Battling to see the eclipse

Poet Robert Burns wrote that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, but I think German military genius Helmuth von Moltke said it best: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

And so it was with me and my overly-elaborate plans to watch the Great American Eclipse. I’ll spare you the picayune details, but the original battle plan involved a ballet of our airplane, Southwest Airlines flights, rental cars, and hotel reservations in Urbana and Omaha. Why Urbana? There was an air race there the Saturday before the eclipse. Why Omaha? I honestly can’t remember anymore.

Looking back on it now, it all seems ridiculous. But it made sense at the time we planned it, and it was the result of countless hours of family dinnertime conversation. I guess as well as having too many chefs in the kitchen, we suffer from having too many generals in the war room.

At any rate, in March I made the hotel reservations. I made the rental car reservations. I made the airline reservations. I ordered our eclipse glasses. Five pair. My first contact with the enemy came within days of these maneuvers, when I tired to arrange for a hangar for Tess in Urbana.

“Race? What race?” asked the airport manager. Apparently, the race director had neglected to discuss the event with the host airport. One thing led to another, and the race was scrubbed.

I cancelled the hotel reservations. I cancelled the rental car reservations. I cancelled the airline reservations.

My second contact with the enemy came in April. Suddenly, the race was on again. I re-made the hotel reservations. I re-made the rental car reservations. I re-made the airline reservations.

But the war was far from over.

My third contact with the enemy came in May when my engine started burning more oil than gas. That battle was a protracted one, but by July it was clear we’d have no airplane for our airplane-centric battle plan. So back to the dawning board we went. Now too close to the Great Eclipse to find hotels anywhere near the zone, we kept Omaha in the plan, cancelling the Urbana part of the campaign. Ironically, in the end, the Urbana race was cancelled yet again, this time at the last minute. Had we still had our plane, we would have been well on our way out. Clearly the Fates—normally great air racing fans—must have decided they wanted to watch the eclipse instead.

But back to our evolving battle plan. Planeless, we kept Omaha in the picture, and decided to drive from our home base to our near-to-the-eclipse hotel rooms.

Then our Field Marshal became a casualty of war. Mom pushed herself a bit too hard at the State Senior Olympics, winning both a gold medal in the 90-94 age category and a case of dehydration that came with a two-day hospital stay.


The next week was AirVenture. She had a grand time there, until she collapsed at the EAA Museum. More ER visits followed, and somewhere in the midst of these medical skirmishes, she picked up a nasty case of bronchitis.

As the moon and the sun converged, it was clear to me that she’d be in no shape to travel. I decided I couldn’t ask either of my sisters to miss out on the eclipse, so I elected to stay home with mom and ordered the rest of the troops onward.

Then the fog of war got thicker. Lisa had a work conflict and couldn’t be gone as long as the new plan took to execute. I tired for last-minute commercial air tickets into Omaha, but the laws of supply and demand were in full force. Tickets that usually run around $200 were over $1,500. In the end, Debs and Rio drove to Omaha in a leisurely fashion fitting Debbie’s energy levels, while Lisa did a last-minute solo power-drive up to Wyoming. Mom and I stayed home with our eclipse glasses determined to be satisfied with a partial eclipse.

And what about the classic nemesis of aviators, the weather? Mom and I in New Mexico, Rio and Debs in Grand Island, Nebraska, and Lisa on the banks of the Platte River in Wyoming all watched the eclipse under clear, cloudless skies.

Rio and Debs—and Lisa a state over—were all bathed in eerie quasi darkness for two and a half minutes while mom and I, with popcorn and red wine, sat in her bird garden with our cardboard glasses watching the sun turn into a crescent, trying to convince ourselves it was a hair darker in the desert around us.


It wasn’t.

But determined to experience that mid-day darkness I missed out on, I’m already planning for the next eclipse.

What could possibly go wrong?


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.


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.)


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.




♫♩♬♪ Smoke on the prairie, fire from the sky ♫♪♫♩

As soon as I spotted the plume of smoke on the distant horizon I abandoned the science mission at hand, banked into a steep left hand turn, and then rolled out on course for the billowing pillar of white. “Hey, what’s up?” asked Lisa.

Smoke, I said, pointing forward.

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I’m not sure if all pilots take the time investigate the unexpected, but I always do. It might be some subconscious sense of civic responsibility, but more likely it’s newshound DNA. My mother was a journalist when I was growing up, and I was a newspaper reporter myself back in the days of typewriters and Camel cigarettes. That kind of background changes you for life. It makes you more interested in (and more nosey about) all the things that happen around you.

“What do you think it is? I mean, beyond the obvious fact that it’s a fire?”

Until she asked, I hadn’t thought about it at all. I flew towards the smoke out of instinct, like a moth to flame. The plume of smoke rose like Greek temple column, straight up, hundreds of feet into the sky. A small, hot fire. As the miles spilled way beneath us I realized the fire must be right at the border of the Pecos MOA—the local military operations area. Suddenly a pit formed in my stomach. As I was behind the controls of a plane, it was only natural that a plane crash came to mind.

Just keep a sharp eye out for helicopters, I told her.

If it was a downed aircraft, I was hoping it would be one of the drones from Cannon Air Force Base. Of course, if it was a manned military aircraft that got into trouble, the crew probably hit the silk and was fine. Still, I couldn’t help but worry as we closed in on the smoke column. After all, there’s a brotherhood between all pilots. In aviation’s early decades flyers of all nations called themselves Civis Aerius Sum—Citizens of the Air.

Now the funny thing about flying at a hundred miles an hour is that sometimes it seems fast and sometimes it seems slow. In this case, the fire turned out to be about 20 miles away. It took us only 12 minutes to get there, but it felt like hours.

As we closed in we could see bright orange flames, black charred ground, and rivers of white smoke flowing along with currents of air blowing across the desert landscape. The fire was burning down an arroyo, a dry stream course common in the New Mexico highlands.

We had our “flight pad” and the GPS receiver with us so I was able to pinpoint my location in relation to the MOA. The fire was right on the border. It’s not illegal to fly into a MOA, just stupid. MOAs are where military aviators train, and generally their planes are bigger, faster, and more powerful that ours. Not a good mix and match. Flying the Plane Tales Plane into their playground would be like taking a jog on the Indy track on race day. I banked left to stay outside the military’s airspace while getting as close to the fire as possible. At the top end of the fire sat a ranch house with a cluster of outbuildings, all intact. A tough-looking truck with a flashing red light on top was parked near the edge of the smoke. Looked like the volunteer fire department was on the scene. But they were outmatched. This was too much fire for one truck to handle.

“Too bad we can’t drop some water on it,” said Lisa. I had a momentary fantasy of being a firefighting pilot, diving in low above the flames, fighting the turbulence from the rising waves of heat, pulling the lever at the last minute to send hundreds of gallons of water cascading down from on high into the heart of the inferno.

What a cool job that must be.

We flew down the public side of the arroyo scoping out the blaze. No mangled wreckage, thank goodness. It seemed to be a garden-variety grass fire, probably accidently set off at the ranch at the top of the burn pattern. I did a 360 at the end of the smoke column and came back around for a second look.

The flames were spreading out in a slow moving crescent, driven by the wind across the dry glasses. “How are they going to stop that?” asked Lisa.

They probably won’t, I replied, but there’s nothing downwind for a hundred miles. They’ll probably just let it burn out.

Back at the ranch end of the fire again, I did another 360, putting the blaze back on Lisa’s side of the plane. She raised her camera to her eye and started blazing away. “Hey, can you bank right, I want to get a better shot of those flames.”

Huh. Seems my scientist buddy has some of that newshound DNA, herself. Who knew?

I banked the plane to the right, and the snapping shutter of her camera, picked up by her headset’s mike, echoed in my ears like machinegun fire.

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Then, with no water to drop, and the proper authorities on the scene, our curiosity  satisfied, there was nothing else for us to do. We turned our twin rudders to the fire and headed back the way we came, to resume our mission.

Lost Lambs–Chapter 6

We lifted off smoothly, but once airborne, our climb rate was sluggish. Maybe the big antenna created more drag than I expected. Maybe it was the extra altitude—2,086 feet higher than our testruns back at home base. Maybe it was the heat, our fog delay let the day warm up, robbing us of performance. Or maybe it was just one of those things. But ten miles from the airport, we were still below the pattern altitude.

I wasn’t much liking this.

I modified our course to stay well clear of the cars and tucks moving along Interstate 25. I didn’t check the iPad, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have my 500 feet above any “person, vessel, vehicle, or structure” yet.

Tessie’s climb rate was worse than anemic, but the terrain was flat and we were ever so slowly crawling our way upward. We were lowish, but safe, so I decided to stay the course.

Our search for the turtles would be largely over uninhabited wild lands, where there’s no specific legal minimum altitude. You just need to be able to land safely if the shit hits the fan. With the flat land spreading out around me, 400 feet was as safe as 500 feet. It would be OK.

But I would have been happier if I had more zip.

We had tested the tangle of wires and adaptors that Adrian had picked up at Radio Shack on the ground and thought we’d be able to talk to—and hear—each other while Adrian could still hear the turtle transmitters, but it didn’t work out that way. Once airborne, I could hear Adrian, but he couldn’t hear me. So he talked and I made wild hand gestures back at him.

I planned to enter our search area a ways off to the southeast to give him time to set up. That didn’t work out as planed either, but in a good way this time. As soon as my wings leveled Adrian said, “Whoa! I got her! I got Leigh! The little turtle! No… Wait… I’ve lost her again.”

I banked right, entering into a 360-degree turn to take us back over the target. Adrian whipped out his pocket GPS and started stabbing buttons. We were five minutes into our search and we had already accomplished 50% of our mission. Plus, it was the 50% I was pessimistic about accomplishing, given the weak signal from the smaller transmitter.

Leigh had migrated downstream, much more than anyone had expected, or seen before, and had moved well beyond the spot Adrian would have abandoned searching for her. The beauty of the air: We can search a hundred times faster, and farther, than on the ground. Score one for the SAF—the Science Air Force.

We came around a third time for a final fix, then turned and flew upstream in search of Roberta. Ten minutes later we had her, too. After weeks of working out details, we’d found the two turtles in no time at all. Not that our careful preparation went to waste; mission success correlates to mission planning. But somehow, after all that build up, the success was—oddly—a letdown. I mean it was a wild success. We found both the missing critters. I should have been jubilant. But I felt, well, nothing. Not even a sense of pride or accomplishment. I have no idea why.

Adrian texted his mom on the ground, but apparently only one word: Success, leaving her chomping at the bit wondering whether we’d only found one or both turtles. “Kids!” she huffed about it later.

We pulled the big antenna into the cockpit, Adrian folding the six arms flat, one at a time, like origami as he retrieved it, and at once Tessie responded, shooting up 800 feet before I pushed her nose over to hold the altitude. “Can we get some pictures?” asked Adrian, holding up his camera.

Sure thing, I said, forgetting for a moment that he still couldn’t hear me. I gave him a quick thumbs up and turned back downstream. Adrian blazed away with his camera as we overflew the new-found locations of his two missing study subjects.

Then we turned back for KLVS, now high enough to fly leisurely over I-25 to lead us back to the landing field. We circled once to get my bearings (they had recently repaved both runways and the runway numbers are yet to be repainted). Then smoothly touched down and taxied to the fuel pumps where 100 low-lead awaited Tessie and Starbucks awaited Adrian and me.

I pulled the throttle back to idle, pulled the mixture out to full lean, and shut off the magnetos. The engine went silent and the prop stopped spinning and it was done.

And I figured that would be the end of the story. But not quite. A few weeks later Lisa showed up at the house with box and a twinkle in her eye. Inside was a special gift from Adrian, a thank you for helping him find his missing Chelydra serpentine.



Lost Lambs–Chapter 5

The weather was forecast to be beautiful but we’d been lied to. I looked sourly at my watch. It was now 8:15 a.m., fully two hours after our scheduled lift off time at Civil Twilight. Then I gazed out at the grey mass of fog, searching vainly for the sun. We were totally socked in.

What the hell time was sunrise? I ask Lisa, looking at my Citizen E6B watch yet again, as if it could magically supply an answer to the question. Again I scan the grey horizon. There’s not so much as a bright spot to suggest where the sun even ought to be.

This was not going according to plan.

We had pre-flighted the Plane Tales Plane by headlight and flashlight. Checked the fuel and oil levels, inspected the control surfaces, air intakes, propeller, tires and tail.


Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

To while away the time we chatted, looked at our watches, looked at the same grey sky and listened again and again and again to the AWOS, the field’s Automated Weather Observing System, on our handheld aviation radio. It played the same old song: 200 foot ceiling, mist, temperature 12° Celsius, dew point 12° Celsius. I wonder whose voice that is on the recording?

Then we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Finally, like a distant sandstorm, a band of light appeared on the horizon to the southwest. The wind picked up. A flock of Grackles took wing, just to tease me.

Grackles have no flight minimums.

Then patches of blue above. First bold and clear, then smeared white and grey with fast-moving mist, then clear again. The weather was breaking. Let’s go, I told my non-pilot navigator.

We pulled Tessie out of her hangar and into the brightening morning, unhooked her tow bar, and rolled the giant rumbling hangar doors closed behind her tail. A shaft of sunlight lit the windsock.

If that’s not a good omen, I don’t know what is.

I mounted Tess’s left wing, Lisa the right, and we slid into the cockpit, pulling the Plexiglas doors up over our heads behind us. Lap belt. Shoulder belt. Headset.

The last of the grey mists dissolved around us like ghosts fleeing the sunrise on All Soul’s Dawn, and we were bathed in glorious sunlight. Master on. Mixture full rich. Carb heat off. Mags to both. I give the old Continental 85-12 motor two shots of prime, crack the throttle, and pull the starter. The prop swings once, twice… Then the engine roars to life. The plane lunges forward, nose down, tail up—a hunting dog on a leash that’s caught the scent of prey.

The oil pressure gauge snaps to life, solidly in the green. Power throbs through the fuselage. I flip on our beacon switch, the radio switch, and the 12 volt power switch that feeds our GPS. Each switch is a lovely, heavy, thick, time-worn toggle shaped like a miniature baseball bat.

I release the brake and nudge the throttle forward. Tess rolls across the gravel toward the runway, as eager to fly as I am.

Short of the runway threshold we stop for our run-up, a final safety check before we lift off. I set our transponder to altitude encoding, advance the throttle to 1500 RPM, check the mags and the carb heat, then advance the throttle still farther to 2000 RPM. The little plane shakes and bucks, straining against the brakes. I gently pull the mixture knob towards me, seeking the perfect balance of air and fuel to maximize the power of every one of her 85 horses. At some point, the RPM drops, I advance the mixture a hair again and the power rebounds.

Got it!

Time to fly.

Above and to the west, clear sky. East, a wall of white and grey, moving off. Weird. Two different worlds side by side. I make my radio call, release the brakes, and roll onto the runway. We line up with the centerline and I smoothly advance the throttle. Tess rolls forward, gaining speed every second, and we are off on our adventure.

A little past the first taxiway I ease back on the yoke and Tess rises into the air, a magic carpet, a thousand pounds of aluminum, plastic, rubber, steel, and fuel flying as effortlessly as the Grackles; a creature of the sky.

I watch her shadow drop away from us as we rise into the brilliant sunlight and bank around to our right. A mile away to the east the clouds and fog, a 400-foot thick blanket, extend as far as the eye can see. North and west, the mesa tops of our destination bask in the sun. I roll onto our course line for KLVS where we’ll switch copilots, dropping off Lisa to make a much-needed Starbucks run, and picking up Adrian and his radio gear for the short hop to the search area.

Adrian’s lost turtles are out there somewhere. Will we find them today?

When the Tale Continues: The search.


Lost Lambs–Chapter 4

Weather Lesson: It’s not the size of the cloud that matters; it’s where it lives.

Today was supposed to be the day to search for, and hopefully locate, Adrian’s lost snapping turtles. We all watched the weather for a full week. The early forecasts called for morning thunderstorms–bad news for low-level turtle search and rescue–but I told everyone to chill out. Forecasts a week in advance are worthless. Reading the old farmer’s almanac or gazing into a crystal ball is just as effective as reading a long-range weather forecast.

And sure enough, as the scheduled flight day approached, the risk of T-Storms dwindled to nil, and everyone’s mood improved. Everyone’s but mine, that is. Because I was watching a little-understood part of the forecast: The Dew Point Spread.

The Dew Point is simply the temperature at which clouds will form if there’s enough water vapor in the air. As you may or may not know, the higher you go in the sky, the colder it gets. If you know the dew point, the ground temperature, and a few other stray facts, you can predict the altitude at which clouds will form, what’s called the cloud base. I’ll teach you how to do that on another day, but for today all you need to know is that the Dew Point Spread is the difference between the temperature on the ground and the temperature where the clouds will form. The lower the value of the spread, the lower the clouds will be; the higher the spread, the higher the clouds will be.

This matters for us because we fly under what are called Visual Flight Rules, or VFR, and the rules generally require a “ceiling” of at least 1,000 feet above the ground and a visibility of 3 miles. If the clouds are lower than 1,000 feet it is illegal–and foolhardy–to fly.

Check out the forecast Spread for our intended take-off time of 6 a.m.:


Yes. That would be a zero. Uh… Wait a sec. If it’s zero, that means there’s no difference between the air temp on the ground and the temperature at which clouds form. Right?

Right. A Dew Point Spread of zero means that the cloud base is on the surface:


When the Tale Continues: We hope for a better day we deploy in search of the missing Chelydra serpentinea

Lost Lambs–Chapter 3

35 miles per hour…

40 miles per hour…

45 miles per hour…

50 miles per hour…

55 miles per hour. Tessie will fly now, if I let her.

60 miles per hour. I hold her on the runway for a bit longer.

65 miles per hour. I ease the yoke back and she slides off the runway so smoothly that for a few seconds, even I’m not sure if we’re still barreling down the centerline of the blacktop or sailing through the air.


Then her nose angles upwards and she’s in her element. I hold her at 70 miles an hour, her best rate of climb, and the earth falls away below us. I start a mild banking turn to the right. How ya’ doing, Adrian? I ask, my own voice echoing inside my headset. This is his First Flight in a small plane.

“I think I’m going to have to take flying lessons,” he says and smiles ear to ear.

Roger that.

He’s holding the critter-tracking antenna out his window, hugging it close to the plane’s side, and reports no problems keeping it in place–but I can tell that we are paying a drag penalty. Tess is a bit sluggish, and she’s climbing more slowly than usual.

In a long, lazy 360-degree turn back the way we came, park a wing off of Highway 84 just outside the airport, and fly South along the roadway. Lisa’s brilliant idea is that we should try to search for a transmitter at a known location before we go off into the wild and try to locate one on a moving and missing turtle. It’s such an obviously scientific approach that none of the rest of us even thought of it.

Of course she is a real scientist, after all.

So today, about 15 miles on down the road, Rio, Lisa, and Jennie (Adrian’s sweetie and another field biologist whom he met while trapping Green Anacondas in South America) are waiting for us. They have two transmitters of the same kind that are on the two missing turtles, and our mission today is to learn about how far away we can “hear” the signals, what antenna angle and placement works best, and how precisely we need to be lined up with the transmitter to get that signal.

Turtle Air to Turtle Ground, I call out on the open-use air-to-ground frequency of 122.850 megahertz, We’re airborne and en route to your location. Over.

“Turtle Ground to Turtle Air,” comes back a very masculine voice over my headset. I’m shocked for a moment, before I realize that my little boy ain’t so little any more. “We read you loud and clear, over.”

Normally I might plug my iPod into the hidden port on Tessie’s panel and play our flight mix: The Theme from the Aviators, Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron, Ride of the Valkyries, Leaving on a Jet Plane, and more. But today, we need to listen for the pings of the transmitters and chat with our ground crew.

The bummer is that the smaller turtle, Leigh, is wearing a small transmitter that we can’t pick up until we are right on top of it. I can see Rio and the gang on the ground, waving their hands above their heads in greeting before we can hear the stupid transmitter.

We do a number of fly-bys, trying out different altitudes and angles. It will be a miracle if we find the small turtle. Once again, I’m grateful that Adrian chose a critter that lives in the water rather than one that roams the land. So long as I keep Tess’s nose pointed at the meandering river, I think we’ve got a chance.


After about 45 minutes of tests, Adrian unplugs his headset from the tracking radio and plugs it into Tessie’s panel. “OK,” he says, “I’m going to try the larger transmitter now.” I’m feeling a bit gloomy about our prospects, but tell him I’ll fly south for a few miles, do a 180-degree turn and head back to the ground crew. To catch the smaller transmitter we needed to be within a few hundred yards. I’m assuming we might be able to hear the large one at a mile out.

I turn the plane using a shallow bank angle. It takes longer, but just being in a small plane for the first time is excitement enough for most people. Only a jackass does wild maneuvers with a First Flyer aboard. As we roll out on course, Adrian gives me a thumbs up. He has the signal already, and we’re a good five miles out.

I key the mike button on the yoke with my left thumb. Turtle Air to Turtle Ground, we have the signal from the large transmitter.

Rio forgets his radio protocol: “You frickin’ kidding, right? We can’t even hear your engine yet. Where the heck are you?”


When the Tale Continues: Weather Woes delay the search.

Picture this

Flying is a science. And an art.

Photography is an art. And a science.

But doing both at the same time is a frickin’ nightmare.

It seems that my aerial photography is always… well… lacking. At least lacking compared to my expectations. Now I confess, the Plane Tales Plane isn’t the best photography platform in the world. Despite the fact she has visibility that rivals a greenhouse, all that wonderful 360-degree view is up and out. Fabulous to fly in, but if you want to take a picture of something on the ground, there’s a pair of wings in the way. Plus, if you take your hand off her yoke, she acts like a neglected lover; she’ll leave you in a heart beat.

And the problems don’t stop there.

You need the window open so you’re not shooting though a layer of Plexiglas, and the plane is moving over the ground at 100 miles an hour. OK, OK, it’s more like 90 miles per hour, one hundred just sounds sexier and more airplane-like. And I always hate to admit that the guy in the Honda Sonata below me can go faster than I can. (Ya gotta remember that when the Ercoupe was first developed in 1940, cars were nowhere near as fast as they are today.)

But I digress. Shooting a picture of the ground as you move over it a hundred-mile-an-hourish tends to result in funky motion-blurred images. Very pretty. Very artistic. Very useless if you’re trying to capture details of something below you. Setting the camera for very high shutter speeds can help, and some folks smarter than I suggest catching the ground target while in a sharp turn around it to reduce the ground speed over the target, which requires being a better pilot than I am.

Now, I gotta say, I have gotten some good stuff. But my bad stuff far out weighs my good stuff; and the same is true of my various camera-happy non-pilot navigators and my student-pilot son.

I don’t remember who suggested it, but during a post-flight council of war around the iMac in our library (which was displaying the latest round of sad aerial photos) someone thought it would be cool if we could mount a camera on the belly of the plane and control it from inside. I’m sure professional aerial photography outfits have been doing something like this for years, and I’m also sure such rigs cost a fortune. But with the advance of technology, the cost of things tends to drop. So Rio and I hit the internet to go shopping.

And we found that the GoPo Hero line of cameras is favored by flying photography folks, as well by as adrenaline-deficient people who jump off cliffs, wrestle alligators, and do crazy things with skateboards that break both the laws of gravity and the laws of aerodynamics. The camera is the size of a deck of cards, weighs almost nothing, and has built-in WiFi that lets any smart device serve as a remote viewfinder and controller. What’s not to love other than the price?

I logged onto my Sporty’s Pilot Shop account and ordered one on the spot.

Forty-eight hours later I was opening the box. Twenty four hours after that, I was lying on the “creeper” on the floor of the Plane Tales Hangar studying various bolts and screws on Tessie’s oil-stained belly. (If those old Continental engines aren’t leaking some oil, they’re probably out of it.)

As I don’t trust suction cups, in addition to the camera, I had purchased an Nflightcam camera mounting system that attaches itself via an existing bolt on the plane. Lisa and Rio hovered nearby offering suggestions.

My first thought had been to mount the camera behind the landing gear, out of the slipstream, facing backwards. But the only bolts and screws there were the ones on the inspection plates, and I doubted they would be strong enough. I didn’t want hundreds of dollars of camera turning into a small bomb that might do damage to targets on the ground.

After much rolling around under the plane and holding the camera in various locations we chose a spot right in front of the right main, facing forward at a 45-degree angle.

We bolted it on and it was time for a test flight or two. Rio was a true gentleman and said, “Ladies first,” but Lisa said that all things being equal she really wasn’t that lady-like (true, but a large part of her charm) and that besides, it made more sense to switch co-pilots at the terminal rather than taxi all the way back over to the hangar, and that she was licensed to drive the Jeep over there and Rio wasn’t.

Thus Rio became the first Plane Tales Photo Recon Technician.

How did it work out? Poorly. On both Rio’s and Lisa’s flights we frequently lost the signal between the camera and the iPad. The viewfinder update was slow, making it impossible to get Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.” Plus the device was a power hog, sucking its battery dry in a few short sorties and leaving us with the question of who was going to climb out on the wing to turn on the darn camera once we got to some remote location we wanted to photograph, because clearly if we powered it up on the tarmac, the camera would be dead as a doornail by the time we got on location at 100ish miles per hour.

But the real Achilles heel of the Hero for us is really no fault of its own. It’s a matter of mission. Our mission was to shoot details of stuff on the ground. The Hero’s mission is to shoot pictures of people doing stuff above the ground and as such it has a very wide-angle lens. From 1,000 feet above our home-base city, we could photograph the entire city.


But when we tried to zoom in on say, a city block, the image looked awful. This camera might be good for aerial mapping of Pooh Bear’s Hundred Acre Wood, but it is worthless for photographing small wetlands, airmail beacon arrows, or turtle habitats—in short, all the things we do.

Had it been a cheaper toy, I might have kept it, but it was too expensive to justify keeping it. I packed it up, sent it back, and we went back to the drawing board.

With a bit more careful research, I discovered that dozens of modern “point and shoot” digital cameras can be controlled by remote. Some with zoom lenses can even do their zoom thing from a iPhone or tablet. This is really key to our mission, as depending on our circumstances, the photography altitudes can vary quite a lot, as can the size of our target.

We’re still in the process of choosing which camera to try next—once bitten, twice shy—so we’re proceeding a little more slowly now. But I’m optimistic. I like the idea of using the plane herself as a camera rather than just poking a camera out the window.

I think with a little more time, experience, and the right gear, we can be picture perfect.


Lost Lambs–Chapter 2

We’re sitting in the library in my house. On the computer screen are a dozen snap-shots of the Plane Tales Plane. On the floor is an aluminum grid that looks like half a TV aerial. It was Adrian’s turtle-tracking antenna.

Well, how far could a tortoise possibly get in a week? I asked.

Lisa sighed, “They’re not tortoises. They’re turtles. They’re aquatic. They live in the water and swim either upstream or downstream.”

Huh. Aquatic turtles in the desert. Who knew?

“Well, that makes things easier,” said Rio. “We just have to fly up and down the river.” It’s true. We were lucky Adrian wasn’t studying bobcats or some other terrestrial creature that was free to–or inclined to–roam hither-tither across the face of the planet, because the transmitters his University had supplied him with sport a woefully short range. About a mile. Of course, I was hoping we might be able to do better from above.

But today’s meeting wasn’t really about turtle range and speed. We had met to answer one question and one question only: How the Sam Heck were we going to get Adrian’s critter-tracking gear attached to the Plane Tales Plane without damaging either?

Lisa’s first thought was to strap it to the top of the wing. I pointed out that changing the shape of an airfoil was likely to lead to one of those nasty stall, spin, crash, burn episodes, and she quickly decided she wanted no part of that.

We considered attaching the antenna to the landing gear, to the top of the cockpit, and to the bottom back of the fuselage. I squinted at another photo while Lisa and Rio munched on a King-sized Mr. Goodbar Lisa picked up while fueling up her truck on the way to our house. This would be easier, I muttered more to myself than to them, if we had the plane here with us.

“Well,” said Rio, “why don’t we just go down to the hangar?”

I groaned inwardly because it had been a long day, the airport is 45 minutes away, I was tired, plus I’d had a glass of wine with lunch–so getting in a little flight time was out. But as soon as Rio let the words out of his mouth, a childlike enthusiasm overtook both my child and my child-at-heart friend, and any resistance from me was futile.

Off we all went on a moment’s notice. (After finding sunglasses for Rio’s Nana, who came along for the ride.)

When we got to the Plane Tales Hangar, Rio had a new idea. Just place the antenna on top of the engine:


I actually liked this idea: No major impact on aerodynamics; out in front of the plane where the signal wouldn’t be blocked by the structure; located where we could keep an eye on it; plus it looked cool. But in the end there was no way to attach it in that spot without drilling holes in the Plane Tales Plane.

We also rejected attaching the antenna to the plane’s tail for the same reason, and due to the low wing, securing the antenna to the landing gear pretty much assured it would be ripped right off on the first landing.

We also learned at this point that the antenna is sometimes used horizontally and sometimes vertically.

Hmmmm…. Then, despite all our overly-complicated thinking, the solution was simple and only required six disposable Shop Towels and some electrical tape. The Telemetry Tracking Technician on the flight could simply hold the antenna out the window, holding it either horizontally on top:


Or vertically on the side:


The Shop Towels? That protects the paint from getting scratched. Only one question remained: Would the wind snatch the antenna out of the CoPilot’s hands, to be lost forever in the New Mexico wilderness?

A flying plane has two types of wind: The wind from moving through the airmass (in Tessie’s case around 100 mph) plus the wind thrown back from the spinning prop. And I honestly don’t know how much the two totals up to. Safe inside her fabulously designed cockpit with both doors open, the wind is no worse than you’d get riding a horse at a decent clip. But stick your hand out and BAM! The tornado-like gale snaps it back against the window frame behind you!

We needed to test our theory, and once again it was Rio who figured out how:


Yep, no problem holding the antenna while screaming down Route 66 at 85 miles per hour in Lisa’s white 1999 Nissan Frontier Crew Cab truck!

When the Tale Continues: Before we chase turtles in the wild, Lisa suggests a dress rehearsal.


Lost Lambs–Chapter 1

Lisa’s son Adrian had lost his turtle Roberta, and Lisa was calling to ask if we could help find the missing reptile. Now, before you start reaching for your kleenex boxes while visions of a little boy crying for his lost pet dance in your heads, I should point out that Adrian is a full-grown man. And, as it turned out, he’d actually lost two turtles.

Leigh was missing, too.

But before you reach for the phone to call the Humane Society on this turtle-inept pet owner, you also need to know that, like his momma, Adrian is a field biologist. And you need to know that the missing turtles are wild Chelydra serpentinea who live in the Mora River about 60 nautical miles north of the Plane Tales Airport. Of course that’s easy for me to say now. At the time of the call things were much more muddled.

The conversation started off early in the morning and my brain wasn’t firing on all four cylinders yet. “Adrain’s lost two of his Chylydra serpentinea,” Lisa said, without preamble, in her normal overly-hyper way, “and I was calling to see if you and the Planes Tales Crew could help us find them.”

Uhhhh…. Have you ever had one of those phone calls when you haven’t had enough coffee, you missed the subject of the conversation, and you just flop abound on the metaphorical ground like a fish out of water? I couldn’t recall if Chylydra serpentinea was one of those designer night club drugs, or a break-a-way Czech Republic. And I couldn’t figure out how Adrian would be involved in either one. And in either case–in my book–he seemed well rid of the situation.

But as the one-sided early morning call went on, it was clear I’d have to fess up that I either missed what we were talking about, or never actually knew in the first place. Hold on, Lisa, I said, what’s a Chylydra serpentinea? Or at least I think I said something like that. There might also have been some colorful profanity in there somewhere, because it was early in the morning and that’s the way Lisa and I generally talk to each other.

“There’re snapping turtles,” said Lisa.

We have snapping turtles in New Mexico?

For this question I was rewarded with a long silence from my better creature-informed friend. Well, that’s OK. She may know animals better than I do, but I’m pretty up to speed on designer drugs and Czech Republics. Or if not those, at least airplanes.

Anyway, it turns out that Adrian is finishing up his Master’s Degree, and he’s been literally following seven snapping turtles using radio telemetry. This cohort of turtles, ranging in size from a quarter pound to 20 pounds each, have a radio transmitter epoxied to their shells and Adrian tromps around on the ground carrying this thing that looks like a 1960′s roof-top TV antenna to track their movements.

The problem was, he’d lost track of two of his study subjects and Lisa was calling in the Cavalry to help.

The Air Cavalry.

When the Tale Continues: To hell with how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood: How do you find a lost snapping turtle? From the air?