Death by a thousand pinpricks

It must be a misprint. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong. I take my glasses off, rub my eyes, put my glasses back on, and look at the PDF on the tiny screen of my iPhone again. Using my fingers, I zoom in on the bottom line of the invoice from my mechanic.

Yes.

There really are two numbers to the left of the comma. The six week-long annual inspection has resulted in a mind numbing, stomach churningly large bill. More the type of number that you’d expect for an engine rebuild, than for a simple annual. And about five times more than I had expected.

How the @#&% did it cost that much?

I scan through the two itemized pages. It’s a mix of self-inflicted injuries (things I decided to do that didn’t strictly needed to be done), things that had to be done (and could no longer be put off), and new discoveries (that had to be fixed to remain airworthy).

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None of them, really, were wildly expensive in and of themselves. No. Wait. That’s not true. Everything about airplane maintenance could correctly be called “wildly expensive.” So it would be more accurate to say that none of these things, by themselves, were more expensive than I’d expect them to be. It’s just that there were a boatload of them.

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The (expected) biggie was the rebuilding of the pilot side fuel tank. I more or less knew what that would cost, having done the tank on the other side last year. What I’d forgotten about, however, was the cost of removing it, sending it out, getting it sent back, painting it, and re-installing it. But at least now, with both wing tanks rebuilt and the header tank replaced, my fuel system problems are a thing of the past, and unlikely to need to be addressed ever again, at least in my lifetime.

The (unexpected) biggie was the discovery of a worn down area on the engine mount that was so thin that a fabric-testing probe could be poked through it. Also unexpected was an increase in both the base cost of the annual itself and in the shop rate charged by my wrench turners.

In the self-inflicted, but more expensive that I thought it would be department, was the removal of the new digital engine monitor and its replacement with conventional gauges. I’ve had nothing but trouble with the stupid thing in the limited flying I’ve done between maintenance headaches since we put it in, and finally the manufacturer graciously offered to refund my money, an offer I jumped on. I figured the refund would more than cover the cost of the conventional instruments to replace it, and it did. But I hadn’t understood that the instruments didn’t include the needed leads and probes to make them work, gadgets which ended up doubling the cost of each dial. Nor had I understood just how damn long it would take my crew to remove the digital system, apparently a full seven hours at 95 smackeroos per hour; or how long it would take to hook up the replacements, apparently eight full hours at 95 smackeroos per hour. (I’d never known why dollars are sometimes called smackeroos until right now: Sometimes money can just smack you across the face!)

Another self-inflicted injury was my attitude towards my attitude indictor. A few years back we put in a digital one, but it reflects all manner of light in our greenhouse of an airplane, and can’t be read more than half the time. As I was pulling out the digital engine monitor anyway, which in addition to a host of other problems, also suffered from the glare issue, I decided to get all the computerized glass panel crap out of the plane and go back to the humble “steam gauges” that I’ve known and loved for years. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t a total hissy fit, and I haven’tcompletely lost my mind, I’m still navigating by GPS on my iPad…) I was delighted that I was able to sell the glass attitude indicator for a good price, but still, its traditional replacement wasn’t cheap, and again, there were fees for pulling the old one out and putting the new one in the same hole.

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But, really, most of the bill was little things. Four spark plug gaskets for $4.50, re-timing of the right mag at $23.75…

$47.50 to patch yet another crack in the nose bowl…

$15.00 for an air filter…

And on it went…

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It was death by a thousand pinpricks. But except for the actual writing of the check, at least it’s all over now.

Well, until next year.

 

I wish I could fly like that

An ear-piercing scream reverberated across the hangar deck. I stood transfixed, horrified and fascinated as I watched the bright yellow box pitch upward then roll completely upside down. More screams. Terror mixed with pure joy.

Roller coaster screams.

The yellow box pitched violently down, then rocked side to side. Adrenaline surged into my blood stream. My mouth began to water. I wanted to join in the fun. Rio sighed deeply. “Go on, dad,” he said, giving me a gentle push on the small of my back, “go break your neck if you want to, but I’m having no part in it.”

I reached for my wallet, my right foot stepping toward the long line of teenagers. But my left foot stayed rooted firmly in place, as if riveted to the metal deck of the aircraft carrier. Damn this sense of parental responsibility! We were aboard CV-41, the USS Midway, which is docked permanently in San Diego Harbor as an awesome must-see-at-least-once-in-your-life museum; it was a Friday afternoon and there must have been double her original crew of 4,101 aboard—all tourists. The hangar deck looked like the mall at Christmas. I couldn’t leave my 12-year-old alone in that throng while I flipped myself upside down for fun. And deep down, maybe I was worried about embarrassing myself in front of all those teens. Much as I like to think I do, I wasn’t sure I had the Right Stuff.

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I looked one last time at the pitching boxes (they had a full squadron of them), then sighed and turned toward the Fantail Café. “Come on, kiddo,” I said, as I turned my back on the delighted screams, “let’s go get some lunch.”

Actually, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen one of the twisting, turning boxes. My first encounter with one was just the day before at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, an awesome must-visit-at-least-twice-in-your-life museum. Somewhere between the Spitfire and the Apollo program was a bored teenager standing in front of an empty black box, a truncated windowless mini-van on giant hydraulic brackets.

A sign indicated it was a flight simulator ride. “Let’s take it up for a spin,” I said to Rio.

He wasn’t so sure. He hemmed and hawed.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” I told Rio, “it’s not like I can turn it upside down on you.”

“Actually,” said the bored teenager, who could have cared less if we bought a ride or not, “you can turn it upside down.”

Adrenaline surged into my blood stream. My mouth began to water. Now I really wanted to take the simulator up for a test flight; and now Rio really didn’t want to go. Somehow I talked him into it, but from the second the teenager locked us into the dark ride, Rio ran a constant monologue of “don’t you dare flip us upside down, don’t you dare flip us upside down, don’t you dare flip us upside down.”

A child of few words in general, I think it’s the most speech I’d heard come out of his mouth at one time in his entire life.

In the end, I ended up flying straight and level for the duration of the ride, while simulated Jap Zeros flashed by, taking pot shots at us.

It was pathetic. The ego of my inner-barnstormer was bruised, to say the least.

But the rest of the visit to the museum was great.

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Flash forward two years. AOPA has sent me to Los Angles and I’m caught in a busload full of senior citizens at the delightful Museum of Flying at the embattled Santa Monica Airport.

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As the seniors flow past, following their docent, I’m left alone in the large central foyer of the museum. And that’s when I see it: Squeezed in between large models of race planes and an honest-to-God Lockheed Vega 5B with a mannequin of Amelia Earhart in it, is a truncated windowless mini-van on giant hydraulic brackets. There’s no line. No child to worry about. Nothing to stop me.

And yet… and yet, for some reason I didn’t “fly” it. Maybe because it wouldn’t be fun alone. Or maybe because, as much as I like the idea of being bold enough to flip a simulator upside down, I don’t know if I really have the Right Stuff to do it, and, of course, I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of all of those senior citizens.

Still, I wish I could fly like that.

Without screaming, of course.

 

A tale of two cowls… well, three, actually

Houston, we have a cowl problem. As, it seems, do all Ercoupes. Our problem started with a nose cowl crack. We’d just bought Tess, and the crack was brought to my attention during the first of her many, many rounds of maintenance.

My options were to buy a used replacement nose cowl from the Ercoupe junkyard guy for $500 bucks (which would probably crack, too), buy a new cowl from Univair for $1,200 bucks (which would probably crack, also), or have my guys “patch” it.

Silly me, I opted for the patch, and when Tess came home from her mechanics, her beautiful, flat nose was covered in brass rivets. It looked like Machine Gun Kelly strafed us on the runway.

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This was just days before our first Ercoupe convention, and I was mad as hell. It was not the first impression I wanted to make. I spent the afternoon sitting on an upside-down bucket with a Q-tip and a can of metallic touchup paint, painstakingly covering each and every one of the 43 brass-colored rivets with dark blue paint. It was slow going. Metallic paint doesn’t like to stay stirred. Or to stick to brass. In the end, while my handiwork wouldn’t pass close inspection, or win a Lindy at Oshkosh, from any respectable distance it didn’t look too terribly bad.

But since then, every year it seems, a new crack develops, and more rivets get shot into the nose bowl. Rather than Machine Gun Kelley, on close inspection, it now looks like an inebriated Elmer Fudd blasted Tessie’s nose with his double-barreled shotgun.

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Truth be told, there’s actually no original metal left at all. I’m flying behind a solid mass of rivets.

Now, not to whine about money (again), but I think I might have mentioned that while Ercoupes are very affordable to buy—less than most cars—the problem with airplanes is that, sorta like kids, the real costs start when you bring them home from the hospital. All these patches weren’t cheap. I could have easily bought two new nose cowls for what I’ve paid in patches over the years.

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In fact, that’s what my mechanic mentioned sorta off hand as he handed me the latest invoice. Naturally, the next day, a new crack developed.

Normally, at this point the decision would have been obvious, but there are extenuating circumstances. The first is that there’s an airplane paint job on my horizon. And I was sorta thinking about replacing the entire cowl, not just the nose bowl, before the painting, as it’s all in pretty bad shape. But that aside, even if I just wanted to get a new nose bowl, it doesn’t make much sense to pay to have it painted when the whole plane is going to be painted in a few years, nor would it make sense to leave unprotected metal out in the elements just because a paint job is on the horizon.

But that’s not all. Now there are three options for new cowls. Univair still has the original thin aluminum nose bowl, but Alpha, who bought up a lot of mods from Skyport when they shut down, nearly have FAA approval for two more options. One is the original-style nose bowl, but made of a reportedly more crack-resistant fiberglass. It also promises to be cheaper. And additionally, they are bringing back a product called the Kinney Speed Bowl. It’s also a fiberglass bowl, but with a much larger air intakes for improved cooling.

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I was drawn to the Kinney for two reasons: We live in a hot desert; and the word “speed” was in the title.

That said, Rio thinks the Kinney bowls are the ugliest things in the world and, “The worst thing a man could do to an Ercoupe.” To be honest, I couldn’t quite picture how our girl would look with one on it, so I started Googling pictures of Ercoupe nose bowls.

And that’s when I discovered this:

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Image courtesy Machine Age Lamps

Which is about the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Yeah. That’s a real-life Ercoupe nose cowl turned into a steampunk lamp. What’s the story behind it?

The lamp is the creation of Darin Carling. His brother Shawn runs an outfit called Machine Age Lamps in Lakeville, Minnesota. The brothers grew up on a small farm in rural North Dakota, so they were good at fixing stuff, creating stuff, or re-purposing stuff. Farm folk like that wouldn’t go out and buy a new cowl.

I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but I wasn’t raised on a farm.

Anyway, after leaving the farm, Shawn, in his own words, spent the next 25 years “miscast” in corporate America, until one year at Christmas when he built his father a “unique” lamp out of old tractor parts. His dad dug it, as did everyone else who saw it, and one thing led to another.

“Another,” in this case, being the fact that his work is lighting Gordon Ramsey’s Restaurant. The one in Hong Kong.

Shawn’s highly successful company creates one-of-a-kind lamps from salvaged antique industrial, agricultural, nautical, and aircraft parts and gauges. The ‘Coupe cowl light was created by brother Darin, who was encouraged by Shawn to build some items for the businesses.

Darin told me he didn’t want to copy anybody else’s work, including his brother’s, and that it took him a long time to “come up with solid ideas of my own.” But wow, did he ever. Darin says, “We are interested in history and in all things mechanical, and old airplanes are as good as it gets.”

The ‘Coupe lamp actually started with a Cessna nose cowl. Darin says, “A few years ago I purchased a Cessna nose cowling from someone with no idea what I was going to do with it. It sat in my living room for 6 months before I started working on it. The first ones did not have lights as props but rather lights coming out the front and hanging down in almost an exhaust pipe fashion. They were kind of cool, but not quite what I wanted. One day I was looking for new light bulbs online and found these very large bulbs. I thought ‘just maybe they could be propellers!’ I made a prototype and it was on display at the Minnesota State Fair and everyone loved it. After that, we started to fine tune and dress them up with vintage emblems, real aviation gears, and valve covers.”

Darin, an aviation lover since childhood, has a deep desire not only to create art, but also to be true to history. “I also do my best to have all the parts make sense,” said Darin, “for example I only put Franklin valve covers in my Stinson cowls. History is very important to me, and to the people that buy our projects.” The Ercoupe lamp has vintage Continental valve covers and assorted engine gears for a cool look.

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Darin says he always keep track of where the cowls come from and, “If I can get history, I pass that along. One cowl I’m working on now has a photo copy of the bill of sale for the plane back in 1953.” That being said, I can happily report that no Ercoupes were harmed in the making of the ‘Coupe Cowl lamp. Darin bought the cowl from the friend of an Ercoupe owner in Michigan. Apparently, like me, the airplane owner was having a cowl problem. Unlike me, he had the sense to buy a new one.

Is Darin a pilot? Not yet, although his father worked for the FAA and brother Shawn has his ticket. Darin tells me he’s finished his ground school.

But back to the lamp. How does it work? Despite the old parts, all the electric components are brand new. The Ercoupe lamp is equipped with UL approved wiring, a dimmer switch, and a heavy-duty grounded lamp cord, although Darin says some airplane cowl customers have chosen to have electricians hardwire the lamp for “a clean cordless look,” controlling the lamp through a wall switch.

In the case of the cowl lamps, Darin builds a steel frame inside to support the soft metal cowls, which are either buffed or powder coated. The frame has mounting holes drilled on 16-inch centers to match up with the standard wall studs, allowing it to be hung “just like a picture.” Darin also covers the back of the cowl with sheet metal, painting the inside of it black. “When peeking in the cowl, I wanted the illusion of looking in a real plane,” said Darin, “and you would not get that if the painted wall showed through.”

So how do those crazy bulbs hold up? Darin says he’s yet to see one burn out, and some of the lamps in his house have been blazing away for three years. That said, “I always ship my cowls with three bulbs, just in case.” Will we see more Ercoupe art from Darin? “I would love to do more Ercoupe art,” Darin tells me, “I researched the Ercoupe and found it’s history to be very cool.”

Meanwhile, did I ever find a picture that helped me decide what Tess would look like with an entirely different kind of cowl? No. So for now we’ll probably just keep patching the patches. But I do know one thing: Once we decide what to do, I’ll turn our old one over to Darin and commission him to turn it into some sort of lamp for our hangar.

Maybe I’ll have him drill out the hundreds of rivets and have him put a little Christmas light in each hole. Or maybe not.

It would be blinding.

 

[Editor's Note: Darin tells Plane Tales that between our interview with him and going to press on this story the Ercoupe Nose Bowl Lamp sold to a private collector. But while you missed out on this lamp we're told that Machine Age Lamps has scored three more non-flight worthy Ercoupe nose bowls from the Ercoupe Junkyard guy, so more 'Coupe lights are coming!]

 

Cutting a shortcut

Yellow-gold sparks flowed like a fountain from the tip of the Dremel tool, as small beads of metal bounced off my face. Luckily, I had an old pair of safety goggles from Lisa protecting my eyes. It was slow going, cutting the old metal, so my writer’s imagination wandered.

First I was a steel mill worker, forging raw iron. Then a commando, cutting through the barricades on the beaches of Normandy the day before the invasion. Next a safe cracker after the gold and diamonds just beyond…

“How’s it goin’?” interrupted Lisa, bringing me sharply back to reality.

I set the Dremel on the platform of the stepladder, and studied my progress. I’d managed to cut a good five inches. I had three feet to go. “This might take a while,” I told her, then fired up the Dremel again, its high-pitched soprano electric whine dropping to baritone as I touched the whirling cutting blade to the metal wall in a fresh shower of sparks. The Dremel moved right to left, awkward for a lefty, bringing back a memory from last year’s OMG Facts Calendar that some ridiculously large number of left-handed people are killed each year by right-hand optimized power tools.

Hmmmm….

Well. The job must be done: Lisa and I are on a mission of unification. Bringing together two separate peoples. Really, an act of absolute selflessness.

OK. Well. That’s a lie. We’re just making a short cut. Here’s the deal: Even though our hangars are separated only by a thin sheet of metal, we are literally distant neighbors at the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport.

This is because of the architecture of airplane hangars.

Our airport has just one hangar building, a six-plane type (although our two planes are the only ones there) called a “T-hangar” because it’s built out of T-shaped jigsaw puzzle pieces, with three interlocking Ts to a side. The top of the T accommodates wings as wide as forty-two feet. The base of the T accommodates the far skinnier tail of an airplane.

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Image: Teachspan

A T-hangar is a way to efficiently pack more planes per square foot of hangar, as the Ts interlock with a bit of room left over on each end, and little space is wasted. If you just strung six airplane-sized garages together, you’d have a much larger building and a couple of planeloads of wasted space.

Now, in our case, I have the end hangar on the North and Lisa has the end hangar on the South. Even though Superman would have no problem seeing though the wall that separates us, it’s a surprisingly long hike around the end of building to get from her hangar to mine and vice versa. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but you’d be surprised when we are both at the airport how often one of us needs something that’s in the other’s hangar. Plus, when we are both in one of hangars with the other hangar open, we can’t help but worry a bit about the security of the airplane next door.

“We should just cut a damn hatchway in the wall between our hangars,” Lisa said one afternoon after coming back from the other side with the wrong screwdriver.

I started studying the wall. It was made up of door-width metal panels, connected to each other with large nuts and bolts, then connected to a heavy frame work. The walls aren’t “load bearing,” meaning that removing one would have no effect on the structure. Of course the walls are crazy high, 18 or 20 feet. But surely cutting the bottom seven feet off of one panel wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Thus began operation shortcut. We had all kinds of worries, including, what the heck kind of metal is this, can it be cut without lasers and plasma torches, and will those 40-year-old nuts ever free themselves from their sister bolts?

As it turns out, it was a one-hour job. Or would have been if I’d remembered the right accessories the first time we drove down to do it, and if I hadn’t broken one of the said accessories on the second attempt.

Still, the cutting went well, the nuts and bolts gave way quickly under the power of our socket wrenches and skinny arms, and in no time I was able to gently lower a sheet of metal slowly into my hangar to reveal:

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My neighbor!

Of course, we had the proper blessing, and our work is largely reversible by bolting the section back into place and using some duct tape to seal the thin cut should either of us ever move away. In the mean time, we were able to bolt the panel we removed to one of Lisa’s naked walls (she needs an art intervention) where it is safe, won’t get lost, and won’t fall on anyone’s head.

And I wasn’t killed by a right-handed power tool.