A While back in these pages I wrote glowingly of my new Ercoupe. I extolled it in print as being an extraordinarily safe airplane for amateurs to fly. Actually, I didn't know the half of it. That little job has qualities of cautious dependability which set it apart not only from ordinary aircraft, but probably even from other Ercoupes. In short, my plane has a brain.
As a kid I used to ride bareback on an old plow mare named Duchess. I didn't even put a bridle on her. You steered her by leaning, just as the Ercoupe flies without rudder controls. Duchess would take me anywhere—if she was satisfied that conditions were right. She wouldn't enter gullies when cloudbursts threatened; she could detect rotten planks in bridges; when dark began to descend upon the New Mexico mountains while I had her out on expeditions, the ancient mare headed for home whether I liked it or not.
Like Duchess, my Ercoupe is a faithful old danker as far as motive power is concerned. It never fails to run, but it can do the most terrifying things—and always with a purpose. Of course, I didn't believe it the first time.
Shortly after buying the ship, I offered to fly a neighbor to Cape Cod, Mass., where he wanted to join his vacationing wife. The day was bright and warm and we flew with the canopy open, sport-car style, the engine banging and grinding in perfect rhythm all the way. I dropped my passenger, called the weather bureau, gassed up, checked the oil—and half way home the engine suddenly changed its tune. It didn't falter, exactly, but it got alarmingly rough, and when that engine is rough, it means your sunglasses bounce on your nose. It wasn't carburetor ice, it wasn't the fuel mixture and it ran as badly on one magneto as the other. I landed at Newport, R.I.
February 14, 1955
A FOG ROLLED IN
A couple of obliging mechanics dropped everything to help a transient who was obviously in a hurry, but could find nothing the matter. After about an hour of concentrated labor, the Ercoupe ran fine, and I actually got into the cockpit and started to taxi out for a take-off before I noticed that you could no longer see the end of the runway. A great, billowing fog had rolled quietly in from Long Island Sound, defying the forecasters, and had blanketed the entire route home.
I took a bus to Providence, thence home by slow train, arriving in the small hours.
I spent the next day catching up on my work and reflecting bitterly on the air age which had saved my friend eight hours and cost me 18, and then, as I began figuring ways and means of getting back to Rhode Island to pick up my ship, Hurricane Hazel struck. She blew the tail right off the plane tied down next to the vacant spot on my home field where the Ercoupe usually sits. Newport wasn't touched by this particular storm.
The little Ercoupe clattered along fine for a week or so, and then I had a high-frequency radio installed—an extravagance I'd planned when I bought the plane. Finding that this new equipment drove the magnetic compass crazy, I flew to Bridgeport, Conn., where they have a thing called a "compass rose," with a turntable designed for shifting planes in all directions while the deviation is corrected. Departing from Bridgeport after a couple of hours, I had 200 feet of altitude at the end of the runway and all of a sudden the cockpit was full of smoke.
Fire in the air is almost unheard of in light planes these days, but just the same I suspect that most pilots have as deep a subconscious horror of it as I do. Wishing I had three hands, I grabbed for ignition, gas valve and master switch. There's nothing beyond the end of that runway but deep, cold, gray salt water, and I was seized with a panicky urge to tip around and head back for the field. This has sometimes been tried with a dead engine from 200 feet, but it's never been tried twice by the same guy, according to the statistics. I read lots of statistics. It had to be the drink.
All this mental struggling went on in a remarkably short time—I hadn't even cut any switches yet—and even as I began turning the gas valve the smoke stopped as quickly as it had started. Gee, I thought, maybe it's only smoldering now; I'll keep power on long enough for a 180° turn. I hadn't turned off the master switch, either, and was still tuned to the tower, so I quavered into the mike:
"Thizziztha Ercoupe that just left gotta smoking engine can I come back please gulp."
"Cleared to land, any runway," the man in the tower barked right back. "I'll call out the equipment," he added enthusiastically.
One fire truck did come out and run along abreast of me during the end of the landing roll. When I switched everything off, dove out of the plane and yanked open the cowl, a bevy of firemen stood ready to squirt and foam. Nothing. Not a wisp of smoke, nothing unduly hot, not even a smell.
I called the home field and an Old Pilot flew up to get me. He couldn't find anything wrong with the Ercoupe either, but agreed it would be wise to leave it, pending a further look-see.
(In this case, it turned out that a big blob of solder had been spilled on the exhaust manifold during some ignition work and had heated to the smoking point during my take-off. But that's not the point I'm getting at.)
"Shame to put you out like this," I said as we flew back in the Old Pilot's plane, "but at least I picked a nice day for it. Beautiful flying weather."
"You kiddin'?" he said. "Wait'll we get near home. Wind shifted all of a sudden and there's the damndest greasy black smog you ever saw coming in from Jersey and laying over the field." When I saw the smog I knew I sure wouldn't have made it back, and finally I realized the truth about my airplane. If it hadn't been the solder it would've been something else. That intelligent, conservative, weather-wise old Ercoupe, when seeking a safe night's berth, will always pick a comfortable spot like Newport or Bridgeport and squat there, and the devil with the pilot, who'd most likely end up settling for a lumpy pasture in a moment of stress.
I'd been thinking of naming the machine "Bottlefly" or some such frivolous thing. I guess it'll have to be "Duchess."
Johnny Weissmuller, who dominated U.S. freestyle swimming in the 1920s and three times won Olympic titles, now occasionally loses a dash across his Los Angeles pool to Johnny Jr., who, at 14, is 6 foot 1 and has adopted the distinctive style which made his father famous, even before he became Tarzan.