Aviation’s Primary Colors And A Few Gripes


All airplanes should be yellow. Cub yellow, even though I’m not a huge fan of J-3s but admit they’re fetching in Lock Haven livery with tails in the grass. I’ve known some off-color Cub pilots, such as Brian in California, who back in the 1970s flew a green Cub. Flew it well, too, by avoiding pavement. Vern, the airport manager, gave up telling him to conform, because Brian would smile, nod, then take off from the grass between the runway and taxiway. Gotta admire passive rebellion.

I long ago shunned pavement for turf and mud—which sounds like the name of a bar in Louisville—and while holding short of our grass runway for neighbor Sean to land his yellow Cub and take forever to taxi past, I had one of those Aero Zen moments, usually attributed to carbon monoxide leaks. Everything was perfect. The view through the open window was blue, gray, green, and yellow—sky, clouds, grass, and Cub plus my Champ’s wing and struts. Even the wind-T was yellow, faded after 49 years from its original orange. We should repaint it but never will. Instead, we’ll form a committee to explore color options; then, invoking the vacuous phrase, “as we go forward,” gin up an action plan to guarantee nothing gets done. The Army taught me the best way to kill a good idea is to exile it to the Isle of Ad Hocs. My FAA career bolstered this insight. I’d excel in Congress but have loftier ambitions.

Consider how long the FAA’s taking to raise LSA weight limits. Yeah, it’s complicated. But not really. Here’s how I’d unclog LSA regs as your FAA Administrator, speaking ex cathedra: “Henceforth, LSAs may weigh 3600 pounds, 4000 if you paint your Stinson Station Wagon yellow. Any complaints, and I’ll raise ‘em all to 4500.” Then, I’d press my signet ring into hot wax to seal the proclamation.

Back to this perfectly hued Midwestern day. The engine had started on the first pull. No valves stuck as they tend to if I really want to fly or I’m far from home. The CTAF was oddly silent, without, “Traffic in the area, please advise” or, “on a 12-mile final,” followed by position reports every quarter of a mile. Instead, radio silence amplified the serenity. Truth is, my KX99’s battery has been dead for months, and I can’t find the charger. Sean’s Cub left the factory in 1940 without avionics and suffered no upgrades since. Somehow, we manage.

Side gripe: Last fall I was lazy-eighting with a friend in her Citabria and monitoring 122.8, when a Mooney pilot announced his position, “five southwest of (a nearby airport), heading 050 …” and added his altitude: “7500 feet, MSL.” That’s 6500 feet above field elevation. “Curious,” I thought. Next, he reported crossing that airport, followed by announcing he was “clear northeast.” He repeated these mindless updates—a mile above the planet—over each subsequent airfield enroute, until his signal faded. This illustrates a good reason to use VFR radar flight following because babble like that in ATC’s earpiece, and the controller will train a space laser on you. Yes, they’re developing that capability.

Back to the grass field. Without ADS-B, the snooping world could not see the two yellow airplanes grazing on the green Iowa grass. No one but us/we knew of our existence or intentions. No one, that is, except that blue sky with clouds that challenged description. If this were a check ride, I’d wow the examiner by labeling them alto fracto cumulus, a term I encountered at Weather Slam Open Mic Nite in the Turf and Mud Lounge. Inviting, but with bases about 7000 feet above us, if I couldn’t catch a thermal, I wasn’t going to waste fuel climbing the Champ just for a Joni Mitchell* look from the other side. Plus, in Class E airspace I’d be ethically and legally bound to remain 500-1000-2000 feet below, above, or beside them, which is like telling a little kid not to touch anything in a toy store.

Instrument pilots know the gasping joy of popping from the top of cream puffs miles above the planet and cruising in clear air, easily the best reason for being IFR empowered. Practicality has its place, I suppose, but it is possible to utilize IFRness to repeatedly punch through clouds just for giggles. I got the idea years ago while riding jump seat in a Boeing 727 freighter to somewhere a bunch of boxes needed to be.

Climbing to FL230 (23,000 feet), we started to clear the overcast at 11,000. Gray cloud matter splattered across cartoon sunlight, casting a trijet shadow inside a circular rainbow, breaching the castellated tops. And that’s when the captain disengaged autopilot and requested to momentarily level off. “Approved,” the controller yawned. Maybe only 60 seconds, but long enough for us kids to experience the unearthly thrill of machines abusing clouds before climbing back to reality. It inspired a plan.

Plan: Instrument training need not be a repetitive drill of interminable holds and approaches. When the sky is blue and puffed with non-threatening cumulos, emitting 50 shades of Ansel Adams gray, shuck the Foggles. Request a block altitude and an impromptu “practice area,” defined horizontally by old school radial/DME or a playpen of RNAV fixes. If the controller’s agreeable—most are—and not busy, her “approved as requested, maintain between 5000 and 7000,” is a license to kill clouds from both sides now.

Slice and mash them, shave their tops, dogfight your shadow inside its rainbow (while respecting 91.303 Aerobatic Flight regs), and practice upset recovery when you totally disorient yourself. Perhaps this plan needs a slight rethink, but a taste of it can be experienced in even a 91.205(d) minimally equipped IFR aircraft. Anything, that plunges you into the blue and gray above the green, provided whatever you’re flying is painted yellow as Nature, and school bus drivers, intended. And as FAA Administrator, I shall mandate.

*Ed note: Joni Mitchell wrote it, but you heard it because Judy Collins’ bright and hopeful version of it marched smartly up the charts in 1968. Mitchell’s version was so darkly lugubrious that most people who heard it became alcoholics or blog editors. In some cases, both.

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  1. Fantastic! Whereas a J3 does absolutely represent exactly what an airplane should look like, we all do know why we don’t really care for flying them. And paint jobs, I’ve been an Aeronca kinda guy for about 62 years. Love my Champs…and Chiefs. But, the Champ factory paint design to me has always been just terrible. Why did they? Who at the factory came up with that big red swipe on the lower one third? Just doesn’t do it for me. Should have just left the whole thing that “off yellow” like what is on the rest of the plane. (The Chief factory paint jobs, so much nicer). And, I’m not at all opposed to planes being repainted non factory paint jobs. Have loved my Chief for the past 20 years, and it is a beautiful blue, with some white trim. The guy I bought it from said if I needed to touch up the paint, look for 1982 Volvo Fleet Blue.

      • Might have been the empty weight of the plane and what prop was on it. Mine was adequate, but did make a difference when I had a passenger, or summer time vs winter. I had a metal prop also. The wood props don’t have quite the performance. 65 horses don’t give you much regardless. But 4 gph of auto fuel did make for fun flying though.

  2. Fun fact: “National School Bus Chrome” was established in 1939, a year after the Cub was released. The color was named after the Chrome Yellow pigment that Piper also used. Chrome Yellow was also known as lead chromate. The lead was removed after the “School Bus Challenge” (in which a student tries to lick the side of a school bus in the dead of winter while being filmed in 8mm) went viral, and the name was changed to “National School Bus Glossy Yellow”.

    ‘Tis a shame that they didn’t go with “Cub Yellow” from the start . . .

  3. Paul, you being the administrator, is polished aluminum as it came out of the factory on Oct 22, 1946 legit? Please, I keep it polished with a Wal Mart $18 random orbital 6 inch polisher, old cotton tee-shirts, Nuvite, Michelob, Zen and AC43-13.

  4. Paul Berge–a worthy successor to Gordon “Bax Seat” Baxter! A story well told, with so many illustrative side trips and references that sometimes makes reading take additional time–just to savor the side trips.

    Paul really does capture the spirit of recreational flying!

  5. Thank you Paul. What a great piece. I enjoy your writing style. Nicely done. Conjures up memories of my aluminum and green Cessna 170A that flew nicely into and out of grass runways. It didn’t like (neither did I) asphalt nearly as much.

    • Wasn’t at all familiar with Joni’s version, but Amazon Music came to my aid. And for the record: you’re entirely correct in your evaluation. Reminds me of Carmen McRae vs. That Other Singer doing “New York State of Mind”. Or Janis vs. Big Mama Thornton on “Ball and Chain”. Top notch versions in each case, but with wonderfully different colorations.

      And now I’m listening to the entire “Both Sides Now” album, wondering why I haven’t listened to Joni Mitchell just a tad more over the past four or five decades.

  6. Paul, great article! I often wish that I could wax poetic like that.

    Never been much of a tailwheel guy although my very first flight was in a Cub out of a grass strip in Connecticut when I was 7. I so enjoyed that 45 minutes that I sit here 66 years later with 20K hours of mostly heavy iron time. I have to admit to having enjoyed more than a few odd minutes here and there sliding my Starlifter or Whale through some innocent cloud edges or tops around the world. The most fun was taking the “Tweet” in / around / over / etc puffy-cues in West Texas. One especially memorable moment was my T-38 IP having me try to catch a fast rising cell top. Starting that “pull” nearly supersonic in full burner, we never caught up with the top of the cell. Lesson was fun but also well learned.

    Clouds are fun to play with and enjoy but. like gravity, must be respected at all times!