Meet Warbler

You would think she would have known better. After all, she’s had a front row seat to one airplane “disaster” after another. But noooooooooo. Despite all the best advice to the contrary, Lisa did it anyway. Yep, she went out a bought herself an Ercoupe.

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I blame myself. First, I showed her how much fun you can have in an Ercoupe. Then I accidently told her about one that was for sale nearby. I actually tried to dissuade her to atone for those sins, as did Rio who not so subtlety demanded, “Are you crazy?!” But, well, as anyone who’s ever flown an airplane knows: Airplanes are sirens, and sometimes it’s impossible to not answer their call.

To her credit, while it might have been an impulsive purchase, she didn’t make an impulse purchase. She test flew. She had our mechanic check all the logs, airworthiness directives, and service bulletins. She got the FAA history on the plane and reviewed hundreds of scanned documents (her new-to-her plane is one of the ones that was actually sold at Macy’s!) and then she paid our lead mechanic to travel all the way across the state to do an onsite inspection. The whole process took nearly three months. Last week the entire family drove down to the southern tip of the state where she paid the previous owner and got the keys. The next day, she and I ferried her new plane, named Warbler as he’s a small bird with a Warbird paint scheme, home to his new nest right next to Tessie’s.

Yep. I now have a hangar neighbor at SXU and I’ll have competition for the title of President of the Airport User’s Association (previously, I had the only airplane based there).

Now as anyone who has a passing familiarity with Ercoupes knows, they could be better known as Frankencoupes. Most are now in their early 70s, and have had dozens of owners over the years. In fact, in doing research for my Eternal Airplane book, I recently learned that my Tessie was quite the little tramp in her youth, having gone through 24 owners up till now. And each owner of each Ercoupe made little changes on their watches over the decades, so that now I doubt that there are two Coupes that are alike, and none look like they did the day they left their factory. In point of fact, one of the fun things about the Ercoupe Owners Club fly-ins is comparing the planes to each other. But now that there’s a second Ercoupe in the “family,” as it were, I’m finding more and more differences between the two every time I’m at the airport.

For Coupe fans, here’s a quick rundown on Warbler: He has a C-85 engine, fabric wings, a single fork nose wheel, Goodyear brakes, a floor-mounted handbrake with no foot pedal, the flat windshield but enlarged back windows, the large luggage compartment, and the three-piece canopy. Like any proper Ercoupe, there are no rudder pedals. He has the early Mooney-style wood and burnished metal yokes and a nutin’ but the basics panel: Airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator, altimeter, compass, and three engine instruments. The entire airplane has only two switches, one in the back that’s the master, and one on the panel for the nav lights. The radio is a handheld verco’d to the panel.

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Flying home in Warbler’s right-hand seat, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a 1956 Ford Pickup truck, which insulted Lisa. “He’s more like a Jeep,” she insisted. But neither trucks nor jeeps fly, and Warbler flies. And very well at that. It was a fun and easy flight, but odd in a way too. So much the same, yet so different. I kept looking for things on the panel that aren’t there, Tess being a bit more instrument heavy.

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Warbler’s in remarkably good shape, better by far than Tess was when we got her. And being simple, there’s hopefully less to go wrong—although we did have an interesting fuel misadventure after taking delivery, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. Meanwhile, I’ve got my fingers crossed that my wing woman Lisa has many happy years of airplane ownership, and fingers cross that those many happy years of ownership don’t include sending her mechanics’ kids to Harvard at her expense.

And for myself, I confess that I’m looking forward to two-plane adventures in the future and I suspect that we’ll have many Planes Tales to tell in the coming years.

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Something we could agree on

It was colder than forecast. You can’t trust weatherman and psychics. The easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propeller, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Earlier that afternoon, we’d come to the hangar to deal with some electrical connection issues on the new engine monitor. I sat on a stool with my head under the cowl, my iPhone on speaker, while tech support guided me through the process of checking the wire connections. That actually worked out OK, partly thanks to the fact that we had earlier watched a YouTube video on how to use the hand-held electrical tester that we’ve owned for years and never used.

It was one of those things I bought because an airplane owner is supposed to have one.

The electrical gremlins subdued for the moment, the sun was getting low in the sky, and we had to zip our jackets up. We probably should have called it a day, but I was too excited about our race propeller to have the sense to wait for a warmer day to finish the job. As far as I was concerned, now that the work was done, it was time for some fun.

Fun being painting the black checks onto last week’s white prop tips to finish our new race prop look. Before Rio changed his mind.

I used a seamstress-style cloth measuring tape to mark the centerline of the prop, then drew a thin pencil line from the tipity-tip of the blade to the end of the white paint I applied last week. Next, I carefully lined up the first of the blue painter’s tape squares, making sure its edges lined up exactly with the edge of the white paint and the pencil line, then smoothing it firmly along its edges and lightly in the middle. I need it tight on the edges so the paint lines will be sharp and clean, but light enough that it won’t pull part of the white paint off when I remove it, which would cause me a great deal of pain and stress.

The square didn’t quite reach to the edge, so I added a second piece to extend it a sixteenth of an inch or more.

Then I applied three more squares, bending the tape around the edges of the propeller blade as I worked my way up toward the tip. Then I repeated the process on the other end of the prop. The tape masks off four squares of the white paint. When I hit the prop tips with Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, the exposed white squares will be painted black. When I remove the tape, revealing the protected white squares beneath, I’ll have my very own Barnstormer Propeller. At least that’s the plan. And it won’t be an authentic reproduction. Or, well, maybe it will be.

Anyway, just looking at the checkerboard pattern created by the tape, I was optimistic the final product would look good.

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While Rio and Lisa started covering the canopy with cleaning rags to protect the glass from errant spray paint, I added a few more strips of blue tape to the prop to protect the main blade from over-spray.

We buttoned up the hangar. Lisa held a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to catch the overspray and Rio held a shop light.

Remembering the running paint issue from last week, I tried to go lightly. But the damn black paint is a different beast from the white paint. The can spat the paint out in large droplets, leaving a splattered look. I tried patting them flat with a paper towel, but that created a rough look. We had to wipe some of the squares off and start again.

Then the sun set.

And the mercury dropped.

The paint dried slowly between applications.

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I had thought two light coats would do, as the paint is so much darker than the white, but it took three. Our feet getting cold, we retreated to the terminal building while we waited for the final coat to set enough that I could remove the tape.

But when we returned, working by the headlights of my hot rod, the easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propellor, and I was feeling some… stress.

“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”

I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I picked at the tape from the back of the blade, finally freeing a corner. Holding it between two fingers, I began to pull, stretching the tape as I went.

Slowly, stubbornly, the first three pieces came off, revealing magically sharp lines between my white and black checkers. Then it happened.

One of the squares took a large chunk of white paint off with it. My hopes for a beautiful Barnstormer Propeller crashed and burned.

But it was the only one that gave me trouble. The rest came out perfect:

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So I’ve got one touch up for another day, but I went home more happy than upset. The next day I had to fly to Santa Fe. In the daylight, on the tarmac, the final effect blew my mind:

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And later than night as Rio and I disagreed on paint schemes, he told me, “Well, Dad, at least we agreed on the propeller.”

Paint tale

“What on earth happened to your paint?” asked our league photographer in her heavy English accent, pointing to several naked places about the size of a dime on Tessie’s left wing

“Oh, I accidently plowed through a flight of baby peacocks at the last race,” I replied, being careful to keep a poker face.

There was a long silence while she processed this, then she said, “I was under the impression that peacocks didn’t fly very high…?”

“They don’t. And your point?” I asked.

I think I told someone else I ran down some baby flying squirrels. In truth, I have no idea where the paint went, or where, how, and when the dozens of other missing paint flakes disappeared. All I know is that Tess is beginning to shed paint like a cat sheds fur in the spring. And that can only mean one thing: Her paint job is reaching the end of its service life, expiring, dying; and that means there’s a new paint job in my future.

Which is both scary and exciting at the same time. But mainly scary.

An airplane’s paint job is more than mere decoration. It’s protective. It keeps the metal from being damaged by the elements. So it’s important, and beyond some point, it’s not something that can be safely put off. But getting an airplane painted is nearly as much work as buying an airplane in the first place, and in our case might cost nearly as much. Why scary? Well, for one thing, there are hundreds of paint shops to choose from, and the offerings and quality vary a lot. As do the prices and the potential for disaster. I’ve read several articles on the whole process, a couple of which—focusing on all that can go wrong—sent me into a nearly cationic state with worry.

But done right, as I understand it, the process goes something like this: First, all the old paint needs to be stripped off. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think this was done on Tess’s last paint job or two. Under that pretty blue and white is buff yellow, and in some places green is peeking through. Some shops use chemical strippers to remove the layers of old paint, others use high pressure water, while others still use something called “vacuum blasting.”

Once down to the bare metal, any damaged skin discovered lurking under the paint needs to be fixed, along with any dents and dings, much like auto body repair. Naturally the control surfaces need to be removed to get the old paint off the edges and get the new paint on, as well as all the inspection ports and the like. I read one case where the plane was put back together wrong and crashed right after leaving the paint shop!

Once all of that pre-paint work is accomplished, the new paint is applied, sometimes many layers of it, depending on the design, plus whatever top coats you choose. As you can imagine, protecting the interior and glass requires much taping and paper.

So much for scary. What about the exciting part? Well, that’s scary, too: What paint scheme do you choose? Getting a paint job opens up a universe of possibility. An overwhelming universe. It used to be that airplane paint was pretty pedestrian: White with a stripe. What color would you like your stripe? Tess’s current paint job is actually higher end than that, but now planes come airbrushed with artwork resembling show cars, tattoos, and more.

I’ve seen some pretty drool-worthy paint jobs in my travels. Check out this paint job of the inner race plane shedding its warbird skin like a snake:

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So what to do? Tess is sort-of a famous plane. She set a World Speed Record that still stands, and is a well-publicized two-time National Champion race plane. Does that obligate me to simply re-do the livery she sports now? Maybe use a sparkly white instead of gloss? Or should I update the scheme? Or can I let my imagination run wild? I mean, really, what would the perfect Ercoupe paint scheme look like? When I look at the Coupes gathered at our national fly-ins, I’m not that impressed with most of their paint jobs. That’s sad. They are cool-looking airplanes. They deserve cool looking paint jobs. But what would that look like, exactly? And what if I were wrong? I’d hate like hell to take a chance, try to design something, then detest the way the plane looks every time I open the hangar doors.

Not sure what I wanted to do, at AirVenture this last summer I prowled the paint vendor’s booths and talked to many of them, and I also attended a few workshops on the painting process. One of them was led by a scheme designer.

What on earth is a scheme designer, you ask?

It’s not some sort of con man, as the name implies. Think of scheme designers as architects. They are part artist, part draftsmen. They create designs for airplane paint jobs and translate them into precise instructions for the paint shops. One, named Craig Barnett, particularly impressed me. He runs an outfit called Scheme Designers, which does paint jobs for airlines and aircraft manufacturers—and he’s even designed the paint schemes for many of AOPA’s sweepstakes planes. And Craig had an offer for me I couldn’t refuse: For a flat rate, he’d create an unlimited number of paint schemes for our plane, letting us explore the “entire universe of possibilities.” I figured if AOPA trusted him, I could trust him. I hired him on the spot.

Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people, so it took a looooooong time until I saw any exploration of my universe.

Anyway, at AirVenture, Craig looked at photos of Tess’s current paint job, which he declared to be 1970s Mooney-esqe. Fair enough. He asked what I wanted and I said I had no idea, which was why I was hiring him. He said he needed a little more to go on than that, and suggested I send him pictures of planes I liked. Or even cars. I didn’t have anything that visual in mind, so instead we talked concept. For starters, I asked him to create a modern, updated version of Tess’s current livery. Then I wanted something race-themed with checkered flags. He told me that he hated the checkered race flag look, but OK. Then I said, perhaps a muscle car look. I told him to avoid art deco or warbird, as there are a number of Ercoupes that have gone that way (successfully) and I wanted to do something different. I also told him to design one scheme completely based on the lines of the plane.

The first thing he did was send us out paint chips of aviation paints. Dozens of colors. The rainbow and more. As a family, we decided to stay with cool colors, leaning toward the blue and white we are used to (and would match the interior), but we threw in black and a kick-butt sparkly silver as options. In fact, most of the colors we chose were sparkly.

After that, we didn’t hear from Craig for a looooooong time.

Half a year after I hired him, just about when I was ready to abandon any hope we’d ever see anything, we got our first look.

This is his update of Tessie’s current look:

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I especially like what he did with the rudders, as I always felt that little triangle back there didn’t fit the rest of the design scheme very well. Filling in the area in front of the triangle really tied it in for me. I also like what he did with the nose pant, making it two tone. So that’s Tess, as we know her, updated.

He also created a slightly more whimsical version:

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And playing up the “Herbie” race number theme he submitted this Love Bug meets Ercoupe scheme:

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I like it, but wouldn’t use it, though I might consider it in different colors:

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The grey isn’t grey. It’s the kick-butt sparkly silver. From any distance it would look like polished aluminum. But the paint job that blew my mind was this hotrod racer one:

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I love the silver and black race flag motif. I adore the way it follows the gill-like edge of our cowl and wraps up onto her back. For a man who hates the race flag look, Craig sure nailed it. And the subtle flames licking down the side from the engine compartment completely blew my mind, as did the perfect placement of the bold race number on her flank. I miss the two-tone nose pant from the updated design, but I can see that it would be just too much if we did that, and I’m not sure about the bars on the rudders. Still, this is just a first draft. Any and all details can be tweaked.

I’d love to fly a low pass in this baby, and taxi into the race parking in it. It would be the ultimate racing Ercoupe look. Heads would turn, jaws would drop. We’d be the envy of every racer, even in our humble Ercoupe.

I couldn’t wait to show Rio. I was sure he’d love it as much as I did. His reaction? He shrugged one shoulder and said, “It doesn’t do much for me. I don’t think I want a race flag look.”

I was crushed.

Why does his opinion matter? Well, because, in point of fact, it’s his damned airplane. Or nearly so. The title to the family airplane is currently held by Grandma Jean. I sometimes (well often, actually) refer to Tess as my plane, but she isn’t and never will be. Mom has willed her airplane straight to my son Rio, bypassing me completely. It wasn’t that I’m a bad son, she helped her other grandchildren with their college, but Rio is the youngest and she didn’t think she’d still be around. It was her way of making things even. But the end result for me is that despite all the blood sweat and tears I’ve but into the little beast, I’ll never own her. Now, if mom dies before Rio’s 25… or maybe it’s 23, I can’t remember… then I serve as the airplane’s trustee until he comes of airplane-owning age. But that’s it.

So while I could talk the current owner into a paint scheme that I like that he doesn’t, or could, in theory, acting in my role as future trustee, paint it any frickin’ way I want, it would be a mean butt-head thing to do. Given the cost and complexity of painting an airplane, Rio will need to live with our choice a long time.

Of course, I’m still the only licensed pilot flying Tess, and I’ll be damned if I’ll arrive at a race in a pink plane with purple polka dots—not that he’s suggested any such thing—my point simply being the two of us have to agree on a paint scheme. And I’m finding that now that Rio is becoming a young man, he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his old man very often. Serves me right for encouraging him to have a brain of his own.

Luckily Tess doesn’t need paint tomorrow, because this is going to be a looooong process. Poor Craig. He really has his work cut out for himself this time.

My family lives in a big universe.

 

Next week: Rio and I finally agree on something.

Flight instructors: The good, the bad, the ugly, and me?

I’ve taught my pair of copilots a lot about flying. In fact, both student pilot buddy Lisa and student pilot son Rio fly better than I do. If by flying you mean keeping the airplane on course and at altitude. Rio is also pretty darn good at pattern work, while Lisa is an S-turn queen. And both of them have managed a respectable take off or two.

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Neither of them, however, can land. Which is totally my fault. You see, I’ve never taught them how to. Why’s that? Well, I’m not a certified flight instructor. Not that I didn’t try to be. I even trained to be a certified flight instructor.

For one day.

Here’s the tale…

 

Date Line: September 17, 1984

KGXY, Greeley, Colorado

 

I was sporting a brand new leather flight jacket and oversized mirrored sunglasses when I pulled into the airport parking lot. The day was to warm for the jacket, but I had to look the part. As a freshly minted commercial pilot, I was there for my first lesson on how to become a certified flight instructor, which is what you did in those days as soon as you realized that—even though you had a license to get paid to fly—no one would hire you until you banked more flight time.

A lot more flight time.

Come to think of it, that’s still true today. The only difference is that nowadays this is no secret. Back then, it came as a bitter shock to me and my fellow wet-behind-the-ears commercial pilots.

But even though I didn’t understand the realities of flying jobs, I did know quite a bit about flight instructors. I had a number of them during my journey from first flight, to first solo, to student cross-country, and on to my private pilot’s license, instrument rating, multi-engine training, and finally my commercial ticket. Most of my instructors were OK. One was good. One was bad. But one was nothing short of amazing.

The amazing flight instructor was one of my professors at Aims Community College where I was a student in the aviation program. His name was Gil Harris. He’d flown Corsairs with the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, and then flew pretty much everything with wings in the years following the war. He was a small, compact man with twinkling eyes and a neatly trimmed Royal Air Force-style mustache. What little hair he had left was gray. He was modest, kind, and funny. His teaching style was magical. I learned more from that man than from all my other instructors combined. His knowledge and experience were boundless. Endless. Among other things, he taught me mountain flight, hugging towering cliffs in the heart of the Rockies to catch lift and soar like an Eagle.

It was Gil who signed me off for my commercial check ride, and I was tickled pink that he agreed to train me to be a flight instructor—just like him.

I would be 21 years old in just four days. Naturally, I thought I knew everything as I walked across the tarmac to meet Gil at N48751, a blue and white Cessna 152-II. But the Gil Harris that was waiting for me wasn’t the master aviator I was used to.

Nope. It was Gil the Hillbilly.

I guess I was expecting some sort of inspired intelligent conversation between a motived student and a master, with me being the master. That didn’t happen.

As we walked around the 152, Gil stuck his neck under the prop, his nose inside the engine cowling’s air inlet and asked, “What’s in here, Mr. Flight Instructor?”

It went downhill from there.

That night, I lay in my waterbed (remember this was 1984, a time when phones were attached to walls, there was no internet, and people slept on thick plastic bags filled with water) and tried to make sense of the day. I replayed the seven-tenths of an hour lesson again and again in my head. All the clever teaching tricks I had dreamed up to cultivate the next generation of pilots fell flat on their faces when faced with Hillbilly Gil. I was shaken to the core. I felt stupid.

And I wondered: Was Gil trying to prepare me for real world flight instruction, or was he showing me that flight instruction wasn’t for me? Next, I thought back through every instructor I’d had on my own aviation journey, and I realized that the younger ones were the worst, and that the older ones were the best. It made sense. How can you teach when you’ve really just begun to learn yourself?

I never went back for a second flight instructor lesson.

In later years (and to this day) I wondered if Gil was just trying to take my ego down a notch, or if he felt I didn’t have the Right Stuff to be a flight instructor, and knew me well enough to know how to scare me off. Or was his first flight instructor lesson with me the only instructional failure of his life? The bruised ego of my former self would like to believe that, but I doubt it. After all, he never called me to ask why I hadn’t scheduled the next lesson.

But it was moot. The seven-tenths of an hour that September morning changed the course of my life. I tired for several months to find a flying job. Any flying job. But none were to be had, and in the end I stopped flying for many years.

 

Back to school?

Of course, I’m not four days short of 21 any more. I’m well over the five-decade mark. I’m on my second logbook. And I don’t wear a leather jacket when it’s too hot.

I’ve spent much of my adult life (in addition to writing) teaching in one form or another. But I know that having extensive aviation knowledge and experience—and knowing how to teach—is a very different thing from knowing how to teach people to fly, much less land. Or that’s what I told myself. But my self-imposed limitation may have been a justification. After all, there’s actually nothing illegal about teaching some elements of flying to others while not being a certified flight instructor yourself. Plenty of pilots teach regular non-pilot passengers how to control the plane, communicate on the radio, and even land just in case something should happen to the pilot (this unofficial flight instruction can’t be logged, nor can it count toward a license).

In truth, it wasn’t the lack of official certification that held me back. Being a flight instructor school dropout, I just didn’t have a clue how to teach someone to land, and my own learning to land is lost to me in the mists of time.

I just don’t remember how I learned to land.

So I sent Rio off to a “real” flight instructor to learn. He started in sailplanes but never mastered them due to what I would call ugly instruction. Then he switched to powered flight, but his planned schedule was shot full of holes: A combination of illness, weather, and mechanical difficulties. Then his instructor got an airline job and was gone. With our own plane down for maintenance for so much of the year he had a looooong flying gap. Depressed, he told me, “I don’t think I know how to fly an airplane any more.”

About the same time that Rio’s instructor left for the airlines, Lisa went off to North Carolina for an intensive all-day, two-week training course that was to cumulate in her Light Sport check ride.

She left enthusiastically. But her enthusiasm was quickly squashed. Each night as she FaceTimed in to update us, she was increasing depressed. First off, the weather sucked. The cold she expected. She grew up in that neck of the woods. But the record snow was making her flight training a challenge. As was the fact she was flying off of a grass strip, a minor little detail the one-man flight school neglected to mention on his website, along with the fact the tail-dragger training plane had no electrical system and had to be hand-propped to start.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it was the flight instructor himself. Each time she’d ask a question he’d say, “Figure it out for yourself.” He was also 100% negative, pointing out every less-than-perfect action on her part, while never giving any supportive encouragement.

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OK, I agree that there are times when it’s good for a student to figure things out for themselves, but good teaching also entails some guidance. And motivation. When flying I can see that there are times when an instructor must point out errors so they can be avoided in the future. But I also think that maneuvers performed well should be supported to keep morale up and to give the student as sense of improvement, not to mention encouraging good flying skills.

But for Lisa that never happened, not once, and with each passing day the charming little airport cottage—a big selling point for the package deal—felt more and more like a prison cell to her. Not only was this costing her a fortune, but she wasn’t having any fun, and learning to fly, while sometimes challenging, should always be fun.

In the end, the S.O.B. didn’t even let her solo.

She was devastated.

In a deep funk she told me, “I just want to learn to land a damned airplane.”

Watching the struggles of my two favorite student pilots, I began thinking that, even though I’m not a certified flight instructor, I could do a better job teaching them to fly than the instructors they were using. Maybe, just maybe, 34 years after I dropped out of Flight Instructor School, it was time for me to go back to school.

I wonder what I did with those mirrored sunglasses?

 

A bitch of a pitch

It was the best Ercoupe takeoff since the JATO tests of 1941. That’s when the National Academy of Sciences strapped rocket pods under the wings of an Ercoupe and lit the fuses in a series of successful tests that led to the military use of rockets to help heavy planes get off of short runways—and to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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But there were no rocket pods on Tessie’s sturdy metal wings, and we were rising off the ground at nearly 1,000 feet per minute. Granted, in other airplanes that’s nothing to write home about. But in my beloved, but heavy and underpowered ‘Coupe, the only time I’d seen a number like that was when a thunderstorm tried to suck me up into its jaws when I foolishly tried to slip under it.

So I was ecstatic about the climb rate. The new stroker engine was really showing its stuff, lifting Tess off the runway like never before.

But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem was my propeller. Oh gosh, where to start… Where to start? OK, the angle at which a propeller cuts the air is called its “pitch.” A flatter pitch bites the air in a way that creates better climb, but at the cost of speed. A steeper pitch gives more speed, but less lifting ability. Pitch also has a complicated ménage à trois relationship with torque and rpm that I don’t even pretend to understand, but the upshot of all of this was that while we had JATO-like takeoffs, we were hitting our engine’s redline at about half power. My mechanic advised me that I needed to re-pitch the prop.

What’s involved in that?

Well, fancy airplanes have variable pitch props that let the pilot change the pitch of the propellers in flight using a lever in the cockpit so that they can have both strong climb on takeoff and fast cruise in flight. Less fancy modern planes have what are called ground-adjustable propellers. The pitch can be easily and quickly changed on the ground to best fit the mission at hand.

But I have neither.

I have a metal prop whose pitch can only be changed by having an expert literally bend the metal blades to change the angle, thus “re-pitching” it. Luckily for me there’s just such an expert an hour and a half’s flight away and there’s no limit on how many times my particular model of prop can be re-pitched, other than the limits imposed by my bank account balance. Unluckily for me, this is not an exact science. It’s more of an art. Adding to the complexity of the situation, propeller performance is affected by weight, temperature, altitude, the whims of the Gods of Aviation, and who knows what else.

Of course, in my innocence at the beginning of this particular Plane Tale, I knew none of this. I trustingly flew to the prop shop and talked to the Master Metal Bender, giving him what data we had. Tessie’s prop was measured. She was wearing a 46-pitch prop. Yeah, the numbers meant nothing to me either, don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that would be considered an “extreme” climb prop for an Ercoupe, which is what she needed at our altitude with a largely worn out engine. Given our data, the prop was re-pitched to 51, which is completely at the other end of the spectrum for ‘Coupes. I now had a fast cruise prop.

And boy, was Tess ever fast. Wearing her new pitch, she cut through the air a full 10 miles per hour faster than ever! It was amazing. Race trophies danced in my eyes.

But, as always with airplanes, there was a problem. And the problem this time was the runway. Tessie didn’t want to leave it. We used up thousands of feet of concrete, and then she could barely lift into the air. I had cartoon visions of Tessie furiously flapping her metal wings to get airborne.

This just wouldn’t do.

So back to the prop shop I went. The Master Metal Bender took Tess’s propeller off again and re-re-pitched. Logically, it seemed we needed to be halfway between where we’d been and where we went (although these things aren’t necessarily linear). As half way would be 48.5, and things don’t work that way, I had to choose between 48 and 49. I went with 49, on the fast side of middle of the road. OK, forget what I said a few minutes ago. We really do have to all talk more about these pitch numbers to drive the story forward. Here’s your background…

Historically the Ercoupe wisdom was that:

48 was a climb prop.

50 was a normal prop, and…

52 was a cruise prop.

But ‘Coupes have gotten fat. New electronics and gadgets have made them heaver over the decades, and that affects prop performance. While there’s no official data, for modern weights, many Coupe folks now consider that:

46 is a climb prop.

48 is a normal, prop, and…

50 is a cruise prop.

Adding to the confusion is that no one seems to know what prop best suits the stroker in an Ercoupe. Given the fact that this whole prop thing is more of an art than a science in the first place, I’m sure you can see where this is going.

So how’d the re-re-pitch go? Rio said it best when he told his grandmother that it was, “Less miserable.”

The new pitch, as expected, reduced the speed and increased the climb. But it was a marginal change at best. So we have to re-re-re-pitch. What a bitch.

So picture me standing in the Aviation Maintenance Casino. I’m standing at the propeller roulette wheel, and there are only two numbers left to bet on: 47 and 48. I know 46 is too flat. I know that 49 and 51 are too steep, and that even though we skipped 50, the change between 49 and 51 wasn’t much. This suggests that going from 49 to 48 wouldn’t net much of a change either. Of course, by the same logic, a 47 shouldn’t be much different from a 46, which was where all of our troubles started in the first place.

The Croupier calls out, “Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets…”

 

The Eternal Airplane

I’m 600 feet off the deck. Below the soil is pale burnt orange, speckled with low-lying green shrubs. I can see curious trails of footprints winding among the vegetation, always leading north. Illegal emigrants, probably. I’m less than 10 miles from the Mexican border.

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Then it occurs to me: Maybe skimming low along the surface this close to the border isn’t so smart. It might look, you know, suspicious or something.

Oh well. Too late now. If the Feds are waiting for me when I land, I have nothing to hide. Of course, the same can’t be said for Tessie. I’ve just learned that she was a smuggler in her youth.

Or maybe not.

But at a minimum, she was once owned by a smuggler, so who knows what dark dealings she might have had? Airplanes are good at hiding their secrets, but I’ve recently become determined to learn all of Tessie’s.

Here’s the tale: Our girl turns 71 this year. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with her second owner, and recently her owners from the 1980s reached out to me. They were happy to see their old plane was still flying and having an adventurous life. Anyway, chatting with them made me re-think the whole subject of airplane ownership. Properly cared for, airplanes are eternal. They live forever, so how can we really own them? I’ve noticed that the warbird crowd sometimes call themselves “custodians” or “caretakers” of their planes. They recognize that their planes will outlive them, and they view their role more as torchbearers than owners, regardless of what the paperwork says.

Perhaps that’s true of all old airplanes, not just warbirds. That gave rise to an idea for me. I’ve decided to write a biography of Tessie, a tale of her life and the story of the various people and families that were her custodians over the decades since she was built in 1947. I’m going to call the book, The Eternal Airplane.

I was able to get the names of the three previous owners simply by looking up her registration history online. One was the guy we bought her from. The next was just a name. Prior to him was the couple that reached out to me. And they gave me the name of the man they got her from. And before him? Who knows? But the FAA is good at keeping records, and hopefully as I locate each family, they can point me to the family before them. I know it will be a long (but fascinating) historical treasure hunt, one that will get more and more difficult the deeper into the past I dig. But what a story! Already I’ve learned that in addition to being a smuggler, she was Exhibit A in a major lawsuit. But that’s a tale for another day.

Back to the smuggling. Remember the man who was just a name? Using his name and the city he lived in that was listed in the FAA registry, I tried to find him. And I did.

In federal prison.

Apparently he’d gotten into some trouble in an airplane. Carrying drug money or some such.

Was I nervous about needing to talk to a convicted felon? Hell no, I was thrilled! Tessie rubbed elbows with smugglers and drug dealers! What a great story! Truth is stranger than fiction; you just can’t make up stuff like this! What other secrets are hidden in her aluminum heart? I don’t know yet, but I’m determined to find out.

Oh. And what about the feds? Were they waiting for Tessie and me when we touched down within spitting distance of the Mexican border? Nope.

But was I imagining it? Or did my delightfully scandalous girl seem to breathe a sigh of relief as I shut her engine down?

 

Have plane, will travel

I was all business, but it wasn’t a business trip. After all, that would be illegal. The Federal Aviation Regulations strictly prohibit the business use of Light Sport flying, even banning flying “in furtherance of a business.” Apparently, something as harmless-sounding as flying yourself to a business-related tradeshow, rather than driving, is verboten. But I’m not even in a gray area; the only business I’m engaged in today is monkey business—and rather than be in furtherance of anything, it’s sure to lose money.

OK. Let me back up. I need to give you some background so you’ll understand my non-biz mission.

The family airplane is actually my 92-year-old mother’s. As an Ercoupe owner, she’s a member of the Ercoupe Owners Club, or EOC. Every year the EOC holds a national convention and fly-in.

I think you can see where this is going…

Right. This year the EOC is coming to New Mexico. My involvement started with doing a quick review of the airports in the state for the club’s president, and recommending a short list of good locations. It ended with my somehow agreeing to be the coordinator of this year’s convention.

I’m still not sure how that happened. I’m not even an Ercoupe owner, fer crying out loud. I must have been drinking.

Anyway, the first choice of location for “my” convention is Las Cruces International Airport. Don’t let the name fool you, it ain’t Kennedy. In fact, it’s an uncontrolled airport, which is a requirement for a convention site, as many of our members just won’t deal with towered fields. It’s also about as low an elevation as you can get in my state at 4,457 feet above sea level. Most folks don’t realize that the bulk of New Mexico is a mile or more above sea level, which matters to airplane performance. In fact, it matters enough that we’ve moved the annual convention from mid-summer to late fall to avoid the issues of density altitude, where hot days effectively make high places, well… higher… at least as far as airplane performance is concerned.

But back to Las Cruces. It’s a lovely airport outside of town, with lots of ramp space and a vibrant airport community. Las Cruces itself has a ton of interesting things to do. I have a list of great things to do that can easily fill three conventions, so I’m going to have to make some hard choices. Plus, to the east is White Sands National Monument, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History; a short distance north is Spaceport America; and a short distance south—just a few scant miles from the Mexican border—is an awesome airplane museum called War Eagles. The museum is right on the field of another presumptuously named uncontrolled field: the Doña Ana County International Jetport. We could have a fly-out adventure to it, or, as you can rent the entire museum after hours, we might be able to have our annual banquet there amongst its collection of airplanes. Later in the day, I plan to drive my rental care down to the museum and talk to them about the possibilities. But before I can do that, I need to get the blessing of the airport management to host the convention at their field in the first place.

And that’s why I’m flying down the Rio Grande Valley this morning.

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I could have driven, but it seemed to me that if you’re going to an airport for a meeting about holding a gathering of airplanes, you should show up in an airplane. Besides, it’s a five-hour drive from my home, but only a three-hour flight, which made it a great excuse to fly.

I’ve got a meeting with the airport manager in the late morning. I’m hoping to secure permission not only to come, but also to let some of our members camp on the field with their planes. I’m also hoping to get permission to host a flour-bombing contest, where pilots chuck small paper bags of flour out of their planes to try to hit a target. It’s sorta like the aborted chicken-dropping contest I wrote about a while back, with the added fun that when the “bombs” hit, there’s an “explosion.”

The Las Cruces Airport now 15 miles out, I start running down a mental checklist. Oh. Not that kind of checklist. Nothing to do with the flight. It’s a checklist for the things I need to do when I get on the ground.

  • Arrange fuel and hanger for Tess
  • Meet with Airport Manager
  • Pick up rental car
  • Drive down to War Eagles Museum

Then it strikes me: There’s no reason to drive. I have an airplane at my disposal! At least so long as I limit its use to monkey business.

 

You are now free to move about the country

Low enough. Far enough. Great food. Good hotel. North Texas Regional was the only logical destination for our break-in flight. Plus, most of the flight path is over open prairie and farmland with abundant places to put down safely if the new engine craps out.

About the only inhospitable terrain on the entire route is a short stretch of rough canyon country south of Amarillo.

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Naturally, that’s where it happened…

Thump! The plane shudders. The prop protests with an odd whine. Probably just an air pocket. Turbulence from a thermal. Nothing more than a pothole in the sky.

A strong smell of engine exhaust fills the cockpit.

Lisa and I exchange somber glances. That tense spot between my shoulders, which had largely faded away, is suddenly back with a vengeance. I study the engine monitor. RPM good, and steady. Oil pressure and temp in range, and steady. The two back cylinders are running hotter than their sisters in the nose of the plane, but all are steady and well below redline.

Then I see it: The exhaust gas temperature on the number two cylinder is… dancing? The blue bar on the CGR-30P engine monitor is jumping up and down. First showing 1,423 degrees, then indicating 1,215 degrees, next 1,372 degrees. The other three blue EGT bars are steady. Number two continues to vacillate. What could cause such a thing? Would a stuck valve cause erratic gas temps? I cock my head to one side, listening for any odd rhythms from the engine. All sounds good.

Below my wing canyons, ragged rocks, juniper trees. I ease the yoke back and start a shallow climb. Our planned refueling stop, at Childress, is still 20 Maalox moments… I mean minutes… away.

It’s the closest airport.

But other than the dancing EGT all appears well. The dull roar of the engine is steady, unchanging. Power and pressures perfect. All other temps in range. Healthy. There’s nothing to indicate a problem. I ask Lisa to email our mechanic: Should we worry? It’s a pointless exercise. It’s Saturday. He won’t read our missive until Monday. By then, either we’ll be back home or we’ll be in a crumbled pile of metal at the bottom of a canyon.

We fly on, the number two EGT the metronome to the silent song my engine is playing. The tense spot between my shoulders grows and spreads.

At last the badlands pass behind our tails, I back off on the throttle and drop back down to 800 feet. It’s my new favorite cruising altitude, 300 feet higher than race flying and the required minimum altitude to overfly any building, vehicle, boat, person, outhouse or henhouse—and higher than most cell phone towers are tall—while still down close enough to the ground to reveal all the interesting things there are to see. It’s also maximizing our odds of properly seating the piston rings on our new cylinders.

Finally, I roll into the pattern at Childress. The name rang a bell when we planned the flight, but I couldn’t conjure up a mental image of the place. We’ve landed at so many airports these last two years that they’re all a jumble in my head. Now that I see it below, the taxiway new black asphalt standing out in stark contrast to the old faded grey runway, I remember it as the place Lisa momentarily lined up on the taxiway coming in for a landing last year on our way home from the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race. Normally I would tease her by asking if I should land on the one on the left or the one on the right, but I’m still worried about our engine. In fact, we’ve flown in near silence since the EGT started its erratic dance.

We glide down over the cotton fields and gently kiss the runway. As I throttle back the EGT drops to zero. We taxi to the fuel pumps, shut down, and get out the tool kit. The air is chilly, but the engine metal hot as I open up the cowl and peer in. I honestly don’t know what I expect to see. There’s no splattered oil on the cylinder. The exhaust stack is intact. I stare at the new probe that measures the temperature of the exhaust. The band that holds it in place is oddly oval, but then I realize that I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.

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The probe on the forward cylinder is nearly out of sight, so I decide to pop open the cowl on the copilot side so I can see what the probe looks like on the other side. It also has the oddly-shaped band, but I notice that there’s a spring over the wires that’s in a different spot. I go back to my side of the plane and poke at the sensor.

It falls out.

Ah. Problem solved. A wonky sensor, that’s all. I push it back into place and reset the retaining spring. I have no great expectation that my fix will hold, but at least I know the readings are nothing to worry about.

I check the oil and find the level hasn’t budged, a new experience for me, as our “old” engine was as fond of oil as an alcoholic sailor is of rum. I stretch, rotate my arms to loosen the knot in my back, and look around. Then it occurs to me: I’m 250 miles out from our home base, and our only issue on engine #3 is a loose sensor.

After all these months grounded, after two failed engine rebuilds, we’re back. We’re truly back in the air and free to move about the country.

 

First fire

It’s cold. Bone-chillingly cold. The wind whips the heat out of my black flight jacket as soon as the sun kisses it. My soul is cold, too. And I’m nervous. Tense. The muscles in my legs throb, my shoulders are tight. I’m standing on the tarmac in Santa Fe outside the maintenance shop, looking at Tessie and the naked engine bolted onto her nose. My mechanics, like me, are so unsure of this thrice rebuilt engine that they’ve done nothing more than the bare minimum installation to test it.

Then it’s time. Time for the first power test. My chief mechanic looks around to be sure we are all well clear, then he presses the starter button. Without a second’s hesitation, the new engine transforms from silent, cold metal parts to a living, breathing thing.

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He keeps the power low, letting the oil warm up, letting the moving parts stroke each other for the first time. I cock my ear to one side. There’s nothing quite wrong, really, but something’s not quite right, either. Rio leans toward me, “She sounds rough,” he shouts.

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Hmmm…. No. Not rough. More an absence of smooth. And an absence of the proper baritone. After a time, the engine is shut down. Various parts poked, prodded, and inspected. Then a second start. This time my mechanic slowly advances the throttle. Tess bucks and strains. Her tail quivers. The loose bottom cowl rattles in the slipstream of the prop. The volume increases as more and more power is fed to the engine. The prop is now a near-invisible grey disc.

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But I barely see it. My eyes are riveted to the black breather hose coming out the bottom of the engine. I wait to see if an ugly brown jet of oil will burst forth. I can’t tell whether or not the engine is at full power, but the wing tips are quivering. Still no oil.

Five seconds.

Ten.

Fifteen.

Now is when it should happen, if it’s going to.

Twenty-five.

Thirty.

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No oil. I lose track of the seconds. Still staring at the tube, I’m focusing on the sound of the engine, trying to conjure up the sound of the previous build attempt. Something’s different. It’s somehow more anemic. Something in the waves of sound coming off the front of the plane is less smooth. My legs throb. My shoulders are concrete.

Then the volume drops, steadily, steadily, steadily. Then silence, except for the wind. The prop becomes visible, spins two lazy rotations, then stops.

No oil.

I walk up to the cockpit as my mechanic slides the canopy down. I should be happy, I suppose. But I’m not. He doesn’t look happy either. “I could only get twenty three fifty out of it,” he says.

I don’t comprehend. Not until it’s spelled out to me. The previous two versions of this engine blew oil when the RPM hit 2,400. This engine isn’t generating enough power to prove it won’t do the same. My mechanic theorizes it’s the cold day. The atmosphere is thicker. The prop has to fight harder to slice though the air.

I don’t buy it.

“At least that’s better than the old engine ever gave us,” he adds helpfully. This stray fact does nothing to improve my mood. I’m cold, stressed, and depressed. I head back into the heat of the hangar to process all I’ve seen, heard, felt.

I’m bothered by the fact that this engine doesn’t seem as strong as the previous versions. Of course, those two were grossly defective. I suppose whatever mysterious aliment they suffered from may have made them abnormally powerful as a side benefit. If so, this is an improvement.

But it doesn’t feel that way.

Still, there’s nothing more we can do on the ground. Up in the sky, flying, we’ll get a higher RPM. We’ll have to take wing to see if the engine will start vomiting out its oil. Semi-retired, for the moment, as an air race pilot, I’m about to start my new career.

As a test pilot.

We talk protocol. What’s best for the engine vs. what’s safe, given all that’s transpired. I propose a 30-minute test flight, never leaving glide distance from the airport. My mechanic says he’d like something a little more conservative.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I was thinking more of just once around the pattern,” says my mechanic. I bow to superior experience. Not to mention the unspoken worries of the man I’m entrusting my life to.

So that’s the plan. Once the engine is fully re-installed, with its baffling, cowling, nose bowl, spinner, and all the rest, I’ll come back. I’ll take off. I’ll keep a hair low, with a slightly long downwind leg to try to get into full power cruise configuration, then land for inspection.

Hopefully Tess’s belly will be clean and dry. But if it’s slick with oil, based on the previous oil loss we’ve seen, she’ll still have some left in her sump. All things being equal, it’s a safe test. But I have zero trust in this engine, given all that’s transpired over the last five months. Still, the flight doesn’t scare me. It’s logical. Well considered. As safe as we can make it.

If that flight goes well, I’ll take a second hop. Maybe 30 minutes. Maybe 45. Again I’ll land for inspection. If she passes that test, then a ferry flight back home is in order. Depending on the wind, and what this new engine will really do, that’s an hour or an hour and a quarter. Then, and only then, will we undertake the break-in flight. Hopefully these extra flights won’t forever ruin the engine’s piston rings, but there’s no choice, given the events we’ve been though. Taking off cold for a break-in flight would be crazy.

Insane, even. And in hindsight, maybe it was all along.

And when will I feel confortable taking a passenger, or my son, up again? When, and only when, I trust the engine.

How long will that take? I don’t know. I suspect that as I walk up to my trusty steed, the muscles in my legs will throb, and my shoulders will be tight, for a long time to come.

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A very capable airplane

Grandma Jean was really leaning on Rio for more information. For two years we’ve been talking about visiting all of the lower 48 states in a single cross country trip. In the Ercoupe. The rough draft of the flight plan is around 8,000 miles, and that was just connecting the dots to reach all the states.

We’d been in the process of investigating what we’d most want to see in each state, and as we made new discoveries the bright orange line zigzagging across the giant wall planning chart in our flight lounge morphed. I estimated that the final flight plan would be 12,000 miles when all was said and done, and I figured we need 45 days to fly it—accounting for the distance, the weather, seeing the sites, and not totally wearing ourselves out. It would be the father-son adventure of a lifetime. And who knows? Maybe a good book, to boot.

But now Rio wasn’t so sure he wanted to go.

And grandma wanted to know why.

Of course, at the family dinner table in front of all their relatives isn’t the best place to get teenagers to divulge their true feelings, and Rio was hemming and hawing. Personally, I suspected two possible sources of his change of heart. The first was that we had both had a mind-numbingly bad time on a headwind-fest called the AirVenture Cup. Naturally, I tried to convince him that there’s a difference between a long, slow flight in which you have to hold your course—like on a cross country air race—and a “normal” VFR cross country where you’re free to annul boredom by doing maneuvers or investigating anything interesting that you spot on the ground below. Or maybe that wasn’t it. It might simply be that, at fifteen-going-on-sixteen, there could be nothing worse than being cooped up with your father for 45 days in a tiny cockpit where shoulder room is non-existent.

At any rate, Rio dodged what I suspected were the real issues by telling his grandmother, “I just wish we had a more capable airplane, that’s all.”

The timing was wrong, so I let it go, but deep down I felt the need to defend Tessie. I’ve flown that little plane across the Rockies and up to Washington, and all the way across the American heartland and over the Appalachians and on to the East Coast.

Pretty capable.

Although, granted, not terribly efficient by modern standards.

But back to Rio. Apparently at some point after the AirVenture Cup I told him that if we launched on our trip and ended up hating it, we could always throw in the towel. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something I might’ve said. At the family dinner that night, we’d been kicking around possible sponsors to take the edge off the cost of the trip. Rio recognized, quite correctly, that if you get sponsors, you’re pretty much obligated to carry out your plane plans; and he didn’t feel like signing on for what might be a 45-day jail sentence.

A few days later, I was filling Lisa in on the latest trials of fatherhood, and she suggested I put some training wheels on the airplane. “Why don’t the two of you take a long cross country during Spring Break, just to try it on for size? Fly out for three days, then back. If you both have a grand time, you can keep planning for the big trip, if not, well, you’re not out much.”

Wise woman, that Lisa.

That night, I pitched the idea to Rio. He wanted to know how far we could go. I told him that would depend on how far we decided to fly each day. I generally view 600 miles as a good day’s work—three hops and two re-fuelings—but those can be tiring days. At 100 miles per hour, it’s easily an 8-hour day, all told. So I suggested two legs with one re-fueling. That would be a nice morning’s work, with all afternoon free to explore wherever it was we set down.

But in my heart I worried… That’s only 400 miles a day. That’s the same distance you can go in a car. Could we get anywhere with such short distances covered each day?

I went into the flight lounge. Our wall planning chart has range rings printed every 200 miles—the distance we can fly with two aboard before we need to stop for gas. I counted two rings: Four hundred miles from home base the first day. Two more rings the second day would see us 800 miles from home. Two more rings on the third day had us setting down 1,200 miles from home.

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The 1,200-mile range-ring swept up the map from Panama City, Florida, ran just west of the Appalachia Mountains, bisected the Great Lakes, took in all of the northern part of the country, swept down the Northwest just shy of Seattle, and then disappeared out to sea over the Pacific.

I called Rio in and traced my finger on the map, “We could get to New Orleans, or Atlanta, or Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Mount Rushmore, or Portland, or San Francisco, or Los Angles, or San Diego.”

He said he’d think about it. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the fact that, in three days, most of the country west of the Appalachias could be in our grasp. If that’s not a capable airplane, what is?