, and evolved to become a major training base for the United States Air Force during the cold war. It stayed active until 1971, when finally, like its World War II brothers, it was turned over to the local community and ultimately became North Texas Regional Airport.

But while it was open, because it was a large military base in a warm climate, retirees from all branches of the service settled in the area to take advantage of the base’s medical facilities and discount base exchange.

Which brings us back to our museum. Run by the non-profit Perrin Field Historical Society, its charter is to “record and preserve the story of Perrin Field during thirty years of operating as a active military installation.”

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And it does that through a splendid collection of artifacts donated by service men (and women) who worked at the base.

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The collection ranges from uniforms, to training aids, to an honest-to-God jet training airplane. Cases and cases of fascinating artifacts fill the building, which is run by cheerful volunteers who guide you through the collection answering questions and pointing out things you might otherwise miss, like the fact that the picture of the P-40 on the wall isn’t a picture. It’s cross-stitch.

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And it’s not just Air Force Stuff. Remember all those retirees from other braches of the service I told you about? Retired Marines, Soldiers, and Seaman have been generous with their memorabilia. In fact, the museum volunteers tell me it’s not unusual for them to show up at work in the morning and find—like an abandoned baby on the doorstep—a box of artifacts sitting by the front door. One time, they arrived to find an anonymously donated military surgeon’s kit, complete with morphine from the 1950s!

The kit, minus the morphine now, is on display.

Like many small museums, you can get up close and personal with the collection and there are plenty of things for children and the young at heart to get hands-on with.

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So should you find yourself in Dennison-Sherman (hey, it could happen), make time to spend a few hours at this little treasure of a museum.

 

Engineering a mystery

Engines have always been a mystery to me. They are strange boxes under the hood or wrapped in a cowl. I’ve never worked on one, and most of my life I’ve had only the vaguest notion of how they actually function. But now that we’re an airplane-owning family, some knowledge of how engines work is mandatory.

My mechanic has been patient with me. Showing me parts and reminding me, time and time again, what their names are. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’m beginning to understand. But as a visual learner, I have a hard time grasping things that I can’t see. And of course, the more of your engine you can see, the more your maintenance bill is going to be!

Rio to the rescue.

During a recent outing to a hobby store, Rio encountered a plastic see-thru engine model kit made by Haynes, who is also apparently the leading publisher of engine how-to-repair handbooks in the real world. The model kit was a hair pricy, but he was keen on it, and I had a flash of inspiration that this might finally give me the look inside an engine that I needed to really understand, not just the nuts and bolts, but how the parts relate to each other; and more importantly, how they dance with each other in a living, breathing engine.

The model came home with us.

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It’s a replica of a simple “straight four” internal combustion engine, not very airplane-like, but this is internal combustion kindergarten for us, so we judged it to be good enough. The model took us the better part of a day to build, but it wasn’t overly difficult. All the parts either snapped or screwed on. No glue and no paint!

The manual, which includes a six-page essay called, “How an Engine Works,” was nearly as educational as the model itself, always referring to the parts of the model as if they were real engine components. Pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft, a sump pan, valve stems, rocker arms, a cam shaft and cams, even a cylinder head gasket!

Of course, beyond “piston,” this was all Greek to me.

Well, not quite Greek. All of these are words I’ve heard before in my life, but like incantations in some ancient magical tongue, they had no substance, no reality for me.

As the model started to come together I was amazed at the detail. The model’s designer must have had a real love affair with engines. There was even a dipstick for the oil level. But there’s more. The motor actually works. Well, in a simulated way. It’s battery powered, and when fired up all the parts of the engine move and run in concert with each other the way they would in a real engine. Electric lights flash in sequence to simulate spark plugs igniting, forcing the pistons downwards, rotating the crankshaft. The valves atop the pistons actually open and close as they would during the intake and exhaust strokes. It’s amazing.

Watching it in action, I was stunned. The internal combustion engine is so simple, and yet so mind-numbingly complex in the same breath. How on earth did humans ever develop such a thing in the first place? As you see it run, it all starts to make sense, but to develop this myriad of systems from scratch?

Sheer brilliance.

As I watched the plastic pistons ride up and down through the clear walls of the cylinder block, I envisioned the processes inside Tessie’s old Continental C-85. She too has a four cylinder engine, but of a very different design. Her cylinders, each a separate entity rather than all in one “block” lie flat, two on each side, and each is powered not by one spark plug, but two.

But each cylinder has two valves, just like our model, and her pistons connect to—and drive—her crankshaft, just like our model. Still, I was left wondering, as I watched the flickering lights simulating the sparkplugs on the model kit, what’s the firing order under Tess’s cowl?

I guess I’ll look for a model of an airplane engine…

 

Meet the newest member of the family

Now there are nine of us. I count the New Mexico branch of the family like this:

The nuclear family is three—Debs, Rio, and me.

The extended family is two—Grandma Jean and Lisa.

Then there are the two cats—Khaki and Cougar.

And the airplane—Tessie.

So that made a total of 8 of us before the newest member of the clan showed up. Smaller than Tessie and smarter than the cats is D-drone. Yes, I’m now the proud adoptive father of an intelligent flying camera. Here are my two sons together:

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It all started out, as many things around here do, with an article. I was writing an article on drones, officially called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs for short. No shit, there are now more UAVs in the sky than there are honest-to-God aircraft.

Actually… that’s really not fair, because I learned—and you are about to—that a modern drone is truly an aircraft in every sense. So more correctly, I should have said: No shit, there are now more aircraft in the sky without pilots in them than with pilots.

Anyway, all drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds need to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Anyone who wants to make money flying one also needs to get a drone pilot’s license (people who fly them for fun don’t need the license), and the Feds made it easy for existing pilots to get the new license. How easy? It actually took me less time to get the drone license than it did to get the drone registered, but that’s a story for another day.

Getting my license was a simple matter of taking an online class and passing a test. I did that for my article with no intention of going out and getting a drone. That was actually the irony I was writing about: That you could get a drone pilot license without ever having flown a drone.

But then… well, I’m not sure how things got this out of hand…

It probably started when Rio and Lisa bought a toy drone before Christmas. It had a very sad little camera, but it got us thinking about the possibility of getting some shots of Tess from above for our Air Racing series in GA News, which is coming back next season. Then a few weeks later at BestBuy, when I was looking for some computer stuff, I saw a handsome rescue-orange drone that was drool worthy.

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In particular, I was entranced with its camera. It was sporting a camera that looked like it was capable of taking quality images. A few weeks later Rio and I were in Santa Fe with some extra time to kill, so I took him to see Orange Drone.

He didn’t think much of it, but was drawn to the next drone over (BestBuy had a whole isle full of drones). This drone had six motors, a huge camera slung under its belly, and pair of sensors on the front that looked like eyes. It was called a Yuneec Typhoon. It was more Star Wars droid than traditional flying machine, and it was “only” eight hundred bucks.

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Rio pressed a button on the drone’s sales display and a large flat-screen TV above the drone came to life. Bathed in the light of stunning high-def, Rio and I stood transfixed as on the video the wicked-looking black drone rose up off the ground, its landing gear rising smoothly up and out of the way. Then it whisked off into action, its camera able to turn unobstructed through 360 degrees.

I was sold.

We couldn’t wait to share the video with the rest of the family.

When we got home we booted up the computer, but could not find the promo piece online. Instead we found a YouTube review that ended up convincing us that the retractable gear Typhoon was not the right piece of gear for us after all. The review started out as death by a thousand pinpricks. The reviewer was comparing the wicked black beast to a boring-looking white drone from some company I’d never heard of: DJI. More on them in a minute. In every test he devised to compare the two flying machines, the Typhoon under-performed. Sometimes by a little. Sometimes by a lot. I kept rooting for the Typhoon, but it kept falling short.

But the killing blow was the tree.

Both the drones are supposed to have sensors and intelligent software that lets them follow moving objects (people, cars, boats) while avoiding stationary objects (mountains, houses, telephone poles). In this part of the review our host walked though a small grove of trees. He hadn’t gone even ten feet before the Typhoon drone smacked head-on into the first tree, shattering propellers and collapsing to the ground in a pile of twisted broken plastic and metal, its camera severed from it’s body.

Rio and I sat in depressed silence.

Then I booted up Google to learn more about the other drone, the DJI one. As it turns out, DJI is the world’s drone leader, and has been for years. In list after list of top drones, DJI products dominate. The more I read, the more impressed I got. And, sadly, the more I compared DJI’s various models, the clearer it became that the newest—and most expensive—models had clear advantages over the older, cheaper models. I decided to start at the top, rather than buy cheap and have to upgrade in six months.

How expensive was it? One penny under eighteen hundred bucks.

But consider that it’s (1) an excellent camera, capable of taking 20 megapixel stills and high def video; (2) it’s a computer; and (3) it’s a flying machine. You’d expect to pay nearly that much, or more, for any one of the three. So all three together for that price is a real bargain.

Or at least that’s the argument I made to my wife.

I don’t think she bought it, but she let me buy the drone anyway.

We originally planned to test it on the tarmac at the Plane Tales airport, but the day after it arrived we woke to a dead-still morning, so Rio and I took D-drone out into the front yard before he had to go to school and pressed the auto takeoff button. The four motors came to life, and buzzing like a swarm of angry bees, the little white machine rose smoothly into the air about three feet and stayed there, as if frozen in place.

I don’t know about other drones, but I have to say, D-drone is one of the best-handling flying machines I’ve ever gotten my paws on. It’s well behaved and rock solid in a wide range of conditions and winds. It’s responsive to the controls without being hyper. The camera is easy to deploy and takes great video and stills.

But surely it’s not a real aircraft, you say. Well consider one spec alone. Its service ceiling is 19,685 feet. Quite a bit better than Tessie, and of course, illegally high in US airspace for a drone.

Still, it’s an impressive statistic.

And while it can only fly at speeds up to 45 mph, it has a climb rate of 1,180 feet per minute, better than most manned airplanes. Of course a battery will keep it airborne for only half an hour, and it would be hard pressed to carry any cargo. After all, this is a photo drone, not a pizza delivery drone.

But like my fellow humans, my cats, and the family airplane; I’m quickly learning that D-drone has a personality. And probably a soul to go along with it.

And that’s why we are now a family of nine.

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The Christmas tree blues

We actually owned an Ercoupe Christmas tree ornament before we owned an Ercoupe. This is the tale…

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I don’t quite remember how I stumbled on Hallmark’s “The Sky’s the Limit” series. Probably I was on eBay looking for something else. Or maybe just killing time. But since 1997 Hallmark has been producing remarkably detailed miniature models of famous civilian airplanes, mostly from the Gold Age of Flight, adding one per year, every year since. Planes like the Spirit of St. Louis, the Beech Staggering, a Gee Bee racer, Howard Hughes’ H-1, The Lockheed Vega, and… the Ercoupe.

I bought one of the Hallmark planes. Then another. And then another. And as I customarily do, I went crazy and over the period of a few months scored the entire collection, onsie-twosie on eBay, with no clear idea what I was going to do with them. At first they turned one of our library shelves into a miniature apron, where they next began to collect dust.

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It wasn’t long before Debbie put her foot down on the tiny air force. In her view, they were Christmas ornaments and Christmas ornaments had no business being out all year long. I suppose some sort of deal was brokered, but the upshot was that we would have an airplane Christmas tree that year.

Somehow, Rio and I got it in our heads that this tree needed to be white with blue taxiway-colored lights. Naturally, that was the year that white trees with blue lights went out of fashion. All we could find was a white tree with multicolored lights.

I hate multicolored lights.

But we bought it anyway, figuring we could always change the bulbs later, if we wanted to.

That first year the plane tree was in our library, multicolored lights and all, and was our home’s only tree. By the next year, we had a bigger Ercoupe. And a hangar. The multicolored white tree moved to the hangar to keep the airplane company.

And now my years begin to run together, because while I know it’s not true, owning an airplane has so changed our lives that it seems that we must have always owned one. But at any rate, when we set it up last year, or maybe it was the year before, one of the strings of attached lights had failed, leaving a large chunk of tree dark. No amount of troubleshooting and bulb changing seemed to help. And by the end of the season last year, yet more portions of the lighting system had failed. The tree was more dark than light.

Clearly something needed to be done.

I decided the simplest solution was to just buy some new lights and drape them on the tree this year. My flight crew, however, insisted that we remove all the old lights first. So I brought the tree home from our hangar, and Rio, Lisa, and I, working with wire clippers and a third of the artificial tree each, started pruning the old lights off. It took us hours (and a lot of egg nog) and made us all glad we didn’t work in a Chinese Christmas tree sweat shop, having to attach the damn things in the first place.

De-lightified, the tree then rode around in the back of my Jeep until Black Friday, when, instead of fighting the crowds in retail stores, we went flying. Just for fun. After securing the plane, it was time to trim the tree.

Rio and Lisa rigged the blue lights, then parked the tree in the designated corner. Then one plane at a time, Rio hung the tiny air force from its branches. He placed the Ercoupe ornament at a 90-degree angle. “That’s Dad in a race turn,” he told Lisa.

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And when he was done, I closed the hangar doors, with us inside. And we all got the blues.

In a good way.

 

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Race 53 makes the big time!!!

Breaking news:

OK, I was keeping this under wraps until it really happened–because I had to keep pinching myself to believe it was true–but official Race 53 merchandise is now available at a Website near you!!! (Well, I guess they all are huh?)

During AirVenture this year the folks at Preferred Altitude pulled me aside to talk to me about creating Race 53 licensed merchandise. Naturally, I thought all the Avgas fumes had finally done in my brain.

But they were serious, and today they launched the first T-shirt. Available in three colors, I’m told.

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It’s a waaaaaaay cool logo and a great way to show your love of Ercoupes and your support for Race 53 and the gang!

Plus, I’d love it if a certain competitor of mine walked into her home airport and found a bunch of people wearing them! He-He-He-He-He….

Oh, right, the URL. Get your shirt here!