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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.