Where’s a good place to eat around here?

Before you pack a picnic for tomorrow’s cross-country, run to your mail box and fish out  the latest issue of Flight Training magazine and read my article Eating Local: Fine Dining on the Fly. The article shares the wisdom I gained on how to find a good place to eat when you are a stranger in a strange land. Wisdom gained from 17,748 miles of cross country flying at put-put speed during my first race season. The article is another lovely three-page spread with awesome illustrations from the art department!

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Racing with Voodoo

This season, I’m racing with Voodoo. What? Oh. No. Sorry. Not the famous Reno Racing plane by the same name. I’m talking about a speed modification that uses some aerodynamic Voodoo to improve Tess’s performance in our never-ending quest to crack the mac barrier in an Ercoupe. Or at least just go fast enough to securely maintain our title of the World’s Fastest Ercoupe, and to keep those pesky Cesena 150s and 152s behind our twin tails in the SARL races.

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So this might be our sketchiest speed mod yet, but here’s the tale: One of the bad things about having your plane in the shop is that you spend too much time sitting at home thinking about airplanes, instead of being out at the airport having fun with them. And thinking about airplanes at home often entails surfing through various online catalogs of airplane stuff, and discovering things that you were perfectly happy not owning when you didn’t know they existed, but now can’t live without.

This is why I now have Wig-Wag lights on Tess. But they’re not the only thing we added while waiting for our nose strut to be rebuilt, and then waiting for UPS to locate said strut after they lost it.

I also added Voodoo Propeller Tape to Tessie’s prop. Well, that’s what I call it, anyway. It’s officially called a Propeller Vortelator. It’s a distant cousin of the aerodynamically unlikely vortex generator, which is a small plastic or metal fin which, when glued to your wing along with a bunch of other little fins, does amazing things. Things like lower your stall speed, improve controllability, reduce your takeoff run, and more. How on earth do they do that?

Well, that’s what I was told, anyway. Apparently, the little fins create mini vortexes of air that delay flow separation in the boundary layer, and…

Yeah, like I said, magic.

So when I read about something similar for propellers, it didn’t strike me as impossible. Hey, if a bunch of fins on a wing can work magic on the airflow and improve performance, why wouldn’t something similar work on the prop? A prop is just a perpendicular spinning wing, after all. The advertising copy for the Vortelator—which is made by Aircraft Development, the same folks that make the Slick Air coating that we use to reduce airframe drag—say that, “Vortelators will cause the boundary layer to stay attached to the propeller surface for a greater distance, and to keep the boundary layer thinner. The net result of these two actions is that it reduces both the profile drag and skin friction drag components of the parasite drag.” Going on, they said that the Vortelators are placed on the most inefficient high drag areas of the prop, making it more efficient across its span. As I didn’t understand what they were saying, that didn’t impress me much.

But they also said it would improve my speed by 2 to 4 mph. ThatI understood.

I placed an order.

Now, I knew the Vortelator was some sort of tape, but I couldn’t tell much about its form factor from the pictures at Aircraft Spruce’s website. I think I pictured a row of mini vortex generators, or a quasi-washboard ribbon. I’m sure you can picture my disappointment when my box of Voodoo Propeller Tape arrived, and I discovered that it was nothing more than a piece of flat, thin, clear self-sticky plastic tape—cut in a zig-zag pattern.

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Seriously? I was about to send it back in disgust, but decided to do some more research first. The first thing I found was that I couldn’t find anyone who had actually used it. Rather, all I could find were people who hadn’t used it, but nevertheless felt justified in trashing the mere idea. They’re probably the same people who poo-pooed vortex generators when they were first introduced, then later quietly installed them on their planes.

Next, I discovered something called turbulator tape, which is a big deal with the sailplane crowd. Apparently, most current production sailplanes use it to improve aerodynamics, and many older ones are retrofitted. Guess what? Yeah. It’s nothing more than a piece of flat, thin, clear self-sticky plastic tape—cut in a zig-zag pattern.

Hmmm… Those sailplane folks sure know their aerodynamics, even if they don’t have propellers.

But there’s more: The RC model crowd rave about zig-zag tape. Granted, their planes don’t have pilots in them, but they are honestly and truly miniature aircraft. And zig-zag tape is even used in archery to improve airflow of the tail “feathers” of modern carbon fiber arrows for increased accuracy. Who knew?

And although Voodoo Propeller Tape sure looks disappointing to the naked eye, in all things aerodynamic, small changes can net big results. So maybe some thin zig-zag sailplane/model plane/archery tape near the hub of Tess’s prop might make that ol’ piece of aluminum work better.

What the heck, it didn’t cost that much, it’s already paid for, it’s STC’d for my prop (which only means the government thinks that the product is safe, not that it actually works), and my wrench turners don’t want much to install it. And who knows? Maybe it will make Tess shoot through the air like an arrow. Rather than sending it back, I had my team put it on the prop.

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So this season, we’re racing with Voodoo.

 

Welcome, again

I’m on assignment for Smithsonian Air and Space. My story: Write up my…

Wait a sec. I’m having some déjà vu here.

Oh, yes, that’s exactly how I started the very first Plane Tale, back on August 22, 2014! But I guess it’s appropriate to start this story exactly the same way as I started that one, as I’m having exactly the same problem: I’ve got too big a story to tell, and too little space to tell it in. What’s the story this time? It’s the tale of my re-flying the transcontinental air mail route, using nothing more for navigation than the original 100-year-old written instructions.

Re-flying it, of course, in an Ercoupe.

Hey, it’s practically an air mail plane. Same speed and range. Open cockpit with the doors down in the belly, and as you’ll learn when my story eventually hits the streets, many of the mail planes—even though they started off as biplanes—ended up morphing into monoplanes through a bizarre series of circumstances.

But this time, Plane Tales Plane fans, it’s not a Tessie adventure. I choose Lisa’s “Warbler” for the mission, as he’s equipped just like the mail planes of old, which is to say he’s got practically no equipment at all.

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Of course, it wasn’t a 100% primitive flight. Lisa rode shotgun, armed with an iPad and GPS because, as you know, in today’s skies there are military operations areas, restricted airspaces, towered airports, and thousands of pesky cell phone towers that didn’t exist back at the dawn of flight. Although, interestingly, phone lines were a leading crash-causing hazard back in the day, so the damn phone has been the nemesis of the aviator for a hundred years.

But back to the story. At least this time, I’ve only three totally separate “leads” that I’m agonizing over. Which is better than back in ’14, when I was agonizing over FIVE different leads.

One place I could start, of course, would be at the beginning…

 

Lead 1

I’m standing in Parking Lot 5 of the Scott Campus of the University of Nebraska Omaha. It’s a cold, grey evening, with low ceilings and spitting rain. I look around at the towering buildings on all sides, and it’s hard to imagine that this was once the site of an airfield on the western outskirts of the city. If I’d been flying the Omaha-to-Cheyenne air mail back in the glory days, this would’ve been my starting point.

Now you need a permit to park your car here.

All that’s left to show that an airport once existed beneath my feet is a forlorn metal plaque erected by the Nebraska State Historical Society. It faces a busy street.

In the morning I’ll use modern GPS to arrive in the air above this very spot, but after that, I’m going to attempt to re-fly a full third of the transcontinental air mail route using nothing but the original technology: Written instructions that are nearly 100 years-old.

 

Lead 2

But, of course, there’s no law that says you have to tell the story in the order that it occurred, and sometimes that’s not the best way to go about it. For instance, I could start in the heat of the flight, with the true meat of the story, and fill in the background as I go along…

The directions for the early air mail pilots say, “Almost directly west will be seen black irregular peaks in the Laramie Mountains. Fly over the mountains just to the north of these peaks.”

I look up. The entire horizon, from south to north is nothing butblack irregular peaks.

I read the paragraph again. Then I stick my head out of the airplane, into the slip stream. There’s no need to. It just seems like something a real air mail pilot would do in a situation like this. The cold blast pushes my goggles into my face and tugs at the edges of my Perrone leather flying helmet.

It doesn’t help me figure out which peaks I’m supposed to fly north of.

And this is just the beginning. Beyond the Laramie Mountains is the Medicine Bow Range, the 12,500-foot Elk Mountain, and the Sierra Madre. Not to mention the ragged, rocky, snow-coved peaks of the Wasatch Range that guard the west-bound approaches into Salt Lake City. And the only thing I have to guide me through these mountains is a book of written instructions set down almost one hundred years ago.

I’m beginning to think that this isn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had.

 

Lead 3

Or maybe it would be better to share the feel of the flight. To invite the reader into the cockpit,t to come along for the ride…

Cold air pours into the cockpit in a torrent. It slashes through my heavy leather barnstormer jacket, soaks through my gloves, seems to whisk away the fabric of my canvas pants, and swirls into my shoes. Only my head, secure in its new fleece-lined leather flying helmet, escapes. It’s going to be a looooongtwo-hour flight.

And we haven’t even left the ground yet.

I turn to my safety pilot, Lisa, and watch a small scrap of paper waft up from some hidden recess in the floor, orbit her head once, then be sucked out of the cockpit. Her arms are folded tightly across her chest, gloved hands in her armpits. Her legs are pressed closely together, drawn up close to the seat. She looks miserable.

“You know,” I say into my boom mic, my voice sounding far way in my headset, “the early air mail pilots stuffed newspapers into their flight suits to keep warm in their open cockpits.”

She gives me a cold look, but I’m sufficiently chilled to be immune from it. “If you’re done with the sports section,” she says sarcastically, “I’ll take it now.”

Of course, despite months of planning for this adventure, I didn’t think to bring any newspapers for insulation. But I did bring a book.

 

And the winner is…

So which lead did I choose in the end? Well, you’ll just have to wait until the magazine hits the streets to find out. In the meantime, welcome newcomers, and welcome back, regular readers. I’m aviation writer William E. Dubois and this is Plane Tales, my ongoing home base. The virtual airport for my pen. Here, I’ll continue to keep you up-to-date on my Fly Writing with links to new articles as they are published, expanded content, exclusive stories, and assorted adventures that take place on a Wing and a Pen!