…when you get your picture on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone.”
–Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, Rock n’ Roll song from 1972
Yep. That’s my face is on the cover of Rolling Stone! (Or at least the aviation equivalent of the Rolling Stone…)
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rio and I are at the kitchen table on a Monday afternoon. A wicked winter storm has the state in its chilly grip, sending him home from school early and me home from work. The Glider Flying Handbook is open on the table in front of me, and my brain hurts.
We’re only up to Chapter 3, taking turns reading sections out loud to each other, and already it has been a mind-bending voyage of discovery. Everything about gliders is so much the same and yet so much different from the planes I’ve spent my life in and around. It’s fascinating. And confusing. And right now I’m hung up on the four forces of flight, something I first “learned” when I was seventeen.
The four forces are: Lift, gravity, thrust, and drag. In normal flight, lift and gravity oppose each other, allowing the plane to remain in one place in the sky; while thrust overcomes drag to pull the plane through the air. In most planes, thrust comes from the engine. But gliders aren’t most planes, and most gliders don’t have engines. Which begs the question: In a glider, where does the thrust come from?
I rubbed my temples and read again, “The glider does this by converting the potential energy that it has accumulated into kinetic energy as it glides downward… In essence, the gravity vector becomes the horizontal forward thrust vector component.” I gazed out at the snow and tried to use mental alchemy to convert the words on the page to gold in my head.
It wasn’t working. “Thrust vector component…” I mumbled out loud, more to myself than to Ree.
“Ah!” said Rio. “Gravity is the engine.” The sky outside didn’t clear, but the clouds in my brain did. In an instant, the sun came out in my head. Gravity is the glider’s engine. It was mind-blowing. Profound. Beautiful. And much better worded by Rio than by the FAA’s written-by-committee handbook.
Later that snowy morning we’d learn the next mind-blowing fact about gliders: They always fall.
How can that be? A glider can sail so high into the atmosphere that the pilot has to wear oxygen, so how can it be falling? Quoting from the FAA’s good book again: “A glider is always descending in the air. This allows development of thrust by the energy conversion process. The objective of a glider pilot is to remain in air rising faster than the glider must descend to maintain flying speed.”
This fact clicked with me right away, but it was taking Rio longer. In the end, I had to break out the canoe. Figuratively speaking. Last year, in speaking with the media about my World Speed Record, I developed the canoe analogy to explain the differences between airspeed and ground speed. It goes something like this: If you paddle a canoe across a be-stilled pond at five miles an hour, you’ll travel along the shore at five miles an hour. If instead, you paddle the canoe at five miles an hour down a rushing stream that’s going ten miles an hour, you’ll zip past the bank at fifteen miles per hour, because you are traveling a certain speed through a body of water that’s also in motion. The same thing happens in the air. If you are flying 100 miles per hour through a body of air that’s traveling at 50 miles per hour, you travel over the ground at 150 miles per hour.
Gliders just take this principle and stand it on end. Hey, the sky is three-dimensional, and air not only travels over the ground, but it also moves up and down. If a glider is falling through a column of air that’s rising faster than the plane is falling, it just hitched a ride in an upbound elevator because the speed upwards is greater than the speed of the drop. Just making up some numbers: If the glider is falling at 100 feet per minute, surrendering to gravity to create thrust, and it enters a column of air rising at 300 feet per minute, the glider will travel upwards at 200 feet per minute as it “falls” through the rising air.
Very fricken’ cool. I was amazed and thrilled. My mind was alive with possibilities.
Then we turned the page and started reading about the differences between the laminar boundary layer and the turbulent boundary layer among air molecules flowing over an airfoil, and my brain froze up again.
Matching the wintery landscape outside our windows.
I’ve been covering the news since I was just fifteen, when I was a “stringer” for the historic Greely Daily Tribune newspaper. But now I find myself the object of the news, rather than the observer reporting it.
On Monday, I was front-page news in two newspapers: The local Las Vegas Optic, and the state’s big daily, the Albuquerque Journal.
And there’s more press coming. The next issue of the state Aviation Division’s Fly New Mexico Newsletter has an article about me, as will the Ercoupe Owners Club’s monthly Coupe Capers. Oh, right, and in an interesting twist, the newsmaker will be reporting the news as well: The prestigious Flying magazine has asked me to write up the story of what I did and how I did it.
What did I do that was so newsworthy? Not much. (In the spirit of aviation’s modest heroes, I’m working on the whole understated thing.) Oh screw that! I’m going to shout it from the top of the beacon tower! I set a world speed record!
How fast did I go? Five hundred miles per hour? Six hundred miles per hour? Seven hundred? Eight?
Actually, my earth-shattering, record-setting, newsworthy speed was just 139.66 miles per hour. OK, it doesn’t sound like much, so I guess I’d better explain how aviation speed records work. Since the first decade of flight, speed records have been handicapped for the type of airplane. In today’s world that means that the guy in the Piper Cub—or the Ercoupe—doesn’t compete head-to-head with the gal in the Lear Jet. Luckily for me!
It’s a long story, and you can read all about it in the press, but I decided to do something special to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Plane Tales Plane’s type certificate. After kicking around a few ideas I decided to mark history by making history, and the result of that decision was a record-setting speed along the historic Albuquerque to Amarillo airmail route, netting a final speed—thanks to careful planning, precision flying, and strong tail winds—that exceeded all expectations. I “flew the Coupe” faster than anyone had before.
So how does it feel to be making the news instead of covering it?
It feels great, thank you for asking.
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.
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.