Music to my ears

As I drove down Airport Road the distinctive howl of a twelve-cylinder Merlin filled my ears. It came from the left, shot overhead, and disappeared to my right like a cannon shot. I ducked and slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt.

Holy crap! I’ve been buzzed by a Mustang!

Then two more in close succession: Vaaaavooooom!!! Vaaaavooooom!!!

I looked to the right. To the left. Then I leaned forward on my steering wheel and looked up. The sky was empty.

Next, the growl of a heavy metal radial buzzed by, shaking the car, and I remembered: I had left the car stereo on full blast when I left the hangar, but the CD was between tracks so I’d forgotten I had it on. It was Reno on Record 3blaring out of my Alpine Speakers, not real airplanes tearing up the sky. Sheepishly, I turned down the stereo, tapped the accelerator, headed on down the road again, glad that I was alone and no one had seen me ducking phantom planes.

Well, not phantom. The planes are real enough. They just aren’t here. Not now. Their growls, whines, and roars were captured in high fidelity recordings as they passed Pylon One during the National Air Races in Reno in 1990, 1991, and 1992 and put on CD by AirCraft Records.

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Yep, our new fav in the music department is unlike any CD I’ve ever owned. It’s made up of nothing but airplane noises. Apparently, the original Reno on Record, and its sequel Reno on Record 2, were both a mix of airplane sounds and interview clips with racers, but according to the promotional literature inside the CD cover, “We have answered the request of many of you for a version of Reno on Record with little or no talking. This is it. On ROR 3 you will hear nothing but the beautiful, raw sounds of Merlins, 3350s, 4360s and much, much more.”

Who on earth would want an hour’s worth of nothing but engine sounds?

Well, as it turns out, people like me! Although I didn’t know that until I bought a copy. I discovered this wonderful CD quite by accident, and I’m sure glad I did. I was actually looking for whiskey when it happened. Well, more correctly a whiskey decanter. Back in the ‘70s the McCormick whiskey folks made several commemorative decanters that were sold at the National Air Races. One, which I scored on eBay, looks like a race pylon. A second one looks like a radial engine with a three-bladed prop. I’d seen pictures of it, but I was having a hard time finding one for sale. Of course, I had a saved search to alert me if one was listed, but over the years I’ve found that sometimes the best successes, when it comes to buying collectables, happen when you come across something that’s not listed quite the way everyone expects—so if I’m bored, I’ll just do some random surfing with very broad search terms, flipping through a few pages to see what I see.

Thus it was that I stumbled upon Reno on Record, the record. No kidding, I found an old-fashioned vinyl LP record, called Reno on Record. It was from 1986 and was billed as having “actual sound recordings and interviews from the National Air Races in Reno.” I thought it was very clever creating a record that recorded Reno and was called Reno on Record. However, it was priced well beyond the impulse purchase range and deep into the “ask your wife first” range, so I decided to see if I could find it priced more economically somewhere else.

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Photo: eBay seller Susaninpgh

I didn’t. But I did find CDs of Reno on Record 2 and Reno on Record 3. As ROR 3 was heaps cheaper, I bought a copy to check it out, not being sure why I did so. After all, who would want to sit around listening to airplane noises? The CD arrived promptly, but languished on my desk for weeks. Then the flight school sent both Rio and Lisa home with their pre-solo exams, an open book take home test, on the same weekend.

Airplane noises in the background seemed just right for ambiance.

And boy was it. As we sat around the kitchen table working through the Skyhawk’s POH, looking up FARs, pawing through the AIM, and scratching our heads over tricky weight and balance problems, race planes screamed around the track in the living room. It was inspiring. The perfect background noise for the task at hand. Of course, because we were studying, we had the volume down.

That was fun. But the CD really shines when you pump up the volume, which is what we did while working in our planeless hangars to give them the proper aviation feel. Quoting the AirCraft Records folks,“the thunder of the hot-rodded WWII fighters of the Unlimited Class will be ripping up your living room and alienating your neighbors as they pass in front of your nose and out of your speakers.”

Luckily, at the airport, we have no neighbors to alienate, but I appreciated the rebel sentiment. But living room or hangar, when you crank up the volume on this music you’ll smell the dust, oil, and avgas of Reno.

This is one damn fun CD. If you like airplanes, I think you’ll be surprised by how much pleasure you can get from having them roar by in the background. Get a copy and see what it does for your soul on a foggy day, or how your flying friends react to it at your next hangar party.

My rating: Five stars. No, wait. I think instead of stars, I’ll give it five Ercoupes.

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A TV show you might have missed

My Hispanic father-in-law studied the latest home-repair mess I’d made for a long time before he finally sighed and said, “You college-educated white guys aren’t very good at this kind of thing, are you?”

That was almost thirty years ago. And ever since then, the family joke is that I’m the star of a late-night cable TV show called the College-Educated White Guy Handyman. A show featuring a weekly home repair or improvement disaster. In my defense, home repair skills take a lengthy education of their own, and mine was limited to watching my college professor father blow a chunk out of his Swiss Army knife cutting through a live wire while trying to replace the plug on a table lamp.

As time goes by, I have gotten better, but usually my first attempt at doing any kind of repair or improvement goes awry. A recent case in point: Our hangar floor.

Now there are two things you need to know. The first is that the airport will let me deduct the cost of any improvements to our hangar from our rent, and the second is that while traveling the country in two seasons of racing, we saw some pretty swank hangars.

Oh. And a third thing. I’ve been suffering hangar floor envy ever since Lisa and I connected our hangars. You see, she has a wall-to-wall cement floor. I have a gravel floor with a 15×15 foot concreate pad for Tess to rest on. Of course, I didn’t know it was 15×15 until too late. I think my non-college educated Hispanic handyman father-in-law told me something about measuring twice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

About two months ago, I got it in my head that I could trump Lisa’s expanse of concreate if my humble pad of concreate were more swank than her concreate. How would I do that? Well, really swank hangars have really swank epoxy floor coverings. Some glow like mirrors, others have interesting patterns, but all of them are tough as diamonds and as an added benefit, their non-absorbent surfaces reduce oil spill clean-ups to a simple flick of a towel.

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I don’t recall how, but I recently discovered that there is a do-it-yourself version of this swank floor covering called Rocksolid from Rust-Oleum. How hard could it be?

I watched the YouTube video and judged it to be no more difficult than painting, and with Tessie out of the hangar for extensive repairs, this would be a good time to take it on. On my next trip to Santa Fe to take Rio to his flight lesson (and to check on the status of aforementioned repairs), I planned to buy a hangar-floor-in-a-box.

And this is where we get to measuring.

Standing in Home Depot in Santa Fe, I had no earthly idea how big my pad in Santa Rosa was. This mattered, because Rocksolid come in two sizes: The one-car garage size, with the kit covering 200-250 square feet; and the two-and-a-half car garage size, with the kit covering 450-500 square feet.

Picture me in Home Depot trying to astrally project myself to my hangar.

I decided that although the hangar itself is huge, the concreate pad in the middle was much smaller than a one-car garage. And I was so convinced of this that it didn’t even occur to me to measure it later on, even though I had several opportunities to do so between the time I bought the smaller kit, and when it was warm enough to break it out and paint it on.

Of course, any of you who are sharp at math know that 15×15 equals 225 square feet, smack dab in the middle of the theoretical range of what the kit will cover.

I’ll spare you the details of the various trials and tribulations of preparing the concreate: Sweeping, hosing, scrubbing with degreasers, more hosing, scrubbing with dish soap, more hosing, etching with acid, more hosing. Instead, let’s jump straight to the main event. Actually, I’ll spare you the details of the main event, too. Just suffice it to say the goop is the thickness of maple syrup but you are to spread it as thin as paint. And that my cement pad is full of ridges and channels and cracks and dips. And the roller was a magnet for the nearby gravel. And that the handle of my roller brush broke. And the foam bush they gave me with the kit delaminated.

Yes, let’s skip all of that stress-fest and go right to the final chapter. Here, let me show you:

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Yes, that’s right. I ran out of swanky Rocksolid material pretty much right at the 200 square foot mark.

Measure first. Who knew? Oh. That’s right. My father-in-law.

 

Horsing around, Part II

We tried every socket, wrench, and tool in the two hangars. They were all too short. Nothing would reach the damn sparkplug. Complicating the issue was the fact we couldn’t be 100% sure what type of socket we needed. It was clear that the three quarter-inch was too small and the one-inch was too big. But unlike Goldie Locks, in the world of socket wrenches there’s more than one bowl of porridge to choose from once you rule out the bowl that’s too hot and the bowl that’s too cold. In between three quarter-inch and one-inch stand 13/16, 7/8, and 15/16.

Seriously? Why on earth do we need so many nuts so close in size to each other?

Still, clearly, to shoe the horse, to get to battle, to save the kingdom, we needed a new nail. Well, I guess we had the nail. We needed the damn hammer.

It was the weekend; the local True Value hardware store was closed, so we hopped in the car and went to the nearest truck stop to see if we could buy a better tool. Believe it or not, there are three huge truck stops in town: A Love’s, a Pilot, and a TA.

And none of them carry socket wrenches big enough for sparkplugs.

“What the hell kinda of truck stops don’t have tools for sparkplugs?” fumed Lisa.

I don’t know much about engines, but one thing I do know is that diesel engines don’t have sparkplugs, so there’s no reason for truckers to need tools to remove plugs, hence no real reason for a truck stop to carry such a tool, other than the fact it would have made my day much easier.

Next, she called her adult son Adrian, owner of many a tool. There was no way he could come down to SXU, but he told her his tool box was open to her any time day or night. The problem was that reaching his tool box would require a 3+ hour round trip.

But with the sun now approaching the apex of the day, it was clear that we’d need to take a trip somewhere. The best bet was Las Vegas, NM, a hair over an hour’s drive away. Vegas has a two hardware stores, three auto parts shops, two ranch supply places, and a Walmart. Given all those choices, finding a socket capable of removing the sparkplug didn’t sound like much of a gamble.

We loaded up all of our close-but-no-cigar tools and headed out. And drove. And drove. And drove. And drove.

Lisa decided to hit AutoZone first, as it seemed logical to her that a car place would have the right tool for a sparkplug, even though we accepted the fact that car and airplane sparkplugs might not have much in common. When we arrived we found socket wrench heaven. Sockets as far as the eye could see. Well, not that far. But a good thirty feet of sockets hung on pegs in the middle isle of the long, skinny store. We quickly found the short versions of the three most probable sizes, and then found deep versions. Or maybe they were called extra-deep, I can’t remember. All I knew was that they looked quite a bit longer than the ones we had that didn’t quite reach. Problem solved. Or so I thought. Just as quickly, Lisa discovered that we could buy a whole set of sockets for the price of the three solo performers.

At the last second, as we walked up to the cash register, I realized that our new problem-solving sockets were all half inch “drive.” That meant the end of the socket that connects to the wrench is designed for a half-inch wrench, but all of ours are 3/8 inches. We needed an adaptor to make the whole plan work. I was very proud of myself that I noticed this and saved us a worthless drive.

How wrong I was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Naturally, AutoZone didn’t have the adaptor we needed. I guess they wanted us to spend thirty bucks on the wrench next size up. We ducked that bullet by finding the adaptor at the nearby ranch store and left Vegas in high spirits, thinking that we’d have the plug out within minutes of arriving back at the airport.

We drove. And we drove. And we drove. And we drove, arriving back at SXU with the sun low in the sky and long shadows stretching across the landscape. We happily snapped the adaptor onto our wrench, then clicked a long socket onto the adaptor, sliding it down over the narrow shaft of the sparkplug to find…

It, too, wasn’t deep enough.

The socket didn’t reach the nut of the Tempest spark plug that Lisa’s mechanic though was the root of all evil.

Now complicating the issue was the fact that the right mag—the one giving us trouble—is supposed to control the top plugs, suggesting that our issue was a top plug, but there was a good chance that the plane’s ignition switch was wired backwards, with the right mag position controlling the left mag, and vice versa. So we had no clue which of the eight plugs was the problem child.

With nothing to lose, and a wrench that could check all the remaining seven plugs, which were Champs, we decided to pull and check all the others. Given that the right mag was supposed to control the tops we started with the top, removing the sparkplug covers on Warbler’s cowl, which exposes narrow canyons in the metal engine cover that are not quite wide enough to really work on the plugs. (The Continental Engine doesn’t really fit in the Ercoupe; it was designed for another engine altogether, but that’s a story for another day.)

I slipped the wrench over the first sparkplug, and this time, being a Champion plug, it fit. I tugged at the wrench. I pulled. I pushed. The plug was stuck fast like Excalibur in the stone.

“Thump it,” said Lisa.

Like hell. I was afraid I’d break it.

“I’ve watched the guys,” Lisa said, “they thump it.”

Leary of this advice I pulled my iPhone out of my rear pocket and did a Google Search on sparkplug removal. The collective wisdom of the internet was that you should thump a sparkplug.

“OK,” I said, and thumped the wrench handle with my right palm. Pain shot up my arm like a springing Cheetah. “Ow,” I whined, shaking my hand.

Lisa tried next, holding the wrench in one hand, and thumping its handle with the palm of the other. “Ow,” she squeaked.

Not wanting to go down in history as a guy who hits like a girl, I put on a pair of work gloves and tried again. This time, with minimal pain, which I hid behind my macho image, the wrench spun, and in seconds the plug was free.

It was clean as a whistle.

A half an hour later we knew that all seven Champion plugs were clean. Only the single Tempest plug was left. The one that her mechanic replaced two flight hours ago. And the prime suspect in our troubles. The plug that we couldn’t reach. The plug that was causing a storm worth of trouble.

The sun was setting. It was Sunday. Lisa had three classes to teach in the morning, and I was skating on thin ice on a story deadline with one of my editors, and really needed to send the morning writing. But I’ve left something out. All throughout this misadventure there’s been a background radiation of panic. Lisa is on the brink of trying to finish her license. She’d signed up for lessons with a flight school in Santa Fe, in her plane, for nearly every day of the winter break from the college where she teaches. She’s arranged for a place to stay over there, got ahead on laundry and packed clothes, bought groceries, cleared her schedule of any other responsibilities, and hired a cat sitter.

OK. I made up the part about the cat sitter. That’s the great thing about cats, they take care of themselves pretty well if you need to be away for a few days.

But now, all of that was in jeopardy. Her plane was grounded.

Lisa stood looking at Warbler, silent, deflated but not defeated. Not being a woman to give up easily, she rallied. “I going to Adrian’s tonight. Maybe he’ll have something different. Or maybe he can drill out one of these sockets deeper. Or we’ll go to every store in town. I’ll call the college and have someone fill in. Don’t worry about me, I’ll take care of this.”

In for a penny, in for a pound. “Aw, heck… pick me up on your way by.”

The next morning, bearing a pouch of borrowed tools, she dropped by the house and picked up Rio (who by now wanted to witness the next chapter in person, rather than by text) and I up, and we headed out. We brought a picnic lunch, figuring on an all-day maintenance fest, including a possible round of musical sparkplugs to rule in or rule out a mechanical failure on a sparkplug that otherwise looked clean. Debs, who was taking Grandma Jean to a doctor’s appointment in Santa Fe was on standby to bring us replacement plugs if needed. It was hall hands on deck.

Two minutes after we arrived at SXU with Adrian’s extra deep sockets, with a heavy thump of Lisa’s gloved hand, the Tempest in a tea pot was off the engine. It was coated with oil.

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After following the cleaning directions—which involved gas sumped from the tanks, a wire brush, carburetor cleaner, and a piece of paper—we towed Warbler out, buttoned up the hangar, and Lisa fired him up.

After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for him to warm up, she performed a mag check.

It was perfect.

Problem solved. Or was it? Why did the plug foul with oil so quickly? Did she need new piston rings? Or worse, a new cylinder? In either case, a break-in flight would be required. This was not looking good for the home team or for Lisa’s intensive flight training plans.

Lisa called her mechanic again to report our discovery. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he told her. And he had a theory. He knew her engine was older. Probably the piston rings weren’t the best. But he got to thinking that perhaps with the long warm up times at low RPM during our recent cold weather, more oil was slipping past the piston than could be burned off the plug. He suggested she warm up the plane at a higher RPM and see what happened. He also suggested a post-flight mag check, if the plug got fouled during a flight, it could be cleaned before the next flight. She could clean as needed, at least until her week-long intensive training was done.

So with the problem fixed in no time, and with a picnic lunch and the full day ahead of us, there was nothing left to do but have a plane party.

Then sit back and relax.

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The horse had a shoe. The warrior was off to battle. The kingdom was safe.

Until the next lost nail.

 

The sequel is better

The fact that I couldn’t get the movie on DVD should have been my first clue that it was one of the worst flying flicks ever; but after reading about the movie’s real-life sequel in Smithsonian Air & Space, I just had to see the film.

More on the film in a minute; first a word or two about that sequel, because it was the real-life story that led me to the movie we’re going to talk about.

That tale in Air & Space was the story of a group of old guys who recently delivered a seventy-three-year-old C-47 Skytrain to a memorial park in China, re-flying the epic cargo route of World War II called “the hump.” The purpose of the flight was both to honor and pay tribute to the more than one thousand airmen lost flying the airlift over the Himalayas, and to deliver the plane to a new memorial park in China. To say that the aging aviators had a few problems en route would be an understatement. Not unlike Gilligan’s three-hour tour, the planned eight-day ferry flight ballooned into a more than three-month odyssey. But I’m not here to re-tell that story. Author Robert L. Willett has done a splendid job at that.

In his article, however, Willett mentioned off hand that the plane ferried to China was the same C-47 that had a starring role in the 1980s Aussie movie Sky Pirates.

A movie with a C-47?

And pirates?

I gotta see that!

And thanks to eBay, and the cast-off inventory of VHS tapes from A&C Video Movies, I got my chance.

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The movie, described by its creators as a “high-flying adventure that bounces across the Pacific,” follows a secret mission to transport a mysterious artifact from Australia to Washington to keep it safe from the Axis powers—never minding the fact they’ve just been defeated, given the timeline of the movie, which is set in the closing days of World War II.

The flick stars John Hargreaves as, Lt. Harris, whom the back of the VHS box describes as “a daredevil fighter pilot who can outfly, outfight, and outfox any enemy.” We are never told why a fighter pilot was tapped to fly a Sky Train on a top-secret mission. A fighter pilot who wears a fur-lined leather flight jacket for the entire movie. Even in the jungles of Bora Bora. His co-star is Meredith Phillips (not the Meredith of Bachelorette fame), who despite the setting of the movie at the end of World War II, has very eighties big hair. At least her wardrobe is more or less period, if you can forgive the fact that she magically changes clothing every several scenes, despite not having a suit case because she’s running for her life most of the movie.

The plot, such as it is, mixes ancient aliens, time travel, the Bermuda Triangle—well, its Pacific equivalent—the classic war movie personality conflict between the star and the officer in charge, Easter Island, a ditching at sea, the Philadelphia Experiment, a military court martial, assassination attempts, drunken pilots, a round of Russian roulette, kidnappings, car chases and a dog fight. Not necessarily in that order.

Oh. And fog. Lots of fog.

Did I mention the movie is only 88 minutes long? Although it seems a lot  longer when you’re watching it. Many of the scenes might give you déjà vu. You’ll be asking yourself: Didn’t I see that in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Why, yes. Yes, you did. Pretty much so.

On the bright side, in addition to the C-47 that would ultimately end up in a park in China, the movie also features a pair of Mustangs, a B-25 Mitchell, and a lovely Grumman Mallard; and the aviation photography is good—if not aeronautically accurate. If you can get over the scene in which Lt. Harris climbs out a hatch in the roof of the C-47 and onto the wing, inflight, to put out an engine fire (while barely ruffling his hair), you’ll enjoy the flight footage.

I can’t say if the acting is good or bad, because the characters are so cardboard and the dialog so uninspired, there’s really not much for an actor to act on.

Wait a sec. Where were the pirates? I didn’t see any pirates.

Oh. Wait. Maybe it’s the movie producer that’s the Sky Pirate. After all, the film is blatantly plagiaristic, and I can only assume that Spielberg’s peeps didn’t sue because the movie probably didn’t do well enough to make any money worth suing for. Or maybe Spielberg just felt that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

So is it really the worst flying flick ever? Nah, probably not the  worst.

But Pirates is bad enough I doubt it will ever steal its way onto DVD.

 

Ercoupe lover’s heaven

Let’s start with placards. In the flying universe, a “placard” is a small sign or plaque installed in the cockpit. It relays critical information to the pilot about the operation of the airplane. For example, a placard will tell you what fuse or circuit breaker powers which part of the plane’s electrical system. In a plane with flaps, a placard will tell you the maximum speed at which it’s safe to deploy them. In planes with complex fuel systems, placards will guide pilots in the operation of the fuel tank selector switches. In planes with retractable landing gear, placards will instruct the pilot on how to operate the system.

We have no flaps. We have no fuel selectors. And our landing gear stays in the same place all the time. Accordingly, our placards are pretty simple.

One says, “This airplane characteristically incapable of spinning.” That one was a Godsend. The government actually required the manufacturer to place the plane’s number one marketing claim on a cockpit placard. Another placard says, “Beware propeller. Leave airplane from rear of wing.” Well, never underestimate the stupidly of the human race. A third is an ON-OFF placard for the nav lights switch.

But Syd Cohen’s immaculately restored Ercoupe Scampy has an unusual placard on the panel, probably the only thing in his plane that’s not 100% authentic. It reads: “AREN’T WE LUCKY?”

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

We sure the hell are.

Lucky for lots of reasons, but foremost among them is the fact that the maker of our nearly 80-year old airplanes is still in business. Well, sort of. It’s kinda complicated, and to be honest, the story of the Ercoupe is rather sordid. Yes, like a movie starlet from the golden age of Hollywood, the Ercoupe has had a lot of husbands.

The plane started life as the brain child of a company called Engineering and Research Corporation, also called ERCO. Development began in 1936, and ERCO launched sales of the plane in 1940. After the war, when the aviation economy collapsed, ERCO decided to get out of the plane-building biz and sold the Ercoupe lock, stock, and barrel (literally) to Sanders Aviation in 1947. Next, the plane, and its all-important type certificate, was picked up by Univar Aircraft Industries in 1950. But that union didn’t last either. Her next husband was the Forney Aircraft Company in 1955. But a stable wedlock just was not to be for the Ercoupe. In 1960 Air Products Company took over, but again it was a short marriage, and in 1964 Alon Inc. bought the Ercoupe. That union lasted until 1967 when the Mooney Airplane Company purchased the plane. Then, finally, just like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the Ercoupe returned to her third husband, Univar, in 1974—where she finally settled down, the two staying together for 45 years and counting.

Of all her suitors, Univair is the only one that didn’t actually build new Ercoupes. Both in the early ‘50s, and since ‘74, Univair has focused solely on the spare parts biz.

So let’s talk about those parts.

Apparently, each time the Ercoupe took up with a new manufacturer, more than just a marriage license was involved. The bride came complete with all her household goods, including her parts inventory and the various jigs and machines used to make them.

And that’s why we’re lucky.

Unlike the owners of most really old airplanes, we have an outfit that continues to support us. To supply us with parts. Univair has all the machining tools and expertise necessary to make virtually every part that makes up the Ercoupe from the original decades-old drawings, all of which came back home with the bride. That’s cool. But they also have a large supply of what would be called “new old stock” on eBay. But still, how many original parts could possibly still be around from the 1940s?

You would be amazed. I was. I have seen the promised land, and it’s Ercoupe heaven. So this is a PlaneTale of many parts. Literally.

It all started when AOPA assigned me a Rusty Pilot Seminar at Centennial Airport, on the south side of the Denver Metro area up in Colorado. Tessie looks more like a greenhouse than an airplane right now, so flying up the east side of the Rockies to get there was out of the question.

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Catching a commercial flight would require me to drive two hours in the wrong direction, only to be delivered an hour away on the other end, so driving up was the obvious choice. And as I was driving, it would cost me nothing extra to have a copilot on the adventure, and Rio agreed to come along.

I needed to arrive a day early to set up for the seminar, but I knew we’d have some spare time, especially if we got an early start, so I cast around for something to do. And then it occurred to me: Maybe we could visit Univair, who are located on the East side of the metro area. I guess they were in my mind because we’d just recently needed to order a pile of those parts I’m lucky to be able to order. Or maybe it was because I’d been in contact with them to hit them up for donations for the Ercoupe Owners Club scholarship auction as part of my duties as the Coordinator of this year’s convention. Anyway, I reached out about dropping in, and they were gracious, inviting us to come by for a tour.

Given the age of the company (it was founded in 1946) and the fact that they focus on older airplanes, I’d sorta expected them to be in, well, you know, and older building. But in fact, when we pulled up, we found the Univair building is surprisingly modern-looking on the outside.

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And, oddly, for a plane business, Univair sits far from any modern airport. They’re located in an industrial park that’s 50% large blocky commercial buildings and 50% farmer’s fields. Actually, once upon a time, there was an airport literally next door to Univair. Called Sky Ranch, all that is left is a short stretch of crumbling asphalt called Sky Ranch Road, and two World War II vintage hangars, one of which has a control tower on the corner. The runways have evaporated, their foundations buried under warehouses. What must have been the apron is now a parking lot for a fleet of cement trucks.

Dead airports are sad, but having Univair there somehow takes the sting out of it.

We were given a complete tour, staring in the office building, where the lobby has a small museum of key famous products in glass cases, then on to the sales offices, and the printing shop where Univair keeps many otherwise lost tech publications alive. Next, we entered the machine shop. I gotta say, the Univair shop is a museum of manufacturing. They have massive, towering machines dating from the 30s and 40s. Lathes from the 70s. State of the art computerized plasma cutters. With all this gear, if they don’t have what you need in stock, they can make it; and having two engineers on staff makes that process faster. Rounding out the shop are a trailer home-sized sand blast chamber and a huge painting booth. In the Univair shipping department, they build custom crates to fit all manner of oddly-shaped parts ranging in size from jewelry-petite to assemblies larger than cars.

We also got to meet many of the Univair peeps, including the boss, who is sort of royalty, being the third generation of his family to run the place. And it must be a good place to work, as most of the people we met had been there for years.

The highlight of our tour for me was the warehouse, a dimly-lit warren of narrow passageways between towering shelves. It has the creepy but exciting feel of an Indiana Jones/Laura Croft ancient temple. Only, you know, aviation themed.

And like all Hollywood ancient temples, it was full of treasure.

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A wall of wing spars. A shelf of header tanks. A cowl side, glowing pristine aluminum with a lathe-straight hinge. A bundle of throttle cables with faded maroon Bakelite knobs, hanging off a shelf high above our heads, an airplane version of tangled jungle vines high in the trees.

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Box after box after box after box after box of Ercoupe parts. Floor to ceiling, three narrow isles worth. Boxes of things we recognized. Boxes of things we’ve bought. Boxes of things that had us scratching our heads.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

And boxes of things that left us amazed and in awe, like Ercoupe pretzel yokes, still in their original wood packing crates, each yoke wrapped in newspaper with 1946 datelines.

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But there’s more than just inventory at Univair. Out beyond the warehouse, in the backlot, there’s an odd tombstone-looking object. At first glance it appeared to be the final resting place of the nose bowl, a grey solid granite memorial carved by a sculptor into the likeness of the real thing in its prime.

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But it’s no memorial to the dead. It’s one hand of the creator, a key tool to make new living nose bowls. It’s a mold. Over it, flat sheets of aluminum are placed, then squashed down with room-sized hammering equipment to stamp out the front ends of Ercoupes, each one a clone of the previous one. I’d no idea how they were made. In fact, before seeing the tombstone, I’d never even thought about it.

The rest of the yard is overflowing with giant and slightly rusty assemblages that are hard to identify. Is that a jig for forming an Ercoupe tail? Maybe. Oh, look at this, maybe this was used to make our wings.

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Our guide tells us that when they run out of something, the proper machine tools are moved inside from the yard until the inventory is restocked, then it’s back out to the yard until needed again.

Sadly, given all that Univair has in the Ercoupe department, we’re apparently a very small part of their business; I’m told only about 3%. Luckily (Aren’t We Lucky?), Univair is polygynous—also supporting classic Aeroncas, Champs, Citabrias, Luscombes, Cessnas, Stinsons, Taylorcrafts, and the ever-popular Piper Cubs, so Univair isn’t relying solely on us ‘Coupers for their survival.

And that’s the sad truth of Ercoupes. The line has never been quite a failure, but also never quite a success for any of her many owners throughout history. Ercoupe dreams fly higher than her numbers.

Back in the warehouse once more, on a bottom shelf, I find many wooden boxes of placards, including identification placards—called Data Plates in the biz. Every plane built has one. It records the plane’s serial number and its date of manufacture.

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Photo: Rio A. F. Dubois

There were of hundreds—maybe thousands—of blank data plates in the Univair warehouse; all created many decades ago, each waiting to be riveted onto a new plane rolling off the assembly line on pristine tires. Boxes of data plates for planes never built. Just like all the thousands and thousands of other parts, railcars full of them, it shows the optimism of ERCO in the post war world. How they believed, really believed, that they’d fill the skies with our twin-tailed marvels, put their money where their mouths were, and were ready to do it.

Sadly, it was not to be. Still, by some miracle, everything we need to keep our birds flying, from parts to placards, still exists, and is only a phone call to Colorado away.

Aren’t we lucky?

 

An aeronautical feast for the eyes

A stubby Gee Bee Sportster, all engine. A green and yellow Laird Super Solution, a biplane so aerodynamically clean it looks poured from water, not built from wood and fabric. Ahh…. The Curtis R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle used to capture the Schneider Trophy. A Travel Air Mystery Ship in iconic fire engine red, black racing scallops on the leading edges of the wings and cowl gracing the plane with the illusion of streaking motion, even while parked. A Curtiss Jenny, so ugly and ungainly it’s beautiful. A sleek Spartan Model 7, a sexy Staggerwing, and a pudgy but oddly endearing Culver Cadet. Then, glistening like a mirror, the bullet-like Hughes H-1 Racer. And in a place of honor, the plane that started it all: The Wright Flyer.

No, it’s not the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

And it’s an aeronautical feast for the eyes, its plastic branches covered in airplanes: A complete collection of all twenty-two Hallmark The Sky’s the LimitChristmas ornaments. Since 1997 the card giant has been churning out amazing replica airplane ornaments, featuring one new civilian airplane per year. Have I been collecting them since the beginning? No, and like everything else aviation around here, it all started with an Ercoupe…

Back in 2013, when we were shopping for a real Ercoupe, Debbie found The Sky’s the Limit‘Coupe ornament on eBay. Being the cheapest Ercoupe we’d seen up to that point, she bought it for me.

The diminutive, but highly detailed, resin model sat on my desk to keep me inspired during my lengthy plane buying odyssey. But—as often happens with our family—one thing led to another, and Rio and I became obsessed with hunting down every last one of the annual miniature planes; and since then, we’ve purchased each year’s new issue. In Year One of our airplane ornament hysteria, the family Christmas tree in our house was all airplane. Debs tolerated that.

The next year, the airplanes banned by the mistress of the house in favor of more traditional holiday decor, I decided to put up a Christmas tree in the hangar to share the holiday spirit with Tessie.

Of course, the problem with a hangar Christmas tree is that, unless you have the good fortune to live in one of those airpark communities where your hangar is connected to your house, you only see the hangar tree a few times during the Christmas tree season.

Still, I gamely put up the hangar tree each year since. Until this year. Because this year I had an epiphany. (Appropriate, given the season.) This year I decided to put up the hangar tree in the newly “renovated” terminal, so that not only would we enjoy it on our flying days, but so too could all the passing pilots who land for fuel, snacks, and a clean bathroom.

So armed with eggnog, Bourbon, a plate of cookies, and one of our Red Bull Sky Lounge Boxanne Bluetooth speakers (when you turn it on, you hear Jim DiMatteo’s voice say, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on!”) the entire clan descended on the SKU terminal.

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

With Grandma Jean “supervising,” we put up the three-part white faux tree. Then Debs fluffed up the branches while Lisa and I untangled the lights. I always wrap the damn things into a neat coil at the end of each season, but during the year of storage some sort of black magic intervenes to turn the bundle into a tangle. What’s up with that?

The tree up and the lights finally strung without stringing myself up, my responsibilities were discharged and I kicked back to enjoy the vibe of family, friends, music, and aviation. Debs and Rio took the fleet of planes from their cardboard hangars, setting each one on the table as if parked on a miniature ramp, then flew each one to the tree and carefully taxied them into position.

When they were done, we set up the O Gauge Plasticville Airport terminal and hangar buildings under the tree, and then argued about how to arrange the pair of tarpaper runways. Should they look good or be true to the compass?

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.

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Then, finally done, the cookies reduced to crumbs and the eggnog running low, we turned off the overhead lights and sat warm and cozy, bathed in the cold blue taxiway-colored light of the terminal tree, and soaked in the sight.

The un-racer-looking Howard DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan,” whose long legs won the 1935 Bendix Trophy, white against the white tree. A silver and blue Cessna 195. The bird of prey-like twin engine Cessna 310. Lindy’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. The big radial Monocoupe 110, a long-winged Stinson Reliant, a Christmas red Lockheed Vega, and a humble Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a miniature of the one Rio is flying out of Santa Fe.

And of course, an Ercoupe. An Ercoupe in a Christmas tree that my true love gave to me.

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A real doll

Should the flight chart go here, or over here? Hmmm… And what about the jacket? Open or closed? And the goggles, what about the goggles? Around the neck or atop the head? Which would look better? Darn it, that damn silk scarf keeps getting in the way.

I’ve never had problems like this before. But in this case, appearances matter.

“Oh great,” said Debs with an expression halfway between a frown and a pout, “I married a man who plays with dolls.”

I glared at her over the Barbie Doll on the kitchen table. OK, yes, I’d had been fussing over the doll for over fifteen minutes, but I was hardly playing with her. I was trying to pose her, which is an entirely different thing; and for all you men who’ve never played with dolls, it’s harder than it looks. Most Barbies, and being a boy I didn’t know this, don’t have bendable knees. Their legs are like a Nutcracker Suite Soldier, moving stiff-leggedly at the hip, making it difficult to pose her realistically. Having her sit on a shelf? That was totally out.

Actually, I hate to admit it, but I did play with dolls as a boy. I think all boys of my generation did, but the lexicography was different because, back then, playing with dolls would have made you a sissy. Or worse. No, instead, we boys played with action figures.

Words. Yeah. They matter.

The premier boy-approved (by our parents and grandparents) action figure of my childhood wasn’t Barbie’s sissy boyfriend Ken, no, it was G.I. Joe. Unlike the modern pocketable action figures, my G.I. Joes were Barbie-sized, around a foot tall. Just like Barbie, Joe came with a wide range of clothing to choose from. Oh, and accessories, too. But rather than purses and jewelry, Joe came with an array of firearms, grenades, flame throwers, knives, and the like, as well as less violent accessories like canteens, compasses, and field glasses. Instead of a Corvette, he had a jeep. Instead of a dream house, he had a mobile command center. Not that I ever had any of those higher-end accessories, but one of my school chum’s father was an honest-to-God airline pilot, and that boy had everything G.I. Joe could want.

But, most importantly to our conversation here, G.I. Joe can bend his damn knees. As well as his ankles. And he could bend at the waist as well, I guess so the drill sarge could make him do sit-ups or whatever. My point is, I have no doubt that I could get a G.I. Joe pilot posed realistically for display in our flight lounge lickety-split. But Barbies are quite stiff by comparison, I guess to keep a smooth sexy line to the legs and tummy, but it was making my job nearly impossible. Getting this Barbie posed for display in our flight lounge was taking waaaaaaytoo much time, and even then, I was unhappy with the results I was getting.

And now my wife is calling me a sissy.

Why was I trying to pose a Barbie Doll for display in our flight lounge in the first place? Well, this isn’t just any Barbie. She’s the new Amelia Earhart Barbie.

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This is the tale:

I while back I read in one of the aviation pubs that I write for, I don’t remember which one, that Mattel, makers of Barbie Dolls for nearly sixty years (you gotta admit, she still looks pretty hot for her age) were going to release a new role model series of Barbies to salute important women in history. It was to be called the Inspiring Women Series. Some of these new dolls would depict living women including athletes, scientists, artists, and professional women. Other dolls would depict significant women from recent history. Included in the lineup would be the Aviatrix Amelia Earhart. She would be in stores near me in six months.

I then promptly forgot all about it, until the other day when I read about Amelia Barbie again in Patty Wagstaff’s columnin Plane and Pilot—ironically pretty much the only aviation magazine I’ve never been able to crack. Anyway, for some reason, right on the spot, I decided we should get one of the now-available Amelia Barbies for our burgeoning collection of aviation memorabilia that Debs tries to keep limited to the flight lounge, the library, or the hangar. (It doesn’t work, plane stuff keeps popping up everywhere. As I write this a DC-10 is on the living room coffee table and a Reno Air Races clock is on the nightstand in the master bedroom.)

A few clicks at Amazon, and the deed was done.

A week or so later Amelia flew in. She came in an oversized box, a box so oversized I couldn’t even connect it in my mind to anything we’d ordered. I couldn’t imagine what was in it. When I opened the box, I found Amelia gently cocooned in many layers of packing. Even the see-through clear plastic retail display box was carefully wrapped in tissue paper to protect it from even the slightest risk of scratches.

That’s when I remembered: Barbie collecting is a deadly serious business. I waivered about removing the doll from the package. Wouldn’t that reduce the value?

Of course, I didn’t buy the doll as an investment. In fact, I’m not sure why I bought the doll at all, but it certainly wasn’t with the idea that it would someday be valuable enough to send Rio to college or help pay for an annual inspection. Still, I brought her home in the original packaging where my wife (who did play with Barbies as a child) insisted we get her out of the box to inspect her.

Even though her legs are locked, her head turns and bends realistically. She can also move her arms, elbows, and wrists—but precious little good it does as she’s wearing a heavy brown leather barnstormer jacket. The rest of her wardrobe? Knee-high riding boots, khaki knickerbockers, a white top and a silk scarf. She has a flying helmet and a pair of goggles, and a flight chart. I haven’t unfolded the chart yet, because I suspect that, just like the real thing, I’d never be able to figure out how to get it folded back up again.

Based on what I’ve read about the real Amelia, I think she would have approved of her miniature doppelganger.Well, mostly. Because I know what you are wondering: What about Barbie’s controversial measurements? Did Amelia Barbie inherit them? Yes, Amelia Barbie has the classic Barbie bust, which is to say, significantly less aerodynamic than the real aviator’s.

So is this doll just Garden Variety Barbie with boy-short brown hair and an Amelia Halloween costume, or did Mattel actually craft the doll to look like the famous Aviatrix?

To be honest, I’m not sure. First off, contrary to what my wife accused me of, I don’t play with dolls, so I don’t have any other Barbies to compare Amelia to; and secondly her little face is so small it’s hard for me to tell. But I did glace through the online portfolio of the series, and each doll does seem to have a different face. The Amelia Barbie also has the closed mouth smile like the one seen in most of the historic pictures of the famous pilot, rather than Blondie Barbie’s more typical perfect white-tooth smile, so I think Mattel may have gone the extra mile.

Meanwhile, did I ever get her posed to my satisfaction? No, I didn’t. I guess I’ll need to get a G.I. Joe Action Pilot for that.

I don’t think Debs would mind if I played with action figures.

 

 

For the love of “steam gauges”

“But what I don’t understand,” said Lisa, her face earnest and serious, “is where the steam that runs these things comes from.”

It was one of those speed bump moments that sometimes happens in conversations.

We’d been talking avionics, which is a fancy word for instruments that go in airplanes. Increasingly, over the last few years, most modern avionics are computer screens called “glass” or “glass cockpits” in the flying world; while the older traditional round-dial flight instruments are now universally called “steam gauges.”

I have no idea where the label “steam gauge” came from, but I suspect it started out as a slur perpetrated by glass cockpit salesmen that eventually went mainstream—losing its negative connotation in favor of a nostalgic fondness. But Lisa, a razor-sharp scientist by education and profession, tends to take things literally, and assumed it was a functional label. I could almost see her doing a mental inventory of her new plane, confused about where the water tank for the steam gauges could possibly be hiding, and how often she should refill it.

Of course, old-school flight instruments do not, in fact, run on steam. They run on either air pressure or electricity, depending on the model and type of instrument. I suppose that if the label “steam gauge” wasn’t a conspiracy of the glass cockpit crowd, maybe the term came about because, for some, all those wonderful round gauges reminded them more of the cab of an old-fashioned steam engine than that of a modern flying machine.

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But I’m here to defend the airplane steam gauge, because in reality, it’s anything but old fashioned. Rather, the steam gauge is a modern marvel. Now, if you’re a lover of high-res color moving screens, just hear me out, because a traditional flight instrument is an absolute miracle of graphical presentation that you might not have appreciated, one unrivalled in human history, and not deserving the lowly title that it’s now saddled with.

Think about it. A true steam gauge, on a boiler in a basement in a Third World country somewhere, is nothing more than a single needle that tells you how close the steam tank is to blowing its lid. Aircraft steam gauges, on the other hand, can tell us how our planes are orientated within a three-dimensional environment; if we are on course or off; and can even guide us to fog-shrouded runways—keeping us correctly lined up on the runway while descending safely through space without hitting anything on the ground.

Try that with a steam gauge out of a Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 locomotive.

And there’s more. Not only do aircraft steam gauges display an amazing range of data, they do so in a way that allows for a six-second scan, literally taking six seconds to take in all the various instruments to assure that all is well with the flight. How is that even possible? Because aircraft-quality steam gauges are actually carefully engineered hieroglyphic interfaces.

Now wait a minute, you say. Aren’t hieroglyphics those funky symbols in the Pharos’s tomb? The ones no one can read?! Well, yes and no. It’s true that the meaning of some ancient hieroglyphics is lost to time, giving the word hieroglypha quasi-enigmatic connotation, but in its purest form, a hieroglyphic system of writing uses symbols to form words and concepts. In other words, picture writing. And we all know that a picture tells a thousand words, making it the fastest way to communicate a lot of data. After all, we humans are visual creatures.

Here, let me give you an example of another great steam gauge, one that pre-dates the world of aviation, to illustrate what I’m talking about. If you were born before 1972, you were probably raised with the granddaddy of all hieroglyphic instruments: The wrist watch. A traditional wrist watch (not the pilot type with all sorts of unnecessary dials to make us look smarter than we are) has one dial and two hands. A scale on the dial shows half the day, twelve hours. Overlaid on that scale is a second scale that shows sixty minutes. One of the two hands of the watch indicates where we are in hours during the day by pointing to the hour scale, and the other hand indicates how far through that hour we are by pointing to the minute scale. A fancy model ups the ante with a third hand for tracking seconds.

It sounds mind-numbingly complex when laid out in words, but in action it brilliantly does what the best graphical interfaces do: It paints a picture. Quickly. Once you learn its language, you can “read” it without thought. At a mere glance, you “know” what time it is. On the other hand, if you look at a digital watch that says 3:59 p.m., you have to think.

And thinking takes time. Who has time for that?

Especially in an airplane.

That’s one of the things I love about airplane steam gauges. The instruments collectivity paint a picture of my airplane in the sky. Without needing to think about it, I know, as if I were glancing at my watch, that all is well—or that something isn’t right. That’s a pretty sophisticated interface. One that, like the wrist watch, thrives best on simplicity.

Airplane steam gauges keep it simple. They are visual Haiku.

Of course, glass instruments have graphics, too, but there’s no Haiku to be found there. It’s more like an epic poem. They display a ton of information, and for me anyway, that’s part of their problem. I have a hard time seeing the trees for the forest, or the forest for the trees. All that brilliant color and fancy graphics just doesn’t click in my brain the way a good set of steam gauges do. But maybe that’s just my age. For digital natives, I’m sure it’s different.

Another thing I like about steam gauges, and this would hardly be a reason for choosing them, is that I think they look better on the ground. Yeah, I know that’s not where they matter, but when walking around the ramp, poking my nose up against the windows to look into various cockpits, steam gauges give a parked airplane a business-like look. Sure, the tires are flat on that old Cherokee chained to the cracked and weed-infested far end of the ramp. Yeah, its paint is worn, fading, and peeling; and there’s a bird’s nest in the engine cowl—but the cockpit is alive with possibilities. Compare that to the shiny new Cirrus over by the fuel pump. Powered off, its blank cockpit looks like an abandoned black and white television set in the back of the Salvation Army store. Glass makes planes seem dead on the ground.

In a similar fashion, I like climbing into a cockpit that looks ready to go before my finger strokes the master switch.

But neither my fondness for the steam gauge as a concept, nor my joy in sliding into a cockpit that looks ready to go, had any bearing on my recent decisionto remove the several pieces of glass we had installed and replace them with (horrors!) steam gauges.

Nope. It was completely pragmatic. Our plane, Tessie, is a flying greenhouse. She has glass (the kind you look through, not the modern instrument kind) in front. Glass to the right. Glass to the left. Glass above. Glass behind. It’s a lovely bubble of view. It also doesn’t have even an inch of shade. Nor does our panel have a sun shade, or room for one.

The result? Glare. Epic glare. The only time I can read a glass panel display is when the plane is in the hangar. Oh. Right. I can’t read it there either, because the plane isn’t running. This was never a problem with the steam gauges of old. They have glass faces, but something about the material used in them resists glare, while something about the material used in modern glass cockpit displays seems to attract glare the way a magnet attracts iron filings.

So I’m not a luddite. And while I’m an aficionado of the classics, that had no bearing on my decision. I just want to be able to read the story my airplane is telling me. And for this plane, for this pilot, steam gauges are the only way to go

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go refill the water tank.

 

Once upon a leather jacket

“But it’s brown, not black,” I wailed, my prepubescent voice cracking with the last word. But there was no convincing my father. His son was not, not going to wear a leather jacket. Period. Only hoodlums and troublemakers wore leather jackets. I stood sadly by the rack of jackets for the longest time, caressing the buttery soft chocolate brown leather, drinking in the lines of the jacket with my eyes. The epaulets. The sleeve pocket. The fuzzy fur collar. The jacket was reminiscent of the ones the B-17 crews wore in my favorite books. Heroes, surely. Not hoodlums and troublemakers. But I knew that once my father dug his heals in, there was no changing his mind, and the annual new clothes for the new school year shopping trip ended with me wearing a Colorado-proper nylon ski jacket. One that I hated all year.

In the decades since, I’ve learned that my father was right: People do pre-judge you by what you wear. But that hasn’t stopped me from owning any number of leather jackets, some brown and some black.

That said, I don’t think I ever really bonded with a jacket in the way I’m sure I would have bonded with that first bomber jacket that my father refused to buy me. In my mid-20s I had a beautiful black Harley Davidson jacket, complete with fringe. Oddly, my father never said I looked like a hoodlum wearing it, but I surely must have. As is appropriate for a hoodlum jacket, I suppose, someone stole it from my car. About the time Rio was born I was wearing a soft, lightweight black leather with zip-off sleeves. I was much heavier then, and when I lost weight, the jacket had to be shelved. It was replaced with an orange plasticy faux leather auto-racing jacket with a Nehru collar from Burlington Coat Factory. I still wear it now and then, but not often. It’s handsome, but it doesn’t breathe the way real leather does. That’s why leather makes a great fashion accessory; you can wear it over a wide range of temperatures and neither freeze nor roast while looking great.

And don’t kid yourself. We pilots like to look great. From our pilot watches that we don’t really need, to our oversized pilot sunglasses that mimic the goggles of old, to our flight jackets, which, come to think about it, we don’t really need either.

I recently read that flight jackets, at least as American pilots think of them, got their start in World War I, when the U.S. Army created something called the Aviation Clothing Board. The Board designed and issued leather flight jackets to protect the pilots of open cockpit biplanes from the elements. But it was World War 2 that may well have been the heyday of the leather flight jacket, and all the flight jackets on the market today bear some resemblance to the jackets of the Greatest Generaton.

How many jackets are there on the market? Dozens. Hundreds, probably. Made in both brown and black, most feature big dual-entry hand pockets on the front, and may have epaulets on the shoulders. Some have fur collars. Many have knitted wool cuffs around the wrists and waist. Some are as thick and stiff as armor, others as soft and flexible as silk. And I had been doing just fine without one.

Until Duluth.

February before last, AOPA sent me to Duluth to teach a Rusty Pilots Seminar. Duluth is lovely, but I can’t recommend a February visit. I actually survived the sub-zero temps in my nylon flight jacket with its Nascar-style brightly colored logos (although I learned to appreciate the value of a good knit hat), but while I was there I first spied a leather flight jacket that would trigger lust in my heart for something similar.

The seminar was held at the Cirrus factory, and one of the Cirrus executives had an amazing fight jacket. It was a well broken-in brown bomber, with the Cirrus logo on the left chest embroidered directly onto the leather using a color of thread almost identical to the jacket. The effect was both subtle and dramatic. It caught the eye like embossed leather, only in reverse. It blew my mind.

As Cirrus has a reputation for creating awesome image items—never say “no” if you are invited to one of their parties—my first assumption was that the company had these jackets created for all their brass, but in the conversation I struck up with the executive about the jacket, I learned that actually, he’d had the jacket for many years and that his wife had taken it to a local embroidery shop to have the logo added after Cirrus hired him. Up until that point, I didn’t realize that leather could be embroidered on. I filed it in my brain under things to think about.

Fast-forward one year. I’m suffering from an image issue. I now work three days per week at a community college, teaching language arts to high school dropouts. As a high school dropout myself (maybe dad was right about the bad effect of leather jackets) I find the work highly rewarding. I spend the rest of my time writing, flying, and writing about flying. But this gives me sorta of a split personality, which has created no end of wardrobe confusion. I know what pilots wear. I know what writers wear. I know what normal college professors wear, but adult education is different… So what the hell to wear?

Nothing in my wardrobe felt quite right. Then one day I woke up and realized that I needed a leather flight jacket. And not just any leather flight jacket, but a black one. The perfect thing for teaching high school dropouts & hanging out with pilots. And just to make it special and unique, I’d take a page from the Cirrus executive’s wife and “logo it up,” black on black.

Of course the lady who runs the local embroidery shop is fond of bright color. I figured she’d think I was crazy. But first, I had to choose the jacket. I knew I didn’t want a fur collar, I wanted one with snaps to keep it firmly in place. And I didn’t want knit sleeves either. I had to have epaulets, of course. I didn’t want chest pockets, as I envisioned large monochrome logos on the chest. I love sleeve pockets, but they are more common on cloth and nylon flight gear. And as I have arms a bit too long for my body, I needed a jacket that would come in a Large-Long size. I started scouring the internet, and I also started looking at jackets during my travels. And by far, the best-looking leather flight jackets out there are the ones worn by Southwest Airlines pilots. Their jackets are a sharp-looking modern take on the flight jackets of yore, and the design looks good on an amazing range of body types. Southwest has tall skinny pilots, short stocky ones, and the occasional Captain with a beer belly. And they all wear the same jacket to good effect. And darn if I didn’t find it for sale at the iconic Sporty’s Pilot Shop, in their Southwest Airlines Pilot Store page. Oh. That link is for the whole store. Here’s the link to the jacket.

But, like all quality leather jackets, it wasn’t cheap. And I’m becoming so myself, so I held off buying it for months. Finally, trapped in Michigan with a sick kid for a full week (a tale for another day), with nothing to do but listlessly surf the internet, I caved. I worried about ordering a jacket online, as I couldn’t try it on, but I knew that Sporty’s was good about returns, so I felt I had nothing to loose.

It was waiting for me when I got home. It’s one of those armor heavy leather jackets. The leather is thick and creaks wonderfully as you move. Like a good pair of boots, it’s a jacket that’s going to take some time to break in, but it will last a lifetime. And, of course, it has that wonderful new-leather smell that they have yet to perfect as a men’s cologne. It was a good fit, and I felt like a bulletproof P-51 pilot in it. The only shock was how much landscape the large front pockets ate up. I wouldn’t have as much chest area to cover in my monochrome logos as I thought I would have. As it turns out, that wasn’t an issue.

While in Las Cruces to take delivery of Lisa’s new plane, Warbler, or maybe it was on the trip we took down several weeks before that for the pre-buy inspection, Rio sat down with me at the hotel to plan a logo layout for the new-me jacket. Right away we realized that many of the logos that adorn our other flight jackets simply won’t “work” in a single color, they rely on their different colors to create their principle graphical patterns. Iin the end, we chose the Sport Air Racing League logo for the right chest, our Race 53 wings and the text “National Champion” for the left chest, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale world record-holder logo for the right sleeve, and the Erco logo for the left sleeve. I wished I could have put our large “Ercoupe Racing” logo on the back that some of our other jackets have, but Rio and I agreed that it wouldn’t “work.”

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The next week I met with my color-loving embroiderer, and to my surprise, she got into the project and had several ideas, including some ways to modify the large back logo to make it work black-on-black. She explained that as the embroidery machines change the angle of the treads to create designs, light hits the threads in different ways, letting a black-on-black logo still show detail that you wouldn’t expect is possible. Here, see for yourself:

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A week later the jacket was done, and it’s the perfect look for a flying-teaching-writing man. Now I’m all set with a brand new image to match my complicated life. Well… Almost. Because, well, darn it. Now my shoes just don’t match my jacket. And Nothing in my wardrobe feels quite right.

So what kind of footwear do flying-teaching-writing people wear? Maybe I need a pair of those airline pilot boots, it sure works for those Southwest pilots…

 

A very Tessie Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Huh?

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

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

Lego Tessie had finally arrived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a blast.

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

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

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And the model started looking more and more like Tessie…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More about Joey:

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

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