I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air and Space. My story: Write up my…
Wait a sec. I’m having some déjà vu here.
Oh, yes, that’s exactly how I started the very first Plane Tale, back on August 22, 2014! But I guess it’s appropriate to start this story exactly the same way as I started that one, as I’m having exactly the same problem: I’ve got too big a story to tell, and too little space to tell it in. What’s the story this time? It’s the tale of my re-flying the transcontinental air mail route, using nothing more for navigation than the original 100-year-old written instructions.
Re-flying it, of course, in an Ercoupe.
Hey, it’s practically an air mail plane. Same speed and range. Open cockpit with the doors down in the belly, and as you’ll learn when my story eventually hits the streets, many of the mail planes—even though they started off as biplanes—ended up morphing into monoplanes through a bizarre series of circumstances.
But this time, Plane Tales Plane fans, it’s not a Tessie adventure. I choose Lisa’s “Warbler” for the mission, as he’s equipped just like the mail planes of old, which is to say he’s got practically no equipment at all.
Of course, it wasn’t a 100% primitive flight. Lisa rode shotgun, armed with an iPad and GPS because, as you know, in today’s skies there are military operations areas, restricted airspaces, towered airports, and thousands of pesky cell phone towers that didn’t exist back at the dawn of flight. Although, interestingly, phone lines were a leading crash-causing hazard back in the day, so the damn phone has been the nemesis of the aviator for a hundred years.
But back to the story. At least this time, I’ve only three totally separate “leads” that I’m agonizing over. Which is better than back in ’14, when I was agonizing over FIVE different leads.
One place I could start, of course, would be at the beginning…
I’m standing in Parking Lot 5 of the Scott Campus of the University of Nebraska Omaha. It’s a cold, grey evening, with low ceilings and spitting rain. I look around at the towering buildings on all sides, and it’s hard to imagine that this was once the site of an airfield on the western outskirts of the city. If I’d been flying the Omaha-to-Cheyenne air mail back in the glory days, this would’ve been my starting point.
Now you need a permit to park your car here.
All that’s left to show that an airport once existed beneath my feet is a forlorn metal plaque erected by the Nebraska State Historical Society. It faces a busy street.
In the morning I’ll use modern GPS to arrive in the air above this very spot, but after that, I’m going to attempt to re-fly a full third of the transcontinental air mail route using nothing but the original technology: Written instructions that are nearly 100 years-old.
But, of course, there’s no law that says you have to tell the story in the order that it occurred, and sometimes that’s not the best way to go about it. For instance, I could start in the heat of the flight, with the true meat of the story, and fill in the background as I go along…
The directions for the early air mail pilots say, “Almost directly west will be seen black irregular peaks in the Laramie Mountains. Fly over the mountains just to the north of these peaks.”
I look up. The entire horizon, from south to north is nothing butblack irregular peaks.
I read the paragraph again. Then I stick my head out of the airplane, into the slip stream. There’s no need to. It just seems like something a real air mail pilot would do in a situation like this. The cold blast pushes my goggles into my face and tugs at the edges of my Perrone leather flying helmet.
It doesn’t help me figure out which peaks I’m supposed to fly north of.
And this is just the beginning. Beyond the Laramie Mountains is the Medicine Bow Range, the 12,500-foot Elk Mountain, and the Sierra Madre. Not to mention the ragged, rocky, snow-coved peaks of the Wasatch Range that guard the west-bound approaches into Salt Lake City. And the only thing I have to guide me through these mountains is a book of written instructions set down almost one hundred years ago.
I’m beginning to think that this isn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had.
Or maybe it would be better to share the feel of the flight. To invite the reader into the cockpit,t to come along for the ride…
Cold air pours into the cockpit in a torrent. It slashes through my heavy leather barnstormer jacket, soaks through my gloves, seems to whisk away the fabric of my canvas pants, and swirls into my shoes. Only my head, secure in its new fleece-lined leather flying helmet, escapes. It’s going to be a looooongtwo-hour flight.
And we haven’t even left the ground yet.
I turn to my safety pilot, Lisa, and watch a small scrap of paper waft up from some hidden recess in the floor, orbit her head once, then be sucked out of the cockpit. Her arms are folded tightly across her chest, gloved hands in her armpits. Her legs are pressed closely together, drawn up close to the seat. She looks miserable.
“You know,” I say into my boom mic, my voice sounding far way in my headset, “the early air mail pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep warm in their open cockpits.”
She gives me a cold look, but I’m sufficiently chilled to be immune from it. “If you’re done with the sports section,” she says sarcastically, “I’ll take it now.”
Of course, despite months of planning for this adventure, I didn’t think to bring any newspapers for insulation. But I did bring a book.
And the winner is…
So which lead did I choose in the end? Well, you’ll just have to wait until the magazine hits the streets to find out. In the meantime, welcome newcomers, and welcome back, regular readers. I’m aviation writer William E. Dubois and this is Plane Tales, my ongoing home base. The virtual airport for my pen. Here, I’ll continue to keep you up-to-date on my Fly Writing with links to new articles as they are published, expanded content, exclusive stories, and assorted adventures that take place on a Wing and a Pen!