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.



Book a flight for this great read

Normally, coming of age tales make me want to barf. Partly because I was born old, or so says my mother, (so I never needed to come of age), and partly because they tend to be sappy-sentimental-trash.

That’s why Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage sat in the tower of need-to-read books by my bedside for a good half-year or more before I cracked it open. I bought the story of two brothers flying a Piper Cub coast-to-coast in the 60’s on a whim after reading that their very cub had been found and restored. I’m impulsive that way.

cover FOP

But once I finally started reading it, I found I couldn’t put it down, and I wished I hadn’t put it off so long.

Why? Well, for one thing it’s superbly well-written. And for another, it’s a great story from a great age in general aviation. The Buck boys made the 1966 flight from New Jersey to California in a Piper Cub that didn’t even have a radio. But everywhere they went there were airports, fuel, and “geezers” who gave them tips on flying the local area.

It was wonderful, but it saddened me, too, as I realized how much has changed since then. How much the vibrancy of general aviation has faded. The three airports closest to my home base are open, but empty. They don’t sell fuel. No one is around when you land. Some of them feel as eerie as ghost towns.

The book traces the weeklong adventures of pilot in command Kern Buck—age 16 at the time—and the author, his younger brother. The boys became an overnight media sensation during the trek, but then like so many aviation sensations, they disappeared from collective memory as quickly as they appeared. It wasn’t until three decades later that Rinker Buck wrote the story of the flight. I’m astounded at his ability to remember so much from so long ago. He captures a time a place lost to us while recounting how the flight created a lifetime bond between him and his older brother, and helped them both navigate their complex relationship with their demanding father—an old barnstormer who taught both boys to fly.

The book carried me aloft and along in their noisy, drafty, vibrating cub; and the story kept me engaged. Night after night I stole some solo time after dinner to read a few pages, then later selected an alternate bedtime to fly deeper into the 351-page volume. As I came towards the end of the book, a sense of sadness overcame me, I didn’t want it to end. And last night, when I closed the cover after reading the last page, a wave of depression came over me.

Now what on earth will I do with my free time?

A book that good is a rare treat indeed. So “book” a flight with Flight of Passage. You won’t regret the trip.

Birds of a feather

Jean, owner of the Plane Tales Plane–although still learning to fly–is no stranger to flying things, she’s spent a lifetime as a “birder.” Today she shares her thoughts on things that fly and the love of flight….


One of my favorite bird pics, by Andrew Jagniecki

At rest stops and city parks all over the United States, a whole family of black birds congregates: Crows, ravens, starlings, cowbirds, grackles, blackbirds, vultures.

After a bit of practice, it isn’t hard to tell them apart, except for the crows and ravens, which are much of a size and tend to sit on tops of fence posts glaring at the passers-by.

Once in the air, however, there’s no way you can confuse them. The crow is all business; he knows where he’s going and flap, flap, flap, he goes straight there. As the crow flies. The raven, on the other hand, flies for the pure joy of flying. He dives and swoops and we can almost think we hear him shouting Wow! This is great!!

Unless I have some really lucrative assignment, I’ll have to admit I’m a raven, not a crow.

Which are you?


Wind Tale

“What the hell?? Is that a thermal?” crackled Rio’s voice in my headset. I instinctively glanced at the VSI, the vertical speed indicator, to see if we’d hit an updraft, but the needle was flat. I looked over at my copilot to see him staring out the window, looking down. “No, wait,” said Rio, “I think it’s the wind! Look down!”

I looked out my side of the Plane Tales Plane and did a double take. The ground was alive. It was moving, twisting. Blood cells under a microscope. A biblical flood pouring over the landscape. The entire surface of the earth was undulating in a bizarre dance. Not quite earthquake. Not quite the blur of a startled flock of birds. Not quite rolling clouds of dust.

I wanted to rub my eyes, but Tessie was bucking like a wild bronco in the turbulent air. I had to settle for squinting. There were rivers of heavy and strong motion fed by tributaries of lesser motion. Then I realized what I was seeing. Rio was right: It was the wind. Fierce and alive and tearing its way through the tall, dry prairie grasses 700 feet below us. Waves of wind. Rivers of wind. Eddies of wind. Like army ants on the march, the wind cut paths through the grass in a constant blur of motion.

It was one of the most bizarre and beautiful things I’ve even seen in my life.

I reached over to tune the radio to 118.1, the frequency for the Plane Tales Airport AWOS, the automated weather station at our home field. The wind was now peaking at 30 knots, or a hair over 34 miles per hour. At least on the ground. Back at the field. Up here in the air, who knew? And on the ground below us it could very well be more. This torrent of wind was yet to reach SXU.

Normally you could use the GPS to compare the speed over the ground to the speed on Tessie’s airspeed indicator, and figure out how fast the air mass you are traveling through is moving. Normally. When daddy doesn’t leave the stupid iPad Mini on all night inside his flight bag resulting in a 2% charge remaining on the battery by flight time.

Bam! Tessie dropped 50 feet. The shoulder belt cut into my left collarbone and the lap belt dug into my legs. Then her left wing rose high into the sky. I turned the yoke sharply left to righten her wings but for agonizing seconds nothing happened. We stood frozen. Knife-edge. It felt sickeningly like she might keep rolling over until we were upside down. Then she obediently rightened herself. Just in time to nose up sharply. Quite the wild ride, I commented to Rio, calmly, glad his mother couldn’t see what was happening.

“Yeah,” replied my co-pilot, flashing me a smile, “I can’t honestly recall the last time I had this much fun!”

That’s my boy! I think it was when we went white water river rafting, I told him.

“Feels a lot the same,” came his reply. Luckily, if he remembered that on that day the boat swamped and I nearly drowned, he chose not to mention it.

Bam! The right wing snapped up. The nose dropped well below the horizon, but an updraft had us in its grip now, and tail-first we rose into the sky at 500 feet per minute. I reduced power to avoid redlining the engine. Then with another jolt the ground rose towards us again.

All things being equal, it wasn’t the best morning to be flying.

tessie in the sky with diamonds

It took us a long time to reach our destination, the little lake just west of town. The gale was a direct headwind, reducing our ground speed to a crawl. Rio was relaxed about the lack of progress. “Think how fast we’ll get home,” he commented, knowing full well that air speed plus speed of the air you are flying in equals the speed over the ground. If you are flying 100 miles per hour with a 50-mile per hour tail wind you’ll zoom over the ground at 150-miles per hour. With a 50-mile per hour head wind on the other hand, you wouldn’t get a speeding ticket in Jimmy Carter’s time.

As we came over the lake I could see that its surface was whipped into a frenzy of whitecaps. Waves crashed on the banks of the downwind shore. A miniature hurricane was brewing.

The asymmetrical wing lifting and wing lowering turbulence continued. Wind, like water over rocks, crashes upwards into the sky when it strikes obstacles on the land. The stronger the wind, the more violent the upwards waves above the landscape. Maybe it’s time to get this girl on the ground, I told Rio.

“Affirmative,” he replied, “let’s go back to the barn.”

Normally, how the plane behaves inside fast-moving air is just the same as it behaves inside calm air. The only issues happen when landing. But today the sky was so violent that I hesitated to turn steeply. I didn’t want to be sharply banked and then be pushed over, so I started a very shallow bank turn to the right. The wind shifted from our nose to our left side and suddenly, as if we were riding a conveyor belt, I saw the horizon flying by rapidly from right to left. I looked down. Yeah. We were flying sideways over the ground.

I tapped Rio on the shoulder and pointed forwards, then downwards. He took in the scene and said, “Sideways? We’re flying sideways! I bet we’re the first Ercoupe in history to fly sideways!” (Probably not, but I kept my mouth shut.)

“Yaaaahoo! This is the best day ever!”


Fly Write

I, a 51-year-old aviator, and a veteran of more than three decades of wielding a pen professionally, have no excuse for not having not read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry earlier. He’s the quintessential aviation writer, renowned for his lyrical descriptions of the world a-wing. But somehow, I never made time to read him.

Then last month I was gifted a first-edition French copy of Pilote de Guerre, but despite my last name, I know only a word or two of the tongue of my ancestors. Still, the un-readable gift was a reminder of a duty undone, and it galvanized me to go to Amazon, where I scored a first edition, third printing hardcover of the English translation, entitled Flight to Arras (the same book with a very different title—the French translates to Pilot of War), for $14.95, and I’m reading it now.

St. Ex is famous in both literary and winged circles for his command of language and his ability to paint vivid pictures with words that speak to the souls of flyers and non-flyers alike. My French-reading mother assures me his command of French is unrivalled by any other author, and that every page sings.

Sometimes St. Ex waxes overly philosophical for my taste, but his prose does not disappoint. On page 79 I found the most marvelous description of a contrail I have ever read, and I just have to share it with you:

The German on the ground knows us by the pearly white scarf which every plane flying at high altitude trails behind like a bridal veil. The disturbance created by our meteoric flight crystallizes the water vapor in the atmosphere. We unwind behind us a cirrus of icicles. If the atmospheric conditions are favorable to the formation of clouds, our wake will thicken bit by bit and become an evening cloud over the countryside.

…like a bridal veil… meteoric flight… a cirrus of icicles… cloud over the countryside… Wow! Poetry and science. Science and poetry.

That man could sure write!