The little bomber that could

Twin tails. An open greenhouse-like nose you can see right through. Must be a B-25 Mitchell.

Oh. Wait.

It only has one engine. Well, more correctly, one engine mount.

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Yes, this sad, disassembled aeronautical apparatus is my beloved Tessie. Her engine, nose gear, and wing tanks are removed—as is the skin from the cockpit to the firewall on both sides of the fuselage. Parts of this airplane that haven’t seen the light of day since 1947 are now exposed. It’s fascinating. And horrifying.

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Beneath her wings is a pile of assorted parts that resemble the debris field of a plane crash…

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Her engine sits on a pair of saw horses…

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Although, I must say that the view out the sides is stunning…

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So much so, I told my mechanic we should skip the metal and just put in plexi. I think for a moment he was afraid I was serious, as he started muttering something about the skin being part of the structure that holds the plane together…

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Or maybe it was because he’s started working on the new skins, apparently complicated by the fact that they have a compound curve, meaning that the metal plates curve top to bottom and front to back. Asymmetrically, of course.

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On the bright side, I’ll be able to keep the old skins as art. Hey, people pay good money for faux airplane side panels to serve as aeronautical decor. Now I’ll have one, too. Only mine will be authentic, one with real history.

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And while we’re all bummed out about the state of our family airplane…

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We know this sad state of disassembly isn’t forever. Progress is slow, but she’ll be put back together soon. And I’ll leave the green-house-like nose to the B-25s.

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Horsing around, Part II

We tried every socket, wrench, and tool in the two hangars. They were all too short. Nothing would reach the damn sparkplug. Complicating the issue was the fact we couldn’t be 100% sure what type of socket we needed. It was clear that the three quarter-inch was too small and the one-inch was too big. But unlike Goldie Locks, in the world of socket wrenches there’s more than one bowl of porridge to choose from once you rule out the bowl that’s too hot and the bowl that’s too cold. In between three quarter-inch and one-inch stand 13/16, 7/8, and 15/16.

Seriously? Why on earth do we need so many nuts so close in size to each other?

Still, clearly, to shoe the horse, to get to battle, to save the kingdom, we needed a new nail. Well, I guess we had the nail. We needed the damn hammer.

It was the weekend; the local True Value hardware store was closed, so we hopped in the car and went to the nearest truck stop to see if we could buy a better tool. Believe it or not, there are three huge truck stops in town: A Love’s, a Pilot, and a TA.

And none of them carry socket wrenches big enough for sparkplugs.

“What the hell kinda of truck stops don’t have tools for sparkplugs?” fumed Lisa.

I don’t know much about engines, but one thing I do know is that diesel engines don’t have sparkplugs, so there’s no reason for truckers to need tools to remove plugs, hence no real reason for a truck stop to carry such a tool, other than the fact it would have made my day much easier.

Next, she called her adult son Adrian, owner of many a tool. There was no way he could come down to SXU, but he told her his tool box was open to her any time day or night. The problem was that reaching his tool box would require a 3+ hour round trip.

But with the sun now approaching the apex of the day, it was clear that we’d need to take a trip somewhere. The best bet was Las Vegas, NM, a hair over an hour’s drive away. Vegas has a two hardware stores, three auto parts shops, two ranch supply places, and a Walmart. Given all those choices, finding a socket capable of removing the sparkplug didn’t sound like much of a gamble.

We loaded up all of our close-but-no-cigar tools and headed out. And drove. And drove. And drove. And drove.

Lisa decided to hit AutoZone first, as it seemed logical to her that a car place would have the right tool for a sparkplug, even though we accepted the fact that car and airplane sparkplugs might not have much in common. When we arrived we found socket wrench heaven. Sockets as far as the eye could see. Well, not that far. But a good thirty feet of sockets hung on pegs in the middle isle of the long, skinny store. We quickly found the short versions of the three most probable sizes, and then found deep versions. Or maybe they were called extra-deep, I can’t remember. All I knew was that they looked quite a bit longer than the ones we had that didn’t quite reach. Problem solved. Or so I thought. Just as quickly, Lisa discovered that we could buy a whole set of sockets for the price of the three solo performers.

At the last second, as we walked up to the cash register, I realized that our new problem-solving sockets were all half inch “drive.” That meant the end of the socket that connects to the wrench is designed for a half-inch wrench, but all of ours are 3/8 inches. We needed an adaptor to make the whole plan work. I was very proud of myself that I noticed this and saved us a worthless drive.

How wrong I was.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Naturally, AutoZone didn’t have the adaptor we needed. I guess they wanted us to spend thirty bucks on the wrench next size up. We ducked that bullet by finding the adaptor at the nearby ranch store and left Vegas in high spirits, thinking that we’d have the plug out within minutes of arriving back at the airport.

We drove. And we drove. And we drove. And we drove, arriving back at SXU with the sun low in the sky and long shadows stretching across the landscape. We happily snapped the adaptor onto our wrench, then clicked a long socket onto the adaptor, sliding it down over the narrow shaft of the sparkplug to find…

It, too, wasn’t deep enough.

The socket didn’t reach the nut of the Tempest spark plug that Lisa’s mechanic though was the root of all evil.

Now complicating the issue was the fact that the right mag—the one giving us trouble—is supposed to control the top plugs, suggesting that our issue was a top plug, but there was a good chance that the plane’s ignition switch was wired backwards, with the right mag position controlling the left mag, and vice versa. So we had no clue which of the eight plugs was the problem child.

With nothing to lose, and a wrench that could check all the remaining seven plugs, which were Champs, we decided to pull and check all the others. Given that the right mag was supposed to control the tops we started with the top, removing the sparkplug covers on Warbler’s cowl, which exposes narrow canyons in the metal engine cover that are not quite wide enough to really work on the plugs. (The Continental Engine doesn’t really fit in the Ercoupe; it was designed for another engine altogether, but that’s a story for another day.)

I slipped the wrench over the first sparkplug, and this time, being a Champion plug, it fit. I tugged at the wrench. I pulled. I pushed. The plug was stuck fast like Excalibur in the stone.

“Thump it,” said Lisa.

Like hell. I was afraid I’d break it.

“I’ve watched the guys,” Lisa said, “they thump it.”

Leary of this advice I pulled my iPhone out of my rear pocket and did a Google Search on sparkplug removal. The collective wisdom of the internet was that you should thump a sparkplug.

“OK,” I said, and thumped the wrench handle with my right palm. Pain shot up my arm like a springing Cheetah. “Ow,” I whined, shaking my hand.

Lisa tried next, holding the wrench in one hand, and thumping its handle with the palm of the other. “Ow,” she squeaked.

Not wanting to go down in history as a guy who hits like a girl, I put on a pair of work gloves and tried again. This time, with minimal pain, which I hid behind my macho image, the wrench spun, and in seconds the plug was free.

It was clean as a whistle.

A half an hour later we knew that all seven Champion plugs were clean. Only the single Tempest plug was left. The one that her mechanic replaced two flight hours ago. And the prime suspect in our troubles. The plug that we couldn’t reach. The plug that was causing a storm worth of trouble.

The sun was setting. It was Sunday. Lisa had three classes to teach in the morning, and I was skating on thin ice on a story deadline with one of my editors, and really needed to send the morning writing. But I’ve left something out. All throughout this misadventure there’s been a background radiation of panic. Lisa is on the brink of trying to finish her license. She’d signed up for lessons with a flight school in Santa Fe, in her plane, for nearly every day of the winter break from the college where she teaches. She’s arranged for a place to stay over there, got ahead on laundry and packed clothes, bought groceries, cleared her schedule of any other responsibilities, and hired a cat sitter.

OK. I made up the part about the cat sitter. That’s the great thing about cats, they take care of themselves pretty well if you need to be away for a few days.

But now, all of that was in jeopardy. Her plane was grounded.

Lisa stood looking at Warbler, silent, deflated but not defeated. Not being a woman to give up easily, she rallied. “I going to Adrian’s tonight. Maybe he’ll have something different. Or maybe he can drill out one of these sockets deeper. Or we’ll go to every store in town. I’ll call the college and have someone fill in. Don’t worry about me, I’ll take care of this.”

In for a penny, in for a pound. “Aw, heck… pick me up on your way by.”

The next morning, bearing a pouch of borrowed tools, she dropped by the house and picked up Rio (who by now wanted to witness the next chapter in person, rather than by text) and I up, and we headed out. We brought a picnic lunch, figuring on an all-day maintenance fest, including a possible round of musical sparkplugs to rule in or rule out a mechanical failure on a sparkplug that otherwise looked clean. Debs, who was taking Grandma Jean to a doctor’s appointment in Santa Fe was on standby to bring us replacement plugs if needed. It was hall hands on deck.

Two minutes after we arrived at SXU with Adrian’s extra deep sockets, with a heavy thump of Lisa’s gloved hand, the Tempest in a tea pot was off the engine. It was coated with oil.

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After following the cleaning directions—which involved gas sumped from the tanks, a wire brush, carburetor cleaner, and a piece of paper—we towed Warbler out, buttoned up the hangar, and Lisa fired him up.

After waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting for him to warm up, she performed a mag check.

It was perfect.

Problem solved. Or was it? Why did the plug foul with oil so quickly? Did she need new piston rings? Or worse, a new cylinder? In either case, a break-in flight would be required. This was not looking good for the home team or for Lisa’s intensive flight training plans.

Lisa called her mechanic again to report our discovery. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he told her. And he had a theory. He knew her engine was older. Probably the piston rings weren’t the best. But he got to thinking that perhaps with the long warm up times at low RPM during our recent cold weather, more oil was slipping past the piston than could be burned off the plug. He suggested she warm up the plane at a higher RPM and see what happened. He also suggested a post-flight mag check, if the plug got fouled during a flight, it could be cleaned before the next flight. She could clean as needed, at least until her week-long intensive training was done.

So with the problem fixed in no time, and with a picnic lunch and the full day ahead of us, there was nothing left to do but have a plane party.

Then sit back and relax.

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The horse had a shoe. The warrior was off to battle. The kingdom was safe.

Until the next lost nail.

 

Horsing around for horsepower

“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse,” cried Shakespeare’s grounded Richard III at the bloody Battle of Bosworth.

In later centuries, author James Baldwin tells us that an entire mythical kingdom was lost through a chain of events that began “for want of a nail” to hold a horseshoe.

But no horsing around, although it’s a horse of a different color, we lost our horsepower, and—like King Richard the Third, we were grounded. And like Baldwin’s lost kingdom, it was from the lack of the simplest implement. Not a nail, in our case; our flight was lost for the want of a wrench.

Naturally, like it always happens when these things occur, it was the loveliest day to fly you can imagine. The sky was clear. It was chilly, but not cold. The wind gods must have overslept, as the long grasses beyond the taxiway stood tall and still like sentinel soldiers.

Breakdowns never happen when the weather sucks and you don’t want to fly anyway.

It all started out when my plane friend Lisa was planning on some last-minute landing practice, with me along as her safety pilot, before her burst of intensive training with a real flight instructor, which was set for pretty much every day of her college’s winter break. With a stereo screeches we pulled her south-facing hangar doors back to let in the pale white winter sunlight.

We pre-flighted Warbler: Carefully checking the pitot tube, static ports, alerions, rudders, elevator, landing gear, exhaust, and prop. We sumped the fuel tanks and double-checked the oil level. Getting a plane ready to fly takes time. Airplanes aren’t like cars. You can’t just drive to the airport and jump into your plane and fly. Well, you can, but such carelessness often ends badly. As they say, if your car breaks down, you can pull to the side of the road. If your plane breaks down, you can’t pull to the side of the sky.

All in readiness, we pulled Warbler out, buttoned up Lisa’s hangar, and climbed aboard,

Lisa ran through the short and simple engine start checklist: Opening the fuel cut off, reaching behind me to turn on the master switch (like with many Ercoupes, Warbler’s master is in the original odd-ball location in the baggage compartment behind the pilots), turning the ignition key to “both,” giving the engine two slow shots of prime, then reaching over practically into my lap to pull the starter handle—which is arguably located on the wrong side of the plane.

The prop swung in a lazy arc. The engine coughed once, then took hold. Unlike Tess, who’s sometimes a hard plane to start, Warbler is always eager to go.

But this morning something didn’t sound quite right. Or maybe it didn’t feel quite right. The vibrations through the airframe were different. The symphony of noise not quite in tune. Still, the oil pressure gauge lazily came off the mark and sauntered into the green. Slowly the vibrations settled down. The symphony got their act together, except perhaps for one rogue violin.

But the oil temperature needle lay firmly against the peg. Warm up was going to take a while. Winter flying in Warbler takes patience.

We busied ourselves with getting our headsets plugged in and making small talk. When at long last the temperature of the oil was at least detectable, Lisa taxied from her little patch of crumbling asphalt in front of her hangar, across the gravel, and onto the smooth surface of Taxiway Foxtrot; which you’d only know was Taxiway Foxtrot if you were based at SXU. For years, the taxiway was labeled with a proper yellow and black sign with a large capital F, but for whatever reason the sign was taken down and not replaced during the most recent remodeling in 2014. We still call it Foxtrot, but for the benefit of visitors, add “by the hangars” to all our radio calls.

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Once safely onto the smooth, gravel-free taxiway, Lisa pulled the parking brake, a long handle on the floor between the pilots, and locked it by pulling a knob on the panel. Then she slowly pushed the throttle forward and Warbler’s engine spooled up, the propwash back off the propeller making him jerk, sway, and buck. First, she checked the carb heat, then she reached over to the ignition switch. Although this switch has a key, that’s where the similarity to your car’s ignition switch ends. Well, that assumes that your car still uses a key. Mine doesn’t. It uses a magic wireless box the size of a Zippo lighter. But I digress.

Cars traditionally have ignition switches with two positions: On and Off. Airplanes have four positions: On and Off, plus a position called Right, and a position called Left. This is because of one of the unique safety features of airplane engines: Each cylinder has not one, but two sparkplugs. And each of these sparkplugs is run by a separate and independent magneto. In Warbler’s engine, the top sparkplugs in each cylinder are run by one mag and the bottom plugs in each cylinder are run by another mag, the idea being that if one mag fails, the engine will keep running. In fact, you may recall that not too long ago, Lisa had some adventures with one of her magnetos, so it was damn lucky for her that our aviation forefathers had the good foresight to provide her with two.

Anyway, before flight, pilots test these dual systems to ensure that both are working properly. This is done by increasing the power to a high level and shutting off first one, then the other, set of plugs. Typically, a small RPM drop is seen. If one of the mag systems faileds, when you isolate it, the engine stops. Which is why we test the system while we are still on the ground.

Lisa checked the first mag and all was well. Then she checked the second. Suddenly, the orchestra rioted. The RPM dropped a ton and the plane shook like a wet dog.

We knew at once what was wrong. We had a fouled plug. Only three of Warbler’s four cylinders were firing. We knew it was a plug, not a mag problem, because the engine was still running, even if badly. We didn’t know about the plug before the mag check, because the second plug in the cylinder was firing when both the mags were on.

And we also knew it was a fouled plug because, frankly, this wasn’t our first rodeo. In fact, we’d been riding in this very rodeo not two weeks before in Santa Fe, when we picked Warbler up following the installation of his new tail. One of the plugs was fouled with oil then, but the plane had only flown two hours since.

Lisa uttered a few choice words about airplanes, airplane mechanics, and the nature of the universe.

I whipped out my iPhone and Googled the instructions for trying to clear a fouled plug by burning off whatever is fouling it. Basically, this involves throttle and mixture combinations to increase the heat in the engine, but I knew it was a lost cause. Ercoupe engines aren’t really powerful enough to generate the kind of heat needed to clear a fouled plug. It failed when we tried this two weeks ago, and it failed when Lisa’s mechanic repeated the experiment, but we tried anyway on the theory that there couldn’t be too much crap on a sparkplug so recently cleaned. At least, assuming it was the same plug giving us trouble. Once we tried. Twice we tried. Thrice we tried. Just like Uncle Goggle recommended.

And as before, we failed. There was nothing left to do but to taxi back to the hangar and call Lisa’s mechanic.

He allowed as how it sounded like a plug again. And he suspected a particular one, the plug in the bottom of the right-aft cylinder, which had been oil-fouled, although he admitted that it might be one of the others that he didn’t check, as he stopped checking them once he found a problem. He offered to come over the following week, unless in the meantime we wanted to pull the plug and see if it was dirty. Always handy with a wrench, Lisa opted for that, and her mechanic talked her though the process.

And this is where we get back to horses.

We disconnected the electrode lead and, using a socket wrench, tried to remove the sparkplug. But there was a problem. The socket of the socket wrench wasn’t long enough. It didn’t reach the nut on the sparkplug.

Over the next 48 hours, I would learn more about sparkplugs than I had previously learned in my entire lifetime, but here’s the only thing you need to know for the moment: Aviation sparkplugs come in two common brands, Champion and Tempest. Champion plugs have a nut in the middle of the plug. Any garden variety socket wrench will easily reach the nut to remove the plug. Tempest plugs, however, have the nut all the way at the base of the plug, beyond the reach of standard sockets, and as we’d learn the hard way, also beyond the reach of “deep” sockets, as well.

But I’ve been long winded today, so the hunt for the nail to shoe the horse, to send the rider into battle, to save the kingdom, will have to wait until next week…