A homecoming

I’m off course. Again. I’m paying too much attention to the damn engine monitor, and not enough attention to my navigation instruments. I sigh, and start to bank right to get back on course. I’m 800 feet above the pines that cover the top of Rowe Mesa between Santa Fe and our home base at SXU. To my left is the canyon that Interstate 25 snakes through on it’s way south from Colorado.

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Suddenly, it occurs to me: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. And Tess a dull girl. I roll left instead, sail over the edge of the mesa and ride the downdaft earthward, dropping, dropping, dropping into the canyon. The cliff face rises above me, I level off 600 feet above the freeway, and point Tess’ nose at the isolated butte called Starvation Peak.

I’m on our way home, but there’s no reason not to have fun on the way. The fear I’ve felt since morning has dissolved, blown away in the slipstream. After the first test flight of Engine3 I did a second, longer flight near Santa Fe; flying in circles above the open fields south and west of the airport. There wasn’t so much as a hiccup out of the newest engine. It ran strong. It ran smooth. The oil pressure stayed steady, and on landing all was good, only a few thread-like streams of the yellowish break-in mineral oil staining the belly. Nothing to write home about.

The only problem is we have too much power. Well, too much power for our prop, which will need to be re-pitched to better match the new stroker engine. We knew from the beginning that this might happen, but my team and the propeller shop agree that there’s no need to modify the prop before the break-in flight, so long as I avoid full power, so I’m ferrying Tess home to get her ready for the flight to a lower altitude. Tess and I are Dallas-bound on the weekend, if the weather holds. I know this place in an old radar tower that has a rockin’ brisket-stuffed deep-fried jalapeño that’s been calling me…

As Starvation Peak slides by it occurs to me: We’ve both been starving these many months, Tess and I. Back in the sky once again I relish being Civis Aerius Sum, a citizen of the air. And it seems to me that Tess is equally happy to be back in sky, I can almost hear her aluminum heart singing with joy.

I decide to drop in on the family on the way home. I dial Debbie on my iPhone, patching the call through to my headset thanks to the amazing technology called Bluetooth. “Take Rio and go outside,” I tell her.

“Where on earth are you calling from?” she asks.

“Ten miles west and 500 feet up,” I tell her.

As I bank over our house, I look down over the wing and I can see them, a tiny pair of figures far below, waving up at me. I wave back, roll level, rock my wings and head out over the desert. Just south of our house I pick up the Pecos River and decide to follow it to Santa Rosa, turning right, then left, then right again, weaving back and forth across the landscape as the river snakes through the mesa lands.

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I circle Santa Rosa Lake once, then for the first time in many months, Tessie’s tires smoothly kiss the runway at her home base. It’s a sweet landing and a sweet homecoming.

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After refueling and washing the dust off her wings, I pull her into her hangar. Then I just sit, drinking in the sight of her. Her smooth lines. Her many shades of blue.

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And for the first time in many months, I feel at peace.

 

Photos by Lisa F. Bentson

 

Test Flight

I’m scared. I don’t think I’ve ever been scared to get into an airplane before; much less into one I’ve flown to the ends of the earth and back. But today, I’m scared to get into Tessie. I don’t even mind the extra stop at Walgreens on the way to the airport to pick up critical supplies for the family larder: Velveeta cheese sauce pouches.

When I enter the maintenance hangar, Tess is once again a fully assembled airplane. I’m greeted by one of the mechanics with, “Hey, it’s early Christmas!” He has an ear-to-ear smile on his face, “I bet you couldn’t be happier, huh?”

“Actually,” I confess, “I’m scared to death.”

He wants to know why and I ask him to consider the last two engine rebuild attempts. By the same guy that did the work on this engine, Engine3 as I sometimes call it.

His smile dissolves.

Still, maybe the third time is the charm. But I woke up under a dark cloud this morning, wondering if I’d be alive at the end of the day. As my coffee brewed I figured there was a 50% chance the engine would vomit out all its oil on the first test flight. If so, I figured there was a 25% chance I’d have to put down short of the airport. If so, I figured there was a 15% chance the crash would kill me. So really, I realized as I took my first sip of coffee, my odds of surviving the day were about the same as they would be if all I did was drive into town for the Velveeta cheese sauce pouches.

But I was still scared.

The plan is simple. Get in the plane. Take off. Fly around the pattern once. Land. Even if the third-time-is-the-charm engine belches out oil at the same rate as before, the odds strongly favor being on the ground before I run out of oil. Of course, the pessimist in me knows it’s possible that this new engine will belch out oil at an even higher rate; while the optimist on my other shoulder points out that this is not really the same engine as number one and number two. The Master Builder kicked the save-time engine case we bought to the curb. Tess’s original case is back. It also features a deeper breather tube, something many mechanics that read about our troubles wrote to say might be part of the problem, while at the same time admitting that they’d never heard of this kind of high volume oil loss on the ground.

Still, I would feel better if the ground run had been able to reach the magic RPM where the previous engines blasted oil from the breather tube; and I’m upset that this engine seems to have less power than the two previous incarnations.

I do a careful walk around. Tess has gotten dusty during her months-long grounding. The fuel tanks are a lot lower than I expected too, I guess from the endless ground tests. Or maybe evaporation over the ensuing half-year. Still, there’s plenty of fuel for what needs to be done this morning. I’m not going far.

Then it’s time. I can’t put it off any longer. “Let’s pull her out,” I say to the guys.

The massive double doors of the hangar are pulled back. It’s cold outside, with a light breeze from the north, damn it. I watch a Piper rise into the air. The tower is using Runway 2, which means I’ve got a long taxi to the active, the worst thing possible for breaking in the new engine’s piston rings. Well, that’s a secondary worry at this point.

I mount the wing, swing a leg over the fuselage wall, step into the cockpit, and slide down onto the seat. I pull the canopy sides up and settle in. Welcome home, Tess seems to say to me.

Master on. Throttle cracked. Mixture full rich. Mags to both. Two shots of prime. Foot solidly on the brake. I take a breath and gently press the starter button with my left index finger. The prop spins and the engine roars to life, strong and smooth.

I keep the RPM on the high side to warm the oil, listen to the ATIS, and call ground control for taxi clearance. It’s a busy morning. I need to hold short of Runway 33 en route to my assigned Runway 2.

After what feels like an eternity, I finally arrive, do my run up, and I’m cleared for takeoff. I pull out on to the runway and advance the throttle smoothly to the firewall. There’s a tremendous racket from the engine. What the….!?

Then I realize I’ve forgotten to engage the automatic noise reduction on my Zulu 3 headset. I quickly reach down and feel for the button. As I depress it, the roar of the engine dissolves into a weed whacker-like clicking. The center stripes of the runway slide under me, faster… faster… faster… and with a gentle backpressure on her yoke, Tess lifts into the cold morning air. The RPM tops 2400. Will she blow oil? I try to keep one eye on the engine monitor and one eye out the windshield.

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Oil pressure 45 psi. It’s time to turn crosswind.

The climb rate seems good, but I’m alone in the plane, it’s cold, and the fuel load is light. I can’t really judge if it’s more powerful, but the RPM is better than we ever got out of the old engine.

Oil pressure 45 psi. It’s time to turn downwind.

I start to level off. A red light flashes on the panel. I’ve redlined the engine. I throttle back to keep it in the yellow. I clear the alarm and at once the red light starts blinking again. I back off on the throttle more. Then still more. Now the throttle is at only 50%. Holy cow. OK, this baby has the same power engines One and Two had. Maybe more.

Oil pressure 45 psi.

I’m competing for the runway with a corporate jet. The tower asks me to cut in early and land. I have to drop to idle for the descent. My landing, the first in 83 days, is nothing to be proud of and I cringe as I taxi back to my waiting mechanics. They’re both under the plane as soon as I kill the engine. I slide the canopy open. “No oil!” they announce from beneath my wings.

I sit and digest this news. I should be happy. Hell, I should be deliriously happy. But I’m just tired. Worn out from months of worry. And there’s still a second test flight to make before I can get out Tess’ logbook and write: “This aircraft has been test flown and found to be in airworthy condition.”

But at least I’m not scared any more.