Snakes on a Plane 2

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OK. I confess. It wasn’t on the plane. But it was snakes this time. Well, one snake, anyway.

As you might recall, our airport is built on a wildlife sanctuary. Not a bonafide official one, but a for-all-intents-and-purposes one. We have deer, coyotes, rabbits, lizards, turtles, and birds of every feather from crows to quail to vultures. And—I had been warned a year or two ago—rattlesnakes, although I had yet to see one.

That changed one fine day recently, and this is the tale:

I drove down to Santa Rosa to prep the plane for an upcoming mission. I parked right in front of the towering hangar doors, got out of the hotrod, and unlocked the padlock. I opened the latch and gave the left door a shove. With a metallic groan, the door rumbled open. Suddenly I heard the telltale dry rattle that all desert dwellers recognize: Rattlesnake.

I froze.

I froze not because I’m afraid of rattlesnakes, but because—kid you not—the best way to get bitten by one is to step on it; and I knew I was close to stepping on this one because rattlesnakes only rattle when they feel threatened, and they don’t feel threated unless you are about to step on them.

Then all was silent. I scanned both sides of the door. No sign of the snake. I gingerly stepped back, reached as far out as I could, and nudged the door. Again the rattle of dry bones in dead leaves, and then the snake slithered out from under my door where it had been resting in the shade.

He, or maybe she, I don’t know how to tell, was smallish as rattlers go. Not even a yard long, and slender. Its head was shaped like a triangle, it had dark diamonds on its brown back, and a raccoon-like tail. It was a Western Diamondback. They’re the most common rattler in my neck of the woods, and have a reputation for being the most ill tempered of the rattlesnake family.

Some people kill rattlers on sight, but I bear them no ill will. They have the same right to space on the planet as I do, and given appropriate respect, they are no danger. And of course, this snake posed zero risk to my airplane. In fact, it was probably hunting mice, which if they move into an airplane, can cause a great deal of damage. On the other hand, the damn rattlesnake is poisonous, so it’s not my first choice for pest control.

The bottom line was I wasn’t interested in killing this one, but I sure didn’t want it in my hangar, either.

The snake was still, tail toward the hangar door, about a foot away. I could ignore it and it would most likely go on its way. But there was always a chance that it might decide to move into the hangar. The way our doors work, it was unlikely that the snake could get inside when they are closed, but when they are wide open there is nothing to stop it, and I didn’t want to spend all day with one eye on it, nor did I want to chase it around the hangar if it came in to enjoy my shade.

I decided to shoo it off.

I fetched a broom and started thumping the ground behind its tail to encourage it to mosey on its way.

The snake stayed glued to the spot. I poked it with the broom but rather than flee it snapped itself into a coil and faced me, ready for a fight. I know that, when coiled, a rattler can strike about a third of its length; and although it was a small one, I went back into the hangar for a longer broom, determined to sweep this stubborn snake somewhere else. But as soon as I gave it a push the snake changed strategy. It bolted for the half-open door and slithered under it again where I couldn’t see it.

This was not working out the way I planned.

I set down the broom. I’d have to open the door fully and get serious with this snake. I started to push. There was a frantic rattling and the door hesitated. I shoved harder and the rattling stopped abruptly, then the door moved smoothly. As it slid open I discovered the poor snake, neatly be-headed by the door’s wheels, a feat I couldn’t have accomplished intentionally had I tried to set it up.

I felt a tiny bit badly. It wasn’t my intention to kill the snake. But I also felt a bit of relief. Now I didn’t have to worry about a rattlesnake in the hangar.

Or a snake in the plane.

 

The sad truth of the Lindbergh “we”

We’re in Miami, Oklahoma, and I’ve never been so lonely in my life. That’s because the “we” is just Tess and me. And she’s not even with me, actually. She’s snug in a hangar out at the airport and I’m stuck all by myself at the Hampton Inn under low grey skies that mimic my mood.

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This trip has been going downhill since before it started.

It was supposed to be a father-son adventure across half of the county to run a race out over the islands of Lake Erie, but Rio fell ill and didn’t feel recovered enough to make the long trip. Lisa, Rio’s normal flight crew substitute, had other commitments; and Debs wasn’t going to leave her sick baby’s side—so I was on my own.

Oh, well, I told myself, it’s only for a few days. But I never made it to the race, and the few days grew to a week. And more. Engine problems stranded me for days far from home, and once fixed, I still couldn’t go home. A replacement cylinder needs to be broken in, and this obligates me to remain at low altitude. Solo with only the plane for company, “we” are following the rivers of the Midwest ever southward toward the Gulf of Mexico, and it feels like the plane and I have been away from home for years.

Actually, flying solo is oddly restful. Planes do make good company in flight. They talk to you and require your attention. They are also fun to be with. But on the ground, at the end of the day, the fun ends.

I take my meals by myself, with only my phone for company. How pathetic — checking email two dozen times waiting for my entree. I explore new communities off the beaten path, visit tiny museums, poke my head into funky shops. But with no one to share the experiences with, they are all empty adventures. This lonely journey makes me realize that aviation is sweetest shared.

I hope it’s a long, long time before I have another flight where “we” is just the plane and I.

 

Mechanic school

Each shard of metal is ever so slightly curved. There are dozens of them lying on the table. I push them around with my fingers, getting burnt, black, nasty oil on my hands. A bit at a time, like assembling a jig saw puzzle, I recreate the ring of metal the shards once formed.

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“Yep,” says the mechanic cheerfully, “I’d say that was your problem.”

Myself, I’m somewhere between horrified and relieved. I’m horrified that this string of broken pearls came from inside my engine; while I’m relieved that approving an expensive cylinder replacement wasn’t money wasted.

Remember that weird oil thing I wrote about a few weeks ago? Right after that Tess went in for major maintenance, and my crew could find nothing wrong. But within four hours of writing that rather large check for preventative maintenance, I was making another quasi-emergency landing with redline oil pressure. Followed by another. You can read all about that adventure over at General Aviation News, but in a nutshell, things went from fine to worse in record time.

Hidden under the cowl, deep inside the front right cylinder, the piston rings were giving out. At my annual, right before this flight, all the cylinders had compressions in the 70s, which is regarded as healthy. Six hundred miles later, the front-right was at 30 and was pronounced dead on arrival by the lead mechanic at Springfield Flying Service. It gave virtually no advanced warning. It just died.

The autopsy actually raised more questions than it answered. Two of the four rings were fractured, allowing oil to flood up into the cylinder. That said, other than the oil loss, there was little to show for it. Against all odds, the cylinder was still working and the plugs weren’t fouled, which they should have been, given the 1.5 quarts of oil per hour the cylinder was guzzling. The innards of the cylinder showed exposure to extreme heat, the parts being “cooked,” according the mechanics. But I’ve never abused the engine. And if it were cooked in the past, how did it last so long? Questions without answers.

But speaking of questions and answers, laid bare and torn open, I was able to see more of Tessie’s engine than ever before. And more. I got a guided tour through her inner workings while serving as official wrench holder for the mechanic replacing the cylinder. I spent an entire day giving what (little) help I could—hold this, please hand me that… no, the one to the left—and learning. I got to meet the push rods. Saw the cams. Touched the valves.

I’ll never be a mechanic. I don’t have the right kind of mind for it. But this one day of mechanic school opened my eyes in a new way to what’s happening under the hood.

And that will make me a better pilot.

 

An evil forecast

The only light in my house is the glowing computer screen. The sun won’t rise for another hour and a half, and I don’t want to wake anyone up. I enter my username and password, and quickly type in details about my flight. I’m set to leave for the airport for a 1,200 mile cross-country flight in fifteen minutes, and I’m double checking the weather to see how much it’s changed since I went to bed.

I take a sip of bold, dusky coffee while I wait for the briefing to load.

Wind. Everywhere wind. Strong. I knew that would be the case. I’d even changed my flight plan to choose fields whose runways aligned better with the torrents that were spilling across the plains from a massive high pressure system above the Rockies into the gaping jaws of a monster low over the Midwest. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an Airmet about wind.

Airmet stands for Airmen’s Meteorological Information. It’s a non-regulatory bulletin whose purpose is to alert pilots to weather that can affect flight safety. Weather needs to be pretty nasty to rate an Airmet, so when Airmets speak, wise pilots listen.

This one cautions about sustained surface winds in excess of 30 knots across my entire flight path. That translates to nearly 35 miles per hour, enough to make landings dicey and ground handling difficult. Still, by itself, it’s no reason not to go. Tessie is about as wind-proof as light airplanes get, her design letting her take on winds that would flip most other small planes.

But there’s more. Another Airmet alerts me to moderate turbulence. That makes sense. Winds tearing along the surface act like water. As they crash into obstacles on the ground, the currents of air splash high into the sky. Strong winds on the surface almost always cause a rough ride above it.

So the flight will be unpleasant, but, still, not un-doable.

The Airmet tab on my weather briefing shows there is yet one more warning. I slide my mouse up and to the right and click on it. It’s a LLWS warning. I stare at it. I’ve never seen one before, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what LLWS stands for.

Isn’t an LLWS some sort of licensed social worker?

I open up the Airmet to read it. Low Level Wind Shear. Ah. Nasty piece of business. Shear happens when the wind dramatically changes in speed or direction between two altitudes. It can be so abrupt it can cause your wing to momentarily stop flying. Near to the surface shear is dangerous as hell, and has even brought down airliners.

And the Airmet isn’t just calling for LLWS in one place. No. The LLWS warning is for hundreds of miles and includes two of my fuel stops.

I lean back in my chair. Is this flight a good idea?

High winds. Turblance. Wind shear. It’s not exactly the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but it’s a lot to contend with on one flight.

I take another sip of coffee. The car is packed. I’m ready to go. Eager to go, in fact. I’m race bound, and I know my desire to make the race has the potential to interfere with my aeronautical decision making. I have no doubt that I can make the flight. Still, that’s not the right way of thinking about it.

The right way of thinking about it isn’t can I make this flight, but should I make this flight?

If I were the last pilot alive and the plague serum needed to be delivered, I’d succeed. In fact, in that scenario I’d risk worse. But it will be a difficult and stressful flight. And if I’m honest with myself, if I was just going to fly for fun, I’d stay home today. Of course, if you only fly when the weather is perfect, you won’t fly much, and certainly not far. I’ve invested a lot of time, money, and effort into the racing…

But I’ve given myself three nice-length days to make the flight. I still have the option of doing it in two longer ones.

I check the forecast for the next two days. It’s much… calmer.

I consider a bit longer, then I get up, go into the flight lounge, pull my flight shirt off over my head, and place it back on a hangar. The sky will still be there tomorrow.

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And it will be a lot more friendly.

 

Emergency Landing

The quiet is… eerie. Gone is the familiar dull roar of the engine. The only sound is the wind whispering over the canopy.

I pull the carb heat lever. No dice. I check the fuel shut off to ensure it didn’t get bumped. It didn’t. I try to restart the engine. It’s dead as a doornail. I pitch the plane for her best glide speed—the magic number that’s supposed to give me the longest range for my height—and I’m headed down.

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I have time. Minutes, anyway, because I was flying a lot higher than usual. But not high enough to reach the airport. It looks like I’ll be doing an “off field” landing; which is an odd way of saying that I’m going to land in a farmer’s field. Or on a country road. Or on any other friendly-looking flat spot.

I quickly scan the horizon. What are my options? Below us, and to my left, it’s solid trees. Suicide. Off to my right, a couple of miles East there’s flat land as far as the eye can see. But it’s too far away to really be sure how smooth the ground is. Plus I’m not sure I can glide that far, and if I can’t, I’ll be in those suicidal trees.

Not far ahead there’s a clearing. It’s a cloudy day, I have no shadows to judge how smooth the surface really is, but it shows every sign of being hospitable. That’s my spot. I commit to it. No turning back now.

I bank gently to the left and glide parallel to the field, my prop gently wind milling, silent still. I fly past the field, dropping, dropping, dropping toward the ground.

The field behind me, I bank right and wheel the plane around to line up for a landing. Crap. I’m too high. I dump some flaps. Then some more. Then all I have. The descent steepens but it’s not going to be enough. At this rate I’ll touch down at the tree line on the opposite side of the field.

“What do you think?” asks my copilot Michael.

“I think I’m too damned high,” I reply.

“Yeah. I agree,” he says, with Zen-like calm, “any ideas on what you could do about that?”

“I could do a slip,” I said, “…if I remembered how to.” Years of flying the unique Ercoupe has come back to bite me in the ass in this new airplane. Ercoupe flying, with its interconnected rudders and ailerons is both incredibly simple and incredibly complex, and flying a Coupe well takes a different set of skills than flying a conventional airplane well. I’ve gotten very good at flying Ercoupes, and apparently, very bad at flying anything else.

“Opposite rudder and aileron,” Michael reminds me. Immediately, I pull the stick to the right and mash my left foot to the floor. The little white plane twists oddly in the sky, then responding to the huge increase in drag from being forced to fly slide sideways without power, drops like a rock. The ground rises up toward us. I’m pleased to see that the surface is excellent for an emergency landing.

I’m not so pleased to see we’re two-thirds of the way across it.

“That’s close enough,” says Michael, and he leans forward and pushes the throttle to the firewall. The engine springs back to life. I ease the stick back. Our descent slows. Then stops. We’re still well above the field. I fly over it, studying the ground, pleased with my choice. If I hadn’t been too high, and had this been a real emergency, we could have landed safely there.

What? You thought I’d really lost an engine? Oh dear, no. Sorry to have misled you. It’s that time of the calendar again: The simulated emergency was part of my every-two-years Flight Review.

Here’s how that works: Once you have a pilot’s license, it’s good forever. Well, until you die, anyway. Once a pilot, always a pilot. The license, formally called a certificate by the FAA, has no expiration date. But (there’s always a but) that doesn’t mean you are free to actually use your license. Bear with me. To serve as the pilot in command of any airplane, you have to have had something called a flight review within the last 24 calendar months. My last one was this month in 2015. So that’s why I was up with a flight instructor getting a mental and physical workout.

I ease back on the stick, retract the flaps, and we start to climb out. It’s good to hear the thrum of the engine again.

But this is why we train. Because someday the silence up front may be for real.