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.

 

Milestones

I happened to look down at just the right moment to catch the odometer roll 4,000. It was pure luck. The impending event wasn’t even on my mental horizon. Not true of my father. He kept a hawk-like eye on his odometer, and every time there was a big roll coming he’d announce it well down the road and all three of us kids (always in the back) would unbuckle and cluster in a pack behind his seat, looking over his shoulder in awe as the chain of numbers quickly rolled over, died, and zeros took their places.

This odometer, however, was taking its sweet time. Of course, I guess it’s not really an odometer, which is a device for measuring miles driven in a car. This is a similar-looking device on Tess’s tachometer that measures the total run time of her engine in hours. Still, as the word “odometer” is derived from the ancient Greek words hodós, meaning trip, and métron, meaning measure; my aerial odometer is still in the spirit of the word—measuring trips though the sky.

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High above Canyon Lands, watching the 9s lazily replaced with zeros, I was momentarily a small child in my father’s Chevrolet Vista Cruiser again, looking over his shoulder to watch the odometer mark another milestone of family travel as he barreled down some desolate road in Indian Country.

Tess now has 4,000 hours of plying the sky. Which, for a small airplane, is a fair number, more than average for an Ercoupe. That girl just loves to fly. Of course, I know that the number is largely fantasy. The chain of four black numbers and one white one are all driven by the RPM of the engine, meaning it turns more slowly during idle and taxi, and faster during full-power climb outs. It’s also not Tess’s original tach, nor do we have all her logbooks so we can really know how much flight time she has, but all of that said, her mechanic set the numbers on her aerial odometer to his best guess of her total airframe time.

So the slow motion replacement of 3,999.9 with 4,000.0 might not have happened at the true instant she surpassed her four-thousandth hour, but it’s close. And a pretty cool experience.

My father would have loved it.

Today, my personal odometer is also rolling over, marking both another year on the planet and in the sky above it. Yep. Our usual Friday publication date just happens to land on my birthday this year. My odometer just rolled from 54.9 to 55.0, or it will a little after lunchtime this afternoon.

To be honest, I don’t give my age much thought, at least not since I had to stop lying about it to buy beer. But with Tess rolling 4K, and me marking a birthday, I couldn’t help but engage in a flight of fancy about age. Tess’s birthday, based on the date stamped on her manufacturing plate, is May 5, 1947, making her 71 this year. Airplanes being eternal, she’ll be 100 years old in 2,047. That will be under Rio’s watch, although at 84, I could very well still be around.

I would very much like to fly her on her 100thbirthday.

And if by some miracle I live to be 100 years old, Tess would then be 116 years old; which is kinda funny, as I always think of her as so much older than I; but really, she’s only a hair more than a decade and a half up on me.

Still, could Tess really last more than a hundred years?

Why not? Flight as we know it turns 115 years old this December with the anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, and the airplane that made that flight still exists in the Smithsonian, although granted it’s not flying—but I bet it could. And plenty of airplanes much older than Tess still ply the skies.

Properly cared for, their years and hours roll on. One thing is for sure, when my aerial odometer gets ready to roll five thousand, I’ll be paying close attention.

With the spirit of my father looking on over my shoulder.