A tale of two cowls… well, three, actually

Houston, we have a cowl problem. As, it seems, do all Ercoupes. Our problem started with a nose cowl crack. We’d just bought Tess, and the crack was brought to my attention during the first of her many, many rounds of maintenance.

My options were to buy a used replacement nose cowl from the Ercoupe junkyard guy for $500 bucks (which would probably crack, too), buy a new cowl from Univair for $1,200 bucks (which would probably crack, also), or have my guys “patch” it.

Silly me, I opted for the patch, and when Tess came home from her mechanics, her beautiful, flat nose was covered in brass rivets. It looked like Machine Gun Kelly strafed us on the runway.

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This was just days before our first Ercoupe convention, and I was mad as hell. It was not the first impression I wanted to make. I spent the afternoon sitting on an upside-down bucket with a Q-tip and a can of metallic touchup paint, painstakingly covering each and every one of the 43 brass-colored rivets with dark blue paint. It was slow going. Metallic paint doesn’t like to stay stirred. Or to stick to brass. In the end, while my handiwork wouldn’t pass close inspection, or win a Lindy at Oshkosh, from any respectable distance it didn’t look too terribly bad.

But since then, every year it seems, a new crack develops, and more rivets get shot into the nose bowl. Rather than Machine Gun Kelley, on close inspection, it now looks like an inebriated Elmer Fudd blasted Tessie’s nose with his double-barreled shotgun.

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Truth be told, there’s actually no original metal left at all. I’m flying behind a solid mass of rivets.

Now, not to whine about money (again), but I think I might have mentioned that while Ercoupes are very affordable to buy—less than most cars—the problem with airplanes is that, sorta like kids, the real costs start when you bring them home from the hospital. All these patches weren’t cheap. I could have easily bought two new nose cowls for what I’ve paid in patches over the years.

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In fact, that’s what my mechanic mentioned sorta off hand as he handed me the latest invoice. Naturally, the next day, a new crack developed.

Normally, at this point the decision would have been obvious, but there are extenuating circumstances. The first is that there’s an airplane paint job on my horizon. And I was sorta thinking about replacing the entire cowl, not just the nose bowl, before the painting, as it’s all in pretty bad shape. But that aside, even if I just wanted to get a new nose bowl, it doesn’t make much sense to pay to have it painted when the whole plane is going to be painted in a few years, nor would it make sense to leave unprotected metal out in the elements just because a paint job is on the horizon.

But that’s not all. Now there are three options for new cowls. Univair still has the original thin aluminum nose bowl, but Alpha, who bought up a lot of mods from Skyport when they shut down, nearly have FAA approval for two more options. One is the original-style nose bowl, but made of a reportedly more crack-resistant fiberglass. It also promises to be cheaper. And additionally, they are bringing back a product called the Kinney Speed Bowl. It’s also a fiberglass bowl, but with a much larger air intakes for improved cooling.

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I was drawn to the Kinney for two reasons: We live in a hot desert; and the word “speed” was in the title.

That said, Rio thinks the Kinney bowls are the ugliest things in the world and, “The worst thing a man could do to an Ercoupe.” To be honest, I couldn’t quite picture how our girl would look with one on it, so I started Googling pictures of Ercoupe nose bowls.

And that’s when I discovered this:

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Image courtesy Machine Age Lamps

Which is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Yeah. That’s a real-life Ercoupe nose cowl turned into a steampunk lamp. What’s the story behind it?

The lamp is the creation of Darin Carling. His brother Shawn runs an outfit called Machine Age Lamps in Lakeville, Minnesota. The brothers grew up on a small farm in rural North Dakota, so they were good at fixing stuff, creating stuff, or re-purposing stuff. Farm folk like that wouldn’t go out and buy a new cowl.

I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but I wasn’t raised on a farm.

Anyway, after leaving the farm, Shawn, in his own words, spent the next 25 years “miscast” in corporate America, until one year at Christmas when he built his father a “unique” lamp out of old tractor parts. His dad dug it, as did everyone else who saw it, and one thing led to another.

“Another,” in this case, being the fact that his work is lighting Gordon Ramsey’s Restaurant. The one in Hong Kong.

Shawn’s highly successful company creates one-of-a-kind lamps from salvaged antique industrial, agricultural, nautical, and aircraft parts and gauges. The ‘Coupe cowl light was created by brother Darin, who was encouraged by Shawn to build some items for the businesses.

Darin told me he didn’t want to copy anybody else’s work, including his brother’s, and that it took him a long time to “come up with solid ideas of my own.” But wow, did he ever. Darin says, “We are interested in history and in all things mechanical, and old airplanes are as good as it gets.”

The ‘Coupe lamp actually started with a Cessna nose cowl. Darin says, “A few years ago I purchased a Cessna nose cowling from someone with no idea what I was going to do with it. It sat in my living room for 6 months before I started working on it. The first ones did not have lights as props but rather lights coming out the front and hanging down in almost an exhaust pipe fashion. They were kind of cool, but not quite what I wanted. One day I was looking for new light bulbs online and found these very large bulbs. I thought ‘just maybe they could be propellers!’ I made a prototype and it was on display at the Minnesota State Fair and everyone loved it. After that, we started to fine tune and dress them up with vintage emblems, real aviation gears, and valve covers.”

Darin, an aviation lover since childhood, has a deep desire not only to create art, but also to be true to history. “I also do my best to have all the parts make sense,” said Darin, “for example I only put Franklin valve covers in my Stinson cowls. History is very important to me, and to the people that buy our projects.” The Ercoupe lamp has vintage Continental valve covers and assorted engine gears for a cool look.

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Darin says he always keep track of where the cowls come from and, “If I can get history, I pass that along. One cowl I’m working on now has a photo copy of the bill of sale for the plane back in 1953.” That being said, I can happily report that no Ercoupes were harmed in the making of the ‘Coupe Cowl lamp. Darin bought the cowl from the friend of an Ercoupe owner in Michigan. Apparently, like me, the airplane owner was having a cowl problem. Unlike me, he had the sense to buy a new one.

Is Darin a pilot? Not yet, although his father worked for the FAA and brother Shawn has his ticket. Darin tells me he’s finished his ground school.

But back to the lamp. How does it work? Despite the old parts, all the electric components are brand new. The Ercoupe lamp is equipped with UL approved wiring, a dimmer switch, and a heavy-duty grounded lamp cord, although Darin says some airplane cowl customers have chosen to have electricians hardwire the lamp for “a clean cordless look,” controlling the lamp through a wall switch.

In the case of the cowl lamps, Darin builds a steel frame inside to support the soft metal cowls, which are either buffed or powder coated. The frame has mounting holes drilled on 16-inch centers to match up with the standard wall studs, allowing it to be hung “just like a picture.” Darin also covers the back of the cowl with sheet metal, painting the inside of it black. “When peeking in the cowl, I wanted the illusion of looking in a real plane,” said Darin, “and you would not get that if the painted wall showed through.”

So how do those crazy bulbs hold up? Darin says he’s yet to see one burn out, and some of the lamps in his house have been blazing away for three years. That said, “I always ship my cowls with three bulbs, just in case.” Will we see more Ercoupe art from Darin? “I would love to do more Ercoupe art,” Darin tells me, “I researched the Ercoupe and found it’s history to be very cool.”

Meanwhile, did I ever find a picture that helped me decide what Tess would look like with an entirely different kind of cowl? No. So for now we’ll probably just keep patching the patches. But I do know one thing: Once we decide what to do, I’ll turn our old one over to Darin and commission him to turn it into some sort of lamp for our hangar.

Maybe I’ll have him drill out the hundreds of rivets and have him put a little Christmas light in each hole. Or maybe not.

It would be blinding.

 

[Editor's Note: Darin tells Plane Tales that between our interview with him and going to press on this story the Ercoupe Nose Bowl Lamp sold to a private collector. But while you missed out on this lamp we're told that Machine Age Lamps has scored three more non-flight worthy Ercoupe nose bowls from the Ercoupe Junkyard guy, so more 'Coupe lights are coming!]

 

Cutting a shortcut

Yellow-gold sparks flowed like a fountain from the tip of the Dremel tool, as small beads of metal bounced off my face. Luckily, I had an old pair of safety goggles from Lisa protecting my eyes. It was slow going, cutting the old metal, so my writer’s imagination wandered.

First I was a steel mill worker, forging raw iron. Then a commando, cutting through the barricades on the beaches of Normandy the day before the invasion. Next a safe cracker after the gold and diamonds just beyond…

“How’s it goin’?” interrupted Lisa, bringing me sharply back to reality.

I set the Dremel on the platform of the stepladder, and studied my progress. I’d managed to cut a good five inches. I had three feet to go. “This might take a while,” I told her, then fired up the Dremel again, its high-pitched soprano electric whine dropping to baritone as I touched the whirling cutting blade to the metal wall in a fresh shower of sparks. The Dremel moved right to left, awkward for a lefty, bringing back a memory from last year’s OMG Facts Calendar that some ridiculously large number of left-handed people are killed each year by right-hand optimized power tools.

Hmmmm….

Well. The job must be done: Lisa and I are on a mission of unification. Bringing together two separate peoples. Really, an act of absolute selflessness.

OK. Well. That’s a lie. We’re just making a short cut. Here’s the deal: Even though our hangars are separated only by a thin sheet of metal, we are literally distant neighbors at the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport.

This is because of the architecture of airplane hangars.

Our airport has just one hangar building, a six-plane type (although our two planes are the only ones there) called a “T-hangar” because it’s built out of T-shaped jigsaw puzzle pieces, with three interlocking Ts to a side. The top of the T accommodates wings as wide as forty-two feet. The base of the T accommodates the far skinnier tail of an airplane.

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Image: Teachspan

A T-hangar is a way to efficiently pack more planes per square foot of hangar, as the Ts interlock with a bit of room left over on each end, and little space is wasted. If you just strung six airplane-sized garages together, you’d have a much larger building and a couple of planeloads of wasted space.

Now, in our case, I have the end hangar on the North and Lisa has the end hangar on the South. Even though Superman would have no problem seeing though the wall that separates us, it’s a surprisingly long hike around the end of building to get from her hangar to mine and vice versa. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but you’d be surprised when we are both at the airport how often one of us needs something that’s in the other’s hangar. Plus, when we are both in one of hangars with the other hangar open, we can’t help but worry a bit about the security of the airplane next door.

“We should just cut a damn hatchway in the wall between our hangars,” Lisa said one afternoon after coming back from the other side with the wrong screwdriver.

I started studying the wall. It was made up of door-width metal panels, connected to each other with large nuts and bolts, then connected to a heavy frame work. The walls aren’t “load bearing,” meaning that removing one would have no effect on the structure. Of course the walls are crazy high, 18 or 20 feet. But surely cutting the bottom seven feet off of one panel wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Thus began operation shortcut. We had all kinds of worries, including, what the heck kind of metal is this, can it be cut without lasers and plasma torches, and will those 40-year-old nuts ever free themselves from their sister bolts?

As it turns out, it was a one-hour job. Or would have been if I’d remembered the right accessories the first time we drove down to do it, and if I hadn’t broken one of the said accessories on the second attempt.

Still, the cutting went well, the nuts and bolts gave way quickly under the power of our socket wrenches and skinny arms, and in no time I was able to gently lower a sheet of metal slowly into my hangar to reveal:

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My neighbor!

Of course, we had the proper blessing, and our work is largely reversible by bolting the section back into place and using some duct tape to seal the thin cut should either of us ever move away. In the mean time, we were able to bolt the panel we removed to one of Lisa’s naked walls (she needs an art intervention) where it is safe, won’t get lost, and won’t fall on anyone’s head.

And I wasn’t killed by a right-handed power tool.

 

Putting the “D” in Drafted

It started innocently enough. I got an email from Larry Snyder, Executive Director of the Ercoupe type club. He’d decided it was high time, for the first time, to have the club’s National Fly-in and convention in the West, and he liked the sound of New Mexico. Probably because he’d never been to New Mexico before and wanted to see it for himself.

Anyway, as pretty much the only active members from the state (we’ve been to the last three conventions: Wisconsin, Texas, and Tennessee) I guess it was natural he thought of my gang. He wanted our opinions as to which city in our fair state would work best as a host city. He wanted a place that would have parking for 40 aircraft, had lodging, a banquet site, and “something interesting to do in the area.” His only caveat was that it had to be an uncontrolled field. Many of our members, apparently, just don’t “do” towers. I confess, even I tend to flight plan around them.

That night after dinner I spread the state aeronautical chart out on the kitchen table and we started kicking around ideas. The no controlled airports restriction eliminated our arguably most interesting city: Santa Fe. It also wiped out our largest city: Albuquerque. So too, did it eliminate Roswell and Farmington.

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Of course, we would have loved to host at our home base of KSXU, but no way do we have room for 40 planes. Plus, to be honest, other than our hangar, there’s not that much “interesting to do in the area.” It also didn’t take long for us to rule out the entire mountainous northern part of the state. While I manage to get around just fine in Tess, she has a climb prop and in my teens I was trained in mountain flight techniques (which use sail plane tactics to overcome the fact very few planes can out-climb the Rockies). I didn’t want “flat land” members getting into trouble, and I knew that some Coupes have smaller engines than Tess, and that they are in various states of health.

And in point of fact, even the “flat” areas of New Mexico’s southern half are nearly a mile above sea level, and this is made worse by the fact that we have hot summers. Hot air is thin. You might remember from high school physics that hot air expands. This has the effect of making high places higher as far as airplane wings and engines are concerned. We agreed that any Ercoupe convention in New Mexico needed to be in the autumn when it is cooler.

Casting our eyes over the southern part of the state chart, the city of Las Cruces stood out, along with Carlsbad (of Cavern fame) and Alamogordo. The problem with Alamogordo is that it’s surrounded by the restricted air space of the White Sands Missile Range; and the problem with Carlsbad is that, short of the Caverns, there’s not much to do there.

Las Cruces, on the other hand, has no shortage of interesting things to do, including close proximity to: A great airplane museum, a great rocket museum, White Sands National Park, and Spaceport America; and the whole area is infused with the Spanish charm of Southern New Mexico. It seemed a slam-dunk. I passed our “findings” on to Larry.

I should have seen the next salvo coming, but I confess that I didn’t.

Larry wrote back that he loved the sound of Las Cruces and added, “Do you know of anyone who could be a local ‘point man’ for a Las Cruces convention? I’d like to do it, but I don’t see how I can organize a convention from 1,000 miles away.”

I don’t know a soul in Las Cruces. I felt the jaws of the bear trap snap shut on my leg. The “D” from Dubois just got put in Drafted.

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With a deep groan I wrote back and said I’d didn’t know anyone down there, but I’d do it.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but those are Plane Tales for another day.

 

Once upon a leather jacket

“But it’s brown, not black,” I wailed, my prepubescent voice cracking with the last word. But there was no convincing my father. His son was not, not going to wear a leather jacket. Period. Only hoodlums and troublemakers wore leather jackets. I stood sadly by the rack of jackets for the longest time, caressing the buttery soft chocolate brown leather, drinking in the lines of the jacket with my eyes. The epaulets. The sleeve pocket. The fuzzy fur collar. The jacket was reminiscent of the ones the B-17 crews wore in my favorite books. Heroes, surely. Not hoodlums and troublemakers. But I knew that once my father dug his heals in, there was no changing his mind, and the annual new clothes for the new school year shopping trip ended with me wearing a Colorado-proper nylon ski jacket. One that I hated all year.

In the decades since, I’ve learned that my father was right: People do pre-judge you by what you wear. But that hasn’t stopped me from owning any number of leather jackets, some brown and some black.

That said, I don’t think I ever really bonded with a jacket in the way I’m sure I would have bonded with that first bomber jacket that my father refused to buy me. In my mid-20s I had a beautiful black Harley Davidson jacket, complete with fringe. Oddly, my father never said I looked like a hoodlum wearing it, but I surely must have. As is appropriate for a hoodlum jacket, I suppose, someone stole it from my car. About the time Rio was born I was wearing a soft, lightweight black leather with zip-off sleeves. I was much heavier then, and when I lost weight, the jacket had to be shelved. It was replaced with an orange plasticy faux leather auto-racing jacket with a Nehru collar from Burlington Coat Factory. I still wear it now and then, but not often. It’s handsome, but it doesn’t breathe the way real leather does. That’s why leather makes a great fashion accessory; you can wear it over a wide range of temperatures and neither freeze nor roast while looking great.

And don’t kid yourself. We pilots like to look great. From our pilot watches that we don’t really need, to our oversized pilot sunglasses that mimic the goggles of old, to our flight jackets, which, come to think about it, we don’t really need either.

I recently read that flight jackets, at least as American pilots think of them, got their start in World War I, when the U.S. Army created something called the Aviation Clothing Board. The Board designed and issued leather flight jackets to protect the pilots of open cockpit biplanes from the elements. But it was World War 2 that may well have been the heyday of the leather flight jacket, and all the flight jackets on the market today bear some resemblance to the jackets of the Greatest Generaton.

How many jackets are there on the market? Dozens. Hundreds, probably. Made in both brown and black, most feature big dual-entry hand pockets on the front, and may have epaulets on the shoulders. Some have fur collars. Many have knitted wool cuffs around the wrists and waist. Some are as thick and stiff as armor, others as soft and flexible as silk. And I had been doing just fine without one.

Until Duluth.

February before last, AOPA sent me to Duluth to teach a Rusty Pilots Seminar. Duluth is lovely, but I can’t recommend a February visit. I actually survived the sub-zero temps in my nylon flight jacket with its Nascar-style brightly colored logos (although I learned to appreciate the value of a good knit hat), but while I was there I first spied a leather flight jacket that would trigger lust in my heart for something similar.

The seminar was held at the Cirrus factory, and one of the Cirrus executives had an amazing fight jacket. It was a well broken-in brown bomber, with the Cirrus logo on the left chest embroidered directly onto the leather using a color of thread almost identical to the jacket. The effect was both subtle and dramatic. It caught the eye like embossed leather, only in reverse. It blew my mind.

As Cirrus has a reputation for creating awesome image items—never say “no” if you are invited to one of their parties—my first assumption was that the company had these jackets created for all their brass, but in the conversation I struck up with the executive about the jacket, I learned that actually, he’d had the jacket for many years and that his wife had taken it to a local embroidery shop to have the logo added after Cirrus hired him. Up until that point, I didn’t realize that leather could be embroidered on. I filed it in my brain under things to think about.

Fast-forward one year. I’m suffering from an image issue. I now work three days per week at a community college, teaching language arts to high school dropouts. As a high school dropout myself (maybe dad was right about the bad effect of leather jackets) I find the work highly rewarding. I spend the rest of my time writing, flying, and writing about flying. But this gives me sorta of a split personality, which has created no end of wardrobe confusion. I know what pilots wear. I know what writers wear. I know what normal college professors wear, but adult education is different… So what the hell to wear?

Nothing in my wardrobe felt quite right. Then one day I woke up and realized that I needed a leather flight jacket. And not just any leather flight jacket, but a black one. The perfect thing for teaching high school dropouts & hanging out with pilots. And just to make it special and unique, I’d take a page from the Cirrus executive’s wife and “logo it up,” black on black.

Of course the lady who runs the local embroidery shop is fond of bright color. I figured she’d think I was crazy. But first, I had to choose the jacket. I knew I didn’t want a fur collar, I wanted one with snaps to keep it firmly in place. And I didn’t want knit sleeves either. I had to have epaulets, of course. I didn’t want chest pockets, as I envisioned large monochrome logos on the chest. I love sleeve pockets, but they are more common on cloth and nylon flight gear. And as I have arms a bit too long for my body, I needed a jacket that would come in a Large-Long size. I started scouring the internet, and I also started looking at jackets during my travels. And by far, the best-looking leather flight jackets out there are the ones worn by Southwest Airlines pilots. Their jackets are a sharp-looking modern take on the flight jackets of yore, and the design looks good on an amazing range of body types. Southwest has tall skinny pilots, short stocky ones, and the occasional Captain with a beer belly. And they all wear the same jacket to good effect. And darn if I didn’t find it for sale at the iconic Sporty’s Pilot Shop, in their Southwest Airlines Pilot Store page. Oh. That link is for the whole store. Here’s the link to the jacket.

But, like all quality leather jackets, it wasn’t cheap. And I’m becoming so myself, so I held off buying it for months. Finally, trapped in Michigan with a sick kid for a full week (a tale for another day), with nothing to do but listlessly surf the internet, I caved. I worried about ordering a jacket online, as I couldn’t try it on, but I knew that Sporty’s was good about returns, so I felt I had nothing to loose.

It was waiting for me when I got home. It’s one of those armor heavy leather jackets. The leather is thick and creaks wonderfully as you move. Like a good pair of boots, it’s a jacket that’s going to take some time to break in, but it will last a lifetime. And, of course, it has that wonderful new-leather smell that they have yet to perfect as a men’s cologne. It was a good fit, and I felt like a bulletproof P-51 pilot in it. The only shock was how much landscape the large front pockets ate up. I wouldn’t have as much chest area to cover in my monochrome logos as I thought I would have. As it turns out, that wasn’t an issue.

While in Las Cruces to take delivery of Lisa’s new plane, Warbler, or maybe it was on the trip we took down several weeks before that for the pre-buy inspection, Rio sat down with me at the hotel to plan a logo layout for the new-me jacket. Right away we realized that many of the logos that adorn our other flight jackets simply won’t “work” in a single color, they rely on their different colors to create their principle graphical patterns. Iin the end, we chose the Sport Air Racing League logo for the right chest, our Race 53 wings and the text “National Champion” for the left chest, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale world record-holder logo for the right sleeve, and the Erco logo for the left sleeve. I wished I could have put our large “Ercoupe Racing” logo on the back that some of our other jackets have, but Rio and I agreed that it wouldn’t “work.”

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The next week I met with my color-loving embroiderer, and to my surprise, she got into the project and had several ideas, including some ways to modify the large back logo to make it work black-on-black. She explained that as the embroidery machines change the angle of the treads to create designs, light hits the threads in different ways, letting a black-on-black logo still show detail that you wouldn’t expect is possible. Here, see for yourself:

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A week later the jacket was done, and it’s the perfect look for a flying-teaching-writing man. Now I’m all set with a brand new image to match my complicated life. Well… Almost. Because, well, darn it. Now my shoes just don’t match my jacket. And Nothing in my wardrobe feels quite right.

So what kind of footwear do flying-teaching-writing people wear? Maybe I need a pair of those airline pilot boots, it sure works for those Southwest pilots…

 

Meet Warbler

You would think she would have known better. After all, she’s had a front row seat to one airplane “disaster” after another. But noooooooooo. Despite all the best advice to the contrary, Lisa did it anyway. Yep, she went out a bought herself an Ercoupe.

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I blame myself. First, I showed her how much fun you can have in an Ercoupe. Then I accidently told her about one that was for sale nearby. I actually tried to dissuade her to atone for those sins, as did Rio who not so subtlety demanded, “Are you crazy?!” But, well, as anyone who’s ever flown an airplane knows: Airplanes are sirens, and sometimes it’s impossible to not answer their call.

To her credit, while it might have been an impulsive purchase, she didn’t make an impulse purchase. She test flew. She had our mechanic check all the logs, airworthiness directives, and service bulletins. She got the FAA history on the plane and reviewed hundreds of scanned documents (her new-to-her plane is one of the ones that was actually sold at Macy’s!) and then she paid our lead mechanic to travel all the way across the state to do an onsite inspection. The whole process took nearly three months. Last week the entire family drove down to the southern tip of the state where she paid the previous owner and got the keys. The next day, she and I ferried her new plane, named Warbler as he’s a small bird with a Warbird paint scheme, home to his new nest right next to Tessie’s.

Yep. I now have a hangar neighbor at SXU and I’ll have competition for the title of President of the Airport User’s Association (previously, I had the only airplane based there).

Now as anyone who has a passing familiarity with Ercoupes knows, they could be better known as Frankencoupes. Most are now in their early 70s, and have had dozens of owners over the years. In fact, in doing research for my Eternal Airplane book, I recently learned that my Tessie was quite the little tramp in her youth, having gone through 24 owners up till now. And each owner of each Ercoupe made little changes on their watches over the decades, so that now I doubt that there are two Coupes that are alike, and none look like they did the day they left their factory. In point of fact, one of the fun things about the Ercoupe Owners Club fly-ins is comparing the planes to each other. But now that there’s a second Ercoupe in the “family,” as it were, I’m finding more and more differences between the two every time I’m at the airport.

For Coupe fans, here’s a quick rundown on Warbler: He has a C-85 engine, fabric wings, a single fork nose wheel, Goodyear brakes, a floor-mounted handbrake with no foot pedal, the flat windshield but enlarged back windows, the large luggage compartment, and the three-piece canopy. Like any proper Ercoupe, there are no rudder pedals. He has the early Mooney-style wood and burnished metal yokes and a nutin’ but the basics panel: Airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, altimeter, compass, and three engine instruments. The entire airplane has only two switches, one in the back that’s the master, and one on the panel for the nav lights. The radio is a handheld verco’d to the panel.

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Flying home in Warbler’s right-hand seat, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a 1956 Ford Pickup truck, which insulted Lisa. “He’s more like a Jeep,” she insisted. But neither trucks nor jeeps fly, and Warbler flies. And very well at that. It was a fun and easy flight, but odd in a way too. So much the same, yet so different. I kept looking for things on the panel that aren’t there, Tess being a bit more instrument heavy.

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Warbler’s in remarkably good shape, better by far than Tess was when we got her. And being simple, there’s hopefully less to go wrong—although we did have an interesting fuel misadventure after taking delivery, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. Meanwhile, I’ve got my fingers crossed that my wing woman Lisa has many happy years of airplane ownership, and fingers cross that those many happy years of ownership don’t include sending her mechanics’ kids to Harvard at her expense.

And for myself, I confess that I’m looking forward to two-plane adventures in the future and I suspect that we’ll have many Planes Tales to tell in the coming years.

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Something we could agree on

It was colder than forecast. You can’t trust weatherman and psychics. The easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propeller, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Earlier that afternoon, we’d come to the hangar to deal with some electrical connection issues on the new engine monitor. I sat on a stool with my head under the cowl, my iPhone on speaker, while tech support guided me through the process of checking the wire connections. That actually worked out OK, partly thanks to the fact that we had earlier watched a YouTube video on how to use the hand-held electrical tester that we’ve owned for years and never used.

It was one of those things I bought because an airplane owner is supposed to have one.

The electrical gremlins subdued for the moment, the sun was getting low in the sky, and we had to zip our jackets up. We probably should have called it a day, but I was too excited about our race propeller to have the sense to wait for a warmer day to finish the job. As far as I was concerned, now that the work was done, it was time for some fun.

Fun being painting the black checks onto last week’s white prop tips to finish our new race prop look. Before Rio changed his mind.

I used a seamstress-style cloth measuring tape to mark the centerline of the prop, then drew a thin pencil line from the tipity-tip of the blade to the end of the white paint I applied last week. Next, I carefully lined up the first of the blue painter’s tape squares, making sure its edges lined up exactly with the edge of the white paint and the pencil line, then smoothing it firmly along its edges and lightly in the middle. I need it tight on the edges so the paint lines will be sharp and clean, but light enough that it won’t pull part of the white paint off when I remove it, which would cause me a great deal of pain and stress.

The square didn’t quite reach to the edge, so I added a second piece to extend it a sixteenth of an inch or more.

Then I applied three more squares, bending the tape around the edges of the propeller blade as I worked my way up toward the tip. Then I repeated the process on the other end of the prop. The tape masks off four squares of the white paint. When I hit the prop tips with Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, the exposed white squares will be painted black. When I remove the tape, revealing the protected white squares beneath, I’ll have my very own Barnstormer Propeller. At least that’s the plan. And it won’t be an authentic reproduction. Or, well, maybe it will be.

Anyway, just looking at the checkerboard pattern created by the tape, I was optimistic the final product would look good.

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While Rio and Lisa started covering the canopy with cleaning rags to protect the glass from errant spray paint, I added a few more strips of blue tape to the prop to protect the main blade from over-spray.

We buttoned up the hangar. Lisa held a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to catch the overspray and Rio held a shop light.

Remembering the running paint issue from last week, I tried to go lightly. But the damn black paint is a different beast from the white paint. The can spat the paint out in large droplets, leaving a splattered look. I tried patting them flat with a paper towel, but that created a rough look. We had to wipe some of the squares off and start again.

Then the sun set.

And the mercury dropped.

The paint dried slowly between applications.

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I had thought two light coats would do, as the paint is so much darker than the white, but it took three. Our feet getting cold, we retreated to the terminal building while we waited for the final coat to set enough that I could remove the tape.

But when we returned, working by the headlights of my hot rod, the easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propellor, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I picked at the tape from the back of the blade, finally freeing a corner. Holding it between two fingers, I began to pull, stretching the tape as I went.

Slowly, stubbornly, the first three pieces came off, revealing magically sharp lines between my white and black checkers. Then it happened.

One of the squares took a large chunk of white paint off with it. My hopes for a beautiful Barnstormer Propeller crashed and burned.

But it was the only one that gave me trouble. The rest came out perfect:

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So I’ve got one touch up for another day, but I went home more happy than upset. The next day I had to fly to Santa Fe. In the daylight, on the tarmac, the final effect blew my mind:

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And later than night as Rio and I disagreed on paint schemes, he told me, “Well, Dad, at least we agreed on the propeller.”

Something we can agree on

Sporty’s Pilot Shop has been around as long as I can recall. As a student pilot in the early 1980s I can remember taking a break from my studies of aviation weather, cross country flight planning, and the FARs by thumbing through their full color mail order catalog; drooling at all the wonderful things that were out of my reach.

Leather flight jackets, pilot watches that cost more than my car, and those short boots airline pilots used to wear.

Of course they had practical things, too. Kneeboards, a folding navigation plotter, airspace memory cards, and little rotating plastic calculators to help you figure out the best runway to land on.

And they had mysterious things only airplane owners would need. Tow bars, oxygen systems, cowl plugs, and engine heaters. A back seat air conditioner?

I still get the Sporty’s catalog. And I still thumb through it when I need a mental break from more serious work. They also send me their newer Wright Brother’s Collection catalog, which is more gift oriented. Cool aviation décor and art, books, videos, clothing, and more. In the most recent edition this photo caught my eye:

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The trio of props were called “Barnstormer Propellers.” According to the add copy, the handcrafted solid wood propellers are “authentic reproductions,” which if you think about it, is an oxymoron.

But naturally I was taken with the race flag prop.

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I could totally see Tess, a.k.a. Race 53, sporting race flag prop tips. Of course, given Rio’s recent reaction to race-themed paint schemes, I didn’t hold out much hope that he’d agree. Still, I tore out the page to show it to him later.

To my surprise, when he looked at it, he was OK with it. He actually thought it would look good, as did his mother and our buddy Lisa. It then it fell to me to figure out how to make it happen. Thanks to a combination of a poor paint choice by a previous owner, and a poor choice of cleaning materials by us, we’ve actually had to repaint the prop tips once before. As I recall, it went badly.

But that’s a paint tale for another day.

The plan for this cosmetic speed mod was simple enough, mask off the tip, sparingly spray paint it white, somehow mask off white checks with some sort of tape, then spay over sparingly with black paint, and voilà!

Off to Home Depot we went. Or maybe it was Lowes. Anyway, after showing our driver’s licenses to prove we were old enough to buy one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white spray paint and one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, Lisa and I stood in front of a towering edifice of rolls of painter’s tape in every width and length imaginable. “Too bad,” I said to Lisa, “that they don’t make this stuff in pre-cut squares.”

And then it occurred to me: Maybe they did. A quick Google search on my iPhone proved that an angel had just whispered in my ear: 3-M blue painter’s tape comes in a dizzying array of squares and rectangles. But what size of square did we need?

We agreed we’d need to be standing in front of the prop to figure that out.

The next week, after some approach-to-landing training for Lisa, she got out a pad of three-inch sticky notes and stuck them on the prop. It didn’t work out too well. For one thing, putting enough of them on to give a checkered flag look ate up a third of the prop. Too big. Next she cut them down to 2.5 inches, for a momma bear effect. Better, but not just right. At two and a quarter inches, we judged the size of the squares to be perfect.

Naturally, 2.25 inches is the only size of tape squares not made.

Back to the drawing board. Well, cutting board.

In the end, we decided that two inches was the ticket.

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And standing in the hangar, I ordered the squares from Amazon. “They’ll be here Wednesday,” I told Lisa. Then thinking for a moment said, “Wanna get the white paint on now?”

“Sure,” said my wing woman, “it’ll give the white paint plenty of time to set before we do the black.”

So we covered every inch of glass on the plane with cleaning rags—as I said, we’ve had some bad experiences with spray paint in the past—and got to work.

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We carefully calculated how far down the prop the race checkers should go (eight inches) then spent some time trying to figure out how to get the tape perfectly perpendicular to propeller. I then ran my finger back and forth over the edge of the tape to ensure it was down tightly for a sharp paint edge, and lightly attached several more strips of painter’s tape to protect the main body of the prop from over-spray.

Next, we closed the hangar doors down to a crack to let in light, but no wind. Lisa held up a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to protect the plane, and I starting shaking the can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint for the required 60 seconds.

Then, using short, sweeping bursts, I got a lovely coat of smooth white paint over the tip of the propeller. I set the paint can down and pushed the hangar door open to let in more light. A cloud of floating Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint particles was sucked out into the breeze like exhaled cigarette smoke. I inspected my paint job. Generally speaking, I’m a poor handyman, but everyone once and a while things work out for me perfectly.

This was not one of those times.

Almost at once, the paint began to run, forming a thick artery of paint on the smooth surface. I let out a choked wail and dashed for the roll of heavy blue paper shop towels that lives in the tool cabinet. Luckily, the prop being so smooth, the thick layer of paint wiped clean off with several strokes.

On the second try, hangar door cracked, paint shaken for sixty seconds, I painted just a kiss of paint onto the prop tip. Then we did the other side. After letting the hangar exhale paint smoke a second time, we inspected the tips. The white paint look grey and thin, but it wasn’t running. We kicked back and started a pair of cigars to let the paint dry, then hit the tips again, drank some whiskey to let the second coat set, then hit the tips a third time, and so forth.

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Four light coats did the trick. The last phase was to remove the tape. Naturally I had visions of the tape pulling a large part of the paint on the prop off with it, but no, it came off perfectly clean.

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So far, so good. How’d the blue tape squares and black paint work out? I don’t know. We haven’t done the second half of the job yet. I guess that will be next week’s Plane Tale.

See you then and here.

 

Paint tale

“What on earth happened to your paint?” asked our league photographer in her heavy English accent, pointing to several naked places about the size of a dime on Tessie’s left wing

“Oh, I accidently plowed through a flight of baby peacocks at the last race,” I replied, being careful to keep a poker face.

There was a long silence while she processed this, then she said, “I was under the impression that peacocks didn’t fly very high…?”

“They don’t. And your point?” I asked.

I think I told someone else I ran down some baby flying squirrels. In truth, I have no idea where the paint went, or where, how, and when the dozens of other missing paint flakes disappeared. All I know is that Tess is beginning to shed paint like a cat sheds fur in the spring. And that can only mean one thing: Her paint job is reaching the end of its service life, expiring, dying; and that means there’s a new paint job in my future.

Which is both scary and exciting at the same time. But mainly scary.

An airplane’s paint job is more than mere decoration. It’s protective. It keeps the metal from being damaged by the elements. So it’s important, and beyond some point, it’s not something that can be safely put off. But getting an airplane painted is nearly as much work as buying an airplane in the first place, and in our case might cost nearly as much. Why scary? Well, for one thing, there are hundreds of paint shops to choose from, and the offerings and quality vary a lot. As do the prices and the potential for disaster. I’ve read several articles on the whole process, a couple of which—focusing on all that can go wrong—sent me into a nearly cationic state with worry.

But done right, as I understand it, the process goes something like this: First, all the old paint needs to be stripped off. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think this was done on Tess’s last paint job or two. Under that pretty blue and white is buff yellow, and in some places green is peeking through. Some shops use chemical strippers to remove the layers of old paint, others use high pressure water, while others still use something called “vacuum blasting.”

Once down to the bare metal, any damaged skin discovered lurking under the paint needs to be fixed, along with any dents and dings, much like auto body repair. Naturally the control surfaces need to be removed to get the old paint off the edges and get the new paint on, as well as all the inspection ports and the like. I read one case where the plane was put back together wrong and crashed right after leaving the paint shop!

Once all of that pre-paint work is accomplished, the new paint is applied, sometimes many layers of it, depending on the design, plus whatever top coats you choose. As you can imagine, protecting the interior and glass requires much taping and paper.

So much for scary. What about the exciting part? Well, that’s scary, too: What paint scheme do you choose? Getting a paint job opens up a universe of possibility. An overwhelming universe. It used to be that airplane paint was pretty pedestrian: White with a stripe. What color would you like your stripe? Tess’s current paint job is actually higher end than that, but now planes come airbrushed with artwork resembling show cars, tattoos, and more.

I’ve seen some pretty drool-worthy paint jobs in my travels. Check out this paint job of the inner race plane shedding its warbird skin like a snake:

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So what to do? Tess is sort-of a famous plane. She set a World Speed Record that still stands, and is a well-publicized two-time National Champion race plane. Does that obligate me to simply re-do the livery she sports now? Maybe use a sparkly white instead of gloss? Or should I update the scheme? Or can I let my imagination run wild? I mean, really, what would the perfect Ercoupe paint scheme look like? When I look at the Coupes gathered at our national fly-ins, I’m not that impressed with most of their paint jobs. That’s sad. They are cool-looking airplanes. They deserve cool looking paint jobs. But what would that look like, exactly? And what if I were wrong? I’d hate like hell to take a chance, try to design something, then detest the way the plane looks every time I open the hangar doors.

Not sure what I wanted to do, at AirVenture this last summer I prowled the paint vendor’s booths and talked to many of them, and I also attended a few workshops on the painting process. One of them was led by a scheme designer.

What on earth is a scheme designer, you ask?

It’s not some sort of con man, as the name implies. Think of scheme designers as architects. They are part artist, part draftsmen. They create designs for airplane paint jobs and translate them into precise instructions for the paint shops. One, named Craig Barnett, particularly impressed me. He runs an outfit called Scheme Designers, which does paint jobs for airlines and aircraft manufacturers—and he’s even designed the paint schemes for many of AOPA’s sweepstakes planes. And Craig had an offer for me I couldn’t refuse: For a flat rate, he’d create an unlimited number of paint schemes for our plane, letting us explore the “entire universe of possibilities.” I figured if AOPA trusted him, I could trust him. I hired him on the spot.

Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people, so it took a looooooong time until I saw any exploration of my universe.

Anyway, at AirVenture, Craig looked at photos of Tess’s current paint job, which he declared to be 1970s Mooney-esqe. Fair enough. He asked what I wanted and I said I had no idea, which was why I was hiring him. He said he needed a little more to go on than that, and suggested I send him pictures of planes I liked. Or even cars. I didn’t have anything that visual in mind, so instead we talked concept. For starters, I asked him to create a modern, updated version of Tess’s current livery. Then I wanted something race-themed with checkered flags. He told me that he hated the checkered race flag look, but OK. Then I said, perhaps a muscle car look. I told him to avoid art deco or warbird, as there are a number of Ercoupes that have gone that way (successfully) and I wanted to do something different. I also told him to design one scheme completely based on the lines of the plane.

The first thing he did was send us out paint chips of aviation paints. Dozens of colors. The rainbow and more. As a family, we decided to stay with cool colors, leaning toward the blue and white we are used to (and would match the interior), but we threw in black and a kick-butt sparkly silver as options. In fact, most of the colors we chose were sparkly.

After that, we didn’t hear from Craig for a looooooong time.

Half a year after I hired him, just about when I was ready to abandon any hope we’d ever see anything, we got our first look.

This is his update of Tessie’s current look:

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I especially like what he did with the rudders, as I always felt that little triangle back there didn’t fit the rest of the design scheme very well. Filling in the area in front of the triangle really tied it in for me. I also like what he did with the nose pant, making it two tone. So that’s Tess, as we know her, updated.

He also created a slightly more whimsical version:

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And playing up the “Herbie” race number theme he submitted this Love Bug meets Ercoupe scheme:

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I like it, but wouldn’t use it, though I might consider it in different colors:

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The grey isn’t grey. It’s the kick-butt sparkly silver. From any distance it would look like polished aluminum. But the paint job that blew my mind was this hotrod racer one:

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I love the silver and black race flag motif. I adore the way it follows the gill-like edge of our cowl and wraps up onto her back. For a man who hates the race flag look, Craig sure nailed it. And the subtle flames licking down the side from the engine compartment completely blew my mind, as did the perfect placement of the bold race number on her flank. I miss the two-tone nose pant from the updated design, but I can see that it would be just too much if we did that, and I’m not sure about the bars on the rudders. Still, this is just a first draft. Any and all details can be tweaked.

I’d love to fly a low pass in this baby, and taxi into the race parking in it. It would be the ultimate racing Ercoupe look. Heads would turn, jaws would drop. We’d be the envy of every racer, even in our humble Ercoupe.

I couldn’t wait to show Rio. I was sure he’d love it as much as I did. His reaction? He shrugged one shoulder and said, “It doesn’t do much for me. I don’t think I want a race flag look.”

I was crushed.

Why does his opinion matter? Well, because, in point of fact, it’s his damned airplane. Or nearly so. The title to the family airplane is currently held by Grandma Jean. I sometimes (well often, actually) refer to Tess as my plane, but she isn’t and never will be. Mom has willed her airplane straight to my son Rio, bypassing me completely. It wasn’t that I’m a bad son, she helped her other grandchildren with their college, but Rio is the youngest and she didn’t think she’d still be around. It was her way of making things even. But the end result for me is that despite all the blood sweat and tears I’ve but into the little beast, I’ll never own her. Now, if mom dies before Rio’s 25… or maybe it’s 23, I can’t remember… then I serve as the airplane’s trustee until he comes of airplane-owning age. But that’s it.

So while I could talk the current owner into a paint scheme that I like that he doesn’t, or could, in theory, acting in my role as future trustee, paint it any frickin’ way I want, it would be a mean butt-head thing to do. Given the cost and complexity of painting an airplane, Rio will need to live with our choice a long time.

Of course, I’m still the only licensed pilot flying Tess, and I’ll be damned if I’ll arrive at a race in a pink plane with purple polka dots—not that he’s suggested any such thing—my point simply being the two of us have to agree on a paint scheme. And I’m finding that now that Rio is becoming a young man, he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his old man very often. Serves me right for encouraging him to have a brain of his own.

Luckily Tess doesn’t need paint tomorrow, because this is going to be a looooong process. Poor Craig. He really has his work cut out for himself this time.

My family lives in a big universe.

 

Next week: Rio and I finally agree on something.

No kicks for us on Route 66

Our home airport—the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport—doesn’t just share its name with the famous road. It is the road. Our runway 08/26 is built right smack on the original highway. In fact, the original runway was the highway. I don’t know the real story, but in my imagination I see the city fathers sitting around playing poker and smoking stogies one night in the late 1950s, after the interstate had passed through and around the town, changing the long established layout of the highway.

“What we going to do with the old Route 66 on the south side of town?” one asks. “It’ll be too gosh-derned expensive (people didn’t swear back in those days) for us to maintain it.”

Another scratches his stubble while he studies his cards; “Maybe we should turn it into a drag strip. It’s arrow-straight.”

Poker chips clink on the table as the most-forward thinking of the group calls, “I’ll match your drag strip and raise you an airport.”

Of course, as I said, I don’t know what really happened, but sometime in the late 50s or early 1960s, the triangle of dirt runways on the northwest side of town was abandoned in favor of a single narrow four thousand two hundred ninety four foot-long strip of (paved) mother road on the southeast side of town. They put up a beacon tower that might have been liberated from an abandoned airmail “arrow” site nearby, built a shabby hut for a terminal, installed a gas pump, and opened up for business. The scar of the old road can still be seen on the earth off either end of the runway.

In later years the city fathers built a dirt-floor metal T-hangar for six planes, a crosswind runway, and finally a modern terminal building which quickly fell into a state of disregard until just recently, when it was adopted and refurbished by our buddy Lisa with some help from my wallet.

So now you know why the Route 66 Air Tour folks asked us to host a little pre-tour party, so the flyers on the tour could actually land and/or take off from Route 66 as part of the Route 66 Air Tour. I think they envisioned it as a coffee stop, but as it was scheduled to take place between one and three in the afternoon, I knew we’d need a bit more than coffee. Plus, it was the chance for us to show off our newly respectable terminal, hopefully restoring our image as a good place to land for Avgas or Jet-A, stretch your legs, use a clean bathroom, and grab a fee snack.

I was looking forward to it. After the party, Rio and I would fly, quite literally, an hour up the road to Tucumcari, where the Air Tour events would officially start that night.

But by the time I got there, following my misadventures getting the plane to work, I had nearly missed my own party. As I was gassing up, the first plane landed. Within half an hour we had a ramp full of planes and a happy terminal bursting with pilots excitedly talking everything aviation, drinking coffee and water, and eating sandwiches.

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Normally we’re the only people around our airport, as ours is the only plane based there. It was wonderful feeling the community of other aviators, and I looked forward to spending the next four days with them.

We gave some hangar tours and as the day wore on, one by one, the fliers headed out. After the last one took to the air we quickly cleaned up with one eye on the western horizon. The weather was starting to close in, the predicted warm and sunny day replaced with cold wind, low grey clouds, and wandering bands of sleet.

Deb and Grandma Jean, both exhausted from sandwich construction and hostess duties, bugged out first. Lisa dropped us at the hangar and stayed long enough to make sure the plane’s engine started.

It did. But there was a problem.

When I put my headset on, I was greeted by deafening silence. No radio. No Rio. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” I spoke into the boom mike. No response. I tapped Rio on the shoulder, “Can you hear me?”

I could see his mouth forming words, but silence fell on my ears. I pulled off the headset and shouted over the idling engine; “Shut her down,” making slicing motions with my left hand back and forth across my throat. Rio reached up for the throttle, pulled it far back, pulled out the mixture, then turned off the ignition. The engine coughed, the prop slowed, then stopped. I shut off the bat switches, killing the flashing strobes on the wing tips last. Serving as our beacon, they are first on and last off, to warn others our engine is live.

Lisa pulling away, stopped, put the car in reverse, pulled up close, and rolled her window down, “What’s up?”

“Radio out… again,” I said slowly. But my mind was racing. How on earth…? It was fine when I taxied over. All we did was push the plane in to the hangar and pull it out. How did the wires come loose again? And if they are that sensitive, what’s to keep them for coming disconnected in flight? Of course, there’s no real reason for a radio in flight, but as part of a group of more than 20 planes it didn’t seem safe to me to fly NORDO—aviation slang for operating without a radio. We have a handheld, but no adaptor to use it with the headsets. This didn’t look good for the home team, unless I could fix the problem, and be sure it would stay fixed.

Rio pulled himself up and out of the plane. I grabbed the Tessie-blue Eddie Bauer flashlight out of the back pocket, turned sideways and scooted my butt to the left side of the seat, raising my legs and dangling my feet outside the plane. It’s the only way to get your head under the instrument panel.

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I directed the light upwards and was greeted by a great maze of wires. I was going to need some tech support. Lying upside down, all the blood in my body rushing to my head, I called the guys. “What the Sam Heck am I looking for down here?” I asked as I dropped my iPhone on my face.

They talked me through the maze of wiring to the back of the intercom. It had a multi-pin connector like an old computer printer. With one headset against my ear, the master switch and radio on, I was able to make the radio first work, then fall silent by tugging or pushing on the wire bundle. The consensus of the experts: Loose wire in the plug. Not a friendly field fix. Bring her back to us.

As I pulled myself back up in the cockpit, it started to rain. Rio and I stared glumly at each other. We both knew we wouldn’t be making the tour. Nothing needed to be said.

Rio looked up at the light rain and said, “We’d better get her back in the hangar, dad.”

I pulled the tow bar out from behind the seat, closed the canopy, and jumped down to the ground. I hooked the bar into the nose wheel, and pushing on the root of the propeller, eased Tessie back into her nest, out of the rain. Rio got out a roll of absorbent paper towels and started wiping the wings dry.

It was Friday night. My mechanics wouldn’t be back until Monday. We wouldn’t be getting any kicks on Route 66 this weekend. Well, that’s not quite true. At least the terminal party was a kick. And we do get to fly off of Route 66 all the time.

But still, it wasn’t the kicks on Route 66 I had hoped for.

Raid and Search

Lisa was somewhere under the plane, scooting around on the wheeled creeper checking screws and rivets on the plane’s belly. I could hear her contented humming over the dull gong—gong—gong—gong of the hangar doors as they shifted and moved in the wind. It was a blustery day out so we’d buttoned up the hangar for preflight, leaving us in dim light, but warm. I was sitting in the cockpit re-attaching the iPad mount to the panel. Its suction cups had come loose again and it fell off and banged me in the knee when I climbed into the cockpit to check the Hobbs reading.

To get the bracket positioned correctly I had to hunch down and peer upwards from underneath it, and despite having tri-focals, I couldn’t get any of the three lenses to line up right so that I could see what I was doing. I took my glasses off, reached up blindly, and set them somewhere on the glare shield above me.

Outside I heard the crunch of car tires on gravel and doors slamming. Must be the city workers either getting or depositing files in the hangar next door, I thought. Then there was a sharp wrap on the metal door. My door. I sat up straight and felt around for my glasses. Suddenly, bright sunlight flooded in as the hangar doors were yanked abruptly back, blinding me. As I blinked and squinted, the dark shapes of six uniformed men entered the hangar, three coming up on each side of the cockpit. In a deep voice one barked, “We have a warrant for your arrest.”

The happy humming from underneath the plane ceased.

I couldn’t process what was happening. “Huh?” I finally managed to squeak, my hands frantically searching for my glasses. I couldn’t recall doing anything arrest-worthy. Not recently. Not ever, really. I live a pretty square life. Could it be a case of mistaken identity? My fingers located the frames and I slipped my glasses onto my face. The towering blue blurs of the cops snapped into focus. There were two local cops, and one state cop. But the other three were two uniformed paramedics and the airport manager, who was wearing a police-style jacket and a big grin on his face.

Then all the men starting laughing.

“Just teasing,” announced the airport manager, “actually we need your help.”

Then he told me that a boy who lived next to the airport had reported that a plane taking off that morning didn’t sound right. This kid hears a lot of airplanes. Apparently some odd transmissions had been heard by someone else, and Center couldn’t raise the pair of aerial mapping planes that had been working out of SXU for the last week. The local emergency responders were worried that they had gone down. Would we mind going up and just flying around to see if we could see anything?

We wouldn’t mind. And we could do even better. The latest version of our navigation app, Garmin Pilot, will display Civil Air Patrol search grids. We could fly a search grid to the south and east of the airport, in the direction the boy saw the plane go. In no time we were in the air.

“What am I looking for?” asked Lisa.

I was a Civil Air Patrol pilot once upon a time, but my unit didn’t have an airplane assigned to it so I never flew a mission, and my search and rescue training was nearly forty years old. I searched my dim memory as I scanned the ground below and to the left of the plane. “It depends on the nature of the crash,” I told my wing woman. “Shout out if you see a plane in a field or on a road. If you see smoke, we’ll divert from the grid and check it out. If things went badly there could be nothing left but little bits and pieces, and if so, they’ll likely form a line in the direction of travel.”

It was a grim image to contemplate.

“Oh, and disturbed earth,” I added, “ like a scar of a freshly plowed field in the middle of nowhere.” I’ve seen several crash sights from the air, and none of them looked plane-like.

Lisa was silent for a moment and then said, “I hope we don’t find anything. I mean, I hope there’s nothing to find.”

Amen to that.

We’d just barely finished the first leg of our search grid when the airport manager texted Lisa to report that Center was in touch with the two mapping planes, and all was well with them. He’d checked the guest register at the terminal and the history on the gas pump, and there was no evidence of another plane leaving that day. Lacking any other evidence of a plane in distress, he was calling off the search.

Of course it was always possible that someone landed just to hit the bathroom. Didn’t sign in. Didn’t buy gas. Kids that live next to airports know what planes sound like. If I were down, I’d want people to make a decent search for me. “Tell him, thanks, but as it’s a nice day up here (it wasn’t) we’ll go ahead and finish the grid just for the fun of it.”

So we flew up one grid line, and down the next. Then up again, then down. Each line about eight miles apart, our eyes searched from Tessie’s wing roots to four miles off her wings. We flew a thousand feet off the deck, low enough to clearly see what was below, high enough to see a ways away. In some areas I could be confident there was nothing to see. In other areas filled with trees and craggy ravines I knew we could fly past a hundred downed planes and not see a trace.

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In about two and a half hours, we “searched” 960 square miles. At one point there were odd squawking noises on the emergency frequency. It wasn’t the mournful wail of an emergency locator beacon, it was more strangled. We cut across one search grid diagonally to check a network of small canyons but there was nothing to see and the choked noises on the radio went away.

The radio was silent for the rest of our search, and we saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I was glad to be there at the right time and at the right place to lend a helping hand.

Oh. Right. And I was even doubly glad that three wasn’t really a warrant for my arrest!