Welcome, again

I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air and Space. My story: Write up my…

Wait a sec. I’m having some déjà vu here.

Oh, yes, that’s exactly how I started the very first Plane Tale, back on August 22, 2014! But I guess it’s appropriate to start this story exactly the same way as I started that one, as I’m having exactly the same problem: I’ve got too big a story to tell, and too little space to tell it in. What’s the story this time? It’s the tale of my re-flying the transcontinental air mail route, using nothing more for navigation than the original 100-year-old written instructions.

Re-flying it, of course, in an Ercoupe.

Hey, it’s practically an air mail plane. Same speed and range. Open cockpit with the doors down in the belly, and as you’ll learn when my story eventually hits the streets, many of the mail planes—even though they started off as biplanes—ended up morphing into monoplanes through a bizarre series of circumstances.

But this time, Plane Tales Plane fans, it’s not a Tessie adventure. I choose Lisa’s “Warbler” for the mission, as he’s equipped just like the mail planes of old, which is to say he’s got practically no equipment at all.

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Of course, it wasn’t a 100% primitive flight. Lisa rode shotgun, armed with an iPad and GPS because, as you know, in today’s skies there are military operations areas, restricted airspaces, towered airports, and thousands of pesky cell phone towers that didn’t exist back at the dawn of flight. Although, interestingly, phone lines were a leading crash-causing hazard back in the day, so the damn phone has been the nemesis of the aviator for a hundred years.

But back to the story. At least this time, I’ve only three totally separate “leads” that I’m agonizing over. Which is better than back in ’14, when I was agonizing over FIVE different leads.

One place I could start, of course, would be at the beginning…

 

Lead 1

I’m standing in Parking Lot 5 of the Scott Campus of the University of Nebraska Omaha. It’s a cold, grey evening, with low ceilings and spitting rain. I look around at the towering buildings on all sides, and it’s hard to imagine that this was once the site of an airfield on the western outskirts of the city. If I’d been flying the Omaha-to-Cheyenne air mail back in the glory days, this would’ve been my starting point.

Now you need a permit to park your car here.

All that’s left to show that an airport once existed beneath my feet is a forlorn metal plaque erected by the Nebraska State Historical Society. It faces a busy street.

In the morning I’ll use modern GPS to arrive in the air above this very spot, but after that, I’m going to attempt to re-fly a full third of the transcontinental air mail route using nothing but the original technology: Written instructions that are nearly 100 years-old.

 

Lead 2

But, of course, there’s no law that says you have to tell the story in the order that it occurred, and sometimes that’s not the best way to go about it. For instance, I could start in the heat of the flight, with the true meat of the story, and fill in the background as I go along…

The directions for the early air mail pilots say, “Almost directly west will be seen black irregular peaks in the Laramie Mountains. Fly over the mountains just to the north of these peaks.”

I look up. The entire horizon, from south to north is nothing butblack irregular peaks.

I read the paragraph again. Then I stick my head out of the airplane, into the slip stream. There’s no need to. It just seems like something a real air mail pilot would do in a situation like this. The cold blast pushes my goggles into my face and tugs at the edges of my Perrone leather flying helmet.

It doesn’t help me figure out which peaks I’m supposed to fly north of.

And this is just the beginning. Beyond the Laramie Mountains is the Medicine Bow Range, the 12,500-foot Elk Mountain, and the Sierra Madre. Not to mention the ragged, rocky, snow-coved peaks of the Wasatch Range that guard the west-bound approaches into Salt Lake City. And the only thing I have to guide me through these mountains is a book of written instructions set down almost one hundred years ago.

I’m beginning to think that this isn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had.

 

Lead 3

Or maybe it would be better to share the feel of the flight. To invite the reader into the cockpit,t to come along for the ride…

Cold air pours into the cockpit in a torrent. It slashes through my heavy leather barnstormer jacket, soaks through my gloves, seems to whisk away the fabric of my canvas pants, and swirls into my shoes. Only my head, secure in its new fleece-lined leather flying helmet, escapes. It’s going to be a looooongtwo-hour flight.

And we haven’t even left the ground yet.

I turn to my safety pilot, Lisa, and watch a small scrap of paper waft up from some hidden recess in the floor, orbit her head once, then be sucked out of the cockpit. Her arms are folded tightly across her chest, gloved hands in her armpits. Her legs are pressed closely together, drawn up close to the seat. She looks miserable.

“You know,” I say into my boom mic, my voice sounding far way in my headset, “the early air mail pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep warm in their open cockpits.”

She gives me a cold look, but I’m sufficiently chilled to be immune from it. “If you’re done with the sports section,” she says sarcastically, “I’ll take it now.”

Of course, despite months of planning for this adventure, I didn’t think to bring any newspapers for insulation. But I did bring a book.

 

And the winner is…

So which lead did I choose in the end? Well, you’ll just have to wait until the magazine hits the streets to find out. In the meantime, welcome newcomers, and welcome back, regular readers. I’m aviation writer William E. Dubois and this is Plane Tales, my ongoing home base. The virtual airport for my pen. Here, I’ll continue to keep you up-to-date on my Fly Writing with links to new articles as they are published, expanded content, exclusive stories, and assorted adventures that take place on a Wing and a Pen!

 

When the legends die

Once again, I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air & Space. My story this time: Write up my experiences in attempting to re-fly one third of the Woodrow Wilson Transcontinental Airway using nothing more than the original written instructions from the nearly 100-year-old Pilot’s Directions—a slim manual published by the Postal Department to help new pilots find their way across the country in a time before modern ariel navigation. A time, in fact, before aviation maps and charts. A time before radios. A time before the flashing airway beacons, strung out like pearls in the night, led the way.

Pilot’s Directionsis descriptive text of contact flying. Look for farmer Brown’s red barn north of town, then follow the river. Keep the small round lake to your left. Fly south one section line for every 25 west. Don’t mistake the Union Pacific railroad for the Pennsylvania Southern. That type of thing.

How much will the face of our country have changed from above in the past 100 years? Will it still be possible to navigate the wide-open spaces between Omaha and Salt Lake City using these century-old written directions? Can modern pilots even follow directions like these? I’m going to find out.

Next month.

Lisa is lending me her ‘Coupe Warbler for the mission, as he’s equipped nearly identically to an airmail plane of the era. Which is to say he hardly has any equipment at all. Lending me her plane, provided, of course, that she gets to come along on the adventure. But Lisa’s presence isn’t just for fun. Her presence is key to the mission’s success. She’ll watch my track on her iPad and ensure that I do not get us so lost that we run out of gas or blunder into modern military or restricted airspace.

In the meantime, to get ready for the flight, I’ve been living in the past. I’ve read every book about the early airmail that I can get my paws on, trying to learn more about the men, their machines, and how they flew the mail at the dawn of practical aviation. I’m focused on the few brief years when the government ran the show, before farming out the entire system to contractors, giving birth to the modern airlines. I’ve learned that the pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep from freezing in their open cockpit biplanes. That they used clotheslines for windsocks. That they sometimes landed in fields to ask farmers for directions.

And I’ve learned that they were not only bold, but smart. They experimented, pushing the envelope of aeronautical science.

Chief among these experimenters was air mail pilot Wesley Smith. It was this pilot, in fact, who was reported to have first taped a flat half-empty bottle of whiskey on the panel of his mail plane to help him keep his wings level in the clouds. Call it a First Gen attitude indicator. Apparently, many of the other pilots quickly adopted this technique. In fact, I had read about these proto-instruments in the past, and I encountered them again and again in my air mail research. Like many pilots, I took this legend as Gospel truth, and didn’t think much more about it, beyond admiring their spunk and ingenuity.

But in the midst of my research, I was reminded that Bob Hoover was famous during his air show days for pouring himself a glass of tea during barrel rolls.

So wait a second… Either liquid is true to the world of the plane, or true to the outside environment. But it can’t be both. Right? Or can it? Are the forces in a roll stronger than the forces in garden variety maneuvers? Could a half empty bottle of liquid reveal the horizon in gentle maneuvers? Help keep a plane level in fog and cloud? Or like tea, would it always be level to the floor of the plane? I’d be a pour aviation journalist if I didn’t find out the truth.

Did I say “pour?” Sorry, I meant to say “poor.”

Clearly, I needed discover the truth for myself, and set the record straight if, in fact, we’ve been deceived all these years…

 

“Bank right,” I tell Lisa, as I hold the half-empty bottle of Chivas Regal to the windscreen, “Now bank left.”

Sadly, the level of the whiskey stays parallel to the floor of the plane, the horizon snapping left and right, cartwheeling outside the windshield, beyond the straight line of brunt amber liquid in the bottle.

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“Is it working?” asks Lisa.

“Sure,” I say, “but not like we’d hoped. Instead of showing me the horizon, it’s showing me the floor of the plane. No matter what you do, it stays level.” I sigh. I’m bummed. I’m not looking forward to writing up this Plane Tale. I feel like I’ve just been given the assignment to shoot the Easter Bunny dead in his tracks. Of all the aviation legends, the un-tested whiskey bottle was always my favorite for some reason.

Likewise, I’m sorry to report, hanging your pocket watch from the roof of the plane fails to show the angle of bank. The watch always hangs straight toward the floor, regardless of how the floor is angled in relation to the horizon outside the plane.

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What’s up with this? Why does liquid level itself to the plane’s floor when the plane is canted crazily to one side? Why does a watch chain hang straight down to the plane’s floor when your eyes tell you that you could fall right out the door and plummet to your death below without even bouncing off the wing?

The answer comes down to the forces of flight. A plane in a turn is assaulted by a barrage of forces and factors: Centripetal force, the vertical component of lift, centrifugal force, weight, inertia, thrust, resultant load, g-forces, effective lift, aerodynamic axis, load factors… Here, a picture is worth a thousand words:

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Image: Agostino De Marco

To be honest, I don’t know which of the myriad of forces holds the whiskey true to the plane rather than true to the horizon. It’s probably the interplay of all of them that effectively moves the forces of gravity in line with the floor of the plane, bursting our myths.

So that’s it. The legend is dead. You can’t use a half-empty bottle of whiskey to keep your wings level in the clouds. But surely, the first pilot who tried this nearly a century ago must have discovered that on the first flight. Why, then, do we have so many historians telling us that the whiskey bottle was basic equipment for air mail pilots? Was it sloppy research by a historian who was not a pilot? Did one historian write it up and the others, like lemmings, followed him over the cliff of error?

Perhaps, but I think that there’s something else at play.

The airmail was a dangerous job. A dangerous job at the dawn of Prohibition, which came into law within two years of the start of the airmail. Suddenly booze was forbidden for everyone, much less for government employees. Were the pilots simply having fun with their ground-pounder bosses? Flouting the liquor law under the guise of flying equipment?

We’ll never know, but it gets my vote. It has the flavor of truth to it.

But what the hell, in a salute to Smith and his colleagues, whatever their real motives, and to keep in the spirit of the early days of airmail, we installed a Smith Attitude Indicator in Warbler for our re-flying of the Air Mail route.

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It won’t help keep our wings level, but taking spirits into the sky will sure keep our spirits up.

 

Little planes, big noise

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

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

That can’t be good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I’ll execute an emergency landing.

Or pony up for the hearing aids.