A repair gone awry

Black. Pitch black. The absolute absence of light. I’m trapped. And alone. But I’m alive and unhurt. And, finally, I can barely make out distant human voices filtering through the metal walls. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but after an eternity of silence there’s comfort in knowing that I’ve been found.

That a rescue is underway.

It’s hot. I breathe slowly. Keep my mind in a calm space. Not too much longer and I’ll get out of here…

 

The day started splendidly. After two weeks of killer stress, Tess was finally ready to fly again. The final diagnosis: Little flecks of rust from the copilot wing tank made their way through the various fuel filters and lodged in the carburetor float needle seat. This kept the needle from fully shutting off the flow of fuel when the bowl was full. That, in turn, caused the carb to overflow. The leaking fuel worked its way into the air intake, which is below the carb. The pool of fuel in the air intake pre-enriched the inbound air to the carb—so much so, that it caused the engine to stall right after starting.

The mechanic at Clovis, where Rio and I had been stranded weeks before by a plane that would start but not run even 10 seconds, had drained all the fuel, cleaned out the tanks, and put a smaller filter on the carb to catch any remaining particles. At our annual this year the offending tank will be removed and sent out for overhaul.

Sliding back into the cockpit again was soothing in the way a welcome easy chair might be at the end of a hard workday. I happily flipped familiar switches, prepped the plane for startup, and strapped myself in. She fired right up, sounding strong and steady.

I taxied down the long Taxiway Bravo, hung a right and glided past the terminal. The wind was from the north so I need to take off on Runway 4.

After runup and setting the mixture, I made my radio call and pulled onto the runway. Left hand on the yoke, right hand on the throttle I powered up and the damn plane jumped off the runway. It was so fast, such a short takeoff run, such a brisk climb that for a second I thought I must have been snatched off the ground by a tornado.

And as Tess and I rose into the cloudy afternoon sky, all my stress–my depression about the missed race costing me any chance of a Gold Champion trophy was left behind on the ground. Sure, victory is nice. But it’s really all about the flying. And after weeks of being grounded, I felt like I was back in my element. With each foot of altitude, my joy soared.

At the end of the runway I turned sharply to the left, toward the maintenance shop where I knew Rio stood at the window watching the takeoff. Perpendicular to the shop, I turned tail, wagged my wings, and was on my way.

It was the most beautiful flight that had no right to be. It was hazy, a hair bumpy, and I plowed through so many bugs that the view out the front was nearly obscured. But I was loving every minute of it.

Tess was performing like a thoughbred. Normally we have two power settings: Full forward to stay in the air, and reduce the throttle any amount you want to fall out of the air. Now I was backing off to avoid red-lining the engine. At 75% power, at 6,500 feet, the tach was barely short of the redline and I was plowing through the air with an indicated airspeed of 105 mph! Tess had never acting like this since she joined the family. I’m sure I had an idiot smile plastered on my face for hours.

Until the fuel gauge started to drop faster than ever before.

Do I carry on or land early for fuel? Now to the casual reader, that probably sounds like a stupid question, but my fuel “gauge” is a compass-like float on only one of my two interconnected tanks, and it’s notoriously unreliable. My best fuel gage is actually the timer on the radio. I put enough gas in the wings for three hours, and there’s enough for yet another hour in the header tank. But had the repairs changed our fuel consumption?

Passing Elk City, the gauge showed zero in the wings, but the fully reliable float gauge on the nose hadn’t dropped a bit.

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The Garmin said I had 29 minutes to go to get to my destination. Even if I was running on the nose tank now, I should have a good 30 minutes or more of spare fuel. Butterflies gnawed at my stomach for a minute as the Elk City airstrip slid beneath my wings. I weighed all the facts and committed to fly on.

24 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.

19 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.

14 min to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.

The butterflies settled down.

9 minutes to go. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank.

I could see the hangars, the narrow strip of concrete running north-south. Still the fuel gauge on the nose showed a full header tank. I was nearly to my destination…

 

Thumping. Then a grinding of metal. A faint glimmer of light strokes my retina, reflects off my crumpled flight jacket. “Down here,” I finally hear a voice. Clear. Strong. Then, “Hang on, sir. We’ll have you out in a minute.” A screech of metal on metal and a blinding flash of light stabs into my prison. Cool air rushes in. I blink. Squint. Look up to see three pairs of feet above me. Two wear the heavy yellow boots of fully decked-out-for-battle firefighters. The other set belongs to a woman. Polyester blue pants. Barefoot.

A burly firefighter reaches his arm down, I grasp it, and he lifts me bodily up and out of the stranded elevator. Yep. After a perfectly safe flight and uneventful landing, I spent the better part of my night trapped in the frickin’ elevator at the Hampton Inn. Apparently a brush fire knocked out the power to the whole city moments after I stepped into the elevator to go to dinner. The hotel had a generator, but only for the hallway and stairwell lights. There was no emergency light in the elevator, and I remained in tomb-like darkness with a low cell phone battery and barely any signal. I was able to call Deb back in New Mexico, and she tried to call the front desk, but all the landlines were down as well.

Finally a young boy heard my banging on the door and alerted the front desk clerk, who called the manager at home, who flew across town (barefoot) in her car to a sister hotel to get the only elevator-opening key the two properties share, and met the firefighters (fresh from putting out the grass fire that caused the whole debacle) who eventually freed me.

I’m all for fresh experiences, but I really can’t recommend being stuck in an elevator.

Still, it sure beats the hell out of a plane crash.

Which is what you thought your were reading about, wasn’t it?

 

 

Letting go

It’s not that I’m a control freak. I’m just accustomed to taking care of everything.

Oh. Wait.

Maybe I am a control freak.

At some point over the twisting course of my life my self-reliance morphed a bit into something different: I’m simply not in the habit of relying on others. And because I do “everything,” I like to do it as efficiently as possible. Nowadays, that means using the Internet late at night to make hangar, hotel, and ground transportation arrangements for cross-country flights, preferably without having to actually talk to another human being.

Come to think of it, this is not unlike my approach to choosing airports that we talked about recently. I guess that makes me an antisocial control freak. But something wonderful just happened that might change my whole approach to cross-country flights.

The trip in question didn’t end up happening—thanks to the stupid hurricane—but Rio and I had planned an epic two-week father-son jaunt around the country that would take us to two races. The flow of the trip had us putting down for the night in Oklahoma City at the end of the first day, where there are eight public-use airports to choose from.

So which to choose?

One thing we always do when traveling by air is to check out the local aviation museums. There are some really amazing collections in places you’d least expect it. For instance, in trying to get to Oshkosh the year before last, we put down near the Mississippi River to escape weather and found a rack card for a little museum in Greenfield, Iowa. It looked interesting, so on the way home we diverted to check it out.

Among other things, they had the actual plane that was used in an early endurance record, kept aloft by one of the first uses of aerial refueling! Just how long was the flight? Are you sitting down? Seventeen days, 12 hours, and 17 minutes. And this was in 1929! Apparently it was “cut short” when one of the pilots developed some sort of painful dental issue.

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But I think I’ve drifted off course here. Let me get back on heading. A quick Google search showed that Oklahoma City has three aviation-themed museums. Of course, the city is HQ for the Ninety-Nines and their museum is at Wil Rogers World airport, the big Class C operation. At nearby Weatherford, the Stafford Air & Space Museum is literally right on the field. You can taxi up to it. And lastly, the Oklahoma Museum of Flying is in a hangar on the grounds of the Wiley Post airport. It has a small collection of planes including one of the Reno-racing P-51s and a World War I era Fokker Eindcker—a craft more scaffolding than airplane.

I was sold. Even though Wiley Post had a control tower, we’d spend the night there.

I decided that all I needed was a rental car and maybe a hangar for Tess. On my last several trips I’ve had good luck asking about hotel discounts at FBOs after landing, and I’ve gotton some really good deals. Besides, it’s not like we weren’t going to be able to find a hotel room in Oklahoma City.

I emailed the FBO, then went to the rental car hub at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA. If you fly and aren’t a member of AOPA you really need to join. They’re the AARP of aviation, keeping Washington off our backs and out of our cockpits. Oh, and there are direct member benefits, too, like their slick car rental site.

Well, normally slick.

Most times I just enter the airport identifier of where I want to pick up and drop off a car, and it’s done in seconds. This time I was told I needed to contact the FBO.

(((Groan)))

So I sent a second email to the FBO. Please add a rental car to that hangar request.

The next day I got an email back saying I needed to call them. (((Double groan))). If I had wanted to actually talk to someone, I wouldn’t have emailed.

Grudgingly, I picked up the phone and called. And I had the nicest two-minute conversation with a young lady who is a bigger control freak than I am. She took care of everything. She took down my name and tail number and said not to worry, she’d arrange overnight hangar, hotel, and a rental car. What type of car would I like?

I confessed to my fondness for muscle cars, but my unwillingness to pay for them. She thought she could get me an upgrade. She promised to email confirmations. Within an hour I had a single email, outlining everything.

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One brief phone call. And everything was done for me. Wow.

Maybe the best way to stay in control is to let someone else take care of everything.

 

Racing from Warsaw

Frost on the taxiway lights. A bitter bite to the air. Winter is coming early up here in the mountains. I nudge the throttle forward for a little extra RPM to fully warm up Tessie’s engine before the race. The lead plane pulls forward, crosses in front of me, heads for the runway. Plane two pulls forward.

I’m in the eleventh position.

I tighten my shoulder belt. Then I notice my iPad mini—mounted just below the dash—is covered in fingerprints. I’ve got time to clean it real quick-like. I reach behind me and pull a lens-cleaning wipe from the pocket of the luggage compartment. I tear it open, remembering the lemon-scented hand wipes of my youth. The ones the Colonel gave out with the buckets of fried chicken.

Quickly, I wipe down the surface of the iPad. There’s a flash. My racecourse suddenly morphs. Changes. Instead of the roughly circular flight path, it looks like fallen scaffolding.

Even wrapped in a winter flight jacket, my blood runs cold.

This cannot have just happened.

Not only is my course messed up, but there’s a huge body of water where the San Juan Mountains should be. I zoom in to check the nearest city. Warsaw? My iPad squashed my race and moved it from Colorado to Poland?!

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How. Can. That. Be?

Plane three has passed, plane four is pulling out. I’m freaking out.

I quickly clear the flight plan and reload it from the main menu. Again Poland. Somehow, my racecourse has been deleted and replaced with a crisscross course north of Prague, east of Berlin, west of Minsk.

I whip out my cell phone and open Garmin Pilot on the phone. The race course is fine there. If I can sync the phone’s flight plans to the iPad I’m in business, but out on the ramp, I’m too far from the FBO. I don’t have wireless.

Plane five is moving.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit!!!

I do NOT want to fly a race in the mountains on a cell phone. The race briefing printout is on the seat next to me. I have the GPS locations for all six turns. But each location’s coordinates are made up of two strings of 16 digits. There’s no time to enter them all, and one typo could cause me to bust a turn.

There goes plane six.

The waypoints! Did the actual waypoints get corrupted, too? Frantically, I go to the waypoint menu. I always program each point in separately to draw the flight plan, then I turn them off again so that they don’t clutter up the map.

As plane seven pulls out, I toggle through the Pagosa waypoints. Start. Turn 1. Turn 2. Turn 3. Turn 4. Turn 5. Turn 6. Finish. Although I can see my breath in the cockpit, I’m bathed in sweat.

Plane eight pulls out and joins the line of taxiing race planes.

Back to the map. Will my waypoints show up in Europe or Colorado? Yes! They’re in Colorado.

Plane nine.

I try to draw the course line on the map, but in the cold air the touch screen isn’t responding.

Plane ten, Team Ely, pulls out. They’d have a good laugh if they only knew the chaos in my cockpit.

It’s my turn to taxi. I have no course, but I have the turn points. I can wing it. Literally and figuratively.

Plane after plane roars off down the runway and off onto the course. I do a rolling run up, checking my carb heat and mags. All I have left to do is set the mixture. One eye out the windscreen and one eye on the iPad, I try one last time. The screen responds to my touch. Ahead, the Elys pull sideways for their runup. I turn the yoke to swivel Tessie 45 degrees to the taxiway and bring the throttle up until the tach pegs at 2,000 rpm. Tess bucks and shakes. I ease the mixture back, slowly… slowly… slowly…

The rpm dips. I advance the mixture a hair, then throttle back. The Elys are moving into position on the runway. I advance to the hold line. I have 30 seconds left. My fingers fly across the iPad and the course line grows. From start to turn one. From turn one to turn two. From turn two to turn three…

The Elys begin their takeoff roll. The starter waves me forward. I release the brake. Turn four to turn five…

And as I line up, my finger extends the course to the finish line. I hit save.

The green flag drops. I advance the throttle to the firewall. I’m off. Racing from Pagosa Springs.

Not from Warsaw.

 

Get well soon, Tessie

I thought the worst was over when Tessie broke down. That was a bad day. Not 100 miles from home, in Clovis, New Mexico, our girl wouldn’t restart after landing to wait out a line of thunderstorms.

A pair of local mechanics worked valiantly to get us back in the air so we could make our race, but it didn’t happen. After months of racing, with victory within our grasp, a “mechanical” took us out of the running. I knew that missing this one race, this late in the season, would put my competitors far enough ahead that there was no way in hell I could catch up. All my efforts—long hours, vast miles, big money—wasted.

It was a lot to process.

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Once the family arrived to rescue me (via car) all the talk surrounded how “lucky” we were, and how “blessed” we were to have broken down on the ground, rather than in the air. While I don’t deny that this is true, I was pissed off that we broke down at all. We take exceedingly good care of Tessie.

This should not have happened.

I remained grumpy all the way home. Even two Mexican beers and green chili chicken enchiladas at Santa Rosa’s Silver Moon didn’t do much for my mood.

The next day I woke up with a black cloud over my head, not that it mattered much with no plane to fly. We had to leave our girl behind, tied down on the dirt outside the mechanic’s hangar at the far end of Taxiway Bravo in Clovis. It made me heartsick to drive away and leave her there.

Hopefully, she gets well soon.

I spent the next day writing up the story for General Aviation News as part of my ongoing series on air racing. After all, breakdowns are part of the story of racing. A breakdown that costs you everything you’ve strived for is an even “better” story, I suppose.

The following day was Race Day. I was up with the dawn, knowing that soon, over 800 miles away, my friends and rivals would be racing. I could picture the planes lined up on the ramp, the racers waxing their wings, putting gap tape on their cowls, warming up their engines.

And I suddenly felt painfully alone. Isolated. Left out.

It’s the first race I’ve missed since racing took over my life. I didn’t think it would get to me so badly. I had no way of knowing what was happening. Did all the planes show? What were the winds like? Did my competitor happen to have the same bad luck I did?

I was bluer than my race shirt.

There’s no fast news out of a SARL race. It’s not like we’re on Fox Sports or anything. As the minutes and hours crawled by, I awaited news from the race, checking my email every five minutes to see if one of my buddies would give me the scoop. I tried to read to while away the time. Finally, I cracked open a bottle of wine.

Rather early in the day.

In the end, I was so stressed out I actually fell asleep in a comfy chair in our library. I never sleep during the day. Unless I’m sick. But, I guess in a way I’m as sick as my plane.

And I doubt I’ll get fully well again until Tessie does.