Alien Octopus

Let’s see… the clutch is the one on the left. I rest my right foot on the brake, push the clutch to the floor with my left, fiddle with the stick for a moment to make sure the battered white truck is in first gear not third, then slowly lift my left foot while moving my right foot to the accelerator.

For a guy who flies an airplane with no rudder pedals, it’s a lot of footwork.

“Don’t pop the clutch in front of the guys,” Lisa teases me from the backseat, “you’ll ruin your reputation as a national champion racer.”

I shoot her a dirty look in the rearview mirror then gently pull out of the parking lot and out onto Aviation Drive without embarrassing myself. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve driven a stick. They say it’s like riding a bike, but it’s been more than quite a few years since I’ve been on one of those things, too. “Nice work, Dad,” says Rio from shotgun.

And with that, the Three Musketeers are off on another loony adventure.

Out on the highway I work my way up through the gears. Third. Fourth. Fifth. I settle in at 60 miles and hour and look in the mirror to see how our cargo is riding. Sticking up out of the bed of Lisa’s “ranch truck” is the brass-colored oval oil sump of our up-side-down Continental C-85 engine. It looks like some sort of alien creature looking in the back window of the crewcab pickup. “How’s our cargo doing?” I ask.

To save a few bucks, which will be less than drops in this particular bucket, we’ve elected to deliver our old engine from our mechanics in Santa Fe up to Alamosa, Colorado—140 miles due north—where the shop of the master rebuilder is located. The engine is oddly shaped so my guys decided to drop it into Lisa’s truck up-side-down. They put three worn out airplane tires in the bed, rolled the engine crane over, gently lowered the engine, tilting it downwards so that it rested on the prop hub, then pushed it over on its back, the top of the engine resting on the three tires. We then used Tessie’s traveling tie-down straps to secure the engine into the bed.

Lisa turns her head to study our cargo. “Looks good,” she reports, “but if the aliens invade they’ll think we captured their leader. Then we’ll really be in trouble.” And she’s right. The inverted Continental looks remarkably like some sort of alien octopus. The oil sump only needs eyes and a mouth to be fully animated, the tubes that hold the push rods looking like arms leading down to the coiled tentacles of the cylinders.

Well, I guess with only four arms it’s an alien quadropus, not an octopus.

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It’s a warm summer day and the truck’s recently repaired air con has conked out again. We roll down all the windows and keep our speed low so we can hear ourselves think. Impatient Texans roar around us. The view is splendid and the day cools as we climb up into the southern reaches of the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square mile basin a mile and a half above sea level. Ringed by mountains that rise to above 14,000 feet, the valley is home of the Great Sand Dunes and potato and barley farmers. If you’ve ever drunk Coors beer, odds are the barley that made it came from the San Luis Valley.

By mid afternoon we roll into the parking lot of the Alamosa airport to drop off our cargo. They let us in the security gate and linemen use airplane-parking hand signals to guide Lisa, who took over as pilot-in-command at the Colorado border, as she backs the pickup into the hangar, gently navigating between a tug and a Mooney. One lineman slowly raises his hands above his head until his arms form an “X” and Lisa shuts down.

In no time the old engine is unloaded from the back of the truck and bolted prop-plate-down onto a rolling stand, ready for the dismantling process to begin.

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Parts of the old engine will be moved to the “new” one. Some will be rebuilt, others discarded and replaced. Still at least some of the soul of the engine that drove us to victory in a World Speed Record and a season of Air Racing will live on in the new engine.

I like that.

Speaking of the “new” engine, I was keen to see it. The rebuilder, a solid, compact man with a grey mustache, lined face, and short-cropped hair hidden under a camouflage baseball cap was surprised at first by the request but quickly warmed up to the idea and gave us a complete tour of his shop, showing us the used case we’d ordered to speed up the process. As far as any of us knew, there was nothing wrong with our old case (although there could be), but the new-to-us one wasn’t that much money in the greater scheme of things, and it bought a lot of time.

I guess I was expecting a dirty, oily, scratched up case painted in “Continental Gold” color. Instead I was greeted by softly glowing aluminum. The two halves of the case had been spit open and stripped down to bare metal, looking fresh off the assembly line, not like objects that date from the 1950s.

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The master builder was pleased with the case, saying it was one of the better ones he’d ever seen, which in turn made me more than pleased with the course of action I had chosen. Then he showed us the brand new crankshaft, the retooled connecting rods, and the new pistons.

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We’re using a Supplemental Type Certificate process to place newer 0-200 engine parts into a C-85 crankcase. It’s done simply for parts availability, but many owners report more power as a result. Rio asks questions about the differences in the parts and we’re told that the new crankshaft is slightly wider than the old one, giving the engine a deeper stroke, resulting in more displacement. “The hot rod crowd calls engines like these strokers,” the master builder tells us.

I’ve heard the muscle car crowd talk about stroker engines, but I was completely clueless about what it met, other than it sounded cool and maybe had something to do with power.

“So we’ll have the airplane version of a stroker engine?” I ask.

The master builder thinks about it for a moment, then a hint of a smile tugs at the edge of his lips. His blue eyes twinkle. “I guess you will, at that.”

From alien octopus to hot-rod engine. That sounds like a worthwhile upgrade to me.

 

…and then

The phone rang. OK. It wasn’t the phone. It was an email. And it didn’t ring. It bonged.

It just sounds more dramatic to say the phone rang.

So at the height of my recent engine crisis I emailed everyone I knew asking if they knew what happened to Don’s Dream Machines and if they knew of anyone who might be able to help me out.

One of my trusted wrench turners emailed me two URLs. I clicked on the first one and it was a Continental shop, which makes sense as we run a Continental under the cowl. I fired off an email to them explaining my predicament and what I was after.

I never heard back from them.

When I clicked on the second link it took me to a Lycoming shop—the other large maker of airplane engines. I wondered why on earth my contact would send me there, but fired off the same email to them and proceeded to descend into complete panic.

That night, I got a strange email. It was from a guy named Ken that I didn’t know, the subject line was Race 53, and it contained only one sentence: “William, are you running a c-85 engine now, not a c-90 or 0-200?”

Weird, I thought. Maybe it was a curious reader. Or maybe the spreading grapevine got word of my plight. But either way the writer deserved an answer, so I fired off a one-word reply and forgot all about it.

The next day, after I had committed to the plan of action with a second engine case and some new parts that I told you about last week, I got an email at lunch. It was from a guy named John, who said he’d been talking to the guy named Ken, who supposedly had been talking to me. Well, I guess the exchange of 14 words in two emails is a conversation nowadays. Anyway, John’s email had a sig file that showed he worked for the Lycoming outfit that I had emailed.

Ah-ha! Now the pieces were coming together. Anyway, he had a few questions and wanted to know my target date. I’d already decided on a course of action, but it’s always a good idea to keep all options open, plus he had taken the time to write, so he deserved the dignity of a reply.

I answered his questions and told him I needed the engine yesterday.

He was kind enough to respond to that, saying that yesterday wasn’t really an option, but that “we might be able to put something together fairly quickly” and to let him know if I wanted him to keep pursuing it.

I wrote back to ask what his definition of “fairly quickly” was.

Later than evening, I was briefing Rio on all that went on that day and he was questioning the wisdom of a Lycoming shop building a Continental engine for us, so we went to their website for the first time since I flashed on to use their contact page to email them.

In my haste I had misread. They weren’t Lycoming.

They were Ly-Con.

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And as we explored their website I was blown away. Their customer list is a virtual who’s who of air racers and airshow performers. Everyone who’s anyone seemed to be there. Reno Racers. Red Bull Racers. The nation’s top airshow performers.

“Holy crap,” said Rio.

This all-star engine shop was talking to me about building an engine for Race 53, and I was hardly giving them the time of day.

“I’ve been a dick,” I said to Rio.

“I want them to build our engine,” said Rio.

I sat down and wrote a nice email outlining what I needed in detail. As I did I worried more about what it would cost than how long it would take. Then I fired off a second email to my mechanic—stop the presses! Don’t order those parts just yet. I might have another option.

That was Thursday night. To make the deadline work on the second case option my guys cooked up, the parts had to be ordered on Monday.

At 6:00 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:05 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:10 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:15 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:20 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:25 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

We finally made contact at 10:10 a.m. I told John my predicament on the deadline and my need to make a decision by day’s end. He promised a quote by 5 p.m.

It never came.

It was the weekend, so I figured I could hold off a bit. Monday rolled around. I waited until noon. Then until three. Finally I had to make a decision. I sure liked the sound of Ly-Con, but at the same time, if they can’t keep a promised deadline on a quote, how can I trust them to honor a deadline on an engine rebuild? I called my regular team and told them to order the parts.

We’ve crossed the Rubicon once and for all. We’re going with the second second-hand case from the Ercoupe “junk yard,” and brand-new 0-200 guts, all assembled by a shop in Colorado.

 

Mechanic school

Each shard of metal is ever so slightly curved. There are dozens of them lying on the table. I push them around with my fingers, getting burnt, black, nasty oil on my hands. A bit at a time, like assembling a jig saw puzzle, I recreate the ring of metal the shards once formed.

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“Yep,” says the mechanic cheerfully, “I’d say that was your problem.”

Myself, I’m somewhere between horrified and relieved. I’m horrified that this string of broken pearls came from inside my engine; while I’m relieved that approving an expensive cylinder replacement wasn’t money wasted.

Remember that weird oil thing I wrote about a few weeks ago? Right after that Tess went in for major maintenance, and my crew could find nothing wrong. But within four hours of writing that rather large check for preventative maintenance, I was making another quasi-emergency landing with redline oil pressure. Followed by another. You can read all about that adventure over at General Aviation News, but in a nutshell, things went from fine to worse in record time.

Hidden under the cowl, deep inside the front right cylinder, the piston rings were giving out. At my annual, right before this flight, all the cylinders had compressions in the 70s, which is regarded as healthy. Six hundred miles later, the front-right was at 30 and was pronounced dead on arrival by the lead mechanic at Springfield Flying Service. It gave virtually no advanced warning. It just died.

The autopsy actually raised more questions than it answered. Two of the four rings were fractured, allowing oil to flood up into the cylinder. That said, other than the oil loss, there was little to show for it. Against all odds, the cylinder was still working and the plugs weren’t fouled, which they should have been, given the 1.5 quarts of oil per hour the cylinder was guzzling. The innards of the cylinder showed exposure to extreme heat, the parts being “cooked,” according the mechanics. But I’ve never abused the engine. And if it were cooked in the past, how did it last so long? Questions without answers.

But speaking of questions and answers, laid bare and torn open, I was able to see more of Tessie’s engine than ever before. And more. I got a guided tour through her inner workings while serving as official wrench holder for the mechanic replacing the cylinder. I spent an entire day giving what (little) help I could—hold this, please hand me that… no, the one to the left—and learning. I got to meet the push rods. Saw the cams. Touched the valves.

I’ll never be a mechanic. I don’t have the right kind of mind for it. But this one day of mechanic school opened my eyes in a new way to what’s happening under the hood.

And that will make me a better pilot.

 

Too busy for stress

Flying relaxes me. It always has, but it wasn’t until just the other day that I figured out why, and it’s so simple it made me laugh: Flying takes too much mental bandwidth to let stress in.

There are constant mental challenges in flying. Am I on course? Keep her at the right altitude, William. Check your oil pressure! What’s my cylinder head temp? Where would I put down if the engine crapped out right now? What’s the weather like ahead? How’s our fuel consumption? Keep her on course…

And there are the delightful attractions of seeing the globe from above. Look at that crazy field below! How on earth did they plow it like that?

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Plus the delightful attractions of being a citizen of the air. Check out that crazy cloud above! The sun above has lit up the ice crystals like neon southern lights!

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So partly, there’s just so much to do—even in a simple cockpit like mine—that the mind simply doesn’t have the capacity to latch onto all the little things that plague us in on the ground; and partly, when you’re in an airplane, you can’t do anything about most of the things that stress us out on the ground. Forgot to send the car payment in? Well, nothing you can do about that right now. Your mother needs her screen door fixed? Well, that ain’t happenin’ at 7,500 feet.

That blend of the high mental bandwidth required for flying, mixed with a location that limits what you can do anyway, nearly washes stress away completely. What little stress is left is drowned in the sea of confidence that taking a thousand pounds of metal and making it fly generates. Mastering any skill is good for the soul, but mastering something so humanly improbable as flight?

Tonic for the ego, for sure.

So that’s why flying relaxes me. It keeps me too busy to be stressed out.

How much flying is too much?

Fifteen days. Two hundred forty five gallons of 100 low-lead avgas. Three thousand, four hundred, and seventeen miles. Forty-four point nine hours added to my logbook.

Out from our New Mexico home base to South Carolina, then down to the middle of Florida, up the Gulf Coast, across the South, and eventually home again. Yep, it’s race season, and this epic commute took in the first four races of the season. When I got home again, I was pretty much flown out.

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But that was a week ago.

Now I’m chomping at the bit. The sky is calling.

How much flying is too much? Can we pilots ever get enough? I’ve always suspected not. But I’d never given any thought to who has flown more than anyone else until I encountered this plaque at Montgomery, Alabama, where fierce winds and turbulence forced me to alight early for the day (nearly kissing the ground after I pried my bruised body out of the cockpit):

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The plaque was my introduction to John Edward Long, Jr., the pilot who holds the Guinness Book of World Records for more time as Pilot-in-Command than any other person on the planet. His total flight time? A holy-cow 64,397 hours.

Apparently, Long was a low and slow kind of pilot like me. Most of his record-breaking flight hours were in a Piper Cub, flying power line patrols less than 200 feet off the ground. He joined the Alabama Power Company in 1953, and flew for them pretty much five days a week for the next 46 years.

Long was born in 1915, a dozen years into the history of powered flight. He grew up in the age of Lindy and Post. When he was 15 years old, his grandmother gave him 50 cents to take a ride in a Ford Tri-motor, and he got bit by the aviation bug. Long started flying at age 17 in a Curtiss Robin. It was the Great Depression. Times were tough and money was tight. He washed airplanes, trading a week’s work for a half hour of flight time, and in 1939 he was granted pilot certificate number 44,202.

At 115 pounds, he was too light to be a military pilot when war broke out, so during World War 2 he served as an airplane mechanic instead. After the war he worked as a charter pilot and flight instructor before joining the power company.

According to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Long filled 14 logbooks that, if added up and divided by the number of hours in a year, total up to a full seven years.

Even birds don’t spend that much of their lives in the air.

On average, from first setting foot in an airplane to hanging up his wings, he flew 961 hours a year—an astounding amount of time in the cockpit. And throughout it all, he had an amazing safety record.

Long passed away in 1999. I would have liked to have met him, but I’m glad to have at least discovered him. I count myself lucky that my long flight intersected his long career.

I’m on logbook number two now, but to be honest, I didn’t fill the first one. It just got too tattered up to use anymore. So Long’s long record is one I’ll never break, but it proves what I’ve always known: There’s no such thing as too much flying.

 

Engineering a mystery

Engines have always been a mystery to me. They are strange boxes under the hood or wrapped in a cowl. I’ve never worked on one, and most of my life I’ve had only the vaguest notion of how they actually function. But now that we’re an airplane-owning family, some knowledge of how engines work is mandatory.

My mechanic has been patient with me. Showing me parts and reminding me, time and time again, what their names are. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’m beginning to understand. But as a visual learner, I have a hard time grasping things that I can’t see. And of course, the more of your engine you can see, the more your maintenance bill is going to be!

Rio to the rescue.

During a recent outing to a hobby store, Rio encountered a plastic see-thru engine model kit made by Haynes, who is also apparently the leading publisher of engine how-to-repair handbooks in the real world. The model kit was a hair pricy, but he was keen on it, and I had a flash of inspiration that this might finally give me the look inside an engine that I needed to really understand, not just the nuts and bolts, but how the parts relate to each other; and more importantly, how they dance with each other in a living, breathing engine.

The model came home with us.

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It’s a replica of a simple “straight four” internal combustion engine, not very airplane-like, but this is internal combustion kindergarten for us, so we judged it to be good enough. The model took us the better part of a day to build, but it wasn’t overly difficult. All the parts either snapped or screwed on. No glue and no paint!

The manual, which includes a six-page essay called, “How an Engine Works,” was nearly as educational as the model itself, always referring to the parts of the model as if they were real engine components. Pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft, a sump pan, valve stems, rocker arms, a cam shaft and cams, even a cylinder head gasket!

Of course, beyond “piston,” this was all Greek to me.

Well, not quite Greek. All of these are words I’ve heard before in my life, but like incantations in some ancient magical tongue, they had no substance, no reality for me.

As the model started to come together I was amazed at the detail. The model’s designer must have had a real love affair with engines. There was even a dipstick for the oil level. But there’s more. The motor actually works. Well, in a simulated way. It’s battery powered, and when fired up all the parts of the engine move and run in concert with each other the way they would in a real engine. Electric lights flash in sequence to simulate spark plugs igniting, forcing the pistons downwards, rotating the crankshaft. The valves atop the pistons actually open and close as they would during the intake and exhaust strokes. It’s amazing.

Watching it in action, I was stunned. The internal combustion engine is so simple, and yet so mind-numbingly complex in the same breath. How on earth did humans ever develop such a thing in the first place? As you see it run, it all starts to make sense, but to develop this myriad of systems from scratch?

Sheer brilliance.

As I watched the plastic pistons ride up and down through the clear walls of the cylinder block, I envisioned the processes inside Tessie’s old Continental C-85. She too has a four cylinder engine, but of a very different design. Her cylinders, each a separate entity rather than all in one “block” lie flat, two on each side, and each is powered not by one spark plug, but two.

But each cylinder has two valves, just like our model, and her pistons connect to—and drive—her crankshaft, just like our model. Still, I was left wondering, as I watched the flickering lights simulating the sparkplugs on the model kit, what’s the firing order under Tess’s cowl?

I guess I’ll look for a model of an airplane engine…

 

That time of year, again

I haven’t flown in eleven days, and I’m already getting crabby. Last night I nearly kicked one of the cats.

It’s not that eleven days is all that long. I often go weeks at a time when I don’t fly. But those dry spells are self-imposed. Right now, on the other hand, I can’t fly because I don’t have an airplane. And to make matters worse, I have no clue when Tess will be back in her hangar.

Yes. It’s that time of year again. Tess is in Santa Fe with her mechanics for her annual inspection. As is typical, the mechanics have refused to even speculate on how long this one will take. And I can’t go over and take her up for a stretch of her wings and my soul because at this very moment, her left wing isn’t even attached!

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The good news is that firewall forward she’s been given a clean bill of health. That means my mechanics started with her engine and made sure everything between me and the spinner is still in good shape after an epic year traveling the country racing. Next comes a long list of “squawks” that need repair.

The copilot fuel tank needs to be removed and rebuilt. That’s a biggie. Another biggie is that we’re biting the bullet and installing an ADS-B transponder so we can fly into controlled airspace after January 1, 2020.

Her yokes, ailerons, and nose gear are out of alignment. In level flight, the yokes are tilted 12 degrees to the left and her nose gear is crooked, causing drag and uneven wear on the nose tire from landing with it cocked slightly sideways. The pilot’s side door, once again, has broken; and the velts that the two doors slide along have worn to shreds and need to be replaced. The windshield seals have failed again too, so while all that glass is out we’ve decided to change it all to LP Aero UV/Infrared blocking replacements. I’m told that this magic material can drop cockpit temps by as much as 20 degrees. What a blessing that will be, plus we won’t need to use as much sunscreen!

One of the wing walks has come loose. The altimeter is wonky, and I’m not convinced the amp meter is working right. The tail is sagging a bit, so more spacers will have to be added to the main landing gear. And now that we have more electrical power than we used to have—thanks to the fact that the generator died last season and was replaced with an alternator—I’ve had my guys add some USB charging ports for all the modern gadgets we fly and travel with.

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The tie-down loop on the tail needed to be replaced. The cabin heat hose is in the way of the oil dipstick on the new exhaust. And so on, and so forth.

There’s nothing I can do but wait and let nature—and the mechanics— take its/their course.

It’s an annul ritual, and at least the enforced flying break makes me that much more grateful that the rest of the year I can drive to the airport and fly anytime I want.

In the meantime, however, I guess there’s nothing to do but go make up with the cat.

 

Doing the Wright thing

The view is lovely, but I’m bored to death. Rio is flying and I’m sitting on my hands with my mouth zipped shut, at his request. His mastery of the plane in flight is absolute. His turns are liquidly smooth, the nose nailed to the horizon. Damn, that kid can really fly.

But land?

Well, that’s another problem, and it’s really all my fault. I should have taught him how to land long ago, but I rationalized that I wasn’t an instructor, and that I didn’t know how to go about it. It was something a pro should do.

But I’ve come to realize that I was just making excuses.

The real reason I haven’t taught Rio to land is that I love flying—most especially the takeoffs and landings—too much to share the plane as much as I should. That makes me a Certified Bad Parent, so I’m working on that negative aspect of my personality, and trying to change it. And as a first step, this day is dedicated solely to takeoff and landing practice for Rio.

I’m just along for the ride.

Rio guides us through the traffic pattern and slowly slides the throttle back abeam the numbers. As the plane descends, I’m once again struck by his innate sense of power management: When to cut back a bit, when to bring in a bit more power. But as he turns to final, the problems begin. We’re too high; he’s turned too early. As we close in on the runway, we’re waaaaay off to the right. Rio continues the descent, seemingly unaware that we’ll end up landing in the grass. Very near the security fence. I slide my left hand out from under my leg so that I can get to the yoke quickly if I need to, and attempt to beam ESP-style messages through my son’s headset and into his brain.

It doesn’t work.

Down we come. 100 feet… 75 feet… 50 feet… 25 feet…

Rio flicks the mike button and transmits, “Santa Rosa Route 66 traffic, seven-six hotel, landing abort.” Then over the intercom adds, “Crap!” He throttles up, holding the nose level. The descent stops and Tessie builds speed. He holds her low until we flash over the southern security fence, then he gently pitches the plane up and climbs back up to the pattern altitude.

Again, the fluid turn, more ballet than airmanship. He reduces the power and lines the plane up parallel to the runway. I offer to run the throttle or the radio, but he says, quite rightly, that he needs to learn to do it all, and on this cold sunny morning it suddenly strikes me that he’s more stubborn than his mother and I combined.

And that’s a lot of stubborn.

He flicks the microphone. “Santa Rosa Route 66 traffic.” His voice is confident and smooth, pitched a bit deeper than his normal speaking voice. “Erco three-niner-seven-six hotel, left downwind, runway one-niner, full stop landing.” Then he adds over the intercom, in his normal voice, “Hopefully.”

We end up doing two more aborted landings. Rio’s face getting more strained with each. His jaw is set tight, his eyes narrowed. I can tell he’s pissed. Mad at himself. Upset that he can’t do it perfectly the first time, every time. He’s his own harshest critic. From my side of the plane I can see that each landing set-up is better than the one before. He’s learning from his mistakes and incorporating the lessons progressively into each attempt. But he doesn’t want to hear it from me.

Now we’re coming down, down, down again. We’re to the right of the centerline, but at least we’re over the pavement. We’re a bit high and a bit fast, but we’ve got runway to burn. I’m not worried. It’s not textbook, but it’ll be safe. But at the last second the flare gets away from him. He doesn’t pull the nose up quite far enough, quite soon enough, and the rapidly descending plane slams onto the runway with a bone-jarring shudder, and then springs right back into the air. We return to earth, but bounce right off the runway into the air a second time. Then a third.

Bounce, bounce, bounce; down the runway we go. More a rabbit hopping down the runway than a proper airplane landing.

Video of the actual landing(s) by Lisa F. Bentson

The third time being the charm, and our excess energy dispersed, Tess stays on the runway and we do a clean, smooth rollout.

“Well, that was the worst landing since the Wright brothers,” muttered Rio, clearly disgusted with himself.

“Which one of the three did you think was so bad?” I asked Rio, and in spite of himself, he’s able to manage a laugh.

“Come on,” I urge, “let’s go do it again.”

And so we taxi back around to the scene of the crime and take off again. A takeoff better than his first. And I sit on my hands, zip up my mouth. I look up through the canopy at the deep blue sky, painted with high altitude cirrus clouds. Below, pinion and juniper. Yellow rock and red soil.

Then I turn to study Rio in the seat beside me. Fourteen going on forty. Quiet. Serious. Focused. More man than boy now, with sideburns to his jaw. In his hands the plane is a living thing, flying with the grace of an eagle.

And I’m no longer bored. I’m thrilled. Thrilled to be able to share this with him.

Thrilled to be able to teach him to fly. And to land.

 

 

Letting go

It’s not that I’m a control freak. I’m just accustomed to taking care of everything.

Oh. Wait.

Maybe I am a control freak.

At some point over the twisting course of my life my self-reliance morphed a bit into something different: I’m simply not in the habit of relying on others. And because I do “everything,” I like to do it as efficiently as possible. Nowadays, that means using the Internet late at night to make hangar, hotel, and ground transportation arrangements for cross-country flights, preferably without having to actually talk to another human being.

Come to think of it, this is not unlike my approach to choosing airports that we talked about recently. I guess that makes me an antisocial control freak. But something wonderful just happened that might change my whole approach to cross-country flights.

The trip in question didn’t end up happening—thanks to the stupid hurricane—but Rio and I had planned an epic two-week father-son jaunt around the country that would take us to two races. The flow of the trip had us putting down for the night in Oklahoma City at the end of the first day, where there are eight public-use airports to choose from.

So which to choose?

One thing we always do when traveling by air is to check out the local aviation museums. There are some really amazing collections in places you’d least expect it. For instance, in trying to get to Oshkosh the year before last, we put down near the Mississippi River to escape weather and found a rack card for a little museum in Greenfield, Iowa. It looked interesting, so on the way home we diverted to check it out.

Among other things, they had the actual plane that was used in an early endurance record, kept aloft by one of the first uses of aerial refueling! Just how long was the flight? Are you sitting down? Seventeen days, 12 hours, and 17 minutes. And this was in 1929! Apparently it was “cut short” when one of the pilots developed some sort of painful dental issue.

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But I think I’ve drifted off course here. Let me get back on heading. A quick Google search showed that Oklahoma City has three aviation-themed museums. Of course, the city is HQ for the Ninety-Nines and their museum is at Wil Rogers World airport, the big Class C operation. At nearby Weatherford, the Stafford Air & Space Museum is literally right on the field. You can taxi up to it. And lastly, the Oklahoma Museum of Flying is in a hangar on the grounds of the Wiley Post airport. It has a small collection of planes including one of the Reno-racing P-51s and a World War I era Fokker Eindcker—a craft more scaffolding than airplane.

I was sold. Even though Wiley Post had a control tower, we’d spend the night there.

I decided that all I needed was a rental car and maybe a hangar for Tess. On my last several trips I’ve had good luck asking about hotel discounts at FBOs after landing, and I’ve gotton some really good deals. Besides, it’s not like we weren’t going to be able to find a hotel room in Oklahoma City.

I emailed the FBO, then went to the rental car hub at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA. If you fly and aren’t a member of AOPA you really need to join. They’re the AARP of aviation, keeping Washington off our backs and out of our cockpits. Oh, and there are direct member benefits, too, like their slick car rental site.

Well, normally slick.

Most times I just enter the airport identifier of where I want to pick up and drop off a car, and it’s done in seconds. This time I was told I needed to contact the FBO.

(((Groan)))

So I sent a second email to the FBO. Please add a rental car to that hangar request.

The next day I got an email back saying I needed to call them. (((Double groan))). If I had wanted to actually talk to someone, I wouldn’t have emailed.

Grudgingly, I picked up the phone and called. And I had the nicest two-minute conversation with a young lady who is a bigger control freak than I am. She took care of everything. She took down my name and tail number and said not to worry, she’d arrange overnight hangar, hotel, and a rental car. What type of car would I like?

I confessed to my fondness for muscle cars, but my unwillingness to pay for them. She thought she could get me an upgrade. She promised to email confirmations. Within an hour I had a single email, outlining everything.

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One brief phone call. And everything was done for me. Wow.

Maybe the best way to stay in control is to let someone else take care of everything.

 

Get well soon, Tessie

I thought the worst was over when Tessie broke down. That was a bad day. Not 100 miles from home, in Clovis, New Mexico, our girl wouldn’t restart after landing to wait out a line of thunderstorms.

A pair of local mechanics worked valiantly to get us back in the air so we could make our race, but it didn’t happen. After months of racing, with victory within our grasp, a “mechanical” took us out of the running. I knew that missing this one race, this late in the season, would put my competitors far enough ahead that there was no way in hell I could catch up. All my efforts—long hours, vast miles, big money—wasted.

It was a lot to process.

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Once the family arrived to rescue me (via car) all the talk surrounded how “lucky” we were, and how “blessed” we were to have broken down on the ground, rather than in the air. While I don’t deny that this is true, I was pissed off that we broke down at all. We take exceedingly good care of Tessie.

This should not have happened.

I remained grumpy all the way home. Even two Mexican beers and green chili chicken enchiladas at Santa Rosa’s Silver Moon didn’t do much for my mood.

The next day I woke up with a black cloud over my head, not that it mattered much with no plane to fly. We had to leave our girl behind, tied down on the dirt outside the mechanic’s hangar at the far end of Taxiway Bravo in Clovis. It made me heartsick to drive away and leave her there.

Hopefully, she gets well soon.

I spent the next day writing up the story for General Aviation News as part of my ongoing series on air racing. After all, breakdowns are part of the story of racing. A breakdown that costs you everything you’ve strived for is an even “better” story, I suppose.

The following day was Race Day. I was up with the dawn, knowing that soon, over 800 miles away, my friends and rivals would be racing. I could picture the planes lined up on the ramp, the racers waxing their wings, putting gap tape on their cowls, warming up their engines.

And I suddenly felt painfully alone. Isolated. Left out.

It’s the first race I’ve missed since racing took over my life. I didn’t think it would get to me so badly. I had no way of knowing what was happening. Did all the planes show? What were the winds like? Did my competitor happen to have the same bad luck I did?

I was bluer than my race shirt.

There’s no fast news out of a SARL race. It’s not like we’re on Fox Sports or anything. As the minutes and hours crawled by, I awaited news from the race, checking my email every five minutes to see if one of my buddies would give me the scoop. I tried to read to while away the time. Finally, I cracked open a bottle of wine.

Rather early in the day.

In the end, I was so stressed out I actually fell asleep in a comfy chair in our library. I never sleep during the day. Unless I’m sick. But, I guess in a way I’m as sick as my plane.

And I doubt I’ll get fully well again until Tessie does.