The best beer ever

I’m not much of a beer drinker. That’s not to say I’m a teetotaler. Far from it. I’m a huge fan of dry red wines, especially Cabs and Malbecs, and more than one brand of bourbon can be found in our hangar.

Hey, half the fun of flying is hangin’ in the hangar afterward; and part and parcel of that is adult beverages. Booze and flying have gone hand-in-glove together since the days of the open cockpit biplanes. Of course, given the reliability of airplanes in those days, you really needed a drink when you got back on terra firma. Planes are safer and better today, but far be it from me to shirk aeronautical tradition.

Anyway, as I was saying, although I work hard at honoring the flying tradition of the post-flight drink, beer isn’t my weapon of choice. It just doesn’t do much for me. Sure, maybe once a year with a Mexican combo plate, an icy cold cerveza hits the spot, and in cases like those—just like with my wine and spirits—I tend to go for the heavy stuff. A dark beer, the color of coffee, please.

But not long ago I had a beer that broke all my normal rules and preferences, and it was the perfect beer. No. Better. It was the best beer ever. This is the Tale…

Poor Tess hasn’t flow much in the last year and a half, and with our recent crunch that bent her like a beer can just forward of her wings, I suspect my logbook is gonna remain bare for months to come. But her best adventure of late was the flight up to Spanish Fork, Utah for the Mt. Timpanogos Air Race, part of the Aeroplanes, Trains, and Automobiles event, the only race of the shockingly short, weather-battered Sport Air Racing League season that we made it to this year.

It was a long flight, something like six hundred miles, complete with two fuel stops. Plus crossing the Rocky Mountains. In late August. Don’t get me wrong. It was a lovely flight, but flying is actually hard work, and this route is challenging for a low-powered plane. Once on the ground, the day was getting warm, the fuel pump was being fussy, we had to prep Tess for the race the next day, and there’s an appalling lack of shade in which to do all of this on the airport ramp.

By late afternoon I was tired and hot. Hot and tired. But there was a party to go to. Race Director Mike Patey had invited us all to a pre-race party in his hangar. The invitation read: “Bring nothing but smiles; we have the rest!”

Now, Patey is truly one of the nicest guys in the world. But he’s Mormon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it made me wonder: Would a serious, practicing Mormon stock booze for his non-Mormon party guests? And if he wanted to, would it even be legal? Spanish Fork is dry, something I discovered to my dismay during the 2016 racing season. I briefly flirted with showing up with my own bottle, but I knew in my heart that would be a social faux pas of the highest order. In the end I decided that when in Rome…

The party was in the Patey hangar, a magnificent two-story structure in the heart of the airport. It features an upstairs inside-outside deck with a magnificent view of the ramp, taxiways, and the arrival end of Runway 30, as well as a stunning vista of the mountains of the Wasatch Range that tower above Spanish Fork to the east. On arrival at the party, I subtly stuck my nose into each of the various coolers scattered about to find soda, water, more soda, and more water.

My inner barnstormer sighed and resigned himself to a dry evening with good friends, good surroundings, and a good view. Still, I was having some trouble winding down, and was pining for a cool glass of iced red wine or a Jack and diet Coke on the rocks, when I heard a baritone male voice boom out: “Beer.” Followed by the resounding thud of a heavy cooler being dropped on the floor.

A beer will do just fine, thank you.

Inside the cooler, nestled in layers of ice, were cans of Bud, bottles of Guinness, and golden, glowing Corona Extras. Normally, I would have gone for the Guinness, but for some reason the Corona was whispering to me. I pulled one free from the ice and began the hunt for a bottle opener, the one thing the otherwise impressively equipped Patey hangar didn’t seem to have.

I can’t remember where I found one, it might have been part of a kitchen can opener, or it might have been a fellow racer’s Swiss Army knife, but the cap finally free of the bottle, I sat on the outside party deck and took a deep slug of the cold amber liquid. It was light on the palate, clean, refreshing—beating back the heat with its south of the border magic.

I sat on the deck, surrounded by people, yet in a momentary solitary bubble taking in my surroundings. The roar of airplane engines. The magnificent blue sky of the Rockies. The dying light of day. The comradeship of fellow pilots. And the coldest Corona ever, condensation fogging the bottle.

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Yeah. It was the best beer ever.

 

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.

 

Ready for her close-up

It all started when I decided I needed a pretty girl. After asking around, the pretty girl expert convinced me that, really, three pretty girls would be better than one. He called it, “Critical mass.” And so it came to pass that three scantily-clad models ended up in my cockpit.

Well, Tessie’s cockpit.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

I was banished to the far side of the apron.

Like many a good tale, it all started in a bar. En route to a SARL air race a couple of years ago, I was eating pig’s ears nachos (don’t knock them until you try them) in an Arkansas bar, when I had a revelation. On the wall was a gigantic high-def TV showing a NASCAR race. Holy cow. And people think air racing is dangerous! Anyway, the winner of the day—a clean-cut, baby-faced pup who looked barely old enough to drive—was surrounded by hot, leggy, busty blondes with bare midriffs, low-cut necklines, and super-short skirts when he accepted his trophy.

Now that’s the way to win a race.

Then I got to thinking about the Kentucky Derby. There’s always a babe involved in giving the horse the flowers and the jockey the trophy, right?

So what the hell is wrong with us air racers? Surely, we rate as high as the Sport of Kings and the King of TV sports. I vowed right then and there that if I ever hosted an air race, I’d make sure there was some eye candy on hand at the podium.

Then, and I don’t remember how this happened, but probably it also involved a bar, I agreed to be the coordinator of the National Ercoupe convention. It’s turned into a full-time job, interfered no end with my writing work, and stressed me out beyond belief. I’ve had to arrange for hotel rooms, transportation, fuel discounts, tiedowns, donations for our charity auction, T-shirts, patches, signs and banners, name tags, and food, food, food. Oh. And booze, of course.

But I’ve put together a program I’m pretty proud of that includes an awesome resort HQ, a group fly-out to Spaceport America, and a banquet at an airplane museum. And, because it was my convention to do with what I please, and I’m an air racer, I decided to include a little air race as part of the fun. Which is why I needed the pretty girl.

Which, in today’s world, of course, can be an edgy subject.

I started with the lady who runs the economic development department for the City of Las Cruces, the host city. She’s a head-turner herself, but as a woman with a PhD, I didn’t think she had the right personality for the job, if you know what I mean. But I explained the tradition of babes and races and the atmosphere I was after, and asked her for help. I had considered a modeling agency, or University cheerleaders, and I even thought there might be a local beauty queen, a Miss Las Cruces or whatever. The city lady connected me with the pretty girl expert—a man connected to all levels of talent and events in southern New Mexico. He understood what we needed at once. “So it’s like a car show,” he said, “only with wings.”

Exactly.

I originally figured I just needed one girl to hand out the trophies, but the pretty girl expert convinced me otherwise with his critical mass argument. One girl in a short skirt in front of a bunch of old men can feel… well… uncomfortable. But in a pack, girls apparently come alive. Strength in numbers. I could see the logic. I signed on for three, but then was told I’d better have four to ensure that three showed up. Apparently, these aren’t the most dependable sorts of people.

So who are these girls? The pretty girl expert felt the best solution for my event was amateur models. Some of these models are young ladies who aspire to be professional models. Others just find the action fun and exciting. Feminists will disagree, but trust me, there are women who enjoy being the center of attention based solely on their looks. They like it, know how to work it, and it’s good for their egos–so if everyone enjoys it, where’s the harm?

These girls, now known as the Derby Dolls, will wave the green and checkered flags, circulate through the crowd to pose for selfies with the pilots, present the medals and trophies to the racers, and basically just create the ambiance of the NASCAR race I watched over pig’s the ears nachos in an Arkansas bar.

Now, I’m not sure how the next part of our tale happened, but in recruiting the pretty girls, the pretty girl expert contacted a pretty girl photographer that he knew. The photographer had lots of pictures of pretty girls with cars. And lots of pictures of pretty girls with motorcycles. But no pictures of pretty girls with airplanes, which, clearly, his portfolio needed. Nor did his models have any pictures of themselves with airplanes, which, clearly, they needed, too. So I was asked, if the photographer would donate his time and round up some pretty girls, would I bring a different type of pretty girl to the photo shoot?

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

So my favorite blue and white pretty girl became a prop with a prop. The photographer also brought out some high-testosterone rolling stock and created a variety of settings with Tess, the models, and the hotrods.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

It didn’t take long for the airport community to take an interest in the action, either. In particular, in the hangar next to the photo shoot, is a helicopter maintenance facility; and their mechanics lined up on the edge of the apron to watch the fun, even brining out a boom box, playing the Top Gun sound track for the models to jam to.

The entire process wasn’t like anything I’d ever been exposed to. It took forever to get the plane parked just right, longer for the models to change their clothes and touch up their makeup, then we had to wait for the right light, or pull the plane out of passing sprinkles of rain.

The girls were dressed… well, borderline trashy, in a flashy teen-fantasy pin-up kind of way; but the photographer, while knowing how to pose them, was 100% respectful.

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It was interesting watching the shooter communicate with the models, watching his hand signals letting them know when he was going to press the shutter, sharing the previews on the back of the camera, watching the models recognize—even on that tiniest of screens—that one lock of hair was out of place.

They were all “car people,” the models, the photographer, and the drivers who came out with the hot rods, a separate subculture from us plane people. It was fascinating, like visiting another country. But we all got along great and what I thought would take an hour or two ran all day long and didn’t end until the sun was setting.

So how was my day with three models? Not what you’d expect.

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Lisa F. Bentson, Zia Aerial Imaging

The models showed zero interest in me, a National Champion Air Racer—which is probably just as well. They paid attention as I told them how to safely get in and out of Race 53 without hurting themselves or Tess, but that was about it.

But you know what? I doubt that puppy-faced NASCAR driver got any attention either, and I got one hell of a Plane Tale out of the deal.

Plus, I have a pretty girl… well, three… for my race.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

 

No kicks for us on Route 66

Our home airport—the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport—doesn’t just share its name with the famous road. It is the road. Our runway 08/26 is built right smack on the original highway. In fact, the original runway was the highway. I don’t know the real story, but in my imagination I see the city fathers sitting around playing poker and smoking stogies one night in the late 1950s, after the interstate had passed through and around the town, changing the long established layout of the highway.

“What we going to do with the old Route 66 on the south side of town?” one asks. “It’ll be too gosh-derned expensive (people didn’t swear back in those days) for us to maintain it.”

Another scratches his stubble while he studies his cards; “Maybe we should turn it into a drag strip. It’s arrow-straight.”

Poker chips clink on the table as the most-forward thinking of the group calls, “I’ll match your drag strip and raise you an airport.”

Of course, as I said, I don’t know what really happened, but sometime in the late 50s or early 1960s, the triangle of dirt runways on the northwest side of town was abandoned in favor of a single narrow four thousand two hundred ninety four foot-long strip of (paved) mother road on the southeast side of town. They put up a beacon tower that might have been liberated from an abandoned airmail “arrow” site nearby, built a shabby hut for a terminal, installed a gas pump, and opened up for business. The scar of the old road can still be seen on the earth off either end of the runway.

In later years the city fathers built a dirt-floor metal T-hangar for six planes, a crosswind runway, and finally a modern terminal building which quickly fell into a state of disregard until just recently, when it was adopted and refurbished by our buddy Lisa with some help from my wallet.

So now you know why the Route 66 Air Tour folks asked us to host a little pre-tour party, so the flyers on the tour could actually land and/or take off from Route 66 as part of the Route 66 Air Tour. I think they envisioned it as a coffee stop, but as it was scheduled to take place between one and three in the afternoon, I knew we’d need a bit more than coffee. Plus, it was the chance for us to show off our newly respectable terminal, hopefully restoring our image as a good place to land for Avgas or Jet-A, stretch your legs, use a clean bathroom, and grab a fee snack.

I was looking forward to it. After the party, Rio and I would fly, quite literally, an hour up the road to Tucumcari, where the Air Tour events would officially start that night.

But by the time I got there, following my misadventures getting the plane to work, I had nearly missed my own party. As I was gassing up, the first plane landed. Within half an hour we had a ramp full of planes and a happy terminal bursting with pilots excitedly talking everything aviation, drinking coffee and water, and eating sandwiches.

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Normally we’re the only people around our airport, as ours is the only plane based there. It was wonderful feeling the community of other aviators, and I looked forward to spending the next four days with them.

We gave some hangar tours and as the day wore on, one by one, the fliers headed out. After the last one took to the air we quickly cleaned up with one eye on the western horizon. The weather was starting to close in, the predicted warm and sunny day replaced with cold wind, low grey clouds, and wandering bands of sleet.

Deb and Grandma Jean, both exhausted from sandwich construction and hostess duties, bugged out first. Lisa dropped us at the hangar and stayed long enough to make sure the plane’s engine started.

It did. But there was a problem.

When I put my headset on, I was greeted by deafening silence. No radio. No Rio. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” I spoke into the boom mike. No response. I tapped Rio on the shoulder, “Can you hear me?”

I could see his mouth forming words, but silence fell on my ears. I pulled off the headset and shouted over the idling engine; “Shut her down,” making slicing motions with my left hand back and forth across my throat. Rio reached up for the throttle, pulled it far back, pulled out the mixture, then turned off the ignition. The engine coughed, the prop slowed, then stopped. I shut off the bat switches, killing the flashing strobes on the wing tips last. Serving as our beacon, they are first on and last off, to warn others our engine is live.

Lisa pulling away, stopped, put the car in reverse, pulled up close, and rolled her window down, “What’s up?”

“Radio out… again,” I said slowly. But my mind was racing. How on earth…? It was fine when I taxied over. All we did was push the plane in to the hangar and pull it out. How did the wires come loose again? And if they are that sensitive, what’s to keep them for coming disconnected in flight? Of course, there’s no real reason for a radio in flight, but as part of a group of more than 20 planes it didn’t seem safe to me to fly NORDO—aviation slang for operating without a radio. We have a handheld, but no adaptor to use it with the headsets. This didn’t look good for the home team, unless I could fix the problem, and be sure it would stay fixed.

Rio pulled himself up and out of the plane. I grabbed the Tessie-blue Eddie Bauer flashlight out of the back pocket, turned sideways and scooted my butt to the left side of the seat, raising my legs and dangling my feet outside the plane. It’s the only way to get your head under the instrument panel.

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I directed the light upwards and was greeted by a great maze of wires. I was going to need some tech support. Lying upside down, all the blood in my body rushing to my head, I called the guys. “What the Sam Heck am I looking for down here?” I asked as I dropped my iPhone on my face.

They talked me through the maze of wiring to the back of the intercom. It had a multi-pin connector like an old computer printer. With one headset against my ear, the master switch and radio on, I was able to make the radio first work, then fall silent by tugging or pushing on the wire bundle. The consensus of the experts: Loose wire in the plug. Not a friendly field fix. Bring her back to us.

As I pulled myself back up in the cockpit, it started to rain. Rio and I stared glumly at each other. We both knew we wouldn’t be making the tour. Nothing needed to be said.

Rio looked up at the light rain and said, “We’d better get her back in the hangar, dad.”

I pulled the tow bar out from behind the seat, closed the canopy, and jumped down to the ground. I hooked the bar into the nose wheel, and pushing on the root of the propeller, eased Tessie back into her nest, out of the rain. Rio got out a roll of absorbent paper towels and started wiping the wings dry.

It was Friday night. My mechanics wouldn’t be back until Monday. We wouldn’t be getting any kicks on Route 66 this weekend. Well, that’s not quite true. At least the terminal party was a kick. And we do get to fly off of Route 66 all the time.

But still, it wasn’t the kicks on Route 66 I had hoped for.

Have plane, will travel

I was all business, but it wasn’t a business trip. After all, that would be illegal. The Federal Aviation Regulations strictly prohibit the business use of Light Sport flying, even banning flying “in furtherance of a business.” Apparently, something as harmless-sounding as flying yourself to a business-related tradeshow, rather than driving, is verboten. But I’m not even in a gray area; the only business I’m engaged in today is monkey business—and rather than be in furtherance of anything, it’s sure to lose money.

OK. Let me back up. I need to give you some background so you’ll understand my non-biz mission.

The family airplane is actually my 92-year-old mother’s. As an Ercoupe owner, she’s a member of the Ercoupe Owners Club, or EOC. Every year the EOC holds a national convention and fly-in.

I think you can see where this is going…

Right. This year the EOC is coming to New Mexico. My involvement started with doing a quick review of the airports in the state for the club’s president, and recommending a short list of good locations. It ended with my somehow agreeing to be the coordinator of this year’s convention.

I’m still not sure how that happened. I’m not even an Ercoupe owner, fer crying out loud. I must have been drinking.

Anyway, the first choice of location for “my” convention is Las Cruces International Airport. Don’t let the name fool you, it ain’t Kennedy. In fact, it’s an uncontrolled airport, which is a requirement for a convention site, as many of our members just won’t deal with towered fields. It’s also about as low an elevation as you can get in my state at 4,457 feet above sea level. Most folks don’t realize that the bulk of New Mexico is a mile or more above sea level, which matters to airplane performance. In fact, it matters enough that we’ve moved the annual convention from mid-summer to late fall to avoid the issues of density altitude, where hot days effectively make high places, well… higher… at least as far as airplane performance is concerned.

But back to Las Cruces. It’s a lovely airport outside of town, with lots of ramp space and a vibrant airport community. Las Cruces itself has a ton of interesting things to do. I have a list of great things to do that can easily fill three conventions, so I’m going to have to make some hard choices. Plus, to the east is White Sands National Monument, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History; a short distance north is Spaceport America; and a short distance south—just a few scant miles from the Mexican border—is an awesome airplane museum called War Eagles. The museum is right on the field of another presumptuously named uncontrolled field: the Doña Ana County International Jetport. We could have a fly-out adventure to it, or, as you can rent the entire museum after hours, we might be able to have our annual banquet there amongst its collection of airplanes. Later in the day, I plan to drive my rental care down to the museum and talk to them about the possibilities. But before I can do that, I need to get the blessing of the airport management to host the convention at their field in the first place.

And that’s why I’m flying down the Rio Grande Valley this morning.

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I could have driven, but it seemed to me that if you’re going to an airport for a meeting about holding a gathering of airplanes, you should show up in an airplane. Besides, it’s a five-hour drive from my home, but only a three-hour flight, which made it a great excuse to fly.

I’ve got a meeting with the airport manager in the late morning. I’m hoping to secure permission not only to come, but also to let some of our members camp on the field with their planes. I’m also hoping to get permission to host a flour-bombing contest, where pilots chuck small paper bags of flour out of their planes to try to hit a target. It’s sorta like the aborted chicken-dropping contest I wrote about a while back, with the added fun that when the “bombs” hit, there’s an “explosion.”

The Las Cruces Airport now 15 miles out, I start running down a mental checklist. Oh. Not that kind of checklist. Nothing to do with the flight. It’s a checklist for the things I need to do when I get on the ground.

  • Arrange fuel and hanger for Tess
  • Meet with Airport Manager
  • Pick up rental car
  • Drive down to War Eagles Museum

Then it strikes me: There’s no reason to drive. I have an airplane at my disposal! At least so long as I limit its use to monkey business.

 

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.