Throttle Tale

Thump! The nose pitches down. I ease the yoke back to raise it again. Bam! Up goes the nose. Yoke forward. Whap! The right wing flips up. I ease the yoke to the right to level the wings. Whomp! Down I go again. My butt levitates off the seat, the lap belt digging into my gut. I instinctively duck to avoid smashing my head on the roof. Oh, lookie there, the G-meter just registered some negative G’s.

Yes, the Sky Gods are in a foul mood today. Especially the ones in charge of turbulence. Oh, and the ones in charge of visibility, too. It’s legal. Well more than, actually, but it’s an ugly flavor of legal visibility. Hazy. Misty. A veil that I would enjoy as part of a re-enactment of Salome’s dance, I’m finding ugly stretched across the sky. The distant horizon is only hinted at. It’s like flying through an unending cloudy fish bowl.

An unending fish bowl being shaken by a psychotic goldfish-hating pet store owner.

It’s weird to have turbulence and murky skies at the same time. Usually you get turbulence on beautiful days when unstable air scrubs the sky clean, letting you see all the way to the far ends of the earth; while murky skies tend to be calm, stable, and tranquil—like brackish still water in the Bayou.

But the sky isn’t the only weird thing going on. Something’s weird with the airplane, too. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. There’s nothing really wrong with the plane. But somehow, it’s not quite right, either.

Or is it me? As you know, I haven’t been flying Tess as much as I used to. For, what — the last two years? — she’s been in the shop more days than she’s been in our hangar. I guess it’s the curse of owning a 72-year-old airplane. No wonder the Commemorative Air Force is always pestering me for money to keep their fleet of warbirds in the air.

There. There it is again. A twitch in the right wing. The hint of a rise, then a brief moment when the controls freeze. But, as fast as it happens, it’s gone. Is it just the turbulence? Or is it something else?

Of course, I know I have a problem on the ground. Tess isn’t steering right. Most airplanes are steered on the ground using their rudder pedals, but Ercoupes don’t generally have rudder pedals. Instead, you “drive” a Coupe just like you drive a car, using the yoke. The yoke controls an inter-connected system that ties the twin rudders, the alerions, and the nose gear all together. They all move at once. This linkage between alerion and rudder is what keeps the Ercoupe always in coordinated flight and is 50% of the reason why they are “characteristically incapable of spinning.” The other 50% is the fact that, rigged right, they can’t achieve the angle of attack necessary to enter into a stall.

But I digress.

After the rebuilt nose strut was re-installed on Tess, her steering became odd. Before, just like a well-balanced car, once I got her pointed in the right direction she stayed on track. But now I was finding I had to do a lot of correction and counter-correction to keep her taxiing straight.

The constant movement of the yokes to keep the plane nailed to the yellow line didn’t seem right. I felt like a drunk driver. But, of course, I’d been driving on a shot nose strut for years, so I didn’t really know what a proper one should feel like. I made some calls, sent some emails. The consensus among the Ercoupe Illuminati was that, yeah, it didn’t seem right. I received various ideas of things to check, and they all checked out.

I decided the best thing to do was to ignore it for a while. Sometimes airplanes fix themselves if you’re patient.

But of course, in an interconnected system, if you are having problems on the ground, it’s only a matter of time until you start have problems in the air.

Thump! Bam! Whap! Yee-haw, ride ‘em cowboy! A moment of calm. Then the twitch. A slight rise of the right wing. I respond by trying to turn the yoke to the right, but it’s frozen. Locked in concreate. But only for a microsecond. Then it’s free, and I lower the wing. It’s so fast I’m not sure it’s real. Did the controls really lock, or was I just fighting a gust?

Well, no time to worry about it now: Coming out of the mist and haze is KONY, the Onley Municipal Airport, home of Air Tractor. My refueling stop, and a field that I have mixed emotions about. They have three landing strips, which is great, and two of them are in fabulous shape. It’s perfectly located as a second fuel stop en route between my home base and Terrell, Texas, which is host city to the Mark Hardin Memorial Air Race—one of my favorite races. It’s named, obviously, for Mark Hardin, who raced his 1941 Ercoupe in the League long before I came along. I missed the race last year due to maintenance issues, but I’m on my way to it now, and couldn’t be more excited. This year’s Hardin Race looks to be one of the largest SARL races in a long time. The roster of race planes is pushing 40 and more seem to be signing up every day. So why are my emotions about KONY mixed if it’s a great field, and in the perfect location on the way to one of my favorite races? Well, the fuel pump and pilot terminal are maintained by the well-named Stark Aviation.

I’ll leave it at that.

The lovely tail wind from the west that’s been pushing me along over the ground at “real” airplane speeds has shifted and is now screaming up from the south. I take an extended right base to Runway 17. Carb heat on. Mixture rich. Throttle back.Thump! Bam! Whap!

I’m lined up perfectly, but I can see I’m too low. Dropping too fast. The headwind has reduced my ground speed more than I thought it would. No problem, I’ll just add a little burst of power. I ease the throttle up. Nothing happens. My heart jumps in my chest. I shove the throttle forward. Nothing happens. The engine is running, but at idle. Temps good. Oil pressure good. The field off the end of Runway 17 not so good. I push the carb heat in, shutting it off. I pump the throttle.

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Nothing. I push the nose over a hair to get the best glide speed—the velocity that will maximize how long I can stay in the air before the ground rises up to meet me, which will be considerably short of where the runway starts.

This doesn’t look good for the home team. I keep pumping the throttle back and forth. It’s all I can do. I’m dropping at 1,000 feet per minute. Crap.

Suddenly, as if nothing were ever wrong, the engine surges back to life. The dizzying descent is arrested, and I touch down lightly just beyond the threshold.

I start breathing again.

Once in front of the rusty Stark fuel pump, I run the throttle up and down. Up and down. The engine roars and settles. Roars and settles.

I search my rusty memory banks. Maybe because it’s so moist the carb heat over leaned the engine? I’m not sure that’s even possible, but I decide to land sans carb heat when I get to Terrell, my next stop.

Next time, on Plane Tales: Carb ice is the wrong diagnosis, but Tessie does need a doctor.