Not quite home yet

Tess finally made bail. Her mechanics called to say they’d finished the latest round of repairs: The new header tank was in; the leaking oil sump quick drain had been replaced; and the fuel pump gasket was squared away. Come pick her up.

Reviewing the invoice, I saw that changing the fuel tank gobbled up thirty-two man hours. They had to disconnect the sundry fuel lines, unhook all the controls and cables in the cockpit, remove most of the radios and other modern gear, unbolt the tank from its brackets, drop it to the floor, then maneuver it up over the seat and out through the top of the canopy. Then they had to do the opposite with the new tank, then bolt it in place, reinstall the radios and other modern gear, hook up all the cockpit cables and controls, and connect all the sundry fuel lines to the new tank.

This is considered a “plug and play” installation by one Ercoupe expert I talked to about swapping header tanks.

I also noticed the shop rate had gone up ten dollars an hour from the last invoice. My pay has not. I dealt with that by buying a T-shirt that says: “Welcome to aviation. You are now broke.” It seemed like the right thing to do with the last $14.99 in my retirement fund.

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But at least the latest round was behind me. And there’s really not much left on the plane that hasn’t been either refurbished or replaced. Tess isn’t a 1947 Ercoupe any more. She’s a 2013-2014-2015-2016-2017-2018 model. All she really needs now is a new paint job. But that’s a tale for another day.

I handed my mechanic another check that had a number which included a comma, and sat down on his leather couch to check the weather. Ut-oh. It was getting windy back home. In Santa Fe it was as nice as it could be. In Santa Rosa the wind was 18 miles per hour. Gusting to 30.

I don’t like gusting, especially when the gusts are nearly double the base wind speed. It makes for unnecessarily exciting landings.

The winds were forecast to remain high until sunset. Aw, hell.

I had a decision to make. Ercoupes are great crosswind planes. Because their landing gear lets them land practically sideways, they can handle wind better than pretty much any plane out there. And I’ve landed in some pretty hairy wind. But there’s a difference between landing in hairy wind when you have to, and choosing to go and put yourself out in a hairy situation. I was confident I could do it, but was it worth it? Just to get the plane back home again?

I grumbled to myself for a while, and finally, my chief mechanic, who had been sitting politely at his desk said, “I’m going to go back to work while you make up your mind,” and then disappeared out his office door into his hangar where two Civil Air Patrol planes were getting annuals and a local flight school 172 was getting its bent firewall replaced following a nose-heavy landing by a student pilot.

I looked to the next day’s weather. It, too, was windy as the dickens. But the day after was forecast to be lovely. Doubting myself, as always when it comes to this kind of thing, I choose to wait. I wandered out into the hangar, then outside where Tess was tied down. I put her gustlock in place, grabbed the keys, buttoned up the canopy, patted her on the spinner and went back to the car.

At Starbucks thirty minutes later I found myself checking the wind again, just to reassure myself it was still windy and that I’d made a good call.

It was still windy.

I ran a few errands then headed home, to find the wind had gone home to where ever it lives as well. It was a calm evening. If I’d just waited an hour or two the flight, and landing would have been uneventful.

I kicked myself, but I also knew the old adage it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. The weather the day after tomorrow is still forecast to be lovely. And Tess is happy to wait.

 

Raid and Search

Lisa was somewhere under the plane, scooting around on the wheeled creeper checking screws and rivets on the plane’s belly. I could hear her contented humming over the dull gong—gong—gong—gong of the hangar doors as they shifted and moved in the wind. It was a blustery day out so we’d buttoned up the hangar for preflight, leaving us in dim light, but warm. I was sitting in the cockpit re-attaching the iPad mount to the panel. Its suction cups had come loose again and it fell off and banged me in the knee when I climbed into the cockpit to check the Hobbs reading.

To get the bracket positioned correctly I had to hunch down and peer upwards from underneath it, and despite having tri-focals, I couldn’t get any of the three lenses to line up right so that I could see what I was doing. I took my glasses off, reached up blindly, and set them somewhere on the glare shield above me.

Outside I heard the crunch of car tires on gravel and doors slamming. Must be the city workers either getting or depositing files in the hangar next door, I thought. Then there was a sharp wrap on the metal door. My door. I sat up straight and felt around for my glasses. Suddenly, bright sunlight flooded in as the hangar doors were yanked abruptly back, blinding me. As I blinked and squinted, the dark shapes of six uniformed men entered the hangar, three coming up on each side of the cockpit. In a deep voice one barked, “We have a warrant for your arrest.”

The happy humming from underneath the plane ceased.

I couldn’t process what was happening. “Huh?” I finally managed to squeak, my hands frantically searching for my glasses. I couldn’t recall doing anything arrest-worthy. Not recently. Not ever, really. I live a pretty square life. Could it be a case of mistaken identity? My fingers located the frames and I slipped my glasses onto my face. The towering blue blurs of the cops snapped into focus. There were two local cops, and one state cop. But the other three were two uniformed paramedics and the airport manager, who was wearing a police-style jacket and a big grin on his face.

Then all the men starting laughing.

“Just teasing,” announced the airport manager, “actually we need your help.”

Then he told me that a boy who lived next to the airport had reported that a plane taking off that morning didn’t sound right. This kid hears a lot of airplanes. Apparently some odd transmissions had been heard by someone else, and Center couldn’t raise the pair of aerial mapping planes that had been working out of SXU for the last week. The local emergency responders were worried that they had gone down. Would we mind going up and just flying around to see if we could see anything?

We wouldn’t mind. And we could do even better. The latest version of our navigation app, Garmin Pilot, will display Civil Air Patrol search grids. We could fly a search grid to the south and east of the airport, in the direction the boy saw the plane go. In no time we were in the air.

“What am I looking for?” asked Lisa.

I was a Civil Air Patrol pilot once upon a time, but my unit didn’t have an airplane assigned to it so I never flew a mission, and my search and rescue training was nearly forty years old. I searched my dim memory as I scanned the ground below and to the left of the plane. “It depends on the nature of the crash,” I told my wing woman. “Shout out if you see a plane in a field or on a road. If you see smoke, we’ll divert from the grid and check it out. If things went badly there could be nothing left but little bits and pieces, and if so, they’ll likely form a line in the direction of travel.”

It was a grim image to contemplate.

“Oh, and disturbed earth,” I added, “ like a scar of a freshly plowed field in the middle of nowhere.” I’ve seen several crash sights from the air, and none of them looked plane-like.

Lisa was silent for a moment and then said, “I hope we don’t find anything. I mean, I hope there’s nothing to find.”

Amen to that.

We’d just barely finished the first leg of our search grid when the airport manager texted Lisa to report that Center was in touch with the two mapping planes, and all was well with them. He’d checked the guest register at the terminal and the history on the gas pump, and there was no evidence of another plane leaving that day. Lacking any other evidence of a plane in distress, he was calling off the search.

Of course it was always possible that someone landed just to hit the bathroom. Didn’t sign in. Didn’t buy gas. Kids that live next to airports know what planes sound like. If I were down, I’d want people to make a decent search for me. “Tell him, thanks, but as it’s a nice day up here (it wasn’t) we’ll go ahead and finish the grid just for the fun of it.”

So we flew up one grid line, and down the next. Then up again, then down. Each line about eight miles apart, our eyes searched from Tessie’s wing roots to four miles off her wings. We flew a thousand feet off the deck, low enough to clearly see what was below, high enough to see a ways away. In some areas I could be confident there was nothing to see. In other areas filled with trees and craggy ravines I knew we could fly past a hundred downed planes and not see a trace.

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In about two and a half hours, we “searched” 960 square miles. At one point there were odd squawking noises on the emergency frequency. It wasn’t the mournful wail of an emergency locator beacon, it was more strangled. We cut across one search grid diagonally to check a network of small canyons but there was nothing to see and the choked noises on the radio went away.

The radio was silent for the rest of our search, and we saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I was glad to be there at the right time and at the right place to lend a helping hand.

Oh. Right. And I was even doubly glad that three wasn’t really a warrant for my arrest!

 

Oil leak detectives

Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.

Silly me.

Here’s the Tale: Rio and I had mapped out a good training flight. Don’t ask me the details now, I’ve already forgotten them, but I certainly remember the rest of the day. We grabbed a light breakfast, loaded up Grandma Jean and R2D2 (her oxygen concentrator), and headed out to the airport. Grandma wanted to see Lisa’s recent renovation of our Third World airport terminal and said she’d hang out there and soak in the vibe while Rio and I flew for an hour or so.

It was a lovely morning, not too early and not too late, neither too cool nor too warm, and the wind was just barely stroking the surface of the earth with a lover’s touch.

When we arrived at the hangar we parked in front of the double doors so Grandma could see her airplane. I unlocked the padlock, then I took the right door and Rio the left. We dramatically pulled the great doors open at the same time—like the curtains in an old fashioned theater at the start of the show—revealing Tess, the morning light kissing her canopy. Above her the flags in the hangar undulated gently in the morning breeze, and with her sharp wing dihedral she looked ready to jump into the air… Except for the fact that she was sitting in a puddle of her own oil.

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Damn. What’s this going to cost me?

Actually, as we know we have a soon-to-be replaced leaky gas tank, at first I mistook the dark pool for fuel. But kneeling down and running a finger through it, I found it to be slick, honey-colored oil. What the….? The pool was centered under and around the front nose gear. Where did it come from?

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Now oil leaks from Continental engines aren’t rare. Some folks joke that like a Harley, if it ain’t leaking oil, it’s surely out of oil. But this was something new. The sides of the cowl were clean, as was the front wheel pant, plane’s belly, and the hangar floor underneath the breather tube. Adding to the mystery, after our last flight the week before, Lisa and I had stayed in the hangar a good two hours, cleaning up the plane, listening to the CTAF, smoking cigars, and soaking in the whole airport vibe; and in those two hours no oil had leaked. So how did this much oil escape an engine that’s not running? And how’d it get from the engine, where it belongs, to the floor, where it does not belong?

Of course, oil is a funny thing. A little spilled oil looks like a lot. To my many-times-bitten now crazy-shy eye, it was the entire contents of the oil sump. In reality it wasn’t even enough to detect missing on the dipstick. Still, not understanding what was going on, I cancelled our planned flight. Rio thought I was being a bit of a wuss, but he didn’t argue the point, and thus began the Great Oil Leak Investigation—a tale not likely to knock Sir Arthur Conan Doyle out of first place anytime soon.

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We opened both sides of the cowl and looked for oil. Naturally, as we rarely clean the inside of the cowl, there was oil everywhere. Shining my handsome new Tessie-blue 100-lumen Eddie Bauer aluminum flashlight around inside the engine compartment I felt like an explorer of yore trying to trace the source of the Nile.

Let’s see here… These two little streams of oil seem to connect to that stain here, which seems to come from up there, so the oil must be leaking from the… alternator? No, that can’t be right! I took a ton of photos with my iPhone and emailed them to my beleaguered mechanic (who responded two days later that it didn’t look like that much oil to him, and if it was him, he wouldn’t worry about it). Then, using many pale blue paper shop towels I cleaned the inside of the engine compartment better than anyone had in the last 71 years.

I placed clean folded towels in various strategic locations and we left for the day, Rio predicting that we’d come back to a clean airplane and clean towels.

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He was half right. A couple of days later we came back to clean towels, and more oil on the floor. It was as if the oil were welling up from the concrete below the plane. I had a brief vision of the start of the Beverly Hillbillies, with me in the role of Jed Clampett, but I knew I hadn’t struck oil. Tess was leaking it from somewhere.

But where?

One of the leading contenders from the previous week had been the gasket between the fuel pump and the engine case. There was a clear sign of a leak there, but how that gasket could leak in the absence of engine pressure was a mystery to me, and now the towel below it was clean. The other contender was the valve cover on the number one cylinder, which was also leaking a drip or two, but it could hardly have been the culprit with a resting engine, and again the towel there was clean. And yet, there was fresh oil on the ground.

Adding to the mystery was the fact that oil spilling pretty much anywhere from inside the engine should come out of the bottom of the cowl where the front fork comes through the metal surrounding the engine, but oil exiting the compartment there would stain the front wheel pant, and it was clean. Complicating matters was the fact the oil had just been changed and it was still clean, making it almost transparent.

Lying on the concrete, trying to avoid getting oil on my shirt, I carefully studied the front fork. It had a smooth sheen of oil on it, as did the aft scissors assembly. Mentally, working slowly backwards, I tried to envision the path of the oil, and it led me to the oil sump drain. Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun came out, and it all made sense.

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When the engine is off the oil drains out of the case and down into the sump. The only logical place for oil to leak from when the engine is powered down is from the sump. I reached in and fussed with the quick release valve used to drain the oil out when changing oil. Of course I had no idea how it worked normally, which made it challenging to see if it wasn’t working right. Twisting, tugging, pulling, I managed to accidently open it. A gush of gold oil flowed out. Mesmerized, I watched its travels.

Eureka!

As the little stream twisted and turned around various obstacles in its path all the mysteries fell by the wayside. I’d found the source of the Nile.

Now the challenge was to figure out how on earth oil was leaking from the drain. There were three possibilities. The mechanism itself could be failing, it wasn’t closed right, or it might not be screwed on exactly tight enough. To rule out the last possibility, following instructions from one of our two mechanics, I took a paper towel and wrapped the upper part of the drain like a mummy, using a zip tie to secure the towel.

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Then I flew. And left the towel in place for a week.

When I returned, there was new oil on the floor and the towel was clean. Well, not clean, but not oil soaked. A new sump drain was ordered and my guys will put it in this week while Tess is visiting them for a new header tank. Once that’s done, I’m confident that all our maintenance woes will be behind us.

Until I open the hangar door again.

 

 

Flight instructors: The good, the bad, the ugly, and me?

I’ve taught my pair of copilots a lot about flying. In fact, both student pilot buddy Lisa and student pilot son Rio fly better than I do. If by flying you mean keeping the airplane on course and at altitude. Rio is also pretty darn good at pattern work, while Lisa is an S-turn queen. And both of them have managed a respectable take off or two.

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Neither of them, however, can land. Which is totally my fault. You see, I’ve never taught them how to. Why’s that? Well, I’m not a certified flight instructor. Not that I didn’t try to be. I even trained to be a certified flight instructor.

For one day.

Here’s the tale…

 

Date Line: September 17, 1984

KGXY, Greeley, Colorado

 

I was sporting a brand new leather flight jacket and oversized mirrored sunglasses when I pulled into the airport parking lot. The day was to warm for the jacket, but I had to look the part. As a freshly minted commercial pilot, I was there for my first lesson on how to become a certified flight instructor, which is what you did in those days as soon as you realized that—even though you had a license to get paid to fly—no one would hire you until you banked more flight time.

A lot more flight time.

Come to think of it, that’s still true today. The only difference is that nowadays this is no secret. Back then, it came as a bitter shock to me and my fellow wet-behind-the-ears commercial pilots.

But even though I didn’t understand the realities of flying jobs, I did know quite a bit about flight instructors. I had a number of them during my journey from first flight, to first solo, to student cross-country, and on to my private pilot’s license, instrument rating, multi-engine training, and finally my commercial ticket. Most of my instructors were OK. One was good. One was bad. But one was nothing short of amazing.

The amazing flight instructor was one of my professors at Aims Community College where I was a student in the aviation program. His name was Gil Harris. He’d flown Corsairs with the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World War II, and then flew pretty much everything with wings in the years following the war. He was a small, compact man with twinkling eyes and a neatly trimmed Royal Air Force-style mustache. What little hair he had left was gray. He was modest, kind, and funny. His teaching style was magical. I learned more from that man than from all my other instructors combined. His knowledge and experience were boundless. Endless. Among other things, he taught me mountain flight, hugging towering cliffs in the heart of the Rockies to catch lift and soar like an Eagle.

It was Gil who signed me off for my commercial check ride, and I was tickled pink that he agreed to train me to be a flight instructor—just like him.

I would be 21 years old in just four days. Naturally, I thought I knew everything as I walked across the tarmac to meet Gil at N48751, a blue and white Cessna 152-II. But the Gil Harris that was waiting for me wasn’t the master aviator I was used to.

Nope. It was Gil the Hillbilly.

I guess I was expecting some sort of inspired intelligent conversation between a motived student and a master, with me being the master. That didn’t happen.

As we walked around the 152, Gil stuck his neck under the prop, his nose inside the engine cowling’s air inlet and asked, “What’s in here, Mr. Flight Instructor?”

It went downhill from there.

That night, I lay in my waterbed (remember this was 1984, a time when phones were attached to walls, there was no internet, and people slept on thick plastic bags filled with water) and tried to make sense of the day. I replayed the seven-tenths of an hour lesson again and again in my head. All the clever teaching tricks I had dreamed up to cultivate the next generation of pilots fell flat on their faces when faced with Hillbilly Gil. I was shaken to the core. I felt stupid.

And I wondered: Was Gil trying to prepare me for real world flight instruction, or was he showing me that flight instruction wasn’t for me? Next, I thought back through every instructor I’d had on my own aviation journey, and I realized that the younger ones were the worst, and that the older ones were the best. It made sense. How can you teach when you’ve really just begun to learn yourself?

I never went back for a second flight instructor lesson.

In later years (and to this day) I wondered if Gil was just trying to take my ego down a notch, or if he felt I didn’t have the Right Stuff to be a flight instructor, and knew me well enough to know how to scare me off. Or was his first flight instructor lesson with me the only instructional failure of his life? The bruised ego of my former self would like to believe that, but I doubt it. After all, he never called me to ask why I hadn’t scheduled the next lesson.

But it was moot. The seven-tenths of an hour that September morning changed the course of my life. I tired for several months to find a flying job. Any flying job. But none were to be had, and in the end I stopped flying for many years.

 

Back to school?

Of course, I’m not four days short of 21 any more. I’m well over the five-decade mark. I’m on my second logbook. And I don’t wear a leather jacket when it’s too hot.

I’ve spent much of my adult life (in addition to writing) teaching in one form or another. But I know that having extensive aviation knowledge and experience—and knowing how to teach—is a very different thing from knowing how to teach people to fly, much less land. Or that’s what I told myself. But my self-imposed limitation may have been a justification. After all, there’s actually nothing illegal about teaching some elements of flying to others while not being a certified flight instructor yourself. Plenty of pilots teach regular non-pilot passengers how to control the plane, communicate on the radio, and even land just in case something should happen to the pilot (this unofficial flight instruction can’t be logged, nor can it count toward a license).

In truth, it wasn’t the lack of official certification that held me back. Being a flight instructor school dropout, I just didn’t have a clue how to teach someone to land, and my own learning to land is lost to me in the mists of time.

I just don’t remember how I learned to land.

So I sent Rio off to a “real” flight instructor to learn. He started in sailplanes but never mastered them due to what I would call ugly instruction. Then he switched to powered flight, but his planned schedule was shot full of holes: A combination of illness, weather, and mechanical difficulties. Then his instructor got an airline job and was gone. With our own plane down for maintenance for so much of the year he had a looooong flying gap. Depressed, he told me, “I don’t think I know how to fly an airplane any more.”

About the same time that Rio’s instructor left for the airlines, Lisa went off to North Carolina for an intensive all-day, two-week training course that was to cumulate in her Light Sport check ride.

She left enthusiastically. But her enthusiasm was quickly squashed. Each night as she FaceTimed in to update us, she was increasing depressed. First off, the weather sucked. The cold she expected. She grew up in that neck of the woods. But the record snow was making her flight training a challenge. As was the fact she was flying off of a grass strip, a minor little detail the one-man flight school neglected to mention on his website, along with the fact the tail-dragger training plane had no electrical system and had to be hand-propped to start.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

The worst of it was the flight instructor himself. Each time she’d ask a question he’d say, “Figure it out for yourself.” He was also 100% negative, pointing out every less-than-perfect action on her part, while never giving any supportive encouragement.

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TeraPeak

OK, I agree that there are times when it’s good for a student to figure things out for themselves, but good teaching also entails some guidance. And motivation. When flying I can see that there are times when an instructor must point out errors so they can be avoided in the future. But I also think that maneuvers performed well should be supported to keep morale up and to give the student as sense of improvement, not to mention encouraging good flying skills.

But for Lisa that never happened, not once, and with each passing day the charming little airport cottage—a big selling point for the package deal—felt more and more like a prison cell to her. Not only was this costing her a fortune, but she wasn’t having any fun, and learning to fly, while sometimes challenging, should always be fun.

In the end, the S.O.B. didn’t even let her solo.

She was devastated.

In a deep funk she told me, “I just want to learn to land a damned airplane.”

Watching the struggles of my two favorite student pilots, I began thinking that, even though I’m not a certified flight instructor, I could do a better job teaching them to fly than the instructors they were using. Maybe, just maybe, 34 years after I dropped out of Flight Instructor School, it was time for me to go back to school.

I wonder what I did with those mirrored sunglasses?