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?

For want of a spare

The nose wheel tire is flat as a pancake. Again. I sigh. Then curse. This is my third time at this particular rodeo.

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The first time, my mechanic gave me instructions over the phone on how to remove the nose wheel to bring it to him so he could replace the inner tube. Unlike cars, it’s illegal to patch the inner tube of an airplane tire. Come to think of it, unlike cars, airplane tires still have inner tubes! (Aviation technology historically lags the rest of the world, due to long certification processes and libraries full of rules and regs that never evolve.)

Now, for background, there are actually a handful of maintenance items that pilots are allowed to do, and don’t require a licensed airplane mechanic. For instance, a pilot can change a light blub in an airplane. And a pilot can replace a defective cotter pin. A pilot can also add hydraulic fluid to the reservoir. A pilot can change the battery. And that’s about it.

Oh. Wait. A pilot can also change the tires, or more correctly, “remove, install, and repair landing gear tires.”

Of course to do so, it helps to know what you’re doing, which I didn’t. But with my mechanic’s advice, some creativity, the deployment of a lot of Anglo Saxon English, and with much struggle and lots more grease, Rio—whom I took out of school for the day to help me—and I got the job done, and we drove the removed wheel to Santa Fe for a new tube.

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While I had faith I that could successfully remove the wheel, and get it back on again, I had no particular faith that I could remove the bad tire and tube and put a new one on the wheel. I’ve watched through the windows at the tire shop when I’ve bought new tires for my car. These types of operations require the right equipment and the right know-how. I have neither.

My confidence in my potential for doing that part of the job was not increased by watching my mechanic put the new tube in later that day. Besides, I thought, how often could something like this possibly happen?

The second time we had a flat nose wheel, we were on our way to the AirVenture Cup and we were severely pressed for time. My mechanic offered to make a house call. He and his dog flew over from his airport to our airport and he got us fixed up right away in our own hangar.

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And now, not even a year later, I’m squatting on the ground next to yet another crumpled pile of rubber.

I attach my compressor to the stem of the flat tire and flip on the switch. In no time, I’m at 18 pounds psi on the little tire. I get out the bottle of soapy water and spray the stem. No dice. No simple fix of a loose stem valve. We’ve got a real leak in the inner tube and I’ve got three choices: Remove the nose wheel and take it in for repair—a four hour round trip drive; request a house call; or air up the tire to the max and fly the plane to my mechanic, betting that the tire won’t go completely flat during the one-hour flight.

I immediately reject option three as unnecessarily risky.

Oh. Right. I have a fourth (theoretical) choice: I could put a new tire on the wheel myself, if I had one. Naturally, I decide to take the wheel to Santa Fe.

I lay a soft towel over the horizontal stabilizer of Tessie’s tail and heft three heavy bags of landscaping rock up on top of it. This shifts the center of gravity backwards, offsetting the weight of the engine, and like a child’s teeter-totter, Tess rocks smoothly back and forth on her main gear with the touch of a finger.

This is how airplanes are jacked up to change their nose wheels, although I’m told that the pros use cases of oil instead of landscaping rock.

I settle myself onto the oil-stained concrete floor of the hangar and struggle with the screws that hold the nose pant in place, then start loosening the bolts that hold the axle. My hands become coated with a slick layer of black grease as I remove the various parts. It’s taking longer than I remembered, and I’m not looking forward to the long drive over to Santa Fe and back to the hangar, where I’ll have to reverse the whole process.

That’s when it occurs to me: If this were a car, I’d be putting on the spare right now. Actually if it were a car I’d be calling AAA rather than getting my hands dirty. After all, that’s what I pay them for. But you get my drift.

I decide right then and there that I’m going to buy a spare nose wheel and have it mounted with a new tire and tube. For future flats, I’ll just do a quick change and be on my way. Of course, having a spare wheel will change the course of the universe entirely, because being fully prepared for a quick change, I’ll never have a flat nose gear tire again in my life.

At least, that was what I decided until I saw the price of a new nose wheel. For most planes, a nose wheel runs a few hundred bucks. For whatever reason, for mine, it’s fully two thousand dollars.

If an ounce of prevention buys a pound of cure, how much cure do I get for 2K?

I look into my empty wallet and change my mind.

I think I can learn to put a stupid tire on the damn wheel.

 

Hot Property

For Sale: Five year old Air Race. Nice time of year. Mild climate. Good location at large airport. Held during major air event. Viewed by over 200,000 attendees. For more information, call Craig Payne at Sun ‘n Fun.

OK. So I totally made up that classified ad. But what it’s selling is totally real, and you can buy it tomorrow, if you want. The Sun 40 Sprint—an aircraft speed trial that actually launches out of, and finishes at, Sun ‘n Fun’s Lakeland Linder Regional Airport during the expo’s daily showcase—has been re-classified by the expo’s brass as a “sponsorable” event.

That means you can buy your very own air race. Which is not as crazy as it sounds.

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Let’s suppose you own a small company that has a great aviation product that you want to sell to pilots. You’ve got your website ready to go and your inventory is just begging to be shipped. Now all you have to do is get the word out. Sure, you have a Facebook page, but like us here at Plane Tales, you only have 32 “likes.” (And we love every one of you.) So you need to advertise.

The traditional approach would be to buy an ad in one of the aviation magazines, but this is not for the faint of pocketbook, and certainly not for the bootstrapper. For instance, a 1/6 page black and white ad in AOPA’s Pilot magazine costs $3,080—and everyone who knows anything about magazine advertising knows you need to be seen again, again, and again. For a two-color ad the rate jumps to nearly four thousand bucks. Want a color photo in your ad?

Cha-Ching. $4,840 at the cash register, please.

For one ad.

So what about a booth at one of the aviation expos instead?

Sun ‘n Fun would actually be a good place to start. It’s neither as expensive nor as overwhelming as AirVenture, but it’s a huge leg up over a local airshow or fly-in. The annual Florida event draws nearly a quarter million aviation enthusiasts from all over the country who are in a nice warm location following a cold winter back home, and they are ready to take to the skies again with their hearts and wallets.

How much would a booth at Sun ‘n Fun set you back? Looking at this year’s rates, the cheapest outdoor booths are $1,390. That price includes six exhibitor badges and one parking space. If you want to be indoors, the rate is $2,350. If you need internet, it will be more. Of course, larger booths and premium locations command yet higher rates.

Still, it sounds like a deal and a half, huh? Hell, it’s cheaper than the stupid magazine ad.

Or is it? Because that’s just the cost of the empty booth. You’ll still need signs, display materials, and tradeshow giveaways. And that’s just the beginning. The show runs the better part of a week. You’ll need to pay for hotel, rental car, and food. And unless you have amazing stamina, you’ll need help.

And you have to get there, too.

This is why some companies choose to have a remote presence instead. Ben Sclair, publisher of Sun ‘n Fun Today (the show’s daily newspaper) told me that some companies find it cheaper and just as effective to advertise in his paper to reach the attendees, rather than to take on all the costs of coming in person.

Or you could buy the air show. Even I gotta admit that the Plane Tales Sprint has a nice ring to it.

I’m sure the details are negotiable, but Payne tells me he’s looking to find someone to sponsor next year’s show for around three thousand dollars. Where would your money go? To trophies and food for the racers, and to help support the event and Sun ‘n Fun’s educational mission. What would you get for your money? Well, you’d get your name out in a big way. It would be in all the adverting, all the media coverage, and if you went to Sun ‘n Fun yourself, you’d hear your company’s name again and again during the hour-long event, which is covered live by an announcer just like a baseball game.

If I had something to sell other than words, I’d jump at this opportunity in a second. I think magazine ads are great. A booth at a trade show lets you interact one-on-one with potential customers. But both are expensive. Also, there’s virtually no limit to the number of magazine ads out there, and Sun ‘n Fun has hundreds of booths. In other words, you’re part of a crowd. It’s hard to stand out.

But there’s only one Sun 40 Sprint. It’s never been for sale before, and it could be all yours—all yours. That’s what I call a hot property.

 

Here’s Craig’s email: yakman285@gmail.co

 

Test Pilot

When I was in flight school, I read Tom Wolfe’s classic novel The Right Stuff. It tells the entwined, but parallel, tales of the Mercury Seven and the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in the early days of jet plane development. The thing that impressed my barely post-teenage brain the most about test-flight work wasn’t the fast planes, the high risk, or the higher status; but rather it was the fact—according to Wolfe’s accounts—that women just flocked to test pilots. And not just any kind of women, if you know what I mean.

Right then and there, I decided to become a test pilot.

Of course it never happened. Not until yesterday.

After two and a half months in the shop, the Plane Tales Plane was ready for the air again. Well, maybe. So many things had been done to her that she needed someone to take her up and ensure that all was in proper order. In short, a test flight. And as I have more hours in her than anyone, I was the obvious choice as test pilot.

I didn’t expect a flock of chippies to magically appear and make my day, but I took my responsibilities seriously. Or at least I tried to. Time change having just arrived, it was unaccustomedly dark in my house at 5:30 in the morning as I headed to the airport, and I neglected to grab the notebook that had a carefully drafted flight log designed to make it easy to record observations and to ensure that I didn’t forget to check anything.

Still, I was able to borrow a clipboard from my mechanic and I set off with a tiny tickle of a thrill: Me! A test pilot! (Chest puffs up slightly.)

The sun was barely above the eastern mountains, and yet to warm the chilly ramp, as I did a through pre-flight inspection before mounting up. The step up to the wing was a stretch—new spacers in the landing gear have raised Tessie’s tails to the proper level. Old Ercoupes, like old women, sag over time. Unlike many planes, however, saggy landing gear actually changes the flight characteristics of the ‘Coupe. She’s designed to have a zero angle of attack on the ground, meaning the plane isn’t capable of flight until you lift the nose. Of course, if your gear is saggy, your nose is pre-lifted. It doesn’t make a world of difference on takeoff, but it matters when landing. The Coupe is designed to stay on the ground once you plant it there. This is especially important in crosswind landings.

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Slipping back into the cockpit after such a long absence was heavenly, like collapsing into a favorite comfy chair at the end of a long, hard day. I slid the new smoky grey doors closed above my head and fired up her engine, the throaty rumble music to my ears.

Oil pressure in the green arc, Mr. Test Pilot professionally notes.

While she warms up, I get familiar with my new GPS navigation radio, making sure it can talk to my iPad and smart phone. Then I plug in the remote for my wireless headset, turn the headset on, link the two devices, slide the headset over my head, carefully adjust the ear pieces, and then position the mike in front of my mouth, whereupon I realize I’ve forgotten to put on my hat.

I doubt this ever happened to Chuck Yeager.

I take the headset off and start over, this time with my hat on first. Soon, it’s time to fly. I’m at Santa Fe, which is a controlled airport, so the first order of business is to call ground control and get permission to taxi the plane from the maintenance shop to the active runway.

That accomplished, it’s time to fly.

Cleared by the tower, I pull onto Runway 15 and smoothly push the throttle to the firewall for full takeoff power. The plane has been completely “re-rigged.” Every control cable and rod has been adjusted. Also the trim system, a mechanism designed to relieve control pressures on the yoke, has been replaced. I expect the plane to handle differently, but I don’t know how that will manifest.

The Devil’s in the details. This is what being a test pilot is all about. It’s invigorating.

My speed picks up. 35 miles per hour. 40 miles per hour. 45… 50… 55…

Tess is showing no interest in leaving the ground. In the past, her nose reached to the heavens around 55 miles per hour.

60 miles per hour… 65… I’m not alarmed: I know with the tail at the proper height she should stay glued to the runway until I do something about it. I hit 70 miles per hour and I ease back on the yoke.

She jumps into the air. The runway drops beneath us. I ease back a little more on the yoke to increase our climb angle and the yoke sticks. My heart skips a beat. Then the yoke moves smoothly again.

Did I imagine it?

The tower instructs me to turn on course to make way for a commuter jet taking off on the other runway. I bank right. Tess’s left wing lifts smoothly into the deep blue sky, the entire motion silky smooth.

South and west of the airport I put the newly refuib’d plane through the paces. It’s bumpy as hell this morning, winds tumbling off the mountains are creating mechanical turbulence as they ricochet off the buttes and mesas in the foothills. My notes on the clipboard look more like Greg Shorthand than English.

But the new trim system is fabulous. By moving a lever on the left side of the cabin I can drop the plane into a dive or nearly stand her on her tail without using the yoke. With fine adjustments, I can make her hold a level altitude “hands off” while flying slow, at cruise, or at balls-to-the-wall race speeds.

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She’s still wing-heavy to the right however, so we still have an adjustment to make there. I jot some more notes in Turbulence Shorthand, then head back for the airport. The wind is brisk on the surface now, and the tower gives me my choice of runways.

Being a professional Test Pilot, I choose the more difficult of the two. Ercoupes are excellent crosswind planes, and now that my rigging is improved I’m eager to put it to the test. I do a descending arc over the city and line up to Runway 20. The wind is coming from my left. Like a weather vane, Tess cocks sideways into the wind. I descend toward the runway flying sideways. This is how it’s done in an Ercoupe. I’ll touch down at a crazy angle and the forward motion of the plane, combined with her trailing link landing gear, will neatly pirouette her around as I hit the pavement.

I’m coming down at my approach speed of 80 miles per hour, faster than most general aviation airplanes land. I make tiny power adjustments with the throttle to keep my descent speed at 500 foot per minute. As I close in on the runway I pull back on the yoke to “flare,” a nose-up maneuver that bleeds off the excess speed right before touch down and sets the plane up at the proper angle to touch down on her main landing gear first, with the nose wheel touching down second.

It won’t move. The yoke is stuck fast.

I pull with all my strength, but I might as well be one of the unworthy strongmen trying to free Excalibur from the stone. Before I can say, “Oh shit!” I slam into the ground. A spray of fuel bursts from the nose tank. The gear compresses, and like a spring, catapults me back into the air again.

With still no way to move my elevator and get my nose up, I fall flat a second time.

I’m fifty percent terrified, fifty percent humiliated, and 100% mystified.

After the plane finally bounces to a stop, the yoke moves freely back and forth again, smooth as silk. I taxi back to the maintenance shop, and on wobbly legs, dismount and walk in. “How’d it go?” the boys asked.

“The elevator froze on landing,” I replied. Immediate frowns. Then a bustle of activity. Tess is quickly pulled into the hangar. Off comes her tail cone. Out comes the seat to access the control cranks. Flashlights are fetched, mirrors on long poles are brought out to check far corners. I describe what happened and they all congratulate me on my fine flying skill.

It all happened so fast I can’t be sure I did anything to be congratulated about.

At the end of 45 minutes there are several theories, but no smoking gun. Some tweaks are made. Some parts lubricated. And then its time for another test flight.

But this one is different. This time I know something is wrong and I’m going up to try to reproduce it. A whole different type of courage is required to climb into a plane that you know is not quite working right, than it takes to climb into a mystery plane.

Teenage testosterone-fueled dreams aside, I don’t have the Right Stuff to be a test pilot. At least not every day.

Flocks of promiscuous girls or not.

 

Chasing the Eclipse

A total Eclipse of the sun, astronomically, is a garden-variety event. There’s one somewhere on the planet every 18 months. The problem is, of course, that the planet is three-quarters water; and the parts that are land include Antarctica, the Amazon Jungle, China, and Timbuktu.

And if you do choose to go to Antarctica, the Amazon Jungle, China, or Timbuktu to get to one, there’s always the risk that it will be cloudy. That actually happened to me once, sort of. A few years ago we had a baby eclipse right here at home. I think the proper word for a baby eclipse is Annular, but it’s one of those in which the moon leaves the flaming edge of the sun showing, so it doesn’t get night-dark like I understand it will with a full eclipse.

We were all set up and watching the start of it with a modified solar telescope and we were standing by with welding goggles.

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Then it got cloudy.

But now the real deal is coming this summer. A total eclipse will slash across the country from northwest to southeast on Monday, August 21. That will actually be my mother’s 70th wedding anniversary. (Even though my father passed away many years ago she still marks the anniversary.)

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Image: Rice University

Although there are many good potential places to see the eclipse, apparently Carbondale, Illinois is ground zero for great observation. And it so happens that I will be in Urbana, Illinois two days before for an Air Race.

Getting to the eclipse will be easy-peasy. In fact, equipped with an airplane, we are in a good position to try to get into a position where we can see the eclipse weather-free. I can easily re-deploy 700 miles from Urbana by Sunday night. And as the eclipse starts around noon, I can hop-scotch in either direction that morning as the weather forecast shapes up.

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Image: NASA

Of course there’s a problem. We are a five-person family with a two-person airplane. For everyone to see the eclipse, we need to coordinate in advance. We won’t know the weather until that morning, realistically, but in the meantime the hotels along the path of the eclipse are apparently selling out like hot cakes.

As we studied the path of the eclipse and studied our flight charts, a flurry of thoughts flashed through my mind: Should I stand on the wing and watch the moon side across the sun? Or should I be in the air and watch the shadow race across the earth? Could I chase the shadow and watch the eclipse twice?

I went to the internet to look up the speed the shadow races across the face of the planet. Apparently this varies with the time of the day, but at midday it’s zipping along at something like 1,450 miles per hour.

Quite a bit faster than the fastest Ercoupe in the world.

Even an Eclipse Jet couldn’t keep up. That shadow is pushing Mach 2.

And while the eclipse shadow looks narrow on the map, it’s actually almost 70 miles wide. So you’d need to be pretty high up to have a sense of it as a circular shadow flashing by.

So that settled that. I’ll watch the eclipse standing on my wing, plane parked firmly on the ground. But parked where? At what airport?

Well, we’re still trying to figure that out. But we’ve ordered a five pack of eclipse glasses, ‘cause one thing is for sure: We’re flying to the eclipse.

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Image: Eclipse2017.org

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Meet the newest member of the family

Now there are nine of us. I count the New Mexico branch of the family like this:

The nuclear family is three—Debs, Rio, and me.

The extended family is two—Grandma Jean and Lisa.

Then there are the two cats—Khaki and Cougar.

And the airplane—Tessie.

So that made a total of 8 of us before the newest member of the clan showed up. Smaller than Tessie and smarter than the cats is D-drone. Yes, I’m now the proud adoptive father of an intelligent flying camera. Here are my two sons together:

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It all started out, as many things around here do, with an article. I was writing an article on drones, officially called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs for short. No shit, there are now more UAVs in the sky than there are honest-to-God aircraft.

Actually… that’s really not fair, because I learned—and you are about to—that a modern drone is truly an aircraft in every sense. So more correctly, I should have said: No shit, there are now more aircraft in the sky without pilots in them than with pilots.

Anyway, all drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds need to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Anyone who wants to make money flying one also needs to get a drone pilot’s license (people who fly them for fun don’t need the license), and the Feds made it easy for existing pilots to get the new license. How easy? It actually took me less time to get the drone license than it did to get the drone registered, but that’s a story for another day.

Getting my license was a simple matter of taking an online class and passing a test. I did that for my article with no intention of going out and getting a drone. That was actually the irony I was writing about: That you could get a drone pilot license without ever having flown a drone.

But then… well, I’m not sure how things got this out of hand…

It probably started when Rio and Lisa bought a toy drone before Christmas. It had a very sad little camera, but it got us thinking about the possibility of getting some shots of Tess from above for our Air Racing series in GA News, which is coming back next season. Then a few weeks later at BestBuy, when I was looking for some computer stuff, I saw a handsome rescue-orange drone that was drool worthy.

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In particular, I was entranced with its camera. It was sporting a camera that looked like it was capable of taking quality images. A few weeks later Rio and I were in Santa Fe with some extra time to kill, so I took him to see Orange Drone.

He didn’t think much of it, but was drawn to the next drone over (BestBuy had a whole isle full of drones). This drone had six motors, a huge camera slung under its belly, and pair of sensors on the front that looked like eyes. It was called a Yuneec Typhoon. It was more Star Wars droid than traditional flying machine, and it was “only” eight hundred bucks.

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Rio pressed a button on the drone’s sales display and a large flat-screen TV above the drone came to life. Bathed in the light of stunning high-def, Rio and I stood transfixed as on the video the wicked-looking black drone rose up off the ground, its landing gear rising smoothly up and out of the way. Then it whisked off into action, its camera able to turn unobstructed through 360 degrees.

I was sold.

We couldn’t wait to share the video with the rest of the family.

When we got home we booted up the computer, but could not find the promo piece online. Instead we found a YouTube review that ended up convincing us that the retractable gear Typhoon was not the right piece of gear for us after all. The review started out as death by a thousand pinpricks. The reviewer was comparing the wicked black beast to a boring-looking white drone from some company I’d never heard of: DJI. More on them in a minute. In every test he devised to compare the two flying machines, the Typhoon under-performed. Sometimes by a little. Sometimes by a lot. I kept rooting for the Typhoon, but it kept falling short.

But the killing blow was the tree.

Both the drones are supposed to have sensors and intelligent software that lets them follow moving objects (people, cars, boats) while avoiding stationary objects (mountains, houses, telephone poles). In this part of the review our host walked though a small grove of trees. He hadn’t gone even ten feet before the Typhoon drone smacked head-on into the first tree, shattering propellers and collapsing to the ground in a pile of twisted broken plastic and metal, its camera severed from it’s body.

Rio and I sat in depressed silence.

Then I booted up Google to learn more about the other drone, the DJI one. As it turns out, DJI is the world’s drone leader, and has been for years. In list after list of top drones, DJI products dominate. The more I read, the more impressed I got. And, sadly, the more I compared DJI’s various models, the clearer it became that the newest—and most expensive—models had clear advantages over the older, cheaper models. I decided to start at the top, rather than buy cheap and have to upgrade in six months.

How expensive was it? One penny under eighteen hundred bucks.

But consider that it’s (1) an excellent camera, capable of taking 20 megapixel stills and high def video; (2) it’s a computer; and (3) it’s a flying machine. You’d expect to pay nearly that much, or more, for any one of the three. So all three together for that price is a real bargain.

Or at least that’s the argument I made to my wife.

I don’t think she bought it, but she let me buy the drone anyway.

We originally planned to test it on the tarmac at the Plane Tales airport, but the day after it arrived we woke to a dead-still morning, so Rio and I took D-drone out into the front yard before he had to go to school and pressed the auto takeoff button. The four motors came to life, and buzzing like a swarm of angry bees, the little white machine rose smoothly into the air about three feet and stayed there, as if frozen in place.

I don’t know about other drones, but I have to say, D-drone is one of the best-handling flying machines I’ve ever gotten my paws on. It’s well behaved and rock solid in a wide range of conditions and winds. It’s responsive to the controls without being hyper. The camera is easy to deploy and takes great video and stills.

But surely it’s not a real aircraft, you say. Well consider one spec alone. Its service ceiling is 19,685 feet. Quite a bit better than Tessie, and of course, illegally high in US airspace for a drone.

Still, it’s an impressive statistic.

And while it can only fly at speeds up to 45 mph, it has a climb rate of 1,180 feet per minute, better than most manned airplanes. Of course a battery will keep it airborne for only half an hour, and it would be hard pressed to carry any cargo. After all, this is a photo drone, not a pizza delivery drone.

But like my fellow humans, my cats, and the family airplane; I’m quickly learning that D-drone has a personality. And probably a soul to go along with it.

And that’s why we are now a family of nine.

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Wine and balance

For you non-pilot readers (I love you!) there’s a thing called weight and balance we pilots are supposed to do before every flight. It’s a series of mathematical machinations that are used to make sure the plane is not too heavily loaded and that whatever load it’s carrying is positioned so that the aircraft won’t be too nose nor too tail heavy to fly safely.

In the old days we used complex charts, slide rules, and pencil and paper to confirm that we were safe to fly. Now there are a slew of modern electronic options and apps for the purpose.

Is this really necessary for the small, car-like planes most of us fly? Damn straight! Most four-seat airplanes can’t actually fly with four people, some baggage, and full fuel—so this becomes important. Even the Plane Tales Plane is incapable of flight with two of us onboard and all three of her fuel tanks full to the brim.

For us at Plane Tales, it’s really all about the weight. As a two-seat, side-by-side airplane, the balance side of the equation for Tessie really doesn’t come into play as she has no backseat. I just need to make sure that no more than 75 pounds of baggage goes into the luggage compartment and I’m good to go on balance. Weight, on the other hand, has a huge impact on us, but perhaps not the impact you’d expect. We can actually pack the plane to her gills if we want to, but if we do, we won’t be able to go very far.

You see, every pound in the cockpit means a pound less fuel in the tanks. Actually, we pilots don’t think in pounds, we think in six-pound units. That’s because a gallon of aviation gasoline weighs six pounds. [Technically, it weighs 6.01, a difference which would matter in very large planes, but with the typical fuel loads in general aviation airplanes the difference is marginal, so we use the easier-to-manage six pound figure for weight and balance calculations.]

In the Plane Tales Plane, as we burn something in the neighborhood of six gallons per hour, each gallon of fuel gives us 10 minutes of flying time. At our current performance, in no-wind conditions, that gallon of gas will take us 18 miles.

It doesn’t sound like a much. And it isn’t. For six pounds. But consider what a typical travel suitcase weighs. The airlines cap carry-on luggage at 50 pounds per bag. Putting a 50-pound suitcase in Tessie would reduce her range by one hundred and fifty miles!

This is why we are the kings of packing light. Every ounce we save lets us fly farther without refueling. Refueling is kinda fun, because you see all kinds of places you’ve never seen before, but it’s always time consuming with approach, pattern entry, landing, taxiing, talking to the airport bums and answering the obligatory “does your ‘Coupe have rudder peddles” question. (She doesn’t.) Plus, many times there simply isn’t an airport where you really need one, so a cross-country flight can become a serpentine zigzag affair resulting in the elapsed travel time of an oxcart.

So if we really need to get somewhere far, far away, we need as much gas in the tanks as we can safely muster.

Now, I need to divert from our course to talk about my wife. She actually enjoys flying. At least now and then. For short periods of time. When the air is absolutely calm. And when I’m content to limit the bank angle of turns to about five degrees.

The rest of the time, visions of fiery crashes dance in her head, and she pictures Rio an orphan. Accordingly, she’s the least-flying member of the family, and because of that, I’m never 100% sure how much aviation lore and knowledge is actually in her head.

But recently, I learned that, in her quiet way, she has been paying close attention.

Second diversion: There’s nothing that I enjoy more at the end of a long day than a nice glass of red wine. Or two. And sometimes three. This is a mission easily accomplished at home. But during the last race season we had some problems. There are dry counties that aren’t marked on aeronautical charts (they should be). There are strange liquor laws in some states about where wine can be sold. And on what days. And at what time of day. In short, wine shops proved to be in shorter supply than airports on our travels. Plus, there’s the problem of what to do with a partly un-consumed bottle of wine on the road. And sometimes the cost of wine in far-flung locations was more than the cost of the Avgas the plane was drinking.

The obvious solution was to bring our wine with us as part of our luggage.

But wine weighs. In fact, as a pure liquid, it weighs more than aviation gasoline. Wine tips the scales at 10 pounds per gallon. And worse yet, the typical packaging of wine is in glass bottles.

And glass bottles are heavy. More on that in a minute.

Plus there was the problem of multi-day trips. There was no way we could carry enough wine for long journeys, but I could at least protect myself from wine-free zones by carrying enough to cover me for one dry landing, and attempt to resupply “on the road.”

Bottles being out due to the weight and balance, I tried wine “miniatures” first. They come in both plastic and glass. I sent Debs to town with orders to find the plastic bottles. They were light enough but suffered the Goldilocks syndrome, with one bottle being too little, two bottles being not quite enough, but three bottles being too much. And traveling with a wine-drinking copilot the number of miniatures needed ended up requiring math harder than the most complex weight and balance equation.

Next, I considered boxed wine, but the boxes typically hold the equivalent of four bottles of wine and were excessively heavy. I didn’t want to have to choose between wine and clothes. I’ve never flown naked, and I don’t see why one couldn’t (with enough sunscreen) but it would be excessively embarrassing (and probably illegal) at fuel stops.

So the problem was one of those that seemed to be eluding a solution until the day Debbie came home triumphantly with something new. It was called a “brick” of wine, and sure enough, is about the size and shape of a typical construction brick. It held the equivalent of two bottles of wine, enough to fuel the crew for a typical cross-country. “How much weight do you think this will save over a pair of bottles?” she asked me.

“Let’s find out,” I replied, and got out our kitchen scale and two bottles of wine.

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The pair of bottles weighed in at 5.7 pounds. The box at 3.5 pounds. Debs had saved us a full 2.2 pounds and added just a hair over six and a half miles to our range.

My non-pilot wife had worked out the perfect wine and balance.

 

Letting go

It’s not that I’m a control freak. I’m just accustomed to taking care of everything.

Oh. Wait.

Maybe I am a control freak.

At some point over the twisting course of my life my self-reliance morphed a bit into something different: I’m simply not in the habit of relying on others. And because I do “everything,” I like to do it as efficiently as possible. Nowadays, that means using the Internet late at night to make hangar, hotel, and ground transportation arrangements for cross-country flights, preferably without having to actually talk to another human being.

Come to think of it, this is not unlike my approach to choosing airports that we talked about recently. I guess that makes me an antisocial control freak. But something wonderful just happened that might change my whole approach to cross-country flights.

The trip in question didn’t end up happening—thanks to the stupid hurricane—but Rio and I had planned an epic two-week father-son jaunt around the country that would take us to two races. The flow of the trip had us putting down for the night in Oklahoma City at the end of the first day, where there are eight public-use airports to choose from.

So which to choose?

One thing we always do when traveling by air is to check out the local aviation museums. There are some really amazing collections in places you’d least expect it. For instance, in trying to get to Oshkosh the year before last, we put down near the Mississippi River to escape weather and found a rack card for a little museum in Greenfield, Iowa. It looked interesting, so on the way home we diverted to check it out.

Among other things, they had the actual plane that was used in an early endurance record, kept aloft by one of the first uses of aerial refueling! Just how long was the flight? Are you sitting down? Seventeen days, 12 hours, and 17 minutes. And this was in 1929! Apparently it was “cut short” when one of the pilots developed some sort of painful dental issue.

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But I think I’ve drifted off course here. Let me get back on heading. A quick Google search showed that Oklahoma City has three aviation-themed museums. Of course, the city is HQ for the Ninety-Nines and their museum is at Wil Rogers World airport, the big Class C operation. At nearby Weatherford, the Stafford Air & Space Museum is literally right on the field. You can taxi up to it. And lastly, the Oklahoma Museum of Flying is in a hangar on the grounds of the Wiley Post airport. It has a small collection of planes including one of the Reno-racing P-51s and a World War I era Fokker Eindcker—a craft more scaffolding than airplane.

I was sold. Even though Wiley Post had a control tower, we’d spend the night there.

I decided that all I needed was a rental car and maybe a hangar for Tess. On my last several trips I’ve had good luck asking about hotel discounts at FBOs after landing, and I’ve gotton some really good deals. Besides, it’s not like we weren’t going to be able to find a hotel room in Oklahoma City.

I emailed the FBO, then went to the rental car hub at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA. If you fly and aren’t a member of AOPA you really need to join. They’re the AARP of aviation, keeping Washington off our backs and out of our cockpits. Oh, and there are direct member benefits, too, like their slick car rental site.

Well, normally slick.

Most times I just enter the airport identifier of where I want to pick up and drop off a car, and it’s done in seconds. This time I was told I needed to contact the FBO.

(((Groan)))

So I sent a second email to the FBO. Please add a rental car to that hangar request.

The next day I got an email back saying I needed to call them. (((Double groan))). If I had wanted to actually talk to someone, I wouldn’t have emailed.

Grudgingly, I picked up the phone and called. And I had the nicest two-minute conversation with a young lady who is a bigger control freak than I am. She took care of everything. She took down my name and tail number and said not to worry, she’d arrange overnight hangar, hotel, and a rental car. What type of car would I like?

I confessed to my fondness for muscle cars, but my unwillingness to pay for them. She thought she could get me an upgrade. She promised to email confirmations. Within an hour I had a single email, outlining everything.

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One brief phone call. And everything was done for me. Wow.

Maybe the best way to stay in control is to let someone else take care of everything.