Alien Octopus

Let’s see… the clutch is the one on the left. I rest my right foot on the brake, push the clutch to the floor with my left, fiddle with the stick for a moment to make sure the battered white truck is in first gear not third, then slowly lift my left foot while moving my right foot to the accelerator.

For a guy who flies an airplane with no rudder pedals, it’s a lot of footwork.

“Don’t pop the clutch in front of the guys,” Lisa teases me from the backseat, “you’ll ruin your reputation as a national champion racer.”

I shoot her a dirty look in the rearview mirror then gently pull out of the parking lot and out onto Aviation Drive without embarrassing myself. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve driven a stick. They say it’s like riding a bike, but it’s been more than quite a few years since I’ve been on one of those things, too. “Nice work, Dad,” says Rio from shotgun.

And with that, the Three Musketeers are off on another loony adventure.

Out on the highway I work my way up through the gears. Third. Fourth. Fifth. I settle in at 60 miles and hour and look in the mirror to see how our cargo is riding. Sticking up out of the bed of Lisa’s “ranch truck” is the brass-colored oval oil sump of our up-side-down Continental C-85 engine. It looks like some sort of alien creature looking in the back window of the crewcab pickup. “How’s our cargo doing?” I ask.

To save a few bucks, which will be less than drops in this particular bucket, we’ve elected to deliver our old engine from our mechanics in Santa Fe up to Alamosa, Colorado—140 miles due north—where the shop of the master rebuilder is located. The engine is oddly shaped so my guys decided to drop it into Lisa’s truck up-side-down. They put three worn out airplane tires in the bed, rolled the engine crane over, gently lowered the engine, tilting it downwards so that it rested on the prop hub, then pushed it over on its back, the top of the engine resting on the three tires. We then used Tessie’s traveling tie-down straps to secure the engine into the bed.

Lisa turns her head to study our cargo. “Looks good,” she reports, “but if the aliens invade they’ll think we captured their leader. Then we’ll really be in trouble.” And she’s right. The inverted Continental looks remarkably like some sort of alien octopus. The oil sump only needs eyes and a mouth to be fully animated, the tubes that hold the push rods looking like arms leading down to the coiled tentacles of the cylinders.

Well, I guess with only four arms it’s an alien quadropus, not an octopus.

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It’s a warm summer day and the truck’s recently repaired air con has conked out again. We roll down all the windows and keep our speed low so we can hear ourselves think. Impatient Texans roar around us. The view is splendid and the day cools as we climb up into the southern reaches of the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square mile basin a mile and a half above sea level. Ringed by mountains that rise to above 14,000 feet, the valley is home of the Great Sand Dunes and potato and barley farmers. If you’ve ever drunk Coors beer, odds are the barley that made it came from the San Luis Valley.

By mid afternoon we roll into the parking lot of the Alamosa airport to drop off our cargo. They let us in the security gate and linemen use airplane-parking hand signals to guide Lisa, who took over as pilot-in-command at the Colorado border, as she backs the pickup into the hangar, gently navigating between a tug and a Mooney. One lineman slowly raises his hands above his head until his arms form an “X” and Lisa shuts down.

In no time the old engine is unloaded from the back of the truck and bolted prop-plate-down onto a rolling stand, ready for the dismantling process to begin.

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Parts of the old engine will be moved to the “new” one. Some will be rebuilt, others discarded and replaced. Still at least some of the soul of the engine that drove us to victory in a World Speed Record and a season of Air Racing will live on in the new engine.

I like that.

Speaking of the “new” engine, I was keen to see it. The rebuilder, a solid, compact man with a grey mustache, lined face, and short-cropped hair hidden under a camouflage baseball cap was surprised at first by the request but quickly warmed up to the idea and gave us a complete tour of his shop, showing us the used case we’d ordered to speed up the process. As far as any of us knew, there was nothing wrong with our old case (although there could be), but the new-to-us one wasn’t that much money in the greater scheme of things, and it bought a lot of time.

I guess I was expecting a dirty, oily, scratched up case painted in “Continental Gold” color. Instead I was greeted by softly glowing aluminum. The two halves of the case had been spit open and stripped down to bare metal, looking fresh off the assembly line, not like objects that date from the 1950s.

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The master builder was pleased with the case, saying it was one of the better ones he’d ever seen, which in turn made me more than pleased with the course of action I had chosen. Then he showed us the brand new crankshaft, the retooled connecting rods, and the new pistons.

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We’re using a Supplemental Type Certificate process to place newer 0-200 engine parts into a C-85 crankcase. It’s done simply for parts availability, but many owners report more power as a result. Rio asks questions about the differences in the parts and we’re told that the new crankshaft is slightly wider than the old one, giving the engine a deeper stroke, resulting in more displacement. “The hot rod crowd calls engines like these strokers,” the master builder tells us.

I’ve heard the muscle car crowd talk about stroker engines, but I was completely clueless about what it met, other than it sounded cool and maybe had something to do with power.

“So we’ll have the airplane version of a stroker engine?” I ask.

The master builder thinks about it for a moment, then a hint of a smile tugs at the edge of his lips. His blue eyes twinkle. “I guess you will, at that.”

From alien octopus to hot-rod engine. That sounds like a worthwhile upgrade to me.

 

…and then

The phone rang. OK. It wasn’t the phone. It was an email. And it didn’t ring. It bonged.

It just sounds more dramatic to say the phone rang.

So at the height of my recent engine crisis I emailed everyone I knew asking if they knew what happened to Don’s Dream Machines and if they knew of anyone who might be able to help me out.

One of my trusted wrench turners emailed me two URLs. I clicked on the first one and it was a Continental shop, which makes sense as we run a Continental under the cowl. I fired off an email to them explaining my predicament and what I was after.

I never heard back from them.

When I clicked on the second link it took me to a Lycoming shop—the other large maker of airplane engines. I wondered why on earth my contact would send me there, but fired off the same email to them and proceeded to descend into complete panic.

That night, I got a strange email. It was from a guy named Ken that I didn’t know, the subject line was Race 53, and it contained only one sentence: “William, are you running a c-85 engine now, not a c-90 or 0-200?”

Weird, I thought. Maybe it was a curious reader. Or maybe the spreading grapevine got word of my plight. But either way the writer deserved an answer, so I fired off a one-word reply and forgot all about it.

The next day, after I had committed to the plan of action with a second engine case and some new parts that I told you about last week, I got an email at lunch. It was from a guy named John, who said he’d been talking to the guy named Ken, who supposedly had been talking to me. Well, I guess the exchange of 14 words in two emails is a conversation nowadays. Anyway, John’s email had a sig file that showed he worked for the Lycoming outfit that I had emailed.

Ah-ha! Now the pieces were coming together. Anyway, he had a few questions and wanted to know my target date. I’d already decided on a course of action, but it’s always a good idea to keep all options open, plus he had taken the time to write, so he deserved the dignity of a reply.

I answered his questions and told him I needed the engine yesterday.

He was kind enough to respond to that, saying that yesterday wasn’t really an option, but that “we might be able to put something together fairly quickly” and to let him know if I wanted him to keep pursuing it.

I wrote back to ask what his definition of “fairly quickly” was.

Later than evening, I was briefing Rio on all that went on that day and he was questioning the wisdom of a Lycoming shop building a Continental engine for us, so we went to their website for the first time since I flashed on to use their contact page to email them.

In my haste I had misread. They weren’t Lycoming.

They were Ly-Con.

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And as we explored their website I was blown away. Their customer list is a virtual who’s who of air racers and airshow performers. Everyone who’s anyone seemed to be there. Reno Racers. Red Bull Racers. The nation’s top airshow performers.

“Holy crap,” said Rio.

This all-star engine shop was talking to me about building an engine for Race 53, and I was hardly giving them the time of day.

“I’ve been a dick,” I said to Rio.

“I want them to build our engine,” said Rio.

I sat down and wrote a nice email outlining what I needed in detail. As I did I worried more about what it would cost than how long it would take. Then I fired off a second email to my mechanic—stop the presses! Don’t order those parts just yet. I might have another option.

That was Thursday night. To make the deadline work on the second case option my guys cooked up, the parts had to be ordered on Monday.

At 6:00 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:05 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:10 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:15 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:20 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

At 6:25 a.m. on Friday, I checked my email. Nothing from Ly-Con.

We finally made contact at 10:10 a.m. I told John my predicament on the deadline and my need to make a decision by day’s end. He promised a quote by 5 p.m.

It never came.

It was the weekend, so I figured I could hold off a bit. Monday rolled around. I waited until noon. Then until three. Finally I had to make a decision. I sure liked the sound of Ly-Con, but at the same time, if they can’t keep a promised deadline on a quote, how can I trust them to honor a deadline on an engine rebuild? I called my regular team and told them to order the parts.

We’ve crossed the Rubicon once and for all. We’re going with the second second-hand case from the Ercoupe “junk yard,” and brand-new 0-200 guts, all assembled by a shop in Colorado.

 

Floods, cars, boats, helicopters… and airplane engines

This is how I heard the tale:

It was a storm of biblical proportions. The radio said the storm of the century. Leave your homes. Head for high ground.

The Good Christian sat on his front porch and watched the pounding rain. Watched the muddy river swell and rise. Overflow its banks. Swamp the road. Gurgle up over the gutter. Envelop his sidewalk.

And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Down the road came a Sheriff’s Deputy in a brown patrol car, its red lights flashing through the downpour, water nearly to the top of its wheel wells. The Deputy rolled down his window and shouted to the Good Christian: “Get in the car. I’ll save you.”

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, I can’t make you go,” said the Deputy, and he drove off into the deluge.

The waters rose. The Good Christian took refuge on his second floor. And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Across the angry muddy waters that now rose to his second story windowsill came the Coast Guard in a small motorboat. “Get in the boat. We’ll save you,” called the crew.

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, we can’t make you go,” said the crew, and they motored off into the rain.

The waters rose. The Good Christian took refuge on his roof. And he prayed: Lord save me from the flood.

Out of the angry sky came a National Guard helicopter. The giant olive-drab machine hovered over the roof of the Good Christian’s house, the mighty blades beating back the torrents of rain, its engines drowning out the thunder. And the crew shouted: “Get in the helicopter. We’ll save you.”

And the Good Christian replied, “I’m a Good Christian. God will save me.”

“Well, we can’t make you go,” said the National Guardsmen, and the helicopter rose up and disappeared into the storm.

The waters rose. The roof was awash. The Good Christian retreated to the top of the chimney, but the waters rose again and swept him away, and he drowned.

At the gates of heaven the Good Christian met God. “I believed in you,” wailed the Good Christian, “I had faith in you. I prayed to you to save my life. Why did you let me drown in the flood?”

And God sighed, exasperated, and ticking off the count on his fingers, said, “I sent a car. I sent a boat. I sent a helicopter. What more did you want?”

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What does all of that have to do with me? Well, I’m pretty sure I ignored the car, and I almost sent the boat away, too. Of course my flood is subtler than the swirling muddy waters that drowned the Good Christian, but for some reason the tale came back into my head recently.

Ah, where to start…

I am, bar none, the world’s foremost expert in Ercoupe ownership. Unfortunately, that wasn’t true I first bought one. So please don’t judge me too harshly when I tell you that I bought an airplane that didn’t have complete logs. In my feeble defense, we had had the extraordinarily rare bad luck of being involved in another almost-purchase in which the logs turned out to be forged, so at the time I didn’t have much faith in the paper that goes with the plane, and put more stock in a good inspection. (Which as it turns out, we didn’t get, either.)

I’m telling you this now because you need to know that the history of our engine is a bit of a mystery. We’re not 100% sure how many hours are on it, or when it was last rebuilt. It may be the original engine from 1947. The only thing we know for sure is that the engine is overdue for an overhaul. I’ve known this for a while, but had convinced myself that I could make it through the race season this year and worry about it later.

Then Springfield happened.

Two days ago I was finally back in Santa Fe where most of our maintenance happens. At least our not-broken-down-in-the-field maintenance. I was there for an oil change on the new cylinder and to get a few minor squawks fixed before the next round of races, and the guys wanted to see the pictures I took of the bad cylinder. It was partly professional curiosity, partly injured pride. You see, that cylinder “laid down” three operational hours after they gave it a clean bill of health.

After studying the images, they came to the conclusion that the cylinder was so old it was basically crumbling to dust. The senior mechanic said, “For all we know, these date from the 1950s.” A hair over a year ago one of the other cylinders cracked and had to be replaced. Now a second one collapsed. How much longer before the final two failed? And would they Go West quietly? Or, quite literally, with a bang? And it’s not just cylinders. What about the guts of the engine? The crank and cam shafts, buried deep inside the case out of sight, what sort of shape are they really in? And the bearings that hold them in place and let them move? Oil analysis hasn’t given us any hints of trouble, but… Well, everything about the engine is very old, and we’re asking a lot of it.

The more junior mechanic pulled me aside and said, “If it were my plane, I’d do a major overhaul. Right now.”

Easy for you to say, I thought. Airplane mechanics are paid better than writers, and you have both the expertise and the license to do much of the work yourself.

But the real problem is time. An engine rebuild, called a major overhaul, or MOH, takes months. Time I don’t have. “Not in the middle of race season,” I told him, without another thought.

He was silent for a minute, then said, “You know, if you were just going up and puttering around, or going to the next airport for a $100 hamburger, this would be OK. But not for the kind of flying you do. You guys fly a lot, and far, far away. And the racing is high performance.”

“I’ve invested too much in this season to lose,” I said.

Again he was silent for a minute, then softly said, “Maybe you need to rethink your priorities.”

Get in. We’ll save you from the flood.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I spent an hour picking both their brains, and by the time I drove home, I was feeling like I was playing Russian roulette with my two remaining cylinders. Was the Springfield the boat or the helicopter?

I was facing up to the fact that I needed to do something about Tessie’s engine.

Of course, all my options were bad. One option was that I could just hope for the best and replace anything that broke when it broke. But I fly with my 15-year-old son. I’m not as good a father as I’d like to be, but I don’t want harm to come to him, or to leave him without a father.

I was now spooked enough that the fix-it-as-we-go option was out.

I could just replace the two old cylinders with new ones to get through the race season. They’d be trashed when the MOH came, which couldn’t safely be put off much beyond the end of the season, but it would keep us in the races—unless something failed deeper in the crankcase. Proactively replacing the cylinders would cost four or five thousand bucks. Money, I decided, better put toward the larger bill for a MOH.

My next option was to replace the engine entirely with one that was already overhauled. A bit more expensive, but faster. And there was only one place to go for the best ready-to-hang engine: Don’s Dream Machines. He had a stellar rep in the biz, but he was also missing in action. His website was gone, and the two phone numbers I had for him had been disconnected.

Our engine is not rare, exactly, but not common, either. I emailed all my contacts, but no one knew of anyone who had a quality rebuilt ready to hang.

My lead mechanic put his mind to how to cut time off the project, and came up with two options. First, he located an engine that was purported to be relatively low time, but was missing its logs. It was only $4,000 and could be put on Tessie quickly. Even though it was his idea, he was lukewarm about it, as was I. It seemed to me that we’d just be trading one set of mystery troubles for another. And again, pissing away money that would just have to be spent again. My mechanic was of the opinion that it would be OK for the light flyer, but that we really needed a properly overhauled engine for the kind of flying we do.

His second option was to find a second crankcase (this is the shell of the engine) and then buy, brand new, a bunch of the parts that go into it. Normally, the rebuild shop takes your old engine apart and tries to refurib as many of the innards as possible. My guy’s thinking was that most of the parts in our engine are at, or near, the end of their service lives anyway, and that just “going new” would save time.

Of course it would cost more. Or maybe not. The price quoted for the MOH was the minimum, assuming everything inside the case could be refurib’d. Anything that couldn’t be would need to be replaced, adding both time and money.

I became convinced that the second case option was the best choice of a bad lot. I OK’d the plan. The empty crankcase with full logs was ordered from one supplier. A new crankshaft, connecting rods, and pistons from another. New cylinders will shortly be on their way to the rebuild shop.

How much time will it save? Two weeks, at best. We were still looking at 4-6 weeks. I stared at my calendar for a long time. I didn’t have a hole that big. Summer was filled with the Ercoupe national convention, AirVenture, and four races.

I was going to have to rethink my priorities.

Tess missed last year’s national Coupe gathering, and this year I’m the keynote speaker. I really felt that I need to show up in a Coupe, plus a lot of readers are keen to see Tessie in the flesh. And it’s only a few weeks down the road. We really can’t get started on the rebuild that fast, anyway. Of course, my family’s freaked out now. The plane that only yesterday was a bullet-proof magic carpet, today is a deathtrap. Finally, we agreed that I’d fly out solo to reduce any theoretical risk to others, and also so I could cruise higher to give me a greater glide range should the worst happen. Plus, this is cruise flight: Not high performance balls-to-the-wall racing. The strain on the old engine will be minimal.

When I get home from the convention, we’ll pull the engine—missing the 20th running of the AirVenture Cup, as well as a Georgia race and the Indy race—while a “new” engine is created Frankenstein-like from parts old and new. We’re shooting for having Race 53 ready to run the last race of the summer, in Urbana, five weeks after pulling the engine. It’s a goal, but I’m not holding my breath. Worst-case scenario, I’ll be back in action for the fall races, the last seven of the season.

Or maybe not.

Because the future of our race season will depend on how much this really ends up costing, and how many points my competitor Charles Cluck is up on me by then. In my book, if there’s no chance of winning, there’s no point in spending the money. But Cluck is an oddly honorable guy, which I’m not used to in a competitor. He already bowed out of one race when we broke down. But three? That might be too much to stomach, even for a man of high honor.

Of course, I’m riddled with doubt about my choices, and unsure I chose the right path. Perhaps I should have hung the used engine. Maybe I should have slapped on two more cylinders. Or is my path right, and my timing wrong? Maybe I should have skipped the Ercoupe gathering and pushed to have the new engine ready for the AirVenture Cup.

But despite all my second-guessing, I’m sure of one thing. I’m sure glad to be on the helicopter, looking down on the muddy waters below, instead of standing on the roof watching it disappear into the storm without me.