Flasher… but not like you’re thinking

“Traffic, your two o’clock, three miles, seven thousand five hundred, inbound,” said the tower.

“Looking for traffic,” I replied, squinting my eyes, leaning forward in the cockpit, and scanning the sky above me at my two o’clock. Actually, I’m not supposed to say “looking for traffic.” The proper response is, “negative contact.” But looking  is commonly used by pilots, and that was what I was doing.

Looking. Desperately looking.

Then the other plane was two miles from me. Then one. Then, according to the tower, it was, “no factor.” I never did see it. In fact, having done a number of test flights in the busy Santa Fe airspace, and flying out of Santa Fe with Lisa in Warbler during her training, I’ve become aware of just how damn hard it can be to spot other airplanes. Even when they’re very close. And even when someone is telling you where to look.

And that began to worry me.

True, mid-air collisions between two airplanes are exceedingly rare, but they do happen. And we’re at much greater risk than the average airplane, because we’re a slow racer. Yes, it’s true. While Tess is literally the fastest Ercoupe in the world, we’re still among the slowest planes in the Sport Air Racing League. As such, we’re often relegated to the “short course” in races so that we can be back before the beer gets warm and the girls get cold.

Oh dear. I’m told I can’t say such sexist things anymore.

Let me try again… so that we can be back before the rest of the racers fly back to their home bases, re-fuel and clean their planes, have dinner, kiss their kids goodnight, and watch the late show.

The short course is usually just the main race with a few turns lopped off to make it shorter. The goal is to have most of the planes back about the same time for the awards. The problem is that, realistically, this means that I enter the pack somewhere in the middle of the returning racers, and I’m coming in from a different direction. Naturally we have radio procedures and safety protocols, but anything I can do to make Race 53 more visible increases everyone’s safety.

My first thought for increasing my visibility was to get a smoke system like air show planes have. I could let out a long stream of smoke as I approached the pack. Plus, it would make for a crowd-pleasing checkered-flag finish line drama. I had that thought about three years ago, but it’s no simple thing for a certified airplane to get a smoke system. There’s a lot of paperwork with the FAA. I hounded my mechanic about it for about a year and a half before he caved and agreed to take it on. But then, when we got into the nitty-gritty of it, the smoke oil tank couldn’t be installed under the baggage compartment floor like I had envisioned. It would have to be above the floor, where it would take up nearly half my storage. As much as I wanted to be able to say, “Smoke on!” it was too much of a sacrifice of Tess’s utility. And then, of course, we had our long-running series of serious maintenance headaches, breakdowns, and groundings, and I haven’t been racing much, so I hadn’t been thinking about it.

Until the other plane passed by me as unseen as a ghost plane.

Of course, we fly with flashing strobes on our wingtips and our landing lights turned on. Modern landing lights are super-bright LEDs that use precious little power and, unlike traditional light bulbs, last pretty much forever. That makes us more visible. But there’s a way to take it up a notch, and that’s the charmingly-named Wig-Wag.

A Wig-Wag controller turns your landing light system into an aerial discotheque. Only, you know, without the music from the Bee Gees. So with the plane down once again, and with plenty of time on my hands, I started researching Wig-Wags and was pleasantly surprised to quickly locate one that was actually pre-approved for our airplane. It’s called the MaxPulse, and it’s a simple solid-state control switch that gets spliced into the wiring between the lights and the master switch. It’s surprisingly affordable, as airplane stuff goes, and my mechanic thought the installation would be a breeze, as airplane stuff goes.

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All things being equal, it seemed like cheap insurance, so I said, “Let’s do it.”

The MaxPulse, once installed, will let our landing lights still work as landing lights at night, but during the day there are four different options:

  • Both the landing lights, which are mounted in the leading edges of Tessie’s wings just inside her racing stripes, can flash at the same time like giant strobe lights. Poof. Poof. Poof. Poof. Forty-four pulses per minute.
  • Or they can wag back and forth. Left one on, right one off. Right one on, left one off. This is officially called alternating, but in the common tongue, this is our Wig-Wag. It really catches the eye in the air. Poof. Piff. Poof. Piff. Also at forty-four pulses per minute. Or….
  • It can wig-wag at eight-eight pulses per minute. Poof-Piff-Poof-Piff. Or…
  • It can wig-wag at one hundred frickin’ twenty pulses per minute. PoofPiffPoofPiff.

We’ll have to experiment to figure out which option makes our speedy slow racer the most visible, but there’s no doubt that we’ll be able to light up the day.

It’s not smoke, but it’ll do.

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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The perfect gift

Jigsaw puzzles were a big deal in the Dubois Clan when I was growing up. We did them frequently, and it was serious business with specific rules of engagement set down and enforced by my very Victorian Father. Each member of the family got to study the box cover art in turn. One time. For sixty seconds. Then the box was hidden away. Next, the pieces were all spread out and flipped right side up, then the border had to be built before any other construction took place. Lord help you if you found two pieces that went together before the border was complete.

Actually… those are the only rules I can remember, but knowing my father, there must have been others. Most likely, these traditions came from his father. In respect for the past, I try to enforce the same rules in my family, but I live with a pack of anarchists, so it doesn’t work out very well.

Despite that, I find puzzle building fun, and the process brings the Fam together in a unique and social way. Still, it seems we do them most often when we are snowed in, which tends to happen around the first of the year each year. Of course, being a flying family, we have a weakness for aviation-themed puzzles. Last year at Christmas we did a puzzle of Santa loading up a Piper Cub in lieu of his sleigh. The year before that it was a puzzle of an antique airplane poster.

But this year we had the ultimate puzzle, and the story starts a good ten weeks before Christmas when, after writing a rather large check to get repairs started on the family plane following a hard landing, I was having a moment of quiet desperation with my checking account. I emailed both my sisters to cancel holiday gift exchanges. My eldest sister, who’s also having a tight year agreed at once, but our middle sib wrote to say, sorry, but she’d already gotten something for us.

I was annoyed. Who on earth has their Christmas shopping out of the way in late October, fer crying out loud? “If I don’t get it done early,” was her reply, “I don’t get it done.”

Anyway, the promised box showed up shortly before Christmas, neatly wrapped in holiday themed paper, with a card that read, “To Tessie and Family.” I dutifully deposited the package under the tree—after giving it the traditional inquiring shake that told me that either the post office had completely and utterly destroyed my sister’s gift, or that the gift was a jigsaw puzzle.

It was a puzzle. But not just any puzzle. It was mypuzzle. A personal puzzle. A puzzle of Tessie. A montage of pics of my favorite plane taken from various online magazines. Tessie flying. Tessie on a snow-covered taxiway. Tess, a.k.a. Race 53 making a “race takeoff.” Tess in her art-filled hangar, Rio and I proudly standing on either side. It must have been a lot of work.

I was blown away.

And sure enough, right after Christmas we got a huge snow storm and we broke out the puzzle. We spread the pieces on the table, starting flipping them right side up—all 1,014 of them, and then I hid the damn box. It was a diabolically delightful puzzle. Tess, according to Rio, is “Fifty shades of blue,” to start with, and the light was different in each of the photos of our baby. OK. Clearly, this is part of the nose bowl, but from which image? Ah ha! This is the landing gear. But is it the landing gear from the race footage or from the picture of the plane parked on the snowy taxiway?

Oh, and not only are there fifty shades of blue airplane, but the puzzle also featured fifty shades of blue sky. It ended up being, by far, the hardest—but funest—puzzle I’ve even built. My sister really knocked it out of the park with this gift.

But in addition to putting together a machine I love, piece by piece, I had another first. I got to pick up the pieces of, well, me!

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