Welcome, again

I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air and Space. My story: Write up my…

Wait a sec. I’m having some déjà vu here.

Oh, yes, that’s exactly how I started the very first Plane Tale, back on August 22, 2014! But I guess it’s appropriate to start this story exactly the same way as I started that one, as I’m having exactly the same problem: I’ve got too big a story to tell, and too little space to tell it in. What’s the story this time? It’s the tale of my re-flying the transcontinental air mail route, using nothing more for navigation than the original 100-year-old written instructions.

Re-flying it, of course, in an Ercoupe.

Hey, it’s practically an air mail plane. Same speed and range. Open cockpit with the doors down in the belly, and as you’ll learn when my story eventually hits the streets, many of the mail planes—even though they started off as biplanes—ended up morphing into monoplanes through a bizarre series of circumstances.

But this time, Plane Tales Plane fans, it’s not a Tessie adventure. I choose Lisa’s “Warbler” for the mission, as he’s equipped just like the mail planes of old, which is to say he’s got practically no equipment at all.


Of course, it wasn’t a 100% primitive flight. Lisa rode shotgun, armed with an iPad and GPS because, as you know, in today’s skies there are military operations areas, restricted airspaces, towered airports, and thousands of pesky cell phone towers that didn’t exist back at the dawn of flight. Although, interestingly, phone lines were a leading crash-causing hazard back in the day, so the damn phone has been the nemesis of the aviator for a hundred years.

But back to the story. At least this time, I’ve only three totally separate “leads” that I’m agonizing over. Which is better than back in ’14, when I was agonizing over FIVE different leads.

One place I could start, of course, would be at the beginning…


Lead 1

I’m standing in Parking Lot 5 of the Scott Campus of the University of Nebraska Omaha. It’s a cold, grey evening, with low ceilings and spitting rain. I look around at the towering buildings on all sides, and it’s hard to imagine that this was once the site of an airfield on the western outskirts of the city. If I’d been flying the Omaha-to-Cheyenne air mail back in the glory days, this would’ve been my starting point.

Now you need a permit to park your car here.

All that’s left to show that an airport once existed beneath my feet is a forlorn metal plaque erected by the Nebraska State Historical Society. It faces a busy street.

In the morning I’ll use modern GPS to arrive in the air above this very spot, but after that, I’m going to attempt to re-fly a full third of the transcontinental air mail route using nothing but the original technology: Written instructions that are nearly 100 years-old.


Lead 2

But, of course, there’s no law that says you have to tell the story in the order that it occurred, and sometimes that’s not the best way to go about it. For instance, I could start in the heat of the flight, with the true meat of the story, and fill in the background as I go along…

The directions for the early air mail pilots say, “Almost directly west will be seen black irregular peaks in the Laramie Mountains. Fly over the mountains just to the north of these peaks.”

I look up. The entire horizon, from south to north is nothing butblack irregular peaks.

I read the paragraph again. Then I stick my head out of the airplane, into the slip stream. There’s no need to. It just seems like something a real air mail pilot would do in a situation like this. The cold blast pushes my goggles into my face and tugs at the edges of my Perrone leather flying helmet.

It doesn’t help me figure out which peaks I’m supposed to fly north of.

And this is just the beginning. Beyond the Laramie Mountains is the Medicine Bow Range, the 12,500-foot Elk Mountain, and the Sierra Madre. Not to mention the ragged, rocky, snow-coved peaks of the Wasatch Range that guard the west-bound approaches into Salt Lake City. And the only thing I have to guide me through these mountains is a book of written instructions set down almost one hundred years ago.

I’m beginning to think that this isn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had.


Lead 3

Or maybe it would be better to share the feel of the flight. To invite the reader into the cockpit,t to come along for the ride…

Cold air pours into the cockpit in a torrent. It slashes through my heavy leather barnstormer jacket, soaks through my gloves, seems to whisk away the fabric of my canvas pants, and swirls into my shoes. Only my head, secure in its new fleece-lined leather flying helmet, escapes. It’s going to be a looooongtwo-hour flight.

And we haven’t even left the ground yet.

I turn to my safety pilot, Lisa, and watch a small scrap of paper waft up from some hidden recess in the floor, orbit her head once, then be sucked out of the cockpit. Her arms are folded tightly across her chest, gloved hands in her armpits. Her legs are pressed closely together, drawn up close to the seat. She looks miserable.

“You know,” I say into my boom mic, my voice sounding far way in my headset, “the early air mail pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep warm in their open cockpits.”

She gives me a cold look, but I’m sufficiently chilled to be immune from it. “If you’re done with the sports section,” she says sarcastically, “I’ll take it now.”

Of course, despite months of planning for this adventure, I didn’t think to bring any newspapers for insulation. But I did bring a book.


And the winner is…

So which lead did I choose in the end? Well, you’ll just have to wait until the magazine hits the streets to find out. In the meantime, welcome newcomers, and welcome back, regular readers. I’m aviation writer William E. Dubois and this is Plane Tales, my ongoing home base. The virtual airport for my pen. Here, I’ll continue to keep you up-to-date on my Fly Writing with links to new articles as they are published, expanded content, exclusive stories, and assorted adventures that take place on a Wing and a Pen!


Twilight Delight

Aviation and spontaneity are a poor mix. Sure, you can go jump in your plane, fire it up, and roar off into the sunset. If you’re crazy. Because there are things you need to do on the ground before you get into the air that ensure you get back onto the ground again (in one piece).

Ya’ gotta check the oil. The fuel. Make sure there’s no water in your gas tanks and that no birds made nests in your air intakes. You need to check to make sure all your hinges and cables are intact on all the moving parts of the plane. Check the weather, look for temporarily closed airspace, and all the rest.

A good preflight ensures safe flight.

But that doesn’t mean that every flight needs to be planned days in advance, either. There’s room for controlled spontaneity. Take last night, for instance. We’d gone up to Vegas (the little one that you can’t see from space) to attend the 30th Anniversary of a friend’s art gallery, and as we were driving home I was admiring the sky.

OK, you got me. I wasn’t admiring the sky. I was lusting after it.

The afternoon was dead calm, nearly cloudless. The sun, although beginning to sink low, was still high above the desert horizon. Wow. It’s light sooooooo late, I thought to myself, this daylight savings time really rocks.

Maybe… Maybe… Maybe there’s time to slip in a twilight flight.

I started calculating. The sun has been setting around 7pm, so civil twilight—my legal wheels on the ground time flying Light Sport—would be not quite a half hour later. It was 5:30 and we were on the road coming home. We’d still need to unload the car, gather our flight gear, and then drive the 45 minutes down to the airport… Yeah. We could get in half an hour for sure. Maybe even 45 minutes. I ran the math in my head twice just to make sure, then glanced into the rear view mirror to catch Rio’s eye. I pointed to the sky and he nodded enthusiastically.

The sun was low on the horizon when we arrived at our hangar at the Route 66 Airport. The sky was golden yellow, the blue turning peach overhead. I pulled Tessie out into the dying light of the day, and we preflighted. Fuel and oil good. No water in the tanks, no bird nests in the vents. All the hinges moved as they should and all the cables were connected.

The weather I’m guilty of not checking, but we weren’t going far. Weren’t going anywhere, really.

Next to our hangar, inside the perimeter fence, is a mobile home where a police officer and his family live. Outside the fence is a gaggle of other mobile homes stretched out along Airport Road (along with an abandoned modular building with fading paint that says “Lupe’s Lounge”). All of these “neighbors” generally ignore us to the point where we might as well not exist. Well, at least up until tonight. About a week or so ago, an RV showed up parked next to one of these airport row houses. I don’t know if the guy is just visiting or has moved in, but he leaves his front door wide open and plays very loud rock and roll music. Loud enough that the volume is about right inside my hangar 75 yards away. Oh, well, at least his “play list” is pretty good.

Last night, however, as we were finishing up our preflight, he came running up to the fence, waving his hands and shouting, “I love you guys.”

Clearly, I thought to myself, the man is drunk. Just ignore the drunk, I told Rio and finished up our preflight without responding to our new neighbor. We climbed in, buckled in, slid the doors up over our heads, and fired up the engine. As we taxied out, the man ran along the fence line, happily waving. I finally caved in to his enthusiasm and waved back.

The bottom rim of the sun kissed the horizon as we back-taxied along runway 26, the Plane Tales Plane casting a wicked, long shadow ahead of her, revealing her inner predatory bird.


Then (after a proper runup and setting the mixture control) we roared off into the gathering gloom. Already sunlight was gone from the face of the earth, but we rose from shadow and caught up to the golden rays.

What a wild character, back there by the hangar, I told Rio, must have been drunk off his gourd.

Rio’s voice crackled back through the intercom, “Or who knows, maybe he’s a Plane Tales fan.”

Oh dear. I felt my heart sink in my chest. Wouldn’t that be ironic? We meet a devoted fan of the blog for the first time and think he’s a drunk. So dear RV neighbor: If you’re a fan, please accept my apology for assuming you were just a drunk. And if your both drunk and a fan, that’s OK, too.

“But one thing’s for sure,” Rio continued, “he’s sure a fan of airplanes.”

Yeah, I said, you’re right about that. And fan of us, or fan of planes, I guess he’s earned a show. Passing through 300 feet I banked into a steep turn back towards the hangar. I leveled off at 500, flew half-way down the runway perpendicular to the one we lifted off from, took a sharp left above taxiway Foxtrot, and overflew the RV. I could see “our” fan jumping up and down and waving. We circled once, wagged our wings, and headed south to enjoy the sunset.

But as sunsets go, it was a bit lame.


New Mexico sunsets tend to be a riot of colors. Tonight, instead, was mere soft pastels. But where the sky disappointed, the ground excelled. Like blooming flowers, lights came on one by one. Street lights. Porch lights. Headlights of cars illuminating their mysterious journeys. The pulsing red and blue orbs of an ambulance. The interstate became a glowing snake, slithering off to the horizon. I keyed the mike button on my yoke seven times and our two runways blazed to life, each a pair of long parallel lights. Carefully laid-out jewel necklaces ready for an elegant soiree.


I kept one eye on the horizon and one eye on my watch. With ten minutes to spare I entered the pattern to land, the terrain below now in deep gloom. I knew there were power lines off the approach end of runway 26, but I couldn’t see them in the dusky grey light. I held high. Too high. I’m going around, I told Rio, advanced the throttle to the firewall, and gently lifted the nose. We roared over the runway and climbed back up into the pattern for another go at it.

Now it was getting seriously dim, the face of the earth losing its texture, the runway edge lights glowing like miniature bonfires.


Down, down, down we came, using the chain of lights to judge our angle and altitude. As we swept over the threshold, our landing light illuminated the runway’s pavement. The center stripes glowed like ghosts in the artificial beam of moonlight stabbing out from beneath our left wing. I gently flared and dropped back onto mother earth.


I looked at my watch. One minute and thirty seconds to spare.

We taxied back to our hangar and shut down. The rock n’ roll music was silent. The night was gathering strength. Jupiter shone like a solitary diamond in the evening sky. Rio pulled himself out of the cockpit, rested his arms on top of the canopy and took in the view.


“We need to do this more often,” he said.


Fly Write

I, a 51-year-old aviator, and a veteran of more than three decades of wielding a pen professionally, have no excuse for not having not read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry earlier. He’s the quintessential aviation writer, renowned for his lyrical descriptions of the world a-wing. But somehow, I never made time to read him.

Then last month I was gifted a first-edition French copy of Pilote de Guerre, but despite my last name, I know only a word or two of the tongue of my ancestors. Still, the un-readable gift was a reminder of a duty undone, and it galvanized me to go to Amazon, where I scored a first edition, third printing hardcover of the English translation, entitled Flight to Arras (the same book with a very different title—the French translates to Pilot of War), for $14.95, and I’m reading it now.

St. Ex is famous in both literary and winged circles for his command of language and his ability to paint vivid pictures with words that speak to the souls of flyers and non-flyers alike. My French-reading mother assures me his command of French is unrivalled by any other author, and that every page sings.

Sometimes St. Ex waxes overly philosophical for my taste, but his prose does not disappoint. On page 79 I found the most marvelous description of a contrail I have ever read, and I just have to share it with you:

The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the water vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside.

…like a bridal veil… meteoric flight… a cirrus of icicles… cloud over the countryside… Wow! Poetry and science. Science and poetry.

That man could sure write!