Battling to see the eclipse

Poet Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, but I think German military genius Helmuth von Moltke said it best: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

And so it was with me and my overly-elaborate plans to watch the Great American Eclipse. I’ll spare you the picayune details, but the original battle plan involved a ballet of our airplane, Southwest Airlines flights, rental cars, and hotel reservations in Urbana and Omaha. Why Urbana? There was an air race there the Saturday before the eclipse. Why Omaha? I honestly can’t remember anymore.

Looking back on it now, it all seems ridiculous. But it made sense at the time we planned it, and it was the result of countless hours of family dinnertime conversation. I guess as well as having too many chefs in the kitchen, we suffer from having too many generals in the war room.

At any rate, in March I made the hotel reservations. I made the rental car reservations. I made the airline reservations. I ordered our eclipse glasses. Five pair. My first contact with the enemy came within days of these maneuvers, when I tired to arrange for a hangar for Tess in Urbana.

“Race? What race?” asked the airport manager. Apparently, the race director had neglected to discuss the event with the host airport. One thing led to another, and the race was scrubbed.

I cancelled the hotel reservations. I cancelled the rental car reservations. I cancelled the airline reservations.

My second contact with the enemy came in April. Suddenly, the race was on again. I re-made the hotel reservations. I re-made the rental car reservations. I re-made the airline reservations.

But the war was far from over.

My third contact with the enemy came in May when my engine started burning more oil than gas. That battle was a protracted one, but by July it was clear we’d have no airplane for our airplane-centric battle plan. So back to the dawning board we went. Now too close to the Great Eclipse to find hotels anywhere near the zone, we kept Omaha in the plan, cancelling the Urbana part of the campaign. Ironically, in the end, the Urbana race was cancelled yet again, this time at the last minute. Had we still had our plane, we would have been well on our way out. Clearly the Fates—normally great air racing fans—must have decided they wanted to watch the eclipse instead.

But back to our evolving battle plan. Planeless, we kept Omaha in the picture, and decided to drive from our home base to our near-to-the-eclipse hotel rooms.

Then our Field Marshal became a casualty of war. Mom pushed herself a bit too hard at the State Senior Olympics, winning both a gold medal in the 90-94 age category and a case of dehydration that came with a two-day hospital stay.

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The next week was AirVenture. She had a grand time there, until she collapsed at the EAA Museum. More ER visits followed, and somewhere in the midst of these medical skirmishes, she picked up a nasty case of bronchitis.

As the moon and the sun converged, it was clear to me that she’d be in no shape to travel. I decided I couldn’t ask either of my sisters to miss out on the eclipse, so I elected to stay home with mom and ordered the rest of the troops onward.

Then the fog of war got thicker. Lisa had a work conflict and couldn’t be gone as long as the new plan took to execute. I tired for last-minute commercial air tickets into Omaha, but the laws of supply and demand were in full force. Tickets that usually run around $200 were over $1,500. In the end, Debs and Rio drove to Omaha in a leisurely fashion fitting Debbie’s energy levels, while Lisa did a last-minute solo power-drive up to Wyoming. Mom and I stayed home with our eclipse glasses determined to be satisfied with a partial eclipse.

And what about the classic nemesis of aviators, the weather? Mom and I in New Mexico, Rio and Debs in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Lisa on the banks of the Platte River in Wyoming all watched the eclipse under clear, cloudless skies.

Rio and Debs—and Lisa a state over—were all bathed in eerie quasi darkness for two and a half minutes while mom and I, with popcorn and red wine, sat in her bird garden with our cardboard glasses watching the sun turn into a crescent, trying to convince ourselves it was a hair darker in the desert around us.

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It wasn’t.

But determined to experience that mid-day darkness I missed out on, I’m already planning for the next eclipse.

What could possibly go wrong?

 

The best (flying) party ever?

I’m a VIP. I know this is true because the black and silver badge around my neck says so.

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But I’m actually a party crasher.

Yes. It’s true. I have no real right to be here tonight, which of course makes it doubly fun. Sorta like getting into a bar when you are underage or ditching school for the first time. Not that I ever did either of those things.

I’ve crashed the Cirrus Aircraft pre-race party at the final leg of the Red Bull Air Race. How did I do that? By being a member of a secret organization that has a lot of pull: the Hat in the Ring Society.

Actually, HITR is no secret, but a surprising number of pilots don’t know about it. The Society is a part of the AOPA Foundation, whose mission is to preserve general aviation as the national treasure that it is. Most Americans don’t realize this, but our freedom to fly is somewhat unique in the world; most countries severely restrict flying by members of the general public. We have that right here only because organizations like AOPA have fought for decades to preserve it. (For non-pilot readers, AOPA—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association—is the AARP of the general aviation world in terms of power, clout, and lobbying for good flying causes.)

I’ve been a card-carrying member of Hat in the Ring for a couple of years now. Oh. Wait. No I’m not. We don’t have membership cards. But I do have the logo embroidered on my flight jacket…

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…and I’m a member in good standing, which in some months is no small trick for a freelance writer, because Hat in the Ring is an organization of “philanthropist-pilots” that has a minimum dues of a thousand bucks a year.

Yeah, when I first heard about the cost of membership, I had the same reaction you probably just did. But then I read a piece by then-foundation head Bruce Landsberg challenging pilots to do more. The sad truth is that the dues we pay as AOPA members are barely enough to keep the lights on at headquarters. The mission of the organization is paid for by donations above and beyond the dues. Most donations are onesie-twosie and are given toward specific causes, like lobbying congress for medical reform. But Hat in the Ring is sorta like subscription donation, and the money goes into the Foundation’s general fund.

Anyway, long story short(er), Landsberg framed the dues in a different way. He asked pilots if the freedom to fly was worth the cost of a single flight a month. And then he further speculated about what AOPA would be able accomplish if every pilot gave the cost of one flight a month.

I was sold on the spot and became the poorest of the Foundation’s big donors. But as such, I’ve been given some special status as AOPA, frankly, spoils Hat members. We get special seating at events, get special access to the brass, and get invited to special members-only events.

And that’s how I crashed the Cirrus party. Hat members were invited to a behind-the-scenes tour of the race pits at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway the day before the final race of the 2015 Red Bull season (along with being given free tickets to the race). We were also set to meet with Red Bull Air Race pilot Michael Goulian, himself a Hat member. As soon as I got the invite, I booked a hotel room in Vegas.

Anyway, I’m not quite clear how it happened, but something with the schedule of the practice runs on the course at the Speedway led to our original tour being cancelled. Instead we got wrapped into the Cirrus Party. Lucky us. Because I’m here to tell you, Cirrus Aircraft knows how to throw a party.

Remember that VIP badge I showed you at the start? As a working journalist I have quite a collection of similar badges, as nearly every event I’ve ever been to has given me some sort of badge to wear. Generally they are paper. Sometimes plastic. The all-time best was the Medicine X badge from Stanford, billed by organizers as the first conference badge ever that “didn’t suck.” It was a vinyl smart badge with engineered interactivity using QR codes that also contained the conference schedule. It was very cool.

But the folks at Cirrus Aircraft topped even that. My badge to the Pre-race is made, kid you not, of metal.

Yeah. I know. It’s ironic that the airplane builder that abandoned metal for plastic in making their planes should abandon plastic in favor of metal for their party favors.

But I, for one, loved it. I’ve always admired classy advertising. I like a thick paper stock. A slick design. Varnished photos in a brochure. An embossed business card. I can recognize a brochure or a business card printed on a home printer from a mile away, and it sends me the message that someone is too cheap to invest in his or her business.

Cirrus, on the other hand, is clearly not afraid to invest, and the market has rewarded them. Their SR-series planes have been the best-selling single-engine four/five place aircraft for the last dozen years, and this summer they delivered their 6,000th airplane to a customer. Not too shabby for a company operating in what some people regard as the sunset of general aviation, and in a recession, no less.

But back to the party. I’m told the party was for 300 people, but I don’t think it was a full house. About half the folks there were wearing the black shirts of Cirrus employees, and I know for a fact that there were 45 “Hats” and/or Hat guests (like Debs and Rio) in attendance. And the rest? Who was the party really thrown for? Cirrus employees were vague about that, saying only that it was for people Cirrus valued. My guess was that it was for existing customers, and more importantly, to woo potential future customers.

The party was in the Media Center, a building that sits smack-dab in the middle of the speedway. We arrived there in three chartered beer-and-soda equipped busses that barely fit through the tunnels that pass under the racetrack. As the sun set and the giant stadium lights lit the arena like a second sun, we toured the temporary hangars that housed the 14 planes of the “master class” racers.

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The party itself featured food, booze, and virtual reality headsets that let us “fly” the racecourse. It was an experience real enough that I kept grabbing for a stick that wasn’t there. Four of the race pilots themselves came to the party, and we also got a sneak peak—via video—of what it’s like flying Cirrus’s new personal jet.

The whole event was built around not just owning a Cirrus airplane, but living a nebulous thing called “The Cirrus Life™.” (Yeah, no kidding; they trademarked it.) What is this Cirrus Life? Think Playboy. Only co-ed. And for us older folks. So, basically a high-class family-friendly lifestyle without the naked girls.

Well, that was my take, anyway. The Cirrus Life is officially described as: Increased productivity. More face time. More family time. There are many powerful lifestyle and business advantages of personal flying in a Cirrus aircraft.

Damn. I should get a job writing for these folks. They are good!

And in keeping with the theme of all things fine, speed, and The Cirrus Life, the cirrus marketing department hired an outfit called Dream Racing to take the most VIPish of the VIPs on rides around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche supercars.

We weren’t part of that illuminati. After all, we don’t own a Cirrus and aren’t likely to anytime soon, given the slow state of medical reform and the fact that aviation writers rarely earn anything close to six-figure-incomes. Cirrus planes are simply out of my league, with a base price of half a million bucks, and fully tricked-out easily $800 K or more. Still, as the night wound down, one of the Cirrus peeps asked if any of us wanted a car ride. I was about to agree when Debs cut me down with a piercing look of her deep brown eyes and I quickly declined.

Rio, however, jumped on the opportunity. Sadly, though, they wouldn’t let him go. He’s only 13 and the minimum age for the rides is 15. He was bummed, but at least I know now what to get him for his birthday two years hence. He handed his ticket to his mother and told her to take his seat. She hesitated for a second then a twinkle of excitement glinted in her eyes.

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Here’s a picture of Debs breaking my World Speed Record. On the ground.

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So speaking of Cirrus, what do I think of their airplanes? Well, I’ve never flown one, but Rio and I tried one on for size on the ramp at AOPA Colorado this year, and I can honestly say it was the roomiest airplane I’ve ever sat in—with the exception of the Stratocruiser, which, ironically, was on the same trip. Of course, that’s really not a fair comparison. But amongst GA airplanes (which are not famous for being roomy in the first place) the Cirrus really is a cut above. It felt very much more like sitting in a family car than in a typical light airplane. Even the back seats looked to have legroom.

I also appreciate the fact that Cirrus had the courage to pioneer the idea of “real” airplanes having airframe parachutes. While it might seem an obvious safety feature to have a large parachute that can gently lower a wounded airplane to the ground, the idea ruffled a lot of pilot feathers the wrong way when it was introduced. The idea flew in the face of a hundred years of macho save-the-day-against-all-odds pilot culture. But now, many years and 334 saves later (including 104 people living the Cirrus Life), I think most pilots see the wisdom of the airframe parachute.

Bottom line: If the third-class medical goes through in a way that will benefit me—I think it will go through, but I also think it won’t benefit me—and should I write a New York Times best seller, the Cirrus will be on my short list for the next family airplane. Both because it is a good plane, and because I think I might enjoy a little more of the Cirrus Life.