Lisa adopts a terminal

We’ve seen a LOT of airports over the last few years as Tessie’s range, with two humans and lightly packed luggage, is only about 200 miles. We often refuel at out-of-the-way uncontrolled airports, many of them unmanned. Some of these fields offer amazing terminal buildings with every amenity a pilot could dream of. Others… Well, is there a word for “worse than Third World?”

And, of course, at the end of every journey we’d return to our own uncontrolled, unmanned field, look at our own somewhat sad terminal, and complain that we weren’t measuring up very well.

We’ve been doing that since 2013.

Over the holiday break Lisa decided to quit complaining and start doing. She showed up at our house with a pad of paper and a pencil to grill Rio and I about things we saw at airports that we liked the most, and things we saw at airports that we liked the least.

The bathrooms at that place in Oklahoma were disgusting. The popcorn at Dodge City is pretty darn good. Too many airports don’t have a courtesy car to get into town. The self-serve oil system—take a quart and slide a fiver under the door—at Twenty Nine Palms was Godsend. Dead bugs covered the windowsills at one south Texas airport. The coffee at Batesville rocked the house. There was no light in the bathroom at spooky airport somewhere in the Midwest. I loved the old 12-foot-wide wall planning chart at Herford. De Queen had wanted posters on the walls of the terminal. The computers were great at Belle Plaine, as was the selection of help-your-self snacks. And Smiley Johnson Municipal had a riddle you had to solve to reveal the code to the locked terminal door (we never solved it).

I figured it was all just an intellectual exercise, but the next time Lisa, Rio, and I went to the airport for some flying, Lisa went to the dollar store while Rio and I were up. When we landed there was a bottle of mouthwash and little Dixie cups in the bathroom, a pile of snacks on the countertop, and cold water and sodas in the fridge.

Lisa’s airport terminal renovation had begun.

Drinking the newly purchased cold water in our very own home terminal, we sat on the cigarette-burned sofa and looked around us critically. The little building has good bones. It isn’t even all that old. It has excellent heat in the winter and wonderful air conditioning in the summer. But it has sad and disorganized furniture, including a massive industrial literature rack featuring years-old aviation magazines, some yellowing with age. The tile floor is an unfortunate design. Even if clean, it would still look dirty. What could we do?

Well, what about some area rugs to distract the eye from that tile? Some art would go a long way in the bathroom. And maybe some curtains on the window to mask the fifth wheel trailer of the state cop who lived next door to the terminal on some sort of security-for-rent trade that ended up having his doghouse and cars block the view of the windows that used to look out onto the runway.

Surrounding the courtesy phone on the wall were old clip-art decorated signs with important local contact info, some of which had changed, with the changes noted in black magic marker. There was also a sign touting the free internet, which has been broken down for about two years.

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I decided to replace them.

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Upping the ante, I whipped out my iPhone and ordered a one-shot coffee maker that uses pods for quick and easy cups of coffee on demand. Next we re-arranged the furniture, got some paper towel holders, and covered the cigarette-burnt sofa with a serape. Then we started kicking around some Route 66 artwork, as our airport is called the Route 66 Airport because our east-west runway was originally a stretch of the famous roadway before the interstate bypassed it and the city turned that unused stretch of highway into a landing strip.

It was baby steps, but it was transformative. At each visit we’d bring something new along. And at each visit, the terminal felt more inviting every time we walked in the door.

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One day when we were hanging the new sheer curtains from Walmart, the part-time airport manager walked in. He’s a great guy, but he wears something like five hats for the city, so the airport is only one of many responsibilities for him. “Holy cow, this place looks great,” he said, staring around in wonder. We fessed up that Lisa had adopted his terminal.

“Do anything you want,” he told us, “just don’t move any walls.”

A very Tessie Christmas

Because we live in the boonies, actually 8.3 miles due south of the boonies, we’re big fans of online shopping for the holidays. We first started shopping online several years ago, thanks to the Tessie gifts. Tessie gifts? Well, as our plane is a member of the family, she “buys” gifts for all her human family—as well as for her mechanics, the airport manager, and some flying friends. And as aviation-themed gifts aren’t readily available in the boonies, or even in the larger North Boonie farther up Highway 84, all of these presents are bought online. (Airplanes, their heads always in the clouds, apparently always give aviation-themed gifts.)

This year, as more and more things are available online, we probably did 80%, or more, of all of our holiday shopping online, and this led to a unique problem: Lots of boxes were showing up at our door. Why was this a problem? Because it wasn’t always clear who should open any given box to avoid spoiling a well thought out surprise.

Is this the bow tie I ordered for Rio? Is it something Debbie ordered for me? Or is it just the coffee we ordered for the Keurig?

Shortly before Christmas, we got a box from Rural Route Brick. It was addressed to me, but anything bought by any family member on eBay, Etsy, or Amazon ships to my name by default, so whom a package is addressed to isn’t necessarily who should open it. I racked my brain and couldn’t recall ordering anything from such a company. Maybe Debbie ordered some sort of tile or paver with our family name on it or something. The box was largish and flat, neither light nor heavy. Mystified, I left it on the bed for Deb to “safety check.”

When she got home, she reported she also didn’t recall ordering anything from Rural Route Brick, but as she’s more of the last minute shopper than I am, and I was pretty sure that I had accounted for all I had ordered, I had her open the box out of my eyesight.

Opening the box didn’t solve the mystery. Inside, there were two white plastic padded envelopes. Debs brought them to me in the library where I was writing a pitch to Flight Training Magazine on when not to file a flight plan. Each envelope had a large round Rural Route Brick sticker, and a smaller Race 53 gumball.

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Huh?

She handed me one of the envelopes, and as it passed into my hands I heard the unmistakable sound of Lego bricks clinking against each other.

Suddenly I broke from the clouds and had the runway in sight.

Lego Tessie had finally arrived.

Now, if you were a fan of my two-year Air Racing from the Cockpit series in GA News, you probably know a Race 53 fan made a Tessie Lego model, as they ran a photo of it at the end of the 2106 season. Here, for the first time, is the whole story behind that model:

Waaaaay back in December of 2015, an article appeared in Coupe Capers (the Ercoupe Owners Club monthly newsletter) about a Lego and Ercoupe enthusiast named Joey Abbott. He had created an Ercoupe model out of Lego bricks and had submitted it to the Lego Ideas website. Apparently anyone can submit a design to the site, and if it gets 10,000 votes from the public, Lego will consider it for production as an official set. Naturally I voted for the Lego Ercoupe the same day I read about it. Then I wrote the designer and told him how cool I thought it was. I also asked if I could buy one from him.

That was a no-go, as the Lego rules don’t allow designers to sell models under consideration, but Joey and I stayed in touch anyway. Sadly, his original design didn’t get the votes it needed in the time window allowed, but that put his design on the open market and we were able to strike a deal.

The design as featured on Lego Ideas was a handsome grey-body yellow-wing affair, but in the ensuing time Joey had become a Plane Tales fan and he sent me a rotatable 3-D computerized version of his original model in Tessie livery. It blew my mind.

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And I didn’t get any work done for the next two weeks ‘cause I was too busy playing with the computer model.

In no time I decided I needed two: One for home, one for hangar.

Anyway, the project dragged on for what seemed like forever, but that’s only because I didn’t really understand what went in to it. More on that in a bit. Occasionally I’d get an email from Joey with a question, and occasionally I’d email him to see if he was still alive. At one point, he sent me an image of the prototype being held in someone’s hands. It was huge! I knew the model was an exact 1:19 scale, but I had no real sense of how darn large that it really made it. For some reason, looking at the computer images and the photos of the models, I had envisioned it much smaller.

His original prototype Ercoupe model was constructed in “Lego camo,” a mishmash of crazy Lego colors where shape alone rules the day. Once this camo prototype was built, he transferred the design into an online Lego CAD program, where colors can be adjusted to match the myriad of Lego brick colors that are available for each brick.

Then the hard part begins: Sourcing the individual bricks via Bricklink, which is sort of an eBay for Lego bricks. Who knew there was an entire Lego subculture? The bricks for my pair of Tessies came from Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the UK. Designing the instructions was another challenge, apparently, and took nearly as long as getting the parts.

I’ve actually short-changed the process somewhat, but Joey lays out the whole operation on his excellent website here, and it’s well worth the read. But not until you’ve finished this Plane Tale!

Anyway, the two envelopes of bricks arrived on Christmas Eve Eve Eve. And on Christmas Eve Eve, Rio and I set to work to build the first one. We used to build a lot of Lego together when he was younger, but he seems to have largely lost interest in the fascinating but vexing brick creations. But having a Lego model of his airplane was another matter altogether.

Sitting at the kitchen table, we slit open the first envelope and out poured numbered sacks of Lego bricks. A strange mix of emotions swept over me, part memories of joyful years gone by, and part PTSD. (Lego is often harder than it appears.)

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Also in the envelope was a beautifully bound instruction manual. All 54 pages of it, detailing 104 steps to turn the 335 Lego pieces into our airplane.

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Figuring out how to create the construction manual apparently gave Joey a bit of a headache. Traditional Lego instructions are part architectural drawing, part hieroglyph. Joey’s solution was to photograph each construction step with the bricks for the next step in each picture, and then lay them out two to a page in the construction manual. It worked just like the “real” thing, meaning that at least three times we had to go back, disassemble, fix a mistake we made, and then move forward.

It was a blast.

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Rio was the assembly master; my job was that of parts gofer. As in production Lego kits of any complexity, one of the big challenges is telling the difference between similar pieces, especially the long flat types. I had to use a pencil to count how many nubs long some of the pieces were to tell the difference between a grey flat that had two rows of eight numbs vs. the ones that had ten rows of nubs. Or twelve.

As we went along the pile of bricks on the table began to get smaller…

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And the model started looking more and more like Tessie…

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Then it happened. I couldn’t find the bricks for the next step. We searched through the piles and sacks. No joy. Now what?

I figured that as Joey had packaged up the two plane kits at the same time, maybe two identical sacks of parts got put in one envelope. I went to fetch the second kit. In the meantime, Rio had the presence of mind to check the first envelope again, and sure enough there was a bag of parts that remained behind when we emptied out the package onto the kitchen table.

Just to make sure we now had them all, I reached all the way to the bottom of the envelope and found yet another packet of parts. It was small. Drawing it out I saw it had all the parts of a Lego Minifigure. A pilot. A pilot with a beard, gray hair, blue hat, and a headset. He also had a gold trophy.

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Holy cow! I had been turned into a Lego Minifigure! It was a complete and total surprise. And a wonderful one.

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As the model took shape, my mind was repeatedly blown by Joey’s attention to detail. The model had Tessie’s URL nose art. The side had her N-number. Her belly her beacon. A tiny sticker attached to the front strut touted our World Speed Record, the exact same text that appears on Tess’s front wheel pant.

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There was a complete instrument panel, dual yokes, and even her center-mounted throttle.

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It took us most of the afternoon to complete the Lego Tessie, but it was one of the best afternoons ever, and absolutely the best Christmas Eve Eve of all time. But in the end, when we were finished, just like with every production Lego kit we ever made, there was one brick left over.

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Awe, hell. We messed up somewhere. We briefly debated just dropping the wayward brick on the floor and forgetting about it, but decided that given all the effort that went in to creating the model that would be just… wrong. Back we flipped though the manual, until we figured out where the part went. We disassembled several steps, put in the wayward brick, and as the sun set, re-assembled Lego Tessie.

Then we broke out the eggnog and sat admiring our (and mostly Joey’s) handiwork. I’ve always been amazed at the objects that can be made by Lego, but building a Lego model of something I know and love so well in real life was an amazing experience, beyond a doubt my best non-flying aviation adventure of all time. Plus, when something breaks down on this Tessie, it will be an easy fix, just snapping the bricks back together!

Thanks, Joey, for the very very merry Christmas. Oh, and Tessie told me to tell you that she gives her official seal of approval to her very own “mini-me.”

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Joey tells me he’s happy to sell Tessie Lego models to any other Race 53, Plane Tales, or Ercoupe fans. You can contact Joey atjoey@ruralroutebrick.com

 

More about Joey:

Joey’s online bio reads, “Joey is an avid LEGO fan who designs and builds custom LEGO models to scale and he produces LEGO stop-motion animation videos. Joey is also a fan of vintage and modern airplanes, which are a favorite of his to design in LEGO. When he is not “LEGOing” on a project, you’ll find Joey on a local hiking trail with his family, reading a good book, or most likely, having a snack.”

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Be sure to check out his impressive Messerschmitt BF 109. He even nailed the funky landing gear and the model’s gear is retractable… just like the real thing! And if you like your Lego on the large side, his B-25 Mitchell bomber used an estimated 1,700 Lego pieces and weighs in at four pounds!!!

 

A homecoming

I’m off course. Again. I’m paying too much attention to the damn engine monitor, and not enough attention to my navigation instruments. I sigh, and start to bank right to get back on course. I’m 800 feet above the pines that cover the top of Rowe Mesa between Santa Fe and our home base at SXU. To my left is the canyon that Interstate 25 snakes through on it’s way south from Colorado.

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Suddenly, it occurs to me: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And Tess a dull girl. I roll left instead, sail over the edge of the mesa and ride the downdaft earthward, dropping, dropping, dropping into the canyon. The cliff face rises above me, I level off 600 feet above the freeway, and point Tess’ nose at the isolated butte called Starvation Peak.

I’m on our way home, but there’s no reason not to have fun on the way. The fear I’ve felt since morning has dissolved, blown away in the slipstream. After the first test flight of Engine3 I did a second, longer flight near Santa Fe; flying in circles above the open fields south and west of the airport. There wasn’t so much as a hiccup out of the newest engine. It ran strong. It ran smooth. The oil pressure stayed steady, and on landing all was good, only a few thread-like streams of the yellowish break-in mineral oil staining the belly. Nothing to write home about.

The only problem is we have too much power. Well, too much power for our prop, which will need to be re-pitched to better match the new stroker engine. We knew from the beginning that this might happen, but my team and the propeller shop agree that there’s no need to modify the prop before the break-in flight, so long as I avoid full power, so I’m ferrying Tess home to get her ready for the flight to a lower altitude. Tess and I are Dallas-bound on the weekend, if the weather holds. I know this place in an old radar tower that has a rockin’ brisket-stuffed deep-fried jalapeño that’s been calling me…

As Starvation Peak slides by it occurs to me: We’ve both been starving these many months, Tess and I. Back in the sky once again I relish being Civis Aerius Sum, a citizen of the air. And it seems to me that Tess is equally happy to be back in sky, I can almost hear her aluminum heart singing with joy.

I decide to drop in on the family on the way home. I dial Debbie on my iPhone, patching the call through to my headset thanks to the amazing technology called Bluetooth. “Take Rio and go outside,” I tell her.

“Where on earth are you calling from?” she asks.

“Ten miles west and 500 feet up,” I tell her.

As I bank over our house, I look down over the wing and I can see them, a tiny pair of figures far below, waving up at me. I wave back, roll level, rock my wings and head out over the desert. Just south of our house I pick up the Pecos River and decide to follow it to Santa Rosa, turning right, then left, then right again, weaving back and forth across the landscape as the river snakes through the mesa lands.

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I circle Santa Rosa Lake once, then for the first time in many months, Tessie’s tires smoothly kiss the runway at her home base. It’s a sweet landing and a sweet homecoming.

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After refueling and washing the dust off her wings, I pull her into her hangar. Then I just sit, drinking in the sight of her. Her smooth lines. Her many shades of blue.

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And for the first time in many months, I feel at peace.

 

Photos by Lisa F. Bentson

 

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

 

Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid

Lisa turns and waves. She has a goofy grin on her face and her eyes are twinkling. She raises her camera to take a picture of me. I see the shutter open and close through the camera’s lens. I wave back.

This wouldn’t be the least bit remarkable if we weren’t in two different airplanes.

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

Three feet separates my wing tip from Lisa’s plane. I can see every seam, every rivet, every marking on her plane, just as clearly as if I were standing on the ramp next to it—instead of a thousand feet above the ground flying at two hundred and fifty miles per hour.

I’ve never done any formation flying before this, and I’m enthralled. As cool as it looks from the ground, nothing compares to how cool it looks from the cockpit.

Suddenly, we hit a patch of rough air. Our planes leap upwards, but amazingly, the two aircraft remain exactly in the same position relative to each other, moving as a single unit, as if they were one plane bolted together by steel beams and girders.

It’s AirVenture, and are we ever having an air venture! Lisa and I have hitched rides in the back seats of a pair of tailwheel Yak 52s belonging to the Phillips 66 Aerostars, a decade-old precision aerobatic team. We’re headed out over Lake Winnebago under gray skies, racing an approaching thunderstorm, so the Aerostars can show us their stuff.

Phillips 66 is the new primary sponsor of the Aerostars, but the company is no stranger to aviation. They’ve been making oil and gas for airplane engines since 1926. Today, Phillips 66 is one of the big players in aircraft oil, their main rival being AeroShell. I’ve been unable to figure out who has the greater market share, but my sense from what I see at airports is that Phillips is the leader in mutligrade oils, while AeroShell seems to have the lead the single-weight market, but I could be wrong about that. But one thing’s for sure, Phillips has the cooler logo:

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I study the Yak 52 Lisa is riding in, floating, unearthly, right outside my canopy. It fills my field of view.

“How on earth did you learn to do this?” I ask my pilot, “It’s frickin’ amazing.”

David “Cupid” Monroe laughs. “It’s really not that hard. You just establish a sight picture and hold it.” I’ve heard acro pilots say this before, but it never made any sense to me, and it still doesn’t, so I say nothing. “It’s just like shooting an ILS approach,” he goes on, and suddenly I get it.

In instrument flight, you use cockpit gauges to place the plane in a specific slice of airspace, and keep it there. One traditional instrument had two crossed needles. The vertical needle showed if you were drifting left or right of the runway as you approached it through the fog and clouds; and the horizontal needle told you if you were descending on the proper glide slope to clear terrain, buildings, and cell phone towers. Keeping the two needles nailed on the crosshairs kept you on the right approach.

What “Cupid” was telling me was that instead of lining up on an instrument, he was lining up his plane so that key parts of the other plane appeared through his canopy in exactly the right place, then, just like shooting an ILS, he made continuous micro corrections to hold the “sight picture”—essentially keeping his plane in the crosshairs established by the position of the leader’s plane out of the window.

Suddenly, it all seemed so simple. Something I could learn to do.

In the front cockpit of Lisa’s Yak, lead pilot Harvey “Boss” Meek makes a spinning motion with his right hand. In one smooth motion we dip down, pass beneath the leader, and come up on the opposite side. I felt like I could reach up and stroke the belly of the other plane as we slid under it.

The two planes split apart and dive for Lake Winnebago. Normally the Aerostars loop as a team in their signature tight formation, but they don’t do actual performances with deadweight journalists in the back seats, so for safety—there’s and ours—they ran the demo acrobatics wide.

“Cupid” pulls back on the stick and the Yak curves gracefully up toward the gray skies above, stands on her tail, and then we are upside down, the blue lake above us. The G-forces push me back in my seat, an airplane bear hug.

I love it.

As we slide down the back of the loop I let out a whoop of joy, just to let my pilot know I’m having a good time. Next we do a barrel roll, my all-time favorite maneuver. I enjoy them so much that I sometimes wish I owned an acrobatic plane, or that our plane was acro-capable. I don’t know if they are true, but I remember readings stories as a child of World War II fighter aces doing barrel rolls over their runways as they returned from missions. One roll for each victory.

The fun was capped off with a Half Cuban Eight, a maneuver that is more or less half a loop with half a roll.

The acrobatics were fun, but it was flying wing-tip to wing-tip out and back from the acrobatic zone that made the greatest impression on me. It was amazing and beautiful.

It made me wish that Lisa had a plane too, so that we could get some training and fly formation together. And in fact, thanks to our trip to AirVenture that just might happen.

Lisa getting a plane, that is. But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.

 

Too busy for stress

Flying relaxes me. It always has, but it wasn’t until just the other day that I figured out why, and it’s so simple it made me laugh: Flying takes too much mental bandwidth to let stress in.

There are constant mental challenges in flying. Am I on course? Keep her at the right altitude, William. Check your oil pressure! What’s my cylinder head temp? Where would I put down if the engine crapped out right now? What’s the weather like ahead? How’s our fuel consumption? Keep her on course…

And there are the delightful attractions of seeing the globe from above. Look at that crazy field below! How on earth did they plow it like that?

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Plus the delightful attractions of being a citizen of the air. Check out that crazy cloud above! The sun above has lit up the ice crystals like neon southern lights!

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So partly, there’s just so much to do—even in a simple cockpit like mine—that the mind simply doesn’t have the capacity to latch onto all the little things that plague us in on the ground; and partly, when you’re in an airplane, you can’t do anything about most of the things that stress us out on the ground. Forgot to send the car payment in? Well, nothing you can do about that right now. Your mother needs her screen door fixed? Well, that ain’t happenin’ at 7,500 feet.

That blend of the high mental bandwidth required for flying, mixed with a location that limits what you can do anyway, nearly washes stress away completely. What little stress is left is drowned in the sea of confidence that taking a thousand pounds of metal and making it fly generates. Mastering any skill is good for the soul, but mastering something so humanly improbable as flight?

Tonic for the ego, for sure.

So that’s why flying relaxes me. It keeps me too busy to be stressed out.

Hot Property

For Sale: Five year old Air Race. Nice time of year. Mild climate. Good location at large airport. Held during major air event. Viewed by over 200,000 attendees. For more information, call Craig Payne at Sun ‘n Fun.

OK. So I totally made up that classified ad. But what it’s selling is totally real, and you can buy it tomorrow, if you want. The Sun 40 Sprint—an aircraft speed trial that actually launches out of, and finishes at, Sun ‘n Fun’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport during the expo’s daily showcase—has been re-classified by the expo’s brass as a “sponsorable” event.

That means you can buy your very own air race. Which is not as crazy as it sounds.

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Let’s suppose you own a small company that has a great aviation product that you want to sell to pilots. You’ve got your website ready to go and your inventory is just begging to be shipped. Now all you have to do is get the word out. Sure, you have a Facebook page, but like us here at Plane Tales, you only have 32 “likes.” (And we love every one of you.) So you need to advertise.

The traditional approach would be to buy an ad in one of the aviation magazines, but this is not for the faint of pocketbook, and certainly not for the bootstrapper. For instance, a 1/6 page black and white ad in AOPA’s Pilot magazine costs $3,080—and everyone who knows anything about magazine advertising knows you need to be seen again, again, and again. For a two-color ad the rate jumps to nearly four thousand bucks. Want a color photo in your ad?

Cha-Ching. $4,840 at the cash register, please.

For one ad.

So what about a booth at one of the aviation expos instead?

Sun ‘n Fun would actually be a good place to start. It’s neither as expensive nor as overwhelming as AirVenture, but it’s a huge leg up over a local airshow or fly-in. The annual Florida event draws nearly a quarter million aviation enthusiasts from all over the country who are in a nice warm location following a cold winter back home, and they are ready to take to the skies again with their hearts and wallets.

How much would a booth at Sun ‘n Fun set you back? Looking at this year’s rates, the cheapest outdoor booths are $1,390. That price includes six exhibitor badges and one parking space. If you want to be indoors, the rate is $2,350. If you need internet, it will be more. Of course, larger booths and premium locations command yet higher rates.

Still, it sounds like a deal and a half, huh? Hell, it’s cheaper than the stupid magazine ad.

Or is it? Because that’s just the cost of the empty booth. You’ll still need signs, display materials, and tradeshow giveaways. And that’s just the beginning. The show runs the better part of a week. You’ll need to pay for hotel, rental car, and food. And unless you have amazing stamina, you’ll need help.

And you have to get there, too.

This is why some companies choose to have a remote presence instead. Ben Sclair, publisher of Sun ‘n Fun Today (the show’s daily newspaper) told me that some companies find it cheaper and just as effective to advertise in his paper to reach the attendees, rather than to take on all the costs of coming in person.

Or you could buy the air show. Even I gotta admit that the Plane Tales Sprint has a nice ring to it.

I’m sure the details are negotiable, but Payne tells me he’s looking to find someone to sponsor next year’s show for around three thousand dollars. Where would your money go? To trophies and food for the racers, and to help support the event and Sun ‘n Fun’s educational mission. What would you get for your money? Well, you’d get your name out in a big way. It would be in all the adverting, all the media coverage, and if you went to Sun ‘n Fun yourself, you’d hear your company’s name again and again during the hour-long event, which is covered live by an announcer just like a baseball game.

If I had something to sell other than words, I’d jump at this opportunity in a second. I think magazine ads are great. A booth at a trade show lets you interact one-on-one with potential customers. But both are expensive. Also, there’s virtually no limit to the number of magazine ads out there, and Sun ‘n Fun has hundreds of booths. In other words, you’re part of a crowd. It’s hard to stand out.

But there’s only one Sun 40 Sprint. It’s never been for sale before, and it could be all yours—all yours. That’s what I call a hot property.

 

Here’s Craig’s email: yakman285@gmail.co

 

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.

 

Doing the Wright thing

The view is lovely, but I’m bored to death. Rio is flying and I’m sitting on my hands with my mouth zipped shut, at his request. His mastery of the plane in flight is absolute. His turns are liquidly smooth, the nose nailed to the horizon. Damn, that kid can really fly.

But land?

Well, that’s another problem, and it’s really all my fault. I should have taught him how to land long ago, but I rationalized that I wasn’t an instructor, and that I didn’t know how to go about it. It was something a pro should do.

But I’ve come to realize that I was just making excuses.

The real reason I haven’t taught Rio to land is that I love flying—most especially the takeoffs and landings—too much to share the plane as much as I should. That makes me a Certified Bad Parent, so I’m working on that negative aspect of my personality, and trying to change it. And as a first step, this day is dedicated solely to takeoff and landing practice for Rio.

I’m just along for the ride.

Rio guides us through the traffic pattern and slowly slides the throttle back abeam the numbers. As the plane descends, I’m once again struck by his innate sense of power management: When to cut back a bit, when to bring in a bit more power. But as he turns to final, the problems begin. We’re too high; he’s turned too early. As we close in on the runway, we’re waaaaay off to the right. Rio continues the descent, seemingly unaware that we’ll end up landing in the grass. Very near the security fence. I slide my left hand out from under my leg so that I can get to the yoke quickly if I need to, and attempt to beam ESP-style messages through my son’s headset and into his brain.

It doesn’t work.

Down we come. 100 feet… 75 feet… 50 feet… 25 feet…

Rio flicks the mike button and transmits, “Santa Rosa Route 66 traffic, seven-six hotel, landing abort.” Then over the intercom adds, “Crap!” He throttles up, holding the nose level. The descent stops and Tessie builds speed. He holds her low until we flash over the southern security fence, then he gently pitches the plane up and climbs back up to the pattern altitude.

Again, the fluid turn, more ballet than airmanship. He reduces the power and lines the plane up parallel to the runway. I offer to run the throttle or the radio, but he says, quite rightly, that he needs to learn to do it all, and on this cold sunny morning it suddenly strikes me that he’s more stubborn than his mother and I combined.

And that’s a lot of stubborn.

He flicks the microphone. “Santa Rosa Route 66 traffic.” His voice is confident and smooth, pitched a bit deeper than his normal speaking voice. “Erco three-niner-seven-six hotel, left downwind, runway one-niner, full stop landing.” Then he adds over the intercom, in his normal voice, “Hopefully.”

We end up doing two more aborted landings. Rio’s face getting more strained with each. His jaw is set tight, his eyes narrowed. I can tell he’s pissed. Mad at himself. Upset that he can’t do it perfectly the first time, every time. He’s his own harshest critic. From my side of the plane I can see that each landing set-up is better than the one before. He’s learning from his mistakes and incorporating the lessons progressively into each attempt. But he doesn’t want to hear it from me.

Now we’re coming down, down, down again. We’re to the right of the centerline, but at least we’re over the pavement. We’re a bit high and a bit fast, but we’ve got runway to burn. I’m not worried. It’s not textbook, but it’ll be safe. But at the last second the flare gets away from him. He doesn’t pull the nose up quite far enough, quite soon enough, and the rapidly descending plane slams onto the runway with a bone-jarring shudder, and then springs right back into the air. We return to earth, but bounce right off the runway into the air a second time. Then a third.

Bounce, bounce, bounce; down the runway we go. More a rabbit hopping down the runway than a proper airplane landing.

Video of the actual landing(s) by Lisa F. Bentson

The third time being the charm, and our excess energy dispersed, Tess stays on the runway and we do a clean, smooth rollout.

“Well, that was the worst landing since the Wright brothers,” muttered Rio, clearly disgusted with himself.

“Which one of the three did you think was so bad?” I asked Rio, and in spite of himself, he’s able to manage a laugh.

“Come on,” I urge, “let’s go do it again.”

And so we taxi back around to the scene of the crime and take off again. A takeoff better than his first. And I sit on my hands, zip up my mouth. I look up through the canopy at the deep blue sky, painted with high altitude cirrus clouds. Below, pinion and juniper. Yellow rock and red soil.

Then I turn to study Rio in the seat beside me. Fourteen going on forty. Quiet. Serious. Focused. More man than boy now, with sideburns to his jaw. In his hands the plane is a living thing, flying with the grace of an eagle.

And I’m no longer bored. I’m thrilled. Thrilled to be able to share this with him.

Thrilled to be able to teach him to fly. And to land.

 

 

Letting go

It’s not that I’m a control freak. I’m just accustomed to taking care of everything.

Oh. Wait.

Maybe I am a control freak.

At some point over the twisting course of my life my self-reliance morphed a bit into something different: I’m simply not in the habit of relying on others. And because I do “everything,” I like to do it as efficiently as possible. Nowadays, that means using the Internet late at night to make hangar, hotel, and ground transportation arrangements for cross-country flights, preferably without having to actually talk to another human being.

Come to think of it, this is not unlike my approach to choosing airports that we talked about recently. I guess that makes me an antisocial control freak. But something wonderful just happened that might change my whole approach to cross-country flights.

The trip in question didn’t end up happening—thanks to the stupid hurricane—but Rio and I had planned an epic two-week father-son jaunt around the country that would take us to two races. The flow of the trip had us putting down for the night in Oklahoma City at the end of the first day, where there are eight public-use airports to choose from.

So which to choose?

One thing we always do when traveling by air is to check out the local aviation museums. There are some really amazing collections in places you’d least expect it. For instance, in trying to get to Oshkosh the year before last, we put down near the Mississippi River to escape weather and found a rack card for a little museum in Greenfield, Iowa. It looked interesting, so on the way home we diverted to check it out.

Among other things, they had the actual plane that was used in an early endurance record, kept aloft by one of the first uses of aerial refueling! Just how long was the flight? Are you sitting down? Seventeen days, 12 hours, and 17 minutes. And this was in 1929! Apparently it was “cut short” when one of the pilots developed some sort of painful dental issue.

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But I think I’ve drifted off course here. Let me get back on heading. A quick Google search showed that Oklahoma City has three aviation-themed museums. Of course, the city is HQ for the Ninety-Nines and their museum is at Wil Rogers World airport, the big Class C operation. At nearby Weatherford, the Stafford Air & Space Museum is literally right on the field. You can taxi up to it. And lastly, the Oklahoma Museum of Flying is in a hangar on the grounds of the Wiley Post airport. It has a small collection of planes including one of the Reno-racing P-51s and a World War I era Fokker Eindcker—a craft more scaffolding than airplane.

I was sold. Even though Wiley Post had a control tower, we’d spend the night there.

I decided that all I needed was a rental car and maybe a hangar for Tess. On my last several trips I’ve had good luck asking about hotel discounts at FBOs after landing, and I’ve gotton some really good deals. Besides, it’s not like we weren’t going to be able to find a hotel room in Oklahoma City.

I emailed the FBO, then went to the rental car hub at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA. If you fly and aren’t a member of AOPA you really need to join. They’re the AARP of aviation, keeping Washington off our backs and out of our cockpits. Oh, and there are direct member benefits, too, like their slick car rental site.

Well, normally slick.

Most times I just enter the airport identifier of where I want to pick up and drop off a car, and it’s done in seconds. This time I was told I needed to contact the FBO.

(((Groan)))

So I sent a second email to the FBO. Please add a rental car to that hangar request.

The next day I got an email back saying I needed to call them. (((Double groan))). If I had wanted to actually talk to someone, I wouldn’t have emailed.

Grudgingly, I picked up the phone and called. And I had the nicest two-minute conversation with a young lady who is a bigger control freak than I am. She took care of everything. She took down my name and tail number and said not to worry, she’d arrange overnight hangar, hotel, and a rental car. What type of car would I like?

I confessed to my fondness for muscle cars, but my unwillingness to pay for them. She thought she could get me an upgrade. She promised to email confirmations. Within an hour I had a single email, outlining everything.

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One brief phone call. And everything was done for me. Wow.

Maybe the best way to stay in control is to let someone else take care of everything.