A tale of two cowls… well, three, actually

Houston, we have a cowl problem. As, it seems, do all Ercoupes. Our problem started with a nose cowl crack. We’d just bought Tess, and the crack was brought to my attention during the first of her many, many rounds of maintenance.

My options were to buy a used replacement nose cowl from the Ercoupe junkyard guy for $500 bucks (which would probably crack, too), buy a new cowl from Univair for $1,200 bucks (which would probably crack, also), or have my guys “patch” it.

Silly me, I opted for the patch, and when Tess came home from her mechanics, her beautiful, flat nose was covered in brass rivets. It looked like Machine Gun Kelly strafed us on the runway.

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This was just days before our first Ercoupe convention, and I was mad as hell. It was not the first impression I wanted to make. I spent the afternoon sitting on an upside-down bucket with a Q-tip and a can of metallic touchup paint, painstakingly covering each and every one of the 43 brass-colored rivets with dark blue paint. It was slow going. Metallic paint doesn’t like to stay stirred. Or to stick to brass. In the end, while my handiwork wouldn’t pass close inspection, or win a Lindy at Oshkosh, from any respectable distance it didn’t look too terribly bad.

But since then, every year it seems, a new crack develops, and more rivets get shot into the nose bowl. Rather than Machine Gun Kelley, on close inspection, it now looks like an inebriated Elmer Fudd blasted Tessie’s nose with his double-barreled shotgun.

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Truth be told, there’s actually no original metal left at all. I’m flying behind a solid mass of rivets.

Now, not to whine about money (again), but I think I might have mentioned that while Ercoupes are very affordable to buy—less than most cars—the problem with airplanes is that, sorta like kids, the real costs start when you bring them home from the hospital. All these patches weren’t cheap. I could have easily bought two new nose cowls for what I’ve paid in patches over the years.

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In fact, that’s what my mechanic mentioned sorta off hand as he handed me the latest invoice. Naturally, the next day, a new crack developed.

Normally, at this point the decision would have been obvious, but there are extenuating circumstances. The first is that there’s an airplane paint job on my horizon. And I was sorta thinking about replacing the entire cowl, not just the nose bowl, before the painting, as it’s all in pretty bad shape. But that aside, even if I just wanted to get a new nose bowl, it doesn’t make much sense to pay to have it painted when the whole plane is going to be painted in a few years, nor would it make sense to leave unprotected metal out in the elements just because a paint job is on the horizon.

But that’s not all. Now there are three options for new cowls. Univair still has the original thin aluminum nose bowl, but Alpha, who bought up a lot of mods from Skyport when they shut down, nearly have FAA approval for two more options. One is the original-style nose bowl, but made of a reportedly more crack-resistant fiberglass. It also promises to be cheaper. And additionally, they are bringing back a product called the Kinney Speed Bowl. It’s also a fiberglass bowl, but with a much larger air intakes for improved cooling.

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I was drawn to the Kinney for two reasons: We live in a hot desert; and the word “speed” was in the title.

That said, Rio thinks the Kinney bowls are the ugliest things in the world and, “The worst thing a man could do to an Ercoupe.” To be honest, I couldn’t quite picture how our girl would look with one on it, so I started Googling pictures of Ercoupe nose bowls.

And that’s when I discovered this:

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Image courtesy Machine Age Lamps

Which is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Yeah. That’s a real-life Ercoupe nose cowl turned into a steampunk lamp. What’s the story behind it?

The lamp is the creation of Darin Carling. His brother Shawn runs an outfit called Machine Age Lamps in Lakeville, Minnesota. The brothers grew up on a small farm in rural North Dakota, so they were good at fixing stuff, creating stuff, or re-purposing stuff. Farm folk like that wouldn’t go out and buy a new cowl.

I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but I wasn’t raised on a farm.

Anyway, after leaving the farm, Shawn, in his own words, spent the next 25 years “miscast” in corporate America, until one year at Christmas when he built his father a “unique” lamp out of old tractor parts. His dad dug it, as did everyone else who saw it, and one thing led to another.

“Another,” in this case, being the fact that his work is lighting Gordon Ramsey’s Restaurant. The one in Hong Kong.

Shawn’s highly successful company creates one-of-a-kind lamps from salvaged antique industrial, agricultural, nautical, and aircraft parts and gauges. The ‘Coupe cowl light was created by brother Darin, who was encouraged by Shawn to build some items for the businesses.

Darin told me he didn’t want to copy anybody else’s work, including his brother’s, and that it took him a long time to “come up with solid ideas of my own.” But wow, did he ever. Darin says, “We are interested in history and in all things mechanical, and old airplanes are as good as it gets.”

The ‘Coupe lamp actually started with a Cessna nose cowl. Darin says, “A few years ago I purchased a Cessna nose cowling from someone with no idea what I was going to do with it. It sat in my living room for 6 months before I started working on it. The first ones did not have lights as props but rather lights coming out the front and hanging down in almost an exhaust pipe fashion. They were kind of cool, but not quite what I wanted. One day I was looking for new light bulbs online and found these very large bulbs. I thought ‘just maybe they could be propellers!’ I made a prototype and it was on display at the Minnesota State Fair and everyone loved it. After that, we started to fine tune and dress them up with vintage emblems, real aviation gears, and valve covers.”

Darin, an aviation lover since childhood, has a deep desire not only to create art, but also to be true to history. “I also do my best to have all the parts make sense,” said Darin, “for example I only put Franklin valve covers in my Stinson cowls. History is very important to me, and to the people that buy our projects.” The Ercoupe lamp has vintage Continental valve covers and assorted engine gears for a cool look.

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Darin says he always keep track of where the cowls come from and, “If I can get history, I pass that along. One cowl I’m working on now has a photo copy of the bill of sale for the plane back in 1953.” That being said, I can happily report that no Ercoupes were harmed in the making of the ‘Coupe Cowl lamp. Darin bought the cowl from the friend of an Ercoupe owner in Michigan. Apparently, like me, the airplane owner was having a cowl problem. Unlike me, he had the sense to buy a new one.

Is Darin a pilot? Not yet, although his father worked for the FAA and brother Shawn has his ticket. Darin tells me he’s finished his ground school.

But back to the lamp. How does it work? Despite the old parts, all the electric components are brand new. The Ercoupe lamp is equipped with UL approved wiring, a dimmer switch, and a heavy-duty grounded lamp cord, although Darin says some airplane cowl customers have chosen to have electricians hardwire the lamp for “a clean cordless look,” controlling the lamp through a wall switch.

In the case of the cowl lamps, Darin builds a steel frame inside to support the soft metal cowls, which are either buffed or powder coated. The frame has mounting holes drilled on 16-inch centers to match up with the standard wall studs, allowing it to be hung “just like a picture.” Darin also covers the back of the cowl with sheet metal, painting the inside of it black. “When peeking in the cowl, I wanted the illusion of looking in a real plane,” said Darin, “and you would not get that if the painted wall showed through.”

So how do those crazy bulbs hold up? Darin says he’s yet to see one burn out, and some of the lamps in his house have been blazing away for three years. That said, “I always ship my cowls with three bulbs, just in case.” Will we see more Ercoupe art from Darin? “I would love to do more Ercoupe art,” Darin tells me, “I researched the Ercoupe and found it’s history to be very cool.”

Meanwhile, did I ever find a picture that helped me decide what Tess would look like with an entirely different kind of cowl? No. So for now we’ll probably just keep patching the patches. But I do know one thing: Once we decide what to do, I’ll turn our old one over to Darin and commission him to turn it into some sort of lamp for our hangar.

Maybe I’ll have him drill out the hundreds of rivets and have him put a little Christmas light in each hole. Or maybe not.

It would be blinding.

 

[Editor's Note: Darin tells Plane Tales that between our interview with him and going to press on this story the Ercoupe Nose Bowl Lamp sold to a private collector. But while you missed out on this lamp we're told that Machine Age Lamps has scored three more non-flight worthy Ercoupe nose bowls from the Ercoupe Junkyard guy, so more 'Coupe lights are coming!]

 

Cutting a shortcut

Yellow-gold sparks flowed like a fountain from the tip of the Dremel tool, as small beads of metal bounced off my face. Luckily, I had an old pair of safety goggles from Lisa protecting my eyes. It was slow going, cutting the old metal, so my writer’s imagination wandered.

First I was a steel mill worker, forging raw iron. Then a commando, cutting through the barricades on the beaches of Normandy the day before the invasion. Next a safe cracker after the gold and diamonds just beyond…

“How’s it goin’?” interrupted Lisa, bringing me sharply back to reality.

I set the Dremel on the platform of the stepladder, and studied my progress. I’d managed to cut a good five inches. I had three feet to go. “This might take a while,” I told her, then fired up the Dremel again, its high-pitched soprano electric whine dropping to baritone as I touched the whirling cutting blade to the metal wall in a fresh shower of sparks. The Dremel moved right to left, awkward for a lefty, bringing back a memory from last year’s OMG Facts Calendar that some ridiculously large number of left-handed people are killed each year by right-hand optimized power tools.

Hmmmm….

Well. The job must be done: Lisa and I are on a mission of unification. Bringing together two separate peoples. Really, an act of absolute selflessness.

OK. Well. That’s a lie. We’re just making a short cut. Here’s the deal: Even though our hangars are separated only by a thin sheet of metal, we are literally distant neighbors at the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport.

This is because of the architecture of airplane hangars.

Our airport has just one hangar building, a six-plane type (although our two planes are the only ones there) called a “T-hangar” because it’s built out of T-shaped jigsaw puzzle pieces, with three interlocking Ts to a side. The top of the T accommodates wings as wide as forty-two feet. The base of the T accommodates the far skinnier tail of an airplane.

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Image: Teachspan

A T-hangar is a way to efficiently pack more planes per square foot of hangar, as the Ts interlock with a bit of room left over on each end, and little space is wasted. If you just strung six airplane-sized garages together, you’d have a much larger building and a couple of planeloads of wasted space.

Now, in our case, I have the end hangar on the North and Lisa has the end hangar on the South. Even though Superman would have no problem seeing though the wall that separates us, it’s a surprisingly long hike around the end of building to get from her hangar to mine and vice versa. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but you’d be surprised when we are both at the airport how often one of us needs something that’s in the other’s hangar. Plus, when we are both in one of hangars with the other hangar open, we can’t help but worry a bit about the security of the airplane next door.

“We should just cut a damn hatchway in the wall between our hangars,” Lisa said one afternoon after coming back from the other side with the wrong screwdriver.

I started studying the wall. It was made up of door-width metal panels, connected to each other with large nuts and bolts, then connected to a heavy frame work. The walls aren’t “load bearing,” meaning that removing one would have no effect on the structure. Of course the walls are crazy high, 18 or 20 feet. But surely cutting the bottom seven feet off of one panel wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Thus began operation shortcut. We had all kinds of worries, including, what the heck kind of metal is this, can it be cut without lasers and plasma torches, and will those 40-year-old nuts ever free themselves from their sister bolts?

As it turns out, it was a one-hour job. Or would have been if I’d remembered the right accessories the first time we drove down to do it, and if I hadn’t broken one of the said accessories on the second attempt.

Still, the cutting went well, the nuts and bolts gave way quickly under the power of our socket wrenches and skinny arms, and in no time I was able to gently lower a sheet of metal slowly into my hangar to reveal:

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My neighbor!

Of course, we had the proper blessing, and our work is largely reversible by bolting the section back into place and using some duct tape to seal the thin cut should either of us ever move away. In the mean time, we were able to bolt the panel we removed to one of Lisa’s naked walls (she needs an art intervention) where it is safe, won’t get lost, and won’t fall on anyone’s head.

And I wasn’t killed by a right-handed power tool.

 

Putting the “D” in Drafted

It started innocently enough. I got an email from Larry Snyder, Executive Director of the Ercoupe type club. He’d decided it was high time, for the first time, to have the club’s National Fly-in and convention in the West, and he liked the sound of New Mexico. Probably because he’d never been to New Mexico before and wanted to see it for himself.

Anyway, as pretty much the only active members from the state (we’ve been to the last three conventions: Wisconsin, Texas, and Tennessee) I guess it was natural he thought of my gang. He wanted our opinions as to which city in our fair state would work best as a host city. He wanted a place that would have parking for 40 aircraft, had lodging, a banquet site, and “something interesting to do in the area.” His only caveat was that it had to be an uncontrolled field. Many of our members, apparently, just don’t “do” towers. I confess, even I tend to flight plan around them.

That night after dinner I spread the state aeronautical chart out on the kitchen table and we started kicking around ideas. The no controlled airports restriction eliminated our arguably most interesting city: Santa Fe. It also wiped out our largest city: Albuquerque. So too, did it eliminate Roswell and Farmington.

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Of course, we would have loved to host at our home base of KSXU, but no way do we have room for 40 planes. Plus, to be honest, other than our hangar, there’s not that much “interesting to do in the area.” It also didn’t take long for us to rule out the entire mountainous northern part of the state. While I manage to get around just fine in Tess, she has a climb prop and in my teens I was trained in mountain flight techniques (which use sail plane tactics to overcome the fact very few planes can out-climb the Rockies). I didn’t want “flat land” members getting into trouble, and I knew that some Coupes have smaller engines than Tess, and that they are in various states of health.

And in point of fact, even the “flat” areas of New Mexico’s southern half are nearly a mile above sea level, and this is made worse by the fact that we have hot summers. Hot air is thin. You might remember from high school physics that hot air expands. This has the effect of making high places higher as far as airplane wings and engines are concerned. We agreed that any Ercoupe convention in New Mexico needed to be in the autumn when it is cooler.

Casting our eyes over the southern part of the state chart, the city of Las Cruces stood out, along with Carlsbad (of Cavern fame) and Alamogordo. The problem with Alamogordo is that it’s surrounded by the restricted air space of the White Sands Missile Range; and the problem with Carlsbad is that, short of the Caverns, there’s not much to do there.

Las Cruces, on the other hand, has no shortage of interesting things to do, including close proximity to: A great airplane museum, a great rocket museum, White Sands National Park, and Spaceport America; and the whole area is infused with the Spanish charm of Southern New Mexico. It seemed a slam-dunk. I passed our “findings” on to Larry.

I should have seen the next salvo coming, but I confess that I didn’t.

Larry wrote back that he loved the sound of Las Cruces and added, “Do you know of anyone who could be a local ‘point man’ for a Las Cruces convention? I’d like to do it, but I don’t see how I can organize a convention from 1,000 miles away.”

I don’t know a soul in Las Cruces. I felt the jaws of the bear trap snap shut on my leg. The “D” from Dubois just got put in Drafted.

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With a deep groan I wrote back and said I’d didn’t know anyone down there, but I’d do it.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but those are Plane Tales for another day.

 

Meet Warbler

You would think she would have known better. After all, she’s had a front row seat to one airplane “disaster” after another. But noooooooooo. Despite all the best advice to the contrary, Lisa did it anyway. Yep, she went out a bought herself an Ercoupe.

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I blame myself. First, I showed her how much fun you can have in an Ercoupe. Then I accidently told her about one that was for sale nearby. I actually tried to dissuade her to atone for those sins, as did Rio who not so subtlety demanded, “Are you crazy?!” But, well, as anyone who’s ever flown an airplane knows: Airplanes are sirens, and sometimes it’s impossible to not answer their call.

To her credit, while it might have been an impulsive purchase, she didn’t make an impulse purchase. She test flew. She had our mechanic check all the logs, airworthiness directives, and service bulletins. She got the FAA history on the plane and reviewed hundreds of scanned documents (her new-to-her plane is one of the ones that was actually sold at Macy’s!) and then she paid our lead mechanic to travel all the way across the state to do an onsite inspection. The whole process took nearly three months. Last week the entire family drove down to the southern tip of the state where she paid the previous owner and got the keys. The next day, she and I ferried her new plane, named Warbler as he’s a small bird with a Warbird paint scheme, home to his new nest right next to Tessie’s.

Yep. I now have a hangar neighbor at SXU and I’ll have competition for the title of President of the Airport User’s Association (previously, I had the only airplane based there).

Now as anyone who has a passing familiarity with Ercoupes knows, they could be better known as Frankencoupes. Most are now in their early 70s, and have had dozens of owners over the years. In fact, in doing research for my Eternal Airplane book, I recently learned that my Tessie was quite the little tramp in her youth, having gone through 24 owners up till now. And each owner of each Ercoupe made little changes on their watches over the decades, so that now I doubt that there are two Coupes that are alike, and none look like they did the day they left their factory. In point of fact, one of the fun things about the Ercoupe Owners Club fly-ins is comparing the planes to each other. But now that there’s a second Ercoupe in the “family,” as it were, I’m finding more and more differences between the two every time I’m at the airport.

For Coupe fans, here’s a quick rundown on Warbler: He has a C-85 engine, fabric wings, a single fork nose wheel, Goodyear brakes, a floor-mounted handbrake with no foot pedal, the flat windshield but enlarged back windows, the large luggage compartment, and the three-piece canopy. Like any proper Ercoupe, there are no rudder pedals. He has the early Mooney-style wood and burnished metal yokes and a nutin’ but the basics panel: Airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, altimeter, compass, and three engine instruments. The entire airplane has only two switches, one in the back that’s the master, and one on the panel for the nav lights. The radio is a handheld verco’d to the panel.

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Flying home in Warbler’s right-hand seat, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a 1956 Ford Pickup truck, which insulted Lisa. “He’s more like a Jeep,” she insisted. But neither trucks nor jeeps fly, and Warbler flies. And very well at that. It was a fun and easy flight, but odd in a way too. So much the same, yet so different. I kept looking for things on the panel that aren’t there, Tess being a bit more instrument heavy.

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Warbler’s in remarkably good shape, better by far than Tess was when we got her. And being simple, there’s hopefully less to go wrong—although we did have an interesting fuel misadventure after taking delivery, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. Meanwhile, I’ve got my fingers crossed that my wing woman Lisa has many happy years of airplane ownership, and fingers cross that those many happy years of ownership don’t include sending her mechanics’ kids to Harvard at her expense.

And for myself, I confess that I’m looking forward to two-plane adventures in the future and I suspect that we’ll have many Planes Tales to tell in the coming years.

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Something we could agree on

It was colder than forecast. You can’t trust weatherman and psychics. The easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propeller, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Earlier that afternoon, we’d come to the hangar to deal with some electrical connection issues on the new engine monitor. I sat on a stool with my head under the cowl, my iPhone on speaker, while tech support guided me through the process of checking the wire connections. That actually worked out OK, partly thanks to the fact that we had earlier watched a YouTube video on how to use the hand-held electrical tester that we’ve owned for years and never used.

It was one of those things I bought because an airplane owner is supposed to have one.

The electrical gremlins subdued for the moment, the sun was getting low in the sky, and we had to zip our jackets up. We probably should have called it a day, but I was too excited about our race propeller to have the sense to wait for a warmer day to finish the job. As far as I was concerned, now that the work was done, it was time for some fun.

Fun being painting the black checks onto last week’s white prop tips to finish our new race prop look. Before Rio changed his mind.

I used a seamstress-style cloth measuring tape to mark the centerline of the prop, then drew a thin pencil line from the tipity-tip of the blade to the end of the white paint I applied last week. Next, I carefully lined up the first of the blue painter’s tape squares, making sure its edges lined up exactly with the edge of the white paint and the pencil line, then smoothing it firmly along its edges and lightly in the middle. I need it tight on the edges so the paint lines will be sharp and clean, but light enough that it won’t pull part of the white paint off when I remove it, which would cause me a great deal of pain and stress.

The square didn’t quite reach to the edge, so I added a second piece to extend it a sixteenth of an inch or more.

Then I applied three more squares, bending the tape around the edges of the propeller blade as I worked my way up toward the tip. Then I repeated the process on the other end of the prop. The tape masks off four squares of the white paint. When I hit the prop tips with Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, the exposed white squares will be painted black. When I remove the tape, revealing the protected white squares beneath, I’ll have my very own Barnstormer Propeller. At least that’s the plan. And it won’t be an authentic reproduction. Or, well, maybe it will be.

Anyway, just looking at the checkerboard pattern created by the tape, I was optimistic the final product would look good.

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While Rio and Lisa started covering the canopy with cleaning rags to protect the glass from errant spray paint, I added a few more strips of blue tape to the prop to protect the main blade from over-spray.

We buttoned up the hangar. Lisa held a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to catch the overspray and Rio held a shop light.

Remembering the running paint issue from last week, I tried to go lightly. But the damn black paint is a different beast from the white paint. The can spat the paint out in large droplets, leaving a splattered look. I tried patting them flat with a paper towel, but that created a rough look. We had to wipe some of the squares off and start again.

Then the sun set.

And the mercury dropped.

The paint dried slowly between applications.

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I had thought two light coats would do, as the paint is so much darker than the white, but it took three. Our feet getting cold, we retreated to the terminal building while we waited for the final coat to set enough that I could remove the tape.

But when we returned, working by the headlights of my hot rod, the easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propellor, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I picked at the tape from the back of the blade, finally freeing a corner. Holding it between two fingers, I began to pull, stretching the tape as I went.

Slowly, stubbornly, the first three pieces came off, revealing magically sharp lines between my white and black checkers. Then it happened.

One of the squares took a large chunk of white paint off with it. My hopes for a beautiful Barnstormer Propeller crashed and burned.

But it was the only one that gave me trouble. The rest came out perfect:

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So I’ve got one touch up for another day, but I went home more happy than upset. The next day I had to fly to Santa Fe. In the daylight, on the tarmac, the final effect blew my mind:

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And later than night as Rio and I disagreed on paint schemes, he told me, “Well, Dad, at least we agreed on the propeller.”

Me ’n Jenny

I’m late for a secret rendezvous. For a glass of wine with a lady I’ve been in love with for many years. I glance at my pilot’s watch with its E6B ring around the face. I’ll barely make my connection, much less our tryst. It will have to wait for another day.

I fight my heavy carryon bag up the stairs that lead from the commuter planes to the main concourse, and—suddenly—there she is. Waiting for me. I stop in my tracks and stare at her. Drinking her in. “Hi, Jenny,” I say.

She’s really not all that pretty, with a flat nose, sagging belly, and small rear end; but for some reason I can’t explain, I find her beautiful. And I’m not the only pilot to feel that way. There’s just something about the Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” that we pilots can’t help but love.

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Most times that I pass though Denver International I stop to have a glass of wine with this particular Jenny, which hangs from the ceiling on wires just outside of the CRÚ Wine Bar on concourse B. She’s painted dark green, and her roost is just high enough in the shadows of the ceiling that many airline passengers, their heads in their iPhones, don’t even see her as they scurry by beneath her fabric-covered wings. That’s a pity, because she’s hung low enough that you can nearly hear the roar of her engine, echoing from the distant past, as she buzzes right over your head.

Every time I see her, I want to reach up and touch her. To stroke her skin. To connect with all that history in her wooden bones. To share something with the first generation of pilots.

But she’s hung just out of reach.

I slowly walk under her, tilting my head back, my eyes upwards, drinking in every detail. The naked wood and twine of her landing gear. The bicycle-like wheels. The leather surrounding the two open cockpits. The maze of wires holding her two wings together. Even though her flying days are over, it makes me smile that she’s still in the air, where airplanes belong. And I can’t help but fantasize about climbing into her rear cockpit, firing up that old liquid-cooled V-8 engine, and flying her away. But from all accounts, not only is she not much to look at, but she’s not even that great in the air, either.

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Another glance at my watch. Crap! Gotta go, Jenny. I’ll see you next time. And I jog off down the concourse to catch my next flight.