…and the winner is…

Well, the polls just closed on the big election. What? No, no, no. Not the presidential election. Not to worry, despite all the yammering in the media, that’s still a full year away. No I’m talking about the Race Number election.

What number won? Was number 1 number 1? Did our readers prefer lucky 777 over nostalgic 66? What about the “racy” 69? Or did our readers think Tessie and Herbie had some something in common other than the “ie” on the end of their names, and vote for the classic Disney number of 53?

Of course, 47 was in the race for being the Race Number, being as the Plane Tales Plane was built in 1947. Also in the running was 76, part of our “N” number; and the numbers 55 and 99 just ‘cause they are sort of cool.

Well, like all elections in America, the voter turnout was lighter than we liked. And like elections in other parts of the world, there is some suspicion that perhaps the ballot box was “stuffed” by certain parties favoring certain numbers. (Personally, I suspect Tessie of being the guilty party because there are oil stains on many of the ballots, but I guess it serves me right for leaving the ballot box in the hangar.)

And we did have one “write-in” vote cast for Race 415, with the explanation that “in a way, you represent all of the Ercoupe family.” For those of you who didn’t know it, all Ercoupes are model 415s.

But the polls are now closed, the votes are in and counted, and it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to… drum roll

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Race 53.

Yep. Tessie and I are now registered with the Sport Air Racing League as Race 53. A salute and a bow to an iconic underdog who became a champ, and perhaps an invocation to the racing gods for good luck. And let’s not kid ourselves here; this choice of Race Number might just be an effective vaccination against the macho testosterone-rich air-racing world. I think it prudent to show up expressing a good sense of humor when arriving to race in a plane not well known for its racing prowess.

Now before the election, I joked about putting classic Disney auto-racing “gumballs” on the plane, but that’s just what we ended up doing in the end. And I gotta say, I’m amazed at how great the classic race numbers look on our girl. I think they harmonize with her lines and paint very well. (Although we had to ditch Herbie’s red, white & blue stripe. The colors didn’t work out, and Tess has a plethora of stripes of her own—it was just too much.)

Still, she looks like a born racer to my eye. So be on the lookout for Race 53 on the circuit in the 2016 season.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines… Here we come.

 

Airshow people

Flying is the most fun you can have with your clothes on, although I confess I’ve never tried flying naked, so it might just be the most fun you can have, period. Still, I was about to discover the next-best thing.

Rio and I arrived at Cutter before dawn to redeploy the newly scrubbed and immaculately clean Tessie from the Sunport, where she was cleaned and detailed; to Double Eagle II, the site of the airshow, a short thirteen-mile hop across Albuquerque. The moon was just setting over the jumbo jets as we fired up our little ride and contacted Clearance Delivery. Much to our surprise we were cleared to the big 13,793 foot long, 150 foot wide Runway 08, taking off between an American airliner and a United jet. Sometimes I think Ercoupes are so rare that controllers don’t really know what we are and don’t want to embarrass themselves by asking.

Across the sleeping city we went, dreading a swarm of gnats that, luckily, were apparently still asleep. I think we picked up only one bug getting to the show. We landed as sparkly as we left. Check out this image shot by Larry Bell, a self-described plane-loving daydreamer (and aspiring photographer):

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Photo by Larry Bell

After a brief tiff with the lineman (Yeah, everyone one thinks they’re a static display. No really, we ARE.), we quickly set up shop and put up our signs. We shared the ramp in front of the exhibit hall hangar with a classic Boeing Stearman, a modern Carbon Cub, an aerobatic Pitts Special biplane, a Cessna L19 Bird Dog in Army green with faux missiles, a bright yellow T-34, and the single-seat SubSonex U-Build-It private jet. Not bad company.

Within minutes we were chatting with people who’d come to see the show. Again and again we heard pilots and plane lovers say how beautiful the Plane Tales Plane was. How great her paint looked. How clean she was. “Immaculate,” said one man. “Simply beautiful,” said another. “Perfect,” said a third, running his hand lovingly over her side.

One man, who’d been reading our sign, turned at stared at Tessie for a long time, saying nothing. Finally he turned to me and said, “Your plane and I are the same age, and I’m afraid I’m not as in good’a shape!”

The crowd ebbed and flowed, but never stopped. We chatted with a man who took his first plane ride with his father in an Ercoupe in the 1940s. Another told me that his father owned the first Ercoupe sold in the state. We boosted children up on the wings and helped them into the cockpit, while their parents snapped pictures with their iPhones.

A tall, thin, gangly teenager lurked around the edge of the crowd, avoiding eye contact. He’d stare longingly at the plane, then disappear, only to show up half an hour later. On his fourth or fifth orbit I finally caught his eye. I nodded towards the cockpit. “Go ahead, get in.” He sprang to the wing and slid with liquid grace into the cockpit. He sat—barely moving—for a long fifteen minutes, absorbing the sights and the feel of the cockpit, slowly taking in the instruments, and occasionally stroking the yoke. His eyes were distant and I think he and Tess were off on a private imaginary flight, high above the crowd.

A woman with a baby told me she couldn’t imagine being in a small plane as she was afraid of heights. I told her being in a small plane doesn’t feel high so she had nothing to fear. Another woman asked me to explain vertical airspeed to her. A third woman told me she’d not flown for years and wasn’t sure she could learn again. I assured her I’d been a rusty pilot myself and told her how easy it was to get back in the saddle again.

Speaking of lady pilots, swarms of children competing in an aeronautical scavenger hunt descended on Grandma Jean, hoping she was a female pilot. I in turn disappointed many by not being a helicopter pilot (I’ve one hour of instruction in a helicopter, but that doesn’t make one a helicopter pilot), but I was able to redeem myself by pointing out the “tail dragger” next door or signing off as a person who could fly more than one type of airplane. My logbook shows twenty-two types.

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Photo by Joyce Woods

I skipped out in the middle of the morning to teach a WINGs seminar, leaving Rio, Debs, Mom, and Lisa to collectively or alternately man the display; but after that, I spent the rest of the day cooling my feet in the shadow of Tessie’s wings and answering questions about Ercoupes. Largely about the fact that, no, they don’t have rudder pedals. And yes they fly just fine. And I’ll be happy to take on anyone in a crosswind-landing contest.

Several people told me that they’d come to the show just to see the Plane Tales Plane. The rest of the crew said they also heard the same thing from a handful of different people. Most had read about us in the local newspaper, some in the State aviation newsletter, and still others in Flying Magazine. One man told me he’d come just to meet me. That didn’t hurt my ego any.

I’m told that 1,600 people attended this year, up from only 800 the previous year. I doubt we can single-handedly take credit for doubling the turnout, but it’s fun to pretend so.

The entire experience was awesome. Heady. Fun. I wish I could do it every weekend. Of course the odds of us being invited to be a static display again are remote, but I think airshows are going to be part of our mission profile going forward. In fact, I was so excited that when I got home I ordered some customized wheel chocks from Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

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That way we’ll have the perfect look for the next airshow we’re invited to. Whenever that may be. After all, fame is fleeting. Like planes, it soon flies away.

Unless I can think of some other famous thing to do to keep our girl in the limelight…

 

Unfaithful

I confess. I did it. I cheated.

On my airplane.

Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I sat in another airplane’s cockpit. And like so many men before me, I can only offer the lame excuse that the other plane was so young, and pretty, and slim—that I just couldn’t help myself.

Oh, but it gets worse from there. This is more than just a taxiway fling. More than a one-air-show stand. This new girl has been on my mind. A lot. Despite hundreds of hours of loyal and faithful service on the part of the Plane Tales Plane, I find myself sneaking into my library in the middle of the night and drooling over pictures of my new would-be airborne mistress.

She has a long, thin snout. Sleek tapering lines. Low, thin wings. And a lovely empennage. No doubt the air would merely whisper around her. Her gear has smooth, rounded wheel pants. The blades of her three-bladed prop taper to wicked thin, curving tips. She has a beautiful nose, with finely chiseled air intakes; and, of course, a big spinner.

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Her canopy slides back invitingly on silky smooth rails to reveal a spacious cockpit filled with all the latest electronic goodies a pilot could desire.

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Her seats are fine leather. She has legroom, shoulder room, and headroom. And when I sat on those seats, in that cockpit, I didn’t feel merely contented and at home like I do when I climb into our old Ercoupe.

I felt younger.

I felt my inner racing pilot unleashed. I wanted to fire her up, grab her throttle, and go break some more records.

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Like many head-turning women, she’s not originally from around here, of course, which may explain her exotic looks. She’s a South African Light Sport Sling iS. And unlike many modern Light Sport planes, she’s made of metal, not plastic. Every gleaming angle and curve screams quality.

More and more since I met her, I picture myself leaping up on her wing, pulling back her canopy, sliding into her cockpit, firing up her engine, caressing her controls, and taking her off for the flight of her life.

This red and white Sling is red hot. A far cry, I’m afraid, from our Ercoupe Tessie; who’s frankly sorta dumpy by comparison. She’s a little pudgy around the middle, with a stubby, flat face and a small spinner. She has thick wings, dented and scratched, and naked wheels. Her cockpit is small and cramped.

Today I drove down to the Plane Tales airport with fantasies of the new girl dancing in my head. I pulled up outside the hangar, parked, and unlocked the towering doors. With a heave and a groan of metal the great doors slid back to reveal my faithful old airplane waiting for me.

And I felt guilty.

Tessie’s never let me down. She’s carried me far and wide on adventures big and small. And transported me to (limited) glory on her old wings, taking home a Word Speed Record and a Ercoupe Owner’s People’s Choice Award. Every flight has been a blast, and I love flying her.

I immediately felt ashamed of myself for even considering another airplane.

Right up until I got home. And then as the sun set, with Tessie not around, and no one looking, I slipped into the library and opened my Sling album; and found myself drooling over her sexy figure and daydreaming of flying her low and fast.

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Picture this

Flying is a science. And an art.

Photography is an art. And a science.

But doing both at the same time is a frickin’ nightmare.

It seems that my aerial photography is always… well… lacking. At least lacking compared to my expectations. Now I confess, the Plane Tales Plane isn’t the best photography platform in the world. Despite the fact she has visibility that rivals a greenhouse, all that wonderful 360-degree view is up and out. Fabulous to fly in, but if you want to take a picture of something on the ground, there’s a pair of wings in the way. Plus, if you take your hand off her yoke, she acts like a neglected lover; she’ll leave you in a heart beat.

And the problems don’t stop there.

You need the window open so you’re not shooting though a layer of Plexiglas, and the plane is moving over the ground at 100 miles an hour. OK, OK, it’s more like 90 miles per hour, one hundred just sounds sexier and more airplane-like. And I always hate to admit that the guy in the Honda Sonata below me can go faster than I can. (Ya gotta remember that when the Ercoupe was first developed in 1940, cars were nowhere near as fast as they are today.)

But I digress. Shooting a picture of the ground as you move over it a hundred-mile-an-hourish tends to result in funky motion-blurred images. Very pretty. Very artistic. Very useless if you’re trying to capture details of something below you. Setting the camera for very high shutter speeds can help, and some folks smarter than I suggest catching the ground target while in a sharp turn around it to reduce the ground speed over the target, which requires being a better pilot than I am.

Now, I gotta say, I have gotten some good stuff. But my bad stuff far out weighs my good stuff; and the same is true of my various camera-happy non-pilot navigators and my student-pilot son.

I don’t remember who suggested it, but during a post-flight council of war around the iMac in our library (which was displaying the latest round of sad aerial photos) someone thought it would be cool if we could mount a camera on the belly of the plane and control it from inside. I’m sure professional aerial photography outfits have been doing something like this for years, and I’m also sure such rigs cost a fortune. But with the advance of technology, the cost of things tends to drop. So Rio and I hit the internet to go shopping.

And we found that the GoPo Hero line of cameras is favored by flying photography folks, as well by as adrenaline-deficient people who jump off cliffs, wrestle alligators, and do crazy things with skateboards that break both the laws of gravity and the laws of aerodynamics. The camera is the size of a deck of cards, weighs almost nothing, and has built-in WiFi that lets any smart device serve as a remote viewfinder and controller. What’s not to love other than the price?

I logged onto my Sporty’s Pilot Shop account and ordered one on the spot.

Forty-eight hours later I was opening the box. Twenty four hours after that, I was lying on the “creeper” on the floor of the Plane Tales Hangar studying various bolts and screws on Tessie’s oil-stained belly. (If those old Continental engines aren’t leaking some oil, they’re probably out of it.)

As I don’t trust suction cups, in addition to the camera, I had purchased an Nflightcam camera mounting system that attaches itself via an existing bolt on the plane. Lisa and Rio hovered nearby offering suggestions.

My first thought had been to mount the camera behind the landing gear, out of the slipstream, facing backwards. But the only bolts and screws there were the ones on the inspection plates, and I doubted they would be strong enough. I didn’t want hundreds of dollars of camera turning into a small bomb that might do damage to targets on the ground.

After much rolling around under the plane and holding the camera in various locations we chose a spot right in front of the right main, facing forward at a 45-degree angle.

We bolted it on and it was time for a test flight or two. Rio was a true gentleman and said, “Ladies first,” but Lisa said that all things being equal she really wasn’t that lady-like (true, but a large part of her charm) and that besides, it made more sense to switch co-pilots at the terminal rather than taxi all the way back over to the hangar, and that she was licensed to drive the Jeep over there and Rio wasn’t.

Thus Rio became the first Plane Tales Photo Recon Technician.

How did it work out? Poorly. On both Rio’s and Lisa’s flights we frequently lost the signal between the camera and the iPad. The viewfinder update was slow, making it impossible to get Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” Plus the device was a power hog, sucking its battery dry in a few short sorties and leaving us with the question of who was going to climb out on the wing to turn on the darn camera once we got to some remote location we wanted to photograph, because clearly if we powered it up on the tarmac, the camera would be dead as a doornail by the time we got on location at 100ish miles per hour.

But the real Achilles heel of the Hero for us is really no fault of its own. It’s a matter of mission. Our mission was to shoot details of stuff on the ground. The Hero’s mission is to shoot pictures of people doing stuff above the ground and as such it has a very wide-angle lens. From 1,000 feet above our home-base city, we could photograph the entire city.

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But when we tried to zoom in on say, a city block, the image looked awful. This camera might be good for aerial mapping of Pooh Bear’s Hundred Acre Wood, but it is worthless for photographing small wetlands, airmail beacon arrows, or turtle habitats—in short, all the things we do.

Had it been a cheaper toy, I might have kept it, but it was too expensive to justify keeping it. I packed it up, sent it back, and we went back to the drawing board.

With a bit more careful research, I discovered that dozens of modern “point and shoot” digital cameras can be controlled by remote. Some with zoom lenses can even do their zoom thing from a iPhone or tablet. This is really key to our mission, as depending on our circumstances, the photography altitudes can vary quite a lot, as can the size of our target.

We’re still in the process of choosing which camera to try next—once bitten, twice shy—so we’re proceeding a little more slowly now. But I’m optimistic. I like the idea of using the plane herself as a camera rather than just poking a camera out the window.

I think with a little more time, experience, and the right gear, we can be picture perfect.

 

Picture Perfect

Tessie doesn’t have a bad side; she’s a pretty little thing from every angle. I’ve shot hundreds of pictures of her since she joined the family–quite the muse, that little plane. But one angle that’s always eluded me is what she looks like from below. You, know, when she’s up in the sky where she belongs.

As I’m the only licensed pilot amongst the Plane Tales Crew (at the moment), my view of our baby in flight has always been through the propeller. From the inside. Not that I’m complaining. But that changed today.

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We’ve gotten involved in a wonderful project that involves wildlife tracking. I’ll write all about that on another day, but this morning we flew a series of test flights to figure out how to place the tracking antenna on the plane, work out search patterns and altitudes, and fine tune our air-to-ground communications.

Our ground crew had several transmitters of the same kind that the biologists have out in the field. Of course, I knew where to find the crew, but the goal wasn’t hide-and-seek; the goal was to learn how far out we could expect to pick up tracking signals and how close a radial we’d need to be on to intercept that signal. In turn, that information will let me figure out how tight our search grids need to be for real-life searches.

So as I flew in circles and squares and ovals and triangles over our ground crew, they blazed away at us with their cameras and caught some the most amazing, beautiful, stunning in-flight images I’ve seen in a long time.

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You might think that we were trimming the weeds with our prop, but we were actually 800 feet above the ground—our earthbound companions had damn fine telephoto lenses capturing large files that allowed for extreme cropping.

All flying is fun, but for a change the high point of the day was actually back on the ground. That’s when, while refueling Tessie with 100 low-lead, one of the ground crew handed me her camera and said, “Here’s a picture of you  flying Tessie. I can actually make out your face.”

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I haven’t a clue why I look so serious, because inside my skin, I’m grinning like an idiot every time I fly.

Maybe, unlike Tess, I have a “bad” side, at least photographically.