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.

 

Meet Warbler

You would think she would have known better. After all, she’s had a front row seat to one airplane “disaster” after another. But noooooooooo. Despite all the best advice to the contrary, Lisa did it anyway. Yep, she went out a bought herself an Ercoupe.

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I blame myself. First, I showed her how much fun you can have in an Ercoupe. Then I accidently told her about one that was for sale nearby. I actually tried to dissuade her to atone for those sins, as did Rio who not so subtlety demanded, “Are you crazy?!” But, well, as anyone who’s ever flown an airplane knows: Airplanes are sirens, and sometimes it’s impossible to not answer their call.

To her credit, while it might have been an impulsive purchase, she didn’t make an impulse purchase. She test flew. She had our mechanic check all the logs, airworthiness directives, and service bulletins. She got the FAA history on the plane and reviewed hundreds of scanned documents (her new-to-her plane is one of the ones that was actually sold at Macy’s!) and then she paid our lead mechanic to travel all the way across the state to do an onsite inspection. The whole process took nearly three months. Last week the entire family drove down to the southern tip of the state where she paid the previous owner and got the keys. The next day, she and I ferried her new plane, named Warbler as he’s a small bird with a Warbird paint scheme, home to his new nest right next to Tessie’s.

Yep. I now have a hangar neighbor at SXU and I’ll have competition for the title of President of the Airport User’s Association (previously, I had the only airplane based there).

Now as anyone who has a passing familiarity with Ercoupes knows, they could be better known as Frankencoupes. Most are now in their early 70s, and have had dozens of owners over the years. In fact, in doing research for my Eternal Airplane book, I recently learned that my Tessie was quite the little tramp in her youth, having gone through 24 owners up till now. And each owner of each Ercoupe made little changes on their watches over the decades, so that now I doubt that there are two Coupes that are alike, and none look like they did the day they left their factory. In point of fact, one of the fun things about the Ercoupe Owners Club fly-ins is comparing the planes to each other. But now that there’s a second Ercoupe in the “family,” as it were, I’m finding more and more differences between the two every time I’m at the airport.

For Coupe fans, here’s a quick rundown on Warbler: He has a C-85 engine, fabric wings, a single fork nose wheel, Goodyear brakes, a floor-mounted handbrake with no foot pedal, the flat windshield but enlarged back windows, the large luggage compartment, and the three-piece canopy. Like any proper Ercoupe, there are no rudder pedals. He has the early Mooney-style wood and burnished metal yokes and a nutin’ but the basics panel: Airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, altimeter, compass, and three engine instruments. The entire airplane has only two switches, one in the back that’s the master, and one on the panel for the nav lights. The radio is a handheld verco’d to the panel.

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Flying home in Warbler’s right-hand seat, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a 1956 Ford Pickup truck, which insulted Lisa. “He’s more like a Jeep,” she insisted. But neither trucks nor jeeps fly, and Warbler flies. And very well at that. It was a fun and easy flight, but odd in a way too. So much the same, yet so different. I kept looking for things on the panel that aren’t there, Tess being a bit more instrument heavy.

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Warbler’s in remarkably good shape, better by far than Tess was when we got her. And being simple, there’s hopefully less to go wrong—although we did have an interesting fuel misadventure after taking delivery, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. Meanwhile, I’ve got my fingers crossed that my wing woman Lisa has many happy years of airplane ownership, and fingers cross that those many happy years of ownership don’t include sending her mechanics’ kids to Harvard at her expense.

And for myself, I confess that I’m looking forward to two-plane adventures in the future and I suspect that we’ll have many Planes Tales to tell in the coming years.

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Something we can agree on

Sporty’s Pilot Shop has been around as long as I can recall. As a student pilot in the early 1980s I can remember taking a break from my studies of aviation weather, cross country flight planning, and the FARs by thumbing through their full color mail order catalog; drooling at all the wonderful things that were out of my reach.

Leather flight jackets, pilot watches that cost more than my car, and those short boots airline pilots used to wear.

Of course they had practical things, too. Kneeboards, a folding navigation plotter, airspace memory cards, and little rotating plastic calculators to help you figure out the best runway to land on.

And they had mysterious things only airplane owners would need. Tow bars, oxygen systems, cowl plugs, and engine heaters. A back seat air conditioner?

I still get the Sporty’s catalog. And I still thumb through it when I need a mental break from more serious work. They also send me their newer Wright Brother’s Collection catalog, which is more gift oriented. Cool aviation décor and art, books, videos, clothing, and more. In the most recent edition this photo caught my eye:

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The trio of props were called “Barnstormer Propellers.” According to the add copy, the handcrafted solid wood propellers are “authentic reproductions,” which if you think about it, is an oxymoron.

But naturally I was taken with the race flag prop.

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I could totally see Tess, a.k.a. Race 53, sporting race flag prop tips. Of course, given Rio’s recent reaction to race-themed paint schemes, I didn’t hold out much hope that he’d agree. Still, I tore out the page to show it to him later.

To my surprise, when he looked at it, he was OK with it. He actually thought it would look good, as did his mother and our buddy Lisa. It then it fell to me to figure out how to make it happen. Thanks to a combination of a poor paint choice by a previous owner, and a poor choice of cleaning materials by us, we’ve actually had to repaint the prop tips once before. As I recall, it went badly.

But that’s a paint tale for another day.

The plan for this cosmetic speed mod was simple enough, mask off the tip, sparingly spray paint it white, somehow mask off white checks with some sort of tape, then spay over sparingly with black paint, and voilà!

Off to Home Depot we went. Or maybe it was Lowes. Anyway, after showing our driver’s licenses to prove we were old enough to buy one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white spray paint and one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, Lisa and I stood in front of a towering edifice of rolls of painter’s tape in every width and length imaginable. “Too bad,” I said to Lisa, “that they don’t make this stuff in pre-cut squares.”

And then it occurred to me: Maybe they did. A quick Google search on my iPhone proved that an angel had just whispered in my ear: 3-M blue painter’s tape comes in a dizzying array of squares and rectangles. But what size of square did we need?

We agreed we’d need to be standing in front of the prop to figure that out.

The next week, after some approach-to-landing training for Lisa, she got out a pad of three-inch sticky notes and stuck them on the prop. It didn’t work out too well. For one thing, putting enough of them on to give a checkered flag look ate up a third of the prop. Too big. Next she cut them down to 2.5 inches, for a momma bear effect. Better, but not just right. At two and a quarter inches, we judged the size of the squares to be perfect.

Naturally, 2.25 inches is the only size of tape squares not made.

Back to the drawing board. Well, cutting board.

In the end, we decided that two inches was the ticket.

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And standing in the hangar, I ordered the squares from Amazon. “They’ll be here Wednesday,” I told Lisa. Then thinking for a moment said, “Wanna get the white paint on now?”

“Sure,” said my wing woman, “it’ll give the white paint plenty of time to set before we do the black.”

So we covered every inch of glass on the plane with cleaning rags—as I said, we’ve had some bad experiences with spray paint in the past—and got to work.

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We carefully calculated how far down the prop the race checkers should go (eight inches) then spent some time trying to figure out how to get the tape perfectly perpendicular to propeller. I then ran my finger back and forth over the edge of the tape to ensure it was down tightly for a sharp paint edge, and lightly attached several more strips of painter’s tape to protect the main body of the prop from over-spray.

Next, we closed the hangar doors down to a crack to let in light, but no wind. Lisa held up a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to protect the plane, and I starting shaking the can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint for the required 60 seconds.

Then, using short, sweeping bursts, I got a lovely coat of smooth white paint over the tip of the propeller. I set the paint can down and pushed the hangar door open to let in more light. A cloud of floating Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint particles was sucked out into the breeze like exhaled cigarette smoke. I inspected my paint job. Generally speaking, I’m a poor handyman, but everyone once and a while things work out for me perfectly.

This was not one of those times.

Almost at once, the paint began to run, forming a thick artery of paint on the smooth surface. I let out a choked wail and dashed for the roll of heavy blue paper shop towels that lives in the tool cabinet. Luckily, the prop being so smooth, the thick layer of paint wiped clean off with several strokes.

On the second try, hangar door cracked, paint shaken for sixty seconds, I painted just a kiss of paint onto the prop tip. Then we did the other side. After letting the hangar exhale paint smoke a second time, we inspected the tips. The white paint look grey and thin, but it wasn’t running. We kicked back and started a pair of cigars to let the paint dry, then hit the tips again, drank some whiskey to let the second coat set, then hit the tips a third time, and so forth.

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Four light coats did the trick. The last phase was to remove the tape. Naturally I had visions of the tape pulling a large part of the paint on the prop off with it, but no, it came off perfectly clean.

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So far, so good. How’d the blue tape squares and black paint work out? I don’t know. We haven’t done the second half of the job yet. I guess that will be next week’s Plane Tale.

See you then and here.

 

“Let’s race!”

Our last air race was… gosh… when? Let me check my author index over at GA News… Wow. Seriously? The AirVenture Cup? Last summer? And that wasn’t even in our own airplane!

No wonder I’ve been such a grump lately.

But to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether or not that would be my last race. Sure, I still wear my race jacket with it’s many patches and logos, and when strangers at cocktail parties ask me what I do for a living I tell them I’m an air racer, but in truth my air racing future has been in serious doubt. At the end of last season when I drove out for the Championship awards and my colleagues asked me if I’d race in 2018, my stock answer was: I will always race. At least some. Will I shoot for the championship again? I haven’t decided yet.

But the truth was that I knew I couldn’t afford another try. Hell, I could barely afford the first try much less the last try. This racing is expensive, with the travel, the hotels, the food, the booze, and the wear and tear on the airplane. Last year, in my determination to win Gold, it was racing First for me all spring. I passed up the chance to refill my bank account teaching seminars in favor of empting it out with more racing. Then the maintenance issues started and I missed race after race after race after race while the money drained out of my checking account like water from a bathtub after a long soak.

It’s iconic. Last season there were a record number of races on the books, and a record amount of work available to me. This season, the number of races is modest and the work nearly non-existent. Had I only known, I could have taken last year off from racing, worked my tail feathers off, and have easily banked enough to pay for this season.

(((Sigh)))

Well, that’s hindsight for you, fickle little bitch that she is.

Anyway, this year I knew that work, not racing, needed to come First, and one of my jobs is teaching Rusty Pilot Seminars for AOPA. The seminars are three-hour gigs in various parts of the country, which almost always fall on Saturdays, the same day of the week as most air races. In advance of each quarter AOPA asks me (and the other instructors) which weekends we are available. Last season, I blocked out all the race weekends. That was a lot of weekends, and I didn’t end up teaching much. But, as I said, it was racing First.

When the racing season was announced for this year and I saw that, except for April, it was pretty much one race per month, I briefly toyed with blocking off all the race dates to keep my options open, but I stuck to my guns: Work First. Still, I drew the little race flags over each host airport on our big laminated wall planning chart, marked the race dates on our wall calendar, and penciled them lightly into my desk calendar.

Then I tried not to give them a second thought. I didn’t even check the league website every night at the dinner table to see who had signed up for each race, like I did nightly the last two seasons. I buried active thinking about air racing in some dark recess of my mind and pretended they didn’t exist.

The fly in the ointment was a commitment I made after reading my email following one to many glasses of wine. I promised one of the publications I write for that I’d go to Sun ‘n Fun, a stupid thing to do as the assignment will nowhere nearly pay for my costs of going. But still, it’s the one major aviation event Rio has never attended, so there’s the side benefit of being a good father.

But here’s where it gets complicated: The Sport Air Racing League (SARL) season kicks off with a race into Sun ‘n Fun. Given that I have to be there anyway, shouldn’t I race in?

Maybe. Maybe not. I can hop onto a Southwest Airlines flight and be in Florida in half a day. Flying Tess to Florida is a two or three day project, and arguably more expensive. What to do… What to do?

In the end, I decided to let Fate decide for me. I made no travel plans one way or another. When the days-available request for the quarter arrived from AOPA, I told them I was available every weekend except the weekend I’d be in Sun ‘n Fun, and that even that weekend I could teach one at Sun ‘n Fun if they wanted me to.

Then I waited. And waited. And waited. And didn’t think too much about the racing. I tuned it out. Then, just before lunch a few days ago my assignments came in for the quarter. Oh wait. Not assignments. Assignment. As in one. I think I mentioned that work was nearly non-existent this year. Ironically, this one one gig is on a race weekend, but it wasn’t in April. I was free to run the Sun ‘n Fun race.

And actually, there’s more than one race. There’s a short pre-race in typical “round Robin” SARL style launching from Sandersville, GA; followed the next day by one of the two cross-country races of the season, this one down to Sun ‘n Fun. So I could, quite literally, get two races for the cost of one. Plus, there’s the speed trial out of Sun ‘n Fun that I ran last year. It’s not sanctioned by SARL, so I don’t get championship points for running it, but it’s still a hoot. So I had the opportunity to race three times in nearly as many days. There was no work lost, but it would add to the cost. So what to do?

Debs was off to town for groceries and Lisa was teaching at the college, so my Council of War was limited to Rio and Grandma Jean. Over salads and red wine for lunch I laid out the situation. Mom didn’t hesitate, “Let’s race!” she said firmly, thumping her wine glass down on the table for emphasis. I turned to Rio, who shrugged one shoulder and said, “I don’t see any harm in it.”

Unlike the rest of the clan, he was never fully infected by the racing bug.

“OK,” I said, and went to the library to throw my hat into the ring. I went to the SARL website, pulled up the first race, clicked on the I Am Racing! tab and entered my name, race number, and class.

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I hit the return key to submit my entry, and a wave of pure euphoria swept over me.

I’m racing again.

No kicks for us on Route 66

Our home airport—the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport—doesn’t just share its name with the famous road. It is the road. Our runway 08/26 is built right smack on the original highway. In fact, the original runway was the highway. I don’t know the real story, but in my imagination I see the city fathers sitting around playing poker and smoking stogies one night in the late 1950s, after the interstate had passed through and around the town, changing the long established layout of the highway.

“What we going to do with the old Route 66 on the south side of town?” one asks. “It’ll be too gosh-derned expensive (people didn’t swear back in those days) for us to maintain it.”

Another scratches his stubble while he studies his cards; “Maybe we should turn it into a drag strip. It’s arrow-straight.”

Poker chips clink on the table as the most-forward thinking of the group calls, “I’ll match your drag strip and raise you an airport.”

Of course, as I said, I don’t know what really happened, but sometime in the late 50s or early 1960s, the triangle of dirt runways on the northwest side of town was abandoned in favor of a single narrow four thousand two hundred ninety four foot-long strip of (paved) mother road on the southeast side of town. They put up a beacon tower that might have been liberated from an abandoned airmail “arrow” site nearby, built a shabby hut for a terminal, installed a gas pump, and opened up for business. The scar of the old road can still be seen on the earth off either end of the runway.

In later years the city fathers built a dirt-floor metal T-hangar for six planes, a crosswind runway, and finally a modern terminal building which quickly fell into a state of disregard until just recently, when it was adopted and refurbished by our buddy Lisa with some help from my wallet.

So now you know why the Route 66 Air Tour folks asked us to host a little pre-tour party, so the flyers on the tour could actually land and/or take off from Route 66 as part of the Route 66 Air Tour. I think they envisioned it as a coffee stop, but as it was scheduled to take place between one and three in the afternoon, I knew we’d need a bit more than coffee. Plus, it was the chance for us to show off our newly respectable terminal, hopefully restoring our image as a good place to land for Avgas or Jet-A, stretch your legs, use a clean bathroom, and grab a fee snack.

I was looking forward to it. After the party, Rio and I would fly, quite literally, an hour up the road to Tucumcari, where the Air Tour events would officially start that night.

But by the time I got there, following my misadventures getting the plane to work, I had nearly missed my own party. As I was gassing up, the first plane landed. Within half an hour we had a ramp full of planes and a happy terminal bursting with pilots excitedly talking everything aviation, drinking coffee and water, and eating sandwiches.

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Normally we’re the only people around our airport, as ours is the only plane based there. It was wonderful feeling the community of other aviators, and I looked forward to spending the next four days with them.

We gave some hangar tours and as the day wore on, one by one, the fliers headed out. After the last one took to the air we quickly cleaned up with one eye on the western horizon. The weather was starting to close in, the predicted warm and sunny day replaced with cold wind, low grey clouds, and wandering bands of sleet.

Deb and Grandma Jean, both exhausted from sandwich construction and hostess duties, bugged out first. Lisa dropped us at the hangar and stayed long enough to make sure the plane’s engine started.

It did. But there was a problem.

When I put my headset on, I was greeted by deafening silence. No radio. No Rio. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” I spoke into the boom mike. No response. I tapped Rio on the shoulder, “Can you hear me?”

I could see his mouth forming words, but silence fell on my ears. I pulled off the headset and shouted over the idling engine; “Shut her down,” making slicing motions with my left hand back and forth across my throat. Rio reached up for the throttle, pulled it far back, pulled out the mixture, then turned off the ignition. The engine coughed, the prop slowed, then stopped. I shut off the bat switches, killing the flashing strobes on the wing tips last. Serving as our beacon, they are first on and last off, to warn others our engine is live.

Lisa pulling away, stopped, put the car in reverse, pulled up close, and rolled her window down, “What’s up?”

“Radio out… again,” I said slowly. But my mind was racing. How on earth…? It was fine when I taxied over. All we did was push the plane in to the hangar and pull it out. How did the wires come loose again? And if they are that sensitive, what’s to keep them for coming disconnected in flight? Of course, there’s no real reason for a radio in flight, but as part of a group of more than 20 planes it didn’t seem safe to me to fly NORDO—aviation slang for operating without a radio. We have a handheld, but no adaptor to use it with the headsets. This didn’t look good for the home team, unless I could fix the problem, and be sure it would stay fixed.

Rio pulled himself up and out of the plane. I grabbed the Tessie-blue Eddie Bauer flashlight out of the back pocket, turned sideways and scooted my butt to the left side of the seat, raising my legs and dangling my feet outside the plane. It’s the only way to get your head under the instrument panel.

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I directed the light upwards and was greeted by a great maze of wires. I was going to need some tech support. Lying upside down, all the blood in my body rushing to my head, I called the guys. “What the Sam Heck am I looking for down here?” I asked as I dropped my iPhone on my face.

They talked me through the maze of wiring to the back of the intercom. It had a multi-pin connector like an old computer printer. With one headset against my ear, the master switch and radio on, I was able to make the radio first work, then fall silent by tugging or pushing on the wire bundle. The consensus of the experts: Loose wire in the plug. Not a friendly field fix. Bring her back to us.

As I pulled myself back up in the cockpit, it started to rain. Rio and I stared glumly at each other. We both knew we wouldn’t be making the tour. Nothing needed to be said.

Rio looked up at the light rain and said, “We’d better get her back in the hangar, dad.”

I pulled the tow bar out from behind the seat, closed the canopy, and jumped down to the ground. I hooked the bar into the nose wheel, and pushing on the root of the propeller, eased Tessie back into her nest, out of the rain. Rio got out a roll of absorbent paper towels and started wiping the wings dry.

It was Friday night. My mechanics wouldn’t be back until Monday. We wouldn’t be getting any kicks on Route 66 this weekend. Well, that’s not quite true. At least the terminal party was a kick. And we do get to fly off of Route 66 all the time.

But still, it wasn’t the kicks on Route 66 I had hoped for.

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.”