Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dragon's Tail and Celestial Scales




It ought to be warmer than this in the belly of a dragon.

I'm in an airplane that was a primary military trainer in China before being restored, owned, and flown in Texas by Gene and Eileen Stansbery. The aircraft is painted gray, with a red and yellow dragon as nose art, and is nicknamed DragonLady. Today Eileen is the pilot and I'm the Gal in Back (GIB) on a recreational run from Friendswood to Rockport for Sunday lunch. That's 150 miles one way. An hour or so by air. Winter air.

Airplanes fly well in cold, dense air. DragonLady sounds and feels like a happy airplane. Eileen, in the front seat, is having all kinds of fun flying and navigating. There's only one little hitch as far as the GIB is concerned: IT'S COLD BACK HERE!

Eileen sits just aft of DragonLady's pounding radial heart – the engine – where it's significantly warmer than in the back seat where I am. There no cabin heat. There are drafts, most notably through the canopy. It's a World War II warbird-style, sectioned canopy, it doesn't seal tight, and a gap dumps air from the outside onto my knees. Those military instructors who sat here in Chinese winters had to be a hardy breed, is all I can say. At an altitude of 6500', the outside air temperature is a degree or two below freezing. My pen is barely scratching words in my notebook. I think the ink is gelid.

But what a view. It's what they call severe clear, which only happens here when a cold front has shoved the warm murky coastal air offshore. The Texas coast curves from one horizon to the other off the left wing. That's the graceful arc you see on a map of the state, but from aloft, it's a vast streak of sandy, gray and brown barrier island between the deep blue of the Gulf of Mexico and the slatier blue of long shallow bays. Everything is irregular, swirled and mottled, except for the watery slash of the Intracoastal Waterway and the abandoned air base on Matagorda Island: a triangular pattern of wide lines blurred around the edges where nature is reclaiming the asphalt.

COLDCOLDCOLD! You'd think windproof pants over jeans, and a windbreaker over a fleece vest over a heavy flannel shirt over a waffle-weave shirt would be just a bit warmer. Feeling like a well-padded popsicle as we descend to Aransas County Airport, I notice flocks of RV's on sandy strips and points beside the water. Those are the snowbirds – the people who migrate here from up north every year.

Parked at the airport, DragonLady cuts a splendid figure,being bigger than the Cessnas and Pipers and having tall landing gear and wings with a dihedral lilt. DragonLady basks in the winter sun. I, however, feel cold-soaked all the way through a cab ride with Eileen to a restaurant and a wait for a table. But our wait is rewarded with a table in front of a sun-soaked window. Ahhh! Warmth! And a view of a harbor full of shrimp boats and a porpoise. Eileen is in the best of moods. Pilots usually are, on a good flying day. Happily, it's quite contagious. After a seafood feast and a walk – to interesting old Fulton Mansion, then on down the road a ways, and back – I'm comfortably thawed out. But it's time to go home.

Coldcoldcold-! The canopy seems even draftier than before, but still compensates with a great view. Looking straight back, there's the tail against clouds in the western sky. It is an excellent tail – gleaming gray with red highlights and a couple of sturdy antennas, a conventional airplane tail with a horizontal stabilizer below the vertical stabilizer. The tail constantly shifts position relative to the sky behind it. Even in stable air, the airplane's fuselage has some up and down and side to side motion, and the front end is relatively massive, so the motions show up as slight movement of the tail against the sky.

This airplane is a great example of beating swords into ploughshares. Or would that be swords into propellers? The canopy originally trained military pilots to look all around for enemy aircraft. Now DragonLady is all about fun. On a cross-country flight, the canopy shows a grand procession of clouds. Up ahead, there's a patch of altocumulus "mackerel sky." Within five minutes it's overhead and the scales look puffy and widely spaced. Five minutes later it's astern, but there's more scaly mackerel sky over the airplane's nose.

Although we'll make it home before sunset, the light across coastal Texas is long and golden. Mist covers an area just inland from the coastline. Not a thick homogenous white blanket: the mist shows ripples and dapples, echoing subtle unevenness in the very flat landscape. DragonLady's official name, by the way, written in Chinese characters on the right wing, is a propitious phrase that translates as Mount the Clouds and Ride the Mist.

Flying into home territory, Eileen is more and more relaxed and pleased. She chuckles at a bit of radio talk from some other pilots also returning from Sunday outings. When we reach the Houston area, there's a shining cloud low behind us in the west. I think it's mackerel sky from earlier, but now close to the horizon and compacted by distance. The cloud shows a striated patch of iridescent light: a sundog beside the low sun. Cold and all, it's been a very good day for the view from an even-tempered metal dragon.

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