Supergirl and the aviation hex

From his hospital bed, Lisa’s latest instructor assured her that she wasn’t hexed. Although, given her turbulent ride toward a pilot’s license, no one could blame her for beginning to wonder…

Yes, Lisa’s new instructor, who had proclaimed that she could “probably pass” her checkride, but wanted to strengthen her skill in a few key areas before he signed her off, had what we were told was a minor motorcycle accident. A minor motorcycle accident that shattered his collar bone, punctured his lung, and left him grounded until sometime in October.

That’s a long time, but it’s probably moot anyway, given that it’s now high summer, and the density altitude in Santa Fe often approaches Warbler’s service ceiling. But seriously, getting a pilot’s license shouldn’t be this hard. Not that Lisa’s hexed, or anything.

Still, Lisa soldiers on, spending her weekends sleeping in her hangar at SXU and flying in the cool early morning hours, practicing for her checkride. At least that’s what she’s doing until her solo endorsement runs out at the end of this month. Then she’ll be required to fly with yet another flight instructor—who will have to get familiar her plane before he or she learns that Lisa can fly just fine, thank you—to get an extension on her student solo privileges. That’s a frickin’ hassle, but hardly a hex. It’s just the FAA.

Last weekend, I was in the neighborhood of the airport in the early morning, so I decided to drop in for a cup of coffee with my plane friend. It took me a while to get into the airport. The security gate which has been broken and left wide open for three quarters of a year, is now fixed and I couldn’t remember the stupid gate code. I kept punching in the code from my ATM card and wondering why I was getting neither money nor access. I don’t actually believe in hexes, but this long-plagued gate could well be the exception to the rule.

Car window open, and cursing myself for having such a poor memory for numbers, I heard a familiar aircraft engine: A soft baritone with distinctive high notes. Warbler!I looked to the runway just in time to see Lisa’s Armycoupe lifting off and climbing high into the sky, chrome propeller flashing in the early morning sun. I stuck my head out of the window for a better view as the little plane flew by: Brown-green body, bright yellow wings, dark grey glass over the cockpit, the large red Fifanella midway down the fuselage, and another flash of yellow on his tail feathers. I smiled. Lisa’s Warbie is a hell of a nice-looking bird.

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After looking up the gate code to my own airport on the internet using my phone, which is apparently smarter than I am, I get through the high security chain-link fence and park in front of my hangar. As I pull the massive doors open, they let out a heaving groan, like a sleepy giant reluctant to get out of bed. A breath of trapped of warm air escapes and I step inside to survey my domain: Part art gallery, part museum. Framed art and memorabilia cover nearly every inch of the walls. My air race trophies are on one side, a post-flight bar on the other. Flags hang from the towering ceiling, gently swaying to and fro. I walk across the mirror-like concreate pad, then my feet crunch across the gravel as I make my way to the back of the hangar to take a seat at the workbench. There’s no airplane in my airplane hangar, and as I look around I find the empty space a huge, lonely void. Usually, I love being here, but today a melancholy mood settles over me. In the last year, I can count on my fingers the number of days that Tess has been in her nest. Not that she’s hexed, or anything. Well… maybe…

I look at my watch. Damn. It’s too early to break out the Aviation Gin for a gin and tonic.

Lisa’s voice crackles on the radio, “Santa Rosa route sixty-six traffic, Erco niner four one-one six, left downwind, runway eight, touch and go, Santa Rosa.” I get a cigar from the humidor, tuck a folding camp chair under my arm, and trudge around the hangar to Lisa’s runway-view side of the building to watch the show. I set up in a narrow ribbon of shade outside her doors and settle in. Here comes Warbler. Down, down, down. Nearly silent, his engine close to idle for the descent. Then, as his wheels reach out for the runway, his engine comes to life, and he skims along above the pavement. Lisa is getting the feel of ground effect. Lisa and Warbler flash by and I light my cigar. Atta-girl, Lisa!

After she lifts off and turns left into the traffic pattern, I lose sight of her. She’s eclipsed by the hangar, but I can still hear Warbler’s soft growl above and behind me. I can picture where Lisa is in the pattern. She’s midfield. Now turning base. Now final. Here comes Warbler again. Down, down, down once more. Nearly silent again, his engine close to idle for the descent. This time his wheels chip as Lisa touches down. Then up comes the throttle as she starts her touch-and-go. His nose comes up, then he climbs slowly, at a crazy-steep angle. Ah. She’s practicing the technique for a short-field takeoff with an obstacle near the end of the runway.

I take another puff on my cigar, and as Lisa and Warbler fly past, a feeling of pride washes over me. Watching her alone in the air, in perfect command of her airplane, I’m like a proud papa of a newborn baby—although one with nobody to pass cigars out to. Not that I can really take credit for teaching Lisa to fly. Sure, I introduced her to flying. Showed her the basics. Perhaps served as a mentor, or at least a sounding board throughout her long journey. But it was others who honed her skills. Rick and Steve, who taught her to read and ride the winds in a sailplane. Greg, who while he basically robbed her, and didn’t teach her much, at least exposed her to grass and tailwheels. Larry, who patiently guided her out of despair to the brink of her license, but then Flew West right before the job was done. And finally, the wonderful motorcycle maniac, a perfectionist with much to teach.

As the pale blue cigar smoke wafts around my head, and the dull drone of Warbler’s engine fades into the distance, I consider Lisa’s long path to her license. She’s sure has had more than her share of bad luck and expense on this project. On top of multiple instructors, she’s had an unusual number of bad weather days in a state known for its good weather; her Ninety-Nine’s scholarship papers mysteriously disappeared; Warbler had a number of truly bizarre breakdowns; and now—with all these delays—her written exam is about to expire.

OK, so maybe there is a hex. A small one, at any rate.

But through it all, Lisa soldiers on. As she always has. She’s the first in her family to go to college, and she took it all the way to a master’s degree. She’s a cancer survivor. A black belt. Warbler makes another pass. I can almost feel the mix of joy and concentration emanating from the cockpit as Lisa and Warbler rise back up off the asphalt.

Really and truly, I realize, it’s not me nor anyone else who’s taught Lisa to fly. She’s taught herself how to fly, the same way she’s done everything in her life. By hard work. By study. By practice. By perseverance. And, to be frank, also with a good dose of mule-headed stubbornness. Yeah, it’s been a long journey, but Lisa is made of steel.

Yeah, she’ll get that license.

Up against this girl, that poor hex doesn’t stand a chance.

 

Back in the saddle again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not that I’m counting.

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

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