Worth changing your flight plan to visit

I parked in the deserted lot in front of Doc’s peekaboo hangar, walked up, and pressed my nose against the glass to get a better look.

I wasn’t the only one to have done so. The towering glass windows were pristine above the seven-foot level; but below that, to the left and to the right—for seventy feet in either direction—were smudges, fingerprints, and handprints on the dark glass.

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Cupping my hands into a scuba mask-like oval around my eyes to block out the glare and the reflection, being careful this time to get as close to the glass as possible without touching it, I took a second look. In the dying light of the day, the lovingly restored World War II bomber was a beautiful thing. Not a machine of war; rather, a pristine, polished, gleaming work of modern art.

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Then, back in my car again, I slowly drove on up Airport Road, checking out the signs of the various businesses. Large hangars displayed the logos of Beechcraft, Cessna, Hawker, Textron. Signature Flight Support had an outlet, as did Rockwell. Flight Safety International had a campus. I was cruising around the neighborhood of Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport. It’s quite the healthy aviation ecosystem.

But, of course, Wichita is supposed to be the air capital of the world.

Then, as I passed Ylingling Aviation’s block-long building, a sign caught my eye. A graphic of an orange wind sock at half-mast and the words: The Aviator’s Attic. And below that: Gifts and Pilot Supplies.A pilot shop!  I slammed on the brakes.

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I love pilot shops. I quickly parked and dashed inside to check it out. Although excited at my unexpected find, I was cautiously pessimistic. Why? Well, I don’t know how many pilot shops you’ve been to, but frankly, most are the retail equivalent of a ratty flight school trainer that’s been on a ramp a decade too long. They are dirty, disorganized, and inventory-wise tend to be limited to ASA training books, overpriced headsets, local charts, remove-before-flight keychains, and the occasional aviation-themed wine bottle stopper.

Imagine my delight to find a long, skinny store with dazzling collection of flying merchandise from floor to model-airplane-bedecked ceiling, with the best mix of practical and impractical aviation stuff I’ve ever seen under one roof. Sure, there were charts, and headsets, and flight bags, and training materials. But so too, there were whiskey glasses with aircraft instruments printed on them, and teddy bears with flight jackets, and jewelry, and art, and T-shirts, and metal signs, and hundreds of aviation-themed refrigerator magnets.

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And beyond this mouth-watering inventory, the shop was just plane beautiful. Oh. Sorry, I meant to say plain beautiful. Well, it’s both. The lighting is perfect. The merchandise is arranged creatively and attractively, and the floor is so clean you could probably perform surgery on it.

It’s aviation Nirvana. Valhalla. Heaven. Take your pick.

Now, you probably didn’t know this, but in addition to being a certified pilot and ground instructor, I’m also a certified aviation shopaholic. Yes, I’ve logged thousands of hours collecting cool aviation stuff from eBay, Amazon, Sporty’s, the Wright Collection, and more. If it exists, I probably own it. Or if I don’t own it, I either didn’t like it, or more likely, I couldn’t afford it. I only confess to this so you’ll have perspective when I tell you that I didn’t see anything new in the Aviator’s Attic. But I saw everything that’s worth seeing from in any aviation catalog or website on the planet. It’s a remarkable collection, and of course even the slickest website or catalog is a poor substitute for holding an object of desire in your hands. Feeling the heft, turning it over and over to view it from every angle.

Although there really wasn’t anything in the shop I needed, I picked up some more adult beverage glasses for the Plane Tales Hangar, and I bought a few gifts for pilot friends and family—on the theory that it’s important to support any business that’s trying so hard, and succeeding so brilliantly.

The Aviator’s Attic is so infused with a love of aviation that I assumed it was run by a pilot. Not so. The shop is run by non-pilot Heather Cochran, who somehow has tapped into the pulse of pilots, and is clearly a woman of imbecilically good taste and marketing savvy. And I was sure glad she was open late.

It would have been a shame to leave nose prints on her store’s windows.

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Back in the saddle again

The nose of the blue airplane kisses the waypoint on my flight pad’s display. “Race 53, Turn 2,” I announce, flipping the yoke to the left. Tess’s right wing snaps skyward. I pull back swiftly, keeping her nose from dropping. G-forces push me back in my seat. A gravity-fed rush of adrenaline places me in slow motion. It’s happening in milliseconds, but it feels like minutes. Calmly looking left, down along her wing, the ground below slowly spins as I pirouette around the tall, skinny storage tank that serves as the turn pylon. I’m right on target. I snap the yoke back to the right to level the wings, pushing in to nail her nose to the horizon. Time speeds up again, and I let out a whoop of pure joy.

I’d forgotten how much I love this kind of flying.

Of course, this isn’t for real. It’s only a simulated race. Practice. Practice for a rusty race pilot and a rusty race plane. Like out-of-shape athletes looking for a comeback, we’re back in training, Race 53 and I. How do you train for an air race? By practicing racing techniques and racing maneuvers. What gym are we using for this practice? Our own private race course.

A couple of years ago I laid out a “practice course” near our home airport of SXU to keep me sharp between races, and to test out speed mods. It’s like a mini-SARL race course, except it’s long on the turns and short on the straightaways. It’s just a hair over 33 miles in length, but with takeoff, two runs around the course, cool down, recovery and landing, it’s an hour’s flying with eight fabulous adrenaline-fueled race turns.

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I record each practice session on CloudAhoy, an app that uses the plane’s GPS feed to create a highly accurate record of Tessie’s ground track laid onto Google Earth satellite maps, for post-game analysis of our “workout.” The most important thing, of course is to ensure that we didn’t “bust” any of the turns. The second most important thing is that the turns are tight and that each run is close to the run before.

Lastly, it makes me smile when two laps look like one on the download. That tells me that I’m flying precisely on the boring part—the straightaways—which is not my strength.

And speaking of flying, Tess is flying marvelously. Better than ever before. She’s fast. Really fast. Her engine is running strong and cool. And I’m not doing half bad myself, given that I haven’t flown much at all lately, not as much in the last two years as was typical prior to all our maintenance headaches, and I haven’t really raced for nearly two years. OK, well, it’s actually one year, nine months, nineteen days, seven hours, fifty-three minutes, and forty-two seconds.

Not that I’m counting.

The nose of the blue airplane kisses the waypoint on my flight pad’s display. “Race 53, Turn 3,” I announce, flipping the yoke to the left. Tess’s right wing snaps skyward. I pull back swiftly, keeping her nose from dropping. G-forces push me back in my seat.

Yeah, I’d forgotten how much I love this kind of flying.

 

The perfect gift

Jigsaw puzzles were a big deal in the Dubois Clan when I was growing up. We did them frequently, and it was serious business with specific rules of engagement set down and enforced by my very Victorian Father. Each member of the family got to study the box cover art in turn. One time. For sixty seconds. Then the box was hidden away. Next, the pieces were all spread out and flipped right side up, then the border had to be built before any other construction took place. Lord help you if you found two pieces that went together before the border was complete.

Actually… those are the only rules I can remember, but knowing my father, there must have been others. Most likely, these traditions came from his father. In respect for the past, I try to enforce the same rules in my family, but I live with a pack of anarchists, so it doesn’t work out very well.

Despite that, I find puzzle building fun, and the process brings the Fam together in a unique and social way. Still, it seems we do them most often when we are snowed in, which tends to happen around the first of the year each year. Of course, being a flying family, we have a weakness for aviation-themed puzzles. Last year at Christmas we did a puzzle of Santa loading up a Piper Cub in lieu of his sleigh. The year before that it was a puzzle of an antique airplane poster.

But this year we had the ultimate puzzle, and the story starts a good ten weeks before Christmas when, after writing a rather large check to get repairs started on the family plane following a hard landing, I was having a moment of quiet desperation with my checking account. I emailed both my sisters to cancel holiday gift exchanges. My eldest sister, who’s also having a tight year agreed at once, but our middle sib wrote to say, sorry, but she’d already gotten something for us.

I was annoyed. Who on earth has their Christmas shopping out of the way in late October, fer crying out loud? “If I don’t get it done early,” was her reply, “I don’t get it done.”

Anyway, the promised box showed up shortly before Christmas, neatly wrapped in holiday themed paper, with a card that read, “To Tessie and Family.” I dutifully deposited the package under the tree—after giving it the traditional inquiring shake that told me that either the post office had completely and utterly destroyed my sister’s gift, or that the gift was a jigsaw puzzle.

It was a puzzle. But not just any puzzle. It was mypuzzle. A personal puzzle. A puzzle of Tessie. A montage of pics of my favorite plane taken from various online magazines. Tessie flying. Tessie on a snow-covered taxiway. Tess, a.k.a. Race 53 making a “race takeoff.” Tess in her art-filled hangar, Rio and I proudly standing on either side. It must have been a lot of work.

I was blown away.

And sure enough, right after Christmas we got a huge snow storm and we broke out the puzzle. We spread the pieces on the table, starting flipping them right side up—all 1,014 of them, and then I hid the damn box. It was a diabolically delightful puzzle. Tess, according to Rio, is “Fifty shades of blue,” to start with, and the light was different in each of the photos of our baby. OK. Clearly, this is part of the nose bowl, but from which image? Ah ha! This is the landing gear. But is it the landing gear from the race footage or from the picture of the plane parked on the snowy taxiway?

Oh, and not only are there fifty shades of blue airplane, but the puzzle also featured fifty shades of blue sky. It ended up being, by far, the hardest—but funest—puzzle I’ve even built. My sister really knocked it out of the park with this gift.

But in addition to putting together a machine I love, piece by piece, I had another first. I got to pick up the pieces of, well, me!

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