First fire

It’s cold. Bone-chillingly cold. The wind whips the heat out of my black flight jacket as soon as the sun kisses it. My soul is cold, too. And I’m nervous. Tense. The muscles in my legs throb, my shoulders are tight. I’m standing on the tarmac in Santa Fe outside the maintenance shop, looking at Tessie and the naked engine bolted onto her nose. My mechanics, like me, are so unsure of this thrice rebuilt engine that they’ve done nothing more than the bare minimum installation to test it.

Then it’s time. Time for the first power test. My chief mechanic looks around to be sure we are all well clear, then he presses the starter button. Without a second’s hesitation, the new engine transforms from silent, cold metal parts to a living, breathing thing.

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He keeps the power low, letting the oil warm up, letting the moving parts stroke each other for the first time. I cock my ear to one side. There’s nothing quite wrong, really, but something’s not quite right, either. Rio leans toward me, “She sounds rough,” he shouts.

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Hmmm…. No. Not rough. More an absence of smooth. And an absence of the proper baritone. After a time, the engine is shut down. Various parts poked, prodded, and inspected. Then a second start. This time my mechanic slowly advances the throttle. Tess bucks and strains. Her tail quivers. The loose bottom cowl rattles in the slipstream of the prop. The volume increases as more and more power is fed to the engine. The prop is now a near-invisible grey disc.

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But I barely see it. My eyes are riveted to the black breather hose coming out the bottom of the engine. I wait to see if an ugly brown jet of oil will burst forth. I can’t tell whether or not the engine is at full power, but the wing tips are quivering. Still no oil.

Five seconds.

Ten.

Fifteen.

Now is when it should happen, if it’s going to.

Twenty-five.

Thirty.

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No oil. I lose track of the seconds. Still staring at the tube, I’m focusing on the sound of the engine, trying to conjure up the sound of the previous build attempt. Something’s different. It’s somehow more anemic. Something in the waves of sound coming off the front of the plane is less smooth. My legs throb. My shoulders are concrete.

Then the volume drops, steadily, steadily, steadily. Then silence, except for the wind. The prop becomes visible, spins two lazy rotations, then stops.

No oil.

I walk up to the cockpit as my mechanic slides the canopy down. I should be happy, I suppose. But I’m not. He doesn’t look happy either. “I could only get twenty three fifty out of it,” he says.

I don’t comprehend. Not until it’s spelled out to me. The previous two versions of this engine blew oil when the RPM hit 2,400. This engine isn’t generating enough power to prove it won’t do the same. My mechanic theorizes it’s the cold day. The atmosphere is thicker. The prop has to fight harder to slice though the air.

I don’t buy it.

“At least that’s better than the old engine ever gave us,” he adds helpfully. This stray fact does nothing to improve my mood. I’m cold, stressed, and depressed. I head back into the heat of the hangar to process all I’ve seen, heard, felt.

I’m bothered by the fact that this engine doesn’t seem as strong as the previous versions. Of course, those two were grossly defective. I suppose whatever mysterious aliment they suffered from may have made them abnormally powerful as a side benefit. If so, this is an improvement.

But it doesn’t feel that way.

Still, there’s nothing more we can do on the ground. Up in the sky, flying, we’ll get a higher RPM. We’ll have to take wing to see if the engine will start vomiting out its oil. Semi-retired, for the moment, as an air race pilot, I’m about to start my new career.

As a test pilot.

We talk protocol. What’s best for the engine vs. what’s safe, given all that’s transpired. I propose a 30-minute test flight, never leaving glide distance from the airport. My mechanic says he’d like something a little more conservative.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I was thinking more of just once around the pattern,” says my mechanic. I bow to superior experience. Not to mention the unspoken worries of the man I’m entrusting my life to.

So that’s the plan. Once the engine is fully re-installed, with its baffling, cowling, nose bowl, spinner, and all the rest, I’ll come back. I’ll take off. I’ll keep a hair low, with a slightly long downwind leg to try to get into full power cruise configuration, then land for inspection.

Hopefully Tess’s belly will be clean and dry. But if it’s slick with oil, based on the previous oil loss we’ve seen, she’ll still have some left in her sump. All things being equal, it’s a safe test. But I have zero trust in this engine, given all that’s transpired over the last five months. Still, the flight doesn’t scare me. It’s logical. Well considered. As safe as we can make it.

If that flight goes well, I’ll take a second hop. Maybe 30 minutes. Maybe 45. Again I’ll land for inspection. If she passes that test, then a ferry flight back home is in order. Depending on the wind, and what this new engine will really do, that’s an hour or an hour and a quarter. Then, and only then, will we undertake the break-in flight. Hopefully these extra flights won’t forever ruin the engine’s piston rings, but there’s no choice, given the events we’ve been though. Taking off cold for a break-in flight would be crazy.

Insane, even. And in hindsight, maybe it was all along.

And when will I feel confortable taking a passenger, or my son, up again? When, and only when, I trust the engine.

How long will that take? I don’t know. I suspect that as I walk up to my trusty steed, the muscles in my legs will throb, and my shoulders will be tight, for a long time to come.

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Sweet!

Check out the “mobile-friendly” version of my latest for FAA Safety Briefing. It’s got this cool cascading set of graphics between the text sections as you scroll through the article. What article, you ask? Link Trainer, to Desktop, to Redbird: The Evolving Role of Flight Simulation, which was part of the recent Sim City issue!

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The air race blues

Waves of heat pour out of the turbine’s giant twin exhaust pipes. The distinctive whine of the engine increases in pitch and the orange plane turns towards me, displaying her array of bright blue-white landing and anti collision lights.

The race is starting.

I didn’t make it off the ramp and back to race central in time. I tuck in next to the wing of a sad faded Comanche with flat tires to be sure I’m well clear of everyone’s props, and stand back to watch the show. One by one, the race fleet taxies by, a parade of power. The air quivers as spinning props shred it. It’s thrilling.

And thoroughly depressing.

The last race of the 2017 season is underway and, for the first time ever, I’m watching a Sport Air Racing League event from the sidelines. On the ground. Yeah, I’m still planeless. Well, not technically planeless. I still have a plane, it just doesn’t have an engine mounted on the front of it at the moment, so I drove to this event.

So why did I go to an air race if I can’t race? Well, it was the right thing to do. I’m still, believe it or not, the National Silver Champ for production airplanes despite missing a large chunk of the season. It would be bad form to not go and accept my trophy.

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The last plane passes, the pilot waving to me. I give him a thumbs up, then walk slowly across the tarmac to watch the fleet take to the air. They skim down the runway at 30-second intervals, lift off, turn right, and climb toward the course. One racer activates his smoke system, dragging an ash grey contrail behind him as he arcs up into the sky. It’s beautiful. I feel a pang of jealousy. I nearly succeeded in getting a smoke system, but last-minute problems meant it would have taken up more than half the luggage compartment, rather than being installed under the floor like I envisioned, and I couldn’t bring myself to lose that much utility for the sake of fun. Every great once and a while, I’m practical.

The last plane away, silence descends on the airport. I make my way back to Taylor’s Ford Hangar, where the race HQ is set up, to await the fleet’s return. All morning long a beehive of activity, the hangar is now nearly empty. Lonely. It was a great morning catching up with friends, colleagues, and competitors—most of whom I’ve not seen in many months. And it was wonderful being around airplanes again all morning. Soaking in their vibes, their varied lines, their smells, their sounds. But standing on the ground watching the action take off without me was hard. And now, shrouded in silence, my mood darkens to match the overcast sky.

Deep in my chest a dull ache starts, then somewhere in the back of my mind a spark of anger, mixed with unchanneled resentment, flares. I’m happy, sad, angry and wistful all in the same breath.

Damn, I know what this is. I’ve got the air race blues.

Low altitude sickness and battle drones

Buzzing shrilly, like a swarm of angry wasps, the drone hovers over our dining room table.

Well, OK. “Hover” would be an exaggeration. Careen-wildly-back-and-forth would be more accurate. Despite my best efforts, and my drone pilot license, things could be going better. “Left, left, left,” says Lisa, then a second later, “right-right-right!” The drone bounces off the light fixture, grazes the patio door, then dives unexpectedly on our gray tabby, Cougar.

Cougar lets out a yowl and dashes for cover, his tail puffing up like a raccoon. The Siamese had the unusual good sense to take cover as soon as she heard the drone’s four motors start.

I add power and the drone surges upwards, slamming into the ceiling. I back off on the throttle and the palm-sized drone stabilizes for a moment, about six inches above our heads, then starts drifting toward Grandma Jean. Rio grabs a spatula to protect her. I add power again and the drone smoothly rises and becomes firmly entangled in the light fixture that hangs over the dinner table. The drone screams and bucks, freeing dust bunnies from the light, while I fumble with the controls to shut it off.

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“Hmmm…” says Lisa.

Grandma Jean is silent, and Debbie, now that the coast is clear, returns her attention to her iPhone. Rio sighs, sets down the spatula, and rolls his eyes, “We really need to get you two back in the air.”

Yes. I’m suffering from low altitude sickness.

As is my wing-woman. That happens to pilots who spend too much time on the ground.

I set the drone’s controller down and gaze up at the drone. It’s one of a pair. This one has a tan camo paint job. Its partner sports green camo. Yep. They’re Battling Drones, designed for two-player dog fighting. Each drone is equipped with an infrared “cannon” so that they can shoot at each other. According to the box, when you hit your opponent, the other drone is temporarily disabled and its controller will light up, make noise, and vibrate to alert the pilot to the hit. Three hits and you win the dogfight.

Of course, the box also says each has a 6-axis gyroscope to make the drones easy to fly and keeps them stable. Allegedly, the drones can hover, move forward, backward, side-to-side, up and down, and make 360-degree flips. There’s even a high-speed flight mode.

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It seemed the perfect distraction for a grounded, highly competitive pilot. In fact, I was so excited to try them out that I didn’t clear the dinner dishes before the maiden flight, even though the manual says, “It is recommended to operate the Battling Drone in a wide open space. The ideal space should have a 200-foot radius.”

But rather than cheering me up, the dangling drone has added to my depression. How am I ever going to master this diminutive hypersensitive aircraft enough to fly it in a controlled manner, much less actually shoot down my opponent with it?

Debbie casts one eye up at the dangling drone and suggests that perhaps our empty hangar might be a better place to train for the upcoming drone war.

“Count me in,” says Grandma Jean.

 

A very capable airplane

Grandma Jean was really leaning on Rio for more information. For two years we’ve been talking about visiting all of the lower 48 states in a single cross country trip. In the Ercoupe. The rough draft of the flight plan is around 8,000 miles, and that was just connecting the dots to reach all the states.

We’d been in the process of investigating what we’d most want to see in each state, and as we made new discoveries the bright orange line zigzagging across the giant wall planning chart in our flight lounge morphed. I estimated that the final flight plan would be 12,000 miles when all was said and done, and I figured we need 45 days to fly it—accounting for the distance, the weather, seeing the sites, and not totally wearing ourselves out. It would be the father-son adventure of a lifetime. And who knows? Maybe a good book, to boot.

But now Rio wasn’t so sure he wanted to go.

And grandma wanted to know why.

Of course, at the family dinner table in front of all their relatives isn’t the best place to get teenagers to divulge their true feelings, and Rio was hemming and hawing. Personally, I suspected two possible sources of his change of heart. The first was that we had both had a mind-numbingly bad time on a headwind-fest called the AirVenture Cup. Naturally, I tried to convince him that there’s a difference between a long, slow flight in which you have to hold your course—like on a cross country air race—and a “normal” VFR cross country where you’re free to annul boredom by doing maneuvers or investigating anything interesting that you spot on the ground below. Or maybe that wasn’t it. It might simply be that, at fifteen-going-on-sixteen, there could be nothing worse than being cooped up with your father for 45 days in a tiny cockpit where shoulder room is non-existent.

At any rate, Rio dodged what I suspected were the real issues by telling his grandmother, “I just wish we had a more capable airplane, that’s all.”

The timing was wrong, so I let it go, but deep down I felt the need to defend Tessie. I’ve flown that little plane across the Rockies and up to Washington, and all the way across the American heartland and over the Appalachians and on to the East Coast.

Pretty capable.

Although, granted, not terribly efficient by modern standards.

But back to Rio. Apparently at some point after the AirVenture Cup I told him that if we launched on our trip and ended up hating it, we could always throw in the towel. I don’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something I might’ve said. At the family dinner that night, we’d been kicking around possible sponsors to take the edge off the cost of the trip. Rio recognized, quite correctly, that if you get sponsors, you’re pretty much obligated to carry out your plane plans; and he didn’t feel like signing on for what might be a 45-day jail sentence.

A few days later, I was filling Lisa in on the latest trials of fatherhood, and she suggested I put some training wheels on the airplane. “Why don’t the two of you take a long cross country during Spring Break, just to try it on for size? Fly out for three days, then back. If you both have a grand time, you can keep planning for the big trip, if not, well, you’re not out much.”

Wise woman, that Lisa.

That night, I pitched the idea to Rio. He wanted to know how far we could go. I told him that would depend on how far we decided to fly each day. I generally view 600 miles as a good day’s work—three hops and two re-fuelings—but those can be tiring days. At 100 miles per hour, it’s easily an 8-hour day, all told. So I suggested two legs with one re-fueling. That would be a nice morning’s work, with all afternoon free to explore wherever it was we set down.

But in my heart I worried… That’s only 400 miles a day. That’s the same distance you can go in a car. Could we get anywhere with such short distances covered each day?

I went into the flight lounge. Our wall planning chart has range rings printed every 200 miles—the distance we can fly with two aboard before we need to stop for gas. I counted two rings: Four hundred miles from home base the first day. Two more rings the second day would see us 800 miles from home. Two more rings on the third day had us setting down 1,200 miles from home.

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The 1,200-mile range-ring swept up the map from Panama City, Florida, ran just west of the Appalachia Mountains, bisected the Great Lakes, took in all of the northern part of the country, swept down the Northwest just shy of Seattle, and then disappeared out to sea over the Pacific.

I called Rio in and traced my finger on the map, “We could get to New Orleans, or Atlanta, or Cincinnati, or Chicago, or Mount Rushmore, or Portland, or San Francisco, or Los Angles, or San Diego.”

He said he’d think about it. Meanwhile, all I could think about was the fact that, in three days, most of the country west of the Appalachias could be in our grasp. If that’s not a capable airplane, what is?