Our last air race was… gosh… when? Let me check my author index over at GA News… Wow. Seriously? The AirVenture Cup? Last summer? And that wasn’t even in our own airplane!
No wonder I’ve been such a grump lately.
But to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether or not that would be my last race. Sure, I still wear my race jacket with it’s many patches and logos, and when strangers at cocktail parties ask me what I do for a living I tell them I’m an air racer, but in truth my air racing future has been in serious doubt. At the end of last season when I drove out for the Championship awards and my colleagues asked me if I’d race in 2018, my stock answer was: I will always race. At least some. Will I shoot for the championship again? I haven’t decided yet.
But the truth was that I knew I couldn’t afford another try. Hell, I could barely afford the first try much less the last try. This racing is expensive, with the travel, the hotels, the food, the booze, and the wear and tear on the airplane. Last year, in my determination to win Gold, it was racing First for me all spring. I passed up the chance to refill my bank account teaching seminars in favor of empting it out with more racing. Then the maintenance issues started and I missed race after race after race after race while the money drained out of my checking account like water from a bathtub after a long soak.
It’s iconic. Last season there were a record number of races on the books, and a record amount of work available to me. This season, the number of races is modest and the work nearly non-existent. Had I only known, I could have taken last year off from racing, worked my tail feathers off, and have easily banked enough to pay for this season.
Well, that’s hindsight for you, fickle little bitch that she is.
Anyway, this year I knew that work, not racing, needed to come First, and one of my jobs is teaching Rusty Pilot Seminars for AOPA. The seminars are three-hour gigs in various parts of the country, which almost always fall on Saturdays, the same day of the week as most air races. In advance of each quarter AOPA asks me (and the other instructors) which weekends we are available. Last season, I blocked out all the race weekends. That was a lot of weekends, and I didn’t end up teaching much. But, as I said, it was racing First.
When the racing season was announced for this year and I saw that, except for April, it was pretty much one race per month, I briefly toyed with blocking off all the race dates to keep my options open, but I stuck to my guns: Work First. Still, I drew the little race flags over each host airport on our big laminated wall planning chart, marked the race dates on our wall calendar, and penciled them lightly into my desk calendar.
Then I tried not to give them a second thought. I didn’t even check the league website every night at the dinner table to see who had signed up for each race, like I did nightly the last two seasons. I buried active thinking about air racing in some dark recess of my mind and pretended they didn’t exist.
The fly in the ointment was a commitment I made after reading my email following one to many glasses of wine. I promised one of the publications I write for that I’d go to Sun ‘n Fun, a stupid thing to do as the assignment will nowhere nearly pay for my costs of going. But still, it’s the one major aviation event Rio has never attended, so there’s the side benefit of being a good father.
But here’s where it gets complicated: The Sport Air Racing League (SARL) season kicks off with a race into Sun ‘n Fun. Given that I have to be there anyway, shouldn’t I race in?
Maybe. Maybe not. I can hop onto a Southwest Airlines flight and be in Florida in half a day. Flying Tess to Florida is a two or three day project, and arguably more expensive. What to do… What to do?
In the end, I decided to let Fate decide for me. I made no travel plans one way or another. When the days-available request for the quarter arrived from AOPA, I told them I was available every weekend except the weekend I’d be in Sun ‘n Fun, and that even that weekend I could teach one at Sun ‘n Fun if they wanted me to.
Then I waited. And waited. And waited. And didn’t think too much about the racing. I tuned it out. Then, just before lunch a few days ago my assignments came in for the quarter. Oh wait. Not assignments. Assignment. As in one. I think I mentioned that work was nearly non-existent this year. Ironically, this one one gig is on a race weekend, but it wasn’t in April. I was free to run the Sun ‘n Fun race.
And actually, there’s more than one race. There’s a short pre-race in typical “round Robin” SARL style launching from Sandersville, GA; followed the next day by one of the two cross-country races of the season, this one down to Sun ‘n Fun. So I could, quite literally, get two races for the cost of one. Plus, there’s the speed trial out of Sun ‘n Fun that I ran last year. It’s not sanctioned by SARL, so I don’t get championship points for running it, but it’s still a hoot. So I had the opportunity to race three times in nearly as many days. There was no work lost, but it would add to the cost. So what to do?
Debs was off to town for groceries and Lisa was teaching at the college, so my Council of War was limited to Rio and Grandma Jean. Over salads and red wine for lunch I laid out the situation. Mom didn’t hesitate, “Let’s race!” she said firmly, thumping her wine glass down on the table for emphasis. I turned to Rio, who shrugged one shoulder and said, “I don’t see any harm in it.”
Unlike the rest of the clan, he was never fully infected by the racing bug.
“OK,” I said, and went to the library to throw my hat into the ring. I went to the SARL website, pulled up the first race, clicked on the I Am Racing! tab and entered my name, race number, and class.
I hit the return key to submit my entry, and a wave of pure euphoria swept over me.
Our home airport—the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport—doesn’t just share its name with the famous road. It is the road. Our runway 08/26 is built right smack on the original highway. In fact, the original runway was the highway. I don’t know the real story, but in my imagination I see the city fathers sitting around playing poker and smoking stogies one night in the late 1950s, after the interstate had passed through and around the town, changing the long established layout of the highway.
“What we going to do with the old Route 66 on the south side of town?” one asks. “It’ll be too gosh-derned expensive (people didn’t swear back in those days) for us to maintain it.”
Another scratches his stubble while he studies his cards; “Maybe we should turn it into a drag strip. It’s arrow-straight.”
Poker chips clink on the table as the most-forward thinking of the group calls, “I’ll match your drag strip and raise you an airport.”
Of course, as I said, I don’t know what really happened, but sometime in the late 50s or early 1960s, the triangle of dirt runways on the northwest side of town was abandoned in favor of a single narrow four thousand two hundred ninety four foot-long strip of (paved) mother road on the southeast side of town. They put up a beacon tower that might have been liberated from an abandoned airmail “arrow” site nearby, built a shabby hut for a terminal, installed a gas pump, and opened up for business. The scar of the old road can still be seen on the earth off either end of the runway.
In later years the city fathers built a dirt-floor metal T-hangar for six planes, a crosswind runway, and finally a modern terminal building which quickly fell into a state of disregard until just recently, when it was adopted and refurbished by our buddy Lisa with some help from my wallet.
So now you know why the Route 66 Air Tour folks asked us to host a little pre-tour party, so the flyers on the tour could actually land and/or take off from Route 66 as part of the Route 66 Air Tour. I think they envisioned it as a coffee stop, but as it was scheduled to take place between one and three in the afternoon, I knew we’d need a bit more than coffee. Plus, it was the chance for us to show off our newly respectable terminal, hopefully restoring our image as a good place to land for Avgas or Jet-A, stretch your legs, use a clean bathroom, and grab a fee snack.
I was looking forward to it. After the party, Rio and I would fly, quite literally, an hour up the road to Tucumcari, where the Air Tour events would officially start that night.
But by the time I got there, following my misadventures getting the plane to work, I had nearly missed my own party. As I was gassing up, the first plane landed. Within half an hour we had a ramp full of planes and a happy terminal bursting with pilots excitedly talking everything aviation, drinking coffee and water, and eating sandwiches.
Normally we’re the only people around our airport, as ours is the only plane based there. It was wonderful feeling the community of other aviators, and I looked forward to spending the next four days with them.
We gave some hangar tours and as the day wore on, one by one, the fliers headed out. After the last one took to the air we quickly cleaned up with one eye on the western horizon. The weather was starting to close in, the predicted warm and sunny day replaced with cold wind, low grey clouds, and wandering bands of sleet.
Deb and Grandma Jean, both exhausted from sandwich construction and hostess duties, bugged out first. Lisa dropped us at the hangar and stayed long enough to make sure the plane’s engine started.
It did. But there was a problem.
When I put my headset on, I was greeted by deafening silence. No radio. No Rio. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” I spoke into the boom mike. No response. I tapped Rio on the shoulder, “Can you hear me?”
I could see his mouth forming words, but silence fell on my ears. I pulled off the headset and shouted over the idling engine; “Shut her down,” making slicing motions with my left hand back and forth across my throat. Rio reached up for the throttle, pulled it far back, pulled out the mixture, then turned off the ignition. The engine coughed, the prop slowed, then stopped. I shut off the bat switches, killing the flashing strobes on the wing tips last. Serving as our beacon, they are first on and last off, to warn others our engine is live.
Lisa pulling away, stopped, put the car in reverse, pulled up close, and rolled her window down, “What’s up?”
“Radio out… again,” I said slowly. But my mind was racing. How on earth…? It was fine when I taxied over. All we did was push the plane in to the hangar and pull it out. How did the wires come loose again? And if they are that sensitive, what’s to keep them for coming disconnected in flight? Of course, there’s no real reason for a radio in flight, but as part of a group of more than 20 planes it didn’t seem safe to me to fly NORDO—aviation slang for operating without a radio. We have a handheld, but no adaptor to use it with the headsets. This didn’t look good for the home team, unless I could fix the problem, and be sure it would stay fixed.
Rio pulled himself up and out of the plane. I grabbed the Tessie-blue Eddie Bauer flashlight out of the back pocket, turned sideways and scooted my butt to the left side of the seat, raising my legs and dangling my feet outside the plane. It’s the only way to get your head under the instrument panel.
I directed the light upwards and was greeted by a great maze of wires. I was going to need some tech support. Lying upside down, all the blood in my body rushing to my head, I called the guys. “What the Sam Heck am I looking for down here?” I asked as I dropped my iPhone on my face.
They talked me through the maze of wiring to the back of the intercom. It had a multi-pin connector like an old computer printer. With one headset against my ear, the master switch and radio on, I was able to make the radio first work, then fall silent by tugging or pushing on the wire bundle. The consensus of the experts: Loose wire in the plug. Not a friendly field fix. Bring her back to us.
As I pulled myself back up in the cockpit, it started to rain. Rio and I stared glumly at each other. We both knew we wouldn’t be making the tour. Nothing needed to be said.
Rio looked up at the light rain and said, “We’d better get her back in the hangar, dad.”
I pulled the tow bar out from behind the seat, closed the canopy, and jumped down to the ground. I hooked the bar into the nose wheel, and pushing on the root of the propeller, eased Tessie back into her nest, out of the rain. Rio got out a roll of absorbent paper towels and started wiping the wings dry.
It was Friday night. My mechanics wouldn’t be back until Monday. We wouldn’t be getting any kicks on Route 66 this weekend. Well, that’s not quite true. At least the terminal party was a kick. And we do get to fly off of Route 66 all the time.
But still, it wasn’t the kicks on Route 66 I had hoped for.
Yay! The plane is done. The day is beautiful, and this afternoon Rio and I launch on a four-day adventure. We’re flying the Route 66 Air Tour, joining a fleet of 20-30 airplanes following the historic “mother road” across New Mexico and into Arizona. We’ve just been through a major maintenance event, but I’m confident the one-hour solo flight home will serve as an adequate test flight to ensure that all is in order.
Debs, Grandma Jean, and Rio are at home assembling chicken salad sandwiches for a pre-Tour party at our airport (more about that next week) so Lisa is driving me the hour and a quarter over to Santa Fe to pick up the plane. It’s my second trip over in as many days. She’ll drop me off and head to SXU by car, where we’ll rendezvous in the late morning. My job is to prepare Tess for her adventure and to get the giant silver quasi-antique 40-cup coffee pot brewing. Once Lisa shows up, and I’ll easily beat her to Santa Rosa, we are to lay out the cookies that the city council authorized the airport manager to buy onto trays in an attractive and creative manner.
After the required small talk with my mechanics, the giant hangar doors rumble open and my chief mechanic uses his fancy-pants multi-adjustable tow bar to grab Tess’s nose gear and pull her out into the sun. It’s a perfect flying morning. Not a breath of wind. I do a quick walk around, and assured that all is as it should be, I mount the wing, step down into the cockpit and settle in for the flight.
My only real worry is the flow of fuel between Tessie’s three tanks. I plan to watch the fuel gauge on the new header tank like a hawk to ensure its being kept full by the engine-driven fuel pump as designed, and that the excess fuel is properly overflowing and draining back into the conjoined wing tanks; an invisible process that can only be monitored by proxy, using the compass-style float gauge on the floor of the plane.
If all goes well, I’ll be back to my homebase in a little over an hour. If all goes poorly I’ve got plenty of time, and fuel, to get back to Santa Fe.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I set a pen and a piece of paper on the seat next to me to copy down my taxi clearance, then plug in my headset. As it’s been a few weeks since I last flew Tess, I pull the engine start checklist from the right-hand side pocket and follow it.
Parking brake engaged. Check.
Fuel cutoff open. Check.
Master switch on. Check.
Beacon on. Check.
Crack the throttle a quarter inch. Check.
Push the mixture control full forward. Check.
Ensure the carb heat knob is full forward. Check.
Turn the ignition switch to both. Check.
Clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor. Check.
Give her two shots of prime. Check!
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. At once the new-old tachometer goes crazy, the needle jumping up and down like a seismograph station when the big one hits the San Andres.
Well, that’s not right. I fiddle with the throttle, advancing it, and retarding it to no avail.
I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal “bat switches” (so called because they look like miniature baseball bats) that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Each has a satisfactory solid movement as it’s flipped downwards to its off position. Radio: Thunk. 12-volt power: Thunk. Navigation lights: Thunk… I unlatch my seatbelt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke. Then show them the quick loop of video I shot on my iPhone of the new-old tach.
“It worked fine when we tested it,” they say.
The new-old tach is the one that was originally in the plane, but was removed when we (foolishly) purchased a modern digital engine monitor, which has been nothing but a pain in the ass as far as I’m concerned. I decided to get it to help us better protect our expensive new engine, but it added to the delays that cost us the last race season, plus I find it hard to read in flight, I miss all of my simple old gauges that told me in a half-glance the status of my engine, but most of all I miss the tach.
The engine monitor has a tach, but it’s small and hyper sensitive. It jumps around a lot even when the throttle is rock solid, and I’ve found it impossible to use to get the right power settings for landing. I tried for some time, and finally decided to just re-install the analog tach to make landing operations safer and easier.
But now, in its maiden re-installation, it has gone crazy. Tony, the number two mechanic, heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “It’s a pretty simple system. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane, pulling the canopy halves partway up to protect myself from the prop blast, then double check that the parking brake is engaged. Fuel cutoff open… master switch on… beacon on… crack the throttle a quarter inch… push the mixture control full forward… ensure the carb heat knob is full forward… turn the ignition switch to both… clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor… give her half-shot of prime for a warm engine…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button. The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion.
The tach behaves itself. Oh well, what’s one little glitch? After all, they had to pretty much disconnect everything in the plane to get the old tank out and the new one in. I give Tony a “thumbs up” and he heads back into the hangar.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I put on my headset and dial up the Santa Fe ATIS, which stands for Automated Terminal Information Service, a pre-recorded audio loop that gives pilots basic information on airport operations: The wind conditions, the active runway, and more.
I’m greeted with complete silence.
Well, not complete silence, with the engine running there’s always a dull roar in the cockpit, even with the best of headsets. But I’m not receiving any radio signals. I double check. Yeah, I’ve entered the frequency right. I poke at the intercom buttons. I fuss with the volume button on my headset. I pull out the head set plugs, and push them in again.
Well, crud. I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal bat switches that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Radio, 12 volt, Navigation lights, Thunk… thunk… thunk… I unlatch my seat belt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. Again. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke.
It’s not quite so funny this time.
Once again Tony heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Another short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “I think the plug was loose. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane. No need to start the plane to test this problem. I flip the master switch on, then the radio control switch. I hold the headset up to one ear and hear, “Santa Fe information Papa, time sixteen forty five Zulu…”
I nod to Tony and give him a thumbs up again.
“Now don’t be coming back here again,” Tony teases me.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight.
Parking brake engaged, fuel cutoff open, turn the master switch, flip on the beacon, crack the throttle a quarter inch, push the mixture control full forward, ensure the carb heat knob is full forward, turn the ignition switch to both, clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor, give her a half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Time to get this party started!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi, then I engage my Cloudahoy App to record the flight and start to taxi. I notice the GPS link in the App hasn’t turned green yet. I also notice that on my Garmin Pilot Navigation system I’m not moving. I slow down and look at my transponder.
It says “MSG.”
That can’t be good. I call ground control and ask for permission to return to the ramp.
I pull back up in front of my mechanic’s hangar and I shut the engine down. I close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the bat switches. Thunk… thunk… thunk… Unlatch seat belt, slide shoulder out and unbutton canopy. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in.
“Seriously?” they ask me.
I text Lisa: Third time, assuredly, will be the charm. Keep driving.
This one is more complicated. The coaxial cable has pulled out of its plug. My guys don’t have the magic tool needed to fix it. I text home to tell Rio to search the flight lounge cabinets for our old dash-top GPS unit. I’m not going to let a little thing like no navigation system spoil our adventure. In the meantime, my guys call the avionics shop on the other side of the field, who agree to send someone right over.
I pass the time in my mechanic’s office, in out of the cold late morning air, surfing eBay on my iPad. After what seems like forever, once again, Tess is pronounced ready for flight.
Parking brake, fuel cutoff, master, beacon, throttle, mixture, carb heat, ignition, fuel warning, give her half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Third time is the charm!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi. Everything is working fine. The new-old tach is behaving, I can hear and talk on the radio, and my nav system is alive. I taxi back toward the runway again, scanning the instrument panel for anything out of the ordinary.
Everything looks good. I do my run up and tell the tower I’m ready to rock and roll. They advise me a larger plane is on long final, but the tower controller clears me for takeoff, adding, “Do not hesitate, early turnout approved.” Hell yeah, I’ve just been given permission to have some fun.
I throttle up to full power as I turn onto the runway, foot never touching the brake. Tess surges forward, she has fuel to get home and nothing else onboard. As she leaps into the air I bank left, and barely higher than the tower, fly up over the south ramp, studying the planes parked in neat rows.
It’s good to be back in the air, even if it’s a few hours later than I expected. It’s surprisingly calm air, the engine sounds strong and smooth, and all the repairs seem to be holding. I reach up to the engine monitor and scroll to the secondary screen. Amps and volts good. I scroll to the fuel computer. It shows me that I have fuel enough to reach Hawaii.
That seems improbable.
I check the fuel flow. The gauge is reporting one gallon per hour, not our usual five and a half. I know this is wrong. But what could be causing it? I lift one earphone clear of my head. A blast of sound assaults me. Nothing wrong with the engine. If I were venting fuel above the sensor, the engine would be starved. I look at the fuel gauge on the floor. It’s steady. The float gauge in the new header tank is riding high. Like most of the rest of the repairs today, it must be a wire not hooked up right.
Do I go on or go back? A deep sigh. I’m only ten miles out; I’m going to have to take the plane back to the mechanics at some point anyway. It might as well be now. I bank into a right-hand 180 and dial my radio back to the Santa Fe tower to tell them I’m coming back.
I land, taxi back to my mechanics and park right in front of their hangar doors. Engine shut down. Fuel valve. Bat switches. Seat belt. Shoulder belt. Canopy. Up and out.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in. They guys aren’t happy to see me.
“Each time you come back it takes longer to fix,” sighs Tony. I tell him the problem and he gathers his tools and his flashlight.
I text Lisa: Wouldn’t you know it? More trouble. Keep driving.
Tess finally made bail. Her mechanics called to say they’d finished the latest round of repairs: The new header tank was in; the leaking oil sump quick drain had been replaced; and the fuel pump gasket was squared away. Come pick her up.
Reviewing the invoice, I saw that changing the fuel tank gobbled up thirty-two man hours. They had to disconnect the sundry fuel lines, unhook all the controls and cables in the cockpit, remove most of the radios and other modern gear, unbolt the tank from its brackets, drop it to the floor, then maneuver it up over the seat and out through the top of the canopy. Then they had to do the opposite with the new tank, then bolt it in place, reinstall the radios and other modern gear, hook up all the cockpit cables and controls, and connect all the sundry fuel lines to the new tank.
This is considered a “plug and play” installation by one Ercoupe expert I talked to about swapping header tanks.
I also noticed the shop rate had gone up ten dollars an hour from the last invoice. My pay has not. I dealt with that by buying a T-shirt that says: “Welcome to aviation. You are now broke.” It seemed like the right thing to do with the last $14.99 in my retirement fund.
But at least the latest round was behind me. And there’s really not much left on the plane that hasn’t been either refurbished or replaced. Tess isn’t a 1947 Ercoupe any more. She’s a 2013-2014-2015-2016-2017-2018 model. All she really needs now is a new paint job. But that’s a tale for another day.
I handed my mechanic another check that had a number which included a comma, and sat down on his leather couch to check the weather. Ut-oh. It was getting windy back home. In Santa Fe it was as nice as it could be. In Santa Rosa the wind was 18 miles per hour. Gusting to 30.
I don’t like gusting, especially when the gusts are nearly double the base wind speed. It makes for unnecessarily exciting landings.
The winds were forecast to remain high until sunset. Aw, hell.
I had a decision to make. Ercoupes are great crosswind planes. Because their landing gear lets them land practically sideways, they can handle wind better than pretty much any plane out there. And I’ve landed in some pretty hairy wind. But there’s a difference between landing in hairy wind when you have to, and choosing to go and put yourself out in a hairy situation. I was confident I could do it, but was it worth it? Just to get the plane back home again?
I grumbled to myself for a while, and finally, my chief mechanic, who had been sitting politely at his desk said, “I’m going to go back to work while you make up your mind,” and then disappeared out his office door into his hangar where two Civil Air Patrol planes were getting annuals and a local flight school 172 was getting its bent firewall replaced following a nose-heavy landing by a student pilot.
I looked to the next day’s weather. It, too, was windy as the dickens. But the day after was forecast to be lovely. Doubting myself, as always when it comes to this kind of thing, I choose to wait. I wandered out into the hangar, then outside where Tess was tied down. I put her gustlock in place, grabbed the keys, buttoned up the canopy, patted her on the spinner and went back to the car.
At Starbucks thirty minutes later I found myself checking the wind again, just to reassure myself it was still windy and that I’d made a good call.
It was still windy.
I ran a few errands then headed home, to find the wind had gone home to where ever it lives as well. It was a calm evening. If I’d just waited an hour or two the flight, and landing would have been uneventful.
I kicked myself, but I also knew the old adage it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. The weather the day after tomorrow is still forecast to be lovely. And Tess is happy to wait.
Lisa was somewhere under the plane, scooting around on the wheeled creeper checking screws and rivets on the plane’s belly. I could hear her contented humming over the dull gong—gong—gong—gong of the hangar doors as they shifted and moved in the wind. It was a blustery day out so we’d buttoned up the hangar for preflight, leaving us in dim light, but warm. I was sitting in the cockpit re-attaching the iPad mount to the panel. Its suction cups had come loose again and it fell off and banged me in the knee when I climbed into the cockpit to check the Hobbs reading.
To get the bracket positioned correctly I had to hunch down and peer upwards from underneath it, and despite having tri-focals, I couldn’t get any of the three lenses to line up right so that I could see what I was doing. I took my glasses off, reached up blindly, and set them somewhere on the glare shield above me.
Outside I heard the crunch of car tires on gravel and doors slamming. Must be the city workers either getting or depositing files in the hangar next door, I thought. Then there was a sharp wrap on the metal door. My door. I sat up straight and felt around for my glasses. Suddenly, bright sunlight flooded in as the hangar doors were yanked abruptly back, blinding me. As I blinked and squinted, the dark shapes of six uniformed men entered the hangar, three coming up on each side of the cockpit. In a deep voice one barked, “We have a warrant for your arrest.”
The happy humming from underneath the plane ceased.
I couldn’t process what was happening. “Huh?” I finally managed to squeak, my hands frantically searching for my glasses. I couldn’t recall doing anything arrest-worthy. Not recently. Not ever, really. I live a pretty square life. Could it be a case of mistaken identity? My fingers located the frames and I slipped my glasses onto my face. The towering blue blurs of the cops snapped into focus. There were two local cops, and one state cop. But the other three were two uniformed paramedics and the airport manager, who was wearing a police-style jacket and a big grin on his face.
Then all the men starting laughing.
“Just teasing,” announced the airport manager, “actually we need your help.”
Then he told me that a boy who lived next to the airport had reported that a plane taking off that morning didn’t sound right. This kid hears a lot of airplanes. Apparently some odd transmissions had been heard by someone else, and Center couldn’t raise the pair of aerial mapping planes that had been working out of SXU for the last week. The local emergency responders were worried that they had gone down. Would we mind going up and just flying around to see if we could see anything?
We wouldn’t mind. And we could do even better. The latest version of our navigation app, Garmin Pilot, will display Civil Air Patrol search grids. We could fly a search grid to the south and east of the airport, in the direction the boy saw the plane go. In no time we were in the air.
“What am I looking for?” asked Lisa.
I was a Civil Air Patrol pilot once upon a time, but my unit didn’t have an airplane assigned to it so I never flew a mission, and my search and rescue training was nearly forty years old. I searched my dim memory as I scanned the ground below and to the left of the plane. “It depends on the nature of the crash,” I told my wing woman. “Shout out if you see a plane in a field or on a road. If you see smoke, we’ll divert from the grid and check it out. If things went badly there could be nothing left but little bits and pieces, and if so, they’ll likely form a line in the direction of travel.”
It was a grim image to contemplate.
“Oh, and disturbed earth,” I added, “ like a scar of a freshly plowed field in the middle of nowhere.” I’ve seen several crash sights from the air, and none of them looked plane-like.
Lisa was silent for a moment and then said, “I hope we don’t find anything. I mean, I hope there’s nothing to find.”
Amen to that.
We’d just barely finished the first leg of our search grid when the airport manager texted Lisa to report that Center was in touch with the two mapping planes, and all was well with them. He’d checked the guest register at the terminal and the history on the gas pump, and there was no evidence of another plane leaving that day. Lacking any other evidence of a plane in distress, he was calling off the search.
Of course it was always possible that someone landed just to hit the bathroom. Didn’t sign in. Didn’t buy gas. Kids that live next to airports know what planes sound like. If I were down, I’d want people to make a decent search for me. “Tell him, thanks, but as it’s a nice day up here (it wasn’t) we’ll go ahead and finish the grid just for the fun of it.”
So we flew up one grid line, and down the next. Then up again, then down. Each line about eight miles apart, our eyes searched from Tessie’s wing roots to four miles off her wings. We flew a thousand feet off the deck, low enough to clearly see what was below, high enough to see a ways away. In some areas I could be confident there was nothing to see. In other areas filled with trees and craggy ravines I knew we could fly past a hundred downed planes and not see a trace.
In about two and a half hours, we “searched” 960 square miles. At one point there were odd squawking noises on the emergency frequency. It wasn’t the mournful wail of an emergency locator beacon, it was more strangled. We cut across one search grid diagonally to check a network of small canyons but there was nothing to see and the choked noises on the radio went away.
The radio was silent for the rest of our search, and we saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I was glad to be there at the right time and at the right place to lend a helping hand.
Oh. Right. And I was even doubly glad that three wasn’t really a warrant for my arrest!
Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.
Here’s the Tale: Rio and I had mapped out a good training flight. Don’t ask me the details now, I’ve already forgotten them, but I certainly remember the rest of the day. We grabbed a light breakfast, loaded up Grandma Jean and R2D2 (her oxygen concentrator), and headed out to the airport. Grandma wanted to see Lisa’s recent renovation of our Third World airport terminal and said she’d hang out there and soak in the vibe while Rio and I flew for an hour or so.
It was a lovely morning, not too early and not too late, neither too cool nor too warm, and the wind was just barely stroking the surface of the earth with a lover’s touch.
When we arrived at the hangar we parked in front of the double doors so Grandma could see her airplane. I unlocked the padlock, then I took the right door and Rio the left. We dramatically pulled the great doors open at the same time—like the curtains in an old fashioned theater at the start of the show—revealing Tess, the morning light kissing her canopy. Above her the flags in the hangar undulated gently in the morning breeze, and with her sharp wing dihedral she looked ready to jump into the air… Except for the fact that she was sitting in a puddle of her own oil.
Damn. What’s this going to cost me?
Actually, as we know we have a soon-to-be replaced leaky gas tank, at first I mistook the dark pool for fuel. But kneeling down and running a finger through it, I found it to be slick, honey-colored oil. What the….? The pool was centered under and around the front nose gear. Where did it come from?
Now oil leaks from Continental engines aren’t rare. Some folks joke that like a Harley, if it ain’t leaking oil, it’s surely out of oil. But this was something new. The sides of the cowl were clean, as was the front wheel pant, plane’s belly, and the hangar floor underneath the breather tube. Adding to the mystery, after our last flight the week before, Lisa and I had stayed in the hangar a good two hours, cleaning up the plane, listening to the CTAF, smoking cigars, and soaking in the whole airport vibe; and in those two hours no oil had leaked. So how did this much oil escape an engine that’s not running? And how’d it get from the engine, where it belongs, to the floor, where it does not belong?
Of course, oil is a funny thing. A little spilled oil looks like a lot. To my many-times-bitten now crazy-shy eye, it was the entire contents of the oil sump. In reality it wasn’t even enough to detect missing on the dipstick. Still, not understanding what was going on, I cancelled our planned flight. Rio thought I was being a bit of a wuss, but he didn’t argue the point, and thus began the Great Oil Leak Investigation—a tale not likely to knock Sir Arthur Conan Doyle out of first place anytime soon.
We opened both sides of the cowl and looked for oil. Naturally, as we rarely clean the inside of the cowl, there was oil everywhere. Shining my handsome new Tessie-blue 100-lumen Eddie Bauer aluminum flashlight around inside the engine compartment I felt like an explorer of yore trying to trace the source of the Nile.
Let’s see here… These two little streams of oil seem to connect to that stain here, which seems to come from up there, so the oil must be leaking from the… alternator? No, that can’t be right! I took a ton of photos with my iPhone and emailed them to my beleaguered mechanic (who responded two days later that it didn’t look like that much oil to him, and if it was him, he wouldn’t worry about it). Then, using many pale blue paper shop towels I cleaned the inside of the engine compartment better than anyone had in the last 71 years.
I placed clean folded towels in various strategic locations and we left for the day, Rio predicting that we’d come back to a clean airplane and clean towels.
He was half right. A couple of days later we came back to clean towels, and more oil on the floor. It was as if the oil were welling up from the concrete below the plane. I had a brief vision of the start of the Beverly Hillbillies, with me in the role of Jed Clampett, but I knew I hadn’t struck oil. Tess was leaking it from somewhere.
One of the leading contenders from the previous week had been the gasket between the fuel pump and the engine case. There was a clear sign of a leak there, but how that gasket could leak in the absence of engine pressure was a mystery to me, and now the towel below it was clean. The other contender was the valve cover on the number one cylinder, which was also leaking a drip or two, but it could hardly have been the culprit with a resting engine, and again the towel there was clean. And yet, there was fresh oil on the ground.
Adding to the mystery was the fact that oil spilling pretty much anywhere from inside the engine should come out of the bottom of the cowl where the front fork comes through the metal surrounding the engine, but oil exiting the compartment there would stain the front wheel pant, and it was clean. Complicating matters was the fact the oil had just been changed and it was still clean, making it almost transparent.
Lying on the concrete, trying to avoid getting oil on my shirt, I carefully studied the front fork. It had a smooth sheen of oil on it, as did the aft scissors assembly. Mentally, working slowly backwards, I tried to envision the path of the oil, and it led me to the oil sump drain. Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun came out, and it all made sense.
When the engine is off the oil drains out of the case and down into the sump. The only logical place for oil to leak from when the engine is powered down is from the sump. I reached in and fussed with the quick release valve used to drain the oil out when changing oil. Of course I had no idea how it worked normally, which made it challenging to see if it wasn’t working right. Twisting, tugging, pulling, I managed to accidently open it. A gush of gold oil flowed out. Mesmerized, I watched its travels.
As the little stream twisted and turned around various obstacles in its path all the mysteries fell by the wayside. I’d found the source of the Nile.
Now the challenge was to figure out how on earth oil was leaking from the drain. There were three possibilities. The mechanism itself could be failing, it wasn’t closed right, or it might not be screwed on exactly tight enough. To rule out the last possibility, following instructions from one of our two mechanics, I took a paper towel and wrapped the upper part of the drain like a mummy, using a zip tie to secure the towel.
Then I flew. And left the towel in place for a week.
When I returned, there was new oil on the floor and the towel was clean. Well, not clean, but not oil soaked. A new sump drain was ordered and my guys will put it in this week while Tess is visiting them for a new header tank. Once that’s done, I’m confident that all our maintenance woes will be behind us.
I’ve taught my pair of copilots a lot about flying. In fact, both student pilot buddy Lisa and student pilot son Rio fly better than I do. If by flying you mean keeping the airplane on course and at altitude. Rio is also pretty darn good at pattern work, while Lisa is an S-turn queen. And both of them have managed a respectable take off or two.
Neither of them, however, can land. Which is totally my fault. You see, I’ve never taught them how to. Why’s that? Well, I’m not a certified flight instructor. Not that I didn’t try to be. I even trained to be a certified flight instructor.
For one day.
Here’s the tale…
Date Line: September 17, 1984
KGXY, Greeley, Colorado
I was sporting a brand new leather flight jacket and oversized mirrored sunglasses when I pulled into the airport parking lot. The day was to warm for the jacket, but I had to look the part. As a freshly minted commercial pilot, I was there for my first lesson on how to become a certified flight instructor, which is what you did in those days as soon as you realized that—even though you had a license to get paid to fly—no one would hire you until you banked more flight time.
A lot more flight time.
Come to think of it, that’s still true today. The only difference is that nowadays this is no secret. Back then, it came as a bitter shock to me and my fellow wet-behind-the-ears commercial pilots.
But even though I didn’t understand the realities of flying jobs, I did know quite a bit about flight instructors. I had a number of them during my journey from first flight, to first solo, to student cross-country, and on to my private pilot’s license, instrument rating, multi-engine training, and finally my commercial ticket. Most of my instructors were OK. One was good. One was bad. But one was nothing short of amazing.
The amazing flight instructor was one of my professors at Aims Community College where I was a student in the aviation program. His name was Gil Harris. He’d flown Corsairs with the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, and then flew pretty much everything with wings in the years following the war. He was a small, compact man with twinkling eyes and a neatly trimmed Royal Air Force-style mustache. What little hair he had left was gray. He was modest, kind, and funny. His teaching style was magical. I learned more from that man than from all my other instructors combined. His knowledge and experience were boundless. Endless. Among other things, he taught me mountain flight, hugging towering cliffs in the heart of the Rockies to catch lift and soar like an Eagle.
It was Gil who signed me off for my commercial check ride, and I was tickled pink that he agreed to train me to be a flight instructor—just like him.
I would be 21 years old in just four days. Naturally, I thought I knew everything as I walked across the tarmac to meet Gil at N48751, a blue and white Cessna 152-II. But the Gil Harris that was waiting for me wasn’t the master aviator I was used to.
Nope. It was Gil the Hillbilly.
I guess I was expecting some sort of inspired intelligent conversation between a motived student and a master, with me being the master. That didn’t happen.
As we walked around the 152, Gil stuck his neck under the prop, his nose inside the engine cowling’s air inlet and asked, “What’s in here, Mr. Flight Instructor?”
It went downhill from there.
That night, I lay in my waterbed (remember this was 1984, a time when phones were attached to walls, there was no internet, and people slept on thick plastic bags filled with water) and tried to make sense of the day. I replayed the seven-tenths of an hour lesson again and again in my head. All the clever teaching tricks I had dreamed up to cultivate the next generation of pilots fell flat on their faces when faced with Hillbilly Gil. I was shaken to the core. I felt stupid.
And I wondered: Was Gil trying to prepare me for real world flight instruction, or was he showing me that flight instruction wasn’t for me? Next, I thought back through every instructor I’d had on my own aviation journey, and I realized that the younger ones were the worst, and that the older ones were the best. It made sense. How can you teach when you’ve really just begun to learn yourself?
I never went back for a second flight instructor lesson.
In later years (and to this day) I wondered if Gil was just trying to take my ego down a notch, or if he felt I didn’t have the Right Stuff to be a flight instructor, and knew me well enough to know how to scare me off. Or was his first flight instructor lesson with me the only instructional failure of his life? The bruised ego of my former self would like to believe that, but I doubt it. After all, he never called me to ask why I hadn’t scheduled the next lesson.
But it was moot. The seven-tenths of an hour that September morning changed the course of my life. I tired for several months to find a flying job. Any flying job. But none were to be had, and in the end I stopped flying for many years.
Back to school?
Of course, I’m not four days short of 21 any more. I’m well over the five-decade mark. I’m on my second logbook. And I don’t wear a leather jacket when it’s too hot.
I’ve spent much of my adult life (in addition to writing) teaching in one form or another. But I know that having extensive aviation knowledge and experience—and knowing how to teach—is a very different thing from knowing how to teach people to fly, much less land. Or that’s what I told myself. But my self-imposed limitation may have been a justification. After all, there’s actually nothing illegal about teaching some elements of flying to others while not being a certified flight instructor yourself. Plenty of pilots teach regular non-pilot passengers how to control the plane, communicate on the radio, and even land just in case something should happen to the pilot (this unofficial flight instruction can’t be logged, nor can it count toward a license).
In truth, it wasn’t the lack of official certification that held me back. Being a flight instructor school dropout, I just didn’t have a clue how to teach someone to land, and my own learning to land is lost to me in the mists of time.
I just don’t remember how I learned to land.
So I sent Rio off to a “real” flight instructor to learn. He started in sailplanes but never mastered them due to what I would call ugly instruction. Then he switched to powered flight, but his planned schedule was shot full of holes: A combination of illness, weather, and mechanical difficulties. Then his instructor got an airline job and was gone. With our own plane down for maintenance for so much of the year he had a looooong flying gap. Depressed, he told me, “I don’t think I know how to fly an airplane any more.”
About the same time that Rio’s instructor left for the airlines, Lisa went off to North Carolina for an intensive all-day, two-week training course that was to cumulate in her Light Sport check ride.
She left enthusiastically. But her enthusiasm was quickly squashed. Each night as she FaceTimed in to update us, she was increasing depressed. First off, the weather sucked. The cold she expected. She grew up in that neck of the woods. But the record snow was making her flight training a challenge. As was the fact she was flying off of a grass strip, a minor little detail the one-man flight school neglected to mention on his website, along with the fact the tail-dragger training plane had no electrical system and had to be hand-propped to start.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
The worst of it was the flight instructor himself. Each time she’d ask a question he’d say, “Figure it out for yourself.” He was also 100% negative, pointing out every less-than-perfect action on her part, while never giving any supportive encouragement.
OK, I agree that there are times when it’s good for a student to figure things out for themselves, but good teaching also entails some guidance. And motivation. When flying I can see that there are times when an instructor must point out errors so they can be avoided in the future. But I also think that maneuvers performed well should be supported to keep morale up and to give the student as sense of improvement, not to mention encouraging good flying skills.
But for Lisa that never happened, not once, and with each passing day the charming little airport cottage—a big selling point for the package deal—felt more and more like a prison cell to her. Not only was this costing her a fortune, but she wasn’t having any fun, and learning to fly, while sometimes challenging, should always be fun.
In the end, the S.O.B. didn’t even let her solo.
She was devastated.
In a deep funk she told me, “I just want to learn to land a damned airplane.”
Watching the struggles of my two favorite student pilots, I began thinking that, even though I’m not a certified flight instructor, I could do a better job teaching them to fly than the instructors they were using. Maybe, just maybe, 34 years after I dropped out of Flight Instructor School, it was time for me to go back to school.
I wonder what I did with those mirrored sunglasses?
We’ve seen a LOT of airports over the last few years as Tessie’s range, with two humans and lightly packed luggage, is only about 200 miles. We often refuel at out-of-the-way uncontrolled airports, many of them unmanned. Some of these fields offer amazing terminal buildings with every amenity a pilot could dream of. Others… Well, is there a word for “worse than Third World?”
And, of course, at the end of every journey we’d return to our own uncontrolled, unmanned field, look at our own somewhat sad terminal, and complain that we weren’t measuring up very well.
We’ve been doing that since 2013.
Over the holiday break Lisa decided to quit complaining and start doing. She showed up at our house with a pad of paper and a pencil to grill Rio and I about things we saw at airports that we liked the most, and things we saw at airports that we liked the least.
The bathrooms at that place in Oklahoma were disgusting. The popcorn at Dodge City is pretty darn good. Too many airports don’t have a courtesy car to get into town. The self-serve oil system—take a quart and slide a fiver under the door—at Twenty Nine Palms was Godsend. Dead bugs covered the windowsills at one south Texas airport. The coffee at Batesville rocked the house. There was no light in the bathroom at spooky airport somewhere in the Midwest. I loved the old 12-foot-wide wall planning chart at Herford. De Queen had wanted posters on the walls of the terminal. The computers were great at Belle Plaine, as was the selection of help-your-self snacks. And Smiley Johnson Municipal had a riddle you had to solve to reveal the code to the locked terminal door (we never solved it).
I figured it was all just an intellectual exercise, but the next time Lisa, Rio, and I went to the airport for some flying, Lisa went to the dollar store while Rio and I were up. When we landed there was a bottle of mouthwash and little Dixie cups in the bathroom, a pile of snacks on the countertop, and cold water and sodas in the fridge.
Lisa’s airport terminal renovation had begun.
Drinking the newly purchased cold water in our very own home terminal, we sat on the cigarette-burned sofa and looked around us critically. The little building has good bones. It isn’t even all that old. It has excellent heat in the winter and wonderful air conditioning in the summer. But it has sad and disorganized furniture, including a massive industrial literature rack featuring years-old aviation magazines, some yellowing with age. The tile floor is an unfortunate design. Even if clean, it would still look dirty. What could we do?
Well, what about some area rugs to distract the eye from that tile? Some art would go a long way in the bathroom. And maybe some curtains on the window to mask the fifth wheel trailer of the state cop who lived next door to the terminal on some sort of security-for-rent trade that ended up having his doghouse and cars block the view of the windows that used to look out onto the runway.
Surrounding the courtesy phone on the wall were old clip-art decorated signs with important local contact info, some of which had changed, with the changes noted in black magic marker. There was also a sign touting the free internet, which has been broken down for about two years.
I decided to replace them.
Upping the ante, I whipped out my iPhone and ordered a one-shot coffee maker that uses pods for quick and easy cups of coffee on demand. Next we re-arranged the furniture, got some paper towel holders, and covered the cigarette-burnt sofa with a serape. Then we started kicking around some Route 66 artwork, as our airport is called the Route 66 Airport because our east-west runway was originally a stretch of the famous roadway before the interstate bypassed it and the city turned that unused stretch of highway into a landing strip.
It was baby steps, but it was transformative. At each visit we’d bring something new along. And at each visit, the terminal felt more inviting every time we walked in the door.
One day when we were hanging the new sheer curtains from Walmart, the part-time airport manager walked in. He’s a great guy, but he wears something like five hats for the city, so the airport is only one of many responsibilities for him. “Holy cow, this place looks great,” he said, staring around in wonder. We fessed up that Lisa had adopted his terminal.
“Do anything you want,” he told us, “just don’t move any walls.”
Remember last week when I told you that, as always with airplanes, there was a problem? Well, at risk of turning Plane Tales into the aviation version of Bob Vila’s This Old House TV series, today I have yet another Plane Problem tale.
It all started when we bought the airplane. No really, today’s feature attraction is one I’ve known about, and have been putting off, since 2013.
But before we can dig into the latest money-eater, for background you need to know that Tessie has three fuel tanks. There’s one in each wing, which is where airplane gas tanks are normally found. Somewhat uniquely, Tess’s are interconnected with no fuel selector, making the pair act like one large gas tank. Even more uniquely, there’s a fuselage tank in the nose of the plane between the engine and the instrument panel. This makes some people nervous, with all that gas in their laps, but in truth, all airplanes are just flying gasoline bombs anyway, so it’s never bothered me. In fact, I regard my fuselage tank as a great safety feature due to the way the entire fuel system is designed.
Here’s the deal: An engine-driven fuel pump draws gas up from the conjoined wing tanks and into the nose tank, which I generally call a “header” tank. Gas is then gravity-fed down to the carburetor. The fuel pump draws more gas than the engine uses, and the header tank has an overflow tube that leads back down to the wing tanks again.
Think of it like one of those chocolate fountains you see at weddings.
What makes this arrangement safe, or safer than virtually any other low wing airplane, is the fact that the engine doesn’t need the fuel pump to run. If the fuel pump conks out, the header tank can keep the engine running for an hour. In other low wing planes, if the fuel pump kicks the bucket, the engine shuts down (which is why many planes have backup fuel pumps, but I’m a great believer in catastrophic chains of failure).
So speaking of gas, pretty much since day one—or maybe it was day two—there’s been a slight odor of gas in Tess’s cockpit. My mechanics checked all the usual suspects, looking at the priming system, checking the fuel cutoffs, and making sure all the various connectors were well connected.
All was well.
Looking closer, in every nook and cranny, they finally discovered the cause: An itsy bitsy fuel seep. The header tank was oozing fuel. As pulling out the header tank pretty much entails gutting the interior of the airplane to remove it (or so we all thought at the time), which would take a ton of time, and therefore cost me a ton of money, my mechanics had little trouble convincing me to put this off. Sure, when you first opened the canopy when the plane had been sitting for a while, there’d be a whiff of fuel, but it quickly dissipated and wasn’t an issue.
Once we got Tess back from her months-looooong engine misadventures, I noticed that the fuel smell was worse. Much worse. When opening the canopy, a nauseating wave of fuel fumes poured forth. On our return flight from Texas on our engine break-in flight, I got a pounding headache from the fumes. When I took her in for her new engine’s first oil change, at ten flight hours, I insisted that my mechanics investigate.
Nothing new was amiss.
Meanwhile, the smell was now so strong I wondered if gas were dripping out and soaking into the carpet. My guys suggested I cover the floor with white paper between flights to see if the paper was stained when I came back.
Still, I knew the fumes had to be coming from that damn tank, somehow. And that, all evidence to the contrary, things were getting worse. I also kicked myself for not insisting that the tank be pulled and rebuilt during the long downtime of the engine rebuild. I vowed to get it taken care of once and for all at our next annual, which due to all the work that’s been done, has now been reset to the month of May.
That was at the end of November. Just the other day I was back again at my maintenance base in Santa Fe for the second oil change on the new engine. That’s when one of my guys said, “Come over here, I want you to see something.”
It’s never a good thing when an airplane mechanic wants you to see something.
Like a condemned man being led to gallows, I followed him around Tess’s nose to the pilot side. The mechanic pulled out a black flashlight and played a bright beam on the firewall. A long blue stain wandered down the slick metal.
Blue… Blue is the color of the only remaining aviation fuel in the U.S., called 100 low lead, or sometimes 100LL. Why is it blue, other than the fact that its cost per gallon gives pilots the Blues? Well, back in the day when aviation was healthier, there were many kinds of airplane gas. There was 80 octane, the 100 octane, and even a 130 octane. Various engines ran better on one or the other, and with that many gasolines available, there was always the risk that some fool line boy would put the wrong juice in your tanks with possibly tragic results. Thus, each kind of gas had its own color so you could tell if you had the right or wrong go-juice in your bird’s tanks. Eighty was red, 130 was green, and the 100 was blue.
The blue stain was telling us that the seep was no longer a seep. It was a… Well, I don’t know what to call something that’s more than a seep but less than a trickle. But it wasn’t a good sign.
Next the mechanic crawled under the dash to look at the bottom of the header tank from inside. This isn’t an easy thing to do in an Ercoupe. He lay on his back on the seat, head under the dash, legs and feet dangling out the window.
“Can some one get me my phone?” his disembodied voice floated out of the cockpit.
Odd time to choose to make a phone call, I thought, but I fetched his phone from his workbench.
It turns out he wanted to take a photo. Massive stretches of blue were staining the underside of the tank. OK, well, massive is an exaggeration. There were two or three stains the size of postage stamps. But they weren’t there a month ago.
But that wasn’t half of it. Not by far.
Along the base of the tank, where it rests on a bracket on the inside of the firewall, was liquid gasoline. I guess my seep just became a spring. In just a hair over a month. The tank job couldn’t be put off any longer.
I asked my senior mechanic if the outfit that rebuilt our wing tank this spring also rebuilt header tanks. “I don’t know,” he replied, “but given how hard it’s going to be to get to, maybe you should consider a new one.” Then he asked if I happened to know if Univair sold new ones.
Univair, a company in Colorado, should really be called Uni-savior. They hold the Type Certificate for the Ercoupe, and although they’ve never made a single airplane, they continue to make almost every part and piece of the planes. This is why Ercoupe owners, unlike owners of other classic planes of yesteryear, don’t need to own three planes to keep one flying: Virtually every replacement part we could need can be on a UPS truck within 24 hours.
Because while Univair can make anything you need, not everything you need is always in stock. Still, better to wait six weeks than spend a lifetime searching airplane junkyards.
Standing in my mechanic’s hanger next to Tess I could almost hear the gas dripping onto the floor. Which it wasn’t. Other than in my writer’s imagination. I pulled out my phone and checked Univair’s website. There it was, the header tank, all $2,180.87 of it. Seriously? Eighty-seven cents? Why not just round it up to twenty-two hundred bucks?
I ordered it.
Then I flew my leaky plane south to the prop shop, wondering if I’d ever get away from fixing this plane and back to just, you know, flying it. So… did I choose 47 or 48 at the prop shop? It turns out it can be pitched to 47.5. Who knew?
With that problem solved, I set about working my contacts for advice on how to pull the header tank out of the plane without completely disemboweling the cockpit, as it turns out that neither of my mechanics had ever done it. Luckily, for Tess’s version of her breed, it’s not too bad a procedure after all. The yokes come out. Various cables get disconnected, then the tank is disconnected and pretty much drops straight onto the floor, where it can be pulled out of the plane. At first glance my guys thought that the entire instrument panel and all its toys would need to be removed, but that’s not necessary. So that’s good.
Well, other than the timing, of course.
Over dinner and lots of wine at the end of the very long day, I was filling the family in on the latest debacle. When I finished, I wrapped up with a hopeful thought from one of my mechanics: At this point we’ve replaced or refurbished virtually every system on the airplane. It’s more of a 2018 Ercoupe than a 1947 Ercoupe. With a strong new power plant on the front and all major systems in ship-shape order, there would be nothing but routine maintenance to worry about going forward.
My mother wasn’t buying that. Not for a second. “I’m sure something else will break down next,” she snorted.
Maybe so. But I hope not. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will be a long time before the next episode of This Old Airplane airs on the Plane Tales Network.
Because we live in the boonies, actually 8.3 miles due south of the boonies, we’re big fans of online shopping for the holidays. We first started shopping online several years ago, thanks to the Tessie gifts. Tessie gifts? Well, as our plane is a member of the family, she “buys” gifts for all her human family—as well as for her mechanics, the airport manager, and some flying friends. And as aviation-themed gifts aren’t readily available in the boonies, or even in the larger North Boonie farther up Highway 84, all of these presents are bought online. (Airplanes, their heads always in the clouds, apparently always give aviation-themed gifts.)
This year, as more and more things are available online, we probably did 80%, or more, of all of our holiday shopping online, and this led to a unique problem: Lots of boxes were showing up at our door. Why was this a problem? Because it wasn’t always clear who should open any given box to avoid spoiling a well thought out surprise.
Is this the bow tie I ordered for Rio? Is it something Debbie ordered for me? Or is it just the coffee we ordered for the Keurig?
Shortly before Christmas, we got a box from Rural Route Brick. It was addressed to me, but anything bought by any family member on eBay, Etsy, or Amazon ships to my name by default, so whom a package is addressed to isn’t necessarily who should open it. I racked my brain and couldn’t recall ordering anything from such a company. Maybe Debbie ordered some sort of tile or paver with our family name on it or something. The box was largish and flat, neither light nor heavy. Mystified, I left it on the bed for Deb to “safety check.”
When she got home, she reported she also didn’t recall ordering anything from Rural Route Brick, but as she’s more of the last minute shopper than I am, and I was pretty sure that I had accounted for all I had ordered, I had her open the box out of my eyesight.
Opening the box didn’t solve the mystery. Inside, there were two white plastic padded envelopes. Debs brought them to me in the library where I was writing a pitch to Flight Training Magazine on when not to file a flight plan. Each envelope had a large round Rural Route Brick sticker, and a smaller Race 53 gumball.
She handed me one of the envelopes, and as it passed into my hands I heard the unmistakable sound of Lego bricks clinking against each other.
Suddenly I broke from the clouds and had the runway in sight.
Lego Tessie had finally arrived.
Now, if you were a fan of my two-year Air Racing from the Cockpit series in GA News, you probably know a Race 53 fan made a Tessie Lego model, as they ran a photo of it at the end of the 2106 season. Here, for the first time, is the whole story behind that model:
Waaaaay back in December of 2015, an article appeared in Coupe Capers (the Ercoupe Owners Club monthly newsletter) about a Lego and Ercoupe enthusiast named Joey Abbott. He had created an Ercoupe model out of Lego bricks and had submitted it to the Lego Ideas website. Apparently anyone can submit a design to the site, and if it gets 10,000 votes from the public, Lego will consider it for production as an official set. Naturally I voted for the Lego Ercoupe the same day I read about it. Then I wrote the designer and told him how cool I thought it was. I also asked if I could buy one from him.
That was a no-go, as the Lego rules don’t allow designers to sell models under consideration, but Joey and I stayed in touch anyway. Sadly, his original design didn’t get the votes it needed in the time window allowed, but that put his design on the open market and we were able to strike a deal.
The design as featured on Lego Ideas was a handsome grey-body yellow-wing affair, but in the ensuing time Joey had become a Plane Tales fan and he sent me a rotatable 3-D computerized version of his original model in Tessie livery. It blew my mind.
And I didn’t get any work done for the next two weeks ‘cause I was too busy playing with the computer model.
In no time I decided I needed two: One for home, one for hangar.
Anyway, the project dragged on for what seemed like forever, but that’s only because I didn’t really understand what went in to it. More on that in a bit. Occasionally I’d get an email from Joey with a question, and occasionally I’d email him to see if he was still alive. At one point, he sent me an image of the prototype being held in someone’s hands. It was huge! I knew the model was an exact 1:19 scale, but I had no real sense of how darn large that it really made it. For some reason, looking at the computer images and the photos of the models, I had envisioned it much smaller.
His original prototype Ercoupe model was constructed in “Lego camo,” a mishmash of crazy Lego colors where shape alone rules the day. Once this camo prototype was built, he transferred the design into an online Lego CAD program, where colors can be adjusted to match the myriad of Lego brick colors that are available for each brick.
Then the hard part begins: Sourcing the individual bricks via Bricklink, which is sort of an eBay for Lego bricks. Who knew there was an entire Lego subculture? The bricks for my pair of Tessies came from Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the UK. Designing the instructions was another challenge, apparently, and took nearly as long as getting the parts.
I’ve actually short-changed the process somewhat, but Joey lays out the whole operation on his excellent website here, and it’s well worth the read. But not until you’ve finished this Plane Tale!
Anyway, the two envelopes of bricks arrived on Christmas Eve Eve Eve. And on Christmas Eve Eve, Rio and I set to work to build the first one. We used to build a lot of Lego together when he was younger, but he seems to have largely lost interest in the fascinating but vexing brick creations. But having a Lego model of his airplane was another matter altogether.
Sitting at the kitchen table, we slit open the first envelope and out poured numbered sacks of Lego bricks. A strange mix of emotions swept over me, part memories of joyful years gone by, and part PTSD. (Lego is often harder than it appears.)
Also in the envelope was a beautifully bound instruction manual. All 54 pages of it, detailing 104 steps to turn the 335 Lego pieces into our airplane.
Figuring out how to create the construction manual apparently gave Joey a bit of a headache. Traditional Lego instructions are part architectural drawing, part hieroglyph. Joey’s solution was to photograph each construction step with the bricks for the next step in each picture, and then lay them out two to a page in the construction manual. It worked just like the “real” thing, meaning that at least three times we had to go back, disassemble, fix a mistake we made, and then move forward.
It was a blast.
Rio was the assembly master; my job was that of parts gofer. As in production Lego kits of any complexity, one of the big challenges is telling the difference between similar pieces, especially the long flat types. I had to use a pencil to count how many nubs long some of the pieces were to tell the difference between a grey flat that had two rows of eight numbs vs. the ones that had ten rows of nubs. Or twelve.
As we went along the pile of bricks on the table began to get smaller…
And the model started looking more and more like Tessie…
Then it happened. I couldn’t find the bricks for the next step. We searched through the piles and sacks. No joy. Now what?
I figured that as Joey had packaged up the two plane kits at the same time, maybe two identical sacks of parts got put in one envelope. I went to fetch the second kit. In the meantime, Rio had the presence of mind to check the first envelope again, and sure enough there was a bag of parts that remained behind when we emptied out the package onto the kitchen table.
Just to make sure we now had them all, I reached all the way to the bottom of the envelope and found yet another packet of parts. It was small. Drawing it out I saw it had all the parts of a Lego Minifigure. A pilot. A pilot with a beard, gray hair, blue hat, and a headset. He also had a gold trophy.
Holy cow! I had been turned into a Lego Minifigure! It was a complete and total surprise. And a wonderful one.
As the model took shape, my mind was repeatedly blown by Joey’s attention to detail. The model had Tessie’s URL nose art. The side had her N-number. Her belly her beacon. A tiny sticker attached to the front strut touted our World Speed Record, the exact same text that appears on Tess’s front wheel pant.
There was a complete instrument panel, dual yokes, and even her center-mounted throttle.
It took us most of the afternoon to complete the Lego Tessie, but it was one of the best afternoons ever, and absolutely the best Christmas Eve Eve of all time. But in the end, when we were finished, just like with every production Lego kit we ever made, there was one brick left over.
Awe, hell. We messed up somewhere. We briefly debated just dropping the wayward brick on the floor and forgetting about it, but decided that given all the effort that went in to creating the model that would be just… wrong. Back we flipped though the manual, until we figured out where the part went. We disassembled several steps, put in the wayward brick, and as the sun set, re-assembled Lego Tessie.
Then we broke out the eggnog and sat admiring our (and mostly Joey’s) handiwork. I’ve always been amazed at the objects that can be made by Lego, but building a Lego model of something I know and love so well in real life was an amazing experience, beyond a doubt my best non-flying aviation adventure of all time. Plus, when something breaks down on this Tessie, it will be an easy fix, just snapping the bricks back together!
Thanks, Joey, for the very very merry Christmas. Oh, and Tessie told me to tell you that she gives her official seal of approval to her very own “mini-me.”
Joey tells me he’s happy to sell Tessie Lego models to any other Race 53, Plane Tales, or Ercoupe fans. You can contact Joey firstname.lastname@example.org
More about Joey:
Joey’s online bio reads, “Joey is an avid LEGO fan who designs and builds custom LEGO models to scale and he produces LEGO stop-motion animation videos. Joey is also a fan of vintage and modern airplanes, which are a favorite of his to design in LEGO. When he is not “LEGOing” on a project, you’ll find Joey on a local hiking trail with his family, reading a good book, or most likely, having a snack.”
Be sure to check out his impressive Messerschmitt BF 109. He even nailed the funky landing gear and the model’s gear is retractable… just like the real thing! And if you like your Lego on the large side, his B-25 Mitchell bomber used an estimated 1,700 Lego pieces and weighs in at four pounds!!!