A TV show you might have missed

My Hispanic father-in-law studied the latest home-repair mess I’d made for a long time before he finally sighed and said, “You college-educated white guys aren’t very good at this kind of thing, are you?”

That was almost thirty years ago. And ever since then, the family joke is that I’m the star of a late-night cable TV show called the College-Educated White Guy Handyman. A show featuring a weekly home repair or improvement disaster. In my defense, home repair skills take a lengthy education of their own, and mine was limited to watching my college professor father blow a chunk out of his Swiss Army knife cutting through a live wire while trying to replace the plug on a table lamp.

As time goes by, I have gotten better, but usually my first attempt at doing any kind of repair or improvement goes awry. A recent case in point: Our hangar floor.

Now there are two things you need to know. The first is that the airport will let me deduct the cost of any improvements to our hangar from our rent, and the second is that while traveling the country in two seasons of racing, we saw some pretty swank hangars.

Oh. And a third thing. I’ve been suffering hangar floor envy ever since Lisa and I connected our hangars. You see, she has a wall-to-wall cement floor. I have a gravel floor with a 15×15 foot concreate pad for Tess to rest on. Of course, I didn’t know it was 15×15 until too late. I think my non-college educated Hispanic handyman father-in-law told me something about measuring twice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

About two months ago, I got it in my head that I could trump Lisa’s expanse of concreate if my humble pad of concreate were more swank than her concreate. How would I do that? Well, really swank hangars have really swank epoxy floor coverings. Some glow like mirrors, others have interesting patterns, but all of them are tough as diamonds and as an added benefit, their non-absorbent surfaces reduce oil spill clean-ups to a simple flick of a towel.

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I don’t recall how, but I recently discovered that there is a do-it-yourself version of this swank floor covering called Rocksolid from Rust-Oleum. How hard could it be?

I watched the YouTube video and judged it to be no more difficult than painting, and with Tessie out of the hangar for extensive repairs, this would be a good time to take it on. On my next trip to Santa Fe to take Rio to his flight lesson (and to check on the status of aforementioned repairs), I planned to buy a hangar-floor-in-a-box.

And this is where we get to measuring.

Standing in Home Depot in Santa Fe, I had no earthly idea how big my pad in Santa Rosa was. This mattered, because Rocksolid come in two sizes: The one-car garage size, with the kit covering 200-250 square feet; and the two-and-a-half car garage size, with the kit covering 450-500 square feet.

Picture me in Home Depot trying to astrally project myself to my hangar.

I decided that although the hangar itself is huge, the concreate pad in the middle was much smaller than a one-car garage. And I was so convinced of this that it didn’t even occur to me to measure it later on, even though I had several opportunities to do so between the time I bought the smaller kit, and when it was warm enough to break it out and paint it on.

Of course, any of you who are sharp at math know that 15×15 equals 225 square feet, smack dab in the middle of the theoretical range of what the kit will cover.

I’ll spare you the details of the various trials and tribulations of preparing the concreate: Sweeping, hosing, scrubbing with degreasers, more hosing, scrubbing with dish soap, more hosing, etching with acid, more hosing. Instead, let’s jump straight to the main event. Actually, I’ll spare you the details of the main event, too. Just suffice it to say the goop is the thickness of maple syrup but you are to spread it as thin as paint. And that my cement pad is full of ridges and channels and cracks and dips. And the roller was a magnet for the nearby gravel. And that the handle of my roller brush broke. And the foam bush they gave me with the kit delaminated.

Yes, let’s skip all of that stress-fest and go right to the final chapter. Here, let me show you:

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Yes, that’s right. I ran out of swanky Rocksolid material pretty much right at the 200 square foot mark.

Measure first. Who knew? Oh. That’s right. My father-in-law.

 

Little planes, big noise

I can’t make sense of any of the numbers and abbreviations, so I study the graph. A line starts in the upper left at point labeled “normal,” and descends at a roughly 45-degree angle down and to the right, ending below the point labeled “moderate-to-serve.” This line roughly bisects a blocky crescent-shaped graphic that resembles a weight-and-balance envelope.

The bottom part of the line is outside of the envelope.

That can’t be good.

But this isn’t weight and balance, and most of the line is within the envelope, so there’s probably nothing to worry about. At least, that’s what I tell myself until the doctor comes in to explain the results of my hearing test.

He whips out a pen and with careful, deliberate hash marks greys out everything above the line. “This is how much hearing you’ve lost,” he says.

More than half the hearing in my right ear. A good third of the hearing in my left.

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“You’ve completely lost your ability to hear high frequency sounds,” he explains in a loud voice, tapping the chart with his pen, “Like vowels.”

Ah. So that’s why everyone’s mumbling recently.

“Have you ever worked in a loud noise environment?”

My hearing may be failing, but in my mind I hear the cough of an airplane engine starting…

 

If you ask any pilot my age (over 55) what’s the biggest change in aviation they’ve seen in their lifetimes, you might expect them to say the advent of the glass cockpit. But it’s not. That’s just technology. Since the Wrights, aviation has been one tech leap after another: Radios, gyroscopes, the primitive “beam” navigation systems, VORs, autopilots, GPS, digital instruments, glass. It’s the nature of pilots to quickly adopt new toys, and it’s been that way for over a hundred years.

No, the biggest change in in aviation in my lifetime is the headset. In my youth, and for the decades of flying prior to that, no one took any serious action to protect their hearing. It wasn’t from a lack of technology, although like all else, that has improved. No, it was a matter of culture. Pilot culture. We just didn’t wear headsets. I’m not even sure why, but it just wasn’t done.

And I’m not quite sure how it happened, because culture is hard and slow to change, but now everybody wears headsets, and a good thing, too.

But it’s too late for me. Now I’m paying for the sins of my youth… Or I will be if I can afford to.

 

The insistent, slightly maddening ringing in my right ear is, ironically, caused by the fact I can’t hear anything worth a damn with it, according to the doc. Well, “ringing” doesn’t really describe it. It’s a high-pitched electrical sort of noise, deep inside my ear. It almost seems to come from the right third of my skull. It varies little in tone, although the volume varies throughout the day from barely noticeable to loud enough to block out conversations. It’s worse after flying, especially following long cross countries, and ironically much, much, much worse when wearing noise-canceling ARN headsets, instead of the old-fashioned passive models.

It was largely this ringing in my ear that brought me to the audiologist. I mean, I knew I was having some difficulty following conversations around the dinner table, and I’ve had a few comical miscommunications with Starbucks staff at various airports, which I am only now understanding were due to my lack of hearing, not to their lack of proper command of the King’s English, as I had previously assumed.

The good news, the doctor cheerfully tells me, is that my sort of hearing loss responds to simply “turning up the volume.” Of course, as we can’t turn up the volume on the entire universe without annoying the neighbors, I need hearing aids.

He gives me a thick packet of information on my various options. I deposit it in the circular file, unopened, as soon as I get home. You see, my health insurance—like most—doesn’t cover hearing aids and I can’t afford them.

The cost of one set of hearing aids of the type I need is equal to five annual inspections. (After owning a plane for a few years you’ll find that any time you think of money, it will be through the lens of aircraft maintenance costs.) So that’s not an option. At least not right now.

So I’ll turn up the TV. Ask my wife to speak up. And tell the girl at Starbucks that I’m hard of hearing, could she please repeat what she just said?

And I won’t worry if the engine sounds a little less loud. Unless it goes totally silent.

Then I’ll execute an emergency landing.

Or pony up for the hearing aids.

 

The little bomber that could

Twin tails. An open greenhouse-like nose you can see right through. Must be a B-25 Mitchell.

Oh. Wait.

It only has one engine. Well, more correctly, one engine mount.

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Yes, this sad, disassembled aeronautical apparatus is my beloved Tessie. Her engine, nose gear, and wing tanks are removed—as is the skin from the cockpit to the firewall on both sides of the fuselage. Parts of this airplane that haven’t seen the light of day since 1947 are now exposed. It’s fascinating. And horrifying.

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Beneath her wings is a pile of assorted parts that resemble the debris field of a plane crash…

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Her engine sits on a pair of saw horses…

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Although, I must say that the view out the sides is stunning…

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So much so, I told my mechanic we should skip the metal and just put in plexi. I think for a moment he was afraid I was serious, as he started muttering something about the skin being part of the structure that holds the plane together…

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Or maybe it was because he’s started working on the new skins, apparently complicated by the fact that they have a compound curve, meaning that the metal plates curve top to bottom and front to back. Asymmetrically, of course.

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On the bright side, I’ll be able to keep the old skins as art. Hey, people pay good money for faux airplane side panels to serve as aeronautical decor. Now I’ll have one, too. Only mine will be authentic, one with real history.

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And while we’re all bummed out about the state of our family airplane…

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We know this sad state of disassembly isn’t forever. Progress is slow, but she’ll be put back together soon. And I’ll leave the green-house-like nose to the B-25s.

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Horsing around, Part II

We tried every socket, wrench, and tool in the two hangars. They were all too short. Nothing would reach the damn sparkplug. Complicating the issue was the fact we couldn’t be 100% sure what type of socket we needed. It was clear that the three quarter-inch was too small and the one-inch was too big. But unlike Goldie Locks, in the world of socket wrenches there’s more than one bowl of porridge to choose from once you rule out the bowl that’s too hot and the bowl that’s too cold. In between three quarter-inch and one-inch stand 13/16, 7/8, and 15/16.

Seriously? Why on earth do we need so many nuts so close in size to each other?

Still, clearly, to shoe the horse, to get to battle, to save the kingdom, we needed a new nail. Well, I guess we had the nail. We needed the damn hammer.

It was the weekend; the local True Value hardware store was closed, so we hopped in the car and went to the nearest truck stop to see if we could buy a better tool. Believe it or not, there are three huge truck stops in town: A Love’s, a Pilot, and a TA.

And none of them carry socket wrenches big enough for sparkplugs.

“What the hell kinda of truck stops don’t have tools for sparkplugs?” fumed Lisa.

I don’t know much about engines, but one thing I do know is that diesel engines don’t have sparkplugs, so there’s no reason for truckers to need tools to remove plugs, hence no real reason for a truck stop to carry such a tool, other than the fact it would have made my day much easier.

Next, she called her adult son Adrian, owner of many a tool. There was no way he could come down to SXU, but he told her his tool box was open to her any time day or night. The problem was that reaching his tool box would require a 3+ hour round trip.

But with the sun now approaching the apex of the day, it was clear that we’d need to take a trip somewhere. The best bet was Las Vegas, NM, a hair over an hour’s drive away. Vegas has a two hardware stores, three auto parts shops, two ranch supply places, and a Walmart. Given all those choices, finding a socket capable of removing the sparkplug didn’t sound like much of a gamble.

We loaded up all of our close-but-no-cigar tools and headed out. And drove. And drove. And drove. And drove.

Lisa decided to hit AutoZone first, as it seemed logical to her that a car place would have the right tool for a sparkplug, even though we accepted the fact that car and airplane sparkplugs might not have much in common. When we arrived we found socket wrench heaven. Sockets as far as the eye could see. Well, not that far. But a good thirty feet of sockets hung on pegs in the middle isle of the long, skinny store. We quickly found the short versions of the three most probable sizes, and then found deep versions. Or maybe they were called extra-deep, I can’t remember. All I knew was that they looked quite a bit longer than the ones we had that didn’t quite reach. Problem solved. Or so I thought. Just as quickly, Lisa discovered that we could buy a whole set of sockets for the price of the three solo performers.

At the last second, as we walked up to the cash register, I realized that our new problem-solving sockets were all half inch “drive.” That meant the end of the socket that connects to the wrench is designed for a half-inch wrench, but all of ours are 3/8 inches. We needed an adaptor to make the whole plan work. I was very proud of myself that I noticed this and saved us a worthless drive.

How wrong I was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Naturally, AutoZone didn’t have the adaptor we needed. I guess they wanted us to spend thirty bucks on the wrench next size up. We ducked that bullet by finding the adaptor at the nearby ranch store and left Vegas in high spirits, thinking that we’d have the plug out within minutes of arriving back at the airport.

We drove. And we drove. And we drove. And we drove, arriving back at SXU with the sun low in the sky and long shadows stretching across the landscape. We happily snapped the adaptor onto our wrench, then clicked a long socket onto the adaptor, sliding it down over the narrow shaft of the sparkplug to find…

It, too, wasn’t deep enough.

The socket didn’t reach the nut of the Tempest spark plug that Lisa’s mechanic though was the root of all evil.

Now complicating the issue was the fact that the right mag—the one giving us trouble—is supposed to control the top plugs, suggesting that our issue was a top plug, but there was a good chance that the plane’s ignition switch was wired backwards, with the right mag position controlling the left mag, and vice versa. So we had no clue which of the eight plugs was the problem child.

With nothing to lose, and a wrench that could check all the remaining seven plugs, which were Champs, we decided to pull and check all the others. Given that the right mag was supposed to control the tops we started with the top, removing the sparkplug covers on Warbler’s cowl, which exposes narrow canyons in the metal engine cover that are not quite wide enough to really work on the plugs. (The Continental Engine doesn’t really fit in the Ercoupe; it was designed for another engine altogether, but that’s a story for another day.)

I slipped the wrench over the first sparkplug, and this time, being a Champion plug, it fit. I tugged at the wrench. I pulled. I pushed. The plug was stuck fast like Excalibur in the stone.

“Thump it,” said Lisa.

Like hell. I was afraid I’d break it.

“I’ve watched the guys,” Lisa said, “they thump it.”

Leary of this advice I pulled my iPhone out of my rear pocket and did a Google Search on sparkplug removal. The collective wisdom of the internet was that you should thump a sparkplug.

“OK,” I said, and thumped the wrench handle with my right palm. Pain shot up my arm like a springing Cheetah. “Ow,” I whined, shaking my hand.

Lisa tried next, holding the wrench in one hand, and thumping its handle with the palm of the other. “Ow,” she squeaked.

Not wanting to go down in history as a guy who hits like a girl, I put on a pair of work gloves and tried again. This time, with minimal pain, which I hid behind my macho image, the wrench spun, and in seconds the plug was free.

It was clean as a whistle.

A half an hour later we knew that all seven Champion plugs were clean. Only the single Tempest plug was left. The one that her mechanic replaced two flight hours ago. And the prime suspect in our troubles. The plug that we couldn’t reach. The plug that was causing a storm worth of trouble.

The sun was setting. It was Sunday. Lisa had three classes to teach in the morning, and I was skating on thin ice on a story deadline with one of my editors, and really needed to send the morning writing. But I’ve left something out. All throughout this misadventure there’s been a background radiation of panic. Lisa is on the brink of trying to finish her license. She’d signed up for lessons with a flight school in Santa Fe, in her plane, for nearly every day of the winter break from the college where she teaches. She’s arranged for a place to stay over there, got ahead on laundry and packed clothes, bought groceries, cleared her schedule of any other responsibilities, and hired a cat sitter.

OK. I made up the part about the cat sitter. That’s the great thing about cats, they take care of themselves pretty well if you need to be away for a few days.

But now, all of that was in jeopardy. Her plane was grounded.

Lisa stood looking at Warbler, silent, deflated but not defeated. Not being a woman to give up easily, she rallied. “I going to Adrian’s tonight. Maybe he’ll have something different. Or maybe he can drill out one of these sockets deeper. Or we’ll go to every store in town. I’ll call the college and have someone fill in. Don’t worry about me, I’ll take care of this.”

In for a penny, in for a pound. “Aw, heck… pick me up on your way by.”

The next morning, bearing a pouch of borrowed tools, she dropped by the house and picked up Rio (who by now wanted to witness the next chapter in person, rather than by text) and I up, and we headed out. We brought a picnic lunch, figuring on an all-day maintenance fest, including a possible round of musical sparkplugs to rule in or rule out a mechanical failure on a sparkplug that otherwise looked clean. Debs, who was taking Grandma Jean to a doctor’s appointment in Santa Fe was on standby to bring us replacement plugs if needed. It was hall hands on deck.

Two minutes after we arrived at SXU with Adrian’s extra deep sockets, with a heavy thump of Lisa’s gloved hand, the Tempest in a tea pot was off the engine. It was coated with oil.

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After following the cleaning directions—which involved gas sumped from the tanks, a wire brush, carburetor cleaner, and a piece of paper—we towed Warbler out, buttoned up the hangar, and Lisa fired him up.

After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for him to warm up, she performed a mag check.

It was perfect.

Problem solved. Or was it? Why did the plug foul with oil so quickly? Did she need new piston rings? Or worse, a new cylinder? In either case, a break-in flight would be required. This was not looking good for the home team or for Lisa’s intensive flight training plans.

Lisa called her mechanic again to report our discovery. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he told her. And he had a theory. He knew her engine was older. Probably the piston rings weren’t the best. But he got to thinking that perhaps with the long warm up times at low RPM during our recent cold weather, more oil was slipping past the piston than could be burned off the plug. He suggested she warm up the plane at a higher RPM and see what happened. He also suggested a post-flight mag check, if the plug got fouled during a flight, it could be cleaned before the next flight. She could clean as needed, at least until her week-long intensive training was done.

So with the problem fixed in no time, and with a picnic lunch and the full day ahead of us, there was nothing left to do but have a plane party.

Then sit back and relax.

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The horse had a shoe. The warrior was off to battle. The kingdom was safe.

Until the next lost nail.

 

Horsing around for horsepower

“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse,” cried Shakespeare’s grounded Richard III at the bloody Battle of Bosworth.

In later centuries, author James Baldwin tells us that an entire mythical kingdom was lost through a chain of events that began “for want of a nail” to hold a horseshoe.

But no horsing around, although it’s a horse of a different color, we lost our horsepower, and—like King Richard the Third, we were grounded. And like Baldwin’s lost kingdom, it was from the lack of the simplest implement. Not a nail, in our case; our flight was lost for the want of a wrench.

Naturally, like it always happens when these things occur, it was the loveliest day to fly you can imagine. The sky was clear. It was chilly, but not cold. The wind gods must have overslept, as the long grasses beyond the taxiway stood tall and still like sentinel soldiers.

Breakdowns never happen when the weather sucks and you don’t want to fly anyway.

It all started out when my plane friend Lisa was planning on some last-minute landing practice, with me along as her safety pilot, before her burst of intensive training with a real flight instructor, which was set for pretty much every day of her college’s winter break. With a stereo screeches we pulled her south-facing hangar doors back to let in the pale white winter sunlight.

We pre-flighted Warbler: Carefully checking the pitot tube, static ports, alerions, rudders, elevator, landing gear, exhaust, and prop. We sumped the fuel tanks and double-checked the oil level. Getting a plane ready to fly takes time. Airplanes aren’t like cars. You can’t just drive to the airport and jump into your plane and fly. Well, you can, but such carelessness often ends badly. As they say, if your car breaks down, you can pull to the side of the road. If your plane breaks down, you can’t pull to the side of the sky.

All in readiness, we pulled Warbler out, buttoned up Lisa’s hangar, and climbed aboard,

Lisa ran through the short and simple engine start checklist: Opening the fuel cut off, reaching behind me to turn on the master switch (like with many Ercoupes, Warbler’s master is in the original odd-ball location in the baggage compartment behind the pilots), turning the ignition key to “both,” giving the engine two slow shots of prime, then reaching over practically into my lap to pull the starter handle—which is arguably located on the wrong side of the plane.

The prop swung in a lazy arc. The engine coughed once, then took hold. Unlike Tess, who’s sometimes a hard plane to start, Warbler is always eager to go.

But this morning something didn’t sound quite right. Or maybe it didn’t feel quite right. The vibrations through the airframe were different. The symphony of noise not quite in tune. Still, the oil pressure gauge lazily came off the mark and sauntered into the green. Slowly the vibrations settled down. The symphony got their act together, except perhaps for one rogue violin.

But the oil temperature needle lay firmly against the peg. Warm up was going to take a while. Winter flying in Warbler takes patience.

We busied ourselves with getting our headsets plugged in and making small talk. When at long last the temperature of the oil was at least detectable, Lisa taxied from her little patch of crumbling asphalt in front of her hangar, across the gravel, and onto the smooth surface of Taxiway Foxtrot; which you’d only know was Taxiway Foxtrot if you were based at SXU. For years, the taxiway was labeled with a proper yellow and black sign with a large capital F, but for whatever reason the sign was taken down and not replaced during the most recent remodeling in 2014. We still call it Foxtrot, but for the benefit of visitors, add “by the hangars” to all our radio calls.

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Once safely onto the smooth, gravel-free taxiway, Lisa pulled the parking brake, a long handle on the floor between the pilots, and locked it by pulling a knob on the panel. Then she slowly pushed the throttle forward and Warbler’s engine spooled up, the propwash back off the propeller making him jerk, sway, and buck. First, she checked the carb heat, then she reached over to the ignition switch. Although this switch has a key, that’s where the similarity to your car’s ignition switch ends. Well, that assumes that your car still uses a key. Mine doesn’t. It uses a magic wireless box the size of a Zippo lighter. But I digress.

Cars traditionally have ignition switches with two positions: On and Off. Airplanes have four positions: On and Off, plus a position called Right, and a position called Left. This is because of one of the unique safety features of airplane engines: Each cylinder has not one, but two sparkplugs. And each of these sparkplugs is run by a separate and independent magneto. In Warbler’s engine, the top sparkplugs in each cylinder are run by one mag and the bottom plugs in each cylinder are run by another mag, the idea being that if one mag fails, the engine will keep running. In fact, you may recall that not too long ago, Lisa had some adventures with one of her magnetos, so it was damn lucky for her that our aviation forefathers had the good foresight to provide her with two.

Anyway, before flight, pilots test these dual systems to ensure that both are working properly. This is done by increasing the power to a high level and shutting off first one, then the other, set of plugs. Typically, a small RPM drop is seen. If one of the mag systems faileds, when you isolate it, the engine stops. Which is why we test the system while we are still on the ground.

Lisa checked the first mag and all was well. Then she checked the second. Suddenly, the orchestra rioted. The RPM dropped a ton and the plane shook like a wet dog.

We knew at once what was wrong. We had a fouled plug. Only three of Warbler’s four cylinders were firing. We knew it was a plug, not a mag problem, because the engine was still running, even if badly. We didn’t know about the plug before the mag check, because the second plug in the cylinder was firing when both the mags were on.

And we also knew it was a fouled plug because, frankly, this wasn’t our first rodeo. In fact, we’d been riding in this very rodeo not two weeks before in Santa Fe, when we picked Warbler up following the installation of his new tail. One of the plugs was fouled with oil then, but the plane had only flown two hours since.

Lisa uttered a few choice words about airplanes, airplane mechanics, and the nature of the universe.

I whipped out my iPhone and Googled the instructions for trying to clear a fouled plug by burning off whatever is fouling it. Basically, this involves throttle and mixture combinations to increase the heat in the engine, but I knew it was a lost cause. Ercoupe engines aren’t really powerful enough to generate the kind of heat needed to clear a fouled plug. It failed when we tried this two weeks ago, and it failed when Lisa’s mechanic repeated the experiment, but we tried anyway on the theory that there couldn’t be too much crap on a sparkplug so recently cleaned. At least, assuming it was the same plug giving us trouble. Once we tried. Twice we tried. Thrice we tried. Just like Uncle Goggle recommended.

And as before, we failed. There was nothing left to do but to taxi back to the hangar and call Lisa’s mechanic.

He allowed as how it sounded like a plug again. And he suspected a particular one, the plug in the bottom of the right-aft cylinder, which had been oil-fouled, although he admitted that it might be one of the others that he didn’t check, as he stopped checking them once he found a problem. He offered to come over the following week, unless in the meantime we wanted to pull the plug and see if it was dirty. Always handy with a wrench, Lisa opted for that, and her mechanic talked her though the process.

And this is where we get back to horses.

We disconnected the electrode lead and, using a socket wrench, tried to remove the sparkplug. But there was a problem. The socket of the socket wrench wasn’t long enough. It didn’t reach the nut on the sparkplug.

Over the next 48 hours, I would learn more about sparkplugs than I had previously learned in my entire lifetime, but here’s the only thing you need to know for the moment: Aviation sparkplugs come in two common brands, Champion and Tempest. Champion plugs have a nut in the middle of the plug. Any garden variety socket wrench will easily reach the nut to remove the plug. Tempest plugs, however, have the nut all the way at the base of the plug, beyond the reach of standard sockets, and as we’d learn the hard way, also beyond the reach of “deep” sockets, as well.

But I’ve been long winded today, so the hunt for the nail to shoe the horse, to send the rider into battle, to save the kingdom, will have to wait until next week…

Frigid Flight

First the thick T-shirt from Eddie Bauer. Next, a heavy polo-style sweater, also, probably, from Eddie Bauer. After that comes the scarf. Then my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. I’m getting ready for a frigid flight. I slide my hands into warm gloves. According to the internet, it’s 17° F at our homebase. On the ground. And the sky gets colder the higher you go up.

I finish by pulling my thick Fly Duluthknit cap down over my ears. They really know how to make hats in northern Minnesota. Of course, my friends in northern Minnesota are laughing their asses off right now if they’re reading this—they wear short sleeve dress shirts at 17 degrees. I’ll bet they don’t even reach for their extra warm, thick, and wonderful artic-proven Fly Duluth knit caps until the mercury goes seriously into the negative. But we Southwesterners have thinner blood, and this is the first real cold snap of the season. So I’m not even remotely acclimated to the fact it’s winter. Heck, the cabin heater hose in Tess is still disconnected.

Luckily, however, I had the foresight to plug in her electric engine pre-heater. I did not, however, have the foresight to bring a hammer with me to the airport. Why would this matter? Because the padlock to Tessie’s hangar is entombed in ice like the alien in The Thing from Another Worldwhen I arrive.

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I get out my phone and amend my flight plan for a later departure. Luckily for me, the ice-clad lock proves less an obstacle than it appears; but my real problems have just begun.

As I push on the left hangar door, it starts to open with a crunching groan, hesitates, then rattles back, pouring cold, blue early winter morning light into my frozen hangar. I push on the right door. It grudgingly moves two feet and then jams solid. I pull back. No go. It’s stuck. Stuck fast.

Great. I can only get half my airplane out.

Debbie starts optimistically sweeping the snow from the short stretch of crumbling asphalt in front of Tessie’s wheels while I hack, swear, kick, and chop at the ice that’s lined the right door’s tracks. A north-facing hangar is only a good idea in three out of four seasons.

At long last, both doors stand open to the frigid world. Time to make ready for flight. Weird things happen to airplane metal and plastic at temperature extremes on both ends, so I do a more cautious than usual preflight. The elevator moves smoothly. The ailerons do not. But that’s a good thing on an Ercoupe. Their ailerons are interlinked to their rudders and their nosewheels. With Tess’s nosewheel planted firmly on the frozen ground, her ailerons and rudders would move freely only if they were horribly broken. The oil level is good. I pull off a glove and reach in to caress a cylinder to ensure that the engine heating system is working. It’s hot to the touch, burning my finger.

I check the fuel levels with a Fuelhawkstraw. They’re much lower than I expect, until I remember that fuel contracts significantly when it’s cold. In fact, in his bid to win the 1946 Bendix Air race by flying non-stop, Paul Mantz dropped containers of dry ice into a fuel truck to contract the gasoline so he could squeeze more of the fuel into the tanks of his heavily modified Mustang, Race 46.

It worked. He took the Gold that year. And the next. And the next.

I, however, decide that it’s prudent to add a few galloons before I take off into the white wonderland that stretches between here and Santa Fe.

Tess ready, I pull her out onto the crunching snow and button up the hangar. Or try to. I’ve carelessly left the open lock dangling from the door latch, and dripping water from the towering hangar roof has sloshed into the innards of the lock, freezing solid, blocking the lock as if it were full of cement. Rio takes the glacial lock to the Jeep and holds it close to the air vent, heater on high to thaw it out, while I amend my flight plan for a second time.

Debs worries that I’ll pick up ice on the wings. She’s been watching Air Disasters with Rio, Grandma, Lisa, and me. Not to worry, baby, that only happens in clouds. The sky is pale blue today, the ceiling of a baby boy’s nursery, with not a hint of a cloud. Even if there had been a cloud, it would probably freeze solid and crash to earth in a shower of broken crystals.

Finally, screaming metal doors closed again, lock thawed, I carefully mount the wing and step into my refrigerator of a cockpit. I’m prepared for a long, cold flight. Fuel open. Master on. Beacon on. Throttle cracked. Mags to both. Two shots of prime. Press the starter.

The prop spins round and round, then she starts with less complaint than I banked on, given the temperature. I taxi across the snow, throwing up less of a blizzard than I expected, darn it, then make my way to the runup area to wait for all the engine parts to come to heated harmony.

Finally, the oil temp in the green, I do my run up and pull onto the runway. It seems that no sooner than I push the throttle forward we are airborne, climbing like a jet fighter, the frigid air turbocharging my engine and airfoils, Tess’s white wings stretching out over a white world below.

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Pilots may not, but airplaneslovecold air.

But quickly I discover that this flight is not the frigid episode of Ice Pilotsthat I expected. In the cloudless sky, the sun filters though my greenhouse of a canopy, and with my newly re-connected heater duct keeping my feet toasty I actually start getting, well, too warm.

So I reverse the winterization process. I take off my headset, and ears momentarily assaulted by 113 decibels of pounding cylinders, pull off my thick Fly Duluth knit cap. Next, gripping a fingertip in my teeth, I slide my warm gloves off my hands. Then I slither out of my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. Finally, I remove my scarf.

Liberated from the frozen ground, high in the winter sky, basking in bright sunlight, my frigid flight turns out to be comfortably warm

For body and for soul.

 

Real games with toy planes

I spent hours flying Tess and Warbler above the southern New Mexico desert scouting the route. Hours more getting just the right pictures of it. I spent days designing and laying out the beautifully printed knee boards for the race pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit how I paid for those.

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I carefully plotted the race course on Google Earth Pro, measured the legs, then applied the proper math to compensate for the turn radius of the planes. I worked out handicaps for the three sizes of engines under the cowls of Ercoupes. I created an Excel spread sheet to calculate the speeds based on the start and finish times, and to automatically handicap the planes. I worked out the marshalling order, created timing sheets, bought a pair of atomic clocks, a green start flag, and a checkered finish line flag.

I had three beautiful trophies made for the fastest planes. Tall skinny towers a topped with cups like the air race trophies of old. Then I had custom medals struck for each pilot that flew, so that everyone would win something.

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I also, in SARLtradition, found the cutest little pig with wings for the slowest plane.

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I connected with a local talent scout and recruiteda group of models that became known as the Derby Dolls to set the NASCAR-with-wings tone I was after.

Sure, the rare opportunity to fly into highly restricted air space and land at Spaceport America was the real reason most of the pilots were coming to the 42ndErcoupe Owners Club Nationals; but to me, the signature event was my air race—which I named the 1stNational Ercoupe Air Derby. Needless to say, I had secret fantasies of it becoming an annual event, maybe even a league someday.

Twenty-one of the forty-eight planes coming to the convention signed up for my Derby, and I realized that I had on my hands the largest race of like-kind planes since the 1930s.

I was on cloud nine.

Cloud nine itself, however, was at 200 feet. AGL. Apparently, despite all my careful planning, I forgot to make the appropriate offering to the weather gods.

Arrival day at the national convention varied between low IFR and garden variety IFR most of the day, with a brief gasp toward the end of the day of the most marginal Marginal VFR I’ve even seen. Only one brave soul made it in. As twilight crept in at the end of the day, I stood out on the cold, wet apron and looked at the small collection of Ercoupes. Instead of the expected 48 planes that would have over-flowed the ramp, I had six, only two of which had entered the Derby.

It was decision time. The weather for race day looked fine, but most of my racers were MIA, trapped by hurricane-whipped moisture all across the country, and there was no way that they’d make it in before the scheduled dawn briefing. I considered moving the race, but it was like trying to re-arrange jigsaw puzzle pieces. It just couldn’t be done. There were too many other events that needed to take place when they were scheduled.

I was about to cancel the first ever National Ercoupe Air Derby when my buddy Lisa, who is a certified frickin’ genius, had a suggestion. In the swag bags for the convention were toy balsa wood gliders from the state Aviation Division. Why not create some sort of Air Derby with them? After all, we had no shortage of pilots. Men and women who locked their fogged-in hangar doors, jumped in their cars and drove in, or jumped on commercial flights and rented cars to reach the convention.

Lisa got out a piece of paper and started scribbling. She thinks best on paper. Longest throw… Most accurate throw… Number of throws to complete a “pylon” course…

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The next day, when I should have been marshalling twenty-one Ercoupes onto Taxiway Alpha at KLRU, I was setting up orange cones on the ramp in front of EAA Chapter 555’s hangar, roughly mimicking the layout of the real race. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. Then my cell phone starting ringing and the assorted crises that befall convention coordinators started befalling me.

Chief among these was the Spaceport. They needed to know precisely how many people were coming the next day, their names, states, blood types and genotypes; and who was stepping off a plane and who was stepping off a bus. And they needed to know RIGHT now!

Of course, I’d given them this information weeks ago, but now with the weather, it was a moving target. On a borrowed laptop I started throwing together a new spreadsheet (not having the sense to bring the one I had previously made with me) and began to code pilots by: Cancelled, switched from air to ground, still coming by air, and unknown at present.

I knew our fearless leader, club director Larry Snyder, was trapped in Tucumcari, having failed to reach my home base of SXU by a few miles before weather forced him to retreat. He emailed, “Had to turn back. Solid wall of rain and maybe 1 mile visibility.” A pity. Our hotels and restaurants are better. I knew I had a handful of planes in eastern New Mexico, and the story of those pilots trying to find a rental car is worthy of a Plane Tale of its own someday. And I knew that eight planes were bottled up together at Willcox, AZ, more than had reached the convention itself.

I also had one pilot who was missing. The night before, Flight Service called to ask if he’d arrived. His flight plan was overdue and not closed. He hadn’t. I tossed and turned all night worrying about him, and it gnawed at me the next day. When he eventually showed up I was so happy to see him, I gave him a giant bear hug.

The rest of the fleet? Who knew? Certainly not me. Working from a tattered, folded, damp print out of the master registration list, I struggled to update the Excel spread sheet, while answering my phone every ten minutes (have you noticed that cell phone batteries never die when you want them to?) and alternately talking to members with a wide variety of questions, issues, comments, and suggestions. I was starting to, you know, stress out a little, when I heard it.

I heard the sound of a party.

Happy voices. Laughter. Cheers. The sounds were drifting into the EAA hangar from the ramp.

I got up and stuck my head out the door. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the Basal Wing Derby pilots. The wind was up, snatching the light gliders. One pilot used tape to increase his weight. Another swore her secret was to aim low and throw low. It was getting competitive, to say the least, but everyone was having a blast. The Derby Dolls were on hand working the green and checkered flags, and Lisa was keeping point totals on two giant sheets of poster board that kept flapping in the wind.

I was witnessing the birth of a new aviation sport.

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At the end of the trio of competitions, the Derby Dolls gave out the custom Air Racer medals to each person who participated in all three Basal Wing events, and presented the tall skinny trophies a topped with cups to the top three scoring pilots.

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Talk about salvaging a disaster! Not only did our members have a blast, probably more people had more fun than if my race had gone off as planned. Of course, that’s not stopping me from planning the 2ndNational Ercoupe Air Derby for next year. You know, with real airplanes this time. But still… I think I’ll ask the state for another handful of those basal gliders next year.

Just in case.

 

One spare isn’t enough

“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.

But that ear-to-ear smile was not to last.

Now, for background, you need to know that Tess, when it comes to maintenance, has become nearly as much trouble as a Warbird. Yeah. She’s “down.” Again. I would’a thought that for a woman of her age hot flashes would be a thing of the past, but just days out of that killer annual earlier this summer, she began to overheat. Big time.

I’ll spare you the pain of the details, and myself the PTSD of recounting this latest woe, but the bottom line is that two of her four nearly-new cylinders have to be pulled off. According to my logbook, I took her to her new shop about six weeks ago, and it’s likely to be several more weeks before she’s back in my hands (or I’m back in hers, as the case may be).

But that said, my logbook is hardly empty of Ercoupe time since. In fact, I’ve been flying a lot. How can that be? Well, the “family” has a spare airplane.

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Yep. I’ve been flying with my buddy Lisa as the safety pilot in her plane, helping her polish her skill set prior to her next round of formal training. Actually… Come to think of it, Lisa’s skill set has become so polished that I haven’t had to touch the controls in… well, I can’t remember how long it’s been. But each time we fly, she’s kind enough to let me take the controls at some point so that I can feel like a real pilot again.

Most days, after Lisa flies, Rio takes over the left seat and we go up and polish the maneuvers that his flight instructor is teaching him as well. We had been doing Rio’s training in Tess, but with her in the Airplane Hospital again, Lisa loaned him the keys to Warbler.

We all started joking that it’s a good thing we have a spare airplane. But as it would turn out, one spare Ercoupe isn’t enough. And that’s why Lisa lost her smile.

So much for background. Now on to today’s Plane Tale…

 

We rose early—me from the master suite and Lisa from the guestroom—and met at the coffee pot, bleary-eyed. We aren’t morning people either of us, but the early morning sky favors flight training. Winds tend to be light, and thermal turbulence from the sunbaked landscape hasn’t started to form yet. But today, it was clearly a waste of blissful sleep. A quick look out the window showed that the weather was not as forecast.

You can’t trust weathermen and psychics.

Still, we’ve learned that the weather at my house (which is 20 miles closer to the field than Lisa’s, hence the use of the guestroom on flying days) and the weather at the airport can be so different as to be in alternate universes, so properly caffeinated, we headed out.

Headed out into weather that grounded the crows that live on the airport beacon tower next to the hangers.

So instead of pre-flighting Warbler, we dumped the trash in the terminal, restocked the fridge and the snack baskets, and looked to see how many new pins had been placed in the large flight planning chart on the wall, the one that visiting pilots are invited to mark their home airports on. Then we hung out in Lisa’s hangar, mine being empty. She also has windows that look out to the East, allowing me to keep one eye on the weather while surfing the internet on my flight pad.

As the sky began to lift the wind came up.

“You know what?” said Lisa, “this isn’t happening for me today. But if you want to fly for a change, I’d be happy to come along for a ride.” She dangled Warbler’s keys in front of my face.

If there’s a pilot who can turn down an offer like that, I’ve never met him. Or her.

I had planned to do a toilet paper chase after Lisa’s practice. That’s where you fly up to around 10,000 feet, chuck a roll of (fully biodegradable) toilet paper out of the plane (over and empty area) then dive on the streamer and try to cut it with your wing as it flutters to the ground. It’s easier said than done, but every bit as much fun as it sounds. And I’ve actually succeeded at doing it.

The ceiling was starting to break up, so I chucked a roll of toilet paper in the back and up we went. It felt strange to be in Warbler’s left seat.

But as we climbed into the murky air, it was clear that this was not a day to venture up to 10,000 feet. I opted for barnstorming instead. Low and slow down on the deck we zipped between sandstone buttes, circled the ruins of abandoned ranch houses, and did lazy S-turns up and down empty dirt roads to nowhere—soaking in the view and the feel of flight.

Our RMP was acting up a bit, first high, then low. I didn’t give it much thought. Warbler has a new throttle and I figured that we didn’t have the friction lock set right yet.

I figured wrong.

“Thanks for letting me take the left seat,” I told Lisa.

“Actually,” she said, “I’m enjoying being a passenger for a change. Over here is where I fell in love with flying.”

Finally, gas running low, it was time to head back to the nest.

“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.

On base it seemed like I needed a lot more back pressure on the elevator than normal, and we also ended up landing long. But the touchdown was smooth, the moment between flying and rolling almost undetectable.

Then the noise started.

Or maybe it was there all along and we just couldn’t hear it over the roar of the engine. It was a flapping-type sound. I cocked my head to one side. “Do you hear that?” I asked Lisa. Then I pulled one ear cup away from my head, trying to hear it better, trying to process what it might be. As Warbler rolled down the runway, it seemed to get louder.

We needed fuel, so I headed for the far end of Eight, where Taxiway Charlie leads to the terminal and the pumps.

I should have turned tail and headed back to the hangars. Hindsight.

As we crossed One Niner, the noise was really distinctive. It sounded like a loose cowl banging in the slip stream. I decided to shut down right where we were. Nearly a mile from either the hangars or the ramp.

It never occurred to me that the engine would never restart again.

I pulled back the throttle and the mixture, then turned off the mags. With an abrupt shudder the prop snapped to attention, stopping at 12 o’clock, not making the lazy spin down we are used to. With trepidation, I slid the top of the three-piece canopy to the right, climbed out onto the wing, dropped to the ground, and came around to the front of the plane.

Everything looked normal. No loose cowl pieces.

For some reason, I reached up to pull Warbler’s prop down to the normal position.

It was stuck fast. Excalibur in the stone. My mind couldn’t process what my hands and eyes were telling me. One moment the engine is running; the next moment, after shutting it down myself, the prop is stuck fast.

I didn’t know what to do, but attempting a restart was out. I looked far to the West at the distant Lego block of the hangar. Then I looked far to the South at the distant Lego block of the terminal. This was a stupid place to shut down.

So like hippie college students who ran out of gas on the way back to the dorm, we pushed Warbler back down the taxiway, across One Nine, and back along half the length of Eight. Well, Lisa pushed. I pulled on the stuck prop, using it as a combination tow bar and steering tiller.

It was a long haul, helped by a friendly couple from Arizona headed home from AirVenture, who added some horsepower to the pushing on the last half of the journey.

The slow roll to the hangar seemed to take longer than the flight that proceeded it, but eventually we got Warbler back in his nest, where Lisa collapsed into a little puddle of DNA in the corner. Not to say she reverted to sucking her thumb, or anything—which I probably would have—but there are some things in this world you just can’t do for yourself, and a good example is calling your mechanic to discuss a very expensive-sounding repair on an airplane you really couldn’t afford in the first place, so I offered to make the call. That’s what friends are for.

I got the man on the phone and described what had happened. The prop would turn backwards as much as I wanted it to, but going in the normal direction of travel, when the blade reached 12 o’clock it stopped cold.

The mechanic said he’d never heard of anything like that before.

He had me check the oil. It was fine. Then one or two other things. Finally he said, let it cool down, then see if the prop frees up.

As we had time to kill, I starting calling various experts we knew in the Ercoupe community. The first guy thought it sounded like a broken crankshaft, about the worst thing that could happen. But I didn’t think so. Sure, if the prop were totally frozen, or totally loose. But half and half? Of course, all I know about airplane breakdowns is things that have broken down on mine. I was in uncharted territory here.

The next three guys I called had never heard of such a thing, either. Great. But all three of them instinctively felt we were seeing a bizarre manifestation of a stuck valve, a serious but not fatal mechanical issue.

Hours later, the engine cool, the prop spun freely again.

The next step? Lisa’s mechanic will have to make a house call. That will happen next weekend. And in the meantime, even with two Ercoupes, we have no plane to fly.

One spare, apparently, is not enough.

 

Break out the oxygen

Damn. The ground looks so far away. “This crazy altitude is going to give me a nosebleed,” I tell Rio.

Rio, now a somewhat intolerant teen, rolls his eyes, “It’s not that bad, Dad.”

Rio’s in the left seat. I sit up straighter in my seat to see out over his wing at the airport, far, far, far below. “Break out the oxygen,” I insist.

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“We don’t have oxygen, Dad. Besides, it’s only two hundred feet higher.”

Which, I know, means we’re 5,791 feet above sea level. The FAA doesn’t require pilots to use oxygen until we top 12,500 feet, and then only if we stay up there for more than half an hour. It’s at 14,000 feet that the pilot must don the mask no matter what. I’m not sure what Tessie’s service ceiling is, but I’m guessing we couldn’t get to 14,000 feet even if we filled her up with helium and lashed her to a weather balloon.

Still. The airport looks too small. In my mind I chant:I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am. I do not like this new pattern altitude. I would not like it here or there. I would not like it anywhere.

After I’ve been flying a landing pattern altitude of 800 feet above the ground for thirty-seven years, the powers-that-be have gone and raised it to 1,000 feet. It actually isn’t as capricious as it sounds. For years about half of the non-towered airports out there have used my beloved 800 feet, while the other half have been using 1,000 feet. As there’s no way with a quick glance at the chart to know which an airport is using, it’s led to a dangerous mix of aircraft flying at different altitudes in the pattern at some busy airports. So really, they had to standardize it for safety.

I just wish they’d chosen 800 feet.

But they didn’t. And now I have to learn to land all over again. As do Rio and Lisa, who were just beginning to master buttery smooth landings from 800 feet. Now, it seems that no matter how we change our power settings, we still come in 200 feet high.

Of course, the new pattern altitude isn’t actually law. It’s a highly recommended best practice recommended by what’s called an Advisory Circular. Out here on our own we could just keep doing whatever the hell we want to do, and no one would be the wiser.

But that wouldn’t be right.

It is for the best, I can see that. Plus when we travel we really need to be on the same page as everyone else. We—I—just need to buckle down and learn how to do this.

But, damn, I know it’s only 200 feet higher, but everything looks so much smaller, so far below. “Let’s try eighteen hundred RPM this time,” I tell Rio as we come abeam the numbers and need to start our descent

Then I add, “And tomorrow I’m bringing your grandmother’s oxygen tank.”

 

Racing… Nevermore, nevermore?

“Gentlemen, start your engines,” is not a command I’ll get to hear this year. The race season, for me, has ended before the first swing of the propeller. I love the sport and I was rarin’ to go, my bags were half packed for the first race. It’s even a short season, but as it turns out, well, damn it, my checkbook is even shorter.

Two seasons of racing with family in tow, neglect of work in lieu of racing, a downturn in opportunity, and a long string of expensive “mechanicals” on Race 53 have tapped me out. I’m drowning in red ink.

I did my best to ignore reality, of course, but in the end, there was no escaping it. First, I toyed with cutting out just the more distant races. Then going to just the closest ones. But the more I looked at it, the more I realized that even that was out of reach.

I even considered running just one race, I probably could have afforded that, but I realized that for me, one race would be harder than none. Harder on my soul, that is. This racing, you see, is like a drug. You can never get enough. At least I can’t. One taste would just fuel the thirst for another, and another, and another.

And like any addict I’d no doubt take stupid measures to get my next “fix.”

So I packed it in. Called it off. Took my hat back out of the ring. Scratched the races I’d signed up for. I deleted the flight plans and erased the checkered race flags from the big wall chart in our flight lounge.

I’ll keep my League membership. Keep the big black and white “53” gumball on the wings and fuselage. But, for this season at least—and probably more—I’ll have to be content to be an armchair racer, watching from the sidelines, waiting for the times to be posted to see where my friends and rivals are placing, imaging where I’d be in the lineup. Seeing their championship points build on the leaderboard while hoping to catch glimpses of their trophies on Facebook.

Or maybe I won’t even have the strength for that. It might be too much like smelling the distant cookout when you are starving in the woods.

Do I have regrets? Sure. Plenty. I’m bummed we won’t be able to see how much better (if at all) the 0-200 Stroker delivers compared to Race 53’s old engine. Plus the Fac6 Category is really heating up. There’s some serious competition now at the bottom of the pack. Damn. That would have been fun.

This year, too, SARL has introduced a handicapped element to some races, leveling the playing field between production planes. Handicapping erases the element of the airplane itself. That leaves pilot skill as the only factor when it comes to winning or losing a race. In theory, in a handicapped race, Tessie could trump Mike Patey’s 400+ mile per hour turbine terror Turbulence.

Wouldn’t that be something to see?

Oh. Wait. So far, this handicapping thing is just for the production crowd and Turbulence runs in the Experimental Category. Still, it would have been interesting to see if me, or my friendly nemesis from last year, Charles Cluck of Race 35, is the “better” pilot. My mother and my wife are convinced I am, but that’s just family loyalty. That guy is a hell of a pilot. The Brits learned the hard way not to mess with men who wear kilts.

Still, I would have relished the challenge.

But I realized that if I tried to race there’d be no flying money for anything else. I’d fly ten trips in the year, most on credit, and Tess would end up being relegated to the lowly status of Hanger Queen the rest of the year. Better, I decided, to settle on racing a cloud every weekend than run a few sparse races and twiddle my thumbs most weekends.

So there won’t be a continuation of my Air Racing from the Cockpit series form GA News here at Plane Tales like I hoped, but I’m sure I can think of something to talk about.

And at least, while the ravens of racing are crying “nevermore” for me on the circuit, my blue and white bird will still continue to race around the skies.

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