A first date with another Jenny

Last time, on Plane Tales, I told you about a Curtiss Jenny that I’ve been seeing on the side for many years. A plane always—literally—just out of my reach. Today I want to tell you about another Jenny. One I was actually able to touch.

But first a word from our sponsor, the History Channel. Oh. Wait. We don’t have a sponsor here at Plane Tales, much less the History Channel. Oh well, here we go with the Cliff Notes history of the Curtiss Jenny, totally on the house.

The Jenny, technically the Curtiss JN-4 (the lettering on the planes used a kindergarten open-topped 4 that resembled a “y,” hence the origin of the nickname), was the primary training aircraft for US Army Air Corps prior to, and during, World War I. Did you know we went to war with only 35 military pilots? By the armistice, less than two years years after we entered the fray, that number had swelled to over 10,000—and ninety-five percent of those pilots trained in Jennies.

While that’s a remarkable feat, I think it was the second chapter of Jenny’s life that made us all fall in love with her. And for that, ironically, we also have the war to thank.

During World War I, the U.S. government spent more time building up troop strength in both men and materials than it did actually fighting—not to diss the sacrifice of my grandfather and thousands of other fighting men who saw ten lifetimes worth of combat. Still, in this short time more than six thousand Jenny trainers were built. But as soon as the war ended, the government pulled the plug on the military build up, and that growth came to a screeching halt. Then it reversed as the military was rapidly downsized. In the years following the war, the civilian airplane market was flooded with military surplus Jennies as the government sold off unneeded assets. So many more planes were built than needed, that some of the surplus Jennies were still unassembled in their shipping crates when they were sold. While common aviation lore has it that a brand-spanking-new Jenny with a spare engine could be had for as little as $250 right after the war, that’s a myth, although most of them sold for half the eight-grand each that the government paid for them a short time before.

Who bought them?

Hell raising unemployed ex-army pilots. Yeah. The era of the barnstormer was born from military surplus. Now the plane that taught most pilots to fly became the first airplane most Americans got to see in the flesh, as small bands of gypsy pilots roamed the heartland selling rides and preforming stunts.

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Image by Suchiu Art, I’ve already ordered a copy for my office wall!

But as aviation grew up, the government lost its tolerance for this wild west of the air. The powers that be wanted to make aviation respectable, and the hell raisers with their wing walking and loop the loops were in the way. They had to go, as far as the government was concerned, and to get rid of them, the bureaucrats broke out their usual weapon: Paper. Simply put, the government regulated the barnstormers clean out of business in 1927 with new pilot license, maintenance, and airworthiness requirements. The Jennies weren’t able to meet the new airworthiness guidelines, and by 1930 it was illegal to fly one in most parts of the United States. In fact, the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce sent letters to Jenny owners demanding that they be destroyed. Most were.

But not all. Ironically it was because of this barnstormer-killing set of regulations that my wish to touch a Jenny finally came true. And with that rather long introduction, we come to today’s Plane Tale…

 

It started with an invitation. Lupita Wisener, who races with me in SARL, pulled me aside at the Mark Hardin Air Race. The public-use, privately owned airport that her husband’s family has run for generations was about to mark an important milestone: The 100th Anniversary of the first airplane to land there, which was a Curtiss Jenny. Would I like to visit? It might be an interesting article, she hinted.

She was right. It did sound like an interesting article. She told me a bit more about the strip, 3F9, Wisener Field in tiny Mineola, Texas, a mere 45 miles on east of where we were standing. They had a concrete strip, a grass strip, an historic airmail beacon, a museum, and by the way, we have an authentic barnstorming Jenny. It flew in the family’s Royal Flying Circus that brothers Henry and Bryce Wisener formed in 1926. I pictured “my” Jenny, hanging just out of reach above me at Denver International.

I was sold.

Even though it was only a hop and a skip in Tessie, we just didn’t have the time to fly over after the race. We had to get back home. Some sort of silly work commitments were getting in the way of just Plane Fun. But looking at a planning chart later, I decided that a reasonable detour could be made to pay a visit on our way back home from the Big Muddy Air Race.

“Let’s put the top down,” I said to Lisa, as we skimmed above the trees at 500 feet, looking for the airport. According to our GPS, we should be right on top of it, but all we could see was an unbroken expanse of tall deep green trees. For some reason, I’d pictured Wisener Field on open, wind swept prairie.

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Photo by Lisa F. Bentson

Lisa gave me a quizzical look, as if to say, I don’t think lowering doors of clear Plexiglas will improve our visibility enough to make the field easer to spot. “Open cockpit,” I explained, sliding my side down to a blast of sauna hot and wet Texas air, “to pretend we’re in the Jenny doing the first-ever landing at Wisener. If we can find it.”

“Ah,” crackled Lisa’s voice in my headset, and she gamely slid her side down.

Right on top of the airport I spot it. A painfully narrow (and short to my high-altitude eye) ribbon of black centered in a slender slit in the trees. Ya gotta be kidding me… We bank left, enter the pattern a bit lower than suggested and start to descend.

An especially tall group of trees stands proudly right off the approach end of the runway. I doubt my ability to descend sharply enough once over them to get to the ground without running out of runway. Bizarrely, Dr. Seuss pops into my head:

 

I do not like the look of the trees,

It makes me a little week in the knees.

 

I do not like the runway length,

I’m not sure my engine has the strength.

 

To my left is a lovely gap in the towering thicket of green. I drop towards it, down into it, but now I’m at a forty-five degree angle to the runway. It’s rare that I wish for rudder pedals, but this is one approach I really would have liked to slide-slip into. I make the best of it, dropping down towards the anorexic runway 18L, but I’m high and fast. I know a lost cause when I see one. I push the throttle forward and initiate a go-around.

Up we go again above the solid green mass of trees. Banking into the pattern, I lose sight of the runway again for a minute. Where the….? Oh! There it is. Here we go…

I use the same tactic, an angled final approach, but this time I’m slower and we settle onto the runway without amassing tree leaves in our landing gear. I feel like I’m in a canyon of green. But when we taxi to a stop, get out, and stand on the wing, the trees look harmless. Shorter from the ground than they looked from the air. Clearly, I don’t have barnstormer balls.

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Photo by Lisa F. Bentson

While Lupita takes Lisa and I on a leisurely guided tour of the grounds, I’m secretly chomping at the bit to see the 100-year-old airplane. Before I meet the Wisener Jenny, I get to learn a little more about her. Apparently, the two Wisener brothers dearly loved the old Jenny, but they understood her time was passing when they got the letter from the government. Plus, they already had newer airplanes that could meet the airworthiness mandates, and they must have known this was not a battle they could win. They responded to the letter, certifying that they had destroyed the now officially un-airworthy Jenny.

Then, instead, they secretly and defiantly took her apart piece by piece, and stored her in a barn-like hangar at the edge of the runway. Which is why this Jenny is one of only about thirty or so that still exist on the entire planet.

But eight decades in the barn were unkind to the Wisner Jenny. Most of her fabric skin rotted away. Her metal rusted. Her wood skeleton dried and cracked. When the current generation of Wiseners decided to pull the Jenny back out of the barn they had some important decisions to make. Should they restore her or leave her authentic? Should they clean her up, or leave her as they found her?

In the end, they simply put the remaining parts back together, except for the rusty, corroded engine, which they placed on the hangar floor next to the skeletal Jenny.

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Most of the other remaining Jennies are either fully restored, or restored enough to look like they would have looked in their heyday. Some still actually fly. At the AirVenture museum there’s a half-covered Jenny, but it has shiny, varnished spars and ribs. I doubt it looked that good the day it left the Curtiss factory.

So this Jenny is sad, but she’s real. She’s a time capsule that shows the complexity of the construction, and the materials and techniques used at the dawn of the mass-production of airplanes. Sure, she’s dirty and dusty and rusty, but she’s also a holy relic, and I’m pretty sure it’s some sort of sin to clean up a holy relic. It would be like sending the Shroud of Turin out to the dry cleaners to get the stains out.

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A picture of the Wisner Jenny in her heyday graces the engine compartment. Photo by Lisa F. Bentson.

I walked around her time and time again. Unlike most museums, it was possible to get up close and personal with this Jenny. I took in the wood tailskid with its metal collar, the rudder bar, the fragmentary remains of the instrument panel. The model T Ford radiator. The dried and cracked leather around the twin cockpits, the oddly broken control stick, snapped off close to the floor.

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Photo by Lisa F. Bentson

Her wheels are spoaked like a bicycle. Her fuselage is pencil-thin. Her wings are tall and wide, a maze of wire, ribs, and spars that’s dizzying. We think of Jennies as simple beasts. Instead, her complexity is mid-numbing.

And, yes, once I was done taking her in with my eyes, I was able to reach out my hand and touch her.

Finally, I was able to touch aviation history.

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Photo by Lisa F. Bentson

 

Biggest, baddest, longest ever

I’m seeing red. A giant swath of red. I knew it was coming, it had to, but… Wow. I just didn’t expect it to be this damn big. So much red… the color of warning, the color of danger. The color, it so happens, that Garmin chose to mark TFRs—Temporary Flight Restrictions—on their interactive flight charts.

Have we talked about TFRs before? They’re special, short-term pieces of prohibited air space. There’s one that follows the president wherever he goes, a red cloud of Keep Out airspace floating over his head. Other TFRs are established over open arena sporting events. Still others over fire fighting operations. The one I’m looking at now is for “disaster response and recovery efforts.” It’s over the city of Houston, still reeling from the massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

And like all things in Texas, the TFR is big.

I set my FlightPad down on the kitchen table, and gently place a fingertip on each side of the red trapezoid. The measuring tool in the app pops up. The Texas-sized TFR is 130 miles wide.

A 130-mile wide disaster area.

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And this TFR isn’t as temporary as its name implies. It’s not set to expire for eight more days. During that time, from the surface to 4,000 feet all flying is banned, including drones, except for flights engaged in rescue efforts coordinated by the Texas Air Operations Center.

I see a smaller 18-mile wide TFR embedded in the larger one. A TFR within a TFR? Curious, I touch my finger to it. The details pop up: Hazard—Gas leak.

Holy cow.

Like the rest of the country, I was glued to the Weather Channel as Harvey made a run for Texas coast and came ashore, but my schedule has kept me away from TVs since. Naturally I’ve listened to CNN’s coverage on my satellite radio, but with no visuals it’s been hard for me to really grasp the scope of the disaster.

But this simple red trapezoid on a map unfolds the story for me in a way a thousand news photos couldn’t. More than 6,000 square miles of Texas air space is closed for rescue operations. That’s 6,000 square miles of human suffering, of fear, of pain. Thousands of souls, lost—for a time—in that sea of red.

It’s hard to imagine, even in Texas, where everything is bigger.

 

Small treasures

Confession: I like museums; and I especially like unlikely museums. Take, for example, the humble-looking blue-roofed metal building near the entrance of the North Texas Regional Airport. This structure—easily mistaken for a low-rent industrial building—is the home of the Perrin Air Force Base Historical Museum. It’s an airplane museum, and a whole lot more. But to understand that, you need to know a few things about the unlikely history of the base.

Back in the 1940s, the county fathers of Grayson County north of Dallas hoped to attract some sort of federal facility to provide jobs and money to the community. They dispatched County Judge Jake J. Loy on a pilgrimage to Washington D.C. to convince the feds to build a munitions factory on a piece of land they conveniently owned in the middle of nowhere, between the towns of Dennison and Sherman.

He failed.

But he did score an Army Air Force training base instead. And thus was born Perrin Field.

It actually opened before World War II, but like most of the 783 Army Air Force fields built in the continental U.S. during the war, it was shuttered almost as soon as the ink was dry on the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.

But the Perrin story didn’t end there. Unlike most of the AAF bases, which got turned over to local communities to serve as municipal airports, Perrin got a second lease on military life.

The base reopened a few years later during the Korean conflict, and evolved to become a major training base for the United States Air Force during the cold war. It stayed active until 1971, when finally, like its World War II brothers, it was turned over to the local community and ultimately became North Texas Regional Airport.

But while it was open, because it was a large military base in a warm climate, retirees from all branches of the service settled in the area to take advantage of the base’s medical facilities and discount base exchange.

Which brings us back to our museum. Run by the non-profit Perrin Field Historical Society, its charter is to “record and preserve the story of Perrin Field during thirty years of operating as a active military installation.”

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And it does that through a splendid collection of artifacts donated by service men (and women) who worked at the base.

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The collection ranges from uniforms, to training aids, to an honest-to-God jet training airplane. Cases and cases of fascinating artifacts fill the building, which is run by cheerful volunteers who guide you through the collection answering questions and pointing out things you might otherwise miss, like the fact that the picture of the P-40 on the wall isn’t a picture. It’s cross-stitch.

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And it’s not just Air Force Stuff. Remember all those retirees from other braches of the service I told you about? Retired Marines, Soldiers, and Seaman have been generous with their memorabilia. In fact, the museum volunteers tell me it’s not unusual for them to show up at work in the morning and find—like an abandoned baby on the doorstep—a box of artifacts sitting by the front door. One time, they arrived to find an anonymously donated military surgeon’s kit, complete with morphine from the 1950s!

The kit, minus the morphine now, is on display.

Like many small museums, you can get up close and personal with the collection and there are plenty of things for children and the young at heart to get hands-on with.

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So should you find yourself in Dennison-Sherman (hey, it could happen), make time to spend a few hours at this little treasure of a museum.

 

Wicked jets, shark-mouthed warbirds, and… a pink race plane?

The gull-winged Vaught F4U-4 Corsair of Black Sheep Squadron fame, arguably one of the most beautiful war planes of all time, is painted a deep glossy blue—nearly black. She sits near the hangar door, wings mimicking praying hands, folded upward towards the heavens.

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The man who taught me my commercial, instrument, and mountain skills—Gil Harris—flew one of these as a Marine pilot in the Pacific during World War II. Every time I see one of the iconic fighter planes I think of him.

But now, with the spinner high above my head, I’m struck once again by just how damn big the thing is, especially for a one-man fighter. It’s over 33 feet long from nose to tail. Unfolded, the wings stretch to 41 feet. But most impressively, the top of the engine stands nearly 15 feet off the ground. This one, with her wings reaching upward literally towers over me.

And it bears my Race Number: 53.

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Funny the way the aviation world is so full of connections. But it’s chilly inside the massive 64,000 square-foot-hangar, so I cut short my communion with the past and its links to the present, and move on to the next exhibit, a rare two-seat P-51 D Mustang named Friendly Ghost. Next on the flight line is a shark-mouthed P-40 Warhawk, the same type the Flying Tigers flew, but this one is in Army Air Force colors.

On the tail of the plane, a cowboy is urinating on the Rising Sun.

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I admire the moxie, but I sure wouldn’t want that on my tail if the Japanese shot me down.

I turn, and in the shadow of a gleaming black twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning is another old friend. Painted bright, cheerful yellow, a tiny Piper Cub manages to hold it’s own among the massive warbirds. A sign in the windshield says that it’s a 1937 model, and that it’s the oldest flyable Piper airplane in the world.

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And that’s what makes this museum special. The War Eagles Air Museum prides its self on keeping its collection aloft. Under nearly every one of the thirty-seven planes in their main hangar sits an oil pan. That’s not something you see in most air museums, where former denizens of the air are often shown as “static” displays, permanently grounded, shot and stuffed birds in a natural history diorama.

Airplanes are born to fly. I like museums that keep them flying, which is no easy thing to do. It’s much cheaper to park a plane and dust it off once a month than to keep it airworthy. It takes extra dedication to keep a collection aloft.

Next to the Cub, on a stand, is a cub engine. A 40-horse Continental A40-4. Ridiculously improbable as an aircraft engine, it’s small and simple. It looks like it belongs in a lawn mower rather than in an airplane. I have a vision of being able to tuck it under my arm and carry it to my mechanic for maintenance (although according to the internet, it weighs 150 pounds, and I’m not that strong).

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Looking down the isle, it’s airplanes as far as I can see.

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This world-class museum is in the unlikely location of Santa Teresa, New Mexico, population: 4,258. The village sits 30 miles west of El Paso, Texas, and six miles north of the Mexican border. Santa Teresa is Spanish for Saint Teresa, one of the patron saints of pilots.

Like I said, the universe is full of connections.

The collection of planes, like that of many airplane museums, is heavy on both military aircraft and World War II aircraft; but there is a handful of biplanes, two helicopters, a number of early fighter jets from the 50s, and a lovely DC-3. The museum is comfortably crowded, unlike the Mid-American Air Museum in Liberal, Kansas, which is uncomfortably crowded. War Eagles also has an interesting array of aviation artifacts—mementos, photos, uniforms, models, and more.

For car lovers, the museum includes a collection automobiles. In fact, they have more autos than airplanes, with more than fifty cars ranging from a 1908 Overland to a 1984 Jaguar, along with a great collection of antique gas pumps.

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Rounding a corner under the wing of a twin-engine Douglas A-26 light bomber, an unusual airplane catches my eye. Suspended from the ceiling in one corner is a Cessna 140.

And it’s Mary Kay pink.

I stop and rub my eyes, then look again. Yep. A lovely shade of pastel pink. Not normally a color you see an airplane painted. Her nose and wheel pants are painted a darker pink, as are her wing tips. She’s also sporting a Race Number: 22.

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Tickled pink, and I couldn’t wait to learn more about this unusual airplane.

Briefly, this is the story of Race 22, a.k.a. the “Cotton Clipper Cutie:” The small Cesena was the First Place winner of the 1954 all-women’s air race. Variously called the Women’s Air Derby, the All-Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, and today known as the Air Race Classic; the press at one time dubbed the long-running women’s cross country air race as the “Powder Puff Derby,” a moniker that different generations of women pilots have alternately either embraced or shunned.

The pink plane was piloted by Ruth Deerman and Ruby Hays of El Paso, now both sadly deceased. They were no strangers to the arduous race. They competed in the 1950, 1951, 1953 races without scoring a major victory, but their luck changed in 1954.

Flying from Long Beach, CA to Knoxville, TN, with nine intermediate stops, the women covered the nearly 2,000 mile route in five days, clocking an official speed of 123.9 miles an hour for the course, taking the first place slot in the 8th running of the race, and beating out fifty competitors.

The Women’s Race is a “handicapped” race, a system that places all the planes in the race on an equal footing. The winner isn’t the plane with the biggest engine; the winner is the plane with the best crew. Winning speed comes from precision flying, smart planning, finding and taking advantage of winds, and apparently, being fast on the ground, too.

According to the display, Hays, the copilot/navigator, related that—wearing a dress, nylons, a hat and gloves—she dashed from the plane at one of the checkpoints to get their log stamped and “took a spill” on some loose gravel, sliding right under the table!

She called it ignominious. But they won.

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The ladies donated the historic race plane and their trophy to the museum in 1994, along with a collection of memorabilia that includes a great photo of the two women lying on the ground waxing the belly of the plane with Wonder Earth glass wax.

So did Race 22 win the derby wearing pink? Sadly, no. She was painted pink in later years. A faded period B&W photo shows the polished silver plane as she looked crossing the finish line.

But now in the pink, she’s quite the eye catcher.

 

Get well soon, Tessie

I thought the worst was over when Tessie broke down. That was a bad day. Not 100 miles from home, in Clovis, New Mexico, our girl wouldn’t restart after landing to wait out a line of thunderstorms.

A pair of local mechanics worked valiantly to get us back in the air so we could make our race, but it didn’t happen. After months of racing, with victory within our grasp, a “mechanical” took us out of the running. I knew that missing this one race, this late in the season, would put my competitors far enough ahead that there was no way in hell I could catch up. All my efforts—long hours, vast miles, big money—wasted.

It was a lot to process.

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Once the family arrived to rescue me (via car) all the talk surrounded how “lucky” we were, and how “blessed” we were to have broken down on the ground, rather than in the air. While I don’t deny that this is true, I was pissed off that we broke down at all. We take exceedingly good care of Tessie.

This should not have happened.

I remained grumpy all the way home. Even two Mexican beers and green chili chicken enchiladas at Santa Rosa’s Silver Moon didn’t do much for my mood.

The next day I woke up with a black cloud over my head, not that it mattered much with no plane to fly. We had to leave our girl behind, tied down on the dirt outside the mechanic’s hangar at the far end of Taxiway Bravo in Clovis. It made me heartsick to drive away and leave her there.

Hopefully, she gets well soon.

I spent the next day writing up the story for General Aviation News as part of my ongoing series on air racing. After all, breakdowns are part of the story of racing. A breakdown that costs you everything you’ve strived for is an even “better” story, I suppose.

The following day was Race Day. I was up with the dawn, knowing that soon, over 800 miles away, my friends and rivals would be racing. I could picture the planes lined up on the ramp, the racers waxing their wings, putting gap tape on their cowls, warming up their engines.

And I suddenly felt painfully alone. Isolated. Left out.

It’s the first race I’ve missed since racing took over my life. I didn’t think it would get to me so badly. I had no way of knowing what was happening. Did all the planes show? What were the winds like? Did my competitor happen to have the same bad luck I did?

I was bluer than my race shirt.

There’s no fast news out of a SARL race. It’s not like we’re on Fox Sports or anything. As the minutes and hours crawled by, I awaited news from the race, checking my email every five minutes to see if one of my buddies would give me the scoop. I tried to read to while away the time. Finally, I cracked open a bottle of wine.

Rather early in the day.

In the end, I was so stressed out I actually fell asleep in a comfy chair in our library. I never sleep during the day. Unless I’m sick. But, I guess in a way I’m as sick as my plane.

And I doubt I’ll get fully well again until Tessie does.

 

An extra 200 miles

We were driving home from the airport. Debs had rescued me after I ferried Tess home from maintenance in Santa Fe. “The bummer,” I was telling my wife as she exited Interstate 40, “is that we’ll only be 200 miles from the Atlantic, but we just don’t have the time to go see it.”

Debbie was silent for a moment, her dark eyes pondering the horizon. “But that’s only two hours at the speeds Tessie flies, right?” she asked. “Surely you can afford two hours.”

“Sure. If it were only two hours. But we have to get there. Then we have to get back, and that will take longer with the head winds. Plus we wouldn’t want to just take a glance and leave. We’d need to add a full day. And if we did that, we wouldn’t be back on time.”

Debbie drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “I’d hate for Rio to miss the opportunity. Maybe you should just stay on the road. Don’t come home between the two races.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to me. “We’d be gone… like… two weeks,” I said.

“I won’t like it,” said Deb with a sigh, “but I’ll survive.”

“Rio will miss a ton of school,” I pointed out.

“You seriously think he’d learn more in school?”

No. I didn’t.

Our next race is the Southern Nationals, in Greenwood, South Carolina. As the crow flies—if it were flying a Great Circle route—it’s 1,276 miles away. That’s a long way from New Mexico by any mode of transportation, much less an airplane that is barely faster than a car. And of course, even with GPS, you can’t really fly from point to point over that kind of distance. There isn’t always a gas station where you need one. Sometimes tall mountains get in your way, as can restricted airspace, military reservations, or giant airports around our largest cities with the mind-numbing complex airspace restrictions.

The flight plan Rio and I laid out takes us from our home base at the Route 66 Airport to Panhandle-Carson County, northeast of Amarillo, for fuel, then on to Oklahoma City to visit a pair of aviation museums and spend the night. Day two has us gassing up in Poteau, Oklahoma and then touching down for the night near Little Rock to visit a friend. Day three is a long haul with two fuel stops: Booneville Mississippi (presumably pronounced Boon-ville, not Boonie-ville), and Calhoun, Georgia before arriving in Greenwood—hopefully in time for the SARL “Low Country Boil with shrimp” the night before the race.

Quite an undertaking, in an Ercoupe, no less. But things get more complicated, as you’ll see.

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The next race after Southern is the Ghost Run Air Race in Jasper, Texas, 675 miles away for our crow. Ghost is the weekend following Southern, so even though it’s quite a bit farther south, it just didn’t make sense to me to fly “right” past it on the way home, and then turn around a few days later and fly back out to it. It also didn’t make sense to cool my heels for three or four days in southeast Texas.

In the end we cooked up an overly complex scheme. After the race in South Carolina, Rio and I would fly to Shreveport, Louisiana, hangar Tess, and hop a commercial flight home. Three days later, I’d hop another commercial flight back out, ferry Tess the hundred-ish miles from Shreveport to Jasper, fly the race, then go home. The plan saved a lot of wear-and-tear on the plane and kept Rio from missing too much school.

But now the Atlantic Ocean is beckoning. And as Debs pointed out, he’ll lean more walking an Atlantic beach himself than reading about it in a textbook.

Plus it seemed such a waste to be that close and not go the extra mile

Well… 200 miles.

 

Back again

The gust came out of nowhere. With a loud clatter the sign toppled over. Race 53 pens scattered across the asphalt. Preferred Altitude business cards swirled about my legs like a school of angry Piranhas.

But the wind wasn’t done with me yet.

As I lifted the display easel off of the tarmac, a second gust of wind snatched the three-foot by two-foot sheet of foam core, tearing it off the easel and sending it sailing through the air. To my horror it flew, dagger-like, straight toward a half-built GlaStar parked near by. The pilot-owner had spent the last two years drilling holes for rivets and I sure as hell didn’t want my sign scratching his paint the first time he displayed the plane. As I dashed after the sign I heard a second crash and glanced over my shoulder to see our other easel resting on Tessie’s tail.

One second before striking the GlaStar, the wind slackened and dropped the sign to the deck under the plane’s left wing. I ducked under the wing and stomped on the sign to pin it to the ground. Shouts behind me. I turned and saw the sun canopy for the Angel Flight booth, a giant blue pyramid with four skinny aluminum poles at each corner, rising from the ground, slowly spinning as it lifted into the sky above the airport parking lot. It reminded me of the lunar lander with its spider-like landing gear. The canopy reached an altitude of about 30 feet, then the dust devil released it, and the canopy slowly drifted back down, now a parachute.

It was the strangest flight I’ve ever seen. And a bizarre end to another awesome day at Double Eagle II Airport on the northwest side of Albuquerque. Like last year, we’d been invited to be one of the show’s static displays—airplanes front and center for visitors to get up close and personal with. Also, like last year, we started the event by flying into the “big” airport, the Albuquerque International Sunport, the day before, and visiting with both Cutter Aviation and Bode Aero for a makeover. They spent all day washing and waxing and buffing Tessie until she looked like she just rolled off the assembly line. Then, before the sun rose, Rio and I lifted off of the 150 foot wide, 13,793-foot long Runway 08 (between airliners), and headed across the sleeping city for the Fly-In.

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It was a grand day. Not too hot, not too cold. Just enough of a breeze to keep the air fresh, but not enough (until the end) to cause our giant signs—one about last year’s world speed record, and one about this year’s air racing—to escape from their water jug-weighted easels.

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A good-sized crowd turned out again this year and our plane was first on the line as people came in the gates.

Our whole gang was on hand. Grandma Jean sat in her official Air Racer folding chair under an umbrella and chatted with passers-by. Rio cruised the trade show and watched a 3-D printer making airplane parts and EAA key chains. Debbie alternately took in the sights and charmed visitors. Lisa snapped pictures and manned the Ninety-Nines booth in the exhibit hangar. I took the time to attend one of the three pilot seminars offered, but mainly I leaned on Tessie’s top cowl and chatted with the folks passing by.

Some had questions:

Is it true Ercoupes don’t have rudder pedals? Yep.

What do Ercoupes cost? Not much to buy, a lot to maintain.

How long have you owned her? I don’t, she’s my mother’s airplane.

Seriously? You race? How-frickin-cool! Indeed.

Others had stories to tell. An elderly World War II vet flew Hellcats off the Yorktown in the Pacific theater. After the war he owned an Ercoupe. At least he did until a problem forced him down in a wheat field. Plane and pilot were fine. But the wife wasn’t.

She made him sell the Coupe.

But the kids were the greatest. Kids automatically love airplanes and are full of questions about them. The bolder children I boosted up on the wing to look into Tessie’s cockpit. A few sat in the pilot’s seat to try her on for size. With the shyer ones, I sat cross-legged on the ground under her spinner—at kid altitude—to talk with them one-on-one about airplanes.

Again and again and again throughout the day I heard, “What a beautiful airplane.” And at the end of the day, we were awarded the coveted people’s choice award. Not a bad coup for a ‘Coupe, especially considering we were parked next to a cherry Stearman biplane.

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A fun day. Such fun that even the wind wanted to drop by for a visit.

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Photo by Larry Bell

 

An aircraft carrier landing

I could tell that the airport was too big for its britches from the downwind leg. It simply didn’t fit on the hill it was built on. Like a basketball player trying to sleep on a toddler’s bed, the runway hung off the edges of its hilltop on both ends, the thresholds and numbers perched on giant earthworks, shored up with stone walls.

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I found it an interesting engineering solution until I turned final. At that point the airport looked remarkably like the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. Only, you know, it was a helluva lot longer.

And it wasn’t pitching up and down.

Still, the first few chords of Kenny Logins’ theme song from the classic movie Top Gun strummed themselves across my synapses: ‘up the engine, listen to her howlin’ roar, metal under tension, begging you to touch and go, highway to the danger zone…

As I dropped down out of the cool morning sky toward the strip of asphalt a mile above sea level north of Aztec, New Mexico, the wall under the threshold of Runway 8 got larger and larger and larger… and on short final, headed toward the vertical stone wall below the numbers, I realized that if I went below glide slope I’d smack head-first straight into all that rock.

So it really could be a highway to the danger zone.

I came to Aztec numerous times as a child, and I have fond memories of the reconstructed Great Kiva at the Anasazi ruins near the city. I remember walking to that vast bowl carved out of the earth. A cool, dim respite from blazing heat and light outside. The smell of damp clay in the cathedral-like sacred space nestled deep into mother earth.

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And of the A&W restaurant across the river.

Steak fingers, cream gravy, fries, shredded lettuce salad in a styrofoam cup, and Texas toast with a frosty mug of root beer.

But my adventures in Aztec had always been by car. This was my first landing at N19, the Aztec Municipal Airport. I never did find out what the story with the runway built over the edges of its hill was. The handy AirNav website shows that the airfield has been there since January of 1941, so it was built before World War II. My guess was that it started out life as an airport that fit in its location, and just like any other living thing, it grew up and got bigger and bigger, and that at some point the city fathers decided that it was simpler to make the hill bigger than to move the airport.

Now, I’d been tipped off that refueling at Aztec was… different… but I wanted to avoid the landing fee at nearby Farmington—even though I would have liked to visit it as a homecoming: That’s where I passed my Private Pilot Check ride over three decades ago.

What could be different, you ask? This is how I was told refueling at Aztec works: The gas pump has a padlock. The key to the padlock is in a safe. The safe is in the pilot’s lounge. The combination to the safe is a number every pilot should know. To fuel up, you find the safe, figure out the combination, get the key, unlock the pump, and gas up your plane. You then call the golf course—of all places—with your credit card number and pay over the phone, using the honor system on how many gallons you just put in your plane’s tanks.

What’s not to love about a system like that?

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After I taxied up and shut down in front of the pump, an elderly local Bonanza pilot and his young grandson came over to chat (what a cool-looking plane!) and he saved me the first few steps by unlocking the pump for me. I guess all the local pilots have keys. I put five gallons in the right tank, four in the left, and returned the nozzle to the pump. The sign on the pump gave the number for the golf course. I pulled my cellphone from the zipper pocket above my knee on my flight pants and dialed.

It rang once.

It rang twice.

It rang thrice. Then someone picked up, “Hey, it’s Roger.”

I was momentarily taken back… “Uh… Hi, I’m trying to reach the golf course…?”

“Nope, this is City Hall.”

I’m used to the west being causal, but not City Hall being identified as, ‘Hey, it’s Roger.’

“I… uh… sorry… uh… I’m a pilot up here at the airport and the sign on the pump said…”

“Right, right. Not to worry,” interrupted Roger, “we take care of that now. Well. Only we can’t. Because our credit card machine is down.” There was a momentary silence. “Tell you what, why don’t you just text me the number of gallons you put in, and we’ll catch up with you next week.”

So I texted 9.0 gallons, snapped the padlock shut, climbed up on my wing, and slid down into the cockpit. As I flipped on my master switch for engine start, I briefly wished I had time to slip down the hill for an A&W root beer in a frosty mug. But it was time to hit the highway to the fun zone.

Off the runway that didn’t fit on its hill.

An empty nest

I’m not jealous. Oh. Wait. Yes I am. I’m jealous of the fact that my stupid airplane seems to like the company of her mechanics more than she likes the company of her pilot.

Now, whenever I visit the shop, Tessie is parked with all the other airplanes like nothing is going on, but I suspect that as soon as I leave, they put silk pillows under her landing gear, massage her rudders, and ply her with warm oil. I think that’s why she likes their hangar better than her own. Lord knows she spends enough time there.

Or it could just be that 69-year-old airplanes tend to breakdown a lot.

At any rate, we’d just come back from a long cross country up to Washington state to run a race. As you might expect when flying over 2,600 miles, a number of things broke down on us during the adventure, but field repairs kept us going.

When I dropped Tessie off, the boys at the shop assured me they’d have her ready for her next adventure: A comparatively short flight out to the Ercoupe Owners Club national convention in Terrell, Texas.

Tess was (slightly) overdue for an oil change. Her mains were bald and needed new rubber. The copilot door had shattered on the trip and the jigsaw puzzle pieces of Plexiglas were held together with clear packing tape. We were getting a new pattern of oil on the cowl—the airplane equivalent of a bloody nose. And then there was the funny smell. Off and on. Like burning French toast.

It ended up being the French toast that ate my lunch.

The night before our flight my mechanic Steve called. Never a good sign when your mechanic calls. Especially after hours. “Have you been having any trouble with the generator?” He asked.

Nope. Why?

Well, I wasn’t having any trouble, but apparently it gave up the ghost. Or maybe Tessie was just enjoying those silk pillows too much and was playing possum. At any rate, Steve had noticed that when he ran up the engine for a quick test after locating the nosebleed oil leak that the ammeter wasn’t ammating. He put some test leads on the generator and discovered it wasn’t putting out any juice.

At all.

Of course, airplanes fly just fine without their electrical systems. In fact, when Tessie was built, she didn’t even have one. Tess’s power system does two modern things: It assists with engine starting and it runs the radios. If I wanted to “hand prop” the engine to start it, and didn’t want to talk to anyone on the radio, flying out to the convention with no generator would be no problem.

If it had been right before a race, I might have done it. But for a convention, it didn’t seem worth the stress. I ended up going in a Jeep instead, which was only slightly better than the poor guy who came in a Cessna because his Coupe broke down, too. They made him park his alternate plane waaaaaaaay down on the end of the ramp.

Away from all the other planes.

And people didn’t talk to him much.

I’m kidding, of course. The Coupers are a great group and are warm and equally welcoming whether you come by Ercoupe, Cessna, or Jeep Cherokee. But Tess was missed. Given the splash she’s made in the racing world, lots of folks wanted to see her in person. It also cost us the chance to win the People’s Choice Award a second year in a row. (We considered stuffing the ballot box, but decided that an absent plane winning might arouse suspicion.) Plus, Rio missed out on getting the youngest pilot award, as you have to fly in to receive the award. Just attending isn’t enough. Pity, as at 14 he was by far the youngest pilot, and at 91 his Grandma was the oldest.

And by staying behind, Tess ended up missing out on a hangar I bet she would have liked even more than the one her mechanics have—or her own—because the whole family stayed at the Birdhouse Fly-in B&B, just southwest of Terrell. Yes, Tess missed out on the chance to sleep with her peeps, because the Birdhouse is a family- and airplane-friendly hangar. It’s a massive wood paneled, air-conditioned, luxury hangar with three bedrooms and two and a half baths for people to sleep in, plus a wide, deep hangar for their airplanes to join them in.

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There’s an awesome kitchen and two and a half baths, one equipped with a huge whirlpool spa fed by dual showerheads. I noticed that bathroom was labeled as the Ladies room. What’s up with that?

The Birdhouse sits on a 2,500-foot private grass strip, and the grounds include possibly the most romantic stone fireplace gazebo on the planet.

Now I know what Debbie wants for Christmas.

The Birdhouse is run by race pilot, and Hostess with the Mostess, Ann Elise Bennett, who lives in a second hangar next door with her beloved X-Ray: A powerful (and smoke equipped!) Cesena 182. Ann Elise took Grandma Jean for a joy ride over the Texas countryside:

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I can’t speak for the rest of the family, but after staying three nights at the Birdhouse, I was totally ready to spend the rest of my life living in a hangar. I loved the high ceilings and the feel of space. I just wished I could have shared the hangar, with, you know, our airplane.

Maybe next year.

Meanwhile, on her silk pillows, Tess is getting her generator replaced by a brand-spanking-new lightweight alternator, and her pull-start system replaced by a fully electrical one. No more law-mower starts! We’ll just press a button to swing the prop. She’ll be ready for engine start in time for the AirVenture Cup Race.

And the convention? Even planeless, it was a blast. Lots of Ercoupes. Lots of Ercoupe people. There were tech seminars and the chance to compare two dozen planes. Huh. We don’t have that. Oh look at that mod. That’s cool. There were social gatherings, too. We had the chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones. Overall, the flavor of the convention was: Family reunion.

Even if I was missing an important member of our family the whole time.

 

Eating local

“Where’s the best place to eat around here?” I asked the lineman.

“Well, we’ve got an Applebee’s,” he replied with great pride, “about four miles down the road, on the left, you can’t miss it.”

Rio and I exchanged a critical look. “Uh… any thing more local?” I pressed, “We’ve got an Applebee’s back home, and we always like to try something we can’t get at home when we’re traveling.”

The lineman seemed befuddled by this. “Well… what are you in the mood for?”

Now, Lisa and I made that mistake a few weeks ago when we were in the mood for a steak in a town that didn’t have good steaks. I parried, “What’s the local specialty?”

The lineman hesitated. Fidgeted with his pen, and finally said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Clearly he’d never had this sort of conversation before. Clearly my new plan of when in Rome, eat what the Romans are eating, wasn’t working out too well either. The conversation started to go downhill from there, so I placed our fuel order and signed for the crew car.

At the hotel I asked the front desk clerk, “Where’s the best place to eat around here?”

“We have an Applebee’s,” she replied with upbeat enthusiasm, “about two miles down the road, on the left, you can’t miss it.”

“Uh… anything more local?” I pressed, “we’ve got an Applebee’s at home and we always like to try something new when we’re traveling.”

The clerk bit her lip, “That’s pretty much the best place in town.”

I found that hard to believe, but I didn’t press her further.

The gas gauge on the crew car was on “empty,” and remembering the time in Liberal, Kansas when the crew car gave up the ghost on us and left us stranded, we stopped at a station next to the hotel to add a few gallons. I asked the guy at the gas station where a good place to eat was. You guessed it: Applebee’s. When I pressed for local flavor he said, “Well, we’ve got a bunch of Mexican places that are pretty all right.”

We are from New Mexico. This was Texas. Even the best Mexican food in Texas is bound to disappoint.

And you know what? In the end, the Applebee’s was very good.

When in Rome… even if the Romans are eating at Applebee’s.

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