Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid

Lisa turns and waves. She has a goofy grin on her face and her eyes are twinkling. She raises her camera to take a picture of me. I see the shutter open and close through the camera’s lens. I wave back.

This wouldn’t be the least bit remarkable if we weren’t in two different airplanes.

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Photo: Lisa F. Bentson

Three feet separates my wing tip from Lisa’s plane. I can see every seam, every rivet, every marking on her plane, just as clearly as if I were standing on the ramp next to it—instead of a thousand feet above the ground flying at two hundred and fifty miles per hour.

I’ve never done any formation flying before this, and I’m enthralled. As cool as it looks from the ground, nothing compares to how cool it looks from the cockpit.

Suddenly, we hit a patch of rough air. Our planes leap upwards, but amazingly, the two aircraft remain exactly in the same position relative to each other, moving as a single unit, as if they were one plane bolted together by steel beams and girders.

It’s AirVenture, and are we ever having an air venture! Lisa and I have hitched rides in the back seats of a pair of tailwheel Yak 52s belonging to the Phillips 66 Aerostars, a decade-old precision aerobatic team. We’re headed out over Lake Winnebago under gray skies, racing an approaching thunderstorm, so the Aerostars can show us their stuff.

Phillips 66 is the new primary sponsor of the Aerostars, but the company is no stranger to aviation. They’ve been making oil and gas for airplane engines since 1926. Today, Phillips 66 is one of the big players in aircraft oil, their main rival being AeroShell. I’ve been unable to figure out who has the greater market share, but my sense from what I see at airports is that Phillips is the leader in mutligrade oils, while AeroShell seems to have the lead the single-weight market, but I could be wrong about that. But one thing’s for sure, Phillips has the cooler logo:

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I study the Yak 52 Lisa is riding in, floating, unearthly, right outside my canopy. It fills my field of view.

“How on earth did you learn to do this?” I ask my pilot, “It’s frickin’ amazing.”

David “Cupid” Monroe laughs. “It’s really not that hard. You just establish a sight picture and hold it.” I’ve heard acro pilots say this before, but it never made any sense to me, and it still doesn’t, so I say nothing. “It’s just like shooting an ILS approach,” he goes on, and suddenly I get it.

In instrument flight, you use cockpit gauges to place the plane in a specific slice of airspace, and keep it there. One traditional instrument had two crossed needles. The vertical needle showed if you were drifting left or right of the runway as you approached it through the fog and clouds; and the horizontal needle told you if you were descending on the proper glide slope to clear terrain, buildings, and cell phone towers. Keeping the two needles nailed on the crosshairs kept you on the right approach.

What “Cupid” was telling me was that instead of lining up on an instrument, he was lining up his plane so that key parts of the other plane appeared through his canopy in exactly the right place, then, just like shooting an ILS, he made continuous micro corrections to hold the “sight picture”—essentially keeping his plane in the crosshairs established by the position of the leader’s plane out of the window.

Suddenly, it all seemed so simple. Something I could learn to do.

In the front cockpit of Lisa’s Yak, lead pilot Harvey “Boss” Meek makes a spinning motion with his right hand. In one smooth motion we dip down, pass beneath the leader, and come up on the opposite side. I felt like I could reach up and stroke the belly of the other plane as we slid under it.

The two planes split apart and dive for Lake Winnebago. Normally the Aerostars loop as a team in their signature tight formation, but they don’t do actual performances with deadweight journalists in the back seats, so for safety—there’s and ours—they ran the demo acrobatics wide.

“Cupid” pulls back on the stick and the Yak curves gracefully up toward the gray skies above, stands on her tail, and then we are upside down, the blue lake above us. The G-forces push me back in my seat, an airplane bear hug.

I love it.

As we slide down the back of the loop I let out a whoop of joy, just to let my pilot know I’m having a good time. Next we do a barrel roll, my all-time favorite maneuver. I enjoy them so much that I sometimes wish I owned an acrobatic plane, or that our plane was acro-capable. I don’t know if they are true, but I remember readings stories as a child of World War II fighter aces doing barrel rolls over their runways as they returned from missions. One roll for each victory.

The fun was capped off with a Half Cuban Eight, a maneuver that is more or less half a loop with half a roll.

The acrobatics were fun, but it was flying wing-tip to wing-tip out and back from the acrobatic zone that made the greatest impression on me. It was amazing and beautiful.

It made me wish that Lisa had a plane too, so that we could get some training and fly formation together. And in fact, thanks to our trip to AirVenture that just might happen.

Lisa getting a plane, that is. But that’s a Plane Tale for another day.

 

Guilty Pleasures

I’ve now been six weeks without an airplane. Things are progressing… slowly. As Rio says, at least the left wing is back on the plane. But there’s a big hole in the other wing, where the right main fuel tank should be.

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And that’s the big hang-up right now. The corroding tank, the ultimate smoking gun in our breakdown last year that might have cost us a First Place finish as season champs in the Sport Air Racing League (although our victory was anything but assured), had to be removed and sent halfway across the country to be rebuilt. At the rebuild place all the gazillion rivets that hold the clamshell tank together are drilled out so the tank can be disassembled. It will then be stripped down to bare metal, then reassembled, resealed, and re-riveted.

This, apparently, is much cheaper than buying a new one. Or so they tell me. I haven’t actually seen the final bill yet.

Or the rebuilt tank, for that matter.

Once the tank finds its way home, it will be shiny bare metal inside and out, so off to the paint shop it must go for exterior painting. I suspect that’s why the rest of the work is going at a snail’s pace. My maintenance team knows the job can’t be finished until the tank shows up anyway…

They did get the new ADS-B transponder installed. This is a next-generation air traffic control device that will let controllers keep track of airplanes using GPS rather than radar. If you want to fly in controlled airspace after January 1, 2020, you have to have one. Never mind that it might cost you a considerable percentage of the value of your plane!

I chose the Garmin version of the ADS-B for no particular reason other than we have a Garmin com radio and we use a dash-mounted Garmin GPS and the Garmin Pilot app for nav. It made sense to me to keep everything the same brand for maximum compatibility. Speaking of our dash-top Garmin, I had my mechanic run a hard-wired plug through the dash to power it so I could reduce the wires that run helter skelter throughout the plane in flight. Previously, it plugged into the “cigarette lighter” on the bottom of the dashboard and we had to snake the cord around the copilot yoke and the throttle quad to power it.

I was quite pleased with the solution until the next week. That’s when, reading the user’s manual for our new transponder online, I discovered that it has a built-in GPS source that will output to my iPad. I won’t need the dash-mounted unit anymore.

The one I just paid to have a cable installed for.

D’oh!     (Homer Simpson head-slap)

The boys have the sticking trim cable system replaced, but all the glass remains out of the plane, as well as much of the interior. They haven’t started on the doors, nor the “rigging” problems that have the controls cock-eyed in level flight. In the email wrap for the week the chief mechanic admitted, “We didn’t get as much done as we had hoped.”

(((Sigh)))

So airplane-less for some time, and clearly airplane-less for some time to come, how am I getting my aviation fix? Well, I’m doing some hangar flying. Or our version of it, anyway. Hangar flying is when a bunch of pilots sit around the hangar on bad weather days, or bad maintenance days, and talk about flying. But it makes no sense for me to go to our actual hangar. That would just be more depressing. It’s a 45-minute drive one-way, and we are the only airplane based at the airport.

So there would be no one to hang with in the hangar.

But we do have our flight lounge at home, with our wall-filling flight planning chart on it, so I’ve spent a lot of time in there, brainstorming routes to the twenty SARL races this season. The room has a happy aviation vibe to it, with it’s flying art, accessories, airplane models, and collection of aviation books. That helps, but it’s not enough. So I actually turned to (((shudder)))) TV.

Yes, I confess, Rio and I have been getting our aviation fix by watching the “reality” TV show Ice Pilots, NWT.

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It’s the tale of Buffalo Airways, a family-owned company largely flying freight and charters in Canada’s cold-cold-cold North West Territories using a fleet of classic “piston pounder” airplanes of the past: DC3s, DC4s, and C46s.

Being reality TV, it has big, big personalities and petty little plots, but the planes rock, the photography is breathtaking, and the cast of characters is lovable—especially the boss’s son Mikey, who serves as the company’s general manager—and they all grow on you. The series ran a full six seasons on the History Chanel. We’re halfway through season two.

What happens if we finish Ice Pilots before our own piston pounder is back in the air?

I guess we’ll have to resort to watching Airplane Repo.

 

Meet the newest member of the family

Now there are nine of us. I count the New Mexico branch of the family like this:

The nuclear family is three—Debs, Rio, and me.

The extended family is two—Grandma Jean and Lisa.

Then there are the two cats—Khaki and Cougar.

And the airplane—Tessie.

So that made a total of 8 of us before the newest member of the clan showed up. Smaller than Tessie and smarter than the cats is D-drone. Yes, I’m now the proud adoptive father of an intelligent flying camera. Here are my two sons together:

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It all started out, as many things around here do, with an article. I was writing an article on drones, officially called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs for short. No shit, there are now more UAVs in the sky than there are honest-to-God aircraft.

Actually… that’s really not fair, because I learned—and you are about to—that a modern drone is truly an aircraft in every sense. So more correctly, I should have said: No shit, there are now more aircraft in the sky without pilots in them than with pilots.

Anyway, all drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds need to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Anyone who wants to make money flying one also needs to get a drone pilot’s license (people who fly them for fun don’t need the license), and the Feds made it easy for existing pilots to get the new license. How easy? It actually took me less time to get the drone license than it did to get the drone registered, but that’s a story for another day.

Getting my license was a simple matter of taking an online class and passing a test. I did that for my article with no intention of going out and getting a drone. That was actually the irony I was writing about: That you could get a drone pilot license without ever having flown a drone.

But then… well, I’m not sure how things got this out of hand…

It probably started when Rio and Lisa bought a toy drone before Christmas. It had a very sad little camera, but it got us thinking about the possibility of getting some shots of Tess from above for our Air Racing series in GA News, which is coming back next season. Then a few weeks later at BestBuy, when I was looking for some computer stuff, I saw a handsome rescue-orange drone that was drool worthy.

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In particular, I was entranced with its camera. It was sporting a camera that looked like it was capable of taking quality images. A few weeks later Rio and I were in Santa Fe with some extra time to kill, so I took him to see Orange Drone.

He didn’t think much of it, but was drawn to the next drone over (BestBuy had a whole isle full of drones). This drone had six motors, a huge camera slung under its belly, and pair of sensors on the front that looked like eyes. It was called a Yuneec Typhoon. It was more Star Wars droid than traditional flying machine, and it was “only” eight hundred bucks.

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Rio pressed a button on the drone’s sales display and a large flat-screen TV above the drone came to life. Bathed in the light of stunning high-def, Rio and I stood transfixed as on the video the wicked-looking black drone rose up off the ground, its landing gear rising smoothly up and out of the way. Then it whisked off into action, its camera able to turn unobstructed through 360 degrees.

I was sold.

We couldn’t wait to share the video with the rest of the family.

When we got home we booted up the computer, but could not find the promo piece online. Instead we found a YouTube review that ended up convincing us that the retractable gear Typhoon was not the right piece of gear for us after all. The review started out as death by a thousand pinpricks. The reviewer was comparing the wicked black beast to a boring-looking white drone from some company I’d never heard of: DJI. More on them in a minute. In every test he devised to compare the two flying machines, the Typhoon under-performed. Sometimes by a little. Sometimes by a lot. I kept rooting for the Typhoon, but it kept falling short.

But the killing blow was the tree.

Both the drones are supposed to have sensors and intelligent software that lets them follow moving objects (people, cars, boats) while avoiding stationary objects (mountains, houses, telephone poles). In this part of the review our host walked though a small grove of trees. He hadn’t gone even ten feet before the Typhoon drone smacked head-on into the first tree, shattering propellers and collapsing to the ground in a pile of twisted broken plastic and metal, its camera severed from it’s body.

Rio and I sat in depressed silence.

Then I booted up Google to learn more about the other drone, the DJI one. As it turns out, DJI is the world’s drone leader, and has been for years. In list after list of top drones, DJI products dominate. The more I read, the more impressed I got. And, sadly, the more I compared DJI’s various models, the clearer it became that the newest—and most expensive—models had clear advantages over the older, cheaper models. I decided to start at the top, rather than buy cheap and have to upgrade in six months.

How expensive was it? One penny under eighteen hundred bucks.

But consider that it’s (1) an excellent camera, capable of taking 20 megapixel stills and high def video; (2) it’s a computer; and (3) it’s a flying machine. You’d expect to pay nearly that much, or more, for any one of the three. So all three together for that price is a real bargain.

Or at least that’s the argument I made to my wife.

I don’t think she bought it, but she let me buy the drone anyway.

We originally planned to test it on the tarmac at the Plane Tales airport, but the day after it arrived we woke to a dead-still morning, so Rio and I took D-drone out into the front yard before he had to go to school and pressed the auto takeoff button. The four motors came to life, and buzzing like a swarm of angry bees, the little white machine rose smoothly into the air about three feet and stayed there, as if frozen in place.

I don’t know about other drones, but I have to say, D-drone is one of the best-handling flying machines I’ve ever gotten my paws on. It’s well behaved and rock solid in a wide range of conditions and winds. It’s responsive to the controls without being hyper. The camera is easy to deploy and takes great video and stills.

But surely it’s not a real aircraft, you say. Well consider one spec alone. Its service ceiling is 19,685 feet. Quite a bit better than Tessie, and of course, illegally high in US airspace for a drone.

Still, it’s an impressive statistic.

And while it can only fly at speeds up to 45 mph, it has a climb rate of 1,180 feet per minute, better than most manned airplanes. Of course a battery will keep it airborne for only half an hour, and it would be hard pressed to carry any cargo. After all, this is a photo drone, not a pizza delivery drone.

But like my fellow humans, my cats, and the family airplane; I’m quickly learning that D-drone has a personality. And probably a soul to go along with it.

And that’s why we are now a family of nine.

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A wrench to the head

“Hey,” I told Rio, “that looks like the Las Vegas Airport. Pause the DVD for a sec.”

We were watching a video I stumbled across on eBay called Fly Fast! about Rare Bear, the iconic Reno Race plane that dominated the Valley of Speed for decades. It was being offered up by a seller in Sparks, Nevada for a minimum bid of $6.99 with free shipping.

Well within the don’t-need-to-ask-your-wife-first price range.

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Rio stabbed at the controls and the image froze. We both leaned forward and peered at the TV screen. Darn if it didn’t look like the terminal at KLVS, the “little” Las Vegas just twenty miles up the road from our house.

And, as it turns out, it was. Because, and I totally didn’t know this, the Rare Bare came to our home town in August of 1989 to set a three kilometer Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI)-sanctioned world speed record. The highly modified Grumman F8F Bearcat ripped a hole in the skies over our hometown airport at 528.33 miles per hour, making it the fastest piston-powered plane in the world, a speed record that still stands today, 27 years after it was set.

It really bothered me that I was learning about this from a six dollar and ninety-nine cent eBay find. Because I should have known. I should have known simply because I’m a local pilot, and a FAI world speed record holder myself. And I should have known because I lived in Las Vegas in 1989, and I hung out at the airport a lot.

Oh, but it gets worse.

I should have known because back in 1989 I was a journalist working the local paper, the Las Vegas Daily Optic. As a local pilot and newsman, how could I have been totally unaware of the biggest thing in aviation to happen in town since Lindbergh landed here in 1928?

Watching the video in my warm, cozy house, I began getting that odd sensation you get when you drink too much cold medicine. You know, like your head has become a helium balloon and is floating two feet above your shoulders on a string. How could this have happened on my watch, and I missed it? It was surreal.

And as the video went on, things got worse. There was footage of Rare Bear’s famous pilot, Lyle Shelton, signing copies of the Optic, which featured a front-page picture of his plane. So it’s not like the paper missed the event.

Where the heck was I when all of this was going on?

I searched my memory banks in vain. I simply had no recall whatsoever of the event. After the movie was over, I sat and mentally tried to reassemble my past life. First I double-checked with Deb on what year we were married.

Never a good idea.

Next, I counted forward on my fingers. Yeah. I was still with the paper when Rare Bare came to town. But to be sure, I dug around in my files and found a old and faded resume—was that typed on a typewriter??—and confirmed that my position at the paper wasn’t eliminated until the spring of the following year, when the publisher decided to cut staff to save money.

So I was there, on the job, when Rare Bare made its flight. So why didn’t I remember it?

“Maybe they dropped a wrench on your head,” Rio offered helpfully.

Maybe so.

Or maybe I was on vacation. Out of state. Yeah. That might explain it. But there was no way to reassemble those kinds of details nearly three decades dead.

Or was there?

“I know how we can solve this mystery,” I told Rio. “Microfilm.”

“What the heck is microfilm?” asked Rio.

So I explained to him that microfilm is a way of archiving printed publications for long-term storage. Pages are laid out and photographed on 35mm-wide positive-image film. Months of newspapers can be condensed into a reel of film that will fit in your hand. I also told him about the sexier microfiche, index-card-sized sheets of plastic with microscopic magazine pages on them.

Then I was struck by a thought. Perhaps neither existed anymore.

“I guess it’s all done on computers nowadays,” I told Rio. Would old microfilm be scanned into computers? If not, were there still microfilm reading machines?

We went on an expedition to find out. The very next day, I picked Rio up from school and Lisa up from her office at the Community College (easy to do as Rio’s school is on the campus of the college) and we drove across town to New Mexico Highlands University, which was bedecked in purple banners and balloons for Homecoming. We found a parking spot on 8th Street a half block from the wide cascading stairs that lead up to the Donnelly Library—which itself was celebrating its 50th Anniversary.

The plan was to use the microfilm archives to see who took the photo—certainly it wasn’t me—and to see if my byline was missing from the days before and after the event, a clue that I wasn’t around. “What will you do if it turns out you took the picture?” asked Rio.

“Have a stroke,” I told him. There was no way I could have photographed an event like this and lost all memory of it.

On the second floor, in the heart of the periodicals, we found three microfilm machines and bank after bank of drawers holding film and fiche. Bank after bank of cabinets holding every paper but the one we were looking for.

Dejected, I turned around and spotted a small black cabinet standing all by itself on the opposite wall. The Las Vegas Daily Optic, on microfilm, from 1880 to last month.

I guess they still make microfilm, after all.

We searched through the drawers until we found the reel that contained August of 1989. We took the box out and pulled three chairs up in front of one of the microfilm readers.

Whereupon three very smart people couldn’t, to save our lives, figure out how to load the damn film into the stupid machine.

Lisa combed the library’s stacks and finally found an employee who figured out the machine we were trying to load was broken and took us to the “better one” in the government docs section.

Soon the past was whizzing past us, black and white, and grainy—the way the past is supposed to look. Spinning the dial on the machine, we watched the Friday TV Guide zip past. Then the supermarket insert. June 9th. I turned the dial farther to the right and the pages became a blur. I stopped at June 28th. Again I sped up the scan, and we closed in. August 10, 16, 18.

And there it was.

Monday. August 21, 1989. Lyle Shelton’s Rare Bare on the cover of the Las Vegas Daily Optic. Just like the copies we’d seen him signing on the video.

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And under the photo, my byline.

I took the picture.

I was thunderstruck. It felt like someone had dropped a wrench on my head. I stared at the slightly fuzzy image, speechless. Even faced with proof positive I had been on the scene, I couldn’t recall a single thing about the event. We flipped through the paper in both directions. The Optic ran three articles on the speed record, one the week before, one the day of the attempt, and another the next day. And in the days leading up to the record, and in the days following, my byline littered the pages of the paper.

I wasn’t on vacation.

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And to add insult to injury, the photo wasn’t really all that great. I worked at the paper as a photographer for about two-and-a-half years. I was good at it, bringing home more than a dozen New Mexico Press Association and Associated Press awards. In the time I was there, back in the days of fully manual cameras, no less, I took some amazing news photos.

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I keenly remember many of these impressive images, but I guess time and distance have led me to believe that they were the norm. Reality slapped me in the face in the quiet university library. A little girl with a rabbit. Road construction. A little girl with a dog. Seriously? Where was the Pulitzer-class kick-butt photography I remembered? I yearned to show Rio at least one amazing image on the microfilm viewer, but I couldn’t find one to be proud of.

My days as a globetrotting photographer were more mundane than my grainy, black and white memory held it out to be.

I guess Rare Bear isn’t the only thing I’d forgotten.

 

Disclaimer: I can’t really recommend the movie Fly Fast! And that’s not because it has me questioning my sanity. It just isn’t that great of a movie. I’d only give it one quarter of one star on a five-star rating system.

 

A big, beautiful map

The map nearly covered the floor. There was barely room for me to stretch out on the carpet between its edge and the freshly painted wall. Antique hardbound copies of The Aeroplane Boys held the corners of the map flat, fighting the curl that several weeks in a shipping tube created.

“This is a thing of beauty,” I told Rio and Lisa, “I’ve wanted one since I was a teenager.” My eyes roamed over the gigantic flight-planning map—the eastern half of the country pale green, morphing to moss green on the western highlands of the great plains, then transitioning to khaki, muted yellow, tan, and finally deep brown over the Rockies as the altitude rose.

The map was beautifully printed on thick, heavy paper; and laminated so dry erase markers can be used for planning without marring. The graphics are sharp and bright. The terrain jumps out, nearly 3-D. Rivers, lakes, and mountains are clear. Small magenta circles show uncontrolled airports. Blue circles show the towered fields. Military operations areas litter the country. The Bravo airspace around the county’s largest airports creates blue cookie-cutters around the sunflower-yellow splotches signifying city sprawl. Thin black lines between cities show the interstate highway system.

Pale grey circles, every 200 miles, radiate outwards from our home base, the Route 66 Airport in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

Yep, this map has been personalized just for us.

I chose 200 miles for the range rings as that’s how far we can fly, with two aboard and some cargo, before we need to alight for fuel.

Of course the map isn’t going to live on the floor. Once the curl is straightened out, and the new paint on the wall is dry, the map will take its place as the crowning jewel of our latest home improvement project: Our very own flight-planning room.

Understand that our house is small. Less than 1,500 square feet. It’s made up of two bedrooms, a combined kitchen and dining room, a living room, a small library and office with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and the other room.

The other room has served a variety of purposes over the years. Originally it was a photographic darkroom. Later it was a guest bedroom. Then a nursery for the baby. Then it was a walk-in storage closet. In it’s most recent incarnation, it was a tiny residential suite for my ailing mother-in-law, who spent the last three years of her life with us. After she passed away the room initially sat empty, then began to collect “stuff.”

Several times I asked Debs what her plan for the space was, but she wasn’t ready to think about it, so I backed off.

Then we cooked up the “48 project” as our next big Tessie adventure. Recall that first we set a World Speed Record, then we did a season of racing, so we needed to top those somehow. To do that, we cooked up a plan to make a single cross-country flight that touches down in all of the lower 48 states.

Now this is a project that’s going to require some careful planning, and I didn’t want to be doing it all on an iPad mini at the kitchen table with a pile of sticky notes on the side. As I drew a first draft of the zig-zaggy flight course on a kindergarten map of the United States that I printed out from the web, I recalled the wall-filling flight planning charts of my student pilot days. Wonderful, sprawling floor-to-ceiling maps that back in the day were found in every terminal and FBO in the land. They’re no longer made, and you rarely see them nowadays, but on our travels this race season I’ve encountered a few of the originals, faded to pale yellow with age, still on the walls of empty terminals.

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These encounters inspired me to scour the internet in search or something similar, and that’s where I found Higher Plane maps, who make a modern descendent of the maps of my youth. The new maps range in size from five feet wide by three feet high, to over eleven feet wide and more than seven feet tall.

Sadly, our little house doesn’t have an eleven-foot by seven-foot wall in it. Anywhere. But some quick tape-measure work showed me we had wall space for the middle-of-the-road six by four footer.

In the other room.

I bookmarked the site, got up my courage, and popped the question to Debbie. No not marriage. We did that nearly 30 years ago. I asked her how she would feel about turning the other room into a flight planning center where we could plan our adventures, keep track of details, and store all our flight stuff that tends to get deposited throughout the house.

Much to my surprise, she said yes.

I went back to the computer, ordered the map, and started making plans.

The other room had at some point been painted in a tan and desert orange, colors my mother-in-law detested. I told her it was her “house” and she could choose any colors she wanted, and I’d re-paint it. She chose sky blue and deep well-water blue, I suspect because my wife didn’t like the idea of a blue room one little bit. I got the room about half repainted and then never finished the job. For the life of me, I can’t recall why. Probably it was because as her health declined I simply ran out of time for painting. She required more and more care.

Or maybe it was because I really hate painting.

Anyway, the two cans of blue paint remained in the corner, the room was half-painted, and blue is not an unreasonable color to paint a flight planning room. Deb hates painting more than I do, and I was already one victory up in getting her to let me have the room, so I needed to enlist someone else to help me and keep me motived.

Enter Lisa.

And I didn’t even have to pull the Tom Sawyer trick.

The room came out awesome. Even Debs loved the way the blues harmonized and said her Mom sure picked great colors.

The other room has come to life again.

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Race 53 makes the big time!!!

Breaking news:

OK, I was keeping this under wraps until it really happened–because I had to keep pinching myself to believe it was true–but official Race 53 merchandise is now available at a Website near you!!! (Well, I guess they all are huh?)

During AirVenture this year the folks at Preferred Altitude pulled me aside to talk to me about creating Race 53 licensed merchandise. Naturally, I thought all the Avgas fumes had finally done in my brain.

But they were serious, and today they launched the first T-shirt. Available in three colors, I’m told.

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It’s a waaaaaaay cool logo and a great way to show your love of Ercoupes and your support for Race 53 and the gang!

Plus, I’d love it if a certain competitor of mine walked into her home airport and found a bunch of people wearing them! He-He-He-He-He….

Oh, right, the URL. Get your shirt here!

Hats off to the Mad Hatter

I confess: I’m a bit of a peacock when it comes to fashion. I like to look good, and I put both conscious thought and effort into the process. I dress the part for the various roles that I fill, and I probably spend more money on clothes than men typically do.

But I’m not the three-piece suit and spit polished shoe sort. Instead, I’d call my style coordinated casual.

For day-to-day activities in the summer I’ll wear an Eddie Bauer shirt with the sleeves one-quarter rolled up, paired with lightweight cargo pants. In the winter it’s blue jeans with open-neck sweaters over thin T-shirts. Around the house in the summer it’s shorts with T-shirts, some plain, some with snarky aviation sayings. If I’m going to a conference or traveling by commercial air, I’ll wear a sport coat with a dress shirt. For an awards banquet I’ll add cufflinks, and sometimes a tie. For general flying, it’s an aviator shirt with epaulets on the shoulders or AOPA gear. For air racing, it’s a white pilot shirt emblazoned with aviation and race logos. It makes me look professional, which makes me feel professional, which in turn ensures I fly professionally. And hopefully, the world speed record badge on my sleeve intimidates my completion.

At least until they see my airplane.

I make sure the style of my shirt matches the style of my pants. I coordinate my colors down to my socks and underwear. I even make sure my accessories—watch, belt, shoes, cell phone case—all match my duds.

Everything matches perfectly… Except when it comes to my hat.

That’s because I have hat issues. First off, it’s true: I have a big head. But it’s balanced on a thinish frame, so most hats that actually fit make me look like a cartoon bobble head. And frankly, 99% of all hats I’ve even tried on simply just don’t look good on me. I’ve come to hate hats.

But when you fly a low-wing airplane, there’s a lot of sun in, and on, your face. You really need a hat. A hat that you can wear a headset over. Most pilots choose some sort of baseball cap, removing the button at the top because the headset will drill the button into your skull if you don’t.

But of all the kinds of hats in the world, baseball caps look worse on me than any other type of hat. I just don’t have the head for them. And it’s not just my vanity saying that. My family agrees. Frequently, when we are out and about, I’ll try on an interesting-looking hat. When I eagerly turn to whichever family member is with me, they will slowly shake their heads and say, “Sorry, no. That just doesn’t work on you.”

After much searching, I finally found a European pilot cap that didn’t look too bad on me. It has a long bill, and less “body” than most American caps, fitting over less of the head. Maybe that’s why it looks good on me. It’s also made button-free to be headset-friendly. It’s sharp looking, deep blue in color, and has wings and the word “pilot” on the front.

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But it too has problems. Not style problems, but function problems. Because it perches on top of my head, it blows off easily when I’m out on the ramp. I bet I’ve spent at least 100 hours chasing this hat down various ramps, aprons, and taxiways. And while it’s button-free, it’s not seamless. The hat is constructed of six pizza-slice shaped panels. On cross-counties longer than two hours the seams dig into my skull and give me a headache.

I have a big head, but apparently not a fat one.

No amount of shifting of the hat and the headset solves the pain problem. Then one day not long ago, while I was flipping through the pages of the latest Historic Aviation catalog, I discovered a hat whose top had no seams. The top is a circular piece of fabric. I took a chance on ordering it, and damn if it didn’t look pretty good on me. Well, as good as any hat does, anyway.

The bill is a perfect balance of shade and visibility. I can wear my headset over it for hours on end with no pain. It’s pale blue so it matches my flying clothes. An added benefit: It doesn’t soak up too much sun, turning me into a hothead. And it stays put on my head on windy ramps.

So what’s the problem?

It’s distressingly distressed, for what the catalog called “a well worn look.” Yeah, some fool took a Dremel tool to it to make it look like it was hit by a propeller. So not my style.

Not my flying style anyway. It would look great with a T-shirt, cut off jeans, and sandals at the beach. But with my racing clothes? Not so much…

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Packing for the last race, I was stressing about which hat to take: The comfortable one that looks like hell and spoils my look, or the snazzy one that gives me a headache. Like I said, I take fashion seriously.

Finally, Lisa laughed at me and said, “You always take your hat off as soon as you land, anyways. Just take the comfortable one and leave it in the plane.”

And that’s what I did. But I sure wish I could find a hat like this one that hasn’t been distressed.

Then I’d be flying in style.

A pricey security blanket

It was a freaking awesome racecourse, launching from Scholes International on Galveston Island (which has, kid you not, an altitude of exactly six feet) and then heading out over the Gulf of Mexico. The course hung a sharp left clear of the beach, paralleling the island on the eastbound leg. The second turn was over the far tip of the island, nearly doubling back on itself, bisecting Pelican Island, and then out over West Bay toward Houston.

The course was called the Texas Twister for its zippy-zappy route back and forth over the islands, channels, bays, peninsulas and waterways south of the big Class Bravo airspace Houston’s twin international airports gobble up. I was studying the course on the computer in our library, and couldn’t wait to fly it.

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But as I stared at all that water, I made the mistake of saying, out loud, “I wonder if I’ll need a life vest?”

Now, once you’ve said a sentence like that within 50 nautical miles of your wife, even if she normally doesn’t hear a thing you say, the die is cast. And speaking of 50 nautical miles, that’s when the law says you need life vests: If you’re more than 50 nautical miles out from shore, or going to be over water for more than 30 minutes.

So by law I did not need one, but by wife I did. So off to the internet I went.

The first vest that attracted me was this one, which was billed as being both light and compact, and came wrapped tightly in a seven inch by six-inch sack that’s only two inches thick. It was also cheap, so that appealed to me, as I doubted I’d ever actually use it.

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But then I began to think about the old joke that all single engine airplane engines go into “auto rough” running mode over water. Every burp and hiccup of normal engine operation sounds more ominous when there is nowhere to land.

You see, a water landing is an ugly thing, Miracle on the Hudson aside.

Water isn’t soft and cushy, not at 100 miles per hour. It’s as hard as concrete. Well, concrete you can sink through. Most retractable gear planes can put down on water pretty well, as with the gear up the bottom of a plane is really quite boat-like. But most fixed-gear planes like the Plane Tales Plane will flip upside down as soon as they hit the water. The gear “digs in,” the water resistance decelerates the gear before the rest of the plane, and it’s tail over spinner you go.

I couldn’t honestly picture myself having the presence of mind to get my life vest out of the back of the plane when I was upside down, soaking wet, and maybe sinking. Much less unwrap it and put it on.

If I was going to buy a vest—and it was obvious I’d need to whether or not I was legally obligated to get one, or even realistically needed one (not that I minded, no one wants their last thought on earth to be: I should ‘a brought the damn life vest)—then I knew I’d better get one I could just wear for the whole race. And that meant finding one that was comfortable—and, more importantly—didn’t look dorky.

There’s no need to sacrifice style for safety.

After about 45 minutes of looking at options, I chose the Revere ComfortMax, whipped out a credit card and got it ordered. The race was two weeks away at the time, so there was plenty of time.

Later that week, when it came in and I tried it on before dinner, we all agreed that it looked appropriately low key and would make all the humans who live under my roof (both part time and full time) feel better.

All was fine and good until a couple of days before the race. That was when, in the shower and therefore thinking about water, that I realized I’d promised Rio that I’d take him along on the practice run before the race.

With only one life vest.

I was on deadline for a story, and like Hemingway, I can’t tolerate any sort of interruptions when I’m writing, so I go from coffee pot to computer every morning, without checking email. Still, I knew there was no time to waste and that time was shooooooorrrrrt.

I swallowed hard and paid the big bucks for the two-day shipping, plus the extra $42.50 dollars for the fast-ship hazmat fee (apparently the CO2 cartridge that inflates the damn thing when you pull the handle makes shipping companies queasy, or it’s just an excuse to charge more) and ended up practically paying more for shipping than the damn vest cost.

But in trying to stay laser-focused on my work, I didn’t see the email informing me that the race had already been cancelled. Before I ordered the second vest that I now didn’t need.

Yep. I now have two expensive life vests for an airplane based in a desert state.

But at least they sure look sharp.

 

Pen tale

It was an unusual package. Probably one that would have prompted a phone call to the FBI if I’d gotten in back during the anthrax scare. It was a manila envelope, about 6×8 inches. There was no clue who sent it, or what might be inside. It was impossibly thick and impossibly light at the same time, as if filled with helium.

Like a kid on Christmas morning, I ran my fingers along its sides, squeezed it, shook it, and attempted mental telepathy to divine its contents. No wiser for my deductive skills and ESP, I finally just tore the sucker open.

Inside was a honeycomb of soft clear plastic with a deep channel holding a single gunmetal grey pen. I lifted the pen out and found my name had been laser etched onto the metal barrel. The pen was heavy, robustly made, and coated with a liquidly smooth finish. I clicked the top and the action was both smooth and solid at the same time, like the shutter on a finely made German camera. I touched the tip of the pen to a piece of scrap paper and drew a squiggle. The pen glided across the page like an Olympic figure skater over virgin ice.

It must cost a frickin fortune, and besides, I have no need for custom pens.

Still, intrigued—and admiring the moxie, investment, and clever marketing design of the unsolicited sample—I took time to read the pitch letter from National Pen that came with the sample. And the upshot of their pitch was that, through this one-time-only offer to new customers, they would whip me up a batch of these pens for only 59¢ each.

Hell, I can’t even buy crappy plastic pens at Walmart for 59¢ each, much less nice metal ones, much less nice metal ones that have been customized for me, so why not?

That night oven dinner I told the family about the pen offer and passed around the sample. It was universally admired and everyone quickly agreed on the fact that, even though we had absolutely no need for custom pens, we absolutely must order some. We also agreed that, as Plane Tales doesn’t really have a logo, per se, we should put the Race 53 wings and the Plane Tales URL on the pens.

Then came the disagreements.

First we disagreed on color, as we had the choice of black, gunmetal, navy blue, sky blue, red, green, and hideous purple. Well, it wasn’t total disagreement. No one liked the purple. The lighter sky blue was similar to some of the blues on the Plane Tales Plane, but I worried that the white laser etching wouldn’t show up as well as it would on a darker pen. Black was the best bet on this front, but everybody and his brother has black pens. And of course, there was the issue that we only had one sample and there was no real way to know how closely the colors of the actual pens would match the brochure. And so it went.

We have a lot of fun thinking things to death in our family.

In the end, the color argument was settled when we realized that the order form had a box to check for assorted colors. Next, we disagreed on how many of these pens that we didn’t need we should order, given that we had this one-time super low price and there were virtually no limits on how many pens we could buy with the coupon. I don’t think that at this point we’d even talked about what the heck we were going to do with custom Plane Tale/Race 53 pens.

How many pens did we decide to order? I embarrassed to admit to the actual number, but it was a lot. According to the tracking email from UPS, the box of pens weighed 19.6 pounds. Yeah. That’s pretty much a lifetime supply of pens.

But we got a great deal.

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Merry Christmas (in pictures)

Merry Christmas! This year Christmas falls on Friday, our regular publication day, and it occurred to me that in all probability very few people would be reading blogs on Christmas day. Naturally, they’ll all be out flying.

:-)

What to do? I didn’t want to skip the post completely, but I didn’t want to cut into people’s holiday flying time. Then it occurred to me that this would be a case where a picture might be the better solution than a thousand word post. The first image to come to mind was our Ercoupe Christmas tree ornament:

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But then I decided that I wanted to spread holiday cheer in the form of a good laugh, so here’s my favorite holiday cartoon from Chicken Wings, the famous online & syndicated aviation cartoon:

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© Michael and Stefan Strasser

This famous holiday cartoon comes in Christmas cards for your favorite pilot (but order early for next year, I see they sold out this year). And as we always strive to do things bigger and better around here, a couple of years ago I reached out to the Chicken Wings folks and asked them if they could make this “frame” into a poster for me. They did, and it’s now an annual tradition to display it in our hanger for the holiday season.

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Meanwhile, next year, Christmas falls on a Sunday, so the Friday before I’ll tell you the story of day Santa came to visit our hangar…

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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good flight!