One spare isn’t enough

“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.

But that ear-to-ear smile was not to last.

Now, for background, you need to know that Tess, when it comes to maintenance, has become nearly as much trouble as a Warbird. Yeah. She’s “down.” Again. I would’a thought that for a woman of her age hot flashes would be a thing of the past, but just days out of that killer annual earlier this summer, she began to overheat. Big time.

I’ll spare you the pain of the details, and myself the PTSD of recounting this latest woe, but the bottom line is that two of her four nearly-new cylinders have to be pulled off. According to my logbook, I took her to her new shop about six weeks ago, and it’s likely to be several more weeks before she’s back in my hands (or I’m back in hers, as the case may be).

But that said, my logbook is hardly empty of Ercoupe time since. In fact, I’ve been flying a lot. How can that be? Well, the “family” has a spare airplane.

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Yep. I’ve been flying with my buddy Lisa as the safety pilot in her plane, helping her polish her skill set prior to her next round of formal training. Actually… Come to think of it, Lisa’s skill set has become so polished that I haven’t had to touch the controls in… well, I can’t remember how long it’s been. But each time we fly, she’s kind enough to let me take the controls at some point so that I can feel like a real pilot again.

Most days, after Lisa flies, Rio takes over the left seat and we go up and polish the maneuvers that his flight instructor is teaching him as well. We had been doing Rio’s training in Tess, but with her in the Airplane Hospital again, Lisa loaned him the keys to Warbler.

We all started joking that it’s a good thing we have a spare airplane. But as it would turn out, one spare Ercoupe isn’t enough. And that’s why Lisa lost her smile.

So much for background. Now on to today’s Plane Tale…

 

We rose early—me from the master suite and Lisa from the guestroom—and met at the coffee pot, bleary-eyed. We aren’t morning people either of us, but the early morning sky favors flight training. Winds tend to be light, and thermal turbulence from the sunbaked landscape hasn’t started to form yet. But today, it was clearly a waste of blissful sleep. A quick look out the window showed that the weather was not as forecast.

You can’t trust weathermen and psychics.

Still, we’ve learned that the weather at my house (which is 20 miles closer to the field than Lisa’s, hence the use of the guestroom on flying days) and the weather at the airport can be so different as to be in alternate universes, so properly caffeinated, we headed out.

Headed out into weather that grounded the crows that live on the airport beacon tower next to the hangers.

So instead of pre-flighting Warbler, we dumped the trash in the terminal, restocked the fridge and the snack baskets, and looked to see how many new pins had been placed in the large flight planning chart on the wall, the one that visiting pilots are invited to mark their home airports on. Then we hung out in Lisa’s hangar, mine being empty. She also has windows that look out to the East, allowing me to keep one eye on the weather while surfing the internet on my flight pad.

As the sky began to lift the wind came up.

“You know what?” said Lisa, “this isn’t happening for me today. But if you want to fly for a change, I’d be happy to come along for a ride.” She dangled Warbler’s keys in front of my face.

If there’s a pilot who can turn down an offer like that, I’ve never met him. Or her.

I had planned to do a toilet paper chase after Lisa’s practice. That’s where you fly up to around 10,000 feet, chuck a roll of (fully biodegradable) toilet paper out of the plane (over and empty area) then dive on the streamer and try to cut it with your wing as it flutters to the ground. It’s easier said than done, but every bit as much fun as it sounds. And I’ve actually succeeded at doing it.

The ceiling was starting to break up, so I chucked a roll of toilet paper in the back and up we went. It felt strange to be in Warbler’s left seat.

But as we climbed into the murky air, it was clear that this was not a day to venture up to 10,000 feet. I opted for barnstorming instead. Low and slow down on the deck we zipped between sandstone buttes, circled the ruins of abandoned ranch houses, and did lazy S-turns up and down empty dirt roads to nowhere—soaking in the view and the feel of flight.

Our RMP was acting up a bit, first high, then low. I didn’t give it much thought. Warbler has a new throttle and I figured that we didn’t have the friction lock set right yet.

I figured wrong.

“Thanks for letting me take the left seat,” I told Lisa.

“Actually,” she said, “I’m enjoying being a passenger for a change. Over here is where I fell in love with flying.”

Finally, gas running low, it was time to head back to the nest.

“This day is really improving,” said Lisa with a big smile on her face as I rolled Warbler’s wings level and entered the downwind for Runway 8.

On base it seemed like I needed a lot more back pressure on the elevator than normal, and we also ended up landing long. But the touchdown was smooth, the moment between flying and rolling almost undetectable.

Then the noise started.

Or maybe it was there all along and we just couldn’t hear it over the roar of the engine. It was a flapping-type sound. I cocked my head to one side. “Do you hear that?” I asked Lisa. Then I pulled one ear cup away from my head, trying to hear it better, trying to process what it might be. As Warbler rolled down the runway, it seemed to get louder.

We needed fuel, so I headed for the far end of Eight, where Taxiway Charlie leads to the terminal and the pumps.

I should have turned tail and headed back to the hangars. Hindsight.

As we crossed One Niner, the noise was really distinctive. It sounded like a loose cowl banging in the slip stream. I decided to shut down right where we were. Nearly a mile from either the hangars or the ramp.

It never occurred to me that the engine would never restart again.

I pulled back the throttle and the mixture, then turned off the mags. With an abrupt shudder the prop snapped to attention, stopping at 12 o’clock, not making the lazy spin down we are used to. With trepidation, I slid the top of the three-piece canopy to the right, climbed out onto the wing, dropped to the ground, and came around to the front of the plane.

Everything looked normal. No loose cowl pieces.

For some reason, I reached up to pull Warbler’s prop down to the normal position.

It was stuck fast. Excalibur in the stone. My mind couldn’t process what my hands and eyes were telling me. One moment the engine is running; the next moment, after shutting it down myself, the prop is stuck fast.

I didn’t know what to do, but attempting a restart was out. I looked far to the West at the distant Lego block of the hangar. Then I looked far to the South at the distant Lego block of the terminal. This was a stupid place to shut down.

So like hippie college students who ran out of gas on the way back to the dorm, we pushed Warbler back down the taxiway, across One Nine, and back along half the length of Eight. Well, Lisa pushed. I pulled on the stuck prop, using it as a combination tow bar and steering tiller.

It was a long haul, helped by a friendly couple from Arizona headed home from AirVenture, who added some horsepower to the pushing on the last half of the journey.

The slow roll to the hangar seemed to take longer than the flight that proceeded it, but eventually we got Warbler back in his nest, where Lisa collapsed into a little puddle of DNA in the corner. Not to say she reverted to sucking her thumb, or anything—which I probably would have—but there are some things in this world you just can’t do for yourself, and a good example is calling your mechanic to discuss a very expensive-sounding repair on an airplane you really couldn’t afford in the first place, so I offered to make the call. That’s what friends are for.

I got the man on the phone and described what had happened. The prop would turn backwards as much as I wanted it to, but going in the normal direction of travel, when the blade reached 12 o’clock it stopped cold.

The mechanic said he’d never heard of anything like that before.

He had me check the oil. It was fine. Then one or two other things. Finally he said, let it cool down, then see if the prop frees up.

As we had time to kill, I starting calling various experts we knew in the Ercoupe community. The first guy thought it sounded like a broken crankshaft, about the worst thing that could happen. But I didn’t think so. Sure, if the prop were totally frozen, or totally loose. But half and half? Of course, all I know about airplane breakdowns is things that have broken down on mine. I was in uncharted territory here.

The next three guys I called had never heard of such a thing, either. Great. But all three of them instinctively felt we were seeing a bizarre manifestation of a stuck valve, a serious but not fatal mechanical issue.

Hours later, the engine cool, the prop spun freely again.

The next step? Lisa’s mechanic will have to make a house call. That will happen next weekend. And in the meantime, even with two Ercoupes, we have no plane to fly.

One spare, apparently, is not enough.

 

For the love of “steam gauges”

“But what I don’t understand,” said Lisa, her face earnest and serious, “is where the steam that runs these things comes from.”

It was one of those speed bump moments that sometimes happens in conversations.

We’d been talking avionics, which is a fancy word for instruments that go in airplanes. Increasingly, over the last few years, most modern avionics are computer screens called “glass” or “glass cockpits” in the flying world; while the older traditional round-dial flight instruments are now universally called “steam gauges.”

I have no idea where the label “steam gauge” came from, but I suspect it started out as a slur perpetrated by glass cockpit salesmen that eventually went mainstream—losing its negative connotation in favor of a nostalgic fondness. But Lisa, a razor-sharp scientist by education and profession, tends to take things literally, and assumed it was a functional label. I could almost see her doing a mental inventory of her new plane, confused about where the water tank for the steam gauges could possibly be hiding, and how often she should refill it.

Of course, old-school flight instruments do not, in fact, run on steam. They run on either air pressure or electricity, depending on the model and type of instrument. I suppose that if the label “steam gauge” wasn’t a conspiracy of the glass cockpit crowd, maybe the term came about because, for some, all those wonderful round gauges reminded them more of the cab of an old-fashioned steam engine than that of a modern flying machine.

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But I’m here to defend the airplane steam gauge, because in reality, it’s anything but old fashioned. Rather, the steam gauge is a modern marvel. Now, if you’re a lover of high-res color moving screens, just hear me out, because a traditional flight instrument is an absolute miracle of graphical presentation that you might not have appreciated, one unrivalled in human history, and not deserving the lowly title that it’s now saddled with.

Think about it. A true steam gauge, on a boiler in a basement in a Third World country somewhere, is nothing more than a single needle that tells you how close the steam tank is to blowing its lid. Aircraft steam gauges, on the other hand, can tell us how our planes are orientated within a three-dimensional environment; if we are on course or off; and can even guide us to fog-shrouded runways—keeping us correctly lined up on the runway while descending safely through space without hitting anything on the ground.

Try that with a steam gauge out of a Union Pacific Big Boy 4-8-8-4 locomotive.

And there’s more. Not only do aircraft steam gauges display an amazing range of data, they do so in a way that allows for a six-second scan, literally taking six seconds to take in all the various instruments to assure that all is well with the flight. How is that even possible? Because aircraft-quality steam gauges are actually carefully engineered hieroglyphic interfaces.

Now wait a minute, you say. Aren’t hieroglyphics those funky symbols in the Pharos’s tomb? The ones no one can read?! Well, yes and no. It’s true that the meaning of some ancient hieroglyphics is lost to time, giving the word hieroglypha quasi-enigmatic connotation, but in its purest form, a hieroglyphic system of writing uses symbols to form words and concepts. In other words, picture writing. And we all know that a picture tells a thousand words, making it the fastest way to communicate a lot of data. After all, we humans are visual creatures.

Here, let me give you an example of another great steam gauge, one that pre-dates the world of aviation, to illustrate what I’m talking about. If you were born before 1972, you were probably raised with the granddaddy of all hieroglyphic instruments: The wrist watch. A traditional wrist watch (not the pilot type with all sorts of unnecessary dials to make us look smarter than we are) has one dial and two hands. A scale on the dial shows half the day, twelve hours. Overlaid on that scale is a second scale that shows sixty minutes. One of the two hands of the watch indicates where we are in hours during the day by pointing to the hour scale, and the other hand indicates how far through that hour we are by pointing to the minute scale. A fancy model ups the ante with a third hand for tracking seconds.

It sounds mind-numbingly complex when laid out in words, but in action it brilliantly does what the best graphical interfaces do: It paints a picture. Quickly. Once you learn its language, you can “read” it without thought. At a mere glance, you “know” what time it is. On the other hand, if you look at a digital watch that says 3:59 p.m., you have to think.

And thinking takes time. Who has time for that?

Especially in an airplane.

That’s one of the things I love about airplane steam gauges. The instruments collectivity paint a picture of my airplane in the sky. Without needing to think about it, I know, as if I were glancing at my watch, that all is well—or that something isn’t right. That’s a pretty sophisticated interface. One that, like the wrist watch, thrives best on simplicity.

Airplane steam gauges keep it simple. They are visual Haiku.

Of course, glass instruments have graphics, too, but there’s no Haiku to be found there. It’s more like an epic poem. They display a ton of information, and for me anyway, that’s part of their problem. I have a hard time seeing the trees for the forest, or the forest for the trees. All that brilliant color and fancy graphics just doesn’t click in my brain the way a good set of steam gauges do. But maybe that’s just my age. For digital natives, I’m sure it’s different.

Another thing I like about steam gauges, and this would hardly be a reason for choosing them, is that I think they look better on the ground. Yeah, I know that’s not where they matter, but when walking around the ramp, poking my nose up against the windows to look into various cockpits, steam gauges give a parked airplane a business-like look. Sure, the tires are flat on that old Cherokee chained to the cracked and weed-infested far end of the ramp. Yeah, its paint is worn, fading, and peeling; and there’s a bird’s nest in the engine cowl—but the cockpit is alive with possibilities. Compare that to the shiny new Cirrus over by the fuel pump. Powered off, its blank cockpit looks like an abandoned black and white television set in the back of the Salvation Army store. Glass makes planes seem dead on the ground.

In a similar fashion, I like climbing into a cockpit that looks ready to go before my finger strokes the master switch.

But neither my fondness for the steam gauge as a concept, nor my joy in sliding into a cockpit that looks ready to go, had any bearing on my recent decisionto remove the several pieces of glass we had installed and replace them with (horrors!) steam gauges.

Nope. It was completely pragmatic. Our plane, Tessie, is a flying greenhouse. She has glass (the kind you look through, not the modern instrument kind) in front. Glass to the right. Glass to the left. Glass above. Glass behind. It’s a lovely bubble of view. It also doesn’t have even an inch of shade. Nor does our panel have a sun shade, or room for one.

The result? Glare. Epic glare. The only time I can read a glass panel display is when the plane is in the hangar. Oh. Right. I can’t read it there either, because the plane isn’t running. This was never a problem with the steam gauges of old. They have glass faces, but something about the material used in them resists glare, while something about the material used in modern glass cockpit displays seems to attract glare the way a magnet attracts iron filings.

So I’m not a luddite. And while I’m an aficionado of the classics, that had no bearing on my decision. I just want to be able to read the story my airplane is telling me. And for this plane, for this pilot, steam gauges are the only way to go

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go refill the water tank.

 

Yellow Beard, the cross-dressing pirate

It sounded simple. Lisa loves her new Ercoupe “Warbler,” but there are a few things about his look she’s decided to change. First off, he wears Royal Air Force colors, and despite what Lisa’s Ancestry DNA report revealed about some unexpected British heritage, she’s an American Girl. So Warbler is resigning his RAF commission later this summer, and joining the U.S. Army Air Corps.

His Brit wing rondels will be replaced with Air Corp stars, then, to girl-up the little warbird a bit, his large fuselage rondels will be covered up with the Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) mascot, the girl-geminin “Fifinella.”

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I think it’s going to be an awesome look for both Lisa and Warbler.

Those plans in the works, the only remaining problem was Warbler’s tail. There was a rectangular RAF logo on the outside of both of his oval vertical stabilizers. The shape was all wrong, but they couldn’t be removed as they were painted on.

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What to do?

After several sessions of sitting in her hangar with an adult beverage studying Warbler’s tail, Lisa decided the solution was to paint the stabilizers to match his wings. We all agreed that was the solution, but it didn’t go any farther than that until the intercom broke down.

Lisa, Rio, and I had gotten up at 4 a.m. to beat the heat and fly Warbler—Tess still being out of action, now at a different maintenance shop, a tale for another day. Anyway, back to the story. With the intercom crapped out, we could hardly do any flight instruction, as neither student would hear a word I was saying! Sitting in Warbler’s cockpit in front of Lisa’s hangar, I was able to order a replacement from Amazon, of all places, but it would take two days for it to arrive. We are not yet to the age of near instantaneous delivery of Amazon goodies by drone.

So there we were. All dressed up and nowhere to go. Now what? Well, why not paint the vertical stabilizers? They really aren’t that big. How hard could it be?

I hear many of you laughing in the background.

As with many (most?) of our misadventures, things didn’t go as planned. First, Rio and Lisa went out to the local hardware store for yellow paint while I worked to install new yoke grips in Warbler’s cockpit. Apparently, the store didn’t have much to choose from when it came to yellow paint, and the sample they brought back, when sprayed on a removed inspection plate, was lemon drop yellow. Now, before all of this, I didn’t give yellow much thought, but as it turns out there are 1.6 million different shades of yellow, and whatever shade of yellow Warbler’s wings are, they ain’t lemon drop yellow. Thus began the Yellow Quest. I’ll spare you the painful details, but it involved 247 miles of driving, a hardware store, and auto parts store, and a farm and ranch supply house. The good news is that after several false starts, we found a color of spray paint that was an exact match to Warbler’s wings.

It ended up being the next day before we took on the actual painting, Rio bowing out as he couldn’t make sense of getting up at 4 a.m. to paint; whereas Lisa and I, knowing that we’ve been running triple-digit temps the last few days, knew it was the only sensible time for the project.

We arrived at Lisa’s hangar before sunrise with bundles of old newspapers, plastic sheeting, and blue painter’s tape. The last few days had been calm, but as we had chosen to paint, gale was blowing. The winds, 26 miles per hour and gusting to some crazy-high number, tugged at the wind sock and rattled the hangar doors like giant gongs.

Spray painting outside was out of the question. But we didn’t think it would be a big deal to do it in the hangar. It was such a small area to paint. We taped off Warbler’s tail, and (luckily) draped the rest of the plane under plastic sheeting, then got to work.

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Lisa did the paint shaking Macarena then handed me one of the two cans. She went first, but her spray nozzle failed. Nothing came out, and when she took her finger off the top, the nozzle popped out and sailed across the hangar like a champagne cork on New Year’s Eve.

My turn. I carefully held the can upright, aligned my distance, and deftly applied one sweeping stroke of yellow to the brown-green tail.

Nothing changed.

Another burst. There was still no visible yellow.

A third burst. Then fourth. Then a fifth. Finally, a pale sheen of yellow, barely detectable against the army brown-green, revealed itself. I looked up and the lights of the hangar were faint and distant. A dense yellow fog drifted above me.

Oh dear.

Well, forge on. In about 15 minutes, I finally had a good first coat on Warbler’s vertical stabilizer and a really good final coat on me. As I cracked the hangar doors to let the yellow cloud out, Lisa took one look at me and starting laughing. Every grey hair on my head, beard, and arms was now straw yellow.

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She dug out a dust mask. “Here, Yellow Beard,” she insisted, “wear this.” (Who travels with dust masks?) But it was a good thing; otherwise the cilia in my lungs would no doubt be Club Cadet Yellow like a large portion of my body and my old painting clothes, which being old and threadbare, suffered a structural failure on the second coat when I bent down to reach the portion of the stabilizer below the tail. I heard the unmistakable sound of denim tearing, but after quickly checking my six, and finding nothing, I ignored it and kept working.

After the second coat of paint, Lisa—a mischievous twinkle worthy of Fifinella in her eyes—asked me, “So how do you like wearing that ballroom gown?”

Huh?

The left seam of my shorts had given way, from the waist to the hem. Naturally, being Lisa, she alternately teased me about the torn shorts and the yellow beard the rest of the day.

But at least Warbler’s new tail came out looking swell.

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And now you know the tale of Warbler’s tail, and that of Yellow Beard, the cross-dressing pirate in his ballroom gown.

Break out the oxygen

Damn. The ground looks so far away. “This crazy altitude is going to give me a nosebleed,” I tell Rio.

Rio, now a somewhat intolerant teen, rolls his eyes, “It’s not that bad, Dad.”

Rio’s in the left seat. I sit up straighter in my seat to see out over his wing at the airport, far, far, far below. “Break out the oxygen,” I insist.

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“We don’t have oxygen, Dad. Besides, it’s only two hundred feet higher.”

Which, I know, means we’re 5,791 feet above sea level. The FAA doesn’t require pilots to use oxygen until we top 12,500 feet, and then only if we stay up there for more than half an hour. It’s at 14,000 feet that the pilot must don the mask no matter what. I’m not sure what Tessie’s service ceiling is, but I’m guessing we couldn’t get to 14,000 feet even if we filled her up with helium and lashed her to a weather balloon.

Still. The airport looks too small. In my mind I chant:I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-Am. I do not like this new pattern altitude. I would not like it here or there. I would not like it anywhere.

After I’ve been flying a landing pattern altitude of 800 feet above the ground for thirty-seven years, the powers-that-be have gone and raised it to 1,000 feet. It actually isn’t as capricious as it sounds. For years about half of the non-towered airports out there have used my beloved 800 feet, while the other half have been using 1,000 feet. As there’s no way with a quick glance at the chart to know which an airport is using, it’s led to a dangerous mix of aircraft flying at different altitudes in the pattern at some busy airports. So really, they had to standardize it for safety.

I just wish they’d chosen 800 feet.

But they didn’t. And now I have to learn to land all over again. As do Rio and Lisa, who were just beginning to master buttery smooth landings from 800 feet. Now, it seems that no matter how we change our power settings, we still come in 200 feet high.

Of course, the new pattern altitude isn’t actually law. It’s a highly recommended best practice recommended by what’s called an Advisory Circular. Out here on our own we could just keep doing whatever the hell we want to do, and no one would be the wiser.

But that wouldn’t be right.

It is for the best, I can see that. Plus when we travel we really need to be on the same page as everyone else. We—I—just need to buckle down and learn how to do this.

But, damn, I know it’s only 200 feet higher, but everything looks so much smaller, so far below. “Let’s try eighteen hundred RPM this time,” I tell Rio as we come abeam the numbers and need to start our descent

Then I add, “And tomorrow I’m bringing your grandmother’s oxygen tank.”

 

A symphony of sound

Check list in my left hand, I flip the stainless steel switch upwards with my right index finger.

WeeeewhoooOOO responds the airplane, her jet engine springing to life, spooling up.

Wait a sec. This isn’t a jet. It’s a frickin’ Ercoupe. I look left. No jet over there. I look right. No jet over there, either. I look forward. No jet in front of me. I crane my neck around to look out the pair of large windows behind me. No jet behind me. I’m alone on the ramp. What the Sam Hill is going on here?

Then I realize: It’s the gyro in the new electric attitude indicator. My guys musta wired it to the master switch so that it springs to life when I wake the plane up. I cock one ear to the side and listen to the sound. I like it. It has a business-like tone. Sorta the airplane equivalent of the rumble of a muscle car’s engine.

It’s higher pitched and lower volume than the muscle car, of course, but it sounds very plane-like. Oddly musical. The opening bars of an aviation love song.

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Credit:Seattle Symphony

Even though I know what it is, the increasing tempo of the gyro’s hymn isn’t a sound I’ve heard before. Typically, instruments with spinning gyros are hooked up to an avionics switch. The engine is long running before they are turned on, so the distinctive jet whine of a gyro coming on duty is lost in a flood of noise from firing cylinders and spinning propellers. Sure, on the back end of a flight, after the throaty voice of the engine is silenced, I’ve heard gyros spooling down, but it’s a different sound. A winding down. A closing bell. An increasing stillness.

So this is a new form of poetry, and while I wonder why the attitude indicator was connected to the master switch, rather than to the radios or position lights, I like it, and I’m looking forward to hearing the gentle jet whine at the start of each flight. It’ll be Tessie’s new way of greeting me.

My finger moves to the next switch, flipping it up and turning on the flashing lights on my wingtips, a warning to all nearby that I’m about to start my engine. I crack the throttle. The gyro has stabilized at its full speed. The rising song has leveled out to a constant whine. Not angry and sharp like insect wings, it’s more of a hum. An aggressive, businesses-like hum. I slide the mixture control full forward, ensure that the carb heat is closed, and turn the ignition switch two clicks to the right.

The engine is cold, so I prime the carburetor with two shots. Then, right hand on the throttle, foot on the brake, I press the starter button. A weed whacker-like sound drowns out the gyro hum and the prop starts lazily spinning round and round.

The engine doesn’t catch.

I let go of the starter. After two months on the ground in maintenance, Tess’s engine has gotten lazy. The only sound in the cockpit is the jet whine hum of the new gyro. I give Tess another quarter shot of prime, confirm that the ignition switch is properly set, and press the starter again.

The weed whacker.

The spinning prop.

The engine coughs once. Hesitates. Then roars to life, smothering the delicate business-like hum of the gyro, ending the overture and starting the symphony.

It’s time to fly.

 

First Solo

Confession: I don’t remember my first solo—even though every pilot is supposed to. The date is immortalized in my logbook, April the 23, 1982. As is the plane, N6633R, a Beach Sundowner, and the name of the instructor who trusted me no to kill myself: John F. Miller.

But the actual flight, which every pilot will tell you was such a powerful experience that they will never forget it, is a blank.

About all I can remember about that day is worrying about my shirt.

You see, there’s a tradition in aviation that your shirt is torn off your back after your first solo. Well, there useto be that tradition. With lady pilots on the rise, its been modified to a more civilized cutting off of your shirt tails instead. It basically symbolizes getting though by the skin of your teeth.

Anyway, my only memory of April 23rdwas Miller telling me to pull to the side of the runway. Then, engine still running he opened the door and stepped out onto the wing. “What are you doing?” I asked him.

“Three times around the patch,” he told me, “you’re on your own.”

I was wearing my brand new—and far too expensive for my budget—tan Arrow pilot shirt, that I had just bought mail order through Sporty’s Pilot shop. I knew if I soloed, Miller would destroy the shirt. “No way,” I shouted over the idling engine, “this is a brand new shirt. Get back in the plane.”

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I don’t remember how long we argued, with him crouched on the wing and me stubbornly refusing to solo, but eventually he promised to leave my  @#%!&$  shirt alone if I’d just get the hell up in the air and solo the plane.

I could bring another shirt the next day for the ritual.

And so I did. Solo. And bring another shirt the next day. An ugly bright kelly green T-shirt I hated. Years later, when I paid a visit it, along with dozens and dozens of others was still on the wall of the flight school.

I remember all of that. But the flight? My first time in the air by myself? The flight indelibly printed on the minds of all aviators?

It’s a complete blank.

 

Death by a thousand pinpricks

It must be a misprint. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong. I take my glasses off, rub my eyes, put my glasses back on, and look at the PDF on the tiny screen of my iPhone again. Using my fingers, I zoom in on the bottom line of the invoice from my mechanic.

Yes.

There really are two numbers to the left of the comma. The six week-long annual inspection has resulted in a mind numbing, stomach churningly large bill. More the type of number that you’d expect for an engine rebuild, than for a simple annual. And about five times more than I had expected.

How the @#&% did it cost that much?

I scan through the two itemized pages. It’s a mix of self-inflicted injuries (things I decided to do that didn’t strictly needed to be done), things that had to be done (and could no longer be put off), and new discoveries (that had to be fixed to remain airworthy).

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None of them, really, were wildly expensive in and of themselves. No. Wait. That’s not true. Everything about airplane maintenance could correctly be called “wildly expensive.” So it would be more accurate to say that none of these things, by themselves, were more expensive than I’d expect them to be. It’s just that there were a boatload of them.

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The (expected) biggie was the rebuilding of the pilot side fuel tank. I more or less knew what that would cost, having done the tank on the other side last year. What I’d forgotten about, however, was the cost of removing it, sending it out, getting it sent back, painting it, and re-installing it. But at least now, with both wing tanks rebuilt and the header tank replaced, my fuel system problems are a thing of the past, and unlikely to need to be addressed ever again, at least in my lifetime.

The (unexpected) biggie was the discovery of a worn down area on the engine mount that was so thin that a fabric-testing probe could be poked through it. Also unexpected was an increase in both the base cost of the annual itself and in the shop rate charged by my wrench turners.

In the self-inflicted, but more expensive that I thought it would be department, was the removal of the new digital engine monitor and its replacement with conventional gauges. I’ve had nothing but trouble with the stupid thing in the limited flying I’ve done between maintenance headaches since we put it in, and finally the manufacturer graciously offered to refund my money, an offer I jumped on. I figured the refund would more than cover the cost of the conventional instruments to replace it, and it did. But I hadn’t understood that the instruments didn’t include the needed leads and probes to make them work, gadgets which ended up doubling the cost of each dial. Nor had I understood just how damn long it would take my crew to remove the digital system, apparently a full seven hours at 95 smackeroos per hour; or how long it would take to hook up the replacements, apparently eight full hours at 95 smackeroos per hour. (I’d never known why dollars are sometimes called smackeroos until right now: Sometimes money can just smack you across the face!)

Another self-inflicted injury was my attitude towards my attitude indictor. A few years back we put in a digital one, but it reflects all manner of light in our greenhouse of an airplane, and can’t be read more than half the time. As I was pulling out the digital engine monitor anyway, which in addition to a host of other problems, also suffered from the glare issue, I decided to get all the computerized glass panel crap out of the plane and go back to the humble “steam gauges” that I’ve known and loved for years. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t a total hissy fit, and I haven’tcompletely lost my mind, I’m still navigating by GPS on my iPad…) I was delighted that I was able to sell the glass attitude indicator for a good price, but still, its traditional replacement wasn’t cheap, and again, there were fees for pulling the old one out and putting the new one in the same hole.

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But, really, most of the bill was little things. Four spark plug gaskets for $4.50, re-timing of the right mag at $23.75…

$47.50 to patch yet another crack in the nose bowl…

$15.00 for an air filter…

And on it went…

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It was death by a thousand pinpricks. But except for the actual writing of the check, at least it’s all over now.

Well, until next year.

 

I wish I could fly like that

An ear-piercing scream reverberated across the hangar deck. I stood transfixed, horrified and fascinated as I watched the bright yellow box pitch upward then roll completely upside down. More screams. Terror mixed with pure joy.

Roller coaster screams.

The yellow box pitched violently down, then rocked side to side. Adrenaline surged into my blood stream. My mouth began to water. I wanted to join in the fun. Rio sighed deeply. “Go on, dad,” he said, giving me a gentle push on the small of my back, “go break your neck if you want to, but I’m having no part in it.”

I reached for my wallet, my right foot stepping toward the long line of teenagers. But my left foot stayed rooted firmly in place, as if riveted to the metal deck of the aircraft carrier. Damn this sense of parental responsibility! We were aboard CV-41, the USS Midway, which is docked permanently in San Diego Harbor as an awesome must-see-at-least-once-in-your-life museum; it was a Friday afternoon and there must have been double her original crew of 4,101 aboard—all tourists. The hangar deck looked like the mall at Christmas. I couldn’t leave my 12-year-old alone in that throng while I flipped myself upside down for fun. And deep down, maybe I was worried about embarrassing myself in front of all those teens. Much as I like to think I do, I wasn’t sure I had the Right Stuff.

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I looked one last time at the pitching boxes (they had a full squadron of them), then sighed and turned toward the Fantail Café. “Come on, kiddo,” I said, as I turned my back on the delighted screams, “let’s go get some lunch.”

Actually, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen one of the twisting, turning boxes. My first encounter with one was just the day before at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, an awesome must-visit-at-least-twice-in-your-life museum. Somewhere between the Spitfire and the Apollo program was a bored teenager standing in front of an empty black box, a truncated windowless mini-van on giant hydraulic brackets.

A sign indicated it was a flight simulator ride. “Let’s take it up for a spin,” I said to Rio.

He wasn’t so sure. He hemmed and hawed.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I told Rio, “it’s not like I can turn it upside down on you.”

“Actually,” said the bored teenager, who could have cared less if we bought a ride or not, “you can turn it upside down.”

Adrenaline surged into my blood stream. My mouth began to water. Now I really wanted to take the simulator up for a test flight; and now Rio really didn’t want to go. Somehow I talked him into it, but from the second the teenager locked us into the dark ride, Rio ran a constant monologue of “don’t you dare flip us upside down, don’t you dare flip us upside down, don’t you dare flip us upside down.”

A child of few words in general, I think it’s the most speech I’d heard come out of his mouth at one time in his entire life.

In the end, I ended up flying straight and level for the duration of the ride, while simulated Jap Zeros flashed by, taking pot shots at us.

It was pathetic. The ego of my inner-barnstormer was bruised, to say the least.

But the rest of the visit to the museum was great.

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Flash forward two years. AOPA has sent me to Los Angles and I’m caught in a busload full of senior citizens at the delightful Museum of Flying at the embattled Santa Monica Airport.

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As the seniors flow past, following their docent, I’m left alone in the large central foyer of the museum. And that’s when I see it: Squeezed in between large models of race planes and an honest-to-God Lockheed Vega 5B with a mannequin of Amelia Earhart in it, is a truncated windowless mini-van on giant hydraulic brackets. There’s no line. No child to worry about. Nothing to stop me.

And yet… and yet, for some reason I didn’t “fly” it. Maybe because it wouldn’t be fun alone. Or maybe because, as much as I like the idea of being bold enough to flip a simulator upside down, I don’t know if I really have the Right Stuff to do it, and, of course, I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of all of those senior citizens.

Still, I wish I could fly like that.

Without screaming, of course.

 

A tale of two cowls… well, three, actually

Houston, we have a cowl problem. As, it seems, do all Ercoupes. Our problem started with a nose cowl crack. We’d just bought Tess, and the crack was brought to my attention during the first of her many, many rounds of maintenance.

My options were to buy a used replacement nose cowl from the Ercoupe junkyard guy for $500 bucks (which would probably crack, too), buy a new cowl from Univair for $1,200 bucks (which would probably crack, also), or have my guys “patch” it.

Silly me, I opted for the patch, and when Tess came home from her mechanics, her beautiful, flat nose was covered in brass rivets. It looked like Machine Gun Kelly strafed us on the runway.

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This was just days before our first Ercoupe convention, and I was mad as hell. It was not the first impression I wanted to make. I spent the afternoon sitting on an upside-down bucket with a Q-tip and a can of metallic touchup paint, painstakingly covering each and every one of the 43 brass-colored rivets with dark blue paint. It was slow going. Metallic paint doesn’t like to stay stirred. Or to stick to brass. In the end, while my handiwork wouldn’t pass close inspection, or win a Lindy at Oshkosh, from any respectable distance it didn’t look too terribly bad.

But since then, every year it seems, a new crack develops, and more rivets get shot into the nose bowl. Rather than Machine Gun Kelley, on close inspection, it now looks like an inebriated Elmer Fudd blasted Tessie’s nose with his double-barreled shotgun.

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Truth be told, there’s actually no original metal left at all. I’m flying behind a solid mass of rivets.

Now, not to whine about money (again), but I think I might have mentioned that while Ercoupes are very affordable to buy—less than most cars—the problem with airplanes is that, sorta like kids, the real costs start when you bring them home from the hospital. All these patches weren’t cheap. I could have easily bought two new nose cowls for what I’ve paid in patches over the years.

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In fact, that’s what my mechanic mentioned sorta off hand as he handed me the latest invoice. Naturally, the next day, a new crack developed.

Normally, at this point the decision would have been obvious, but there are extenuating circumstances. The first is that there’s an airplane paint job on my horizon. And I was sorta thinking about replacing the entire cowl, not just the nose bowl, before the painting, as it’s all in pretty bad shape. But that aside, even if I just wanted to get a new nose bowl, it doesn’t make much sense to pay to have it painted when the whole plane is going to be painted in a few years, nor would it make sense to leave unprotected metal out in the elements just because a paint job is on the horizon.

But that’s not all. Now there are three options for new cowls. Univair still has the original thin aluminum nose bowl, but Alpha, who bought up a lot of mods from Skyport when they shut down, nearly have FAA approval for two more options. One is the original-style nose bowl, but made of a reportedly more crack-resistant fiberglass. It also promises to be cheaper. And additionally, they are bringing back a product called the Kinney Speed Bowl. It’s also a fiberglass bowl, but with a much larger air intakes for improved cooling.

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I was drawn to the Kinney for two reasons: We live in a hot desert; and the word “speed” was in the title.

That said, Rio thinks the Kinney bowls are the ugliest things in the world and, “The worst thing a man could do to an Ercoupe.” To be honest, I couldn’t quite picture how our girl would look with one on it, so I started Googling pictures of Ercoupe nose bowls.

And that’s when I discovered this:

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Image courtesy Machine Age Lamps

Which is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Yeah. That’s a real-life Ercoupe nose cowl turned into a steampunk lamp. What’s the story behind it?

The lamp is the creation of Darin Carling. His brother Shawn runs an outfit called Machine Age Lamps in Lakeville, Minnesota. The brothers grew up on a small farm in rural North Dakota, so they were good at fixing stuff, creating stuff, or re-purposing stuff. Farm folk like that wouldn’t go out and buy a new cowl.

I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but I wasn’t raised on a farm.

Anyway, after leaving the farm, Shawn, in his own words, spent the next 25 years “miscast” in corporate America, until one year at Christmas when he built his father a “unique” lamp out of old tractor parts. His dad dug it, as did everyone else who saw it, and one thing led to another.

“Another,” in this case, being the fact that his work is lighting Gordon Ramsey’s Restaurant. The one in Hong Kong.

Shawn’s highly successful company creates one-of-a-kind lamps from salvaged antique industrial, agricultural, nautical, and aircraft parts and gauges. The ‘Coupe cowl light was created by brother Darin, who was encouraged by Shawn to build some items for the businesses.

Darin told me he didn’t want to copy anybody else’s work, including his brother’s, and that it took him a long time to “come up with solid ideas of my own.” But wow, did he ever. Darin says, “We are interested in history and in all things mechanical, and old airplanes are as good as it gets.”

The ‘Coupe lamp actually started with a Cessna nose cowl. Darin says, “A few years ago I purchased a Cessna nose cowling from someone with no idea what I was going to do with it. It sat in my living room for 6 months before I started working on it. The first ones did not have lights as props but rather lights coming out the front and hanging down in almost an exhaust pipe fashion. They were kind of cool, but not quite what I wanted. One day I was looking for new light bulbs online and found these very large bulbs. I thought ‘just maybe they could be propellers!’ I made a prototype and it was on display at the Minnesota State Fair and everyone loved it. After that, we started to fine tune and dress them up with vintage emblems, real aviation gears, and valve covers.”

Darin, an aviation lover since childhood, has a deep desire not only to create art, but also to be true to history. “I also do my best to have all the parts make sense,” said Darin, “for example I only put Franklin valve covers in my Stinson cowls. History is very important to me, and to the people that buy our projects.” The Ercoupe lamp has vintage Continental valve covers and assorted engine gears for a cool look.

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Darin says he always keep track of where the cowls come from and, “If I can get history, I pass that along. One cowl I’m working on now has a photo copy of the bill of sale for the plane back in 1953.” That being said, I can happily report that no Ercoupes were harmed in the making of the ‘Coupe Cowl lamp. Darin bought the cowl from the friend of an Ercoupe owner in Michigan. Apparently, like me, the airplane owner was having a cowl problem. Unlike me, he had the sense to buy a new one.

Is Darin a pilot? Not yet, although his father worked for the FAA and brother Shawn has his ticket. Darin tells me he’s finished his ground school.

But back to the lamp. How does it work? Despite the old parts, all the electric components are brand new. The Ercoupe lamp is equipped with UL approved wiring, a dimmer switch, and a heavy-duty grounded lamp cord, although Darin says some airplane cowl customers have chosen to have electricians hardwire the lamp for “a clean cordless look,” controlling the lamp through a wall switch.

In the case of the cowl lamps, Darin builds a steel frame inside to support the soft metal cowls, which are either buffed or powder coated. The frame has mounting holes drilled on 16-inch centers to match up with the standard wall studs, allowing it to be hung “just like a picture.” Darin also covers the back of the cowl with sheet metal, painting the inside of it black. “When peeking in the cowl, I wanted the illusion of looking in a real plane,” said Darin, “and you would not get that if the painted wall showed through.”

So how do those crazy bulbs hold up? Darin says he’s yet to see one burn out, and some of the lamps in his house have been blazing away for three years. That said, “I always ship my cowls with three bulbs, just in case.” Will we see more Ercoupe art from Darin? “I would love to do more Ercoupe art,” Darin tells me, “I researched the Ercoupe and found it’s history to be very cool.”

Meanwhile, did I ever find a picture that helped me decide what Tess would look like with an entirely different kind of cowl? No. So for now we’ll probably just keep patching the patches. But I do know one thing: Once we decide what to do, I’ll turn our old one over to Darin and commission him to turn it into some sort of lamp for our hangar.

Maybe I’ll have him drill out the hundreds of rivets and have him put a little Christmas light in each hole. Or maybe not.

It would be blinding.

 

[Editor's Note: Darin tells Plane Tales that between our interview with him and going to press on this story the Ercoupe Nose Bowl Lamp sold to a private collector. But while you missed out on this lamp we're told that Machine Age Lamps has scored three more non-flight worthy Ercoupe nose bowls from the Ercoupe Junkyard guy, so more 'Coupe lights are coming!]