High fliers

We’re perched atop the dome of the sky, the world below stretching out to infinity. In my mind’s eye I can nearly picture the curve of the earth, gently sliding off left and right like the slope of a gentle hill.

This is a whole ‘nother kind of flying for Tess, altogether. Not our usual down in the dust barnstorming. As the altimeter slides past 11,000 feet I pause to wonder what her service ceiling—the maximum point above the earth that Tessie’s engine and airfoils can deliver her to—really is. Yeah, I know the book value is 13,000 feet. The book, in this case, being the Wikipedia entry on Ercoupes. When Tess was built, owner’s manuals, at least for airplanes, hadn’t been invented yet. But every ‘Coupe is different. What can my girl really do?

At 11,300 feet above the oceans of the earth, she’s still showing no signs of slowing down. Part of me wants to take her to the apex of her capability, just for the science of it, but I’m already stretching the law as it is. You see, the part of my license I’m flying on caps me at 10,000 feet above sea level, with one exception, which is the one I’m using now. The rules let sport pilots, or pilots flying under the light sport privileges of any higher license, exceed 10,000 feet when it’s necessary to go higher to stay 2,000 feet above the ground—like for instance, when crossing a mountain range—which is what I’m preparing to do now.

Of course, even though I’m climbing steadily, fiddling with the fuel-air mixture of the engine as I rise to keep it running strong, it’s no fast process. If I stayed exactly 2K above the ground the whole way, I’d smack right into Mount Terrell about half way up. So I got a head start on my climb as we headed down the Sevier River Valley south of Spanish Fork, getting ready to cross from the Western Slope of the Rockies, over the Great Divide, to the East Slope. I have faith that the FAA, now more safety focused than letter-of-the-law focused, will judge me to be in the spirit of the law.

Unless I were to attempt 13,000 feet to cross a 9,318-foot mountain pass. That would be stretching their good nature too far, I suspect, and not be in the spirit of the law whatsoever. So I stop climbing and turn left toward the gap in the mountains.

Beneath our belly the ground is now more than five thousand feet below, but that number rapidly unwinds as the terrain rears up. Forty-five hundred… four thousand… three thousand five hundred… three thousand feet… two thousand five hundred… The mountain is climbing faster than I ever would have been able too. Over the apex of the saddle between the eleven-thousand-foot peaks, my GPS shows me at a legal and comfortable 1,982 feet above the rocks below.

As I pass out of the mountain’s jaws I slide the throttle backward and Tess drops down from the heavens like a fallen angel. Our course is Eastbound, so I let her fall to 9,500 feet above the world’s oceans, which here in the heart of the country are  more than a thousand miles away, then I bring the power back up to hold the altitude, relishing the feeling of being on top of the world.


Fully legal both in spirit and the letter of the law, but still a high flier.


A symphony of sound

Check list in my left hand, I flip the stainless steel switch upwards with my right index finger.

WeeeewhoooOOO responds the airplane, her jet engine springing to life, spooling up.

Wait a sec. This isn’t a jet. It’s a frickin’ Ercoupe. I look left. No jet over there. I look right. No jet over there, either. I look forward. No jet in front of me. I crane my neck around to look out the pair of large windows behind me. No jet behind me. I’m alone on the ramp. What the Sam Hill is going on here?

Then I realize: It’s the gyro in the new electric attitude indicator. My guys musta wired it to the master switch so that it springs to life when I wake the plane up. I cock one ear to the side and listen to the sound. I like it. It has a business-like tone. Sorta the airplane equivalent of the rumble of a muscle car’s engine.

It’s higher pitched and lower volume than the muscle car, of course, but it sounds very plane-like. Oddly musical. The opening bars of an aviation love song.


Credit:Seattle Symphony

Even though I know what it is, the increasing tempo of the gyro’s hymn isn’t a sound I’ve heard before. Typically, instruments with spinning gyros are hooked up to an avionics switch. The engine is long running before they are turned on, so the distinctive jet whine of a gyro coming on duty is lost in a flood of noise from firing cylinders and spinning propellers. Sure, on the back end of a flight, after the throaty voice of the engine is silenced, I’ve heard gyros spooling down, but it’s a different sound. A winding down. A closing bell. An increasing stillness.

So this is a new form of poetry, and while I wonder why the attitude indicator was connected to the master switch, rather than to the radios or position lights, I like it, and I’m looking forward to hearing the gentle jet whine at the start of each flight. It’ll be Tessie’s new way of greeting me.

My finger moves to the next switch, flipping it up and turning on the flashing lights on my wingtips, a warning to all nearby that I’m about to start my engine. I crack the throttle. The gyro has stabilized at its full speed. The rising song has leveled out to a constant whine. Not angry and sharp like insect wings, it’s more of a hum. An aggressive, businesses-like hum. I slide the mixture control full forward, ensure that the carb heat is closed, and turn the ignition switch two clicks to the right.

The engine is cold, so I prime the carburetor with two shots. Then, right hand on the throttle, foot on the brake, I press the starter button. A weed whacker-like sound drowns out the gyro hum and the prop starts lazily spinning round and round.

The engine doesn’t catch.

I let go of the starter. After two months on the ground in maintenance, Tess’s engine has gotten lazy. The only sound in the cockpit is the jet whine hum of the new gyro. I give Tess another quarter shot of prime, confirm that the ignition switch is properly set, and press the starter again.

The weed whacker.

The spinning prop.

The engine coughs once. Hesitates. Then roars to life, smothering the delicate business-like hum of the gyro, ending the overture and starting the symphony.

It’s time to fly.


The anorexic seagull

By some measures Three-Zero-Seven Bravo Golf is a big airplane. Her wings stretch nearly sixty feet from tip to tip, double that of the Plane Tales Plane, and well more than most commuter jets. But she doesn’t come off as big, perhaps because she’s impossibly slender. Her wide wings are narrow. Her fuselage is cousin to a kayak: Narrow and tapered, extending beanpole-like back, back, back, back to her delicate tail. She’s soft white with a hint of orange on her nose, wingtips, and tail.

All in all, she looks like an anorexic seagull.

And maybe one that caught the flu, too. She crouches low on the ramp, resting nearly on her belly, flopped like a bird too tired to even stand on her legs. But even while collapsed on the pavement, she is still clearly a creature of the air. Her smooth, sleek lines are so aerodynamic as to be hydrodynamic to the eye. Part airplane, part sea creature.


She’s a sailplane. A high-tech, engineless, airplane built to ply the turbulent currents of air and play dice with the laws of gravity. To literally sail the winds in the sea of the sky and dance with the clouds. She can soar so high her crew of two—who sit tandem under a clear fighter pilot-like canopy perched on her nose—need to wear oxygen.

This is a whole different kind of flying. But not for me. For my son.

Children of pilots are usually taught to fly at a young age. Partly from exposure, partly for safety. And, in fact, there is no minimum age for when a person can start training to be a pilot. Still, when can you become a “real” pilot?

Well, that depends on what you are flying. To hold a pilot’s certificate (the official word for a “license”) that allows you to fly powered aircraft, you have to be 17. Balloon and glider pilots only need to be 16. Ages for the important training step of flying solo—by yourself with no assistance and no one else along for the ride—are 14 for gliders and balloons, and 16 for powered denizens of the air.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Yep. Rio is thirteen, mere weeks from 14. And as a self-described student pilot, he had an interesting choice to make. Despite having several years’ experience with powered airplanes, he cannot venture into the sky alone in one for over two more years. But on March 15, he would be allowed to solo in a glider.

After dinner one night recently, we had a man-to-pre-adult talk, and I laid out the two possible paths ahead for him. I told him I’d never flown a glider, but that it seemed to me that if someone could master the art of flying a plane without the benefit of an engine, they’d be a better pilot for it. Rio mulled it over and then announced that he thought glider training would be, “Fun and beneficial,” and before bedtime I emailed my contacts at 0E0, a hotbed of glider activity, to ask for recommendations on schools and instructors.

And a week later we stood on the windswept tarmac of Moriarty Municipal Airport, taking in the anorexic seagull.