Slaves to the damn weather

“Damn,” I mutter under my breath as I jump down off the wing. It’s the weather. Well, more correctly, the weather forecast. On my iPhone a green and blue tidal wave: Air Sports Net’s wind forecast for tomorrow morning. The Plane Plan was to test-fly Tess, but thanks to the weather, it doesn’t look good for the home team.

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And it isn’t just Air Sports Net that has a dim view of the sky. Weather Underground, Dark Sky, and the Garmin Pilot MOS—Model Output Statistics—are all in agreement. A trinity plus one says the morning wind is unfit for flying in general, much less for a test flight.

Four weather sources? Isn’t that, like, excessive? Well, the truth is that we pilots are slaves to the weather. After all, we go to work in the sky, the weather’s home turf, so smart pilots do their best to discover what kind of mood the weather going to be in before we get there. Hey, good weather means good flying, while bad weather means bad flying—or more frequently, no flying at all. Which is why a bad weather forecast usually rates a “damn” in my book.

And I’ve been saying “damn” a lot lately.

Or a lot more than I used to, it seems to me. My home state is supposedly blessed with 310 days of sunshine a year, and in past years it was a rare thing when weather scrubbed a local flight. Not to say we don’t have our weather challenges here in New Mexico. We have a lot of rugged terrain and afternoon winds are common. These winds churn and tumble across the landscape, resulting in turbulent skies that make feather-weight planes like Tess good training grounds for future bull-riding rodeo stars.

But this year… this year is different. Howling winds early in the morning. Rain and snow. Poor visibility. Low ceilings. Fog! Fog in arid New Mexico! Who ever heard of such a thing? I’ve seen New Mexico fog maybe twice in three decades prior to this year. Now, it’s like London in Sherlock Holmes’ day.

But it’s not just New Mexico weather. As a family, we catch ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir to see what’s happening over the horizon, and to set a good example for Rio about the importance of being an informed citizen. And lately I’ve noticed that the weather is a big story. Occasionally the lead story, and commonly “above the fold” before the first commercial break.

Nearly every night.

That didn’t used to happen. Is the weather changing, or is the public’s focus on it changing? I’m not sure. But this damn weather is affecting more than my personal flying. Case in point: At the end of last year my plane friend Lisa needed about six or eight lessons to finish up her ticket, so she decided that the best solution was to fly every single day during her college’s Christmas vacation. And although quite pricey, she also decided to hangar her plane Warbler in Santa Fe to be close to her instructor to simplify travel logistics.

I think she got to fly twice over the normally cool, sunny break. The rest of the days were unflyable.

Damn weather.

Naturally, being tough and tenacious, Lisa rallied and figured, fine: I’ll keep the plane over there a little longer and get the flights done on weekends. But then each Friday evening I watched David Muir and his team display colorful radar images of yet another weekend storm set to sweep over the state. Weekend after weekend, storm systems rolled in and over us, and before we could take a breath, roll up our sleeves, and soak up some vitamin D, the next storm was set to pounce upon us.

Warbler is still in Santa Fe, three full months of hangar rent later.

And come to think of it, it’s not just the weekend weather. Rio’s Monday lessons have been weathered out so many times he’s taken to calling himself a Rusty Pilot.

Of course, another complication when it comes to weather is that weather forecasts are wrong as often as they are right. Take today for instance. This morning, I’m writing instead of flying—not a bad alternative, but never my first choice. Why? Because those four forecasts sixteen hours ago led me to believe that flying this morning would be a bad idea, so I scrubbed Tessie’s scheduled test flight.

The winds this morning over in Santa Fe were forecast to be 20 something gusting to 30 something from dawn on. It’s now three hours after sunrise and looking at one of my weather apps, right now there’s a three mile an hour wind (unlike most pilots, I disdain knots). Barely enough to rumple the wind socks at Santa Fe. I could have been making serious progress toward getting my baby back in the air and off to the races again.

Yeah. All four forecasts were wrong. And yes, I’m annoyed.

Dam weather.

Damn weather forecasts.

And looking forward, the next three days are forecast to have bad weather.

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Well… Damn.


Plane Parenting

Rio just had his wisdom teeth out. All four of them. At once. That should have been a blessing, but due to a snafu with the surgeon’s prescriptions, the pharmacy, and our distance from civilization, he was without any sort of pain meds for about two hours after the general anesthesia wore off.

I’ll spare you my distress over his distress. Parenting: It’s not for wimps.

On the same day, I got an email from my mechanic about my sick airplane. Tess was supposed to be ready for test flight in a few days, but the team has been having a hard time getting the cowl and nose bowl to fit properly after the engine was installed in its brand-new engine bracket and mounts. Well, one thing led to another and it turns out that the engine is out of alignment with the fuselage, and spacers need to be ordered to get it to point forward, not downward.

I’ll spare you my distress over this stress. Airplane ownership: It’s not for wimps.

This morning, it occurred to me that owning an airplane is, in fact, much like being a parent. Or that being a parent is, in fact, much like owning an airplane. I suppose it depends on which came first in your life. Here are just a few examples, feel free to chime in with more via comments:

Airplanes & Kids:  No matter how old they are, you worry about them. (All. The. Time.) The only difference is that you tend to worry a little less about your children as they age, and a little more about your airplane as it ages!

Kids & Airplanes:Keep your mind alive. They force you to never stop learning. Kids ask questions that challenge your knowledge, while airplanes never stop teaching you about themselves.

Airplanes & Kids:Get sick or break bones at the worst possible time. Always the worst possible time. And visits to the doctor are expensive; and that’s true even for routine checkups. The only difference is that the airplane doctor costs more than the kid’s doctor!

Kids & Airplanes:Take you to places you never imagined existed. Literally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Airplanes & Kids: Eat more than you could possibly have imagined before you had them.

Kids & Airplanes: Amaze and delight you when you least expect it.

Airplanes & Kids: Demand time, attention, money, and love.

Kids & Airplanes:Love you back, unconditionally. No matter what your faults as a human and a pilot are.

Airplanes & Kids:No matter how rich you are, you really can’t afford them.

Kids & Airplanes:Even though you can’t afford either, you really should have at least one of each.

Being a parent of a child—or an airplane—is rewarding, expensive, amazing, and stressful. And I wouldn’t trade either experience for the world.


When the legends die

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

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

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

Next month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


“Is it working?” asks Lisa.

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

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


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

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


Image: Agostino De Marco

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

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

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

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

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

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


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