The milk run for wine

We flew low and hard. I’m using the Lindberg We here, as I was alone in the plane. Alone, but not alone, as I had the plane for company. Her retooled engine, overhauled carb, and newly flattened propeller combined to create a comforting roar that was oddly musical as she tore her way through the sky.

I had lifted off at dawn, Tessie springing into the air with renewed vigor, even with a full load of fuel, and I had to force her nose down to keep her low to the ground, as advised by our mechanic. The mission (beyond restocking our wine cabinet) was to “set” the rings in our new piston, and this is done by keeping the pressure in the cylinder high—a project made more challenging by flying out of an airport nearly a mile above sea level. In this case, altitude was the enemy.

The sun rose as I skimmed over mesas and canyons towards the Texas border, and about 45 minutes after takeoff I dropped off of the escarpment and down into the flatlands. From here through the Oklahoma panhandle, and into Kansas, you can forgive our ancestors for believing that the world was flat. Even from above, there is nothing about the great plains of the Midwest to suggest that they reside on a giant sphere. The land is a smooth, near-featureless expanse in all directions. A expanse that seems to go on forever.

Lower and lower we flew as the terrain slowly and steadily dropped in altitude beneath our wings. My main tasks were watching out for those pesky cell phone towers, and keeping track of my theoretical fuel consumption, based on ground speed. Ercoupes don’t have reliable gas gauges and there’s no real way in flight to check how much is in the wing tanks. I stayed on task, and resisted the urge to carve lazy circles in the winter air.

At one point, after refueling at Liberal, I spied a lake off to my left that appeared to be covered in snowballs, and could not resist the urge to investigate. As Tess and I approached, the snowballs exploded into a giant flock of Snow Geese, who wheeled and turned beneath us in formation flight to escape the roar of Tessie’s engine.

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But all in all, it was what military pilots used to call a milk run. The same would not be true of the return trip. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When I landed at Great Bend, the Centerline Aviation lineman greeted me with, “We haven’t seen you for a little while. Welcome back.” It wasn’t artifice. Next he asked if a minor mechanical problem we’d had when we last passed through had gotten resolved.

That’s the wonderful thing about aviation: It gives you an extended family.

After getting Tess gassed up and secured in the giant surplus B-29 hangar for the night, I headed into town to complete the other part of my mission: Restocking the wine rack.

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At the Rosewood outlet the manager recognized me and we chatted for a time. As much as I love my Cooper Prophets, I’d been noticing that recently my pallet was sliding away from smoother Malbec-like wines to slightly sharper cabs. What followed was a wine tasting that left me wishing I had room for two cases of wine, not just one.

Seriously, I don’t think these people make a bad wine. Of course some I liked better than others. In the end I took home a mixed case made up of:

Coosa Pat, a Portuguese Cabernet Sauvignon.

Chicka Star Buck, a Bonorda Malbec.

Angel with a Gun, an Amarone.

Peponita Pop Top, a Pinot Noir.

And of course I got one more bottle of my beloved Cooper Prophets, the Nebbiolothat started all of this. Oh, and one bottle of a yummy chocolate raspberry desert wine (in a sexy skinny bottle) for Debs called Boo Koo Good Time. Remember, all these wines are named for race horses, which tend to have racier names than airplanes do.

I see many special occasions in my future.

Then I checked the weather, and turned in for the night, having no clue that the next day would be no milk run. Or even a wine run, for that matter. But I would be running from something, all right, before the first hour of the flight was over.

 

Next time, on Plane Tales: If the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plane, what does the weather in Kansas do?

 

Ultimate beer run

It was love at first sip. The wine was bold. But smooth. It carried a range of flavors that was a symphony for the taste buds. It also didn’t hurt that it was only nine bucks a glass, and was paired with the best steak I’d ever had in my life.

That’s one of the grand things about aviation: You just never know what you’ll discover on an overnight fuel stop.

The wine was called Cooper Prophets, and it’s made by the Rosewood Winery in Great Bend, Kansas. Beyond making one the best reds I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink, it turns out that Rosewood also has the distinction of being a winery with a cause. Their staff is made up of developmentally disabled people. Making wine is both therapy and gainful employment.

My first brush with the wine was on my way to the Ercoupe 75th Anniversary gathering and the massive annual air-meet at Oshkosh. I jotted down the oddball name of the wine on the margin of a flight log (all Rosewood wines are named after race horses raised by their sister operation, Rosewood Ranch) and somewhere in the middle of Missouri, grounded by fog and low clouds, I went online to try to order a case so it would be waiting for us on our return home. No joy. Rosewood does not sell online.

Not to be deterred when it comes to good wine, I re-routed our return flight to stop over in Great Bend a second time, and as soon as we landed we jumped into the Centerline Aviation crew car and headed for Rosewood’s retail “wine cellar” in downtown Great Bend. But as it turned out, Rosewood isn’t licensed to export their product out of state, and between Rio and I, fuel, and tee-shirts and tooth brushes, we literally could not carry even a single bottle back with us. This is one of the disadvantages of antique airplanes. Built in the days when people were smaller and lighter, and when there was virtually no cockpit gadgetry, they don’t have much carrying capacity—what we call “useful load” in aviation. When you add in modern conveniences like, say, a radio or a starter, it only gets worse.

What to do? It was either leave Rio behind, or leave the wine behind.

In the end I bought the wine and then hit the streets to make friends with Kansasions to try to find someone to ship it home to me. It was a lot of work, and a little nerve-wracking, but eventually my wine reached me. Oh, I forgot to mention, it might be cheap by the glass, but by the bottle, it turned out to be the most expensive wine I’ve ever purchased. We saved each bottle for special occasions.

It’s amazing how many special occasions we have in our household.

So we were down to two bottles when the Plane Tales Plane went into the shop for her recent epic annual inspection (not a special occasion, although I suspect my mechanic might have broken out a bottle of his best when he saw me taxi up), and then she cracked a cylinder (also not a special occasion).

Sorry it’s taking so long to get to the point of the story, but it’s complicated.

So as it turns out, new cylinders have a special break-in procedure. Basically, you need to run the engine hard for the first ten hours or so. High power. Low altitude. Minimum landings. Short taxiing. In a nutshell, the recipe for a road trip, which in aviation we call a “cross country.”

In the old days, to plan a cross country like this I would have sat down at the kitchen table and spread out a sectional chart. Or, if I’d been at the airport, I would have gone to a planning chart: Huge 7-foot tall maps of the United States that covered entire walls. Most terminals used to place a screw in the map at their location. Attached to the screw was a piece of string with knots tied into it every hundred miles or so. You could swing the string around to estimate the distances to faraway places.

Instead, I sat down on the living room couch with an iPad Mini. And a glass of cheap wine. I need a trip of around 400 miles, the theoretical maximum distance I can go with full tanks, a legal reserve, and no copilot. (I’m flying solo until the engine is safely broken in.)

“Maybe I could fly over to Dalhart for breakfast,” I told Rio. I simultaneously laid my left index finger over our homebase on the touch screen, and my right finger over Dalhart. Two simulated black pushpins appeared on the screen, with a line drawn between them. Only 154 miles. “Not far enough,” I sighed.

“You could go to Amarillo again,” suggested Rio. There’s a great restaurant on the field, and a dynamite little airplane museum to make the trip worthwhile. I checked the distance. It was around 200 miles.

“Still too close,” I said, then looking at the chart, and talking more to myself than to Rio, added, “I wonder what’s further east…?”

“Well you could just fly to Great Bend and pick up another case of that wine you love.”

Three hundred ninety seven miles.

The boy’s a genius.

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Next time on Plane Tales: A milk run of a beer run.

 

Taking wing

It was freaking cold. Snow covered the apron, taxiways, and even the runways themselves. The Santa Fe tower’s ATIS was warning pilots to use “braking precautions.” The sky was a wild mix of stunning crystal white and azure blue, angry and beautiful at once. It was not a good day for a picnic.

But that didn’t mean it wasn’t a great day to fly.

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After more than a month with her mechanics, it was time for the Plane Tales Plane to come home. Some low patchy clouds scuttled above the airport, rushing from west to east to reach some unknowable appointment in their private world, but the ceiling was high enough, the horizon was bright, and the forecast back at our home base was positively optimistic.

I zipped my midnight-blue winter flight jacket up to my Adam’s apple and trudged through the thin layer of snow to the back of the plane, where I did a little one-legged dance to try to knock the snow off of one shoe before climbing up onto the wing to get into the cockpit. Having nearly cut my leg to the bone slipping off of the wing last summer at Great Bend, Kansas—thanks to dew on the wing walk—I’ve learned to be careful in bad weather.

Even though Tessie had been on the ramp only long enough for a fuel truck to show up and top off her tanks, her metal skin was cold enough to make my fingers tingle, and my breath mimicked the clouds above as I slid into the cockpit. I pulled off my knitted cap and put on my headset. Cold plastic to warm ears. Still, even frozen, the cockpit felt warm and welcoming. Sliding into my seat behind the yokes felt like coming home after a long trip abroad.

I clicked the waist belt into place, then lengthened the shoulder belt to wrap around my thick winter wardrobe. Time to start the engine:

Crack the throttle. Mixture full rich. Mags to both. Two slow steady “shots” of prime to fill the empty cylinders with vaporized fuel. Master on. Beacon on.

I pull the lawn-mower style starter and the six-foot prop on the nose of the Plane Tales Plane turns over once, twice, three times—picking up speed. The engine catches. Wheezes for a moment. Coughs once and then roars to life. The prop dissolves into a blur of motion and the deep Brrrrrowl…. of the engine, steady and strong, is music for the soul. The little plane bucks once, straining against her brakes, eager to be on her way.

The needle on the oil pressure gauge sprang to life and the rest of the plane’s systems followed suit. Cleared by the tower, and cautioned about ice and snow, I ventured out into a world of white, so different from our normal ecosystem of blacktop and yellow lines. I used the taxi lights like fence posts, mute guides to the approximate location of taxiway slumbering beneath its blanket of snow.

It was time to take wing.

I pulled onto the wide expanse of Runway 20, gauging the centerline by the runways lights standing on the snow like military sentinels. Then I throttled up and quickly accelerated across the white expanse. I held her on the ground well past her flying speed, then barely eased back on the yoke.

Tessie leapt into the air like a tiger. The airport fell away beneath us and in a heartbeat we were up among the clouds. She soared like an angel, rising faster than I’d ever seen before. Maybe it was the cold air, the light load, or the refurbished engine and prop.

Or maybe it was a leap for joy.

 

Aero archeology

I just got the bad news from the doctor. My engine has a year to live.

Oh. Wait. Don’t cry. Aircraft engines are more like cats. They have a strange immortality of sorts that grants them second, third, and sometimes fourth lives. You see, unlike dogs and humans, engines can be rebuilt. Made as new. Given a fresh life.

My engine is a Continental C-85-F. According to the company that gave birth to her, her life span is 1,800 hours. At that point they wash their hands of any responsibility and say the engine should be rebuilt. This is a big deal. The engine is dissembled. All the inside parts are cleaned, rebuilt, or replaced. The cylinders and pistons are thrown in a large trashcan and replaced with new ones. The spark-creating magnetos follow suit. In the end, for all practical purposes, you have a brand new engine.

For 1,800 hours. Then you have to do it again.

Still, we typically fly between 75 and 100 hours a year, which is much more than the fleet in general. A rebuilt engine will last me two decades. And now that I think about it, I’m not sure that I will last two more decades. So I guess the good news is that so long as I keep the Plane Tales Plane (and don’t buy a second plane) I’ll never have to live through another rebuild as long as I live. So that’s the black cloud’s silver lining.

The black cloud itself is $15,000 and two months of downtime. I’m not sure which is worse.

Complicating things somewhat are the missing logbooks. Planes have both engine and airframe logs, but given Tessie’s advanced age (69 this year) some of the logs, thus some of her history, is missing and therefore a mystery. One of those mysteries is the exact number of hours on the engine as mechanics past replaced hour-counting tachometers without noting the numbers logged on the replacement tachs. Were they zeroed? Were they used with counts of other engines? Were they reset to match units they replaced? No one knows and the logs are mute. This means that maybe our engine will live two more years, not one.

Another mystery is: When did the current engine join the airplane? She should have rolled out of the factory with a 75-horse engine, but now she has an 85. Where did it come from? A cryptic entry in a logbook from 1964 provides a tantalizing clue even while deepening the mystery.

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Inside the front cover, with no date, is the following entry: This engine installed in Ercoupe 3976H.

It goes on to say that the engine was rebuilt at 1,858 hours. The serial numbers match the engine in the Plane Tales Plane. But there are two ways to read those five words. Are they telling us the engine was already installed in the plane and was rebuilt, or that they installed a freshly rebuilt engine into the plane? Was the entry made at the start of the logbook, or at the end? The first actual entries (with no dates) show an engine time of 294 hours. The log ends in 1991 with an entry at 1,710 hours. To me that suggests that the engine was, in fact, overhauled in 1964, and probably again before we got her. My Continental is on her third life, getting ready for her fourth.

Tessie’s third owner sent me some copies of old documents he had from the 50s. His pilot’s log shows that he was flying two Ercoupes at the time and he carefully noted that the other one had a 75-horse engine, but that Tess had an 85. This gives us circumstantial evidence that Tessie had an 85, possibly her current one, as far back as 1953. Giving us more clues, back in those days pilots logged flight hours via tachometer time, so while it’s not an official engine log, we “know” that her 85 horse engine had 193 hours on it in January of 1953. Adding to the evidence for the origin of her 85 being the 1950s, we also just learned that Tessie’s prop, based on its serial number, was one of the very early McCauley aluminum propellers, and most likely dates from the early 1950s. A separate mystery is when her wings were coated with metal, photos of 3976H in the 1950s show her factory fabric-covered wings were still on at that time.

But back to the engine, if the 85-horse engine joined the plane sometime in the early 1950s, it begs the question: What happened to her original engine? I can’t see why someone would replace a perfectly good engine with one only 10 horsepower larger, and yet it would appear that sometime in the first 3-5 years of her life, someone did.

I think this is one of those mysteries we’ll never know the answer to. Oh well. Every girl needs her secrets. Even ones with only a year to live.

More Maintenance musings

On one hand, I groan when I see an email from my mechanic while Tessie is in his hangar, but on the other hand, I get grumpy when a few days have gone by and I haven’t heard from him. I know. It’s psychotic. Anyway, the latest email said I should call the carb guy. Now, for background, understand that Ercoupes are equipped with the same carburetor that the Wright Flyer used.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but the Plane Tales Plane, like the bulk of the Ercoupe fleet, has a Stromberg carburetor, a design that dates to the 1920s. It’s a somewhat crude, but not simple, system. Because Strombergs really aren’t seen that often outside the “vintage” airplane community, my mechanic was quick to agree that we should send “that funky carburetor of yours” out to a specialist when it began to develop a strange personality over the last year.

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So as part of this year’s annual, the carburetor, which lives on the bottom of my engine, was unbolted, boxed, and sent via UPS across the country to be refurbished. But apparently, something unexpected had come up. I called the carb guy and he told me that my carburetor was by far the saddest specimen he had seen in his entire career. To quote him exactly: It was “the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Oh great.

Apparently previous owners had run it with an illegal fuel, and the float bowl (the part highlighted in orange on the drawing above) was full of “a ton of guck.” Corrosion of some sort from a reaction between alcohol in autogas and the metal parts in the engine, made worse by the fact the fuel strainer was installed backwards and therefore not straining. Here’s the picture he sent:

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He was amazed that nothing had broken loose, gotten sucked into the system and caused the engine to stop. You know. Like in flight. He also seemed personally insulted that anyone could treat a carburetor so badly. I felt like a pet owner being accused of animal abuse. I had to stammer and stumble and explain that the cat was half-starved when I adopted her, and that I was doing my best to nurse her back to health.

Mollified by my swearing that I had fed her only proper 100 low-lead avgas, and would continue to do so, and by my willingness to pay more money for the extra work required, I was let off the hook and was not formally reported to the airplane welfare agencies for carburetor abuse.

One of these days, maybe soon, we will have replaced or refurbished every single system, part, rod, and pulley on this airplane. And then the only thing in my inbox will be a simple message like: “We didn’t find anything wrong this year, so we just changed the oil and cleaned the windshield. Come pick you your plane.”

Hey, I’m a pilot. Flights of fancy come with the territory.