Test Pilot

When I was in flight school, I read Tom Wolfe’s classic novel The Right Stuff. It tells the entwined, but parallel, tales of the Mercury Seven and the test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base in the early days of jet plane development. The thing that impressed my barely post-teenage brain the most about test-flight work wasn’t the fast planes, the high risk, or the higher status; but rather it was the fact—according to Wolfe’s accounts—that women just flocked to test pilots. And not just any kind of women, if you know what I mean.

Right then and there, I decided to become a test pilot.

Of course it never happened. Not until yesterday.

After two and a half months in the shop, the Plane Tales Plane was ready for the air again. Well, maybe. So many things had been done to her that she needed someone to take her up and ensure that all was in proper order. In short, a test flight. And as I have more hours in her than anyone, I was the obvious choice as test pilot.

I didn’t expect a flock of chippies to magically appear and make my day, but I took my responsibilities seriously. Or at least I tried to. Time change having just arrived, it was unaccustomedly dark in my house at 5:30 in the morning as I headed to the airport, and I neglected to grab the notebook that had a carefully drafted flight log designed to make it easy to record observations and to ensure that I didn’t forget to check anything.

Still, I was able to borrow a clipboard from my mechanic and I set off with a tiny tickle of a thrill: Me! A test pilot! (Chest puffs up slightly.)

The sun was barely above the eastern mountains, and yet to warm the chilly ramp, as I did a through pre-flight inspection before mounting up. The step up to the wing was a stretch—new spacers in the landing gear have raised Tessie’s tails to the proper level. Old Ercoupes, like old women, sag over time. Unlike many planes, however, saggy landing gear actually changes the flight characteristics of the ‘Coupe. She’s designed to have a zero angle of attack on the ground, meaning the plane isn’t capable of flight until you lift the nose. Of course, if your gear is saggy, your nose is pre-lifted. It doesn’t make a world of difference on takeoff, but it matters when landing. The Coupe is designed to stay on the ground once you plant it there. This is especially important in crosswind landings.

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Slipping back into the cockpit after such a long absence was heavenly, like collapsing into a favorite comfy chair at the end of a long, hard day. I slid the new smoky grey doors closed above my head and fired up her engine, the throaty rumble music to my ears.

Oil pressure in the green arc, Mr. Test Pilot professionally notes.

While she warms up, I get familiar with my new GPS navigation radio, making sure it can talk to my iPad and smart phone. Then I plug in the remote for my wireless headset, turn the headset on, link the two devices, slide the headset over my head, carefully adjust the ear pieces, and then position the mike in front of my mouth, whereupon I realize I’ve forgotten to put on my hat.

I doubt this ever happened to Chuck Yeager.

I take the headset off and start over, this time with my hat on first. Soon, it’s time to fly. I’m at Santa Fe, which is a controlled airport, so the first order of business is to call ground control and get permission to taxi the plane from the maintenance shop to the active runway.

That accomplished, it’s time to fly.

Cleared by the tower, I pull onto Runway 15 and smoothly push the throttle to the firewall for full takeoff power. The plane has been completely “re-rigged.” Every control cable and rod has been adjusted. Also the trim system, a mechanism designed to relieve control pressures on the yoke, has been replaced. I expect the plane to handle differently, but I don’t know how that will manifest.

The Devil’s in the details. This is what being a test pilot is all about. It’s invigorating.

My speed picks up. 35 miles per hour. 40 miles per hour. 45… 50… 55…

Tess is showing no interest in leaving the ground. In the past, her nose reached to the heavens around 55 miles per hour.

60 miles per hour… 65… I’m not alarmed: I know with the tail at the proper height she should stay glued to the runway until I do something about it. I hit 70 miles per hour and I ease back on the yoke.

She jumps into the air. The runway drops beneath us. I ease back a little more on the yoke to increase our climb angle and the yoke sticks. My heart skips a beat. Then the yoke moves smoothly again.

Did I imagine it?

The tower instructs me to turn on course to make way for a commuter jet taking off on the other runway. I bank right. Tess’s left wing lifts smoothly into the deep blue sky, the entire motion silky smooth.

South and west of the airport I put the newly refuib’d plane through the paces. It’s bumpy as hell this morning, winds tumbling off the mountains are creating mechanical turbulence as they ricochet off the buttes and mesas in the foothills. My notes on the clipboard look more like Greg Shorthand than English.

But the new trim system is fabulous. By moving a lever on the left side of the cabin I can drop the plane into a dive or nearly stand her on her tail without using the yoke. With fine adjustments, I can make her hold a level altitude “hands off” while flying slow, at cruise, or at balls-to-the-wall race speeds.

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She’s still wing-heavy to the right however, so we still have an adjustment to make there. I jot some more notes in Turbulence Shorthand, then head back for the airport. The wind is brisk on the surface now, and the tower gives me my choice of runways.

Being a professional Test Pilot, I choose the more difficult of the two. Ercoupes are excellent crosswind planes, and now that my rigging is improved I’m eager to put it to the test. I do a descending arc over the city and line up to Runway 20. The wind is coming from my left. Like a weather vane, Tess cocks sideways into the wind. I descend toward the runway flying sideways. This is how it’s done in an Ercoupe. I’ll touch down at a crazy angle and the forward motion of the plane, combined with her trailing link landing gear, will neatly pirouette her around as I hit the pavement.

I’m coming down at my approach speed of 80 miles per hour, faster than most general aviation airplanes land. I make tiny power adjustments with the throttle to keep my descent speed at 500 foot per minute. As I close in on the runway I pull back on the yoke to “flare,” a nose-up maneuver that bleeds off the excess speed right before touch down and sets the plane up at the proper angle to touch down on her main landing gear first, with the nose wheel touching down second.

It won’t move. The yoke is stuck fast.

I pull with all my strength, but I might as well be one of the unworthy strongmen trying to free Excalibur from the stone. Before I can say, “Oh shit!” I slam into the ground. A spray of fuel bursts from the nose tank. The gear compresses, and like a spring, catapults me back into the air again.

With still no way to move my elevator and get my nose up, I fall flat a second time.

I’m fifty percent terrified, fifty percent humiliated, and 100% mystified.

After the plane finally bounces to a stop, the yoke moves freely back and forth again, smooth as silk. I taxi back to the maintenance shop, and on wobbly legs, dismount and walk in. “How’d it go?” the boys asked.

“The elevator froze on landing,” I replied. Immediate frowns. Then a bustle of activity. Tess is quickly pulled into the hangar. Off comes her tail cone. Out comes the seat to access the control cranks. Flashlights are fetched, mirrors on long poles are brought out to check far corners. I describe what happened and they all congratulate me on my fine flying skill.

It all happened so fast I can’t be sure I did anything to be congratulated about.

At the end of 45 minutes there are several theories, but no smoking gun. Some tweaks are made. Some parts lubricated. And then its time for another test flight.

But this one is different. This time I know something is wrong and I’m going up to try to reproduce it. A whole different type of courage is required to climb into a plane that you know is not quite working right, than it takes to climb into a mystery plane.

Teenage testosterone-fueled dreams aside, I don’t have the Right Stuff to be a test pilot. At least not every day.

Flocks of promiscuous girls or not.

 

Weather worries

I still don’t have an airplane. I’m frustrated, yes, but not worried. I’m confident my maintenance team will have me in the air in time for the first flight of the race season.

So it’s the weather that I’m worrying about.

Here’s why: Our first trip this season will take us out over the eastern plains of New Mexico, cut across the top of Texas, bisect Oklahoma, lob off the top of Arkansas, plow through the middle of Tennessee, and land us in western South Carolina. Then we’ll race through Georgia to central Florida. Homebound we’ll go up the gulf coast into Alabama, through Mississippi and Louisiana, and then angle home across the Lone Star State. All told, a nearly 3,000-mile, two-week journey that ropes in the first three races of the season.

By the time we get home from the first trip of the season, we’ll already be due for our first oil change.

It all looks simple enough on the big wall planning chart in our flight lounge. No tricky terrain. Easy-to-avoid military air space. Plenty of fueling options.

But the weather… Now that’s a different story. Weather is ever dynamic, ever changing. Especially over so long a course. I’m yet to see a day see a day when there wasn’t trouble somewhere along our planned route.

Of course, we’ll take it in baby steps. Carefully looking down-range a day at a time, with one eye on the next day. I have no real concerns. I know we’ll make it. I also accept the fact that there’s no way we’ll make it as planned. Although we’ve carefully marked out our fuel stops, planned where we think we’ll spend each night, and inquired about hangar space en route, I know the plan will fall apart in the teeth of the weather gods. We’ll have to deviate from our course. We may chase weather; it may chase us. We may have to set down and wait it out.

We might even get trapped somewhere.

Of course, that’s half the fun of flying by light airplane.

But still… I’m worrying about the weather…

 

Engineering a mystery

Engines have always been a mystery to me. They are strange boxes under the hood or wrapped in a cowl. I’ve never worked on one, and most of my life I’ve had only the vaguest notion of how they actually function. But now that we’re an airplane-owning family, some knowledge of how engines work is mandatory.

My mechanic has been patient with me. Showing me parts and reminding me, time and time again, what their names are. Slowly, ever so slowly, I’m beginning to understand. But as a visual learner, I have a hard time grasping things that I can’t see. And of course, the more of your engine you can see, the more your maintenance bill is going to be!

Rio to the rescue.

During a recent outing to a hobby store, Rio encountered a plastic see-thru engine model kit made by Haynes, who is also apparently the leading publisher of engine how-to-repair handbooks in the real world. The model kit was a hair pricy, but he was keen on it, and I had a flash of inspiration that this might finally give me the look inside an engine that I needed to really understand, not just the nuts and bolts, but how the parts relate to each other; and more importantly, how they dance with each other in a living, breathing engine.

The model came home with us.

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It’s a replica of a simple “straight four” internal combustion engine, not very airplane-like, but this is internal combustion kindergarten for us, so we judged it to be good enough. The model took us the better part of a day to build, but it wasn’t overly difficult. All the parts either snapped or screwed on. No glue and no paint!

The manual, which includes a six-page essay called, “How an Engine Works,” was nearly as educational as the model itself, always referring to the parts of the model as if they were real engine components. Pistons, connecting rods, a crankshaft, a sump pan, valve stems, rocker arms, a cam shaft and cams, even a cylinder head gasket!

Of course, beyond “piston,” this was all Greek to me.

Well, not quite Greek. All of these are words I’ve heard before in my life, but like incantations in some ancient magical tongue, they had no substance, no reality for me.

As the model started to come together I was amazed at the detail. The model’s designer must have had a real love affair with engines. There was even a dipstick for the oil level. But there’s more. The motor actually works. Well, in a simulated way. It’s battery powered, and when fired up all the parts of the engine move and run in concert with each other the way they would in a real engine. Electric lights flash in sequence to simulate spark plugs igniting, forcing the pistons downwards, rotating the crankshaft. The valves atop the pistons actually open and close as they would during the intake and exhaust strokes. It’s amazing.

Watching it in action, I was stunned. The internal combustion engine is so simple, and yet so mind-numbingly complex in the same breath. How on earth did humans ever develop such a thing in the first place? As you see it run, it all starts to make sense, but to develop this myriad of systems from scratch?

Sheer brilliance.

As I watched the plastic pistons ride up and down through the clear walls of the cylinder block, I envisioned the processes inside Tessie’s old Continental C-85. She too has a four cylinder engine, but of a very different design. Her cylinders, each a separate entity rather than all in one “block” lie flat, two on each side, and each is powered not by one spark plug, but two.

But each cylinder has two valves, just like our model, and her pistons connect to—and drive—her crankshaft, just like our model. Still, I was left wondering, as I watched the flickering lights simulating the sparkplugs on the model kit, what’s the firing order under Tess’s cowl?

I guess I’ll look for a model of an airplane engine…