How to fly a plane in ten words

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

It was going to be a slow flight.

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

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Wonderful Mugs

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

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

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

 

The best beer ever

I’m not much of a beer drinker. That’s not to say I’m a teetotaler. Far from it. I’m a huge fan of dry red wines, especially Cabs and Malbecs, and more than one brand of bourbon can be found in our hangar.

Hey, half the fun of flying is hangin’ in the hangar afterward; and part and parcel of that is adult beverages. Booze and flying have gone hand-in-glove together since the days of the open cockpit biplanes. Of course, given the reliability of airplanes in those days, you really needed a drink when you got back on terra firma. Planes are safer and better today, but far be it from me to shirk aeronautical tradition.

Anyway, as I was saying, although I work hard at honoring the flying tradition of the post-flight drink, beer isn’t my weapon of choice. It just doesn’t do much for me. Sure, maybe once a year with a Mexican combo plate, an icy cold cerveza hits the spot, and in cases like those—just like with my wine and spirits—I tend to go for the heavy stuff. A dark beer, the color of coffee, please.

But not long ago I had a beer that broke all my normal rules and preferences, and it was the perfect beer. No. Better. It was the best beer ever. This is the Tale…

Poor Tess hasn’t flow much in the last year and a half, and with our recent crunch that bent her like a beer can just forward of her wings, I suspect my logbook is gonna remain bare for months to come. But her best adventure of late was the flight up to Spanish Fork, Utah for the Mt. Timpanogos Air Race, part of the Aeroplanes, Trains, and Automobiles event, the only race of the shockingly short, weather-battered Sport Air Racing League season that we made it to this year.

It was a long flight, something like six hundred miles, complete with two fuel stops. Plus crossing the Rocky Mountains. In late August. Don’t get me wrong. It was a lovely flight, but flying is actually hard work, and this route is challenging for a low-powered plane. Once on the ground, the day was getting warm, the fuel pump was being fussy, we had to prep Tess for the race the next day, and there’s an appalling lack of shade in which to do all of this on the airport ramp.

By late afternoon I was tired and hot. Hot and tired. But there was a party to go to. Race Director Mike Patey had invited us all to a pre-race party in his hangar. The invitation read: “Bring nothing but smiles; we have the rest!”

Now, Patey is truly one of the nicest guys in the world. But he’s Mormon. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it made me wonder: Would a serious, practicing Mormon stock booze for his non-Mormon party guests? And if he wanted to, would it even be legal? Spanish Fork is dry, something I discovered to my dismay during the 2016 racing season. I briefly flirted with showing up with my own bottle, but I knew in my heart that would be a social faux pas of the highest order. In the end I decided that when in Rome…

The party was in the Patey hangar, a magnificent two-story structure in the heart of the airport. It features an upstairs inside-outside deck with a magnificent view of the ramp, taxiways, and the arrival end of Runway 30, as well as a stunning vista of the mountains of the Wasatch Range that tower above Spanish Fork to the east. On arrival at the party, I subtly stuck my nose into each of the various coolers scattered about to find soda, water, more soda, and more water.

My inner barnstormer sighed and resigned himself to a dry evening with good friends, good surroundings, and a good view. Still, I was having some trouble winding down, and was pining for a cool glass of iced red wine or a Jack and diet Coke on the rocks, when I heard a baritone male voice boom out: “Beer.” Followed by the resounding thud of a heavy cooler being dropped on the floor.

A beer will do just fine, thank you.

Inside the cooler, nestled in layers of ice, were cans of Bud, bottles of Guinness, and golden, glowing Corona Extras. Normally, I would have gone for the Guinness, but for some reason the Corona was whispering to me. I pulled one free from the ice and began the hunt for a bottle opener, the one thing the otherwise impressively equipped Patey hangar didn’t seem to have.

I can’t remember where I found one, it might have been part of a kitchen can opener, or it might have been a fellow racer’s Swiss Army knife, but the cap finally free of the bottle, I sat on the outside party deck and took a deep slug of the cold amber liquid. It was light on the palate, clean, refreshing—beating back the heat with its south of the border magic.

I sat on the deck, surrounded by people, yet in a momentary solitary bubble taking in my surroundings. The roar of airplane engines. The magnificent blue sky of the Rockies. The dying light of day. The comradeship of fellow pilots. And the coldest Corona ever, condensation fogging the bottle.

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Yeah. It was the best beer ever.

 

Real games with toy planes

I spent hours flying Tess and Warbler above the southern New Mexico desert scouting the route. Hours more getting just the right pictures of it. I spent days designing and laying out the beautifully printed knee boards for the race pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit how I paid for those.

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I carefully plotted the race course on Google Earth Pro, measured the legs, then applied the proper math to compensate for the turn radius of the planes. I worked out handicaps for the three sizes of engines under the cowls of Ercoupes. I created an Excel spread sheet to calculate the speeds based on the start and finish times, and to automatically handicap the planes. I worked out the marshalling order, created timing sheets, bought a pair of atomic clocks, a green start flag, and a checkered finish line flag.

I had three beautiful trophies made for the fastest planes. Tall skinny towers a topped with cups like the air race trophies of old. Then I had custom medals struck for each pilot that flew, so that everyone would win something.

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I also, in SARLtradition, found the cutest little pig with wings for the slowest plane.

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I connected with a local talent scout and recruiteda group of models that became known as the Derby Dolls to set the NASCAR-with-wings tone I was after.

Sure, the rare opportunity to fly into highly restricted air space and land at Spaceport America was the real reason most of the pilots were coming to the 42ndErcoupe Owners Club Nationals; but to me, the signature event was my air race—which I named the 1stNational Ercoupe Air Derby. Needless to say, I had secret fantasies of it becoming an annual event, maybe even a league someday.

Twenty-one of the forty-eight planes coming to the convention signed up for my Derby, and I realized that I had on my hands the largest race of like-kind planes since the 1930s.

I was on cloud nine.

Cloud nine itself, however, was at 200 feet. AGL. Apparently, despite all my careful planning, I forgot to make the appropriate offering to the weather gods.

Arrival day at the national convention varied between low IFR and garden variety IFR most of the day, with a brief gasp toward the end of the day of the most marginal Marginal VFR I’ve even seen. Only one brave soul made it in. As twilight crept in at the end of the day, I stood out on the cold, wet apron and looked at the small collection of Ercoupes. Instead of the expected 48 planes that would have over-flowed the ramp, I had six, only two of which had entered the Derby.

It was decision time. The weather for race day looked fine, but most of my racers were MIA, trapped by hurricane-whipped moisture all across the country, and there was no way that they’d make it in before the scheduled dawn briefing. I considered moving the race, but it was like trying to re-arrange jigsaw puzzle pieces. It just couldn’t be done. There were too many other events that needed to take place when they were scheduled.

I was about to cancel the first ever National Ercoupe Air Derby when my buddy Lisa, who is a certified frickin’ genius, had a suggestion. In the swag bags for the convention were toy balsa wood gliders from the state Aviation Division. Why not create some sort of Air Derby with them? After all, we had no shortage of pilots. Men and women who locked their fogged-in hangar doors, jumped in their cars and drove in, or jumped on commercial flights and rented cars to reach the convention.

Lisa got out a piece of paper and started scribbling. She thinks best on paper. Longest throw… Most accurate throw… Number of throws to complete a “pylon” course…

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The next day, when I should have been marshalling twenty-one Ercoupes onto Taxiway Alpha at KLRU, I was setting up orange cones on the ramp in front of EAA Chapter 555’s hangar, roughly mimicking the layout of the real race. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. Then my cell phone starting ringing and the assorted crises that befall convention coordinators started befalling me.

Chief among these was the Spaceport. They needed to know precisely how many people were coming the next day, their names, states, blood types and genotypes; and who was stepping off a plane and who was stepping off a bus. And they needed to know RIGHT now!

Of course, I’d given them this information weeks ago, but now with the weather, it was a moving target. On a borrowed laptop I started throwing together a new spreadsheet (not having the sense to bring the one I had previously made with me) and began to code pilots by: Cancelled, switched from air to ground, still coming by air, and unknown at present.

I knew our fearless leader, club director Larry Snyder, was trapped in Tucumcari, having failed to reach my home base of SXU by a few miles before weather forced him to retreat. He emailed, “Had to turn back. Solid wall of rain and maybe 1 mile visibility.” A pity. Our hotels and restaurants are better. I knew I had a handful of planes in eastern New Mexico, and the story of those pilots trying to find a rental car is worthy of a Plane Tale of its own someday. And I knew that eight planes were bottled up together at Willcox, AZ, more than had reached the convention itself.

I also had one pilot who was missing. The night before, Flight Service called to ask if he’d arrived. His flight plan was overdue and not closed. He hadn’t. I tossed and turned all night worrying about him, and it gnawed at me the next day. When he eventually showed up I was so happy to see him, I gave him a giant bear hug.

The rest of the fleet? Who knew? Certainly not me. Working from a tattered, folded, damp print out of the master registration list, I struggled to update the Excel spread sheet, while answering my phone every ten minutes (have you noticed that cell phone batteries never die when you want them to?) and alternately talking to members with a wide variety of questions, issues, comments, and suggestions. I was starting to, you know, stress out a little, when I heard it.

I heard the sound of a party.

Happy voices. Laughter. Cheers. The sounds were drifting into the EAA hangar from the ramp.

I got up and stuck my head out the door. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the Basal Wing Derby pilots. The wind was up, snatching the light gliders. One pilot used tape to increase his weight. Another swore her secret was to aim low and throw low. It was getting competitive, to say the least, but everyone was having a blast. The Derby Dolls were on hand working the green and checkered flags, and Lisa was keeping point totals on two giant sheets of poster board that kept flapping in the wind.

I was witnessing the birth of a new aviation sport.

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At the end of the trio of competitions, the Derby Dolls gave out the custom Air Racer medals to each person who participated in all three Basal Wing events, and presented the tall skinny trophies a topped with cups to the top three scoring pilots.

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Talk about salvaging a disaster! Not only did our members have a blast, probably more people had more fun than if my race had gone off as planned. Of course, that’s not stopping me from planning the 2ndNational Ercoupe Air Derby for next year. You know, with real airplanes this time. But still… I think I’ll ask the state for another handful of those basal gliders next year.

Just in case.

 

Politics, but not as usual

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

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

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

This is the coolest thing ever!

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But what’s it for?

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

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

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

Then she asks me for $2,700.

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

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

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

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

And thank you for the cool card.

 

Milestones

I happened to look down at just the right moment to catch the odometer roll 4,000. It was pure luck. The impending event wasn’t even on my mental horizon. Not true of my father. He kept a hawk-like eye on his odometer, and every time there was a big roll coming he’d announce it well down the road and all three of us kids (always in the back) would unbuckle and cluster in a pack behind his seat, looking over his shoulder in awe as the chain of numbers quickly rolled over, died, and zeros took their places.

This odometer, however, was taking its sweet time. Of course, I guess it’s not really an odometer, which is a device for measuring miles driven in a car. This is a similar-looking device on Tess’s tachometer that measures the total run time of her engine in hours. Still, as the word “odometer” is derived from the ancient Greek words hodós, meaning trip, and métron, meaning measure; my aerial odometer is still in the spirit of the word—measuring trips though the sky.

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High above Canyon Lands, watching the 9s lazily replaced with zeros, I was momentarily a small child in my father’s Chevrolet Vista Cruiser again, looking over his shoulder to watch the odometer mark another milestone of family travel as he barreled down some desolate road in Indian Country.

Tess now has 4,000 hours of plying the sky. Which, for a small airplane, is a fair number, more than average for an Ercoupe. That girl just loves to fly. Of course, I know that the number is largely fantasy. The chain of four black numbers and one white one are all driven by the RPM of the engine, meaning it turns more slowly during idle and taxi, and faster during full-power climb outs. It’s also not Tess’s original tach, nor do we have all her logbooks so we can really know how much flight time she has, but all of that said, her mechanic set the numbers on her aerial odometer to his best guess of her total airframe time.

So the slow motion replacement of 3,999.9 with 4,000.0 might not have happened at the true instant she surpassed her four-thousandth hour, but it’s close. And a pretty cool experience.

My father would have loved it.

Today, my personal odometer is also rolling over, marking both another year on the planet and in the sky above it. Yep. Our usual Friday publication date just happens to land on my birthday this year. My odometer just rolled from 54.9 to 55.0, or it will a little after lunchtime this afternoon.

To be honest, I don’t give my age much thought, at least not since I had to stop lying about it to buy beer. But with Tess rolling 4K, and me marking a birthday, I couldn’t help but engage in a flight of fancy about age. Tess’s birthday, based on the date stamped on her manufacturing plate, is May 5, 1947, making her 71 this year. Airplanes being eternal, she’ll be 100 years old in 2,047. That will be under Rio’s watch, although at 84, I could very well still be around.

I would very much like to fly her on her 100thbirthday.

And if by some miracle I live to be 100 years old, Tess would then be 116 years old; which is kinda funny, as I always think of her as so much older than I; but really, she’s only a hair more than a decade and a half up on me.

Still, could Tess really last more than a hundred years?

Why not? Flight as we know it turns 115 years old this December with the anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, and the airplane that made that flight still exists in the Smithsonian, although granted it’s not flying—but I bet it could. And plenty of airplanes much older than Tess still ply the skies.

Properly cared for, their years and hours roll on. One thing is for sure, when my aerial odometer gets ready to roll five thousand, I’ll be paying close attention.

With the spirit of my father looking on over my shoulder.

 

The triumphant return of Warbler

“You warned her,” said Debbie.

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

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

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

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

But they were all wrong.

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

Really, we were eavesdropping—drinking in every word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you think your family history is complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bull, but not like you think

My bedtime reading this month is Gordon Baxter’s Bax Seat. He’s a hoot to read. If you’ve never experienced him, file a flight plan to Amazon and pick up a copy of one of his books. Right now, I’m knee deep in the chapter, “A little orange-and-white airplane,” about his first airplane.

It’s a love story.

As a side note—and Bax was famous for his side notes—he mentions that his plane was born February 27, 1968, which makes her a Pisces. That struck a chord with me, but to be honest, I’d never thought twice about Tess’s Zodiac sign. I put the book down and headed for a computer.

My little blue-and-white love is, as it turns out, a Taurus.

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Sidney Hall, 1824 from OpenClipArt.org

Not knowing—or caring—much about horoscopes and the like, I had to do some research. According to Uncle Google, Taurians are reliable (ha!), practical, ambitious, and sensual (how true). Oddly, they are apparently earth signs, which seems odd to me for an airplane. I wasn’t sure how all this was stacking up, and it wasn’t improving my option about all things Zodiac until I picked up two little tidbits.

The first was the Taurus motto: “Nothing Worth Having Comes Easy.” Now that describes airplane ownership! And the second was the perfect love matches. Apparently, the top matches for a Taurus are Virgo, Capricorn, or Pisces.

I’m a Virgo.

Tess’s owner, Grandma Jean, is a Capricorn.

And Rio, Tess’s next caretaker, is a Pisces.

Sounds to me like matches made in the heavens.

 

A real doll

Should the flight chart go here, or over here? Hmmm… And what about the jacket? Open or closed? And the goggles, what about the goggles? Around the neck or atop the head? Which would look better? Darn it, that damn silk scarf keeps getting in the way.

I’ve never had problems like this before. But in this case, appearances matter.

“Oh great,” said Debs with an expression halfway between a frown and a pout, “I married a man who plays with dolls.”

I glared at her over the Barbie Doll on the kitchen table. OK, yes, I’d had been fussing over the doll for over fifteen minutes, but I was hardly playing with her. I was trying to pose her, which is an entirely different thing; and for all you men who’ve never played with dolls, it’s harder than it looks. Most Barbies, and being a boy I didn’t know this, don’t have bendable knees. Their legs are like a Nutcracker Suite Soldier, moving stiff-leggedly at the hip, making it difficult to pose her realistically. Having her sit on a shelf? That was totally out.

Actually, I hate to admit it, but I did play with dolls as a boy. I think all boys of my generation did, but the lexicography was different because, back then, playing with dolls would have made you a sissy. Or worse. No, instead, we boys played with action figures.

Words. Yeah. They matter.

The premier boy-approved (by our parents and grandparents) action figure of my childhood wasn’t Barbie’s sissy boyfriend Ken, no, it was G.I. Joe. Unlike the modern pocketable action figures, my G.I. Joes were Barbie-sized, around a foot tall. Just like Barbie, Joe came with a wide range of clothing to choose from. Oh, and accessories, too. But rather than purses and jewelry, Joe came with an array of firearms, grenades, flame throwers, knives, and the like, as well as less violent accessories like canteens, compasses, and field glasses. Instead of a Corvette, he had a jeep. Instead of a dream house, he had a mobile command center. Not that I ever had any of those higher-end accessories, but one of my school chum’s father was an honest-to-God airline pilot, and that boy had everything G.I. Joe could want.

But, most importantly to our conversation here, G.I. Joe can bend his damn knees. As well as his ankles. And he could bend at the waist as well, I guess so the drill sarge could make him do sit-ups or whatever. My point is, I have no doubt that I could get a G.I. Joe pilot posed realistically for display in our flight lounge lickety-split. But Barbies are quite stiff by comparison, I guess to keep a smooth sexy line to the legs and tummy, but it was making my job nearly impossible. Getting this Barbie posed for display in our flight lounge was taking waaaaaaytoo much time, and even then, I was unhappy with the results I was getting.

And now my wife is calling me a sissy.

Why was I trying to pose a Barbie Doll for display in our flight lounge in the first place? Well, this isn’t just any Barbie. She’s the new Amelia Earhart Barbie.

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This is the tale:

I while back I read in one of the aviation pubs that I write for, I don’t remember which one, that Mattel, makers of Barbie Dolls for nearly sixty years (you gotta admit, she still looks pretty hot for her age) were going to release a new role model series of Barbies to salute important women in history. It was to be called the Inspiring Women Series. Some of these new dolls would depict living women including athletes, scientists, artists, and professional women. Other dolls would depict significant women from recent history. Included in the lineup would be the Aviatrix Amelia Earhart. She would be in stores near me in six months.

I then promptly forgot all about it, until the other day when I read about Amelia Barbie again in Patty Wagstaff’s columnin Plane and Pilot—ironically pretty much the only aviation magazine I’ve never been able to crack. Anyway, for some reason, right on the spot, I decided we should get one of the now-available Amelia Barbies for our burgeoning collection of aviation memorabilia that Debs tries to keep limited to the flight lounge, the library, or the hangar. (It doesn’t work, plane stuff keeps popping up everywhere. As I write this a DC-10 is on the living room coffee table and a Reno Air Races clock is on the nightstand in the master bedroom.)

A few clicks at Amazon, and the deed was done.

A week or so later Amelia flew in. She came in an oversized box, a box so oversized I couldn’t even connect it in my mind to anything we’d ordered. I couldn’t imagine what was in it. When I opened the box, I found Amelia gently cocooned in many layers of packing. Even the see-through clear plastic retail display box was carefully wrapped in tissue paper to protect it from even the slightest risk of scratches.

That’s when I remembered: Barbie collecting is a deadly serious business. I waivered about removing the doll from the package. Wouldn’t that reduce the value?

Of course, I didn’t buy the doll as an investment. In fact, I’m not sure why I bought the doll at all, but it certainly wasn’t with the idea that it would someday be valuable enough to send Rio to college or help pay for an annual inspection. Still, I brought her home in the original packaging where my wife (who did play with Barbies as a child) insisted we get her out of the box to inspect her.

Even though her legs are locked, her head turns and bends realistically. She can also move her arms, elbows, and wrists—but precious little good it does as she’s wearing a heavy brown leather barnstormer jacket. The rest of her wardrobe? Knee-high riding boots, khaki knickerbockers, a white top and a silk scarf. She has a flying helmet and a pair of goggles, and a flight chart. I haven’t unfolded the chart yet, because I suspect that, just like the real thing, I’d never be able to figure out how to get it folded back up again.

Based on what I’ve read about the real Amelia, I think she would have approved of her miniature doppelganger.Well, mostly. Because I know what you are wondering: What about Barbie’s controversial measurements? Did Amelia Barbie inherit them? Yes, Amelia Barbie has the classic Barbie bust, which is to say, significantly less aerodynamic than the real aviator’s.

So is this doll just Garden Variety Barbie with boy-short brown hair and an Amelia Halloween costume, or did Mattel actually craft the doll to look like the famous Aviatrix?

To be honest, I’m not sure. First off, contrary to what my wife accused me of, I don’t play with dolls, so I don’t have any other Barbies to compare Amelia to; and secondly her little face is so small it’s hard for me to tell. But I did glace through the online portfolio of the series, and each doll does seem to have a different face. The Amelia Barbie also has the closed mouth smile like the one seen in most of the historic pictures of the famous pilot, rather than Blondie Barbie’s more typical perfect white-tooth smile, so I think Mattel may have gone the extra mile.

Meanwhile, did I ever get her posed to my satisfaction? No, I didn’t. I guess I’ll need to get a G.I. Joe Action Pilot for that.

I don’t think Debs would mind if I played with action figures.

 

 

One spare isn’t enough

“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.

But that ear-to-ear smile was not to last.

Now, for background, you need to know that Tess, when it comes to maintenance, has become nearly as much trouble as a Warbird. Yeah. She’s “down.” Again. I would’a thought that for a woman of her age hot flashes would be a thing of the past, but just days out of that killer annual earlier this summer, she began to overheat. Big time.

I’ll spare you the pain of the details, and myself the PTSD of recounting this latest woe, but the bottom line is that two of her four nearly-new cylinders have to be pulled off. According to my logbook, I took her to her new shop about six weeks ago, and it’s likely to be several more weeks before she’s back in my hands (or I’m back in hers, as the case may be).

But that said, my logbook is hardly empty of Ercoupe time since. In fact, I’ve been flying a lot. How can that be? Well, the “family” has a spare airplane.

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Yep. I’ve been flying with my buddy Lisa as the safety pilot in her plane, helping her polish her skill set prior to her next round of formal training. Actually… Come to think of it, Lisa’s skill set has become so polished that I haven’t had to touch the controls in… well, I can’t remember how long it’s been. But each time we fly, she’s kind enough to let me take the controls at some point so that I can feel like a real pilot again.

Most days, after Lisa flies, Rio takes over the left seat and we go up and polish the maneuvers that his flight instructor is teaching him as well. We had been doing Rio’s training in Tess, but with her in the Airplane Hospital again, Lisa loaned him the keys to Warbler.

We all started joking that it’s a good thing we have a spare airplane. But as it would turn out, one spare Ercoupe isn’t enough. And that’s why Lisa lost her smile.

So much for background. Now on to today’s Plane Tale…

 

We rose early—me from the master suite and Lisa from the guestroom—and met at the coffee pot, bleary-eyed. We aren’t morning people either of us, but the early morning sky favors flight training. Winds tend to be light, and thermal turbulence from the sunbaked landscape hasn’t started to form yet. But today, it was clearly a waste of blissful sleep. A quick look out the window showed that the weather was not as forecast.

You can’t trust weathermen and psychics.

Still, we’ve learned that the weather at my house (which is 20 miles closer to the field than Lisa’s, hence the use of the guestroom on flying days) and the weather at the airport can be so different as to be in alternate universes, so properly caffeinated, we headed out.

Headed out into weather that grounded the crows that live on the airport beacon tower next to the hangers.

So instead of pre-flighting Warbler, we dumped the trash in the terminal, restocked the fridge and the snack baskets, and looked to see how many new pins had been placed in the large flight planning chart on the wall, the one that visiting pilots are invited to mark their home airports on. Then we hung out in Lisa’s hangar, mine being empty. She also has windows that look out to the East, allowing me to keep one eye on the weather while surfing the internet on my flight pad.

As the sky began to lift the wind came up.

“You know what?” said Lisa, “this isn’t happening for me today. But if you want to fly for a change, I’d be happy to come along for a ride.” She dangled Warbler’s keys in front of my face.

If there’s a pilot who can turn down an offer like that, I’ve never met him. Or her.

I had planned to do a toilet paper chase after Lisa’s practice. That’s where you fly up to around 10,000 feet, chuck a roll of (fully biodegradable) toilet paper out of the plane (over and empty area) then dive on the streamer and try to cut it with your wing as it flutters to the ground. It’s easier said than done, but every bit as much fun as it sounds. And I’ve actually succeeded at doing it.

The ceiling was starting to break up, so I chucked a roll of toilet paper in the back and up we went. It felt strange to be in Warbler’s left seat.

But as we climbed into the murky air, it was clear that this was not a day to venture up to 10,000 feet. I opted for barnstorming instead. Low and slow down on the deck we zipped between sandstone buttes, circled the ruins of abandoned ranch houses, and did lazy S-turns up and down empty dirt roads to nowhere—soaking in the view and the feel of flight.

Our RMP was acting up a bit, first high, then low. I didn’t give it much thought. Warbler has a new throttle and I figured that we didn’t have the friction lock set right yet.

I figured wrong.

“Thanks for letting me take the left seat,” I told Lisa.

“Actually,” she said, “I’m enjoying being a passenger for a change. Over here is where I fell in love with flying.”

Finally, gas running low, it was time to head back to the nest.

“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.

On base it seemed like I needed a lot more back pressure on the elevator than normal, and we also ended up landing long. But the touchdown was smooth, the moment between flying and rolling almost undetectable.

Then the noise started.

Or maybe it was there all along and we just couldn’t hear it over the roar of the engine. It was a flapping-type sound. I cocked my head to one side. “Do you hear that?” I asked Lisa. Then I pulled one ear cup away from my head, trying to hear it better, trying to process what it might be. As Warbler rolled down the runway, it seemed to get louder.

We needed fuel, so I headed for the far end of Eight, where Taxiway Charlie leads to the terminal and the pumps.

I should have turned tail and headed back to the hangars. Hindsight.

As we crossed One Niner, the noise was really distinctive. It sounded like a loose cowl banging in the slip stream. I decided to shut down right where we were. Nearly a mile from either the hangars or the ramp.

It never occurred to me that the engine would never restart again.

I pulled back the throttle and the mixture, then turned off the mags. With an abrupt shudder the prop snapped to attention, stopping at 12 o’clock, not making the lazy spin down we are used to. With trepidation, I slid the top of the three-piece canopy to the right, climbed out onto the wing, dropped to the ground, and came around to the front of the plane.

Everything looked normal. No loose cowl pieces.

For some reason, I reached up to pull Warbler’s prop down to the normal position.

It was stuck fast. Excalibur in the stone. My mind couldn’t process what my hands and eyes were telling me. One moment the engine is running; the next moment, after shutting it down myself, the prop is stuck fast.

I didn’t know what to do, but attempting a restart was out. I looked far to the West at the distant Lego block of the hangar. Then I looked far to the South at the distant Lego block of the terminal. This was a stupid place to shut down.

So like hippie college students who ran out of gas on the way back to the dorm, we pushed Warbler back down the taxiway, across One Nine, and back along half the length of Eight. Well, Lisa pushed. I pulled on the stuck prop, using it as a combination tow bar and steering tiller.

It was a long haul, helped by a friendly couple from Arizona headed home from AirVenture, who added some horsepower to the pushing on the last half of the journey.

The slow roll to the hangar seemed to take longer than the flight that proceeded it, but eventually we got Warbler back in his nest, where Lisa collapsed into a little puddle of DNA in the corner. Not to say she reverted to sucking her thumb, or anything—which I probably would have—but there are some things in this world you just can’t do for yourself, and a good example is calling your mechanic to discuss a very expensive-sounding repair on an airplane you really couldn’t afford in the first place, so I offered to make the call. That’s what friends are for.

I got the man on the phone and described what had happened. The prop would turn backwards as much as I wanted it to, but going in the normal direction of travel, when the blade reached 12 o’clock it stopped cold.

The mechanic said he’d never heard of anything like that before.

He had me check the oil. It was fine. Then one or two other things. Finally he said, let it cool down, then see if the prop frees up.

As we had time to kill, I starting calling various experts we knew in the Ercoupe community. The first guy thought it sounded like a broken crankshaft, about the worst thing that could happen. But I didn’t think so. Sure, if the prop were totally frozen, or totally loose. But half and half? Of course, all I know about airplane breakdowns is things that have broken down on mine. I was in uncharted territory here.

The next three guys I called had never heard of such a thing, either. Great. But all three of them instinctively felt we were seeing a bizarre manifestation of a stuck valve, a serious but not fatal mechanical issue.

Hours later, the engine cool, the prop spun freely again.

The next step? Lisa’s mechanic will have to make a house call. That will happen next weekend. And in the meantime, even with two Ercoupes, we have no plane to fly.

One spare, apparently, is not enough.

 

For the love of “steam gauges”

“But what I don’t understand,” said Lisa, her face earnest and serious, “is where the steam that runs these things comes from.”

It was one of those speed bump moments that sometimes happens in conversations.

We’d been talking avionics, which is a fancy word for instruments that go in airplanes. Increasingly, over the last few years, most modern avionics are computer screens called “glass” or “glass cockpits” in the flying world; while the older traditional round-dial flight instruments are now universally called “steam gauges.”

I have no idea where the label “steam gauge” came from, but I suspect it started out as a slur perpetrated by glass cockpit salesmen that eventually went mainstream—losing its negative connotation in favor of a nostalgic fondness. But Lisa, a razor-sharp scientist by education and profession, tends to take things literally, and assumed it was a functional label. I could almost see her doing a mental inventory of her new plane, confused about where the water tank for the steam gauges could possibly be hiding, and how often she should refill it.

Of course, old-school flight instruments do not, in fact, run on steam. They run on either air pressure or electricity, depending on the model and type of instrument. I suppose that if the label “steam gauge” wasn’t a conspiracy of the glass cockpit crowd, maybe the term came about because, for some, all those wonderful round gauges reminded them more of the cab of an old-fashioned steam engine than that of a modern flying machine.

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But I’m here to defend the airplane steam gauge, because in reality, it’s anything but old fashioned. Rather, the steam gauge is a modern marvel. Now, if you’re a lover of high-res color moving screens, just hear me out, because a traditional flight instrument is an absolute miracle of graphical presentation that you might not have appreciated, one unrivalled in human history, and not deserving the lowly title that it’s now saddled with.

Think about it. A true steam gauge, on a boiler in a basement in a Third World country somewhere, is nothing more than a single needle that tells you how close the steam tank is to blowing its lid. Aircraft steam gauges, on the other hand, can tell us how our planes are orientated within a three-dimensional environment; if we are on course or off; and can even guide us to fog-shrouded runways—keeping us correctly lined up on the runway while descending safely through space without hitting anything on the ground.

Try that with a steam gauge out of a Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 locomotive.

And there’s more. Not only do aircraft steam gauges display an amazing range of data, they do so in a way that allows for a six-second scan, literally taking six seconds to take in all the various instruments to assure that all is well with the flight. How is that even possible? Because aircraft-quality steam gauges are actually carefully engineered hieroglyphic interfaces.

Now wait a minute, you say. Aren’t hieroglyphics those funky symbols in the Pharos’s tomb? The ones no one can read?! Well, yes and no. It’s true that the meaning of some ancient hieroglyphics is lost to time, giving the word hieroglypha quasi-enigmatic connotation, but in its purest form, a hieroglyphic system of writing uses symbols to form words and concepts. In other words, picture writing. And we all know that a picture tells a thousand words, making it the fastest way to communicate a lot of data. After all, we humans are visual creatures.

Here, let me give you an example of another great steam gauge, one that pre-dates the world of aviation, to illustrate what I’m talking about. If you were born before 1972, you were probably raised with the granddaddy of all hieroglyphic instruments: The wrist watch. A traditional wrist watch (not the pilot type with all sorts of unnecessary dials to make us look smarter than we are) has one dial and two hands. A scale on the dial shows half the day, twelve hours. Overlaid on that scale is a second scale that shows sixty minutes. One of the two hands of the watch indicates where we are in hours during the day by pointing to the hour scale, and the other hand indicates how far through that hour we are by pointing to the minute scale. A fancy model ups the ante with a third hand for tracking seconds.

It sounds mind-numbingly complex when laid out in words, but in action it brilliantly does what the best graphical interfaces do: It paints a picture. Quickly. Once you learn its language, you can “read” it without thought. At a mere glance, you “know” what time it is. On the other hand, if you look at a digital watch that says 3:59 p.m., you have to think.

And thinking takes time. Who has time for that?

Especially in an airplane.

That’s one of the things I love about airplane steam gauges. The instruments collectivity paint a picture of my airplane in the sky. Without needing to think about it, I know, as if I were glancing at my watch, that all is well—or that something isn’t right. That’s a pretty sophisticated interface. One that, like the wrist watch, thrives best on simplicity.

Airplane steam gauges keep it simple. They are visual Haiku.

Of course, glass instruments have graphics, too, but there’s no Haiku to be found there. It’s more like an epic poem. They display a ton of information, and for me anyway, that’s part of their problem. I have a hard time seeing the trees for the forest, or the forest for the trees. All that brilliant color and fancy graphics just doesn’t click in my brain the way a good set of steam gauges do. But maybe that’s just my age. For digital natives, I’m sure it’s different.

Another thing I like about steam gauges, and this would hardly be a reason for choosing them, is that I think they look better on the ground. Yeah, I know that’s not where they matter, but when walking around the ramp, poking my nose up against the windows to look into various cockpits, steam gauges give a parked airplane a business-like look. Sure, the tires are flat on that old Cherokee chained to the cracked and weed-infested far end of the ramp. Yeah, its paint is worn, fading, and peeling; and there’s a bird’s nest in the engine cowl—but the cockpit is alive with possibilities. Compare that to the shiny new Cirrus over by the fuel pump. Powered off, its blank cockpit looks like an abandoned black and white television set in the back of the Salvation Army store. Glass makes planes seem dead on the ground.

In a similar fashion, I like climbing into a cockpit that looks ready to go before my finger strokes the master switch.

But neither my fondness for the steam gauge as a concept, nor my joy in sliding into a cockpit that looks ready to go, had any bearing on my recent decisionto remove the several pieces of glass we had installed and replace them with (horrors!) steam gauges.

Nope. It was completely pragmatic. Our plane, Tessie, is a flying greenhouse. She has glass (the kind you look through, not the modern instrument kind) in front. Glass to the right. Glass to the left. Glass above. Glass behind. It’s a lovely bubble of view. It also doesn’t have even an inch of shade. Nor does our panel have a sun shade, or room for one.

The result? Glare. Epic glare. The only time I can read a glass panel display is when the plane is in the hangar. Oh. Right. I can’t read it there either, because the plane isn’t running. This was never a problem with the steam gauges of old. They have glass faces, but something about the material used in them resists glare, while something about the material used in modern glass cockpit displays seems to attract glare the way a magnet attracts iron filings.

So I’m not a luddite. And while I’m an aficionado of the classics, that had no bearing on my decision. I just want to be able to read the story my airplane is telling me. And for this plane, for this pilot, steam gauges are the only way to go

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go refill the water tank.