High fliers

We’re perched atop the dome of the sky, the world below stretching out to infinity. In my mind’s eye I can nearly picture the curve of the earth, gently sliding off left and right like the slope of a gentle hill.

This is a whole ‘nother kind of flying for Tess, altogether. Not our usual down in the dust barnstorming. As the altimeter slides past 11,000 feet I pause to wonder what her service ceiling—the maximum point above the earth that Tessie’s engine and airfoils can deliver her to—really is. Yeah, I know the book value is 13,000 feet. The book, in this case, being the Wikipedia entry on Ercoupes. When Tess was built, owner’s manuals, at least for airplanes, hadn’t been invented yet. But every ‘Coupe is different. What can my girl really do?

At 11,300 feet above the oceans of the earth, she’s still showing no signs of slowing down. Part of me wants to take her to the apex of her capability, just for the science of it, but I’m already stretching the law as it is. You see, the part of my license I’m flying on caps me at 10,000 feet above sea level, with one exception, which is the one I’m using now. The rules let sport pilots, or pilots flying under the light sport privileges of any higher license, exceed 10,000 feet when it’s necessary to go higher to stay 2,000 feet above the ground—like for instance, when crossing a mountain range—which is what I’m preparing to do now.

Of course, even though I’m climbing steadily, fiddling with the fuel-air mixture of the engine as I rise to keep it running strong, it’s no fast process. If I stayed exactly 2K above the ground the whole way, I’d smack right into Mount Terrell about half way up. So I got a head start on my climb as we headed down the Sevier River Valley south of Spanish Fork, getting ready to cross from the Western Slope of the Rockies, over the Great Divide, to the East Slope. I have faith that the FAA, now more safety focused than letter-of-the-law focused, will judge me to be in the spirit of the law.

Unless I were to attempt 13,000 feet to cross a 9,318-foot mountain pass. That would be stretching their good nature too far, I suspect, and not be in the spirit of the law whatsoever. So I stop climbing and turn left toward the gap in the mountains.

Beneath our belly the ground is now more than five thousand feet below, but that number rapidly unwinds as the terrain rears up. Forty-five hundred… four thousand… three thousand five hundred… three thousand feet… two thousand five hundred… The mountain is climbing faster than I ever would have been able too. Over the apex of the saddle between the eleven-thousand-foot peaks, my GPS shows me at a legal and comfortable 1,982 feet above the rocks below.

As I pass out of the mountain’s jaws I slide the throttle backward and Tess drops down from the heavens like a fallen angel. Our course is Eastbound, so I let her fall to 9,500 feet above the world’s oceans, which here in the heart of the country are  more than a thousand miles away, then I bring the power back up to hold the altitude, relishing the feeling of being on top of the world.

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Fully legal both in spirit and the letter of the law, but still a high flier.

 

Milestones

I happened to look down at just the right moment to catch the odometer roll 4,000. It was pure luck. The impending event wasn’t even on my mental horizon. Not true of my father. He kept a hawk-like eye on his odometer, and every time there was a big roll coming he’d announce it well down the road and all three of us kids (always in the back) would unbuckle and cluster in a pack behind his seat, looking over his shoulder in awe as the chain of numbers quickly rolled over, died, and zeros took their places.

This odometer, however, was taking its sweet time. Of course, I guess it’s not really an odometer, which is a device for measuring miles driven in a car. This is a similar-looking device on Tess’s tachometer that measures the total run time of her engine in hours. Still, as the word “odometer” is derived from the ancient Greek words hodós, meaning trip, and métron, meaning measure; my aerial odometer is still in the spirit of the word—measuring trips though the sky.

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High above Canyon Lands, watching the 9s lazily replaced with zeros, I was momentarily a small child in my father’s Chevrolet Vista Cruiser again, looking over his shoulder to watch the odometer mark another milestone of family travel as he barreled down some desolate road in Indian Country.

Tess now has 4,000 hours of plying the sky. Which, for a small airplane, is a fair number, more than average for an Ercoupe. That girl just loves to fly. Of course, I know that the number is largely fantasy. The chain of four black numbers and one white one are all driven by the RPM of the engine, meaning it turns more slowly during idle and taxi, and faster during full-power climb outs. It’s also not Tess’s original tach, nor do we have all her logbooks so we can really know how much flight time she has, but all of that said, her mechanic set the numbers on her aerial odometer to his best guess of her total airframe time.

So the slow motion replacement of 3,999.9 with 4,000.0 might not have happened at the true instant she surpassed her four-thousandth hour, but it’s close. And a pretty cool experience.

My father would have loved it.

Today, my personal odometer is also rolling over, marking both another year on the planet and in the sky above it. Yep. Our usual Friday publication date just happens to land on my birthday this year. My odometer just rolled from 54.9 to 55.0, or it will a little after lunchtime this afternoon.

To be honest, I don’t give my age much thought, at least not since I had to stop lying about it to buy beer. But with Tess rolling 4K, and me marking a birthday, I couldn’t help but engage in a flight of fancy about age. Tess’s birthday, based on the date stamped on her manufacturing plate, is May 5, 1947, making her 71 this year. Airplanes being eternal, she’ll be 100 years old in 2,047. That will be under Rio’s watch, although at 84, I could very well still be around.

I would very much like to fly her on her 100thbirthday.

And if by some miracle I live to be 100 years old, Tess would then be 116 years old; which is kinda funny, as I always think of her as so much older than I; but really, she’s only a hair more than a decade and a half up on me.

Still, could Tess really last more than a hundred years?

Why not? Flight as we know it turns 115 years old this December with the anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, and the airplane that made that flight still exists in the Smithsonian, although granted it’s not flying—but I bet it could. And plenty of airplanes much older than Tess still ply the skies.

Properly cared for, their years and hours roll on. One thing is for sure, when my aerial odometer gets ready to roll five thousand, I’ll be paying close attention.

With the spirit of my father looking on over my shoulder.

 

Text (1) if you are alive; text (2) if you are dead

I open my logbook. A moth flies out. Well, at least someoneis flying.

Actually, thanks to my buddy Lisa losing her mind and buying an airplane, I’ve been in the air almost every week—except for those three weeks when Warbler was broken down. But flying with Lisa nowadays isn’t reallyflying. Her skill level has crossed that magic plateau every pilot-in-training experiences: One hour it looks hopeless, the next hour it all comes together, and she’s been flying like an ol’ pro ever since.

So my flying with Lisa isn’t so much flying, as riding in an airplane enjoying the view. But, still, it’s not a bad way to spend a morning. And the way the FAA regs are written, I still get to log the time. But what I’m lacking is some logging of flight in my soul, and there’s only one plane to do that in: Tessie.

But it’s been a bad year for poor Tess. We had that five-month engine rebuild debacle; then the prop repitch, re-repitch, re-re-repitch; then the weird oil leaks; then the leaky header tank; then the radio problems; then the stuck controls; then the broken exhaust; then the wing gas tank rebuild; then the problems with the elevator adjustment; and… Did I leave anything out? Probably. I try not to think about these things too much, and the aviation maintenance suicide prevention hot line at the NFFAis really getting tired of my calls.

After coming out of a six-week-long annual in June, Tess immediately began to overheat. Badly. There was much back and forth about possible causes, and in the end, I made the decision to let a different maintenance team take a crack at the issue. Mere days out of her annual I delivered Tess to a field on the Eastern Plains of New Mexico and then waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Of course, I’m not very good at waiting. And it’s not like I just sat idlily by. I called and emailed. And always there was an excuse for the delay. And always a promise of a new date. Finally, at the two month point the Eastern Planes guys admitted they had not even startedthe promised work.

I blew a gasket, got in a car (with wife and child in tow to bring the car back home), and went to go pick up the damned airplane. When I got there and tried to start Tess, she had no oil pressure. They pulled the top plugs and the oil filter and had me swing the prop with the mags off, using the starter. This should have pumped oil. It didn’t. It looked like the oil pump, hidden deep down inside the engine case, had died.

It was less than sixty hours old.

I’m sure you can imagine my state of mind.

As a last-ditch effort, they plugged the breather tube and applied compressed air to the oil system and we tried again. We struck oil. It was a gusher. They decided it was something called an “air lock” somewhere in the oil system, or maybe some debris. I don’t know about that, but afterward my mystery overheating disappeared.

I flew Tess home without incident. Then I flew her hard the next day, just trying to overheat her. She was as good as new. The old Tessie was back, and both she and I were thirsty for adventure.

We didn’t have long to wait.

Because that very same afternoon—as I sat in the back seat of Deb’s Jeep as the nuclear family drove to Albuquerque to fetch Grandma Jean, who was flying home commercially after a visit to sister number two and family in Colorado—I was checking my email. There was a ton of chatter on the Sport Air Racing League discussion board about the upcoming weekend’s race. I guess I must have been grumbling out loud about missing out on the action because Deb turned her head and said: “Go.”

I grumbled there wasn’t time. I’d have to leave in 12 hours.

“Go,” said Debbie.

I’d have to do laundry, and pack, and flight plan, and…

“Go, already,” said Debbie.

So I did. After crazy-fast late-night prep, Lisa and I are now south of Santa Fe with five hundred miles to go, enjoying a smooth early morning ride, and watching the temperature gauges like hawks, when I get a text on my Apple watch.

It says: “Are you dead?”

Well, that wasn’t quite what it said. It really said: “Leidos Flt Svc Advisory–N3967H–TRACK LOST@241252–If not in distress–Contact Flt Svcs.”

Which is pretty much the same thing as, “Are you dead?”

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But it’s not the type of text you expect to get in an airplane. At least I didn’t expect it, nor had I ever seen anything like it before. Now, for quick background on this first-time-for-me text, you need to know that after writing an article on flight plans, I got inspired and started using the modern and super-easy flight plan filing system where everything is done by computer and smart phone, a methodology which ideally suits my antisocial personality (and least when it comes to talking to authority). And a totally new-for-me option is to link my flight plan and my Spot GPS tracker. If the tracker stops tracking—i.e. moving—then rescue efforts are started right away, rather than waiting until after you’re overdue and presumed missing en route.

Apparently, our tracker had stopped tracking.

We dug the tracker out of the back, and sure enough, it had lost the signal. We re-booted it. No joy. The batteries were too low. To flight service we were flying along just fine one minute, and the next we had vanished. Needless to say, we needed to check in and let them know notto launch search and rescue.

But I’ve gotten so used to dealing with flight service via text message, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how to contact them using something as old fashioned as a radio. I mean, seriously, I can open and close my flight plans by texting single letters and numbers to them. Why on earth couldn’t they have just texted: TRACK LOST, text (1) if you are OK, text (2) if you need help?

But that wasn’t an option. In my mind’s eye I could see the slide in my Rusty Pilots PowerPoint presentation that shows the universal frequency for flight service. But my mind’s eye apparently needs bifocals; as I couldn’t focus on the long—for me—unused frequency.

“You have the plane,” I told Lisa.

She quickly grabbed the controls, “I have the plane.”

I whipped out my phone (thankfully we were near civilization and I had three bars). I used Google to look up the frequency for Flight Service:122.2. You’d think I could remember a number like that) and proceeded to make my usual fool of myself on the radio. “Uh… hello? Flight service, are you there? Yes, we’re fine. Umm.. thanks for asking. How are you? Oh, right, I’m the pane you’re worried about. I got your text. We’re not dead. It’s just the battery that went dead. Don’t call out the guard or anything. Err…Thanks again. Uh… have a nice day.”

OK, it wasn’t quite that bad, but the exchange felt awkward to me, and less professional than I envision myself. Still, they were happy to know we were still in the air, and wished us a good flight.

And the rest of it was. The plane behaved. The weather behaved. Not only were we alive, but I felt alive again.

 

The triumphant return of Warbler

“You warned her,” said Debbie.

“Seeing all we’ve been through up close and personal, you’d think she’d have known better,” said Mom.

“This is what she gets for buying an Ercoupe,” said Rio.

My family is lacking in, you know, basic human compassion. Sure, I knew that sooner or later—probably sooner—Lisa’s Warbler would suffer his first breakdownon her watch. But still, I felt badly for her.

Now, you may recall that the consensus from all the experts we phoned, after pushing Warbler almost a mile across the airport to get him back to his nest, was that he was suffering from a stuck valve; albeit one that was manifesting in a way that no one had really heard of before, what with the prop stuck fast turning one direction, and freely spinning in the other.

But they were all wrong.

This is the Tale: The very next weekend Lisa’s mechanic drove over from Santa Fe with a trunk load full of tools. He did some tests, poked, prodded, and basically did all the stuff that airplane doctors do to sick airplanes. Rio and I hung out in the back of Lisa’s hangar, rocking back and forth in her rocking camp chairs, staying out of the way, and pretending to surf the internet on our iPads.

Really, we were eavesdropping—drinking in every word.

After a bit, her wrench-turner decided to fire up the plane. We helped pull Warbler out of his hangar and he fired right up. Lisa was in the cockpit, the mechanic, Rio, and I arranged in a loose ring around the plane, heads cocked, ears aimed at the engine. It sounded, well, not quite right. Or did it? I’d rarely been outside of Warbler listening to his powerplant sing.

This was followed by a comic series of hand signs and pantomimes between Lisa and her mechanic. It became pretty clear that they weren’t speaking the same language. The various finger pointing, hand swirling, and gestures mimicked two drunken deaf people leaving a bar and arguing in sign language over whether or not to call a cab. She was saying that in the cockpit, the noise was back. He was saying that outside, it sounded fine.

Rio looked at me and shrugged one shoulder. At least he and I were talking the same language.

Eventually Lisa throttled up and then we all knew something was amiss. In Warbler’s tongue, he made it clear that something was very wrong with his engine. The mechanic moved his hand quickly back and forth across his throat and suddenly he and Lisa were speaking the same language. She cut the engine.

I was secretly relieved. Airplanes sometimes behave themselves for their mechanics, only to act up again as soon as the “parent” is out of the room. I was afraid the man would find nothing, leave, and suddenly Warbler would be back to his antics. At least—no matter what the problem might be—the mechanic was now witness to it, could hopefully figure it out, and then fix it.

The sun beating down, we pushed Warbler back into the shade of his hangar. The mechanic started rocking the prop back and forth when some movement in the engine compartment caught his eye. I missed what he said, but a moment later his head was inside the engine compartment on one side, and Lisa’s head was inside the engine compartment on the other side.

Now, if you don’t already know this, the latest and greatest in airplane engines is about as technically evolved as a 1932 gasoline-powered lawn mower. They haven’t changed much in eons. Of course, Warbler’s engine is only one year younger than Warbler himself. He was born in 1946, and his current engine rolled off the Continental assembly line a year later in 1947. I guess engines can’t really roll off of assembly lines, now can they? Well, however it was moved off, it was originally bolted onto the nose of a brand-spanking-new Cessna 140. That airplane later got an upgrade to a more powerful engine, and the cast-off original engine from that plane somehow found its way to Lisa’s plane in the following decades.

And you think your family history is complicated.

But back to engine tech: An airplane engine generates power from controlled explosions of a gas and air mixture in each cylinder, which drives the piston downwards. The match for these explosions is the spark plug. Airplane spark plugs get their sparks from spinning magnets called magnetos. If the magneto were to stop, the pulses of electricity they make would stop, the spark plugs would stop sparking, and the airplane’s engine would stop. Which would be bad.

Accordingly, airplanes have two magnetos. Just for in case.

The magnetos are bolted to the back of the engine and are driven by gears inside the crankcase. Once the engine is running, itis spinning the mags that keep it running. It’s really quite clever. At least until one of your two magnetos comes completely apart.

And that’s what happened to Warbler. All four screws that held the two clamshell halves of the right magneto together were missing, the case had come apart, and the mechanism was shredded and stripped.

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Luckily—if these kinds of breakdowns can have any luck about them at all—the damage was to the outside end of the mag, not the part where it attaches to the engine. Those gears were all fine.

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The solution was ordering a new mag. Well, returning the half-demolished “core” and purchasing a refurib’d replacement. “What’s this going to cost me?” Lisa asked her mechanic.

He shrugged, “I dunno. Probably a thousand bucks.” Then after a few beats of silence he added, “All airplane parts cost a thousand bucks.”

Of course, add to that two house calls, as Warbler isn’t flyable with one mag off, and the innards of his engine exposed to the elements…

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Her mechanic wrapped up the damaged mag in a small blanket, like an orphan baby, and drove away in a cloud of dust. Tess still broken down in another city, there was nothing left to do but break out the bourbon.

Now I know what you are thinking: How the heck could all four screws work loose? Did someone forget to replace them after working on the mag? We’ve asked ourselves that; over and over and over again. But like the question about whether or not there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, this is one of those questions we will never likely learn the answer to. On the surface, it looks like a maintenance failure. Like someone forgot to put the screws back in. But looking though the logs, the mags hadn’t been worked on for a looooongtime. So on the one hand it seems unlikely that all the screws could fall out, but on the other hand, if they were never there, how could the plane have flown so long?

Before every takeoff, pilots independently check both mags by using the ignition key to run what is called a mag check. Lisa was religious about doing hers. The right mag always ran rougher, as one or the other of the pair often do in airplanes, but the darn thing was always running. Heck, it was running when she did the engine runup for her mechanic right before the whole mess was discovered. We spent a lot of time talking about the flight hours and the various maintenance log entries from before and after Lisa took over as caretaker of Warbler.

In fact, we spent the next two weeks doing nothing but that until her mechanic came back to SXU with a shinny “new” mag. He bolted it on, then fussed around with the prop and a small beeping box, adjusting the timing of the mag so it would spark neither too early nor too late.

When he was done, it was out into the sun for Warbler, for an engine test. He sang his throaty song, clear and bright. Even on the right mag alone. Problem solved, right?

Not necessarily. The problem with the mag didn’t rule out the possibility that there was alsoa valve problem. One that wouldn’t show up until after the engine had been running at full power for a while. A test flight was needed.

Now, Lisa’s mechanic is a pilot, too. Some flying mechanics insist on test flying their work, others don’t. He’s one of those that don’t.

As we hadn’t broken out the bourdon yet, I pulled up my big boy pants, pulled on my Chuck Yeager boots, and climbed into Warbler’s cockpit.

“Stay within gliding distance of the runway,” Lisa’s mechanic told me.

Roger that.

I spent the next half hour circling the field by myself, bored to death. It was bumpy as the dickens. Finally, fuel running low, Warbler and I returned to earth. There was no valve problem.

Lisa paid off her mechanic and he disappeared in a cloud of dust. She turned to me and said, “I really need to fly. You know, not train. Just. Go. Fly. Understand?”

I understood. We climbed in, belted in, and headed out. She carefully checked her mags and ran up her engine. The takeoff on Runway One-Ninner was smooth and as she turned and flew down the Pecos River Canyon south of the airport the choppiness I’d experienced in the atmosphere over the airport disappeared.

I turned and looked at Lisa at Warbler’s helm, and watched a metamorphosis take place. For the last two weeks, Lisa had been a woman of stone. Her eyes narrow, scowling, dull and flint-like. Her jaw tight, the usual smile absent, replaced by a horizon-straight slit. Her shoulders hunched tight to her neck. Now that all began to melt away. Her shoulders relaxed and dropped, her eyes widened and lit afire anew, and a smile danced at the corners of her mouth, slowly spreading like the growing dawn until her entire face was a picture of pure joy.

The magic of flight was erasing the stresses of doubt, fear, and expense that had hung over her like a dark shadow for the last two weeks.

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Yeah. They have their challenges, but this is why we own airplanes.