Bucket fingers and “brilliant” aviation law

You know how some people just talk too much? Well, I write too much. I can go on for page, after page, after page, after…

And that’s a bad thing for a man living in the Twitter Universe, where reader attention spans grow shorter each month. I used to believe that if you wrote well, your reader would stick with you. Not true, apparently. One of my online editors can track how far through an article my readers go. “You lose most of them after the second page,” she told me about a piece I wrote that clicked through four “pages.”

Well, crap.

Of course, like most professional writers, I don’t think in terms of pages. I think in terms of word counts. This is probably because back in the day, we were all paid by the word. Literally. Your word count was your paycheck. That was largely replaced decades ago by pay-per-piece, with the length of pieces counted by their typewritten pages. But now, with our typewriters collecting dust, and our computers sporting a variety of type fonts, styles, sizes, and margins—word counts have returned as a handy universal way to measure the size of a written piece.


Image: Amazon

Personally, I’m perfectly happy writing 6,000 words. Most modern editors, on the other hand, want 800. Or even less. I think you can see my problem.

Anyway, today I decided to share something with you that fell on the cutting room floor, as it were, while I was trying to prune down a typically long piece I wrote to a size that readers might, you know, actually read. It was this month’s column for Questions from the Cockpit, at GA News, and it deals with the origin of aviation right-of-way rules. I’m not going to be a spoiler, you’ll just have to wait until the column hits the streets later this month to read all about that; but I didn’t have enough words to re-tell a wonderful Plane Tale I discovered from the earliest days of aviation. Setting the stage, you need to know that back before Federal regulation of civil aviation, some of the states tried to create laws regarding them new-fangled air-e-o-planes them pesky birdmen was buzzin’ around in.

Henry Woodhouse, in his 1920 Textbook of Aerial Laws, wrote that these attempts often ended badly, understatedly saying, “Most of the state laws proposed overlooked the fact that to enforce aerial laws requires a staff of experts, as well as an aerial police.” The lack of an aerial police force certainly didn’t stop the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, although, as you’ll soon see, the lack of experts turned out to be a serious stumbling block for the commonwealth’s law enforcement officers.

It happened in 1913, only a decade after Orville broke the laws of gravity over the sands of Kill Devil Hills, when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed its Act to Regulate the Use of Aircraft. The Act set down procedures for aircraft registration, established right of way rules, set minimum altitudes for crossing over various sized communities and cities, created regulations about landing on highways and public parks (verboten except in an emergency), and required pilots to get a license from the Massachusetts Highway Commission.

Woodhouse tells us what happened next: “After the act went into effect an aviator applied for a license and was told that no provision had been made for a board of experts to conduct the necessary examination,” so he could not be given a license. Naturally, he flew without one. And naturally, was arrested for flying without a license—an action punishable under the Act by a fine of not less than $10 and not more than $500 ($258 x to $12,900 adjusted for inflation), along with a possible six months in the slammer.

Holy flying cow. That’s a harsher penalty than you’d get today!

Now, in the interest of keeping my word count down today, I’ll cut to the happy ending. Woodhouse tells us, “When it was explained that he had applied for the license but the Commonwealth was not prepared to give it to him, he was discharged.”

See? Sometimes there is justice when dealing with aviation bureaucrats. Well, at least once. Back in 1913…


High fliers

We’re perched atop the dome of the sky, the world below stretching out to infinity. In my mind’s eye I can nearly picture the curve of the earth, gently sliding off left and right like the slope of a gentle hill.

This is a whole ‘nother kind of flying for Tess, altogether. Not our usual down in the dust barnstorming. As the altimeter slides past 11,000 feet I pause to wonder what her service ceiling—the maximum point above the earth that Tessie’s engine and airfoils can deliver her to—really is. Yeah, I know the book value is 13,000 feet. The book, in this case, being the Wikipedia entry on Ercoupes. When Tess was built, owner’s manuals, at least for airplanes, hadn’t been invented yet. But every ‘Coupe is different. What can my girl really do?

At 11,300 feet above the oceans of the earth, she’s still showing no signs of slowing down. Part of me wants to take her to the apex of her capability, just for the science of it, but I’m already stretching the law as it is. You see, the part of my license I’m flying on caps me at 10,000 feet above sea level, with one exception, which is the one I’m using now. The rules let sport pilots, or pilots flying under the light sport privileges of any higher license, exceed 10,000 feet when it’s necessary to go higher to stay 2,000 feet above the ground—like for instance, when crossing a mountain range—which is what I’m preparing to do now.

Of course, even though I’m climbing steadily, fiddling with the fuel-air mixture of the engine as I rise to keep it running strong, it’s no fast process. If I stayed exactly 2K above the ground the whole way, I’d smack right into Mount Terrell about half way up. So I got a head start on my climb as we headed down the Sevier River Valley south of Spanish Fork, getting ready to cross from the Western Slope of the Rockies, over the Great Divide, to the East Slope. I have faith that the FAA, now more safety focused than letter-of-the-law focused, will judge me to be in the spirit of the law.

Unless I were to attempt 13,000 feet to cross a 9,318-foot mountain pass. That would be stretching their good nature too far, I suspect, and not be in the spirit of the law whatsoever. So I stop climbing and turn left toward the gap in the mountains.

Beneath our belly the ground is now more than five thousand feet below, but that number rapidly unwinds as the terrain rears up. Forty-five hundred… four thousand… three thousand five hundred… three thousand feet… two thousand five hundred… The mountain is climbing faster than I ever would have been able too. Over the apex of the saddle between the eleven-thousand-foot peaks, my GPS shows me at a legal and comfortable 1,982 feet above the rocks below.

As I pass out of the mountain’s jaws I slide the throttle backward and Tess drops down from the heavens like a fallen angel. Our course is Eastbound, so I let her fall to 9,500 feet above the world’s oceans, which here in the heart of the country are  more than a thousand miles away, then I bring the power back up to hold the altitude, relishing the feeling of being on top of the world.


Fully legal both in spirit and the letter of the law, but still a high flier.


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.



“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.”