Slaves to the damn weather

“Damn,” I mutter under my breath as I jump down off the wing. It’s the weather. Well, more correctly, the weather forecast. On my iPhone a green and blue tidal wave: Air Sports Net’s wind forecast for tomorrow morning. The Plane Plan was to test-fly Tess, but thanks to the weather, it doesn’t look good for the home team.

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And it isn’t just Air Sports Net that has a dim view of the sky. Weather Underground, Dark Sky, and the Garmin Pilot MOS—Model Output Statistics—are all in agreement. A trinity plus one says the morning wind is unfit for flying in general, much less for a test flight.

Four weather sources? Isn’t that, like, excessive? Well, the truth is that we pilots are slaves to the weather. After all, we go to work in the sky, the weather’s home turf, so smart pilots do their best to discover what kind of mood the weather going to be in before we get there. Hey, good weather means good flying, while bad weather means bad flying—or more frequently, no flying at all. Which is why a bad weather forecast usually rates a “damn” in my book.

And I’ve been saying “damn” a lot lately.

Or a lot more than I used to, it seems to me. My home state is supposedly blessed with 310 days of sunshine a year, and in past years it was a rare thing when weather scrubbed a local flight. Not to say we don’t have our weather challenges here in New Mexico. We have a lot of rugged terrain and afternoon winds are common. These winds churn and tumble across the landscape, resulting in turbulent skies that make feather-weight planes like Tess good training grounds for future bull-riding rodeo stars.

But this year… this year is different. Howling winds early in the morning. Rain and snow. Poor visibility. Low ceilings. Fog! Fog in arid New Mexico! Who ever heard of such a thing? I’ve seen New Mexico fog maybe twice in three decades prior to this year. Now, it’s like London in Sherlock Holmes’ day.

But it’s not just New Mexico weather. As a family, we catch ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir to see what’s happening over the horizon, and to set a good example for Rio about the importance of being an informed citizen. And lately I’ve noticed that the weather is a big story. Occasionally the lead story, and commonly “above the fold” before the first commercial break.

Nearly every night.

That didn’t used to happen. Is the weather changing, or is the public’s focus on it changing? I’m not sure. But this damn weather is affecting more than my personal flying. Case in point: At the end of last year my plane friend Lisa needed about six or eight lessons to finish up her ticket, so she decided that the best solution was to fly every single day during her college’s Christmas vacation. And although quite pricey, she also decided to hangar her plane Warbler in Santa Fe to be close to her instructor to simplify travel logistics.

I think she got to fly twice over the normally cool, sunny break. The rest of the days were unflyable.

Damn weather.

Naturally, being tough and tenacious, Lisa rallied and figured, fine: I’ll keep the plane over there a little longer and get the flights done on weekends. But then each Friday evening I watched David Muir and his team display colorful radar images of yet another weekend storm set to sweep over the state. Weekend after weekend, storm systems rolled in and over us, and before we could take a breath, roll up our sleeves, and soak up some vitamin D, the next storm was set to pounce upon us.

Warbler is still in Santa Fe, three full months of hangar rent later.

And come to think of it, it’s not just the weekend weather. Rio’s Monday lessons have been weathered out so many times he’s taken to calling himself a Rusty Pilot.

Of course, another complication when it comes to weather is that weather forecasts are wrong as often as they are right. Take today for instance. This morning, I’m writing instead of flying—not a bad alternative, but never my first choice. Why? Because those four forecasts sixteen hours ago led me to believe that flying this morning would be a bad idea, so I scrubbed Tessie’s scheduled test flight.

The winds this morning over in Santa Fe were forecast to be 20 something gusting to 30 something from dawn on. It’s now three hours after sunrise and looking at one of my weather apps, right now there’s a three mile an hour wind (unlike most pilots, I disdain knots). Barely enough to rumple the wind socks at Santa Fe. I could have been making serious progress toward getting my baby back in the air and off to the races again.

Yeah. All four forecasts were wrong. And yes, I’m annoyed.

Dam weather.

Damn weather forecasts.

And looking forward, the next three days are forecast to have bad weather.

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Well… Damn.

 

Frigid Flight

First the thick T-shirt from Eddie Bauer. Next, a heavy polo-style sweater, also, probably, from Eddie Bauer. After that comes the scarf. Then my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. I’m getting ready for a frigid flight. I slide my hands into warm gloves. According to the internet, it’s 17° F at our homebase. On the ground. And the sky gets colder the higher you go up.

I finish by pulling my thick Fly Duluthknit cap down over my ears. They really know how to make hats in northern Minnesota. Of course, my friends in northern Minnesota are laughing their asses off right now if they’re reading this—they wear short sleeve dress shirts at 17 degrees. I’ll bet they don’t even reach for their extra warm, thick, and wonderful artic-proven Fly Duluth knit caps until the mercury goes seriously into the negative. But we Southwesterners have thinner blood, and this is the first real cold snap of the season. So I’m not even remotely acclimated to the fact it’s winter. Heck, the cabin heater hose in Tess is still disconnected.

Luckily, however, I had the foresight to plug in her electric engine pre-heater. I did not, however, have the foresight to bring a hammer with me to the airport. Why would this matter? Because the padlock to Tessie’s hangar is entombed in ice like the alien in The Thing from Another Worldwhen I arrive.

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I get out my phone and amend my flight plan for a later departure. Luckily for me, the ice-clad lock proves less an obstacle than it appears; but my real problems have just begun.

As I push on the left hangar door, it starts to open with a crunching groan, hesitates, then rattles back, pouring cold, blue early winter morning light into my frozen hangar. I push on the right door. It grudgingly moves two feet and then jams solid. I pull back. No go. It’s stuck. Stuck fast.

Great. I can only get half my airplane out.

Debbie starts optimistically sweeping the snow from the short stretch of crumbling asphalt in front of Tessie’s wheels while I hack, swear, kick, and chop at the ice that’s lined the right door’s tracks. A north-facing hangar is only a good idea in three out of four seasons.

At long last, both doors stand open to the frigid world. Time to make ready for flight. Weird things happen to airplane metal and plastic at temperature extremes on both ends, so I do a more cautious than usual preflight. The elevator moves smoothly. The ailerons do not. But that’s a good thing on an Ercoupe. Their ailerons are interlinked to their rudders and their nosewheels. With Tess’s nosewheel planted firmly on the frozen ground, her ailerons and rudders would move freely only if they were horribly broken. The oil level is good. I pull off a glove and reach in to caress a cylinder to ensure that the engine heating system is working. It’s hot to the touch, burning my finger.

I check the fuel levels with a Fuelhawkstraw. They’re much lower than I expect, until I remember that fuel contracts significantly when it’s cold. In fact, in his bid to win the 1946 Bendix Air race by flying non-stop, Paul Mantz dropped containers of dry ice into a fuel truck to contract the gasoline so he could squeeze more of the fuel into the tanks of his heavily modified Mustang, Race 46.

It worked. He took the Gold that year. And the next. And the next.

I, however, decide that it’s prudent to add a few galloons before I take off into the white wonderland that stretches between here and Santa Fe.

Tess ready, I pull her out onto the crunching snow and button up the hangar. Or try to. I’ve carelessly left the open lock dangling from the door latch, and dripping water from the towering hangar roof has sloshed into the innards of the lock, freezing solid, blocking the lock as if it were full of cement. Rio takes the glacial lock to the Jeep and holds it close to the air vent, heater on high to thaw it out, while I amend my flight plan for a second time.

Debs worries that I’ll pick up ice on the wings. She’s been watching Air Disasters with Rio, Grandma, Lisa, and me. Not to worry, baby, that only happens in clouds. The sky is pale blue today, the ceiling of a baby boy’s nursery, with not a hint of a cloud. Even if there had been a cloud, it would probably freeze solid and crash to earth in a shower of broken crystals.

Finally, screaming metal doors closed again, lock thawed, I carefully mount the wing and step into my refrigerator of a cockpit. I’m prepared for a long, cold flight. Fuel open. Master on. Beacon on. Throttle cracked. Mags to both. Two shots of prime. Press the starter.

The prop spins round and round, then she starts with less complaint than I banked on, given the temperature. I taxi across the snow, throwing up less of a blizzard than I expected, darn it, then make my way to the runup area to wait for all the engine parts to come to heated harmony.

Finally, the oil temp in the green, I do my run up and pull onto the runway. It seems that no sooner than I push the throttle forward we are airborne, climbing like a jet fighter, the frigid air turbocharging my engine and airfoils, Tess’s white wings stretching out over a white world below.

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Pilots may not, but airplaneslovecold air.

But quickly I discover that this flight is not the frigid episode of Ice Pilotsthat I expected. In the cloudless sky, the sun filters though my greenhouse of a canopy, and with my newly re-connected heater duct keeping my feet toasty I actually start getting, well, too warm.

So I reverse the winterization process. I take off my headset, and ears momentarily assaulted by 113 decibels of pounding cylinders, pull off my thick Fly Duluth knit cap. Next, gripping a fingertip in my teeth, I slide my warm gloves off my hands. Then I slither out of my deep blue knock-off MA-1 flight jacket. Finally, I remove my scarf.

Liberated from the frozen ground, high in the winter sky, basking in bright sunlight, my frigid flight turns out to be comfortably warm

For body and for soul.

 

Real games with toy planes

I spent hours flying Tess and Warbler above the southern New Mexico desert scouting the route. Hours more getting just the right pictures of it. I spent days designing and laying out the beautifully printed knee boards for the race pilots. I’m embarrassed to admit how I paid for those.

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I carefully plotted the race course on Google Earth Pro, measured the legs, then applied the proper math to compensate for the turn radius of the planes. I worked out handicaps for the three sizes of engines under the cowls of Ercoupes. I created an Excel spread sheet to calculate the speeds based on the start and finish times, and to automatically handicap the planes. I worked out the marshalling order, created timing sheets, bought a pair of atomic clocks, a green start flag, and a checkered finish line flag.

I had three beautiful trophies made for the fastest planes. Tall skinny towers a topped with cups like the air race trophies of old. Then I had custom medals struck for each pilot that flew, so that everyone would win something.

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I also, in SARLtradition, found the cutest little pig with wings for the slowest plane.

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I connected with a local talent scout and recruiteda group of models that became known as the Derby Dolls to set the NASCAR-with-wings tone I was after.

Sure, the rare opportunity to fly into highly restricted air space and land at Spaceport America was the real reason most of the pilots were coming to the 42ndErcoupe Owners Club Nationals; but to me, the signature event was my air race—which I named the 1stNational Ercoupe Air Derby. Needless to say, I had secret fantasies of it becoming an annual event, maybe even a league someday.

Twenty-one of the forty-eight planes coming to the convention signed up for my Derby, and I realized that I had on my hands the largest race of like-kind planes since the 1930s.

I was on cloud nine.

Cloud nine itself, however, was at 200 feet. AGL. Apparently, despite all my careful planning, I forgot to make the appropriate offering to the weather gods.

Arrival day at the national convention varied between low IFR and garden variety IFR most of the day, with a brief gasp toward the end of the day of the most marginal Marginal VFR I’ve even seen. Only one brave soul made it in. As twilight crept in at the end of the day, I stood out on the cold, wet apron and looked at the small collection of Ercoupes. Instead of the expected 48 planes that would have over-flowed the ramp, I had six, only two of which had entered the Derby.

It was decision time. The weather for race day looked fine, but most of my racers were MIA, trapped by hurricane-whipped moisture all across the country, and there was no way that they’d make it in before the scheduled dawn briefing. I considered moving the race, but it was like trying to re-arrange jigsaw puzzle pieces. It just couldn’t be done. There were too many other events that needed to take place when they were scheduled.

I was about to cancel the first ever National Ercoupe Air Derby when my buddy Lisa, who is a certified frickin’ genius, had a suggestion. In the swag bags for the convention were toy balsa wood gliders from the state Aviation Division. Why not create some sort of Air Derby with them? After all, we had no shortage of pilots. Men and women who locked their fogged-in hangar doors, jumped in their cars and drove in, or jumped on commercial flights and rented cars to reach the convention.

Lisa got out a piece of paper and started scribbling. She thinks best on paper. Longest throw… Most accurate throw… Number of throws to complete a “pylon” course…

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The next day, when I should have been marshalling twenty-one Ercoupes onto Taxiway Alpha at KLRU, I was setting up orange cones on the ramp in front of EAA Chapter 555’s hangar, roughly mimicking the layout of the real race. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it. Then my cell phone starting ringing and the assorted crises that befall convention coordinators started befalling me.

Chief among these was the Spaceport. They needed to know precisely how many people were coming the next day, their names, states, blood types and genotypes; and who was stepping off a plane and who was stepping off a bus. And they needed to know RIGHT now!

Of course, I’d given them this information weeks ago, but now with the weather, it was a moving target. On a borrowed laptop I started throwing together a new spreadsheet (not having the sense to bring the one I had previously made with me) and began to code pilots by: Cancelled, switched from air to ground, still coming by air, and unknown at present.

I knew our fearless leader, club director Larry Snyder, was trapped in Tucumcari, having failed to reach my home base of SXU by a few miles before weather forced him to retreat. He emailed, “Had to turn back. Solid wall of rain and maybe 1 mile visibility.” A pity. Our hotels and restaurants are better. I knew I had a handful of planes in eastern New Mexico, and the story of those pilots trying to find a rental car is worthy of a Plane Tale of its own someday. And I knew that eight planes were bottled up together at Willcox, AZ, more than had reached the convention itself.

I also had one pilot who was missing. The night before, Flight Service called to ask if he’d arrived. His flight plan was overdue and not closed. He hadn’t. I tossed and turned all night worrying about him, and it gnawed at me the next day. When he eventually showed up I was so happy to see him, I gave him a giant bear hug.

The rest of the fleet? Who knew? Certainly not me. Working from a tattered, folded, damp print out of the master registration list, I struggled to update the Excel spread sheet, while answering my phone every ten minutes (have you noticed that cell phone batteries never die when you want them to?) and alternately talking to members with a wide variety of questions, issues, comments, and suggestions. I was starting to, you know, stress out a little, when I heard it.

I heard the sound of a party.

Happy voices. Laughter. Cheers. The sounds were drifting into the EAA hangar from the ramp.

I got up and stuck my head out the door. A crowd had gathered to cheer on the Basal Wing Derby pilots. The wind was up, snatching the light gliders. One pilot used tape to increase his weight. Another swore her secret was to aim low and throw low. It was getting competitive, to say the least, but everyone was having a blast. The Derby Dolls were on hand working the green and checkered flags, and Lisa was keeping point totals on two giant sheets of poster board that kept flapping in the wind.

I was witnessing the birth of a new aviation sport.

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At the end of the trio of competitions, the Derby Dolls gave out the custom Air Racer medals to each person who participated in all three Basal Wing events, and presented the tall skinny trophies a topped with cups to the top three scoring pilots.

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Talk about salvaging a disaster! Not only did our members have a blast, probably more people had more fun than if my race had gone off as planned. Of course, that’s not stopping me from planning the 2ndNational Ercoupe Air Derby for next year. You know, with real airplanes this time. But still… I think I’ll ask the state for another handful of those basal gliders next year.

Just in case.