Throttle Tale—Part 2

Low, un-forecasted, icky clouds have the north side of Dallas/Fort Worth socked in. I’m in Stark’s exceedingly stark little terminal building, which resembles an abandoned construction shack. Dirt and dead bugs form alternate layers on the floor at the base of the walls and on the windowsills. There are water stains on the ceiling tiles—at least the ones that haven’t fallen down—the windows are fifthly, bright orange rust mars the sinks, and let’s not even talk about the toilets.

But at least it’s shelter from the wind, and the air conditioning works. After wiping mystery crumbs and the dried carcasses of dead moths off the table with a scrap of yellowing newspaper, I sit in a faded plastic cafeteria chair and use the mobile hotspot on my cell phone to check the weather on my FlightPad while nibbling on a “meatasaurus” sandwich. When you travel slow, you can’t take the time to drive into town for lunch.

I have a choice: I can wait an hour or two at Stark for the ceilings to rise, or work my way around the south side of the city. It’s a longer ground track, and it’s into the wind. Still, I’d rather waste time in the air than on the ground.

At least on this ground.

I finish my sandwich, gather my things, and head back to Tessie. Up onto her left wing, toss the lunch bag in back, step over the fighter plane-style sidewall into the cozy cockpit, then slide down into the seat. I love the way my Coupe wraps her loving arms around me. I slide the doors up over my head and run through the engine start checklist. If I don’t use the checklist I tend to forget to open the master fuel cut off, and the engine stops about 30 seconds after starting, embarrassing when other pilots are watching. There’s not much risk of that on this blustery, hazy day in Onley, Texas; but still…

Engine up and running I test the throttle. It runs normally. Yeah. Must ‘a been some sort of weird fuel/air thing with the conditions. Clearly everything is fine.

I head out into the haze. Into the headwinds. Leveling off in cruise I’m just shy of the TACH redline for maximum speed. On the highway below me I see a U-Haul truck overtaking me. The driver looks up and me, shakes his head, and pulls away. Next, I’m over taken by a group of aging hippies in a battered VW microbus, two old ladies in a 1974 Yugo, and a kid on his bicycle who’s delivering newspapers.

This is going to be a long flight.

I have a track planned: A long, loping circle around the south side of Dallas. But I know that as the temperature rises, so too will the clouds, and I hope to take a short cut or two. I keep an eye on the ceilings being reported through my ADS-B, and I’m grateful for the advantage of near real-time weather reports from over the horizon that my pilot forefathers didn’t have.

Sure enough, as I fly south, ceilings to the east of me begin to improve, and I tighten my circle. Terrell lies on the east side of Dallas. If it weren’t for that nasty Class Bravo airspace around the huge Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, it would actually be a straight shot from my home base—but I must go around either north or south.

By the time Terrell finally comes into view, I’ve had enough flying and I’m looking forward to calling it a day. I make my radio call, come into the downwind, and remembering my throttle excitement on my last landing, leave the carb heat untouched. Down over the trees I swoop, base to final, and, darn… A little low again. I throttle up. Nothing happens. My heart jumps in my chest. I shove the throttle forward. Nothing happens. The engine is running, but at idle. Temps good. Oil pressure good.

I pull the carb heat on, pump the throttle and the engine roars back to life. This time, it is only a matter of seconds. Long seconds, but seconds nonetheless.

What the Sam Heck?

I touch down, shaken, not stirred. I taxi off the runway, using drunk driver corrections to the left, and counter-corrections to the right to get Tess to track straight ahead. I feel like a child playing with a toy car simulator.

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Image: Amazon

Is this getting worse, or am I just tired?

The next morning Tess has a bunch of cables taped to her nose. And a strange little box, facing her prop. I’m getting the prop dynamically balanced. Not that I think there’s a problem, but at last year’s annual we had a brand-new RC Allen electric attitude indicator put in. It failed at once. We had to pull it out and sent it back. They replaced some bearing or bushing or something, and back in the plane it went. When we next flew, it failed again. This time, when we sent it back, they couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Naturally, I had to pay for the installation, de-installation, re-installation, de-de-installation, re-re-installation—so I was getting a little hot under the collar about a two thousand-dollar instrument that had never worked, and was getting even more expensive in the effort to get it to work. All of this has taken nearly a year due to the long periods of down time with various other repairs that have been plaguing us.

Anyway, my lead mechanic talked to the folks at Kelly Manufacturing (who make the RC Allen products) and they decided perhaps it was a vibration issue, which is what led me to my adventure at Double Eagle II. I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but after spending most of a morning there, the shop I’d gone to for the prop balancing couldn’t get their gear to work, so it was a wasted trip. One other shop in the state doesn’t do it anymore, and the third had their gear out for repair and didn’t know when it would be back. So I decided to have it done in Texas before the race.

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Long story short: Tess’s prop wasn’t too badly out of balance. The Terrell mechanic and I would jump into the plane, throttle up to high RPM for ten seconds or so and take measurements on a hand-held computer. Then we’d shut down, and he’d review the readings and add some small weights to the back of the spinner. Then we’d fire back up and do it all over again.

One of the times, the engine hesitated for a moment, but quickly recovered.

In the end, he tweaked the prop balance to near perfection, but he said it was close enough in the first place that it was unlikely I’d notice any difference. So what’s up with the attitude indictor? I guess Tess just doesn’t want me to know her attitude.

I had hoped to run my handicap validation flight for the race after the prop was balanced, but the clouds are too low. It needs to be done at a density altitude of 6,000 feet. Back home, this time of year, that would be about a thousand feet underground. Here in central Texas, it’s about 4,000 feet up, but the clouds are heavy at 2K.

So instead, I ended up doing what aviation people do when they have a few minutes to spare. I hung around the hangar and shot the breeze with the mechanic. In talking about the trip over, the weird throttle thing came up, and the mechanic mentioned that he thought the engine’s hesitation during our testing was unusual, but as I didn’t react, he figured it was a normal thing for Tess. I conceded that I didn’t know what was normal in this plane anymore, but asked if he’d be willing to take a quick look at the throttle before they put Tess to bed for the night. I’d also been having some issues keeping her at a set idle speed since the throttle quad was removed to work on the trim during the last round of repairs, and I thought maybe it was slipping a little or something.

He promised he would.

A couple of hours later, as I was heading down the third-floor hallway of the Holiday Inn Express & Suites to go out to dinner, my phone rang. It was from some town in Texas I’d never heard of so, I assumed it was the latest gambit from those pesky folks at the Resort Rewards Center, or the pesky folks trying to sell me an extended warranty on a car I don’t own anymore, or the pesky folks that can help me with the student loan I don’t have. I almost didn’t answer it. But at the last minute I did. It was the lady who ran the shop.

“Hey, William,” she said casually, as if asking me how the weather was at the hotel, “you don’t happen to travel with a spare throttle cable, do you?’

Next time on Plane Tales: For want of a nail…

 

Throttle Tale

Thump! The nose pitches down. I ease the yoke back to raise it again. Bam! Up goes the nose. Yoke forward. Whap! The right wing flips up. I ease the yoke to the right to level the wings. Whomp! Down I go again. My butt levitates off the seat, the lap belt digging into my gut. I instinctively duck to avoid smashing my head on the roof. Oh, lookie there, the G-meter just registered some negative G’s.

Yes, the Sky Gods are in a foul mood today. Especially the ones in charge of turbulence. Oh, and the ones in charge of visibility, too. It’s legal. Well more than, actually, but it’s an ugly flavor of legal visibility. Hazy. Misty. A veil that I would enjoy as part of a re-enactment of Salome’s dance, I’m finding ugly stretched across the sky. The distant horizon is only hinted at. It’s like flying through an unending cloudy fish bowl.

An unending fish bowl being shaken by a psychotic goldfish-hating pet store owner.

It’s weird to have turbulence and murky skies at the same time. Usually you get turbulence on beautiful days when unstable air scrubs the sky clean, letting you see all the way to the far ends of the earth; while murky skies tend to be calm, stable, and tranquil—like brackish still water in the Bayou.

But the sky isn’t the only weird thing going on. Something’s weird with the airplane, too. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. There’s nothing really wrong with the plane. But somehow, it’s not quite right, either.

Or is it me? As you know, I haven’t been flying Tess as much as I used to. For, what — the last two years? — she’s been in the shop more days than she’s been in our hangar. I guess it’s the curse of owning a 72-year-old airplane. No wonder the Commemorative Air Force is always pestering me for money to keep their fleet of warbirds in the air.

There. There it is again. A twitch in the right wing. The hint of a rise, then a brief moment when the controls freeze. But, as fast as it happens, it’s gone. Is it just the turbulence? Or is it something else?

Of course, I know I have a problem on the ground. Tess isn’t steering right. Most airplanes are steered on the ground using their rudder pedals, but Ercoupes don’t generally have rudder pedals. Instead, you “drive” a Coupe just like you drive a car, using the yoke. The yoke controls an inter-connected system that ties the twin rudders, the alerions, and the nose gear all together. They all move at once. This linkage between alerion and rudder is what keeps the Ercoupe always in coordinated flight and is 50% of the reason why they are “characteristically incapable of spinning.” The other 50% is the fact that, rigged right, they can’t achieve the angle of attack necessary to enter into a stall.

But I digress.

After the rebuilt nose strut was re-installed on Tess, her steering became odd. Before, just like a well-balanced car, once I got her pointed in the right direction she stayed on track. But now I was finding I had to do a lot of correction and counter-correction to keep her taxiing straight.

The constant movement of the yokes to keep the plane nailed to the yellow line didn’t seem right. I felt like a drunk driver. But, of course, I’d been driving on a shot nose strut for years, so I didn’t really know what a proper one should feel like. I made some calls, sent some emails. The consensus among the Ercoupe Illuminati was that, yeah, it didn’t seem right. I received various ideas of things to check, and they all checked out.

I decided the best thing to do was to ignore it for a while. Sometimes airplanes fix themselves if you’re patient.

But of course, in an interconnected system, if you are having problems on the ground, it’s only a matter of time until you start have problems in the air.

Thump! Bam! Whap! Yee-haw, ride ‘em cowboy! A moment of calm. Then the twitch. A slight rise of the right wing. I respond by trying to turn the yoke to the right, but it’s frozen. Locked in concreate. But only for a microsecond. Then it’s free, and I lower the wing. It’s so fast I’m not sure it’s real. Did the controls really lock, or was I just fighting a gust?

Well, no time to worry about it now: Coming out of the mist and haze is KONY, the Onley Municipal Airport, home of Air Tractor. My refueling stop, and a field that I have mixed emotions about. They have three landing strips, which is great, and two of them are in fabulous shape. It’s perfectly located as a second fuel stop en route between my home base and Terrell, Texas, which is host city to the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race—one of my favorite races. It’s named, obviously, for Mark Hardin, who raced his 1941 Ercoupe in the League long before I came along. I missed the race last year due to maintenance issues, but I’m on my way to it now, and couldn’t be more excited. This year’s Hardin Race looks to be one of the largest SARL races in a long time. The roster of race planes is pushing 40 and more seem to be signing up every day. So why are my emotions about KONY mixed if it’s a great field, and in the perfect location on the way to one of my favorite races? Well, the fuel pump and pilot terminal are maintained by the well-named Stark Aviation.

I’ll leave it at that.

The lovely tail wind from the west that’s been pushing me along over the ground at “real” airplane speeds has shifted and is now screaming up from the south. I take an extended right base to Runway 17. Carb heat on. Mixture rich. Throttle back.Thump! Bam! Whap!

I’m lined up perfectly, but I can see I’m too low. Dropping too fast. The headwind has reduced my ground speed more than I thought it would. No problem, I’ll just add a little burst of power. I ease the throttle up. Nothing happens. My heart jumps in my chest. I shove the throttle forward. Nothing happens. The engine is running, but at idle. Temps good. Oil pressure good. The field off the end of Runway 17 not so good. I push the carb heat in, shutting it off. I pump the throttle.

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Nothing. I push the nose over a hair to get the best glide speed—the velocity that will maximize how long I can stay in the air before the ground rises up to meet me, which will be considerably short of where the runway starts.

This doesn’t look good for the home team. I keep pumping the throttle back and forth. It’s all I can do. I’m dropping at 1,000 feet per minute. Crap.

Suddenly, as if nothing were ever wrong, the engine surges back to life. The dizzying descent is arrested, and I touch down lightly just beyond the threshold.

I start breathing again.

Once in front of the rusty Stark fuel pump, I run the throttle up and down. Up and down. The engine roars and settles. Roars and settles.

I search my rusty memory banks. Maybe because it’s so moist the carb heat over leaned the engine? I’m not sure that’s even possible, but I decide to land sans carb heat when I get to Terrell, my next stop.

Next time, on Plane Tales: Carb ice is the wrong diagnosis, but Tessie does need a doctor.