Music to my ears

As I drove down Airport Road the distinctive howl of a twelve-cylinder Merlin filled my ears. It came from the left, shot overhead, and disappeared to my right like a cannon shot. I ducked and slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt.

Holy crap! I’ve been buzzed by a Mustang!

Then two more in close succession: Vaaaavooooom!!! Vaaaavooooom!!!

I looked to the right. To the left. Then I leaned forward on my steering wheel and looked up. The sky was empty.

Next, the growl of a heavy metal radial buzzed by, shaking the car, and I remembered: I had left the car stereo on full blast when I left the hangar, but the CD was between tracks so I’d forgotten I had it on. It was Reno on Record 3blaring out of my Alpine Speakers, not real airplanes tearing up the sky. Sheepishly, I turned down the stereo, tapped the accelerator, headed on down the road again, glad that I was alone and no one had seen me ducking phantom planes.

Well, not phantom. The planes are real enough. They just aren’t here. Not now. Their growls, whines, and roars were captured in high fidelity recordings as they passed Pylon One during the National Air Races in Reno in 1990, 1991, and 1992 and put on CD by AirCraft Records.

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Yep, our new fav in the music department is unlike any CD I’ve ever owned. It’s made up of nothing but airplane noises. Apparently, the original Reno on Record, and its sequel Reno on Record 2, were both a mix of airplane sounds and interview clips with racers, but according to the promotional literature inside the CD cover, “We have answered the request of many of you for a version of Reno on Record with little or no talking. This is it. On ROR 3 you will hear nothing but the beautiful, raw sounds of Merlins, 3350s, 4360s and much, much more.”

Who on earth would want an hour’s worth of nothing but engine sounds?

Well, as it turns out, people like me! Although I didn’t know that until I bought a copy. I discovered this wonderful CD quite by accident, and I’m sure glad I did. I was actually looking for whiskey when it happened. Well, more correctly a whiskey decanter. Back in the ‘70s the McCormick whiskey folks made several commemorative decanters that were sold at the National Air Races. One, which I scored on eBay, looks like a race pylon. A second one looks like a radial engine with a three-bladed prop. I’d seen pictures of it, but I was having a hard time finding one for sale. Of course, I had a saved search to alert me if one was listed, but over the years I’ve found that sometimes the best successes, when it comes to buying collectables, happen when you come across something that’s not listed quite the way everyone expects—so if I’m bored, I’ll just do some random surfing with very broad search terms, flipping through a few pages to see what I see.

Thus it was that I stumbled upon Reno on Record, the record. No kidding, I found an old-fashioned vinyl LP record, called Reno on Record. It was from 1986 and was billed as having “actual sound recordings and interviews from the National Air Races in Reno.” I thought it was very clever creating a record that recorded Reno and was called Reno on Record. However, it was priced well beyond the impulse purchase range and deep into the “ask your wife first” range, so I decided to see if I could find it priced more economically somewhere else.

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Photo: eBay seller Susaninpgh

I didn’t. But I did find CDs of Reno on Record 2 and Reno on Record 3. As ROR 3 was heaps cheaper, I bought a copy to check it out, not being sure why I did so. After all, who would want to sit around listening to airplane noises? The CD arrived promptly, but languished on my desk for weeks. Then the flight school sent both Rio and Lisa home with their pre-solo exams, an open book take home test, on the same weekend.

Airplane noises in the background seemed just right for ambiance.

And boy was it. As we sat around the kitchen table working through the Skyhawk’s POH, looking up FARs, pawing through the AIM, and scratching our heads over tricky weight and balance problems, race planes screamed around the track in the living room. It was inspiring. The perfect background noise for the task at hand. Of course, because we were studying, we had the volume down.

That was fun. But the CD really shines when you pump up the volume, which is what we did while working in our planeless hangars to give them the proper aviation feel. Quoting the AirCraft Records folks,“the thunder of the hot-rodded WWII fighters of the Unlimited Class will be ripping up your living room and alienating your neighbors as they pass in front of your nose and out of your speakers.”

Luckily, at the airport, we have no neighbors to alienate, but I appreciated the rebel sentiment. But living room or hangar, when you crank up the volume on this music you’ll smell the dust, oil, and avgas of Reno.

This is one damn fun CD. If you like airplanes, I think you’ll be surprised by how much pleasure you can get from having them roar by in the background. Get a copy and see what it does for your soul on a foggy day, or how your flying friends react to it at your next hangar party.

My rating: Five stars. No, wait. I think instead of stars, I’ll give it five Ercoupes.

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Ercoupe lover’s heaven

Let’s start with placards. In the flying universe, a “placard” is a small sign or plaque installed in the cockpit. It relays critical information to the pilot about the operation of the airplane. For example, a placard will tell you what fuse or circuit breaker powers which part of the plane’s electrical system. In a plane with flaps, a placard will tell you the maximum speed at which it’s safe to deploy them. In planes with complex fuel systems, placards will guide pilots in the operation of the fuel tank selector switches. In planes with retractable landing gear, placards will instruct the pilot on how to operate the system.

We have no flaps. We have no fuel selectors. And our landing gear stays in the same place all the time. Accordingly, our placards are pretty simple.

One says, “This airplane characteristically incapable of spinning.” That one was a Godsend. The government actually required the manufacturer to place the plane’s number one marketing claim on a cockpit placard. Another placard says, “Beware propeller. Leave airplane from rear of wing.” Well, never underestimate the stupidly of the human race. A third is an ON-OFF placard for the nav lights switch.

But Syd Cohen’s immaculately restored Ercoupe Scampy has an unusual placard on the panel, probably the only thing in his plane that’s not 100% authentic. It reads: “AREN’T WE LUCKY?”

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

We sure the hell are.

Lucky for lots of reasons, but foremost among them is the fact that the maker of our nearly 80-year old airplanes is still in business. Well, sort of. It’s kinda complicated, and to be honest, the story of the Ercoupe is rather sordid. Yes, like a movie starlet from the golden age of Hollywood, the Ercoupe has had a lot of husbands.

The plane started life as the brain child of a company called Engineering and Research Corporation, also called ERCO. Development began in 1936, and ERCO launched sales of the plane in 1940. After the war, when the aviation economy collapsed, ERCO decided to get out of the plane-building biz and sold the Ercoupe lock, stock, and barrel (literally) to Sanders Aviation in 1947. Next, the plane, and its all-important type certificate, was picked up by Univar Aircraft Industries in 1950. But that union didn’t last either. Her next husband was the Forney Aircraft Company in 1955. But a stable wedlock just was not to be for the Ercoupe. In 1960 Air Products Company took over, but again it was a short marriage, and in 1964 Alon Inc. bought the Ercoupe. That union lasted until 1967 when the Mooney Airplane Company purchased the plane. Then, finally, just like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the Ercoupe returned to her third husband, Univar, in 1974—where she finally settled down, the two staying together for 45 years and counting.

Of all her suitors, Univair is the only one that didn’t actually build new Ercoupes. Both in the early ‘50s, and since ‘74, Univair has focused solely on the spare parts biz.

So let’s talk about those parts.

Apparently, each time the Ercoupe took up with a new manufacturer, more than just a marriage license was involved. The bride came complete with all her household goods, including her parts inventory and the various jigs and machines used to make them.

And that’s why we’re lucky.

Unlike the owners of most really old airplanes, we have an outfit that continues to support us. To supply us with parts. Univair has all the machining tools and expertise necessary to make virtually every part that makes up the Ercoupe from the original decades-old drawings, all of which came back home with the bride. That’s cool. But they also have a large supply of what would be called “new old stock” on eBay. But still, how many original parts could possibly still be around from the 1940s?

You would be amazed. I was. I have seen the promised land, and it’s Ercoupe heaven. So this is a PlaneTale of many parts. Literally.

It all started when AOPA assigned me a Rusty Pilot Seminar at Centennial Airport, on the south side of the Denver Metro area up in Colorado. Tessie looks more like a greenhouse than an airplane right now, so flying up the east side of the Rockies to get there was out of the question.

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Catching a commercial flight would require me to drive two hours in the wrong direction, only to be delivered an hour away on the other end, so driving up was the obvious choice. And as I was driving, it would cost me nothing extra to have a copilot on the adventure, and Rio agreed to come along.

I needed to arrive a day early to set up for the seminar, but I knew we’d have some spare time, especially if we got an early start, so I cast around for something to do. And then it occurred to me: Maybe we could visit Univair, who are located on the East side of the metro area. I guess they were in my mind because we’d just recently needed to order a pile of those parts I’m lucky to be able to order. Or maybe it was because I’d been in contact with them to hit them up for donations for the Ercoupe Owners Club scholarship auction as part of my duties as the Coordinator of this year’s convention. Anyway, I reached out about dropping in, and they were gracious, inviting us to come by for a tour.

Given the age of the company (it was founded in 1946) and the fact that they focus on older airplanes, I’d sorta expected them to be in, well, you know, and older building. But in fact, when we pulled up, we found the Univair building is surprisingly modern-looking on the outside.

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And, oddly, for a plane business, Univair sits far from any modern airport. They’re located in an industrial park that’s 50% large blocky commercial buildings and 50% farmer’s fields. Actually, once upon a time, there was an airport literally next door to Univair. Called Sky Ranch, all that is left is a short stretch of crumbling asphalt called Sky Ranch Road, and two World War II vintage hangars, one of which has a control tower on the corner. The runways have evaporated, their foundations buried under warehouses. What must have been the apron is now a parking lot for a fleet of cement trucks.

Dead airports are sad, but having Univair there somehow takes the sting out of it.

We were given a complete tour, staring in the office building, where the lobby has a small museum of key famous products in glass cases, then on to the sales offices, and the printing shop where Univair keeps many otherwise lost tech publications alive. Next, we entered the machine shop. I gotta say, the Univair shop is a museum of manufacturing. They have massive, towering machines dating from the 30s and 40s. Lathes from the 70s. State of the art computerized plasma cutters. With all this gear, if they don’t have what you need in stock, they can make it; and having two engineers on staff makes that process faster. Rounding out the shop are a trailer home-sized sand blast chamber and a huge painting booth. In the Univair shipping department, they build custom crates to fit all manner of oddly-shaped parts ranging in size from jewelry-petite to assemblies larger than cars.

We also got to meet many of the Univair peeps, including the boss, who is sort of royalty, being the third generation of his family to run the place. And it must be a good place to work, as most of the people we met had been there for years.

The highlight of our tour for me was the warehouse, a dimly-lit warren of narrow passageways between towering shelves. It has the creepy but exciting feel of an Indiana Jones/Laura Croft ancient temple. Only, you know, aviation themed.

And like all Hollywood ancient temples, it was full of treasure.

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A wall of wing spars. A shelf of header tanks. A cowl side, glowing pristine aluminum with a lathe-straight hinge. A bundle of throttle cables with faded maroon Bakelite knobs, hanging off a shelf high above our heads, an airplane version of tangled jungle vines high in the trees.

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Box after box after box after box after box of Ercoupe parts. Floor to ceiling, three narrow isles worth. Boxes of things we recognized. Boxes of things we’ve bought. Boxes of things that had us scratching our heads.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

And boxes of things that left us amazed and in awe, like Ercoupe pretzel yokes, still in their original wood packing crates, each yoke wrapped in newspaper with 1946 datelines.

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But there’s more than just inventory at Univair. Out beyond the warehouse, in the backlot, there’s an odd tombstone-looking object. At first glance it appeared to be the final resting place of the nose bowl, a grey solid granite memorial carved by a sculptor into the likeness of the real thing in its prime.

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But it’s no memorial to the dead. It’s one hand of the creator, a key tool to make new living nose bowls. It’s a mold. Over it, flat sheets of aluminum are placed, then squashed down with room-sized hammering equipment to stamp out the front ends of Ercoupes, each one a clone of the previous one. I’d no idea how they were made. In fact, before seeing the tombstone, I’d never even thought about it.

The rest of the yard is overflowing with giant and slightly rusty assemblages that are hard to identify. Is that a jig for forming an Ercoupe tail? Maybe. Oh, look at this, maybe this was used to make our wings.

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Our guide tells us that when they run out of something, the proper machine tools are moved inside from the yard until the inventory is restocked, then it’s back out to the yard until needed again.

Sadly, given all that Univair has in the Ercoupe department, we’re apparently a very small part of their business; I’m told only about 3%. Luckily (Aren’t We Lucky?), Univair is polygynous—also supporting classic Aeroncas, Champs, Citabrias, Luscombes, Cessnas, Stinsons, Taylorcrafts, and the ever-popular Piper Cubs, so Univair isn’t relying solely on us ‘Coupers for their survival.

And that’s the sad truth of Ercoupes. The line has never been quite a failure, but also never quite a success for any of her many owners throughout history. Ercoupe dreams fly higher than her numbers.

Back in the warehouse once more, on a bottom shelf, I find many wooden boxes of placards, including identification placards—called Data Plates in the biz. Every plane built has one. It records the plane’s serial number and its date of manufacture.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

There were of hundreds—maybe thousands—of blank data plates in the Univair warehouse; all created many decades ago, each waiting to be riveted onto a new plane rolling off the assembly line on pristine tires. Boxes of data plates for planes never built. Just like all the thousands and thousands of other parts, railcars full of them, it shows the optimism of ERCO in the post war world. How they believed, really believed, that they’d fill the skies with our twin-tailed marvels, put their money where their mouths were, and were ready to do it.

Sadly, it was not to be. Still, by some miracle, everything we need to keep our birds flying, from parts to placards, still exists, and is only a phone call to Colorado away.

Aren’t we lucky?

 

Happiest of Thanksgivings

Happy Thanksgiving! OK. Yeah, right. I know Thanksgiving Day was really yesterday, so I guess I need to say either happy Thanksgiving +1, or happy belated T-day. Either way, as this is the regular publication day closest to the big day, I decided to use it for my T-day post

Today, of course, is actually the oddly named “Black Friday,” and you might expect that with Tess in the Airplane Hospital for extensive repairs after our October mishap, and considering the fact that there’s not been much flying happening in this flying family over the last year, I might be in a mood to match the name of the day today.

But that’s not the case.

First, for anyone who missed the memo, Tess will fly again. The cost of repairs is nearly as much as she cost in the first place, but given all the upgrades we’d undertaken, I had insured her for more. It was a bit of a drawn-out process, with at one point an AIG insurance adjuster complaining to me that “it’s such an old airplane,” to which I bit my tongue and didn’tsay, “Well we sure pulled the wool over your eyes on the plane’s age when you insured it, didn’t we?”

But repairs are now finally underway, so that’s good news, and a huge relief. Of course, it won’t be fast. As we speak, Tess is back in Santa Fe, looking more a wreck than an airplane. Everything forward of the firewall is gone. The prop and cowl are off, the engine dangles on a crane like the corpse of a hanged convict, and the bent engine mount lies on the floor to one side.

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Next, dozens of rivets need to be drilled out to remove large skin panels between the firewall and the front of her wings on each side, exposing the bent stringers—metal supports that run nose to tail—that need to be replaced. New skins need to be cut and formed to the proper shape and riveted onto the fresh stringers. Then a brand new engine mount must be attached and the engine re-hung, which entails reconnecting all the disconnected plumbing and electrical wires. And of course, her main landing gear needs to be reconstructed, as well. This is going to be a loooooong process.

Adding to the potential triggers of a black mood, the next hospital bed over from Tess at the Airplane Hospital is occupied by my second favorite flying machine—Lisa’s boy Warbler. Ironically, Lisa decided to hangar him in Las Cruces for the Ercoupe Nationals, rather than park him on the ramp. I say ironically, because rather than giving shelter as a hangar should, Warbler got damaged by Lisa’s bid to protect him from damage. You see, the FBO hired a guy to paint the hangar, and the painter guy decided there was no reason to take the planes out of the hangar before he sprayed paint all over the place.

Warbler’s glass was destroyed. All of it. The windshield, side doors, top door, back windows. Thousands of pin prick-sized melted pockets in the plexi.

So there’s plenty to be in a black mood about for Black Friday. But instead, I’ve used the downtime to count my blessings. Other than becoming much poorer since becoming an airplane-owning family (and who’s to say we wouldn’t have just pissed the money away on something else, anyway?), and being occasionally stressed out, the airplane has been nothing but healthy dividends on the investment—at least with the proper perspective.

Tessie has changed all our lives. She’s taken us to beautiful places where we’ve had amazing adventures and met fabulous people. It’s only been a few short years—half a dozen if I’m counting right—but it seems like forever. I don’t really have a clear sense of “pre-Tess.” It seems like she’s been part and parcel of the family forever.

For that, I’m thankful this Thanksgiving season. Thankful for the flights of beauty and fun over these past few years, and Thankful that my future promises many more.

 

The best beer ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A beer will do just fine, thank you.

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

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

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

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Yeah. It was the best beer ever.

 

Ready for her close-up

It all started when I decided I needed a pretty girl. After asking around, the pretty girl expert convinced me that, really, three pretty girls would be better than one. He called it, “Critical mass.” And so it came to pass that three scantily-clad models ended up in my cockpit.

Well, Tessie’s cockpit.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

I was banished to the far side of the apron.

Like many a good tale, it all started in a bar. En route to a SARL air race a couple of years ago, I was eating pig’s ears nachos (don’t knock them until you try them) in an Arkansas bar, when I had a revelation. On the wall was a gigantic high-def TV showing a NASCAR race. Holy cow. And people think air racing is dangerous! Anyway, the winner of the day—a clean-cut, baby-faced pup who looked barely old enough to drive—was surrounded by hot, leggy, busty blondes with bare midriffs, low-cut necklines, and super-short skirts when he accepted his trophy.

Now that’s the way to win a race.

Then I got to thinking about the Kentucky Derby. There’s always a babe involved in giving the horse the flowers and the jockey the trophy, right?

So what the hell is wrong with us air racers? Surely, we rate as high as the Sport of Kings and the King of TV sports. I vowed right then and there that if I ever hosted an air race, I’d make sure there was some eye candy on hand at the podium.

Then, and I don’t remember how this happened, but probably it also involved a bar, I agreed to be the coordinator of the National Ercoupe convention. It’s turned into a full-time job, interfered no end with my writing work, and stressed me out beyond belief. I’ve had to arrange for hotel rooms, transportation, fuel discounts, tiedowns, donations for our charity auction, T-shirts, patches, signs and banners, name tags, and food, food, food. Oh. And booze, of course.

But I’ve put together a program I’m pretty proud of that includes an awesome resort HQ, a group fly-out to Spaceport America, and a banquet at an airplane museum. And, because it was my convention to do with what I please, and I’m an air racer, I decided to include a little air race as part of the fun. Which is why I needed the pretty girl.

Which, in today’s world, of course, can be an edgy subject.

I started with the lady who runs the economic development department for the City of Las Cruces, the host city. She’s a head-turner herself, but as a woman with a PhD, I didn’t think she had the right personality for the job, if you know what I mean. But I explained the tradition of babes and races and the atmosphere I was after, and asked her for help. I had considered a modeling agency, or University cheerleaders, and I even thought there might be a local beauty queen, a Miss Las Cruces or whatever. The city lady connected me with the pretty girl expert—a man connected to all levels of talent and events in southern New Mexico. He understood what we needed at once. “So it’s like a car show,” he said, “only with wings.”

Exactly.

I originally figured I just needed one girl to hand out the trophies, but the pretty girl expert convinced me otherwise with his critical mass argument. One girl in a short skirt in front of a bunch of old men can feel… well… uncomfortable. But in a pack, girls apparently come alive. Strength in numbers. I could see the logic. I signed on for three, but then was told I’d better have four to ensure that three showed up. Apparently, these aren’t the most dependable sorts of people.

So who are these girls? The pretty girl expert felt the best solution for my event was amateur models. Some of these models are young ladies who aspire to be professional models. Others just find the action fun and exciting. Feminists will disagree, but trust me, there are women who enjoy being the center of attention based solely on their looks. They like it, know how to work it, and it’s good for their egos–so if everyone enjoys it, where’s the harm?

These girls, now known as the Derby Dolls, will wave the green and checkered flags, circulate through the crowd to pose for selfies with the pilots, present the medals and trophies to the racers, and basically just create the ambiance of the NASCAR race I watched over pig’s the ears nachos in an Arkansas bar.

Now, I’m not sure how the next part of our tale happened, but in recruiting the pretty girls, the pretty girl expert contacted a pretty girl photographer that he knew. The photographer had lots of pictures of pretty girls with cars. And lots of pictures of pretty girls with motorcycles. But no pictures of pretty girls with airplanes, which, clearly, his portfolio needed. Nor did his models have any pictures of themselves with airplanes, which, clearly, they needed, too. So I was asked, if the photographer would donate his time and round up some pretty girls, would I bring a different type of pretty girl to the photo shoot?

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

So my favorite blue and white pretty girl became a prop with a prop. The photographer also brought out some high-testosterone rolling stock and created a variety of settings with Tess, the models, and the hotrods.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

It didn’t take long for the airport community to take an interest in the action, either. In particular, in the hangar next to the photo shoot, is a helicopter maintenance facility; and their mechanics lined up on the edge of the apron to watch the fun, even brining out a boom box, playing the Top Gun sound track for the models to jam to.

The entire process wasn’t like anything I’d ever been exposed to. It took forever to get the plane parked just right, longer for the models to change their clothes and touch up their makeup, then we had to wait for the right light, or pull the plane out of passing sprinkles of rain.

The girls were dressed… well, borderline trashy, in a flashy teen-fantasy pin-up kind of way; but the photographer, while knowing how to pose them, was 100% respectful.

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It was interesting watching the shooter communicate with the models, watching his hand signals letting them know when he was going to press the shutter, sharing the previews on the back of the camera, watching the models recognize—even on that tiniest of screens—that one lock of hair was out of place.

They were all “car people,” the models, the photographer, and the drivers who came out with the hot rods, a separate subculture from us plane people. It was fascinating, like visiting another country. But we all got along great and what I thought would take an hour or two ran all day long and didn’t end until the sun was setting.

So how was my day with three models? Not what you’d expect.

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Lisa F. Bentson, Zia Aerial Imaging

The models showed zero interest in me, a National Champion Air Racer—which is probably just as well. They paid attention as I told them how to safely get in and out of Race 53 without hurting themselves or Tess, but that was about it.

But you know what? I doubt that puppy-faced NASCAR driver got any attention either, and I got one hell of a Plane Tale out of the deal.

Plus, I have a pretty girl… well, three… for my race.

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Adrian Jesse Muñoz, AJM Studios

 

Milestones

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

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

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

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

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

My father would have loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The triumphant return of Warbler

“You warned her,” said Debbie.

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

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

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

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

But they were all wrong.

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

Really, we were eavesdropping—drinking in every word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you think your family history is complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bull, but not like you think

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

It’s a love story.

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

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

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Sidney Hall, 1824 from OpenClipArt.org

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

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

I’m a Virgo.

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

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

Sounds to me like matches made in the heavens.

 

A symphony of sound

Check list in my left hand, I flip the stainless steel switch upwards with my right index finger.

WeeeewhoooOOO responds the airplane, her jet engine springing to life, spooling up.

Wait a sec. This isn’t a jet. It’s a frickin’ Ercoupe. I look left. No jet over there. I look right. No jet over there, either. I look forward. No jet in front of me. I crane my neck around to look out the pair of large windows behind me. No jet behind me. I’m alone on the ramp. What the Sam Hill is going on here?

Then I realize: It’s the gyro in the new electric attitude indicator. My guys musta wired it to the master switch so that it springs to life when I wake the plane up. I cock one ear to the side and listen to the sound. I like it. It has a business-like tone. Sorta the airplane equivalent of the rumble of a muscle car’s engine.

It’s higher pitched and lower volume than the muscle car, of course, but it sounds very plane-like. Oddly musical. The opening bars of an aviation love song.

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Credit:Seattle Symphony

Even though I know what it is, the increasing tempo of the gyro’s hymn isn’t a sound I’ve heard before. Typically, instruments with spinning gyros are hooked up to an avionics switch. The engine is long running before they are turned on, so the distinctive jet whine of a gyro coming on duty is lost in a flood of noise from firing cylinders and spinning propellers. Sure, on the back end of a flight, after the throaty voice of the engine is silenced, I’ve heard gyros spooling down, but it’s a different sound. A winding down. A closing bell. An increasing stillness.

So this is a new form of poetry, and while I wonder why the attitude indicator was connected to the master switch, rather than to the radios or position lights, I like it, and I’m looking forward to hearing the gentle jet whine at the start of each flight. It’ll be Tessie’s new way of greeting me.

My finger moves to the next switch, flipping it up and turning on the flashing lights on my wingtips, a warning to all nearby that I’m about to start my engine. I crack the throttle. The gyro has stabilized at its full speed. The rising song has leveled out to a constant whine. Not angry and sharp like insect wings, it’s more of a hum. An aggressive, businesses-like hum. I slide the mixture control full forward, ensure that the carb heat is closed, and turn the ignition switch two clicks to the right.

The engine is cold, so I prime the carburetor with two shots. Then, right hand on the throttle, foot on the brake, I press the starter button. A weed whacker-like sound drowns out the gyro hum and the prop starts lazily spinning round and round.

The engine doesn’t catch.

I let go of the starter. After two months on the ground in maintenance, Tess’s engine has gotten lazy. The only sound in the cockpit is the jet whine hum of the new gyro. I give Tess another quarter shot of prime, confirm that the ignition switch is properly set, and press the starter again.

The weed whacker.

The spinning prop.

The engine coughs once. Hesitates. Then roars to life, smothering the delicate business-like hum of the gyro, ending the overture and starting the symphony.

It’s time to fly.