Airplane voyeurs

Overhead, the distinctive oscillating whine of an airplane engine. I close my book, drop it into my lap, and cast my vision to the heavens—searching. My eyes sweep back and forth, up and down, pausing briefly to take in each segment of the sky in the direction of the engine’s throbbing drone. There! A flash of white. High, high, high up in the azure sky, far above the earth. My soul shoots out of body and rockets into the atmosphere above to join the pilots in the cockpit. My eyes, left behind, remain locked onto the plane.

And I’m not alone. We pilots can’t help ourselves. An airplane flying overhead, like a powerful magnet, never fails to draw our eyes upward. We stop what we’re doing to watch it pass. At home. At work. Out at the lake, on a hike, or even at the Walmart parking lot.


Image: Amazon

Out at the airport it’s worse, of course. All activity and all conversation stop as we watch planes land. When Lisa and Rio hear a radio call on our scanner, they spring out of the hangar like a twin-headed jack-in-the-box to watch the show. Luckily, that’s a somewhat rare occurrence at our sleepy little airport, but at busy airports, two pilots can spend the whole day together, get nothing done, and never say more than seventeen words to each other between sunrise and sunset.

We pilots also watch planes takeoff, of course. And we watch them taxi. Heck, we even stare at them refueling, or just parked on the ramp. It’s more than professional interest. It’s vaguely voyeuristic. Watching planes makes us happy. Some pilots, ones who don’t fly much themselves and have gotten dangerously rusty, even seem to like watching planes more than actually flying them.

I’ll bet that’s why some smart entrepreneur—whose name is lost to the mists of time—opened the first airport restaurant. It wasn’t to feed the traveling public waiting on their flights. It was to take advantage of a group of people who loved airplanes too much to go home for lunch. No advertising required. Just set up some chairs at a window facing the runway and light up the grill. Build it and they will come.

Back on my porch, the high-flying airplane is disappearing over the far side of the dome of the sky, the heartbeat drone of the engine fading away into the distance. My spirit flutters back down from the sky like an autumn leaf, and returns to my body.  I sigh, and pick up my book again.

Yeah. Watching airplanes. We pilots can’t help ourselves.


Maximum bummer

I was raised in a baseball family. I think we were St. Louis Cardinals fans. I’m not sure why; we lived in southwestern Colorado. Actually, now that I think back on it, it was more than just baseball. We went to college basketball games each week, never missed a minute of the Super Bowl, and always took in the Kentucky Derby. Growing up, I only heard my father swear twice: Once when he cut through a live wire with his Swiss Army knife trying to fix a lamp (he was a college professor, and as a general rule college professors shouldn’t be allowed access to sharp objects), and the second time when he shocked me at a hockey game by standing up and shouting at the referee, “Dust off your $%&#@ glass eye, ref!”

Mom still follows baseball, which leads to many baffling conversations between the two of us. When she starts talking about blue jays and orioles, I think she’s giving me the rundown of the action at the bird feeder in her front yard. Imagine my shock when suddenly a diamondback shows up. Then a tiger. Followed by a draft dodger, some pirates, a giant, and a bunch of Indians. About the time I think I need to check mom’s pill box to ensure that she’s not doubling down on her meds, I realize that we’re not talking about the bird feeder. We’re talking about the World Series.

You see, unlike the rest of my family, I didn’t get the sports gene. It plum skipped over me. I got my mom’s blue eyes, my dad’s beard, but that whole sports thing? Nope. Now, my sisters did  get the sports gene, proof that the love of sports has no connection to gender, but no sport ever held even a flicker of interest to me.

No sport, that is, until I got exposed to the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

And even that wasn’t love at first sight. The first time I took in a Red Bull, it was in person. And I didn’t even go for the race. I went for the pre-race party. But as I was there anyway, I decided to watch the race. It was OK, I guess. But it didn’t strike me as much of a race. I mean, seriously, the planes flew one at a time? What kind of race is that?

Now for perspective, I gotta tell you about the timing of this. I had already decided to try my own hand at air racing for reasons I can no longer recall, and I had joined SARL, but I had yet to fly my first race. So I was completely innocent of, and ignorant about, my hidden competitive nature. Inheriting my mother’s sports-fan gene: Nope. Inheriting my mother’s highly competitive nature: Oh yes.

My point here is that I had yet to be swept up in air racing. But sometime after I was racing myself, I stumbled on a televised Red Bull Air Race, and found it to be a hell of a good show. The problem was that it was on an obscure third-tier sports channel, in the middle of the night, with no seeming connection to the actual race—in terms of schedule—so finding it was hit and miss. I’d watch it if I found it, but I didn’t really follow it. Not, that is, until we got a DVR. Now, like Captain Kirk talking to the Enterprise’s computer, I could simply speak into my TV remote (crazy, huh?) and say, “Record Red Bull Air Race,” and damn if it wouldn’t do it.

After that, it didn’t take long for the whole family to get hooked on the Red Bull. After all, it’s a highly digestible sport. Unlike the National Championship Air Races in Reno—which is an excellent spectator sport—with Red Bull,  there’s a limited number of racers to keep track of, and they are all pretty interesting. Plus, rather than being a single packed week once a year, the Red Bull is a series, about once a month or so for a good part of the year, like other types of league sports. The photography is awesome, the venues are amazing, the rules are clearly explained and easy to grasp, and, of course, it has airplanes with smoke systems. And inflatable pylons that burst when hit. What’s not to love?

And with the DVR, we could plan a day to watch it when we could all gather together. And planning ahead, we could, Super Bowl-style, plan parties around the races. Parties with hot wings, deep fried mozzarella sticks with marinara dipping sauce, pinwheel sandwiches, pigs in a blanket, potato skins, potato chips with sour cream and onion dip, corn chips with fiery queso dip, guacamole, veggie platters, crustless baloney sandwiches, fortune cookies, and for liquid refreshment, taking a page from Reno, we drank Basque Specials: 50% red wine, 50% diet coke.

And that was just the menu for our first Red Bull Air Race party. Granted, it was over-kill for five people.

But like any other sports fans, we got better, and we learned to create a more reasonable pile of food to sustain ourselves as we shouted and cheered from the edge of the couch as the race planes roared around the pylons. We got so swept up in the series that we even took up drinking Red Bull energy drinks.

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

That was last season. At the start of this season we decided for our party to serve foods from the host country of each race. As race day for the season launch closed in, however, my Captain Kirk computer wasn’t working. “No results found,” said the DVR, day after day.

I finally emailed my media contacts at Red Bull, and was told that the only way for people in the USA to watch the races was on the internet. Bummer.

After kicking around our options, we decided to attempt to stream the race on my mom’s big screen TV. We cooked up an Emirates feast (thank you, Google) for the season kick-off at Abu Dhabi, re-arranged her living room furniture, mixed up our Basque Specials, and sat back to enjoy our favorite sport.

Five seconds into the opening credits, the streaming video froze. Then it pixilated into electronic chaos. Our rural internet was not up the to the challenge. We dejectedly ate our saffron-infused Kabsa and drank waaaaay more red wine and coke than usual, mom’s blank big screen TV dominating the sad little gathering. Little did I know at the time that no amount of red wine and coke would drown my sorrows over the next chapter in the Red Bull Air Race, because, as you probably know by now, Red Bull has kicked their Air Race to the curb.

On May 29, forever in my book to be known as Black Wednesday, the headline at GA News read, “Red Bull calls it quits for its air races.” I was stunned. Then it got worse: Not only did Red Bull back out, they slashed the season to a mere three more races, and canceled the American race altogether. Later that same day, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, who had been pestering me daily to buy tickets, announced it would be issuing refunds.

So now I’m a newly discovered sports fan without a sport to watch. And with my own Race 53 sidelined for a second season, I’m also a competitor with no competition to compete in.

Now what?

I guess I’ll have to watch a baseball game. Or maybe not. That little dirt mound in the middle can’t compete in my mind with a swaying 82-foot orange and white pylon.

And after all, I didn’t get the sports gene.


Throttle Tale—Part 2

Low, un-forecasted, icky clouds have the north side of Dallas/Fort Worth socked in. I’m in Stark’s exceedingly stark little terminal building, which resembles an abandoned construction shack. Dirt and dead bugs form alternate layers on the floor at the base of the walls and on the windowsills. There are water stains on the ceiling tiles—at least the ones that haven’t fallen down—the windows are fifthly, bright orange rust mars the sinks, and let’s not even talk about the toilets.

But at least it’s shelter from the wind, and the air conditioning works. After wiping mystery crumbs and the dried carcasses of dead moths off the table with a scrap of yellowing newspaper, I sit in a faded plastic cafeteria chair and use the mobile hotspot on my cell phone to check the weather on my FlightPad while nibbling on a “meatasaurus” sandwich. When you travel slow, you can’t take the time to drive into town for lunch.

I have a choice: I can wait an hour or two at Stark for the ceilings to rise, or work my way around the south side of the city. It’s a longer ground track, and it’s into the wind. Still, I’d rather waste time in the air than on the ground.

At least on this ground.

I finish my sandwich, gather my things, and head back to Tessie. Up onto her left wing, toss the lunch bag in back, step over the fighter plane-style sidewall into the cozy cockpit, then slide down into the seat. I love the way my Coupe wraps her loving arms around me. I slide the doors up over my head and run through the engine start checklist. If I don’t use the checklist I tend to forget to open the master fuel cut off, and the engine stops about 30 seconds after starting, embarrassing when other pilots are watching. There’s not much risk of that on this blustery, hazy day in Onley, Texas; but still…

Engine up and running I test the throttle. It runs normally. Yeah. Must ‘a been some sort of weird fuel/air thing with the conditions. Clearly everything is fine.

I head out into the haze. Into the headwinds. Leveling off in cruise I’m just shy of the TACH redline for maximum speed. On the highway below me I see a U-Haul truck overtaking me. The driver looks up and me, shakes his head, and pulls away. Next, I’m over taken by a group of aging hippies in a battered VW microbus, two old ladies in a 1974 Yugo, and a kid on his bicycle who’s delivering newspapers.

This is going to be a long flight.

I have a track planned: A long, loping circle around the south side of Dallas. But I know that as the temperature rises, so too will the clouds, and I hope to take a short cut or two. I keep an eye on the ceilings being reported through my ADS-B, and I’m grateful for the advantage of near real-time weather reports from over the horizon that my pilot forefathers didn’t have.

Sure enough, as I fly south, ceilings to the east of me begin to improve, and I tighten my circle. Terrell lies on the east side of Dallas. If it weren’t for that nasty Class Bravo airspace around the huge Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, it would actually be a straight shot from my home base—but I must go around either north or south.

By the time Terrell finally comes into view, I’ve had enough flying and I’m looking forward to calling it a day. I make my radio call, come into the downwind, and remembering my throttle excitement on my last landing, leave the carb heat untouched. Down over the trees I swoop, base to final, and, darn… A little low again. I throttle up. Nothing happens. My heart jumps in my chest. I shove the throttle forward. Nothing happens. The engine is running, but at idle. Temps good. Oil pressure good.

I pull the carb heat on, pump the throttle and the engine roars back to life. This time, it is only a matter of seconds. Long seconds, but seconds nonetheless.

What the Sam Heck?

I touch down, shaken, not stirred. I taxi off the runway, using drunk driver corrections to the left, and counter-corrections to the right to get Tess to track straight ahead. I feel like a child playing with a toy car simulator.


Image: Amazon

Is this getting worse, or am I just tired?

The next morning Tess has a bunch of cables taped to her nose. And a strange little box, facing her prop. I’m getting the prop dynamically balanced. Not that I think there’s a problem, but at last year’s annual we had a brand-new RC Allen electric attitude indicator put in. It failed at once. We had to pull it out and sent it back. They replaced some bearing or bushing or something, and back in the plane it went. When we next flew, it failed again. This time, when we sent it back, they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Naturally, I had to pay for the installation, de-installation, re-installation, de-de-installation, re-re-installation—so I was getting a little hot under the collar about a two thousand-dollar instrument that had never worked, and was getting even more expensive in the effort to get it to work. All of this has taken nearly a year due to the long periods of down time with various other repairs that have been plaguing us.

Anyway, my lead mechanic talked to the folks at Kelly Manufacturing (who make the RC Allen products) and they decided perhaps it was a vibration issue, which is what led me to my adventure at Double Eagle II. I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but after spending most of a morning there, the shop I’d gone to for the prop balancing couldn’t get their gear to work, so it was a wasted trip. One other shop in the state doesn’t do it anymore, and the third had their gear out for repair and didn’t know when it would be back. So I decided to have it done in Texas before the race.


Long story short: Tess’s prop wasn’t too badly out of balance. The Terrell mechanic and I would jump into the plane, throttle up to high RPM for ten seconds or so and take measurements on a hand-held computer. Then we’d shut down, and he’d review the readings and add some small weights to the back of the spinner. Then we’d fire back up and do it all over again.

One of the times, the engine hesitated for a moment, but quickly recovered.

In the end, he tweaked the prop balance to near perfection, but he said it was close enough in the first place that it was unlikely I’d notice any difference. So what’s up with the attitude indictor? I guess Tess just doesn’t want me to know her attitude.

I had hoped to run my handicap validation flight for the race after the prop was balanced, but the clouds are too low. It needs to be done at a density altitude of 6,000 feet. Back home, this time of year, that would be about a thousand feet underground. Here in central Texas, it’s about 4,000 feet up, but the clouds are heavy at 2K.

So instead, I ended up doing what aviation people do when they have a few minutes to spare. I hung around the hangar and shot the breeze with the mechanic. In talking about the trip over, the weird throttle thing came up, and the mechanic mentioned that he thought the engine’s hesitation during our testing was unusual, but as I didn’t react, he figured it was a normal thing for Tess. I conceded that I didn’t know what was normal in this plane anymore, but asked if he’d be willing to take a quick look at the throttle before they put Tess to bed for the night. I’d also been having some issues keeping her at a set idle speed since the throttle quad was removed to work on the trim during the last round of repairs, and I thought maybe it was slipping a little or something.

He promised he would.

A couple of hours later, as I was heading down the third-floor hallway of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites to go out to dinner, my phone rang. It was from some town in Texas I’d never heard of so, I assumed it was the latest gambit from those pesky folks at the Resort Rewards Center, or the pesky folks trying to sell me an extended warranty on a car I don’t own anymore, or the pesky folks that can help me with the student loan I don’t have. I almost didn’t answer it. But at the last minute I did. It was the lady who ran the shop.

“Hey, William,” she said casually, as if asking me how the weather was at the hotel, “you don’t happen to travel with a spare throttle cable, do you?’

Next time on Plane Tales: For want of a nail…