Alien Octopus

Let’s see… the clutch is the one on the left. I rest my right foot on the brake, push the clutch to the floor with my left, fiddle with the stick for a moment to make sure the battered white truck is in first gear not third, then slowly lift my left foot while moving my right foot to the accelerator.

For a guy who flies an airplane with no rudder pedals, it’s a lot of footwork.

“Don’t pop the clutch in front of the guys,” Lisa teases me from the backseat, “you’ll ruin your reputation as a national champion racer.”

I shoot her a dirty look in the rearview mirror then gently pull out of the parking lot and out onto Aviation Drive without embarrassing myself. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve driven a stick. They say it’s like riding a bike, but it’s been more than quite a few years since I’ve been on one of those things, too. “Nice work, Dad,” says Rio from shotgun.

And with that, the Three Musketeers are off on another loony adventure.

Out on the highway I work my way up through the gears. Third. Fourth. Fifth. I settle in at 60 miles and hour and look in the mirror to see how our cargo is riding. Sticking up out of the bed of Lisa’s “ranch truck” is the brass-colored oval oil sump of our up-side-down Continental C-85 engine. It looks like some sort of alien creature looking in the back window of the crewcab pickup. “How’s our cargo doing?” I ask.

To save a few bucks, which will be less than drops in this particular bucket, we’ve elected to deliver our old engine from our mechanics in Santa Fe up to Alamosa, Colorado—140 miles due north—where the shop of the master rebuilder is located. The engine is oddly shaped so my guys decided to drop it into Lisa’s truck up-side-down. They put three worn out airplane tires in the bed, rolled the engine crane over, gently lowered the engine, tilting it downwards so that it rested on the prop hub, then pushed it over on its back, the top of the engine resting on the three tires. We then used Tessie’s traveling tie-down straps to secure the engine into the bed.

Lisa turns her head to study our cargo. “Looks good,” she reports, “but if the aliens invade they’ll think we captured their leader. Then we’ll really be in trouble.” And she’s right. The inverted Continental looks remarkably like some sort of alien octopus. The oil sump only needs eyes and a mouth to be fully animated, the tubes that hold the push rods looking like arms leading down to the coiled tentacles of the cylinders.

Well, I guess with only four arms it’s an alien quadropus, not an octopus.


It’s a warm summer day and the truck’s recently repaired air con has conked out again. We roll down all the windows and keep our speed low so we can hear ourselves think. Impatient Texans roar around us. The view is splendid and the day cools as we climb up into the southern reaches of the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square mile basin a mile and a half above sea level. Ringed by mountains that rise to above 14,000 feet, the valley is home of the Great Sand Dunes and potato and barley farmers. If you’ve ever drunk Coors beer, odds are the barley that made it came from the San Luis Valley.

By mid afternoon we roll into the parking lot of the Alamosa airport to drop off our cargo. They let us in the security gate and linemen use airplane-parking hand signals to guide Lisa, who took over as pilot-in-command at the Colorado border, as she backs the pickup into the hangar, gently navigating between a tug and a Mooney. One lineman slowly raises his hands above his head until his arms form an “X” and Lisa shuts down.

In no time the old engine is unloaded from the back of the truck and bolted prop-plate-down onto a rolling stand, ready for the dismantling process to begin.


Parts of the old engine will be moved to the “new” one. Some will be rebuilt, others discarded and replaced. Still at least some of the soul of the engine that drove us to victory in a World Speed Record and a season of Air Racing will live on in the new engine.

I like that.

Speaking of the “new” engine, I was keen to see it. The rebuilder, a solid, compact man with a grey mustache, lined face, and short-cropped hair hidden under a camouflage baseball cap was surprised at first by the request but quickly warmed up to the idea and gave us a complete tour of his shop, showing us the used case we’d ordered to speed up the process. As far as any of us knew, there was nothing wrong with our old case (although there could be), but the new-to-us one wasn’t that much money in the greater scheme of things, and it bought a lot of time.

I guess I was expecting a dirty, oily, scratched up case painted in “Continental Gold” color. Instead I was greeted by softly glowing aluminum. The two halves of the case had been spit open and stripped down to bare metal, looking fresh off the assembly line, not like objects that date from the 1950s.


The master builder was pleased with the case, saying it was one of the better ones he’d ever seen, which in turn made me more than pleased with the course of action I had chosen. Then he showed us the brand new crankshaft, the retooled connecting rods, and the new pistons.


We’re using a Supplemental Type Certificate process to place newer 0-200 engine parts into a C-85 crankcase. It’s done simply for parts availability, but many owners report more power as a result. Rio asks questions about the differences in the parts and we’re told that the new crankshaft is slightly wider than the old one, giving the engine a deeper stroke, resulting in more displacement. “The hot rod crowd calls engines like these strokers,” the master builder tells us.

I’ve heard the muscle car crowd talk about stroker engines, but I was completely clueless about what it met, other than it sounded cool and maybe had something to do with power.

“So we’ll have the airplane version of a stroker engine?” I ask.

The master builder thinks about it for a moment, then a hint of a smile tugs at the edge of his lips. His blue eyes twinkle. “I guess you will, at that.”

From alien octopus to hot-rod engine. That sounds like a worthwhile upgrade to me.


Mechanic school

Each shard of metal is ever so slightly curved. There are dozens of them lying on the table. I push them around with my fingers, getting burnt, black, nasty oil on my hands. A bit at a time, like assembling a jig saw puzzle, I recreate the ring of metal the shards once formed.


“Yep,” says the mechanic cheerfully, “I’d say that was your problem.”

Myself, I’m somewhere between horrified and relieved. I’m horrified that this string of broken pearls came from inside my engine; while I’m relieved that approving an expensive cylinder replacement wasn’t money wasted.

Remember that weird oil thing I wrote about a few weeks ago? Right after that Tess went in for major maintenance, and my crew could find nothing wrong. But within four hours of writing that rather large check for preventative maintenance, I was making another quasi-emergency landing with redline oil pressure. Followed by another. You can read all about that adventure over at General Aviation News, but in a nutshell, things went from fine to worse in record time.

Hidden under the cowl, deep inside the front right cylinder, the piston rings were giving out. At my annual, right before this flight, all the cylinders had compressions in the 70s, which is regarded as healthy. Six hundred miles later, the front-right was at 30 and was pronounced dead on arrival by the lead mechanic at Springfield Flying Service. It gave virtually no advanced warning. It just died.

The autopsy actually raised more questions than it answered. Two of the four rings were fractured, allowing oil to flood up into the cylinder. That said, other than the oil loss, there was little to show for it. Against all odds, the cylinder was still working and the plugs weren’t fouled, which they should have been, given the 1.5 quarts of oil per hour the cylinder was guzzling. The innards of the cylinder showed exposure to extreme heat, the parts being “cooked,” according the mechanics. But I’ve never abused the engine. And if it were cooked in the past, how did it last so long? Questions without answers.

But speaking of questions and answers, laid bare and torn open, I was able to see more of Tessie’s engine than ever before. And more. I got a guided tour through her inner workings while serving as official wrench holder for the mechanic replacing the cylinder. I spent an entire day giving what (little) help I could—hold this, please hand me that… no, the one to the left—and learning. I got to meet the push rods. Saw the cams. Touched the valves.

I’ll never be a mechanic. I don’t have the right kind of mind for it. But this one day of mechanic school opened my eyes in a new way to what’s happening under the hood.

And that will make me a better pilot.


An evil forecast

The only light in my house is the glowing computer screen. The sun won’t rise for another hour and a half, and I don’t want to wake anyone up. I enter my username and password, and quickly type in details about my flight. I’m set to leave for the airport for a 1,200 mile cross-country flight in fifteen minutes, and I’m double checking the weather to see how much it’s changed since I went to bed.

I take a sip of bold, dusky coffee while I wait for the briefing to load.

Wind. Everywhere wind. Strong. I knew that would be the case. I’d even changed my flight plan to choose fields whose runways aligned better with the torrents that were spilling across the plains from a massive high pressure system above the Rockies into the gaping jaws of a monster low over the Midwest. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Airmet about wind.

Airmet stands for Airmen’s Meteorological Information. It’s a non-regulatory bulletin whose purpose is to alert pilots to weather that can affect flight safety. Weather needs to be pretty nasty to rate an Airmet, so when Airmets speak, wise pilots listen.

This one cautions about sustained surface winds in excess of 30 knots across my entire flight path. That translates to nearly 35 miles per hour, enough to make landings dicey and ground handling difficult. Still, by itself, it’s no reason not to go. Tessie is about as wind-proof as light airplanes get, her design letting her take on winds that would flip most other small planes.

But there’s more. Another Airmet alerts me to moderate turbulence. That makes sense. Winds tearing along the surface act like water. As they crash into obstacles on the ground, the currents of air splash high into the sky. Strong winds on the surface almost always cause a rough ride above it.

So the flight will be unpleasant, but, still, not un-doable.

The Airmet tab on my weather briefing shows there is yet one more warning. I slide my mouse up and to the right and click on it. It’s a LLWS warning. I stare at it. I’ve never seen one before, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what LLWS stands for.

Isn’t an LLWS some sort of licensed social worker?

I open up the Airmet to read it. Low Level Wind Shear. Ah. Nasty piece of business. Shear happens when the wind dramatically changes in speed or direction between two altitudes. It can be so abrupt it can cause your wing to momentarily stop flying. Near to the surface shear is dangerous as hell, and has even brought down airliners.

And the Airmet isn’t just calling for LLWS in one place. No. The LLWS warning is for hundreds of miles and includes two of my fuel stops.

I lean back in my chair. Is this flight a good idea?

High winds. Turblance. Wind shear. It’s not exactly the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it’s a lot to contend with on one flight.

I take another sip of coffee. The car is packed. I’m ready to go. Eager to go, in fact. I’m race bound, and I know my desire to make the race has the potential to interfere with my aeronautical decision making. I have no doubt that I can make the flight. Still, that’s not the right way of thinking about it.

The right way of thinking about it isn’t can I make this flight, but should I make this flight?

If I were the last pilot alive and the plague serum needed to be delivered, I’d succeed. In fact, in that scenario I’d risk worse. But it will be a difficult and stressful flight. And if I’m honest with myself, if I was just going to fly for fun, I’d stay home today. Of course, if you only fly when the weather is perfect, you won’t fly much, and certainly not far. I’ve invested a lot of time, money, and effort into the racing…

But I’ve given myself three nice-length days to make the flight. I still have the option of doing it in two longer ones.

I check the forecast for the next two days. It’s much… calmer.

I consider a bit longer, then I get up, go into the flight lounge, pull my flight shirt off over my head, and place it back on a hangar. The sky will still be there tomorrow.


And it will be a lot more friendly.


Emergency Landing

The quiet is… eerie. Gone is the familiar dull roar of the engine. The only sound is the wind whispering over the canopy.

I pull the carb heat lever. No dice. I check the fuel shut off to ensure it didn’t get bumped. It didn’t. I try to restart the engine. It’s dead as a doornail. I pitch the plane for her best glide speed—the magic number that’s supposed to give me the longest range for my height—and I’m headed down.

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I have time. Minutes, anyway, because I was flying a lot higher than usual. But not high enough to reach the airport. It looks like I’ll be doing an “off field” landing; which is an odd way of saying that I’m going to land in a farmer’s field. Or on a country road. Or on any other friendly-looking flat spot.

I quickly scan the horizon. What are my options? Below us, and to my left, it’s solid trees. Suicide. Off to my right, a couple of miles East there’s flat land as far as the eye can see. But it’s too far away to really be sure how smooth the ground is. Plus I’m not sure I can glide that far, and if I can’t, I’ll be in those suicidal trees.

Not far ahead there’s a clearing. It’s a cloudy day, I have no shadows to judge how smooth the surface really is, but it shows every sign of being hospitable. That’s my spot. I commit to it. No turning back now.

I bank gently to the left and glide parallel to the field, my prop gently wind milling, silent still. I fly past the field, dropping, dropping, dropping toward the ground.

The field behind me, I bank right and wheel the plane around to line up for a landing. Crap. I’m too high. I dump some flaps. Then some more. Then all I have. The descent steepens but it’s not going to be enough. At this rate I’ll touch down at the tree line on the opposite side of the field.

“What do you think?” asks my copilot Michael.

“I think I’m too damned high,” I reply.

“Yeah. I agree,” he says, with Zen-like calm, “any ideas on what you could do about that?”

“I could do a slip,” I said, “…if I remembered how to.” Years of flying the unique Ercoupe has come back to bite me in the ass in this new airplane. Ercoupe flying, with its interconnected rudders and ailerons is both incredibly simple and incredibly complex, and flying a Coupe well takes a different set of skills than flying a conventional airplane well. I’ve gotten very good at flying Ercoupes, and apparently, very bad at flying anything else.

“Opposite rudder and aileron,” Michael reminds me. Immediately, I pull the stick to the right and mash my left foot to the floor. The little white plane twists oddly in the sky, then responding to the huge increase in drag from being forced to fly slide sideways without power, drops like a rock. The ground rises up toward us. I’m pleased to see that the surface is excellent for an emergency landing.

I’m not so pleased to see we’re two-thirds of the way across it.

“That’s close enough,” says Michael, and he leans forward and pushes the throttle to the firewall. The engine springs back to life. I ease the stick back. Our descent slows. Then stops. We’re still well above the field. I fly over it, studying the ground, pleased with my choice. If I hadn’t been too high, and had this been a real emergency, we could have landed safely there.

What? You thought I’d really lost an engine? Oh dear, no. Sorry to have misled you. It’s that time of the calendar again: The simulated emergency was part of my every-two-years Flight Review.

Here’s how that works: Once you have a pilot’s license, it’s good forever. Well, until you die, anyway. Once a pilot, always a pilot. The license, formally called a certificate by the FAA, has no expiration date. But (there’s always a but) that doesn’t mean you are free to actually use your license. Bear with me. To serve as the pilot in command of any airplane, you have to have had something called a flight review within the last 24 calendar months. My last one was this month in 2015. So that’s why I was up with a flight instructor getting a mental and physical workout.

I ease back on the stick, retract the flaps, and we start to climb out. It’s good to hear the thrum of the engine again.

But this is why we train. Because someday the silence up front may be for real.

Back to Flight School

Tessie is flying perfectly. The controls light and harmonized. I adjust the new trim handle until I can’t feel any pressure coming through the yoke and then I let go. Tess flies straight and true. I bank into a turn to the left and she slides right into it. Silky. Compliant. Very airplane-like.

Aw, hell. Now I have to learn how to fly all over again.

Ever since we first got her, Tessie’s been a handful. A blue and white airplane with a red head’s temperament. She’s always been 100% hands-on, requiring full concentration. To be clear, this is not the way most airplanes are. Most airplanes are dynamically stable. If you let go of the controls, they fly on. If you hit a bump of air and do nothing, they settle down again.

Prior to the latest round of maintenance, if I let go of Tessie’s yoke—even for a few seconds to take off my jacket, she’d snap tail up, roll abruptly to the right, and dive like a Stuka, the World War II German dive bomber that was the terror of the invasion of Poland.

I always knew in my heart that Tess was an extreme member of her tribe, but being an older technology I never expected her to fly like, you know, an airplane. Still, not needing to dive bomb anybody, the Stuka-like behavior was getting old. I suspected that she was “out of rig” in some manner.

The word “rigging” comes to us from the sea, where it refers to all the various ropes, cables, and chains on a sailing ship that control the sails and yard arms. In airplanes, “rigging” is used to describe the harmonized balance of the primary control surfaces: Ailerons, elevator, and rudders and the adjustment of the cables and rods that control them. Quoting Jeff Simon’s Rig it Right: “If your plane is not properly rigged, the aircraft is fighting against itself in flight.”

Rigging is complex and time-consuming, with multiple variables that all interact with, and affect, each other. Most airplanes have rigging specs to guide airplane mechanics in assuring that the rigging is correct.

But as you know, Ercoupes aren’t most airplanes. Heck, they originally shipped from the Erco factory with no manual whatsoever.

Still, I’d been whining about our rigging for a few years, and I guess I finally got through to my mechanic. It might have been my threat to dive bomb his shop. But at any rate, my mechanic re-rigged Tess stem to stern and wing tip to wing tip. His assistant told me he spent days at it, working methodically through all the control surfaces.


The results?

Now she flies perfectly. Light. Responsive. Eager to please. Not at all the delinquent I’ve come to know and love.

I don’t now how to fly this airplane anymore!

Now that the plane is re-rigged, I guess we’ll have to re-rig the pilot!


Engineering a mystery

Engines have always been a mystery to me. They are strange boxes under the hood or wrapped in a cowl. I’ve never worked on one, and most of my life I’ve had only the vaguest notion of how they actually function. But now that we’re an airplane-owning family, some knowledge of how engines work is mandatory.

My mechanic has been patient with me. Showing me parts and reminding me, time and time again, what their names are. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’m beginning to understand. But as a visual learner, I have a hard time grasping things that I can’t see. And of course, the more of your engine you can see, the more your maintenance bill is going to be!

Rio to the rescue.

During a recent outing to a hobby store, Rio encountered a plastic see-thru engine model kit made by Haynes, who is also apparently the leading publisher of engine how-to-repair handbooks in the real world. The model kit was a hair pricy, but he was keen on it, and I had a flash of inspiration that this might finally give me the look inside an engine that I needed to really understand, not just the nuts and bolts, but how the parts relate to each other; and more importantly, how they dance with each other in a living, breathing engine.

The model came home with us.


It’s a replica of a simple “straight four” internal combustion engine, not very airplane-like, but this is internal combustion kindergarten for us, so we judged it to be good enough. The model took us the better part of a day to build, but it wasn’t overly difficult. All the parts either snapped or screwed on. No glue and no paint!

The manual, which includes a six-page essay called, “How an Engine Works,” was nearly as educational as the model itself, always referring to the parts of the model as if they were real engine components. Pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft, a sump pan, valve stems, rocker arms, a cam shaft and cams, even a cylinder head gasket!

Of course, beyond “piston,” this was all Greek to me.

Well, not quite Greek. All of these are words I’ve heard before in my life, but like incantations in some ancient magical tongue, they had no substance, no reality for me.

As the model started to come together I was amazed at the detail. The model’s designer must have had a real love affair with engines. There was even a dipstick for the oil level. But there’s more. The motor actually works. Well, in a simulated way. It’s battery powered, and when fired up all the parts of the engine move and run in concert with each other the way they would in a real engine. Electric lights flash in sequence to simulate spark plugs igniting, forcing the pistons downwards, rotating the crankshaft. The valves atop the pistons actually open and close as they would during the intake and exhaust strokes. It’s amazing.

Watching it in action, I was stunned. The internal combustion engine is so simple, and yet so mind-numbingly complex in the same breath. How on earth did humans ever develop such a thing in the first place? As you see it run, it all starts to make sense, but to develop this myriad of systems from scratch?

Sheer brilliance.

As I watched the plastic pistons ride up and down through the clear walls of the cylinder block, I envisioned the processes inside Tessie’s old Continental C-85. She too has a four cylinder engine, but of a very different design. Her cylinders, each a separate entity rather than all in one “block” lie flat, two on each side, and each is powered not by one spark plug, but two.

But each cylinder has two valves, just like our model, and her pistons connect to—and drive—her crankshaft, just like our model. Still, I was left wondering, as I watched the flickering lights simulating the sparkplugs on the model kit, what’s the firing order under Tess’s cowl?

I guess I’ll look for a model of an airplane engine…


Weight and balance for grown-ups

I think we’ve talked a time or two about the importance of weight and balance when flying general aviation aircraft. The simple fact is that virtually no light plane ever manufactured can lift a full load of people as well as a full load of fuel into the sky at the same time.

If you want to carry more people, you need to carry less fuel.

If you want to carry more fuel, you need to carry fewer people.

That’s the weight in weight and balance. The whole balance part of the weight and balance dance is about ensuring that the load is placed in the airplane correctly so that it’s neither too tail-heavy nor too nose-heavy to fly safely.

I’ve been doing weight and balance since I was seventeen years old.

The military does it too, at least for cargo planes. And I’ve watched flight attendants juggle passengers on small commuter planes, but never in a million years would it have occurred to me that it’s an issue for airliners had I not been on a Southwest Airlines flight out of Houston, Texas on Super Bowl Sunday.

What? Did I attend the Super Bowl? No. Not my cup of tea. Houston just happened to be where I changed planes heading farther east. But I did enjoy the good-natured ribbing between Falcons and Patriots fans flying into the city.


The airplane was a Boeing 737, arguably the most successful airliner since the DC-3. Boeing has been making these short- to medium range twinjets since 1967. Over the intervening years there has been a blizzard of variations, including a military cargo version and a personal jet version, called the BBJ for Boeing Business Jet. Can you imagine owning a one hundred-foot long personal jet with a ramp weight of a hundred and fifty thousand pounds?

I wonder what the annual on that would cost? (The Plane Tales Plane is still in the shop for her annual, so thinking about such things actually cheers me up.)

Boeing has sold over ten thousand of these airliners to operators in 190 countries, according to Wikipedia. Stats there show 737s are operated by more than 500 airlines globally, and apparently, at any second on your wristwatch there are 1,250 of them in the air at the same time. All told, the 737 makes up a quarter of the global fleet of airliners.

And apparently it too is incapable of lifting both a full load of fuel and a full load of passengers into the air at once. I know this because after we’d sat—properly buckled in with our belts low across our laps as instructed—at the gate for the longest time, the Captain came on the intercom, and explained that we had, uh… a… you know… a problem.

Fuel is cheaper in Houston than it is in New Orleans or Orlando, the plane’s next two stops, he explained, so the airline topped up the tanks with cheap gas while on the ground in Texas. The problem was that the plane’s manifest showed a three-quarters full plane, but then the rest of the seats sold out at the last minute.

The plane was now too heavy.

Apparently, weight and balance matters to the big boys, too. Just like small planes, airliners aren’t always able to lift full seats and full tanks into the wild blue yonder.

The Captain told us that de-fueling takes forever so they decided the simplest solution was two fold. First, some people would need to de-plane. Then the rest of us would fly at lower than usual altitude to New Orleans, which is less fuel-efficient. He reported that by the time we got there this would get us within our max landing weight, which we’d exceed on takeoff.

I was surprised and delighted that he gave such a detailed explanation to his passengers.

First, the seven standby passengers were given the boot. But Southwest still needed five more passengers to take the next flight. After an offering of a $500 bounty, five hands shot up. Mine wasn’t one of them. I wanted to be on the barnstorming airliner. Typically, 737s fly at 35,000 feet. On this flight we’d be at 12-15,000 feet, according to the Captain. That I had to see.

But this really doesn’t sound like a good business practice, does it? To find out, I decided to run the math myself. A 737 can hold 7,837 gallons of Jet-A. I checked the price per gallon for Houston. Of course, my sources don’t show airline discounts, but I could fly in and buy a gallon for $5.50. At that price, if I flew in my personal BBJ—if I was rich enough to own one—and filled it up, I’d spend $43,103.50.

Holy cow.

Farther east in the Big Easy, sure enough the price jumps to seven bucks a gallon. Now my tank-up costs $54,859.00—nearly $12,000 more. I have such small gas tanks in the Plane Tales Plane that I don’t bother to divert for cheaper fuel, but when you have big tanks to fill, it can really make a difference!

As we taxied out to the runway I was still amazed how little difference there is between Ercoupe and Airliner.


For more about weight and balance, read my article The Weight and Balance Jungle in the June 2015 issue of Flight Training Magazine. Even non-pilots will enjoy it. It has elephants and monkeys. And whiskey.

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Old flames

When men talk about having “unfinished business,” it’s usually in reference to a woman who was on their sexual radar that somehow eluded radar lock. Many married men don’t even regard sleeping with a lady they had unfinished business with as cheating on their spouses. I guess the rationalization is that the would-be relationship pre-dated their vows, so that makes it OK. But I’m not here to talk about ethics. Rather, I have a confession to make: I, myself, have unfinished business.

But it’s not with a woman.

It’s with an airplane.

The story begins in the spring of 1981 when I started my flight training in a ratty old Citabria. It was a fabric-covered high wing tail dragger from the mid 60s with a tandem design. I sat in the front and my half-deaf flight instructor sat behind me, shouting at me, pounding his fist on my shoulder, and generally making me a nervous wreck.

But that’s a story for another day.

The Citabria and I were flying out of KGXY, the Greeley-Weld County airport well north of Denver. Back in those days it was the busiest uncontrolled airport in the state, with two flight schools and scores of privately owned airplanes. Every few days as I walked to the Citabria’s hangar I passed an open hangar that held a gleaming Beechcraft Duchess.


Image: Air Associates of Kansas

She was a sleek, modern, four-seat powder blue two-engine airplane, called a “twin” in the biz. Her panel was a blizzard of dials, instruments, and readouts. Between the front seats sat a bulky quadrant with twin throttles, twin mixture controls, and twin prop controls.


Image: AvSim

This was a real man’s airplane.

I was seventeen at the time, and I fell in love. Well, maybe it was lust.

Every night as I lay down to sleep in my basement bedroom I dreamed of flying the blue Duchess through sapphire skies between towering white clouds. I could feel my right hand wrapped around those twin throttles, thrusting them forward, feeling the force of her engines push me back into the pilot’s seat.


Image: AvSim

Many of my friends had Farrah Fawcett pinup posters on their bedroom walls. I had a colored 8×10 of the Duchess, carefully clipped out of Pilot Magazine.

She fueled my dreams of flying and I couldn’t wait until I had enough experience to climb behind the yoke of a twin. In those days, you weren’t a “real” pilot until you were twin-rated.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1983. By then I’d earned my Private ticket and my instrument rating, I was building time toward my Commercial license, and I was finally standing on the wing of a twin-engine airplane, getting ready for my first lesson.

The wing I was standing on did not, however, belong to the sleek Duchess of my teenage fantasies.

Instead, it belonged to a battered Piper Apache, older than I was. Outside, her paint was a faded and chipped, butter yellow in color. Her tires were nearly bald. She sat on the tarmac slightly lopsided. Inside, her vinyl seats were cracked, the fabric on her walls threadbare and water stained. Her instruments were arranged in a seemingly random manner on a charcoal-grey panel that might once have been black. The throttles I had dreamed of wrapping my hands around were broken Bakelite plastic, and the trim controls were above my head, literally, on the cabin ceiling. She was so underpowered that if I had lost one engine, the other one would have carried me only to the scene of the crash. It’s true. Her single-engine service ceiling was about 500 feet below the mile-high Colorado terrain.

I couldn’t wait to fly her.

I did 10.8 hours in that old Apache and loved every minute of it. She was a battered and abused veteran, for sure, but she was a real plane and I was on the verge of finally becoming a real pilot.

But it was not to be.

When I showed up for my check ride with the FAA Examiner, he told me that the rules had changed. If I took my ride that very day, my multi-engine rating would forever be part of my Private license. It wouldn’t upgrade to my Commercial ticket. He advised me to wait, take my Commercial check ride in the twin, kill two birds with one stone, and be a Commercial multi pilot. I took his advice.

My instructor called me a pussy, and accused me of being afraid of the checkride. And she was a lady instructor, mind you.

Then, before I had enough hours for my Commercial check ride, the flight school sold the old Apache and I never got my multi-engine rating, a wound that still festers to this day.

I need a multi-engine rating now like I need a hole in my head. But still, sometimes, I don’t feel like a real pilot without it. But there was nothing to be done about it. I returned to flying under what’s called the Light Sport Rule, which only allows for single engine airplanes.

I did this because during my last absence from flying I developed a minor health issue (at least minor as in terms of affecting my ability to fly) that would have made getting a standard pilot medical time-consuming and terribly expensive. The Light Sport Rule circumvented that and let me use my driver’s license in lieu of a medical.

But now the medical rules have changed, and suddenly, a universe of airplanes is now available to me. Or will be in after May 1st.

Will we trade Tessie in on a more capable aircraft? Hell no. She’s family and I’ve come to love her, shortcomings and all. I don’t think I could ever enjoy flying any other plane as much as I enjoy flying the ‘Coupe.

But one morning recently I woke up and realized that there was nothing stopping me from completing my unfinished business with the twins, and becoming a multi-engine pilot. Thirty-four years late.

Well, nothing stopping me but time and money, that is.

I spent a day online looking at my options. In the end I found a guy in a location that was convenient to my race schedule who is offering an accelerated multi-engine add-on at a reasonable price. Well, reasonable for twin-engine flight training, anyway. And he was using an Apache. I signed up. It won’t be the Duchess of my teen fantasies, but it will be a reunion with an old friend of sorts.

And when I’m done, I’ll finally be a “real” pilot.


Heavy reading

“Paper or plastic?” is the common question at checkout. When it comes to my groceries, I’m ambivalent. It seems that the clerks always overload the paper bags so that they suffer structural failures halfway across the parking lot, but the modern plastic bags are so thin as to be only mildly superior to thin air.

But where I always prefer paper to plastic is in my books. I’d much rather sit down with a “real” book than read on my computer, iPad, or Kindle. And if I have a choice of a hardcover book over a paperback, I’ll get the hardcover.

That said, I just bought a book that simply doesn’t function in paper. I should’a chosen plastic.

The book in question has the riveting tile of FAR AIM, and it’s the bible of the modern aviator. FAR stands for Federal Aviation Regulations, and AIM stands for Aeronautical Information Manual.

FAR is the rules, AIM are the procedures.

It’s important to know both. Back when I was a fledgling aviator, the books were two separate volumes (and in those days AIM stood for Airman’s Information Manual) and I wish they were still two books because today’s combined FAR AIM tips the scale at nearly three pounds.

In paperback.

There’s no hardcover option because no one in his or her Wright mind would buy it. You see, not only would it weigh too much to carry in any general aviation airplane, but it would be cost prohibitive as well. Every year the FAR AIM is updated.

Why did I say this book doesn’t function in paper? Well, while the book is large in both weight and length—it’s 1,123 pages long—the print is small and the margins tiny. Due to the number of pages, the book is so thick that it won’t even open properly. Along the binding the text in the center disappears into a canyon of paper, making it nearly impossible to read when held in the lap, the only place to hold a three-pound book.

If ever there was a book that was good for nothing but ballast, this is it. Thank God I didn’t have to pay for shipping, thanks to being a member of Amazon Prime.

I struggled with the book for about two hours before I said to myself, you should’a chosen plastic. In another hour I changed course, set aside the three-pound bundle of paper, and ordered the Kindle version. It’s lighter, plus I can make the text any size I want to make it.


It won’t make the reading any lighter, but it will lighten the load.


Blown away

Damn. It’s windy again. I mean really windy. I can hear it crashing against the west wall of my house, tearing across the roof, and rattling the screen doors. Our weather station says the wind is 38 miles per hour. With gusts to 45.


Artwork: ClipartFox

Not a great day for flying.

Not that I couldn’t fly, but I’ve decided to stay home and curl up with a good book rather than take on the wind gods. But before I do—curl up with the book that is—this is a great opportunity to discuss wind and airplanes. In the past, we’ve talked about how wind blowing in the opposite direction of the airplane’s course (a headwind) can slow down your progress in getting to your destination, while wind blowing the same direction as the airplane’s course (a tailwind) can get you there faster. And if you are down low in the atmosphere, strong winds can make for a bumpy ride, as the wind creates turbulence as it flows over, around, and through ground features.

But other than these issues with ground speed and smoothness of ride, wind doesn’t have much of an effect on airplanes in the air. Just like a fish is largely immune to the actions of the water it’s swimming in, airplanes don’t care much about the wind.

Except when they are taking off or landing.

Then wind matters. A lot. Especially if the wind is from one side or the other, what’s called a crosswind. By definition, a crosswind is any wind that’s blowing across a runway. Most airplanes really don’t care for crosswinds. The crosswind will try to blow them off the runway that you’re trying to take off from, or land on, and the trick to operating in a crosswind is to use the controls of the plane to counteract the effects of the wind.

Unless the wind is so strong that you run out of control travel.

Simply put, at some amount of wind there just isn’t enough aileron or rudder authority to overcome the wind. Taking off or landing in these conditions pushes you off the runway and you can end up in a sad little pile of twisted aluminum in the weeds downwind of the taxiway.

So how do we pilots know how much wind is too much for our airplanes so that we don’t end up in a sad little pile of twisted aluminum?

I’m glad you asked.

First, know that the wind practically never blows directly across a runway. It generally blows at some sort of an angle to it instead. This brings us to our aviation term of the day: Crosswind component. It’s the percentage of the wind speed that’s acting in a crosswise manner adjusted for the difference between the direction of the runway and the direction of the wind.

We can use a table, graph, or an app to determine the crosswind component.


I grant you that at first this all seems a little obtuse, but it’s actually one of the most important aspects of aviation weather because all general aviation airplanes (at least modern ones) have what’s called a “demonstrated crosswind component” as part of their certification, and this number is printed in the aircraft’s operating handbook.

This number tells you how much of a crosswind your plane can handle, at least when it’s flown by a professional test pilot. So there are two things to consider: First, it’s not a maximum. The plane can probably handle more. And second, it doesn’t matter that it can probably handle more because most pilots probably don’t have the skill to fly the damn thing up to the demonstrated crosswind component in the first place.

Still, it’s a nice way to compare apples to apples when operating in different airplanes.

Most general aviation aircraft have a demonstrated crosswind component of somewhere in the 15-20 mph range (of course in most aviation circles, winds is reported in knots, so our range would be 13-17 knots).

But Tessie isn’t most airplanes.

Her design makes her the Crosswind Queen. But to understand why she is, I need to quickly introduce you to how crosswinds are handled in lesser planes. To keep it simple, let’s just focus on landings. When landing most planes in crosswinds, there are two basic techniques.

The most common technique is called a sideslip. The upwind wing is lowered to keep the plane from being blown off course, and opposite rudder is used to keep the plane from turning into the wind. This has you landing at a crazy bank angle, usually touching down on one main landing gear before the other, but it works.

The other way is to use the “crab” method: The plane is held level with its nose pointed into the wind. The ground track follows the runway heading, but the plane is flying somewhat sideways, hence the name “crab.” Right as you flare for landing, you need to kick the rudder to straighten out the plane for touchdown. Why? Because touching down sideways in most planes will rip the landing gear right off. One FAA course on crosswind landings states that crab landings require “timely and accurate action” in the final phase of touchdown.

OK. So sharp readers might have noticed that both techniques require using the rudder peddles. But the Plane Tales Plane doesn’t have rudder pedals, as her rudders are physically attached to her ailerons, so you might be thinking, how on earth can she handle crosswinds at all, much less be Queen of them?

Right. No side slips for me. If I lower the upwind wing, the plane will turn, as I have no way to apply opposite rudder. I would end up circling the runway numbers, never landing. However, I can fly in a crab, no problem. Still, with no rudder peddles, how can I take that last-minute “timely and accurate” rudder kick to straighten the plane?

I can’t. But I don’t need to. And the secret is in the Ercoupe’s main landing gear design, not in her rudder operation. Ercoupes have a robust trailing link main gear that makes them pretty much immune from side load damage. In a ‘Coupe you hold the crab all the way trough touchdown, when the forward motion of travel will pivot the plane nicely parallel to the runway seconds after landing on it at a crazy angle. This unique way of returning to earth has created the legend that Ercoupes have castering landing gear. They don’t. It’s just simple physics.

It takes time for pilots trained in less robust planes (including me when we first had Tessie) to overcome their training-instilled fear and simply land the damn plane sideways, but it works. And because there’s no need to cross-control to handle the winds, it means Coupes can land in winds that leave the rest of the fleet grounded.

The “book” crosswind component of the later Ercoupes is 25 mph, already 5 mph higher than almost any other general aviation airplane; and many experienced Ercoupe pilots don’t even pay attention to crosswind components until it exceeds 30 miles per hour (roughly double what the typical plane can handle).

So why aren’t I flying the Crosswind Queen today? Is the wind beyond my personal skill?

Actually, no. I’m one of those who have landed with crosswinds somewhere in the 30 mph range. So I can do it if I need to.

But there’s a difference between what’s possible, and what’s fun. So if it fell to me to deliver the serum that would stop a plague today, I would be out there right now, not even worrying about the wind. But while Tess is Queen in the crosswind, such strong winds bring a lot of turbulence. And she’s no Queen in turbulence. Her lightweight and wing loading make her like a bucking bronc in weather like this.

What’s wing loading, you ask? That’s a subject for another day…