Dropping Chickens, Chapter 2

Depressed at our total failure, we brainstormed “the bombing problem” around our kitchen table as we sipped from bottles of Lisa’s homemade beer. I grilled her over and over again on her observations. We looked at the data she collected and recorded, the compass sightings of each falling chicken.

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It was clear that the chickens were traveling a much shorter forward distance than we’d expected, but we weren’t sure by how much. Lisa was stationed at the edge of the target zone, observing the drops at an oblique angle as we approached.

Realizing that this was going to take a long time to work out, but happy to have an excuse for frequent flying, we developed a new test protocol. It was time to get scientific. This time, instead of targeting the center of the apron, we’d fly well south of it. In fact, we wouldn’t aim for it at all. When we were abeam Lisa’s location on the ground we’d release the chicken so she could get more precise measurements on the distance of the forward motion.

We also lowered the bombing altitude from 1,000 feet AGL to only 500 foot AGL, and decided to slow the plane to 80 miles per hour. We were removing as many variables and difficulties as we could. Once we understood the basic physics involved, we’d slowly increase altitude and develop a comprehensive strategy for hitting the target.

When the second batch of rubber chickens arrived, we packed a picnic and headed for the airport. I was fully prepared to lose another full batch of chickens, and had bookmarked the eBay seller to make it easier to reorder. This time Mom joined Lisa as a second official observer.

Debs chickened out.

Our observers on station and the bomb bay fully loaded with rubber chickens—OK, you got me, we put the chickens in the baggage compartment behind the seat—Rio and I barreled down the runway and lifted into a cool, calm early morning sky. We leveled out at 500 feet, banked right in a long lazy turn to get lined up with our target and made a radio call warning any other planes that might be in the area that we’d be conducting low-level operations over the airport.

I reached back behind me and grabbed the first chicken for Rio. He unwound the long, red plastic surveyor’s tape streamers that were tied to each talon. We knew that the streamers would change the aerodynamics of the fall, but decided that the benefits of actually observing the fall, and (hopefully) recovering at least some of the $9.00 chickens outweighed the change in performance. Our idea was that once we were coming close to hitting our target, we’d do away with the streamers and make whatever adjustments were required.

Rio fed the streamers out of his window first. I looked back over my shoulder and could see the twin six-foot snakes of plastic dancing and snapping in the wind, as if trying to grab our rudders. I lined up on the south side of the apron and as we approached told Rio, “Get ready… get ready… not yet…” Then, with Lisa off my wingtip below I called out, “Drop, drop, drop,” and Rio shoved the rubber chicken out the window. I banked sharply right, shoved the throttle to the firewall, pulled the nose up, and craned my head over my shoulder, but I couldn’t see anything.

“Hot damn!” crackled Lisa’s voice in my earphones. Then, “Uh… I meant to say, Chicken Ground to Chicken Air, you scored a near miss. The ordinance fell nearly straight down.”

“Say again?” I radioed.

“Near miss. Hold on.” I rolled the plane back over to the left and orbited the apron. I could see Lisa, in her bright orange vest and green hardhat, jogging across the pavement. She reached the corner and went out into the weeds, no more than five feet. I could see her jumping up and down and waving, then saw the bright red streamers at her feet. “To heck with the science, she radioed. Just drop right over the target and see what happens.”

“Give me another chicken,” said Rio. I reached back to grab another, throttled back to slow the plane down, and turned tail on the airport to get back in position for another run. Rio unwound the streamers and fed them out the window. This time I put the spinner dead center on the tarmac, then leaned forward in my seat to peer down over the leading edge of the left wing, trying to judge when to order the drop. The target would be out of sight when I was right over it. As the apron disappeared from view I counted five seconds to myself and gave the drop order.

“You sunk my battleship,” radioed Lisa.

We ran two more runs, and both hit the tarmac. Then we landed to admire our handiwork. I pulled up to the fuel pumps and shut down. I hauled myself up out of the deep cocoon of the cockpit and sat on the back of the seat. Leaning forward and resting my arms on the top of the bubble windshield, I took in the view. Three crumpled piles of surveyor’s tape sat in lumps on the pavement, hints of yellow rubber chickens peaking through the tangled masses. I had expected the tape to splay out from the chickens, but each one was buried by its own streamers. Lisa was already measuring the distance from the target to each pile. One missed by 154 feet, a second by 154. The closest of the tarmac strikes was 130 feet from the center of the target.

Now we were getting somewhere. From total failures who couldn’t even hit the airport to a 75% success rate in hitting the apron, the First New Mexico Chicken Bombing Squadron was well on its way to victory.

Post flight, hangin’ in the hangar and eating our picnic, Lisa, once again the scientist, tried to make sense of the day’s successes. While Rio happily munched on chips and salsa, fresh veggies and onion dip, nuts, and beef jerky, Lisa studied her data and “flew” over her notes with a Hallmark Sky’s the Limit Ercoupe Christmas ornament as a visual aid.

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Of course, none of us had really expected the chickens to travel 747.58 feet forward from the drop point, but they had to have some forward motion. Or so we thought. But the observations and the day’s successes indicated that the chickens—contrary to all laws of physics—might actually be falling behind the spot where we released them. Up range, instead of down range.

That should not be possible in this universe. But it sure looked to be the case.

Finally we developed a theory. Maybe… Maybe… Maybe the rubber chickens were so light, and had such a large surface area that the slipstream—the vortices of wind coming off our propeller—was actually cancelling out the forward motion of the rubber chickens and blowing them back behind us, where they then slowed down and fell more or less straight down, like a chicken dropped from a hot air balloon, rather than a record-fast Ercoupe.

On the drive home we happily made plans for the next weekend. With the new data we had, I was now confident not only in being able to hit the airport, and the apron, but in being able to strike the very target blanket itself, laid out in the center of the tarmac.

Of course, I warned Rio that despite our hard work and practice, no doubt some fool who signed up at the last minute and never dropped a thing out of his plane would likely get lucky and win. Ever the optimist, he ignored me and cleared room for the rubber chicken trophy on one of the bookcases in his bedroom.

But the next day I got an email from the conference organizer. The airport fathers had put the kybosh on our fun. They decided to prohibit the chicken drop from going forward. They felt that so close to the big gathering of airplanes at Oshkosh, it might be unsafe.

I say that is chick-shit of them.

 

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