The Eternal Airplane

I’m 600 feet off the deck. Below the soil is pale burnt orange, speckled with low-lying green shrubs. I can see curious trails of footprints winding among the vegetation, always leading north. Illegal emigrants, probably. I’m less than 10 miles from the Mexican border.

IMG_3774

Then it occurs to me: Maybe skimming low along the surface this close to the border isn’t so smart. It might look, you know, suspicious or something.

Oh well. Too late now. If the Feds are waiting for me when I land, I have nothing to hide. Of course, the same can’t be said for Tessie. I’ve just learned that she was a smuggler in her youth.

Or maybe not.

But at a minimum, she was once owned by a smuggler, so who knows what dark dealings she might have had? Airplanes are good at hiding their secrets, but I’ve recently become determined to learn all of Tessie’s.

Here’s the tale: Our girl turns 71 this year. I’ve had the privilege of corresponding with her second owner, and recently her owners from the 1980s reached out to me. They were happy to see their old plane was still flying and having an adventurous life. Anyway, chatting with them made me re-think the whole subject of airplane ownership. Properly cared for, airplanes are eternal. They live forever, so how can we really own them? I’ve noticed that the warbird crowd sometimes call themselves “custodians” or “caretakers” of their planes. They recognize that their planes will outlive them, and they view their role more as torchbearers than owners, regardless of what the paperwork says.

Perhaps that’s true of all old airplanes, not just warbirds. That gave rise to an idea for me. I’ve decided to write a biography of Tessie, a tale of her life and the story of the various people and families that were her custodians over the decades since she was built in 1947. I’m going to call the book, The Eternal Airplane.

I was able to get the names of the three previous owners simply by looking up her registration history online. One was the guy we bought her from. The next was just a name. Prior to him was the couple that reached out to me. And they gave me the name of the man they got her from. And before him? Who knows? But the FAA is good at keeping records, and hopefully as I locate each family, they can point me to the family before them. I know it will be a long (but fascinating) historical treasure hunt, one that will get more and more difficult the deeper into the past I dig. But what a story! Already I’ve learned that in addition to being a smuggler, she was Exhibit A in a major lawsuit. But that’s a tale for another day.

Back to the smuggling. Remember the man who was just a name? Using his name and the city he lived in that was listed in the FAA registry, I tried to find him. And I did.

In federal prison.

Apparently he’d gotten into some trouble in an airplane. Carrying drug money or some such.

Was I nervous about needing to talk to a convicted felon? Hell no, I was thrilled! Tessie rubbed elbows with smugglers and drug dealers! What a great story! Truth is stranger than fiction; you just can’t make up stuff like this! What other secrets are hidden in her aluminum heart? I don’t know yet, but I’m determined to find out.

Oh. And what about the feds? Were they waiting for Tessie and me when we touched down within spitting distance of the Mexican border? Nope.

But was I imagining it? Or did my delightfully scandalous girl seem to breathe a sigh of relief as I shut her engine down?

 

Have plane, will travel

I was all business, but it wasn’t a business trip. After all, that would be illegal. The Federal Aviation Regulations strictly prohibit the business use of Light Sport flying, even banning flying “in furtherance of a business.” Apparently, something as harmless-sounding as flying yourself to a business-related tradeshow, rather than driving, is verboten. But I’m not even in a gray area; the only business I’m engaged in today is monkey business—and rather than be in furtherance of anything, it’s sure to lose money.

OK. Let me back up. I need to give you some background so you’ll understand my non-biz mission.

The family airplane is actually my 92-year-old mother’s. As an Ercoupe owner, she’s a member of the Ercoupe Owners Club, or EOC. Every year the EOC holds a national convention and fly-in.

I think you can see where this is going…

Right. This year the EOC is coming to New Mexico. My involvement started with doing a quick review of the airports in the state for the club’s president, and recommending a short list of good locations. It ended with my somehow agreeing to be the coordinator of this year’s convention.

I’m still not sure how that happened. I’m not even an Ercoupe owner, fer crying out loud. I must have been drinking.

Anyway, the first choice of location for “my” convention is Las Cruces International Airport. Don’t let the name fool you, it ain’t Kennedy. In fact, it’s an uncontrolled airport, which is a requirement for a convention site, as many of our members just won’t deal with towered fields. It’s also about as low an elevation as you can get in my state at 4,457 feet above sea level. Most folks don’t realize that the bulk of New Mexico is a mile or more above sea level, which matters to airplane performance. In fact, it matters enough that we’ve moved the annual convention from mid-summer to late fall to avoid the issues of density altitude, where hot days effectively make high places, well… higher… at least as far as airplane performance is concerned.

But back to Las Cruces. It’s a lovely airport outside of town, with lots of ramp space and a vibrant airport community. Las Cruces itself has a ton of interesting things to do. I have a list of great things to do that can easily fill three conventions, so I’m going to have to make some hard choices. Plus, to the east is White Sands National Monument, and the New Mexico Museum of Space History; a short distance north is Spaceport America; and a short distance south—just a few scant miles from the Mexican border—is an awesome airplane museum called War Eagles. The museum is right on the field of another presumptuously named uncontrolled field: the Doña Ana County International Jetport. We could have a fly-out adventure to it, or, as you can rent the entire museum after hours, we might be able to have our annual banquet there amongst its collection of airplanes. Later in the day, I plan to drive my rental care down to the museum and talk to them about the possibilities. But before I can do that, I need to get the blessing of the airport management to host the convention at their field in the first place.

And that’s why I’m flying down the Rio Grande Valley this morning.

IMG_3829

I could have driven, but it seemed to me that if you’re going to an airport for a meeting about holding a gathering of airplanes, you should show up in an airplane. Besides, it’s a five-hour drive from my home, but only a three-hour flight, which made it a great excuse to fly.

I’ve got a meeting with the airport manager in the late morning. I’m hoping to secure permission not only to come, but also to let some of our members camp on the field with their planes. I’m also hoping to get permission to host a flour-bombing contest, where pilots chuck small paper bags of flour out of their planes to try to hit a target. It’s sorta like the aborted chicken-dropping contest I wrote about a while back, with the added fun that when the “bombs” hit, there’s an “explosion.”

The Las Cruces Airport now 15 miles out, I start running down a mental checklist. Oh. Not that kind of checklist. Nothing to do with the flight. It’s a checklist for the things I need to do when I get on the ground.

  • Arrange fuel and hanger for Tess
  • Meet with Airport Manager
  • Pick up rental car
  • Drive down to War Eagles Museum

Then it strikes me: There’s no reason to drive. I have an airplane at my disposal! At least so long as I limit its use to monkey business.

 

You are now free to move about the country

Low enough. Far enough. Great food. Good hotel. North Texas Regional was the only logical destination for our break-in flight. Plus, most of the flight path is over open prairie and farmland with abundant places to put down safely if the new engine craps out.

About the only inhospitable terrain on the entire route is a short stretch of rough canyon country south of Amarillo.

DSC_9050

Naturally, that’s where it happened…

Thump! The plane shudders. The prop protests with an odd whine. Probably just an air pocket. Turbulence from a thermal. Nothing more than a pothole in the sky.

A strong smell of engine exhaust fills the cockpit.

Lisa and I exchange somber glances. That tense spot between my shoulders, which had largely faded away, is suddenly back with a vengeance. I study the engine monitor. RPM good, and steady. Oil pressure and temp in range, and steady. The two back cylinders are running hotter than their sisters in the nose of the plane, but all are steady and well below redline.

Then I see it: The exhaust gas temperature on the number two cylinder is… dancing? The blue bar on the CGR-30P engine monitor is jumping up and down. First showing 1,423 degrees, then indicating 1,215 degrees, next 1,372 degrees. The other three blue EGT bars are steady. Number two continues to vacillate. What could cause such a thing? Would a stuck valve cause erratic gas temps? I cock my head to one side, listening for any odd rhythms from the engine. All sounds good.

Below my wing canyons, ragged rocks, juniper trees. I ease the yoke back and start a shallow climb. Our planned refueling stop, at Childress, is still 20 Maalox moments… I mean minutes… away.

It’s the closest airport.

But other than the dancing EGT all appears well. The dull roar of the engine is steady, unchanging. Power and pressures perfect. All other temps in range. Healthy. There’s nothing to indicate a problem. I ask Lisa to email our mechanic: Should we worry? It’s a pointless exercise. It’s Saturday. He won’t read our missive until Monday. By then, either we’ll be back home or we’ll be in a crumbled pile of metal at the bottom of a canyon.

We fly on, the number two EGT the metronome to the silent song my engine is playing. The tense spot between my shoulders grows and spreads.

At last the badlands pass behind our tails, I back off on the throttle and drop back down to 800 feet. It’s my new favorite cruising altitude, 300 feet higher than race flying and the required minimum altitude to overfly any building, vehicle, boat, person, outhouse or henhouse—and higher than most cell phone towers are tall—while still down close enough to the ground to reveal all the interesting things there are to see. It’s also maximizing our odds of properly seating the piston rings on our new cylinders.

Finally, I roll into the pattern at Childress. The name rang a bell when we planned the flight, but I couldn’t conjure up a mental image of the place. We’ve landed at so many airports these last two years that they’re all a jumble in my head. Now that I see it below, the taxiway new black asphalt standing out in stark contrast to the old faded grey runway, I remember it as the place Lisa momentarily lined up on the taxiway coming in for a landing last year on our way home from the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race. Normally I would tease her by asking if I should land on the one on the left or the one on the right, but I’m still worried about our engine. In fact, we’ve flown in near silence since the EGT started its erratic dance.

We glide down over the cotton fields and gently kiss the runway. As I throttle back the EGT drops to zero. We taxi to the fuel pumps, shut down, and get out the tool kit. The air is chilly, but the engine metal hot as I open up the cowl and peer in. I honestly don’t know what I expect to see. There’s no splattered oil on the cylinder. The exhaust stack is intact. I stare at the new probe that measures the temperature of the exhaust. The band that holds it in place is oddly oval, but then I realize that I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like.

IMG_3551

The probe on the forward cylinder is nearly out of sight, so I decide to pop open the cowl on the copilot side so I can see what the probe looks like on the other side. It also has the oddly-shaped band, but I notice that there’s a spring over the wires that’s in a different spot. I go back to my side of the plane and poke at the sensor.

It falls out.

Ah. Problem solved. A wonky sensor, that’s all. I push it back into place and reset the retaining spring. I have no great expectation that my fix will hold, but at least I know the readings are nothing to worry about.

I check the oil and find the level hasn’t budged, a new experience for me, as our “old” engine was as fond of oil as an alcoholic sailor is of rum. I stretch, rotate my arms to loosen the knot in my back, and look around. Then it occurs to me: I’m 250 miles out from our home base, and our only issue on engine #3 is a loose sensor.

After all these months grounded, after two failed engine rebuilds, we’re back. We’re truly back in the air and free to move about the country.