An aeronautical feast for the eyes

A stubby Gee Bee Sportster, all engine. A green and yellow Laird Super Solution, a biplane so aerodynamically clean it looks poured from water, not built from wood and fabric. Ahh…. The Curtis R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle used to capture the Schneider Trophy. A Travel Air Mystery Ship in iconic fire engine red, black racing scallops on the leading edges of the wings and cowl gracing the plane with the illusion of streaking motion, even while parked. A Curtiss Jenny, so ugly and ungainly it’s beautiful. A sleek Spartan Model 7, a sexy Staggerwing, and a pudgy but oddly endearing Culver Cadet. Then, glistening like a mirror, the bullet-like Hughes H-1 Racer. And in a place of honor, the plane that started it all: The Wright Flyer.

No, it’s not the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

And it’s an aeronautical feast for the eyes, its plastic branches covered in airplanes: A complete collection of all twenty-two Hallmark The Sky’s the LimitChristmas ornaments. Since 1997 the card giant has been churning out amazing replica airplane ornaments, featuring one new civilian airplane per year. Have I been collecting them since the beginning? No, and like everything else aviation around here, it all started with an Ercoupe…

Back in 2013, when we were shopping for a real Ercoupe, Debbie found The Sky’s the Limit‘Coupe ornament on eBay. Being the cheapest Ercoupe we’d seen up to that point, she bought it for me.

The diminutive, but highly detailed, resin model sat on my desk to keep me inspired during my lengthy plane buying odyssey. But—as often happens with our family—one thing led to another, and Rio and I became obsessed with hunting down every last one of the annual miniature planes; and since then, we’ve purchased each year’s new issue. In Year One of our airplane ornament hysteria, the family Christmas tree in our house was all airplane. Debs tolerated that.

The next year, the airplanes banned by the mistress of the house in favor of more traditional holiday decor, I decided to put up a Christmas tree in the hangar to share the holiday spirit with Tessie.

Of course, the problem with a hangar Christmas tree is that, unless you have the good fortune to live in one of those airpark communities where your hangar is connected to your house, you only see the hangar tree a few times during the Christmas tree season.

Still, I gamely put up the hangar tree each year since. Until this year. Because this year I had an epiphany. (Appropriate, given the season.) This year I decided to put up the hangar tree in the newly “renovated” terminal, so that not only would we enjoy it on our flying days, but so too could all the passing pilots who land for fuel, snacks, and a clean bathroom.

So armed with eggnog, Bourbon, a plate of cookies, and one of our Red Bull Sky Lounge Boxanne Bluetooth speakers (when you turn it on, you hear Jim DiMatteo’s voice say, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on!”) the entire clan descended on the SKU terminal.

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

With Grandma Jean “supervising,” we put up the three-part white faux tree. Then Debs fluffed up the branches while Lisa and I untangled the lights. I always wrap the damn things into a neat coil at the end of each season, but during the year of storage some sort of black magic intervenes to turn the bundle into a tangle. What’s up with that?

The tree up and the lights finally strung without stringing myself up, my responsibilities were discharged and I kicked back to enjoy the vibe of family, friends, music, and aviation. Debs and Rio took the fleet of planes from their cardboard hangars, setting each one on the table as if parked on a miniature ramp, then flew each one to the tree and carefully taxied them into position.

When they were done, we set up the O Gauge Plasticville Airport terminal and hangar buildings under the tree, and then argued about how to arrange the pair of tarpaper runways. Should they look good or be true to the compass?

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.

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Then, finally done, the cookies reduced to crumbs and the eggnog running low, we turned off the overhead lights and sat warm and cozy, bathed in the cold blue taxiway-colored light of the terminal tree, and soaked in the sight.

The un-racer-looking Howard DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan,” whose long legs won the 1935 Bendix Trophy, white against the white tree. A silver and blue Cessna 195. The bird of prey-like twin engine Cessna 310. Lindy’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. The big radial Monocoupe 110, a long-winged Stinson Reliant, a Christmas red Lockheed Vega, and a humble Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a miniature of the one Rio is flying out of Santa Fe.

And of course, an Ercoupe. An Ercoupe in a Christmas tree that my true love gave to me.

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I wish I could fly like that

An ear-piercing scream reverberated across the hangar deck. I stood transfixed, horrified and fascinated as I watched the bright yellow box pitch upward then roll completely upside down. More screams. Terror mixed with pure joy.

Roller coaster screams.

The yellow box pitched violently down, then rocked side to side. Adrenaline surged into my blood stream. My mouth began to water. I wanted to join in the fun. Rio sighed deeply. “Go on, dad,” he said, giving me a gentle push on the small of my back, “go break your neck if you want to, but I’m having no part in it.”

I reached for my wallet, my right foot stepping toward the long line of teenagers. But my left foot stayed rooted firmly in place, as if riveted to the metal deck of the aircraft carrier. Damn this sense of parental responsibility! We were aboard CV-41, the USS Midway, which is docked permanently in San Diego Harbor as an awesome must-see-at-least-once-in-your-life museum; it was a Friday afternoon and there must have been double her original crew of 4,101 aboard—all tourists. The hangar deck looked like the mall at Christmas. I couldn’t leave my 12-year-old alone in that throng while I flipped myself upside down for fun. And deep down, maybe I was worried about embarrassing myself in front of all those teens. Much as I like to think I do, I wasn’t sure I had the Right Stuff.

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I looked one last time at the pitching boxes (they had a full squadron of them), then sighed and turned toward the Fantail Café. “Come on, kiddo,” I said, as I turned my back on the delighted screams, “let’s go get some lunch.”

Actually, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen one of the twisting, turning boxes. My first encounter with one was just the day before at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, an awesome must-visit-at-least-twice-in-your-life museum. Somewhere between the Spitfire and the Apollo program was a bored teenager standing in front of an empty black box, a truncated windowless mini-van on giant hydraulic brackets.

A sign indicated it was a flight simulator ride. “Let’s take it up for a spin,” I said to Rio.

He wasn’t so sure. He hemmed and hawed.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I told Rio, “it’s not like I can turn it upside down on you.”

“Actually,” said the bored teenager, who could have cared less if we bought a ride or not, “you can turn it upside down.”

Adrenaline surged into my blood stream. My mouth began to water. Now I really wanted to take the simulator up for a test flight; and now Rio really didn’t want to go. Somehow I talked him into it, but from the second the teenager locked us into the dark ride, Rio ran a constant monologue of “don’t you dare flip us upside down, don’t you dare flip us upside down, don’t you dare flip us upside down.”

A child of few words in general, I think it’s the most speech I’d heard come out of his mouth at one time in his entire life.

In the end, I ended up flying straight and level for the duration of the ride, while simulated Jap Zeros flashed by, taking pot shots at us.

It was pathetic. The ego of my inner-barnstormer was bruised, to say the least.

But the rest of the visit to the museum was great.

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Flash forward two years. AOPA has sent me to Los Angles and I’m caught in a busload full of senior citizens at the delightful Museum of Flying at the embattled Santa Monica Airport.

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As the seniors flow past, following their docent, I’m left alone in the large central foyer of the museum. And that’s when I see it: Squeezed in between large models of race planes and an honest-to-God Lockheed Vega 5B with a mannequin of Amelia Earhart in it, is a truncated windowless mini-van on giant hydraulic brackets. There’s no line. No child to worry about. Nothing to stop me.

And yet… and yet, for some reason I didn’t “fly” it. Maybe because it wouldn’t be fun alone. Or maybe because, as much as I like the idea of being bold enough to flip a simulator upside down, I don’t know if I really have the Right Stuff to do it, and, of course, I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of all of those senior citizens.

Still, I wish I could fly like that.

Without screaming, of course.

 

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.