Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Not long after Rio Dubois had seen the 2013 Disney film “Planes” with his father, he posed a question: “Dad, can we fly around the world?”
In the 11-year-old’s mind, the family’s tiny, two-seat Ercoupe his grandmother had recently bought as an investment seemed ideal for such an adventure.
“I said, ‘Well, not in Grandma’s plane. The oceans are a little beyond our range,’ ” Rio’s dad, William E. Dubois, said earlier this month, while sitting beside the vintage Ercoupe hangared at the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport.
But his son’s query planted the seed that led Dubois, a longtime pilot and freelance writer from Apache Springs, to set a national “speed” record in April in his 1947 Ercoupe 415-C/D – a wisp of an airplane that was manufactured from 1940 to 1969. Of the 5,685 produced, Dubois said it’s estimated that more than 2,000 Ercoupes are still flying.
The unusual twin-tail aircraft, advertised as “the world’s safest plane,” is difficult to stall and nearly impossible to spin, Dubois said.
After explaining to Rio that the 750-pound Ercoupe was far too small to attempt a transglobal flight and that its 85 horsepower engine could never compete at the Reno Air Races, Dubois’ interest was piqued.
“I thought, well, maybe there is some kind of record we could look at, and I Googled aviation records and learned how the whole aviation records system works, and that the National Aeronautic Association has been the keeper of the records since the beginning of aviation,” he said.
Dubois began studying aviation records – and the arduous process for attempting to set one.
The National Aeronautic Association, which certifies all air and space records in the United States, uses a handicapping system to level the playing field for various types of aircraft. The system takes into consideration the type of aircraft, engine type, takeoff weight and other factors.
Dubois’ record was set in the NAA’s Class C-1, Group 1, Subclass B – meaning he flew a conventional airplane powered by an internal combustion engine, with a takeoff weight between 1,102 pounds and 2,205 pounds. The maximum gross weight for Dubois’ Ercoupe is 1,250 pounds.
Dubois’ research revealed that only one other Ercoupe had set a speed record. In December 1993, Robert J. Swanson flew his Ercoupe 254 miles from Wilmington, Del., to Kitty Hawk, N.C., at an average speed of 109.15 mph – a notable accomplishment for an airplane with a recommended maximum speed of 110 mph.
Although speed records are usually attempted by similar aircraft over identical routes, Dubois – whose record-setting flight was from Albuquerque to Amarillo – wanted to beat Swanson’s average speed.
As a longtime history and aviation buff, Dubois selected the 277-mile Albuquerque-to-Amarillo route for several reasons: It was convenient, it was an early airmail route and, because the route had never seen a record attempt by his class of airplane, a record was virtually assured.
“As long as I could fly faster than my stall speed, we would have automatically set the record,” Dubois said. “I decided I needed to average at least 100 mph, but I had it in my mind to go faster than (Swanson) by averaging at least 115 mph.”
And because 2015 marks the 75th anniversary of the Ercoupe, Dubois decided it was the ideal time to try to set a record in the vintage aircraft.
After months of planning and painstakingly studying weather and wind patterns along the route, Dubois was ready – almost.
“I agonized over the date” on which to attempt the record, he said. “I had my (NAA) sanction, so I had a 90-day window. I knew the longer I got into summer, the worse (flying conditions) would get. In the end, I chose the week of my son’s spring break.”
Wheels up to wheels down
At 7:34 a.m. on April 8, Dubois’ white-and-blue Ercoupe departed the Sunport on a nearly direct west-to-east course for Amarillo – and straight through the looming Sandia Mountains.
“That was not small problem,” Dubois said.
Circling the 21-foot-long Ercoupe to gain enough altitude to clear the Sandias would eat up precious time, so the solution was to fly through Tijeras Canyon.
“That was probably my biggest worry along the route,” he said. “Fortunately, I caught an updraft in the canyon and did pretty well.”
Having mapped out specific checkpoints along the route, and the exact times he would need to pass each to maintain a record speed, Dubois closely monitored his progress.
“For me to have the fastest Ercoupe on record, I needed to average 115 mph,” he said, noting that he had to beat the previous record by at least 1 percent to meet NAA requirements.
“I remember thinking as I passed over the first couple of checkpoints, ‘Maybe this is going to work,’ ” he said.
The predicted tailwinds developed, and the little Ercoupe zipped toward Texas.
“At one point, I was going 160 mph over the ground near Texas, with a strong tailwind and slight descent,” he said.
He was essentially flying downhill; there’s a 1,506 drop in elevation from the Sunport to the Amarillo airport, he said.
When the diminutive Ercoupe’s wheels touched down at Amarillo’s Rick Husband International Airport, 1 hour, 59 minutes and 20 seconds later, Dubois had set his record, averaging 139.33 mph over the course.
“Well faster than I ever dreamed possible,” he said.
The record attempt was monitored by FAA air traffic controllers at the Sunport and the Amarillo airport, who recorded the “wheels up to wheels down” duration of the flight.
Now that the initial euphoria of setting an aviation record has worn off, Dubois said he leaned much from the experience.
“It kind of put me in touch with aviation’s roots. Competition has always been a big part of the development of aviation technology. I don’t think I ever understood that until I got swept up in it. I’m not a competitive person by nature, but once I started doing this, I really wanted to beat the record,” he said.
“It was partly the personal challenge, and it was partly to let people know that, hey, 70 years after they started building Ercoupes, they can still do new and exciting things.”
But he has no plans to seek another record.
“No. I think one record is enough,” he said. “I’m thrilled that I did it.”
Pending certification by the Switzerland-based Federation Aéronautique Internationale, Dubois’ flight could also become a world record.