A welcome escape

I was at GSP, a lovely little Class Charlie airport midway between Greenville and Spartanburg in South Carolina. The blue shirts had just decimated my luggage, thanks to the bastards at American Airlines, who punished me for getting a reasonable airfare on Expedia by not including my TSA Pre✓ known traveler number on my boarding pass.

Shoes off.

Computer out.

Flightpad out.

Crap, no zip lock bag for my single tube of toothpaste.

Don’t you know you have to take projectors out of their cases? How would I know such a thing? I’ve been Pre✓ for years, plus I don’t see a sign telling me this. Smile at the nice blue shirt and apologize for being so ignorant.

Swab for explosives.


Don’t you know that you have to take speakers like these out of their cases? How would I know such a thing? I’ve been Pre✓ for years, plus I don’t see a sign telling me this. Smile at the nice blue shirt and apologize for being so ignorant.

More swabbing. More x-raying.

Finally, satisfied that I was no threat to national security, they handed me back my bag. Open. Its contents heaped high on either side, overflowing over its aluminum sides. Granted, fitting all the gear, cables, and adaptors I need to schlep for a Rusty Pilot Seminar into the case requires finesse that combines three-dimensional thinking and jigsaw puzzle skills; and—like a Rubik’s cube—is a process that tolerates no miss-steps. I gathered the dismembered remains of my luggage into my arms and sought out a bench to re-assemble it.

It had been hot and humid out, leaving me wilted; my day had just hit the 14-hour mark; and my flight didn’t board for another two hours.

I needed a drink.

The first thing I encountered in the “grand hall” of the GSP terminal was a Chick-fil-A. They don’t serve booze at Chick-fil-A, and besides, they were closed. I guess because it was a Sunday. Next door was a hotdog place, but as I’d stayed at a Drury the night before. I’d had my quota of hotdogs for the year. Not that I’m complaining. There was also a Wolfgang Puck. But it was crazy-crowded, and somehow looked more expensive than the typical over-priced airport eatery & drinkery.

I continued my patrol. At the far end of the grand hall a large sign said: ESCAPE. Actually, I’m really not feeling all that trapped, but thank you anyway. As I closed in, I made out a second, smaller word: LOUNGE. Ah! Now you are a-speakin’ my language. A vague memory percolated through my head. I’ve seen an Escape Lounge before. It was at Reno-Tahoe. I recalled it being waaaaay over budget for me. Still, there’s no harm in asking…

I sauntered in and inquired what the scoop was. The young lady manning the fort asked if I had a Platinum American Express card. If I had one, entry was free. Or maybe not. That damn card has a $550 annual fee. No, I have no Amex, I have no Amex today. All I have is a debit card from the First Bumpkin Bank of New Mexico, and an AOPA Mastercard.

Not surprisingly, neither of those granted access.

She showed me three pages of other cards that would give me a discount. I don’t know what’s in your wallet, but none of them were in my wallet. I’d have to pay the standard walk-up fee of $45 if I wanted to escape the grand hall. I dunno…I asked for clarification on what I’d get for my dinero. Access to the bar and the buffet. A cozy retreat with a view. High-speed Wi-Fi. Bountiful charging ports.

OK: Down to the business at hand. Tell me more about that bar.

It’s a two-tiered bar. There are complimentary offerings and premium offerings. You pay more for the premium, but I gotta say, at least at my end of the economy, I found the complimentary offerings to be pretty primo. Robert Mondavi Private Select cabernet sauvignon, along with white and sparkling wine options. A choice of bourbons and whiskeys: Jack Daniel’s, Jim Beam, Jameson, or Canadian Club. Three Svedka vodkas. Beefeater gin and Bacardi rum. Johnnie Walker Red scotch. Jose Cuervo Silver tequila, plus Baileys Irish Cream, Kahlua, and a cognac I’d never heard of: Remy Martin VSOP. For beer drinkers they had Michelob Ultra, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Creek Trifecta IPA—all draft.

Hell, a man could live there for years!


But I still hesitated. Then the hostess had a light bulb moment. Was I a triple-A member? Why, yes, yes, I am. Will that get me in for free?

Of course not.

But AAA, combined with a “first time visitor discount” would drop the cover charge from $45 to $35. I was powerful thirsty, and this was starting to sound like a pretty good deal for an airport terminal, post-security. All you can drink and eat, plus refreshments for my thirsty electronics? I whipped out my First Bumpkin Bank of New Mexico debit card, wondering for a second if I shouldn’t have used my AOPA card. It has some sort of rewards program I’ve never been able to wrap my head around.

But I have to say: What a wonderful escape. It was quiet. Comfortable. Cool. There was a fabulous view of the apron out the windows, and the inside walls were bedecked with gloriously silent big screen TVs displaying a real-time map of inbound and outbound flights, alternating with the arrival and departure screens from the concourse.

I got my much-needed drink (followed by a refill… or two or three). Then I checked out the food. It tended toward small bites, but they were delicious and there’s no limit on how much you stuff into your face. The onsite chef had prepared steak chimichurri, grilled salmon, truffle risotto, devilled eggs, watermelon feta salad, a charcuterie board, a wicked-good spicy tortilla soup, chicken almond salad, pretzel bread sticks, muffins, cobblers, pies, and cakes. And because it’s the south: Boiled peanuts. Don’t knock them until you try them. Plus, sodas, tea, etc. It all tasted as good as it sounds.


It sure beat the hell out of hanging out in the concourse, and cost me no more than a typical airport meal with a drink or two.

According to their website, Escape Lounges are also found at: Bradley, CT, Minneapolis, Oakland, Providence, and Sacramento; as well as in the United Kingdom at East Midlands, London, and Manchester. One thing’s for sure: Anytime I’ve got a couple hour layover at any of those airports you’ll find me making my escape.

Do you think they’ll give me a frequent escaper discount instead of a first-time visitor discount?


Worth changing your flight plan to visit

I parked in the deserted lot in front of Doc’s peekaboo hangar, walked up, and pressed my nose against the glass to get a better look.

I wasn’t the only one to have done so. The towering glass windows were pristine above the seven-foot level; but below that, to the left and to the right—for seventy feet in either direction—were smudges, fingerprints, and handprints on the dark glass.


Cupping my hands into a scuba mask-like oval around my eyes to block out the glare and the reflection, being careful this time to get as close to the glass as possible without touching it, I took a second look. In the dying light of the day, the lovingly restored World War II bomber was a beautiful thing. Not a machine of war; rather, a pristine, polished, gleaming work of modern art.


Then, back in my car again, I slowly drove on up Airport Road, checking out the signs of the various businesses. Large hangars displayed the logos of Beechcraft, Cessna, Hawker, Textron. Signature Flight Support had an outlet, as did Rockwell. Flight Safety International had a campus. I was cruising around the neighborhood of Wichita’s Eisenhower National Airport. It’s quite the healthy aviation ecosystem.

But, of course, Wichita is supposed to be the air capital of the world.

Then, as I passed Ylingling Aviation’s block-long building, a sign caught my eye. A graphic of an orange wind sock at half-mast and the words: The Aviator’s Attic. And below that: Gifts and Pilot Supplies.A pilot shop!  I slammed on the brakes.


I love pilot shops. I quickly parked and dashed inside to check it out. Although excited at my unexpected find, I was cautiously pessimistic. Why? Well, I don’t know how many pilot shops you’ve been to, but frankly, most are the retail equivalent of a ratty flight school trainer that’s been on a ramp a decade too long. They are dirty, disorganized, and inventory-wise tend to be limited to ASA training books, overpriced headsets, local charts, remove-before-flight keychains, and the occasional aviation-themed wine bottle stopper.

Imagine my delight to find a long, skinny store with dazzling collection of flying merchandise from floor to model-airplane-bedecked ceiling, with the best mix of practical and impractical aviation stuff I’ve ever seen under one roof. Sure, there were charts, and headsets, and flight bags, and training materials. But so too, there were whiskey glasses with aircraft instruments printed on them, and teddy bears with flight jackets, and jewelry, and art, and T-shirts, and metal signs, and hundreds of aviation-themed refrigerator magnets.


And beyond this mouth-watering inventory, the shop was just plane beautiful. Oh. Sorry, I meant to say plain beautiful. Well, it’s both. The lighting is perfect. The merchandise is arranged creatively and attractively, and the floor is so clean you could probably perform surgery on it.

It’s aviation Nirvana. Valhalla. Heaven. Take your pick.

Now, you probably didn’t know this, but in addition to being a certified pilot and ground instructor, I’m also a certified aviation shopaholic. Yes, I’ve logged thousands of hours collecting cool aviation stuff from eBay, Amazon, Sporty’s, the Wright Collection, and more. If it exists, I probably own it. Or if I don’t own it, I either didn’t like it, or more likely, I couldn’t afford it. I only confess to this so you’ll have perspective when I tell you that I didn’t see anything new in the Aviator’s Attic. But I saw everything that’s worth seeing from in any aviation catalog or website on the planet. It’s a remarkable collection, and of course even the slickest website or catalog is a poor substitute for holding an object of desire in your hands. Feeling the heft, turning it over and over to view it from every angle.

Although there really wasn’t anything in the shop I needed, I picked up some more adult beverage glasses for the Plane Tales Hangar, and I bought a few gifts for pilot friends and family—on the theory that it’s important to support any business that’s trying so hard, and succeeding so brilliantly.

The Aviator’s Attic is so infused with a love of aviation that I assumed it was run by a pilot. Not so. The shop is run by non-pilot Heather Cochran, who somehow has tapped into the pulse of pilots, and is clearly a woman of imbecilically good taste and marketing savvy. And I was sure glad she was open late.

It would have been a shame to leave nose prints on her store’s windows.


Throttle Tale

Thump! The nose pitches down. I ease the yoke back to raise it again. Bam! Up goes the nose. Yoke forward. Whap! The right wing flips up. I ease the yoke to the right to level the wings. Whomp! Down I go again. My butt levitates off the seat, the lap belt digging into my gut. I instinctively duck to avoid smashing my head on the roof. Oh, lookie there, the G-meter just registered some negative G’s.

Yes, the Sky Gods are in a foul mood today. Especially the ones in charge of turbulence. Oh, and the ones in charge of visibility, too. It’s legal. Well more than, actually, but it’s an ugly flavor of legal visibility. Hazy. Misty. A veil that I would enjoy as part of a re-enactment of Salome’s dance, I’m finding ugly stretched across the sky. The distant horizon is only hinted at. It’s like flying through an unending cloudy fish bowl.

An unending fish bowl being shaken by a psychotic goldfish-hating pet store owner.

It’s weird to have turbulence and murky skies at the same time. Usually you get turbulence on beautiful days when unstable air scrubs the sky clean, letting you see all the way to the far ends of the earth; while murky skies tend to be calm, stable, and tranquil—like brackish still water in the Bayou.

But the sky isn’t the only weird thing going on. Something’s weird with the airplane, too. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. There’s nothing really wrong with the plane. But somehow, it’s not quite right, either.

Or is it me? As you know, I haven’t been flying Tess as much as I used to. For, what — the last two years? — she’s been in the shop more days than she’s been in our hangar. I guess it’s the curse of owning a 72-year-old airplane. No wonder the Commemorative Air Force is always pestering me for money to keep their fleet of warbirds in the air.

There. There it is again. A twitch in the right wing. The hint of a rise, then a brief moment when the controls freeze. But, as fast as it happens, it’s gone. Is it just the turbulence? Or is it something else?

Of course, I know I have a problem on the ground. Tess isn’t steering right. Most airplanes are steered on the ground using their rudder pedals, but Ercoupes don’t generally have rudder pedals. Instead, you “drive” a Coupe just like you drive a car, using the yoke. The yoke controls an inter-connected system that ties the twin rudders, the alerions, and the nose gear all together. They all move at once. This linkage between alerion and rudder is what keeps the Ercoupe always in coordinated flight and is 50% of the reason why they are “characteristically incapable of spinning.” The other 50% is the fact that, rigged right, they can’t achieve the angle of attack necessary to enter into a stall.

But I digress.

After the rebuilt nose strut was re-installed on Tess, her steering became odd. Before, just like a well-balanced car, once I got her pointed in the right direction she stayed on track. But now I was finding I had to do a lot of correction and counter-correction to keep her taxiing straight.

The constant movement of the yokes to keep the plane nailed to the yellow line didn’t seem right. I felt like a drunk driver. But, of course, I’d been driving on a shot nose strut for years, so I didn’t really know what a proper one should feel like. I made some calls, sent some emails. The consensus among the Ercoupe Illuminati was that, yeah, it didn’t seem right. I received various ideas of things to check, and they all checked out.

I decided the best thing to do was to ignore it for a while. Sometimes airplanes fix themselves if you’re patient.

But of course, in an interconnected system, if you are having problems on the ground, it’s only a matter of time until you start have problems in the air.

Thump! Bam! Whap! Yee-haw, ride ‘em cowboy! A moment of calm. Then the twitch. A slight rise of the right wing. I respond by trying to turn the yoke to the right, but it’s frozen. Locked in concreate. But only for a microsecond. Then it’s free, and I lower the wing. It’s so fast I’m not sure it’s real. Did the controls really lock, or was I just fighting a gust?

Well, no time to worry about it now: Coming out of the mist and haze is KONY, the Onley Municipal Airport, home of Air Tractor. My refueling stop, and a field that I have mixed emotions about. They have three landing strips, which is great, and two of them are in fabulous shape. It’s perfectly located as a second fuel stop en route between my home base and Terrell, Texas, which is host city to the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race—one of my favorite races. It’s named, obviously, for Mark Hardin, who raced his 1941 Ercoupe in the League long before I came along. I missed the race last year due to maintenance issues, but I’m on my way to it now, and couldn’t be more excited. This year’s Hardin Race looks to be one of the largest SARL races in a long time. The roster of race planes is pushing 40 and more seem to be signing up every day. So why are my emotions about KONY mixed if it’s a great field, and in the perfect location on the way to one of my favorite races? Well, the fuel pump and pilot terminal are maintained by the well-named Stark Aviation.

I’ll leave it at that.

The lovely tail wind from the west that’s been pushing me along over the ground at “real” airplane speeds has shifted and is now screaming up from the south. I take an extended right base to Runway 17. Carb heat on. Mixture rich. Throttle back.Thump! Bam! Whap!

I’m lined up perfectly, but I can see I’m too low. Dropping too fast. The headwind has reduced my ground speed more than I thought it would. No problem, I’ll just add a little burst of power. I ease the throttle up. Nothing happens. My heart jumps in my chest. I shove the throttle forward. Nothing happens. The engine is running, but at idle. Temps good. Oil pressure good. The field off the end of Runway 17 not so good. I push the carb heat in, shutting it off. I pump the throttle.


Nothing. I push the nose over a hair to get the best glide speed—the velocity that will maximize how long I can stay in the air before the ground rises up to meet me, which will be considerably short of where the runway starts.

This doesn’t look good for the home team. I keep pumping the throttle back and forth. It’s all I can do. I’m dropping at 1,000 feet per minute. Crap.

Suddenly, as if nothing were ever wrong, the engine surges back to life. The dizzying descent is arrested, and I touch down lightly just beyond the threshold.

I start breathing again.

Once in front of the rusty Stark fuel pump, I run the throttle up and down. Up and down. The engine roars and settles. Roars and settles.

I search my rusty memory banks. Maybe because it’s so moist the carb heat over leaned the engine? I’m not sure that’s even possible, but I decide to land sans carb heat when I get to Terrell, my next stop.

Next time, on Plane Tales: Carb ice is the wrong diagnosis, but Tessie does need a doctor.