Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 5, 2012

It’s More Than Just An N-Number

Renaming our kids and our airplanes doesn’t always work

Personalizing an N-number can assume the dimensions of naming one of your kids. You can bet every time you see a number with a two-letter suffix that it has meanings to the owner past simply identifying the airplane.
The other day at the hangar, we were talking about how many times I've rebuilt my airplane: twice for the engine, twice for the fuselage and once for the rest of the airframe, which included re-cover and painting. The question was then asked if during the process I had changed the N-number? I recoiled in horror! What? Change the N-number? How could I possibly do such a thing? Pure blasphemy!

Since I refused to change the number, N8PB, the next question made some sense, but the answer didn't. What's the significance of the number, I was asked? And I had to admit that there isn't any significance. At least not to me. The rumor is that "PB" are the initials of the woman who originally bought the airplane new back in 1974, but that's just a rumor, and it hasn't been important enough for me to do any research on it. So, if it has no significance, why not change it to something with a BD, maybe something like 74BD (it was built in 1974) or maybe 71BD (its serial number is 2071). I've had two opportunities to easily make the change, so why not do it?

I have to admit that when we were covering the fuselage the first time, at which point I had owned the airplane eight or nine years, changing the number flashed through my mind for a second. But only for a second. By then, I had spent enough time with her that I just couldn't see myself climbing into an airplane with another name on it. And after you've lived with a bird long enough, and close enough, that's what the N-number becomes: a name. It's more than just an identification mark. It's the name of a character that shares your life with you. And you can't just change the name of a character mid-stream. Not to mention that, in my case, it would wreak havoc with the control tower, since everyone on the airport knows the airplane as simply Papa Bravo.

I periodically fly a later version of my own airplane and, when I do, both the tower and I are continually stumbling over the call sign. The older heads in the tower and I almost can't do it because we've all said, "Eight Papa Bravo," so many times that we just can't make anything else come out of our mouths. Plus to them, my voice is the voice of Papa Bravo. So, some of us just give up and call whatever airplane I'm flying Eight Papa Bravo to keep from confusing ourselves.

Lemme see, on days like today where I flew five hops, that's in excess of 40 landings, and the tower probably talked to me at least six or eight times per circuit. So, that means they've said, "Eight Papa Bravo," something like 250 times that day. And I fly two to four times almost every day. So, saying, "Eight Papa Bravo," is a vocal reflex action, a muscle memory that's hard for some of us to break. Besides, it just wouldn't be natural to call it anything else. Eight Papa Bravo is its name. Just as Budd is mine. And yours is yours. Could you answer to another name?

Okay, so let's get that subject out of the way right now, as it has come up before: I know that some segments of society consider Budd to be a dumb name. This was clearly pointed out to me decades ago in a newspaper article about a fight I was having with the local city council: One of the council members was quoted as saying, "…and what kind of a name is 'Budd' for a grown man?" When I hear someone else called Bud (mine is usually misspelled that way, and 90% of the time my last name grows an extra "d" in the middle), I remember that comment. But, I don't feel that way about my own name. It's like Eight Papa Bravo: Whatever name you've grown up with sounds right because you've grown into it and it just "fits." I can't see myself called anything else. Sam doesn't work. Tom put in front of my last name just looks weird. Nope, Papa Bravo and I are both comfortable with our names.

A similar question has come up plenty of times about why I didn't change Papa Bravo's paint scheme during a rebuild. Let's face it, totally re-covering and repainting an airplane is the perfect time to do a face-lift to your bird. It doesn't cost any more and makes the airplane appear fresh and new, even if you don't change the N-number. But let's examine that thought for a second.

I can completely understand why lots of people totally change the appearance of their airplane during a rebuild. It's a logical thing to do, but it wasn't to me. Changing the paint scheme never even crossed my mind because I dearly loved the way the airplane looked. In fact, as I've probably mentioned before, even after owning the airplane for nearly 20 years, when I drive around the corner of the hangar and see it sitting in the open door, I still can't stop a smile from forming. Why would I want to change that? Besides, just as the Arizona Red Head (aka Marlene) would look totally foreign to me (and more than just a little weird) as a blonde, or a brunette, Eight Papa Bravo is my red-and-black beauty, and no other plumage would suit her.

Once an airplane has been a part of someone's life for a long time, it ceases being a machine and becomes a closely held member of the family. So, radically changing its appearance and changing its number would be like doing plastic surgery and renaming one of our kids just because we can. In my case, that just ain't gonna happen! Not to my kids and not to my airplane.


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