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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
And it does that through a splendid collection of artifacts donated by service men (and women) who worked at the base.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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…
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:
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.
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.
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.
We actually owned an Ercoupe Christmas tree ornament before we owned an Ercoupe. This is the tale…
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.
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.
And when he was done, I closed the hangar doors, with us inside. And we all got the blues.
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.
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….
Cleared by the tower, we pull onto Runway 20 for departure. I pull the checklist booklet from its pouch and flip it open to the proper page. Throttles forward, the engines shriek. The airframe shakes. We start to roll. To my right, my copilot leans slightly forward in her seat, crosses herself, and—in a low whisper—starts praying out loud.
As the engines spool up fully, her soft prayers are drowned out, but out of the corner of my eye, I can see her lips still moving. The G-forces start pushing me back in my seat. I cross my legs and return my attention to the checklist.
The nose pitches up sharply as the commuter jet rotates. Across the narrow aisle, a businessman in a dark suit coat is gripping his armrest so tightly his fingers are chalk-white. He stares dead ahead, jaw tight, mouth a thin, straight line.
Lots of options for my inflight drink today.
Unlike my fellow passengers, I’m completely relaxed. Even though I’m not flying the plane. Even though the pimple-faced kid who is flying the plane doesn’t look old enough to drive, let alone pilot a plane full of people across the Rockies.
The Jack Daniels.Definitely. Mixed into a diet Coke.
I’ve always found the inflight drink to be one of the great perks of not sitting in the very front seat of an airplane. If I have to leave the driving to someone else, I’m sure as heck going to enjoy the ride.
The jet starts to level out. The businessman releases his grip, massaging his left hand with his right. My seatmate finishes her prayer and settles back into her seat. The fasten seatbelt lights are still on, as are the perpetual no-smoking lights. I glance out the window. The ground seems impossibly far below.
Still, it’s beautiful. Nothing to be afraid of. But then, as I order my drink and hand my credit card to the Flight Attendant, it occurs to me: Maybe we’re all afraid to fly. Some passengers pray. Some use a death grip. Perhaps others turn to the bravado of alcohol.
Or maybe I just know how to have a good time on an airplane.
For the sake of safety, I chose a course that would overfly a spit of land between two massive lakes en route to the Gulf of Mexico. But looking down at the Louisiana wetlands as the ground slipped past a thousand feet below, I realized that “land” is a relative concept here. What looked solid on paper looked quite different from the air.
The green expanse was riddled with brown-water lakes, ponds, and potholes; and the “dry” land itself was a green sponge—light reflecting off diamonds of water in every crook, cranny and crack.
It was hard to say if the muddy water held more soil, or if the marshy land held more water.
The original plan was to fly up the shore between Houston and Lafayette, but the Texas Weather Gods had shredded those plans two weeks before when the race around Galveston Island was scrubbed. Instead of a short, leisurely cruise up the beach, Lisa and I had to fly for ten hours over dry land to get to Abbeville for the Race For Heros. But Lisa still had gulf water in her veins and in her mind’s eye, and wanted to see for herself what that great body of water looked like.
As it was only 30 miles away, our work for the day was done, and we had plenty of fuel, I pointed our nose south. Civilization dwindled and disappeared. Channels, canals, and waterways replaced roads. The flat marsh extended as far as the eye can see in all directions.
Finally, at the far end of the green expanse, a ribbon of yellow-white beach separated the edge of the continent from the sand-colored costal waters of the gulf, where crisp white breakers, like froth on a latte, lapped at the shore.
After a long flight it was time to relax. We did lazy “S” turns back and forth across the desolate beach at 700 feet, venturing out with nothing but air and water under our belly, then turning back again over the marsh, then once again out over the ocean, our plane an over-sized shorebird stretching her wings in the morning light.
I was standing on the beach, toes in the surf, when the squadron flew over me, wingtip to wingtip, each flier impossibly close to the next, in perfect formation. I stood riveted, ocean forgotten, neck craning upwards, eyes locked on the sky. As they passed overhead they changed course, the entire flight moving in unison as if it were one object, not a group of five.
No, it wasn’t the Blue Angels. Not the United Kingdom’s Red Arrows. Not Ireland’s Silver Swallows, or even South Africa’s Silver Falcons. It was the Texas Brown Pelicans, native-born pilots who can teach us all a thing or two.
What do they fly? Themselves. I’m not talking about men in man-made machines. I’m talking about those nasty-tempered, big-beaked, web-footed, mangy-feathered denizens of every dock in every port of the seven seas. Right. Real live Pelicans.
Believe me, those iconic pier post perchers, ugly to my eye on the ground, are a sight to behold in the air. Part sailplane, part pterodactyl, the long-winged, raggedy-feathered pelicans have grace and beauty in the air that puts the Bald Eagle to shame. That long Pelican beak, out of proportion on the ground, balances wide-wide-wide wings that sweep back gracefully towards the tips. Often loners on the ground, Pelicans soar in silent squadrons of four to twenty in the air. Sometimes they fly diamond formations, other times in long lines of follow-the-leader.
Unlike Seagulls, whom I find to be over-grown hyperactive hummingbirds flapping their wings all the time, Pelicans float and glide, rarely flapping their wings to maintain lift. And when they do, a single, leisurely flap, does the trick.
The squadron soared up the beach between high-rise condos in stable slow-flight, drifting on the evening air, on a mission only they knew, and standing there on the beach I wished I could be up in the grey evening sky with them.
Debbie, Rio, and I had “flown” into Galveston Island in our Jeep earlier that afternoon. Bad weather had cancelled our air race, but I’d made the mistake of renting a non-refundable condo, so we traded air-racing glory for a ground-based family vacation.
Ironically, the weather on race day was lovely. Blue sky and sunshine. But the day before it was soup to the ground most of the route, and we and the other racers would have been trapped here for days afterwards, even if we had made it here in one piece, so I guess scrubbing the race was a good call on the part of the race director. Still, I hope the race is rescheduled both because I want to fly that awesome course around the island and over the bay, and so that I can put my life jacket to good use.
Instead of racing, we splashed in the Gulf, ate tons of fresh seafood, and visited the Lone Star Flight Museum, which is a gem-and-a-half that’s still recovering from Hurricane Ike eight years after the fact.
In the airport terminal next door to the museum’s hangars a plaque on the wall marks the high water mark during the storm. The plaque is above Rio’s head. Waaaaaaay above his head:
We also took a harbor tour. And a ride in a high-powered jet boat (sorta like flying, but windier and wetter). We watched a cruise ship embark on a voyage to Mexico and watched working fisherman unload their catch.
And always there were pelicans in the sky. Soaring. Gliding. Cartwheeling across my racecourse in formations large and small. And always I found my eyes cast up to the heavens, wishing I could join them.