A pair of solos

In 1910, First Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois became one of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ first pilots after he was assigned the duty of flying the Army’s one and only airplane, a Wright Model A. But there was a minor problem: He’d never flown an airplane before.

So he did what any thinking man in his era would do. He sat down and penned a letter to the Wright brothers, asking them for some instructions. Orville Wright wrote back with some tips, after which Foulois went out to the plane and figured it out. Thus it was that Lieutenant Foulois learned to fly by correspondence course.

This is not the way we learn to fly anymore.

Instead, a student pilot flies with a flight instructor to learn the ropes. But sooner or later, the fledgling aviator must do what Foulois did: Take to the air by him or herself, and return safely to the earth. We call this flight a First Solo. It’s kinda a big deal in the aviation community.

Our family, as most of you know, has two student pilots—my son Rio and my Plane Friend Lisa—and they are both rapidly closing in on their first solos. It’s not a competition, at least not to them. They’re mutually supportive; neither of them is as competitive as I am. Still, I’d often wonder as I lay my head down on the pillow at night after a long day: Which one will solo first?

Over the last few months, at different times, I placed different bets. For a while it looked like Lisa would solo waaaaaaay before Rio. But then she hit a training plateau and I despaired that she would ever solo. Right after that, Rio hit a rough patch health-wise, mixed with ill weather, and missed a bunch of lessons.

And so it went. Back and forth. Back and forth.

But as 2018 drew to a close, their mutual flight instructor was telling me that they were both “very close.” They both took their pre-solo exams and both passed with flying colors. I don’t remember a pre-solo exam. I think that must be something new. Well, I guess that given the fact that my solo was well over three decades ago, I can’t be using a word like “new” to describe anything that happened in the interim, but you know what I mean. Actually, having two student pilots in my life has led me to learn no end of things that I’d either forgotten or that have changed without my noticing it.

Anyway, Rio was within a flight or two at the most, when a chain of bad weather cancelled several flights in a row. Then Lisa, who teaches at a community college, booked nearly every day of her winter break between semesters to train. This should have put her ahead of weekly-flying Rio, but she must have forgotten to make the proper sacrifice to the winter weather gods, because they fell on her with a vengeance. And it wasn’t just low ceilings, blowing snow, and crappy visibility: One day an ice storm so clogged and blocked the hangar door tracks that, even with a blow torch, the FBO couldn’t reach her plane, Warbler. Then a few days later, they “forgot” to put him in the hangar at night, and he was an Ercoupe popsicle when she showed up to fly the next morning.

Meanwhile, in addition to working on his pilot’s license, Rio has been working on his driver’s license. Here in New Mexico we use a complicated “graduated” licensing system. This required him to take driver’s training once a week for several months, then he got a student license that let him sit left seat in a vehicle with a responsible adult while he logged 50 hours of driving time, including 10 hours of night driving—actually not that different from the requirements for flight training. After this “dual” training requirement was completed, he’d qualify for a provisional license, that would basically let him be driver in command, but limit the number of fellow teens he could carry with him to one (excluding sibs).

Rio could have had his provisional license some time back, but driving doesn’t interest him much, which I confess I find baffling. I couldn’t wait to drive when I was his age, and I loved the freedom and independence of being behind the wheel. Anyway, before the close of the year, Rio had logged the necessary time, but one thing or another got in the way, and I didn’t get him to the Department of Motor Vehicles until after the first of the year. It was surprisingly painless until the next stop at State Farm, where I discovered having a teenage son doubled my monthly auto insurance bill.

On this same day, Lisa, who hadn’t been flying in about a week due to the anger of the weather gods I was talking about a moment ago, was off to Santa Fe. It was cloudy, but the ceiling wasn’t too low. The week before her instructor had told her, that if she felt ready, he would endorse her for her first solo after the next flight or two. As she hadn’t flown for a bit, I assumed it would be the next day, but when I looked at the forecast, I guessed that the next day would be unflyable. I worried her solo would be pushed back. But speaking of solos, I suddenly realized that Rio, despite being a licensed driver for nearly 20 hours, had never soloed a car.

So I sent him out for a pack of cigarettes.

Well, not really, of course. I don’t smoke cigarettes any more, nor will stores sell them to minors—but the proverbial cig run was just what he needed. I handed him the keys and dispatched him up the road to Romeroville, about 15 miles up the highway from our house, with instructions to go and buy whatever struck his fancy, then I busied myself around the house and pretended not to worry for the next hour.

He returned, unscathed, with a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and reported that he had fully expected to be a nervous wreck, but that in fact, things had gone well and he found himself not only relaxed, but more focused on his driving than ever before. Which got me wondering why a first solo isn’t part of driver’s training early on. Surely, the confidence gained, and the focus on individual responsibility early in driver’s training would be beneficial. I mean, it’s crazy, we give driver’s licenses to people who’ve never even once driven a vehicle by themselves!

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Speaking of when to solo, back in the early days of aviation, solos happened very quickly in pilot training; after only a few hours. In my day, not quite so quickly. Looking at my logbook I had about 25 hours, and as I recall that was on the long side at the time. I must have been a poor student. But nowadays, it’s not uncommon for students to have nearly enough hours to legally get their licenses before the solo. Partly there’s more to learn. Flying and the flying environment have become more complex over the decades, but largely it’s the regs and how the regs are interrupted. Frankly, I think pilots advanced more quickly in the old days with earlier solos, but I digress.

Anyway, in the middle of being proud of Rio, and talking to him about his solo drive, my phone made the teletype clattering that signaled a message from Lisa. It read: Need a stiff drink. Can you help?

Crap. She must have had a bad day. They must’a pushed her solo back. Or worse. Naturally I replied she should head straight over, and I got out a fifth place setting for dinner. When she showed up her shoulders were slumped and her face was long. I opened the door and she pushed past me saying, “I need to see Rio.”

She gave him a big hug, and told him, “I’m sorry, Rio… I soloed first!” Then she laughed and she tickled him.

Yep. Lisa had taken to the air by herself and returned safely to the earth. Three times. Complete with three other airplanes in the pattern and a landing commuter jet. And like Rio on his drive, she reported no nerves. “I knew I could do it,” she said, “and I did.” Simple as that.

Was Rio the least bit bothered that she beat him into the air? No, he’s just not that kind of kid. He was just happy for her.

But in truth, she really didn’t solo first. They both soloed on the same day, at pretty much the same time.

Lisa in an airplane. Rio in a jeep.

 

Ercoupe lover’s heaven

Let’s start with placards. In the flying universe, a “placard” is a small sign or plaque installed in the cockpit. It relays critical information to the pilot about the operation of the airplane. For example, a placard will tell you what fuse or circuit breaker powers which part of the plane’s electrical system. In a plane with flaps, a placard will tell you the maximum speed at which it’s safe to deploy them. In planes with complex fuel systems, placards will guide pilots in the operation of the fuel tank selector switches. In planes with retractable landing gear, placards will instruct the pilot on how to operate the system.

We have no flaps. We have no fuel selectors. And our landing gear stays in the same place all the time. Accordingly, our placards are pretty simple.

One says, “This airplane characteristically incapable of spinning.” That one was a Godsend. The government actually required the manufacturer to place the plane’s number one marketing claim on a cockpit placard. Another placard says, “Beware propeller. Leave airplane from rear of wing.” Well, never underestimate the stupidly of the human race. A third is an ON-OFF placard for the nav lights switch.

But Syd Cohen’s immaculately restored Ercoupe Scampy has an unusual placard on the panel, probably the only thing in his plane that’s not 100% authentic. It reads: “AREN’T WE LUCKY?”

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

We sure the hell are.

Lucky for lots of reasons, but foremost among them is the fact that the maker of our nearly 80-year old airplanes is still in business. Well, sort of. It’s kinda complicated, and to be honest, the story of the Ercoupe is rather sordid. Yes, like a movie starlet from the golden age of Hollywood, the Ercoupe has had a lot of husbands.

The plane started life as the brain child of a company called Engineering and Research Corporation, also called ERCO. Development began in 1936, and ERCO launched sales of the plane in 1940. After the war, when the aviation economy collapsed, ERCO decided to get out of the plane-building biz and sold the Ercoupe lock, stock, and barrel (literally) to Sanders Aviation in 1947. Next, the plane, and its all-important type certificate, was picked up by Univar Aircraft Industries in 1950. But that union didn’t last either. Her next husband was the Forney Aircraft Company in 1955. But a stable wedlock just was not to be for the Ercoupe. In 1960 Air Products Company took over, but again it was a short marriage, and in 1964 Alon Inc. bought the Ercoupe. That union lasted until 1967 when the Mooney Airplane Company purchased the plane. Then, finally, just like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the Ercoupe returned to her third husband, Univar, in 1974—where she finally settled down, the two staying together for 45 years and counting.

Of all her suitors, Univair is the only one that didn’t actually build new Ercoupes. Both in the early ‘50s, and since ‘74, Univair has focused solely on the spare parts biz.

So let’s talk about those parts.

Apparently, each time the Ercoupe took up with a new manufacturer, more than just a marriage license was involved. The bride came complete with all her household goods, including her parts inventory and the various jigs and machines used to make them.

And that’s why we’re lucky.

Unlike the owners of most really old airplanes, we have an outfit that continues to support us. To supply us with parts. Univair has all the machining tools and expertise necessary to make virtually every part that makes up the Ercoupe from the original decades-old drawings, all of which came back home with the bride. That’s cool. But they also have a large supply of what would be called “new old stock” on eBay. But still, how many original parts could possibly still be around from the 1940s?

You would be amazed. I was. I have seen the promised land, and it’s Ercoupe heaven. So this is a PlaneTale of many parts. Literally.

It all started when AOPA assigned me a Rusty Pilot Seminar at Centennial Airport, on the south side of the Denver Metro area up in Colorado. Tessie looks more like a greenhouse than an airplane right now, so flying up the east side of the Rockies to get there was out of the question.

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Catching a commercial flight would require me to drive two hours in the wrong direction, only to be delivered an hour away on the other end, so driving up was the obvious choice. And as I was driving, it would cost me nothing extra to have a copilot on the adventure, and Rio agreed to come along.

I needed to arrive a day early to set up for the seminar, but I knew we’d have some spare time, especially if we got an early start, so I cast around for something to do. And then it occurred to me: Maybe we could visit Univair, who are located on the East side of the metro area. I guess they were in my mind because we’d just recently needed to order a pile of those parts I’m lucky to be able to order. Or maybe it was because I’d been in contact with them to hit them up for donations for the Ercoupe Owners Club scholarship auction as part of my duties as the Coordinator of this year’s convention. Anyway, I reached out about dropping in, and they were gracious, inviting us to come by for a tour.

Given the age of the company (it was founded in 1946) and the fact that they focus on older airplanes, I’d sorta expected them to be in, well, you know, and older building. But in fact, when we pulled up, we found the Univair building is surprisingly modern-looking on the outside.

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And, oddly, for a plane business, Univair sits far from any modern airport. They’re located in an industrial park that’s 50% large blocky commercial buildings and 50% farmer’s fields. Actually, once upon a time, there was an airport literally next door to Univair. Called Sky Ranch, all that is left is a short stretch of crumbling asphalt called Sky Ranch Road, and two World War II vintage hangars, one of which has a control tower on the corner. The runways have evaporated, their foundations buried under warehouses. What must have been the apron is now a parking lot for a fleet of cement trucks.

Dead airports are sad, but having Univair there somehow takes the sting out of it.

We were given a complete tour, staring in the office building, where the lobby has a small museum of key famous products in glass cases, then on to the sales offices, and the printing shop where Univair keeps many otherwise lost tech publications alive. Next, we entered the machine shop. I gotta say, the Univair shop is a museum of manufacturing. They have massive, towering machines dating from the 30s and 40s. Lathes from the 70s. State of the art computerized plasma cutters. With all this gear, if they don’t have what you need in stock, they can make it; and having two engineers on staff makes that process faster. Rounding out the shop are a trailer home-sized sand blast chamber and a huge painting booth. In the Univair shipping department, they build custom crates to fit all manner of oddly-shaped parts ranging in size from jewelry-petite to assemblies larger than cars.

We also got to meet many of the Univair peeps, including the boss, who is sort of royalty, being the third generation of his family to run the place. And it must be a good place to work, as most of the people we met had been there for years.

The highlight of our tour for me was the warehouse, a dimly-lit warren of narrow passageways between towering shelves. It has the creepy but exciting feel of an Indiana Jones/Laura Croft ancient temple. Only, you know, aviation themed.

And like all Hollywood ancient temples, it was full of treasure.

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A wall of wing spars. A shelf of header tanks. A cowl side, glowing pristine aluminum with a lathe-straight hinge. A bundle of throttle cables with faded maroon Bakelite knobs, hanging off a shelf high above our heads, an airplane version of tangled jungle vines high in the trees.

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Box after box after box after box after box of Ercoupe parts. Floor to ceiling, three narrow isles worth. Boxes of things we recognized. Boxes of things we’ve bought. Boxes of things that had us scratching our heads.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

And boxes of things that left us amazed and in awe, like Ercoupe pretzel yokes, still in their original wood packing crates, each yoke wrapped in newspaper with 1946 datelines.

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But there’s more than just inventory at Univair. Out beyond the warehouse, in the backlot, there’s an odd tombstone-looking object. At first glance it appeared to be the final resting place of the nose bowl, a grey solid granite memorial carved by a sculptor into the likeness of the real thing in its prime.

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But it’s no memorial to the dead. It’s one hand of the creator, a key tool to make new living nose bowls. It’s a mold. Over it, flat sheets of aluminum are placed, then squashed down with room-sized hammering equipment to stamp out the front ends of Ercoupes, each one a clone of the previous one. I’d no idea how they were made. In fact, before seeing the tombstone, I’d never even thought about it.

The rest of the yard is overflowing with giant and slightly rusty assemblages that are hard to identify. Is that a jig for forming an Ercoupe tail? Maybe. Oh, look at this, maybe this was used to make our wings.

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Our guide tells us that when they run out of something, the proper machine tools are moved inside from the yard until the inventory is restocked, then it’s back out to the yard until needed again.

Sadly, given all that Univair has in the Ercoupe department, we’re apparently a very small part of their business; I’m told only about 3%. Luckily (Aren’t We Lucky?), Univair is polygynous—also supporting classic Aeroncas, Champs, Citabrias, Luscombes, Cessnas, Stinsons, Taylorcrafts, and the ever-popular Piper Cubs, so Univair isn’t relying solely on us ‘Coupers for their survival.

And that’s the sad truth of Ercoupes. The line has never been quite a failure, but also never quite a success for any of her many owners throughout history. Ercoupe dreams fly higher than her numbers.

Back in the warehouse once more, on a bottom shelf, I find many wooden boxes of placards, including identification placards—called Data Plates in the biz. Every plane built has one. It records the plane’s serial number and its date of manufacture.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

There were of hundreds—maybe thousands—of blank data plates in the Univair warehouse; all created many decades ago, each waiting to be riveted onto a new plane rolling off the assembly line on pristine tires. Boxes of data plates for planes never built. Just like all the thousands and thousands of other parts, railcars full of them, it shows the optimism of ERCO in the post war world. How they believed, really believed, that they’d fill the skies with our twin-tailed marvels, put their money where their mouths were, and were ready to do it.

Sadly, it was not to be. Still, by some miracle, everything we need to keep our birds flying, from parts to placards, still exists, and is only a phone call to Colorado away.

Aren’t we lucky?

 

An aeronautical feast for the eyes

A stubby Gee Bee Sportster, all engine. A green and yellow Laird Super Solution, a biplane so aerodynamically clean it looks poured from water, not built from wood and fabric. Ahh…. The Curtis R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle used to capture the Schneider Trophy. A Travel Air Mystery Ship in iconic fire engine red, black racing scallops on the leading edges of the wings and cowl gracing the plane with the illusion of streaking motion, even while parked. A Curtiss Jenny, so ugly and ungainly it’s beautiful. A sleek Spartan Model 7, a sexy Staggerwing, and a pudgy but oddly endearing Culver Cadet. Then, glistening like a mirror, the bullet-like Hughes H-1 Racer. And in a place of honor, the plane that started it all: The Wright Flyer.

No, it’s not the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

And it’s an aeronautical feast for the eyes, its plastic branches covered in airplanes: A complete collection of all twenty-two Hallmark The Sky’s the LimitChristmas ornaments. Since 1997 the card giant has been churning out amazing replica airplane ornaments, featuring one new civilian airplane per year. Have I been collecting them since the beginning? No, and like everything else aviation around here, it all started with an Ercoupe…

Back in 2013, when we were shopping for a real Ercoupe, Debbie found The Sky’s the Limit‘Coupe ornament on eBay. Being the cheapest Ercoupe we’d seen up to that point, she bought it for me.

The diminutive, but highly detailed, resin model sat on my desk to keep me inspired during my lengthy plane buying odyssey. But—as often happens with our family—one thing led to another, and Rio and I became obsessed with hunting down every last one of the annual miniature planes; and since then, we’ve purchased each year’s new issue. In Year One of our airplane ornament hysteria, the family Christmas tree in our house was all airplane. Debs tolerated that.

The next year, the airplanes banned by the mistress of the house in favor of more traditional holiday decor, I decided to put up a Christmas tree in the hangar to share the holiday spirit with Tessie.

Of course, the problem with a hangar Christmas tree is that, unless you have the good fortune to live in one of those airpark communities where your hangar is connected to your house, you only see the hangar tree a few times during the Christmas tree season.

Still, I gamely put up the hangar tree each year since. Until this year. Because this year I had an epiphany. (Appropriate, given the season.) This year I decided to put up the hangar tree in the newly “renovated” terminal, so that not only would we enjoy it on our flying days, but so too could all the passing pilots who land for fuel, snacks, and a clean bathroom.

So armed with eggnog, Bourbon, a plate of cookies, and one of our Red Bull Sky Lounge Boxanne Bluetooth speakers (when you turn it on, you hear Jim DiMatteo’s voice say, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on!”) the entire clan descended on the SKU terminal.

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

With Grandma Jean “supervising,” we put up the three-part white faux tree. Then Debs fluffed up the branches while Lisa and I untangled the lights. I always wrap the damn things into a neat coil at the end of each season, but during the year of storage some sort of black magic intervenes to turn the bundle into a tangle. What’s up with that?

The tree up and the lights finally strung without stringing myself up, my responsibilities were discharged and I kicked back to enjoy the vibe of family, friends, music, and aviation. Debs and Rio took the fleet of planes from their cardboard hangars, setting each one on the table as if parked on a miniature ramp, then flew each one to the tree and carefully taxied them into position.

When they were done, we set up the O Gauge Plasticville Airport terminal and hangar buildings under the tree, and then argued about how to arrange the pair of tarpaper runways. Should they look good or be true to the compass?

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.

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Then, finally done, the cookies reduced to crumbs and the eggnog running low, we turned off the overhead lights and sat warm and cozy, bathed in the cold blue taxiway-colored light of the terminal tree, and soaked in the sight.

The un-racer-looking Howard DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan,” whose long legs won the 1935 Bendix Trophy, white against the white tree. A silver and blue Cessna 195. The bird of prey-like twin engine Cessna 310. Lindy’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. The big radial Monocoupe 110, a long-winged Stinson Reliant, a Christmas red Lockheed Vega, and a humble Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a miniature of the one Rio is flying out of Santa Fe.

And of course, an Ercoupe. An Ercoupe in a Christmas tree that my true love gave to me.

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How to fly a plane in ten words

Mornings are not Lisa’s finest hour. At least that’s what I reminded myself as I looked at my watch a third time. I took another sip of the nasty Hampden coffee and distracted myself by studying the winds. Predicted to be kittens two days ago, they had grown up to be fierce tigers, roaring down the wide Rio Grande Valley from the north at 20 miles per hour.

It was going to be a slow flight.

Finally my Plane Friend arrived in the hotel lobby to join me for the free continental breakfast. In body, at least, if not in spirit. “Cof..fee… Cof..fee…” she intoned, zombie-like, eyes only half open.

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Wonderful Mugs

I laughed at her. “Your brain isn’t even firing on half its cylinders this morning.” Then to tease her, “Do you even remember how to fly?”

Her eyes snapped open and without missing a beat she said, “Point the plane down the runway, go fast, pull back.”

A better description of flying, at least of taking off, has never been uttered.

 

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.

 

Politics, but not as usual

Col. Martha McSally wasted her time and money writing to me, but I’m glad she did, because, boy, is this ever a plane tale!

It all started at my mailbox in the post office. Nestled in a pile of bills and mail order catalogs from outfits I’ve never ordered from is a thickish envelope from Arizona. Inside is a letter and a card. The card is a thick, lovely, deep rich red with a cut-out of an A-10 Warthog on it. I’m intrigued.

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I open the card, and like the pop-up books of my childhood, the A-10 takes flight.

This is the coolest thing ever!

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But what’s it for?

Ah. The good Colonel is running for the U.S. Senate. In Arizona? So why the heck is she writing to me? The dead frequently vote in my state of New Mexico, but neither our living nor our dead have reputations for voting in other people’s states, even ones a short flight away.

Her letter to me says she served in the USAF for 26 years and was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat; and that she then went on to log a total of 350 combat hours. She’s also a U.S. Congress Woman. Impressive. But I wonder if her campaign has filed the wrong flight plan in contacting me? I read on.

Her letter states, “I’ve sent you the enclosed pop-up replica of the A-10 ‘Warthog’ that I flew in combat to bring us back to our core roots—national security—while I seek to enlist your personal help and support.”

Then she asks me for $2,700.

In fact, not only does she ask me for $2,700, she asks me to “rush” her a check before I even put her letter down to prominently display my new pop-up A-10 Warthog. That struck me as an odd amount of money to ask for, but it turns out that’s the maximum that the Federal Election Commission allows youto give a candidate in each of his or her elections; and she’s fishing for the most money she can get. She says that it cost her over five million dollars to “dominate the GOP primary” and she needs to rebuild her war chest for the next phase of the battle. Ya gotta love all this military language.

I did prominently display my new pop-up A-10 Warthog, but I didn’t send her a check.

Now, here at Plane Tales we follow the old rules of the Western stage coaches: We don’t talk politics. But I will say this: As a general rule I don’t donate to political campaigns. I think there’s too much money in elections, and I’m not going to make the problem worse. Even if I were going to make an exception, I don’t think it would be to help fund a race in a neighboring state.

But I will say: Thank you, Colonel, for your service to our nation.

And thank you for the cool card.

 

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.

 

The triumphant return of Warbler

“You warned her,” said Debbie.

“Seeing all we’ve been through up close and personal, you’d think she’d have known better,” said Mom.

“This is what she gets for buying an Ercoupe,” said Rio.

My family is lacking in, you know, basic human compassion. Sure, I knew that sooner or later—probably sooner—Lisa’s Warbler would suffer his first breakdownon her watch. But still, I felt badly for her.

Now, you may recall that the consensus from all the experts we phoned, after pushing Warbler almost a mile across the airport to get him back to his nest, was that he was suffering from a stuck valve; albeit one that was manifesting in a way that no one had really heard of before, what with the prop stuck fast turning one direction, and freely spinning in the other.

But they were all wrong.

This is the Tale: The very next weekend Lisa’s mechanic drove over from Santa Fe with a trunk load full of tools. He did some tests, poked, prodded, and basically did all the stuff that airplane doctors do to sick airplanes. Rio and I hung out in the back of Lisa’s hangar, rocking back and forth in her rocking camp chairs, staying out of the way, and pretending to surf the internet on our iPads.

Really, we were eavesdropping—drinking in every word.

After a bit, her wrench-turner decided to fire up the plane. We helped pull Warbler out of his hangar and he fired right up. Lisa was in the cockpit, the mechanic, Rio, and I arranged in a loose ring around the plane, heads cocked, ears aimed at the engine. It sounded, well, not quite right. Or did it? I’d rarely been outside of Warbler listening to his powerplant sing.

This was followed by a comic series of hand signs and pantomimes between Lisa and her mechanic. It became pretty clear that they weren’t speaking the same language. The various finger pointing, hand swirling, and gestures mimicked two drunken deaf people leaving a bar and arguing in sign language over whether or not to call a cab. She was saying that in the cockpit, the noise was back. He was saying that outside, it sounded fine.

Rio looked at me and shrugged one shoulder. At least he and I were talking the same language.

Eventually Lisa throttled up and then we all knew something was amiss. In Warbler’s tongue, he made it clear that something was very wrong with his engine. The mechanic moved his hand quickly back and forth across his throat and suddenly he and Lisa were speaking the same language. She cut the engine.

I was secretly relieved. Airplanes sometimes behave themselves for their mechanics, only to act up again as soon as the “parent” is out of the room. I was afraid the man would find nothing, leave, and suddenly Warbler would be back to his antics. At least—no matter what the problem might be—the mechanic was now witness to it, could hopefully figure it out, and then fix it.

The sun beating down, we pushed Warbler back into the shade of his hangar. The mechanic started rocking the prop back and forth when some movement in the engine compartment caught his eye. I missed what he said, but a moment later his head was inside the engine compartment on one side, and Lisa’s head was inside the engine compartment on the other side.

Now, if you don’t already know this, the latest and greatest in airplane engines is about as technically evolved as a 1932 gasoline-powered lawn mower. They haven’t changed much in eons. Of course, Warbler’s engine is only one year younger than Warbler himself. He was born in 1946, and his current engine rolled off the Continental assembly line a year later in 1947. I guess engines can’t really roll off of assembly lines, now can they? Well, however it was moved off, it was originally bolted onto the nose of a brand-spanking-new Cessna 140. That airplane later got an upgrade to a more powerful engine, and the cast-off original engine from that plane somehow found its way to Lisa’s plane in the following decades.

And you think your family history is complicated.

But back to engine tech: An airplane engine generates power from controlled explosions of a gas and air mixture in each cylinder, which drives the piston downwards. The match for these explosions is the spark plug. Airplane spark plugs get their sparks from spinning magnets called magnetos. If the magneto were to stop, the pulses of electricity they make would stop, the spark plugs would stop sparking, and the airplane’s engine would stop. Which would be bad.

Accordingly, airplanes have two magnetos. Just for in case.

The magnetos are bolted to the back of the engine and are driven by gears inside the crankcase. Once the engine is running, itis spinning the mags that keep it running. It’s really quite clever. At least until one of your two magnetos comes completely apart.

And that’s what happened to Warbler. All four screws that held the two clamshell halves of the right magneto together were missing, the case had come apart, and the mechanism was shredded and stripped.

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Luckily—if these kinds of breakdowns can have any luck about them at all—the damage was to the outside end of the mag, not the part where it attaches to the engine. Those gears were all fine.

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The solution was ordering a new mag. Well, returning the half-demolished “core” and purchasing a refurib’d replacement. “What’s this going to cost me?” Lisa asked her mechanic.

He shrugged, “I dunno. Probably a thousand bucks.” Then after a few beats of silence he added, “All airplane parts cost a thousand bucks.”

Of course, add to that two house calls, as Warbler isn’t flyable with one mag off, and the innards of his engine exposed to the elements…

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Her mechanic wrapped up the damaged mag in a small blanket, like an orphan baby, and drove away in a cloud of dust. Tess still broken down in another city, there was nothing left to do but break out the bourbon.

Now I know what you are thinking: How the heck could all four screws work loose? Did someone forget to replace them after working on the mag? We’ve asked ourselves that; over and over and over again. But like the question about whether or not there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, this is one of those questions we will never likely learn the answer to. On the surface, it looks like a maintenance failure. Like someone forgot to put the screws back in. But looking though the logs, the mags hadn’t been worked on for a looooongtime. So on the one hand it seems unlikely that all the screws could fall out, but on the other hand, if they were never there, how could the plane have flown so long?

Before every takeoff, pilots independently check both mags by using the ignition key to run what is called a mag check. Lisa was religious about doing hers. The right mag always ran rougher, as one or the other of the pair often do in airplanes, but the darn thing was always running. Heck, it was running when she did the engine runup for her mechanic right before the whole mess was discovered. We spent a lot of time talking about the flight hours and the various maintenance log entries from before and after Lisa took over as caretaker of Warbler.

In fact, we spent the next two weeks doing nothing but that until her mechanic came back to SXU with a shinny “new” mag. He bolted it on, then fussed around with the prop and a small beeping box, adjusting the timing of the mag so it would spark neither too early nor too late.

When he was done, it was out into the sun for Warbler, for an engine test. He sang his throaty song, clear and bright. Even on the right mag alone. Problem solved, right?

Not necessarily. The problem with the mag didn’t rule out the possibility that there was alsoa valve problem. One that wouldn’t show up until after the engine had been running at full power for a while. A test flight was needed.

Now, Lisa’s mechanic is a pilot, too. Some flying mechanics insist on test flying their work, others don’t. He’s one of those that don’t.

As we hadn’t broken out the bourdon yet, I pulled up my big boy pants, pulled on my Chuck Yeager boots, and climbed into Warbler’s cockpit.

“Stay within gliding distance of the runway,” Lisa’s mechanic told me.

Roger that.

I spent the next half hour circling the field by myself, bored to death. It was bumpy as the dickens. Finally, fuel running low, Warbler and I returned to earth. There was no valve problem.

Lisa paid off her mechanic and he disappeared in a cloud of dust. She turned to me and said, “I really need to fly. You know, not train. Just. Go. Fly. Understand?”

I understood. We climbed in, belted in, and headed out. She carefully checked her mags and ran up her engine. The takeoff on Runway One-Ninner was smooth and as she turned and flew down the Pecos River Canyon south of the airport the choppiness I’d experienced in the atmosphere over the airport disappeared.

I turned and looked at Lisa at Warbler’s helm, and watched a metamorphosis take place. For the last two weeks, Lisa had been a woman of stone. Her eyes narrow, scowling, dull and flint-like. Her jaw tight, the usual smile absent, replaced by a horizon-straight slit. Her shoulders hunched tight to her neck. Now that all began to melt away. Her shoulders relaxed and dropped, her eyes widened and lit afire anew, and a smile danced at the corners of her mouth, slowly spreading like the growing dawn until her entire face was a picture of pure joy.

The magic of flight was erasing the stresses of doubt, fear, and expense that had hung over her like a dark shadow for the last two weeks.

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Yeah. They have their challenges, but this is why we own airplanes.