Racing with Voodoo

This season, I’m racing with Voodoo. What? Oh. No. Sorry. Not the famous Reno Racing plane by the same name. I’m talking about a speed modification that uses some aerodynamic Voodoo to improve Tess’s performance in our never-ending quest to crack the mac barrier in an Ercoupe. Or at least just go fast enough to securely maintain our title of the World’s Fastest Ercoupe, and to keep those pesky Cesena 150s and 152s behind our twin tails in the SARL races.

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So this might be our sketchiest speed mod yet, but here’s the tale: One of the bad things about having your plane in the shop is that you spend too much time sitting at home thinking about airplanes, instead of being out at the airport having fun with them. And thinking about airplanes at home often entails surfing through various online catalogs of airplane stuff, and discovering things that you were perfectly happy not owning when you didn’t know they existed, but now can’t live without.

This is why I now have Wig-Wag lights on Tess. But they’re not the only thing we added while waiting for our nose strut to be rebuilt, and then waiting for UPS to locate said strut after they lost it.

I also added Voodoo Propeller Tape to Tessie’s prop. Well, that’s what I call it, anyway. It’s officially called a Propeller Vortelator. It’s a distant cousin of the aerodynamically unlikely vortex generator, which is a small plastic or metal fin which, when glued to your wing along with a bunch of other little fins, does amazing things. Things like lower your stall speed, improve controllability, reduce your takeoff run, and more. How on earth do they do that?

Well, that’s what I was told, anyway. Apparently, the little fins create mini vortexes of air that delay flow separation in the boundary layer, and…

Yeah, like I said, magic.

So when I read about something similar for propellers, it didn’t strike me as impossible. Hey, if a bunch of fins on a wing can work magic on the airflow and improve performance, why wouldn’t something similar work on the prop? A prop is just a perpendicular spinning wing, after all. The advertising copy for the Vortelator—which is made by Aircraft Development, the same folks that make the Slick Air coating that we use to reduce airframe drag—say that, “Vortelators will cause the boundary layer to stay attached to the propeller surface for a greater distance, and to keep the boundary layer thinner. The net result of these two actions is that it reduces both the profile drag and skin friction drag components of the parasite drag.” Going on, they said that the Vortelators are placed on the most inefficient high drag areas of the prop, making it more efficient across its span. As I didn’t understand what they were saying, that didn’t impress me much.

But they also said it would improve my speed by 2 to 4 mph. ThatI understood.

I placed an order.

Now, I knew the Vortelator was some sort of tape, but I couldn’t tell much about its form factor from the pictures at Aircraft Spruce’s website. I think I pictured a row of mini vortex generators, or a quasi-washboard ribbon. I’m sure you can picture my disappointment when my box of Voodoo Propeller Tape arrived, and I discovered that it was nothing more than a piece of flat, thin, clear self-sticky plastic tape—cut in a zig-zag pattern.

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Seriously? I was about to send it back in disgust, but decided to do some more research first. The first thing I found was that I couldn’t find anyone who had actually used it. Rather, all I could find were people who hadn’t used it, but nevertheless felt justified in trashing the mere idea. They’re probably the same people who poo-pooed vortex generators when they were first introduced, then later quietly installed them on their planes.

Next, I discovered something called turbulator tape, which is a big deal with the sailplane crowd. Apparently, most current production sailplanes use it to improve aerodynamics, and many older ones are retrofitted. Guess what? Yeah. It’s nothing more than a piece of flat, thin, clear self-sticky plastic tape—cut in a zig-zag pattern.

Hmmm… Those sailplane folks sure know their aerodynamics, even if they don’t have propellers.

But there’s more: The RC model crowd rave about zig-zag tape. Granted, their planes don’t have pilots in them, but they are honestly and truly miniature aircraft. And zig-zag tape is even used in archery to improve airflow of the tail “feathers” of modern carbon fiber arrows for increased accuracy. Who knew?

And although Voodoo Propeller Tape sure looks disappointing to the naked eye, in all things aerodynamic, small changes can net big results. So maybe some thin zig-zag sailplane/model plane/archery tape near the hub of Tess’s prop might make that ol’ piece of aluminum work better.

What the heck, it didn’t cost that much, it’s already paid for, it’s STC’d for my prop (which only means the government thinks that the product is safe, not that it actually works), and my wrench turners don’t want much to install it. And who knows? Maybe it will make Tess shoot through the air like an arrow. Rather than sending it back, I had my team put it on the prop.

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So this season, we’re racing with Voodoo.

 

Dressing for success

I believe in dressing for success. If you look the part of your profession—be it pilot, banker, or rodeo clown—you’ll feel professional. If you feel professional, you’ll act professional. If you act professional, you’ll succeed. It’s partly how the world judges you, but I think it’s largely internal.

The same can be said for airplanes. You don’t believe me? Consider how the P-40 Warhawk dressed for its job with the Flying Tigers. Tell me that iconic shark’s mouth didn’t make that plane look like the Zero-eater it became.

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Image and product: Hayneedle.com

Of course, for those of us who own planes on the lower end of the airplane ecosystem, dressing an airplane for success was historically a problem. Because back in the day, ya’ pretty much had to dress an airplane with paint, and there aren’t any $89.95 Earl Scheib paint jobs in the aviation world. A paint job, even a simple one, can cost half again as much as the damn airplane did in the first place; and a real show-stopper of a paint job could easily cost more than the damn plane did in the first place.

A rip off? Paint shops taking advantage of us “rich” airplane owners?

Maybe to a small degree, but painting an airplane isn’t like painting a car. For one thing, you need to paint the bottom, as well as the top and the sides; and there are a lot of moving parts that have to be removed by a licensed mechanic before painting and then correctly reinstalled after painting by a licensed mechanic.

But we can still take a page from the Tigers. After all, they really didn’t re-paint their tan-and-green army planes to dress them for success. They just dressed them up by adding the shark’s mouth. And doing something like that today is even easier thanks to vinyl, which is sort of like a stick-on version of paint—which makes it faster, far cheaper. And has the added benefit of being easy to remove if you change your mind, or your plane changes jobs and needs a new wardrobe. You can purchase this durable, relatively easy to install material on eBay in a dizzying array of designs.

Including shark’s mouths.

But a shark’s mouth on an Ercoupe would be just… wrong. I’m sorry, I know someone out there at some point probably put a shark’s mouth on a ‘Coupe, but I think most of us agree that a smiley face would be a better fit. Oh, but speaking of Ercoupes, our Tessie has been having a wardrobe problem herself. Two giant swaths of Tessie’s skin were removed and replaced with naked aluminum during her recent repairs. As was her crumbling nose bowl. Of course, the shop claimed they could paint all the new parts to match their progenitors. We’d never be able to tell that the parts were replaced, I was assured. The colors would be an exact match.

Color me skeptical.

Because past use of densitometers for color matching has given us some very pretty paint indeed, but not anything that matches any of the 50 shades of blue on the plane. Nor has the local paint guy even been able to match her white in past repairs. On small items, it hardly matters, but these are big panels, plus the whole nose of the plane, and on top of all of that, painting them came with a big price tag. I tried to decide which would bother me more: Cheap naked aluminum or expensive piss-poor matching paint.

I went for the cheap aluminum.

But of course, I knew I had the option of dressing up the panels a little bit.

As I’ve said, shark’s mouths were out. They never even entered the running. Beside which, the part of the plane where a shark’s mouth would go was not the part of the plane that was replaced. The part that was replaced, on both sides, was the area directly behind where a shark’s mouth would go.

I kicked around a couple of options. I could have moved our race number gum ball forward. I considered some sort of race-themed nose art, as Tessie’s current day job is that of Air Race Airplane. Race flags or perhaps a racy pinup. But in the end, in a nod to her hot rod little-engine-that-could soul, I decided on classic race car flames. This was doubly appropriate, as the new naked panels are located right where the engine cowl comes across the body, which on an Ercoupe flexs outward on each side like gills—to let the hot air vent from the engine compartment in flight. Flames on the new panels would look like flames coming out of the engine compartment.

Very cool.

Very cool so long as the fames are art, not real. Real flames on any part of an airplane are bad news indeed. Not cool at all.

My first vision was for blue flames. Blue flames, of course, are the hottest. And the plane, as I’ve said, has about 50 shades of blue on her. I haunted eBay where I found literally hundreds of different flame designs. One looked like photos of real flames. Another was so stylized as to be almost Picasso-like. But it was the tribal tattoo-esque flames that set my heart on fire. They looked just right.

Of course, even within this genre, the options were nearly unlimited. I attempted using my limited photoshop skills to take an old photo of Tess, wipe out the paint, try to make it look like naked aluminum, then graft on downloaded images of the flame designs.

I guess I neglected to dress like a graphic designer. The results were a disaster. I had to stick with visualization.

Of course, as regular readers know, I needed to have some buy-in on decisions like this from he-who-will-own-the-plane next. Reminder: “My” plane is really my mother’s plane, which she willed to my son, I’m just the lucky caretaker. And as my son’s not beenthe most supportive of the race look in the past, I had some trepidation about bringing up my plans.

Surprisingly, he was on board with the blue flame concept, and we camped happily in front of the computer and scrolled through endless designs together until we finally found one we thought had the right look for our flying hot rod.

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Our next problem was the color. The seller had two different blue shades to choose from. One was called blue, the other was called light blue. Neither shade of blue was one of the 50 shades of blue on Tess.

At first, I thought the light blue was the better bet. Rio thought the dark blue. As we tried to persuade each other of our cases, he won me over to the dark blue. Unfortunately, at the same time, I had succeeded in wining him over to the light blue.

The real problem was that we both knew that neither shade was quite right, so we were trying to figure out which was the lesser of evils. Actually, it was a matter or prominence. How subtle or how dramatic did we want the flames to be? I didn’t want them to be the only thing anyone noticed, nor did I want them so subtle that no one noticed them at all.

As we couldn’t make up our minds, there was only one thing to do. We called for his mother to join us.

She looked at the flames. Looked at the colors. Patiently listened to our over-thought-out arguments on both of the blues, and then she declared that white was the best way to go, not blue at all.

White. White hot white.

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Plane Parenting

Rio just had his wisdom teeth out. All four of them. At once. That should have been a blessing, but due to a snafu with the surgeon’s prescriptions, the pharmacy, and our distance from civilization, he was without any sort of pain meds for about two hours after the general anesthesia wore off.

I’ll spare you my distress over his distress. Parenting: It’s not for wimps.

On the same day, I got an email from my mechanic about my sick airplane. Tess was supposed to be ready for test flight in a few days, but the team has been having a hard time getting the cowl and nose bowl to fit properly after the engine was installed in its brand-new engine bracket and mounts. Well, one thing led to another and it turns out that the engine is out of alignment with the fuselage, and spacers need to be ordered to get it to point forward, not downward.

I’ll spare you my distress over this stress. Airplane ownership: It’s not for wimps.

This morning, it occurred to me that owning an airplane is, in fact, much like being a parent. Or that being a parent is, in fact, much like owning an airplane. I suppose it depends on which came first in your life. Here are just a few examples, feel free to chime in with more via comments:

Airplanes & Kids:  No matter how old they are, you worry about them. (All. The. Time.) The only difference is that you tend to worry a little less about your children as they age, and a little more about your airplane as it ages!

Kids & Airplanes:Keep your mind alive. They force you to never stop learning. Kids ask questions that challenge your knowledge, while airplanes never stop teaching you about themselves.

Airplanes & Kids:Get sick or break bones at the worst possible time. Always the worst possible time. And visits to the doctor are expensive; and that’s true even for routine checkups. The only difference is that the airplane doctor costs more than the kid’s doctor!

Kids & Airplanes:Take you to places you never imagined existed. Literally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Airplanes & Kids: Eat more than you could possibly have imagined before you had them.

Kids & Airplanes: Amaze and delight you when you least expect it.

Airplanes & Kids: Demand time, attention, money, and love.

Kids & Airplanes:Love you back, unconditionally. No matter what your faults as a human and a pilot are.

Airplanes & Kids:No matter how rich you are, you really can’t afford them.

Kids & Airplanes:Even though you can’t afford either, you really should have at least one of each.

Being a parent of a child—or an airplane—is rewarding, expensive, amazing, and stressful. And I wouldn’t trade either experience for the world.

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