Conundrum

The Law sayeth, “no person may act as a pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers unless that person has made at least three takeoffs and three landings within the preceding 90 days.” It’s called currency. Generally, I fly so much that I never need to give currency a second thought. But thanks to my ongoing engine rebuild saga, my logbook, just like my wallet, is quickly running out of currency.

My most recent flight was on September 3rd. But it only had one takeoff and one (emergency) landing. Prior to that, I need to go back to July 24th when I flew a rented Ercoupe back to its owners in Arkansas after the Air Venture Cup. Let’s see here, counting 90 days from July 24th gets me to… October 22nd.

Which is this coming Sunday.

Two days from now.

If by some miracle Tessie were put back together today (Ha!) I could grab my copilot and re-attempt the break-in flight. But otherwise, I have a legal problem.

Of course, it’s not an unsolvable problem. It’s just proving to be a dammed difficult one.

Here’s the tale: My mechanic isn’t a guy you can pin down on dates, and doesn’t understand the concept of a deadline. Things get done when they get done. I suspect his father and his grandfather worked for the Department of Motor Vehicles, or maybe the Post Office. Still, as of today, my Mark III engine—my laugh or cry nickname for the third attempt at getting my engine working—isn’t even on the test stand yet, much less on the airplane.

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Realistically, we’re looking at sometime around Thanksgiving before I have a (hopefully) airworthy airplane again.

At least we’ll have much to be thankful for this year.

But back to the law. The lack of the three landings doesn’t prevent me from flying solo. It’s just a restriction on carrying a passenger. The normal solution to this situation is to just jump into your airplane and do three quick takeoffs and landings while your passenger is unloading the luggage from the car.

But there’s nothing normal about my next flight. The plane will basically have a new engine. A new engine born and installed at high altitude, which is a problem for an aircraft engine. To break in properly, the engine needs to be run at high RPM and get to low altitude as quickly as its propeller can carry it there. About the worst thing I could do to it would be to make three takeoffs and landings in the first half hour of its life.

So doing a trio of touch-and-goes to start the day isn’t an option.

I decided the best solution was to rent some other plane and do the stupid takeoffs and landings and get current again before Tess was ready for testing. Now, before Tess joined the family I was checked out in an airplane in Santa Fe. Had I bothered to keep up with it, I could have just rented it for a half an hour and taken care of this on my own, but I’m so comfortable in Tess that I haven’t bothered to fly anything else for years, so that was out. I’d have to fly with an instructor.

It would be a little more expensive, but I didn’t expect any problems. I fired off an email to the flight instructor I fly with every two years for my flight reviews, told him what was going on, and asked for a mid-November flight.

He refused.

His logic was that I didn’t need to be current to fly solo, and he didn’t feel I shouldn’t have a “passenger” along on a post-major maintenance flight.

Seriously?

Well, let’s talk about that. In many ways, this is a test flight, because you just never know what might happen after major maintenance. Like the instructor, many pilots argue that you shouldn’t have another person in the plane with you for such a flight. Others point to reduced accident statistics for two-pilot flight testing. The whole issue was discussed over several dinners in my household. Poor Rio was voted off the island by all the adults in the first round. No children—not even mature talented aviator children—on a “test flight.” But another adult?

That was a trickier question.

At first, I was against it because I knew there was at least a theoretical risk involved. But my long-time copilot Lisa saw it in a different way, and made a compelling argument for Crew Resource Management and the value of two sets of eyes, two sets of hands, and two minds. In her opinion I was safer with her onboard than I was by myself, and in the end she was proven correct. And that experience hasn’t changed her mind about coming along for round two.

Nor mine.

But what to do to get current so it will be legal? I don’t want to get current in Tess once her engine is on and working, as I feel there is a risk of damaging the new engine. My regular go-to guy refuses to help, not wanting to be party to something he personally disapproves of—which while annoying, I actually respect. I don’t have any local pilot friends I could hitch a ride with, as ours is the only plane housed at our home airport. And several other crazy ideas I had either didn’t pan out, or—like traveling to Arkansas to rent the last Coupe I flew—were too expensive.

So now what?

Frankly, I don’t know. But, sadly, it looks like I have plenty of time to figure out how to get current, because currently Tess is nowhere near being ready to fly.

 

Visions of an empty future

My hangar, of course, is still empty. And it’s going to be that way for at least another month and a half. By the time I have our plane back, I’ll be out of currency and it will be illegal for me to take up a passenger until I’ve carried out three takeoffs and landings. How I’m going to work that into the minimize-the-landings-to-break-in-the-engine thing I don’t know. I may have to rent someone else’s plane before our test flight, just for the stupid takeoffs and landings. But I’ve yet to hear any updates from the mechanics, so that’s a problem for another day.

But back to the empty hangar.

On our way back from the STEM Expo I told you about last week, we stopped at the hangar to drop off our trophies and rubber chickens. It was strange, spending one day in a hangar teeming with noise, motion, and people—and the next day standing in quiet solitude in another hangar.

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But as I returned my trophies to their shelf, I had a stunning revelation. There’s going to be a lot more empty hangar in my future. And it makes me both happy and sad at the same time. Here’s the story:

For background, in case I never told you, the family plane isn’t mine. I’m her pilot, but the plane belongs to my mother. She originally bought it as an investment. Yeah, that didn’t work out too well, at least, not in the financial sense. But as an investment in fun and adventure for her, the payoff has been beyond all expectations. So my mother holds the title, and she has willed N3976H straight to my son Rio. I’m the trustee until he’s of age, but Tess goes from her to him.

I just keep the oil warm.

Mom is still alive and well and Rio is only fifteen, so I don’t give this much thought. At least I didn’t until this weekend. No, Mom is fine, but Rio—pretty much for the first time—is talking seriously about college. He has his eyes set on aeronautical engineering; a good fit for him, and a career field that’s going to be wide open for his age group. At the Expo he spent quite a bit of time talking to engineering students from the different colleges in the state. Prior to this weekend, he’d had his eye on the excellent (but pricy) Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. Embry-Riddle actually has a campus here in New Mexico, but the local campus is pilot training orientated; and while there are a number of mechanical engineering programs at the state universities, none focus as narrowly on aerospace as he’d like.

But he had an eye-opening conversation with one new graduate who’d discovered that he was unable to land a job because he didn’t have a master’s degree. This led to a conversation about an accelerated BS/MS program at one of our State’s universities that Rio liked the sound of. While not a full-fledged aerospace program, it had an option of an aerospace emphasis.

Rio and I chatted about it at dinner after the Expo. I told him that while I felt a more generalized course of study wouldn’t be as interesting, it had two advantages: It would give him more career options; and it might make him a better engineer, as he could bring a wider perspective to bear on a problem. As an afterthought I also told him if he was going to school instate, he could fly home with his dirty laundry each weekend in his Ercoupe.

His dark brown eyes lit up at the prospect.

Standing in the empty hangar the next afternoon it hit me: He’ll be off to college in three years. Hopefully, his grandmother—now 91—will still be alive at that point, but it’s only appropriate that he take his plane with him when he goes off to study aerospace engineering, whether or not he uses it to come visit his lonely empty nest parents on weekends. It will let him continue to build hours and experience, keep his awareness of the needs of pilots sharp, and is likely to make him (even more) popular with the ladies. Ah… to be young and to have an airplane of one’s own…

But when this happens, I won’t have a plane to fly anymore. At least not one waiting eagerly for me in my hangar, mine to fly whenever I choose.

In three short years, all my nests will be empty. Home, hearth, and hangar.

Will work for AvGas

I glared over the rim of my decaf, eyes not focused on the restaurant, but in my mind’s eye on the empty hangar we just left. “This,” I said definitively, “is why rich people have two airplanes.”

Mom and Lisa exchanged glances. They had been talking about the Silver Moon’s deep-fried cheesecake. It took their brains a second to shift gears back to aviation, which mine had never left. Lisa got there first. “So you have one to fly while the other one is in the shop?” she asked.

“Exactly,” I replied, setting the cup down with a bit more force than I’d intended to, slopping some of the dark liquid over the side. We’d come to SXU to pick up our airshow posters, a few of our trophies, and our rubber chickens. More on that in a minute. As the season is changing, with freezing nights ahead, we also drained the filter pods on the plane washing machine, unplugged and emptied out the hangar fridge, and—basically—winterized the place.

As there was just a splat of post-flight wine left in the fridge, we hung out when we were done and polished it off. Our hangar is really the ultimate pilot cave, walls covered with Ercoupe ads, articles, artifacts, and art. It has a relaxed come-and-hang-out vibe. Only one thing was missing.

An airplane.

Instead, right smack in the middle of the hangar was a huge chunk of nothing. When the plane dominates the space, there is a comfy margin around her for worktables and lounging chairs, but it’s cozy. With the plane absent, the space is awkward. Everything is crowded against the walls for no apparent reason. Out of years of habit, none of us even walked though the empty space that dominated the center of the hangar while we moved our cargo to Lisa’s 4Runner. Instead we walked around the void’s perimeter as if the center were sacred ground that could not be walked through on pain of death.

What’s up with the rubber chickens, you ask? Math. We’ve been asked to create a display at the fifth New Mexico Aviation Aerospace STEM Expo, the largest in the nation. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. STEM programs help prepare young people for the tech jobs of tomorrow, and to introduce them to the fields these jobs will dominate.

Actually, the Expo people originally asked if Race 53 could be displayed, but she’s sitting engineless in Santa Fe with bags of Quickrete holding her tail off the ground.

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So with the first choice unavailable, I, as second runner up (why is it I’m always coming in second?) was asked if I’d be willing to talk to the three thousand plus middle and high school students who are expected to attend this year. I agreed and asked the director if he wanted me to talk about the World Record, Air Racing, or aviation writing.

He said, “yes.”

But then I realized that nothing I do has a thing to do with STEM. I reviewed the info on the event. The executive summary read: “Attendees will directly interact with hands-on displays…” Not having a plane to display, I knew we had to come up with some good hands-on alternatives. Of course we have some dead instruments, a model of the plane, some maps and tools of the trade, but it’s our rubber chicken adventure that deployed the greatest use of STEM in our household. I figured we could talk about how we used math and the scientific method to jettison rubber chicken in flight and accurately hit a ground-based target.

STEM in action.

Actually, the chickens, like our trophies and the rest of “stuff,” are just along to attract attention. Once the students are engaged, I plan to point out that while record setting and racing aren’t good career paths, there are many good careers available in aviation that, while not actually earning a living flying a plane, would give a young person a good enough income to own and fly a plane of his or her own just for the joy of it. Just for the joy of setting records, racing, or throwing out rubber chickens. And what kinds of jobs would those be? Mechanics, avionics people, air traffic controllers, engineers, and maybe even people who write about aviation for a living.

But what I won’t tell them is that they need a job good enough to support two airplanes.

That can wait until they’re a little older.