A new perspective on Santa’s commute

That looks unfriendly. Over there. To the right. The clouds are reaching down for the ground in a lover’s embrace, a curtain of grey-white cutting off my view of the horizon. When I first spied it, the curtain was parallel to my course, but now it’s converging, its far tip pointing like a finger to my home airport.


A look at the radar shows a cigar-like yellow-orange echo, easily 20 miles long, mimicking what I’m seeing out the windscreen, confirming that the storm is heading to the same place I’m going. I’m 18 minutes out. I advance my throttle from cruise power to its race setting.

The race is on. The race against the weather.

As I close in on SXU it’s clear I’ve lost. The weather is the winner. The curtain slices across my path eight miles out. As I close in on it, it takes on an unusual look. At first, I thought it was rain… but no. It’s not streaky enough. It churns oddly. Uncloud like. It’s clumpy. Could it be smoke? There’s a controlled burn to the southside of the airport today, but the AWOS reports the wind is blowing the other way. Smoke from the fire should be going away from me, not toward me. And besides, how would smoke show up on the radar? I look back over my shoulder and the curtain extends to the far horizon behind me, not thinning. Doesn’t smoke usually dissipate as it drifts away from its fire? Still, clearly, smoke it must be. What else could it be? Maybe the surface winds are different from the winds aloft. Maybe a few hundred feet up they change direction. Hmmm… I must be alert for wind shear.

I close in on the plume, I can see through it, but not well. The land beyond is indistinct. I can see it’s a narrow band, but I’m surprised how opaque it is. Well, no worry. I can sort of see through it, and clearly at this speed I’ll blow through to the clear air beyond it in a matter of seconds. I turn slightly off course to the south to hit the column straight on, and prepare myself for the odor of burning grass and weeds.

As Tess and I plunge into the cloud, it turns into a dizzying swarm of white insects, then a white out. Snow! I’ve flown into an aerial blizzard! My forward visibility is gone in the flash of an eye, dashing through snowflakes at 100 miles per hour makes them as optically solid as London fog. Out my left side I see clusters of flakes churn and tumble as I blast through their mass, and then as suddenly as it started, I’m in the clear again.

I bank left to get back on course, flying side by side with the falling snow. So you are snow. Not smoke. Not rain. Not cloud. I’ve heard of how impossible snow is to fly in, but I’ve never experienced it. Now close, but not in the plume, I can see the flakes falling and I marvel at the long thin band of snow and wonder how it can fall over so many miles in such a pencil-like band.

No wonder Santa needs a beacon light.

Not quite home yet

Tess finally made bail. Her mechanics called to say they’d finished the latest round of repairs: The new header tank was in; the leaking oil sump quick drain had been replaced; and the fuel pump gasket was squared away. Come pick her up.

Reviewing the invoice, I saw that changing the fuel tank gobbled up thirty-two man hours. They had to disconnect the sundry fuel lines, unhook all the controls and cables in the cockpit, remove most of the radios and other modern gear, unbolt the tank from its brackets, drop it to the floor, then maneuver it up over the seat and out through the top of the canopy. Then they had to do the opposite with the new tank, then bolt it in place, reinstall the radios and other modern gear, hook up all the cockpit cables and controls, and connect all the sundry fuel lines to the new tank.

This is considered a “plug and play” installation by one Ercoupe expert I talked to about swapping header tanks.

I also noticed the shop rate had gone up ten dollars an hour from the last invoice. My pay has not. I dealt with that by buying a T-shirt that says: “Welcome to aviation. You are now broke.” It seemed like the right thing to do with the last $14.99 in my retirement fund.


But at least the latest round was behind me. And there’s really not much left on the plane that hasn’t been either refurbished or replaced. Tess isn’t a 1947 Ercoupe any more. She’s a 2013-2014-2015-2016-2017-2018 model. All she really needs now is a new paint job. But that’s a tale for another day.

I handed my mechanic another check that had a number which included a comma, and sat down on his leather couch to check the weather. Ut-oh. It was getting windy back home. In Santa Fe it was as nice as it could be. In Santa Rosa the wind was 18 miles per hour. Gusting to 30.

I don’t like gusting, especially when the gusts are nearly double the base wind speed. It makes for unnecessarily exciting landings.

The winds were forecast to remain high until sunset. Aw, hell.

I had a decision to make. Ercoupes are great crosswind planes. Because their landing gear lets them land practically sideways, they can handle wind better than pretty much any plane out there. And I’ve landed in some pretty hairy wind. But there’s a difference between landing in hairy wind when you have to, and choosing to go and put yourself out in a hairy situation. I was confident I could do it, but was it worth it? Just to get the plane back home again?

I grumbled to myself for a while, and finally, my chief mechanic, who had been sitting politely at his desk said, “I’m going to go back to work while you make up your mind,” and then disappeared out his office door into his hangar where two Civil Air Patrol planes were getting annuals and a local flight school 172 was getting its bent firewall replaced following a nose-heavy landing by a student pilot.

I looked to the next day’s weather. It, too, was windy as the dickens. But the day after was forecast to be lovely. Doubting myself, as always when it comes to this kind of thing, I choose to wait. I wandered out into the hangar, then outside where Tess was tied down. I put her gustlock in place, grabbed the keys, buttoned up the canopy, patted her on the spinner and went back to the car.

At Starbucks thirty minutes later I found myself checking the wind again, just to reassure myself it was still windy and that I’d made a good call.

It was still windy.

I ran a few errands then headed home, to find the wind had gone home to where ever it lives as well. It was a calm evening. If I’d just waited an hour or two the flight, and landing would have been uneventful.

I kicked myself, but I also knew the old adage it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. The weather the day after tomorrow is still forecast to be lovely. And Tess is happy to wait.


Biggest, baddest, longest ever

I’m seeing red. A giant swath of red. I knew it was coming, it had to, but… Wow. I just didn’t expect it to be this damn big. So much red… the color of warning, the color of danger. The color, it so happens, that Garmin chose to mark TFRs—Temporary Flight Restrictions—on their interactive flight charts.

Have we talked about TFRs before? They’re special, short-term pieces of prohibited air space. There’s one that follows the president wherever he goes, a red cloud of Keep Out airspace floating over his head. Other TFRs are established over open arena sporting events. Still others over fire fighting operations. The one I’m looking at now is for “disaster response and recovery efforts.” It’s over the city of Houston, still reeling from the massive flooding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

And like all things in Texas, the TFR is big.

I set my FlightPad down on the kitchen table, and gently place a fingertip on each side of the red trapezoid. The measuring tool in the app pops up. The Texas-sized TFR is 130 miles wide.

A 130-mile wide disaster area.


And this TFR isn’t as temporary as its name implies. It’s not set to expire for eight more days. During that time, from the surface to 4,000 feet all flying is banned, including drones, except for flights engaged in rescue efforts coordinated by the Texas Air Operations Center.

I see a smaller 18-mile wide TFR embedded in the larger one. A TFR within a TFR? Curious, I touch my finger to it. The details pop up: Hazard—Gas leak.

Holy cow.

Like the rest of the country, I was glued to the Weather Channel as Harvey made a run for Texas coast and came ashore, but my schedule has kept me away from TVs since. Naturally I’ve listened to CNN’s coverage on my satellite radio, but with no visuals it’s been hard for me to really grasp the scope of the disaster.

But this simple red trapezoid on a map unfolds the story for me in a way a thousand news photos couldn’t. More than 6,000 square miles of Texas air space is closed for rescue operations. That’s 6,000 square miles of human suffering, of fear, of pain. Thousands of souls, lost—for a time—in that sea of red.

It’s hard to imagine, even in Texas, where everything is bigger.


An evil forecast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


And it will be a lot more friendly.


Weather worries

I still don’t have an airplane. I’m frustrated, yes, but not worried. I’m confident my maintenance team will have me in the air in time for the first flight of the race season.

So it’s the weather that I’m worrying about.

Here’s why: Our first trip this season will take us out over the eastern plains of New Mexico, cut across the top of Texas, bisect Oklahoma, lob off the top of Arkansas, plow through the middle of Tennessee, and land us in western South Carolina. Then we’ll race through Georgia to central Florida. Homebound we’ll go up the gulf coast into Alabama, through Mississippi and Louisiana, and then angle home across the Lone Star State. All told, a nearly 3,000-mile, two-week journey that ropes in the first three races of the season.

By the time we get home from the first trip of the season, we’ll already be due for our first oil change.

It all looks simple enough on the big wall planning chart in our flight lounge. No tricky terrain. Easy-to-avoid military air space. Plenty of fueling options.

But the weather… Now that’s a different story. Weather is ever dynamic, ever changing. Especially over so long a course. I’m yet to see a day see a day when there wasn’t trouble somewhere along our planned route.

Of course, we’ll take it in baby steps. Carefully looking down-range a day at a time, with one eye on the next day. I have no real concerns. I know we’ll make it. I also accept the fact that there’s no way we’ll make it as planned. Although we’ve carefully marked out our fuel stops, planned where we think we’ll spend each night, and inquired about hangar space en route, I know the plan will fall apart in the teeth of the weather gods. We’ll have to deviate from our course. We may chase weather; it may chase us. We may have to set down and wait it out.

We might even get trapped somewhere.

Of course, that’s half the fun of flying by light airplane.

But still… I’m worrying about the weather…


Get well soon, Tessie

I thought the worst was over when Tessie broke down. That was a bad day. Not 100 miles from home, in Clovis, New Mexico, our girl wouldn’t restart after landing to wait out a line of thunderstorms.

A pair of local mechanics worked valiantly to get us back in the air so we could make our race, but it didn’t happen. After months of racing, with victory within our grasp, a “mechanical” took us out of the running. I knew that missing this one race, this late in the season, would put my competitors far enough ahead that there was no way in hell I could catch up. All my efforts—long hours, vast miles, big money—wasted.

It was a lot to process.


Once the family arrived to rescue me (via car) all the talk surrounded how “lucky” we were, and how “blessed” we were to have broken down on the ground, rather than in the air. While I don’t deny that this is true, I was pissed off that we broke down at all. We take exceedingly good care of Tessie.

This should not have happened.

I remained grumpy all the way home. Even two Mexican beers and green chili chicken enchiladas at Santa Rosa’s Silver Moon didn’t do much for my mood.

The next day I woke up with a black cloud over my head, not that it mattered much with no plane to fly. We had to leave our girl behind, tied down on the dirt outside the mechanic’s hangar at the far end of Taxiway Bravo in Clovis. It made me heartsick to drive away and leave her there.

Hopefully, she gets well soon.

I spent the next day writing up the story for General Aviation News as part of my ongoing series on air racing. After all, breakdowns are part of the story of racing. A breakdown that costs you everything you’ve strived for is an even “better” story, I suppose.

The following day was Race Day. I was up with the dawn, knowing that soon, over 800 miles away, my friends and rivals would be racing. I could picture the planes lined up on the ramp, the racers waxing their wings, putting gap tape on their cowls, warming up their engines.

And I suddenly felt painfully alone. Isolated. Left out.

It’s the first race I’ve missed since racing took over my life. I didn’t think it would get to me so badly. I had no way of knowing what was happening. Did all the planes show? What were the winds like? Did my competitor happen to have the same bad luck I did?

I was bluer than my race shirt.

There’s no fast news out of a SARL race. It’s not like we’re on Fox Sports or anything. As the minutes and hours crawled by, I awaited news from the race, checking my email every five minutes to see if one of my buddies would give me the scoop. I tried to read to while away the time. Finally, I cracked open a bottle of wine.

Rather early in the day.

In the end, I was so stressed out I actually fell asleep in a comfy chair in our library. I never sleep during the day. Unless I’m sick. But, I guess in a way I’m as sick as my plane.

And I doubt I’ll get fully well again until Tessie does.


Waiting out the weather

I draw back the curtains and peer out. It’s six A.M., but on the western cusp of the central time zone it’s still dark out. I expected that, but there’s something funny about the darkness. It doesn’t quite look right. The streetlights in the Hampton Inn parking lot look remarkably romantic. They have a postcard quality to them. Lights more distant take on a diffuse, painterly quality.

Huh. That’s strange.

I squat down and look up towards the sky. No stars.


I fetch my flight pad from the nightstand, open the Garmin Pilot App, and gently rap the screen above the airport icon at Liberal, Kansas. A blood-red symbol with white letters appears. IFR. That stands for instrument flight rules, and it means the weather minimums are below what’s legal for visual flight, called VFR.

We’re a VFR airplane. A second rap on the screen brings up the details. Ceiling 300 feet. Overcast. Mist. Crap.

Oh, the report didn’t include “crap.” That was my editorializing.

This was not in the forecast. But come to think of it, none of the weather Lisa and I have been dueling with on this cross-country was in the forecast. It’s the last day of a three-day trip back to Santa Fe for much needed maintenance after the race in Indianapolis. We’ve worked our way, hunting and pecking a route around weather, for 824 miles. We only have 302 miles to go but there’s no going anywhere at the moment.

Yesterday—barely underway—we put down on the cusp of a line of early morning thunderstorms at Sedalia, Missouri. Just west of the airport, on final approach to Runway 05, we overflew an abandoned industrial building surrounded by a moat-like chain-link fence. Weeds grew tall around it. It was sad and weather-beaten. Even its red brick walls were faded to dull pink. Still, even in a state of semi-ruin it was impressive. The building was gigantic, covering acres. All along its front were huge, tall, closely spaced doors. It looked a bit like a shipping warehouse, but the scale was wrong.

After landing, I asked the airport manager what the building was. He told me that for decades it served as the primary engine repair shop for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. In fact, his grandfather first came to Sedalia as a boilermaker for the railroad. The “Works,” built in 1904, covered 120 acres and was the largest railroad repair facility west of the Mississippi River. Generations of men worked there, at one time 4,500 of them.

But time changes all. Following the steam age, it was all downhill. For a time the building serviced cabooses, but when the railroad dropped the caboose, the facility was finally shuttered. In June of 1986 the Union Pacific, who had brought the Missouri Pacific, let the remaining 87 employees go, and held an auction to sell off the contents of the building.

We spent two hours on the ground waiting out the weather. A light rain soaked the tarmac, but the bulk of the storm slid south. When the rain stopped and the ceilings lifted we took off for Wichita.


We never made it.

Not 60 miles downrange from Sedalia, small grey puffy clouds started forming all around us. We ducked lower. The clouds grew and merged, becoming a solid blanket of grey cotton blotting out the sky. Then the ceiling began to drop. With each passing mile the gap between the grey sky and the ground shrank. Below our wings was rich farmland, littered with cellphone towers.

It was time to land. Quickly running out of sky, we called up the nearest airport by pressing the “NRST” key on the Flight Pad. Miami County Kansas, eighteen miles away, was the winner. I turned northwest, remembering the friendly folks at Miami, Oklahoma.

My mistake.

As it turns out, there are actually eleven cities in the county named Miami. One each in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. (Only five have airports.) I’ve lived in New Mexico for half my life and didn’t know we had a city named Miami.

The old terminal building at Miami County Kansas is now a restaurant called We B Somkin BBQ, which was just closing for the day when we taxied up. Apparently they are only open half days on Sundays. The staff glared at us when we came in the door, and didn’t utter a word. We were finally directed to pilot’s “lounge,” a single, closed-off room in the far corner of the building. The air was stale and stifling, and the room was filled with buzzing flies. There was no internet, the windows were painted shut, and the amenities were limited to a few hard plastic chairs, a folding table, and a pile of brochures touting the airport. Apparently the Mid-Way Drive-in Theatre is a must-see local attraction.


Using our cellphones, we studied the weather and plotted our escape.

Our escape route to get us free from the clouds took us southwest to Strother Field, between Winfield and Arkansas City, Kansas, on the Arkansas River. From there, we’d strike due west for Liberal, which was our goal for the day. We had originally planned to be at liberal by 1pm. It was nearly 2pm now, and we still had 400 miles to go.

The sky was still grey above when we lifted off from my least favorite of the Miamis I’ve visited, but the ceiling had risen, and we flew over the fields at a comfortable 800 feet, keeping a sharp eye out for cell towers, both off our nose and on the moving map in the cockpit.


By the time we reached Srother Field the sun had come out and it was a whole ‘nother world. From damp, cool grey to sun-scorched baking heat. The metal nozzle of the fuel pump singed my fingers as I topped up our fuel load for the last leg of the day.

But the weather gods weren’t done with us yet.

Flying over a country road that extended arrow-straight to the western horizon, I watched afternoon thunderstorms bloom on my cockpit radar. They began as isolated patches of green, like moss on a forest floor. Then, the centers of the larger patches turned bright, cheerful yellow, like Kansas sunflowers. Next the centers deepened to angry orange, soon topped by fire engine-red. As the powerful convective currents pushed the storm tops high into the atmosphere, the centers of the storms turned brown-red, like dried blood, on my radar, and finally, blooming like multicolored wild flowers, the tops of the storms displayed lavender purple.

One storm cell, as powerful as they come, lurked to the south of our course. It was tall and strong, but small in diameter. We couldn’t make out its direction of travel. Whether it would cut us off or not. Since we were entering a no-man’s land where airports are scarce, we started reviewing our options. As we closed in, it was clear that it would let us pass, but ahead a squall line was forming outside of Liberal. We’d beat it there, but it looked like it might be a wild weather night.


On touchdown at Liberal, the sun was still pounding down, but the horizon was ringed with towering thunderstorms. We arranged for a hangar and crew car with the friendly folks at Lyddon Aero Center, then headed for the Hampton which offered a special airport rate on a pair of splendid king suites.


Worn out from the day, I kicked back in my “living room” at the hotel and studied the weather for the final day of our trip. There was no forecast weather. I set my alarm for 5:15 AM.

So much for forecasts. I set my flight pad down and look out the window again. The night is retreating and now the blankets of fog are clear in the muted twilight. The far side of the street is cloaked in mist.


My cell phone makes a sound like an old fashioned telegraph. I just got a text. It’s from Lisa, across the hall. “Ready for wings up,” it reads.

“Look out your window,” I text back.

A minute later my phone telegraphs again: “Well, crap.”

Yeah. Crap. It looks like we’ll be waiting out the weather.

Potholes in the sky

Thump! The seat belt dug into my waist. The vertical speed indicator’s needle swung down as if broken. Bam! Now the nose of the plane jerked upwards. Then the plane disappeared out from under me, dropping like a roller coaster car. I levitated out of my seat and my headset slammed against the Plexiglas above me.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” I cursed softly under my breath. I cinched the shoulder belt as tight as it would go and looked up to see if I had broken the window. I hadn’t.


It was a rough day in the skies above eastern New Mexico. Planted fields, dark green, sucked in the hot sunlight like solar collectors, radiating out towers of rising air above them. Lighter, fallow fields had less heat rising above them. As we flew over patches of earth of differing colors, we passed through columns of rising air moving at different speeds. Meanwhile, in the sky above me, the opposite thing was happening. Scattered cumulous clouds of varying sizes were generating columns of falling air, downdrafts, each of a different speed and size. To top off my misery, a strong wind was gushing over the terrain like water over stones in a mountain stream, striking mesas and buttes, splashing currents of wind high into the atmosphere, then crashing back down again.

Three flavors of turbulence. It was wild. And there was nothing to do but ride it out.

I had my left hand wrapped around the yoke and my right hand wrapped around the windshield brace, which I’d covered in a piece of grey foam rubber pipe insulation from Home Depot for just such an occasion. I didn’t fight the winds, beyond keeping the plane rightside up. I’d lose 500 feet. Then gain 800. Then lose 300. And gain 200. A blue and white feather in the wind. Trying to hold an altitude would just be hard on the airframe and on the engine.

Altitude control a lost cause, I worked on my attitude control. My personal attitude. Flying in turbulence isn’t really much fun, but I tried to tell myself that people pay good money for being bounced around at amusement parks, and here I was getting it for free, and for a lot longer than any carnival ride. And then I remembered.

I really don’t like amusement parks.


A race for home

It looked like I had another race on my hands. I had just won one, the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race in Terrell, Texas, the day before, and now I was on my way home. But this time I wasn’t racing other men and machines, I was racing the elements.

The forecast called for fog in the morning so I got a late start. The weathermen were wrong. There was no fog. They also called for a few thunderstorms in the late afternoon. They were wrong about that, too: Both in how many there would be, and when they’d develop.

Back in the day, the sky a mystery over the horizon, flying must have been frightening. But thanks to near-real time radar on my iPad in the cockpit, I can see a storm a hundred miles away. Two hundred. I can see further than I can fly. So from far, far away, as I flew west, I was able to see the storm grow.

Actually there were many storms, but most posed no threat. Out from Plainview, Texas, they sprouted to the north and south of my course. I watched them billow and grow off my wings, giving me cooling shade and painting my radar first green, then orange, then red as they towered into the atmosphere, higher and higher.


They were beautiful, but no threat. I slid between and below them as they grew into monsters, but before they turned ugly. My worry was dead ahead. West of my destination a thunderstorm started to grow. It looked like it was barreling down on my home base as I was thundering towards it from the opposite direction.

The race was on.


I was doing 111 miles per hour. A good, strong thunderstorm can move a more than half that speed, so they can cover some ground pretty quickly. Plus, storms tend to kick wind out ahead of them. I expected to meet the front’s headwinds before I landed. The race looked to be a close one.

As we both closed in on the airport, the storm and I, I was pulling ahead on the radar. But in the real world it looked different. I was able to watch a menacing shadow from the storm’s anvil move across the landscape like an invading army, and on the final stretch I passed into the shadow, looking up from my cockpit at high, turbulent clouds above me as I made my turn to final approach.

On the ground the bright day turned to dim twilight, and the windsock snapped and groaned against the wind. The sky turned an evil shade of darkest grey. I quickly re-fueled, taxied to my hangar, and got the plane inside, sheltered from the sky.

Then, apparently deprived of its prize, the storm suddenly moved north, not leaving so much as single drop of rain. The sun came back out again and the wind died to a whisper.


Ultimate formation flying

I was standing on the beach, toes in the surf, when the squadron flew over me, wingtip to wingtip, each flier impossibly close to the next, in perfect formation. I stood riveted, ocean forgotten, neck craning upwards, eyes locked on the sky. As they passed overhead they changed course, the entire flight moving in unison as if it were one object, not a group of five.

No, it wasn’t the Blue Angels. Not the United Kingdom’s Red Arrows. Not Ireland’s Silver Swallows, or even South Africa’s Silver Falcons. It was the Texas Brown Pelicans, native-born pilots who can teach us all a thing or two.

What do they fly? Themselves. I’m not talking about men in man-made machines. I’m talking about those nasty-tempered, big-beaked, web-footed, mangy-feathered denizens of every dock in every port of the seven seas. Right. Real live Pelicans.

Believe me, those iconic pier post perchers, ugly to my eye on the ground, are a sight to behold in the air. Part sailplane, part pterodactyl, the long-winged, raggedy-feathered pelicans have grace and beauty in the air that puts the Bald Eagle to shame. That long Pelican beak, out of proportion on the ground, balances wide-wide-wide wings that sweep back gracefully towards the tips. Often loners on the ground, Pelicans soar in silent squadrons of four to twenty in the air. Sometimes they fly diamond formations, other times in long lines of follow-the-leader.


Unlike Seagulls, whom I find to be over-grown hyperactive hummingbirds flapping their wings all the time, Pelicans float and glide, rarely flapping their wings to maintain lift. And when they do, a single, leisurely flap, does the trick.

The squadron soared up the beach between high-rise condos in stable slow-flight, drifting on the evening air, on a mission only they knew, and standing there on the beach I wished I could be up in the grey evening sky with them.

Debbie, Rio, and I had “flown” into Galveston Island in our Jeep earlier that afternoon. Bad weather had cancelled our air race, but I’d made the mistake of renting a non-refundable condo, so we traded air-racing glory for a ground-based family vacation.


Ironically, the weather on race day was lovely. Blue sky and sunshine. But the day before it was soup to the ground most of the route, and we and the other racers would have been trapped here for days afterwards, even if we had made it here in one piece, so I guess scrubbing the race was a good call on the part of the race director. Still, I hope the race is rescheduled both because I want to fly that awesome course around the island and over the bay, and so that I can put my life jacket to good use.

Instead of racing, we splashed in the Gulf, ate tons of fresh seafood, and visited the Lone Star Flight Museum, which is a gem-and-a-half that’s still recovering from Hurricane Ike eight years after the fact.


In the airport terminal next door to the museum’s hangars a plaque on the wall marks the high water mark during the storm. The plaque is above Rio’s head. Waaaaaaay above his head:


We also took a harbor tour. And a ride in a high-powered jet boat (sorta like flying, but windier and wetter). We watched a cruise ship embark on a voyage to Mexico and watched working fisherman unload their catch.

And always there were pelicans in the sky. Soaring. Gliding. Cartwheeling across my racecourse in formations large and small. And always I found my eyes cast up to the heavens, wishing I could join them.