Music to my ears

As I drove down Airport Road the distinctive howl of a twelve-cylinder Merlin filled my ears. It came from the left, shot overhead, and disappeared to my right like a cannon shot. I ducked and slammed on the brakes, screeching to a halt.

Holy crap! I’ve been buzzed by a Mustang!

Then two more in close succession: Vaaaavooooom!!! Vaaaavooooom!!!

I looked to the right. To the left. Then I leaned forward on my steering wheel and looked up. The sky was empty.

Next, the growl of a heavy metal radial buzzed by, shaking the car, and I remembered: I had left the car stereo on full blast when I left the hangar, but the CD was between tracks so I’d forgotten I had it on. It was Reno on Record 3blaring out of my Alpine Speakers, not real airplanes tearing up the sky. Sheepishly, I turned down the stereo, tapped the accelerator, headed on down the road again, glad that I was alone and no one had seen me ducking phantom planes.

Well, not phantom. The planes are real enough. They just aren’t here. Not now. Their growls, whines, and roars were captured in high fidelity recordings as they passed Pylon One during the National Air Races in Reno in 1990, 1991, and 1992 and put on CD by AirCraft Records.

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Yep, our new fav in the music department is unlike any CD I’ve ever owned. It’s made up of nothing but airplane noises. Apparently, the original Reno on Record, and its sequel Reno on Record 2, were both a mix of airplane sounds and interview clips with racers, but according to the promotional literature inside the CD cover, “We have answered the request of many of you for a version of Reno on Record with little or no talking. This is it. On ROR 3 you will hear nothing but the beautiful, raw sounds of Merlins, 3350s, 4360s and much, much more.”

Who on earth would want an hour’s worth of nothing but engine sounds?

Well, as it turns out, people like me! Although I didn’t know that until I bought a copy. I discovered this wonderful CD quite by accident, and I’m sure glad I did. I was actually looking for whiskey when it happened. Well, more correctly a whiskey decanter. Back in the ‘70s the McCormick whiskey folks made several commemorative decanters that were sold at the National Air Races. One, which I scored on eBay, looks like a race pylon. A second one looks like a radial engine with a three-bladed prop. I’d seen pictures of it, but I was having a hard time finding one for sale. Of course, I had a saved search to alert me if one was listed, but over the years I’ve found that sometimes the best successes, when it comes to buying collectables, happen when you come across something that’s not listed quite the way everyone expects—so if I’m bored, I’ll just do some random surfing with very broad search terms, flipping through a few pages to see what I see.

Thus it was that I stumbled upon Reno on Record, the record. No kidding, I found an old-fashioned vinyl LP record, called Reno on Record. It was from 1986 and was billed as having “actual sound recordings and interviews from the National Air Races in Reno.” I thought it was very clever creating a record that recorded Reno and was called Reno on Record. However, it was priced well beyond the impulse purchase range and deep into the “ask your wife first” range, so I decided to see if I could find it priced more economically somewhere else.

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Photo: eBay seller Susaninpgh

I didn’t. But I did find CDs of Reno on Record 2 and Reno on Record 3. As ROR 3 was heaps cheaper, I bought a copy to check it out, not being sure why I did so. After all, who would want to sit around listening to airplane noises? The CD arrived promptly, but languished on my desk for weeks. Then the flight school sent both Rio and Lisa home with their pre-solo exams, an open book take home test, on the same weekend.

Airplane noises in the background seemed just right for ambiance.

And boy was it. As we sat around the kitchen table working through the Skyhawk’s POH, looking up FARs, pawing through the AIM, and scratching our heads over tricky weight and balance problems, race planes screamed around the track in the living room. It was inspiring. The perfect background noise for the task at hand. Of course, because we were studying, we had the volume down.

That was fun. But the CD really shines when you pump up the volume, which is what we did while working in our planeless hangars to give them the proper aviation feel. Quoting the AirCraft Records folks,“the thunder of the hot-rodded WWII fighters of the Unlimited Class will be ripping up your living room and alienating your neighbors as they pass in front of your nose and out of your speakers.”

Luckily, at the airport, we have no neighbors to alienate, but I appreciated the rebel sentiment. But living room or hangar, when you crank up the volume on this music you’ll smell the dust, oil, and avgas of Reno.

This is one damn fun CD. If you like airplanes, I think you’ll be surprised by how much pleasure you can get from having them roar by in the background. Get a copy and see what it does for your soul on a foggy day, or how your flying friends react to it at your next hangar party.

My rating: Five stars. No, wait. I think instead of stars, I’ll give it five Ercoupes.

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A TV show you might have missed

My Hispanic father-in-law studied the latest home-repair mess I’d made for a long time before he finally sighed and said, “You college-educated white guys aren’t very good at this kind of thing, are you?”

That was almost thirty years ago. And ever since then, the family joke is that I’m the star of a late-night cable TV show called the College-Educated White Guy Handyman. A show featuring a weekly home repair or improvement disaster. In my defense, home repair skills take a lengthy education of their own, and mine was limited to watching my college professor father blow a chunk out of his Swiss Army knife cutting through a live wire while trying to replace the plug on a table lamp.

As time goes by, I have gotten better, but usually my first attempt at doing any kind of repair or improvement goes awry. A recent case in point: Our hangar floor.

Now there are two things you need to know. The first is that the airport will let me deduct the cost of any improvements to our hangar from our rent, and the second is that while traveling the country in two seasons of racing, we saw some pretty swank hangars.

Oh. And a third thing. I’ve been suffering hangar floor envy ever since Lisa and I connected our hangars. You see, she has a wall-to-wall cement floor. I have a gravel floor with a 15×15 foot concreate pad for Tess to rest on. Of course, I didn’t know it was 15×15 until too late. I think my non-college educated Hispanic handyman father-in-law told me something about measuring twice, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

About two months ago, I got it in my head that I could trump Lisa’s expanse of concreate if my humble pad of concreate were more swank than her concreate. How would I do that? Well, really swank hangars have really swank epoxy floor coverings. Some glow like mirrors, others have interesting patterns, but all of them are tough as diamonds and as an added benefit, their non-absorbent surfaces reduce oil spill clean-ups to a simple flick of a towel.

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I don’t recall how, but I recently discovered that there is a do-it-yourself version of this swank floor covering called Rocksolid from Rust-Oleum. How hard could it be?

I watched the YouTube video and judged it to be no more difficult than painting, and with Tessie out of the hangar for extensive repairs, this would be a good time to take it on. On my next trip to Santa Fe to take Rio to his flight lesson (and to check on the status of aforementioned repairs), I planned to buy a hangar-floor-in-a-box.

And this is where we get to measuring.

Standing in Home Depot in Santa Fe, I had no earthly idea how big my pad in Santa Rosa was. This mattered, because Rocksolid come in two sizes: The one-car garage size, with the kit covering 200-250 square feet; and the two-and-a-half car garage size, with the kit covering 450-500 square feet.

Picture me in Home Depot trying to astrally project myself to my hangar.

I decided that although the hangar itself is huge, the concreate pad in the middle was much smaller than a one-car garage. And I was so convinced of this that it didn’t even occur to me to measure it later on, even though I had several opportunities to do so between the time I bought the smaller kit, and when it was warm enough to break it out and paint it on.

Of course, any of you who are sharp at math know that 15×15 equals 225 square feet, smack dab in the middle of the theoretical range of what the kit will cover.

I’ll spare you the details of the various trials and tribulations of preparing the concreate: Sweeping, hosing, scrubbing with degreasers, more hosing, scrubbing with dish soap, more hosing, etching with acid, more hosing. Instead, let’s jump straight to the main event. Actually, I’ll spare you the details of the main event, too. Just suffice it to say the goop is the thickness of maple syrup but you are to spread it as thin as paint. And that my cement pad is full of ridges and channels and cracks and dips. And the roller was a magnet for the nearby gravel. And that the handle of my roller brush broke. And the foam bush they gave me with the kit delaminated.

Yes, let’s skip all of that stress-fest and go right to the final chapter. Here, let me show you:

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Yes, that’s right. I ran out of swanky Rocksolid material pretty much right at the 200 square foot mark.

Measure first. Who knew? Oh. That’s right. My father-in-law.

 

A pair of solos

In 1910, First Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois became one of the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ first pilots after he was assigned the duty of flying the Army’s one and only airplane, a Wright Model A. But there was a minor problem: He’d never flown an airplane before.

So he did what any thinking man in his era would do. He sat down and penned a letter to the Wright brothers, asking them for some instructions. Orville Wright wrote back with some tips, after which Foulois went out to the plane and figured it out. Thus it was that Lieutenant Foulois learned to fly by correspondence course.

This is not the way we learn to fly anymore.

Instead, a student pilot flies with a flight instructor to learn the ropes. But sooner or later, the fledgling aviator must do what Foulois did: Take to the air by him or herself, and return safely to the earth. We call this flight a First Solo. It’s kinda a big deal in the aviation community.

Our family, as most of you know, has two student pilots—my son Rio and my Plane Friend Lisa—and they are both rapidly closing in on their first solos. It’s not a competition, at least not to them. They’re mutually supportive; neither of them is as competitive as I am. Still, I’d often wonder as I lay my head down on the pillow at night after a long day: Which one will solo first?

Over the last few months, at different times, I placed different bets. For a while it looked like Lisa would solo waaaaaaay before Rio. But then she hit a training plateau and I despaired that she would ever solo. Right after that, Rio hit a rough patch health-wise, mixed with ill weather, and missed a bunch of lessons.

And so it went. Back and forth. Back and forth.

But as 2018 drew to a close, their mutual flight instructor was telling me that they were both “very close.” They both took their pre-solo exams and both passed with flying colors. I don’t remember a pre-solo exam. I think that must be something new. Well, I guess that given the fact that my solo was well over three decades ago, I can’t be using a word like “new” to describe anything that happened in the interim, but you know what I mean. Actually, having two student pilots in my life has led me to learn no end of things that I’d either forgotten or that have changed without my noticing it.

Anyway, Rio was within a flight or two at the most, when a chain of bad weather cancelled several flights in a row. Then Lisa, who teaches at a community college, booked nearly every day of her winter break between semesters to train. This should have put her ahead of weekly-flying Rio, but she must have forgotten to make the proper sacrifice to the winter weather gods, because they fell on her with a vengeance. And it wasn’t just low ceilings, blowing snow, and crappy visibility: One day an ice storm so clogged and blocked the hangar door tracks that, even with a blow torch, the FBO couldn’t reach her plane, Warbler. Then a few days later, they “forgot” to put him in the hangar at night, and he was an Ercoupe popsicle when she showed up to fly the next morning.

Meanwhile, in addition to working on his pilot’s license, Rio has been working on his driver’s license. Here in New Mexico we use a complicated “graduated” licensing system. This required him to take driver’s training once a week for several months, then he got a student license that let him sit left seat in a vehicle with a responsible adult while he logged 50 hours of driving time, including 10 hours of night driving—actually not that different from the requirements for flight training. After this “dual” training requirement was completed, he’d qualify for a provisional license, that would basically let him be driver in command, but limit the number of fellow teens he could carry with him to one (excluding sibs).

Rio could have had his provisional license some time back, but driving doesn’t interest him much, which I confess I find baffling. I couldn’t wait to drive when I was his age, and I loved the freedom and independence of being behind the wheel. Anyway, before the close of the year, Rio had logged the necessary time, but one thing or another got in the way, and I didn’t get him to the Department of Motor Vehicles until after the first of the year. It was surprisingly painless until the next stop at State Farm, where I discovered having a teenage son doubled my monthly auto insurance bill.

On this same day, Lisa, who hadn’t been flying in about a week due to the anger of the weather gods I was talking about a moment ago, was off to Santa Fe. It was cloudy, but the ceiling wasn’t too low. The week before her instructor had told her, that if she felt ready, he would endorse her for her first solo after the next flight or two. As she hadn’t flown for a bit, I assumed it would be the next day, but when I looked at the forecast, I guessed that the next day would be unflyable. I worried her solo would be pushed back. But speaking of solos, I suddenly realized that Rio, despite being a licensed driver for nearly 20 hours, had never soloed a car.

So I sent him out for a pack of cigarettes.

Well, not really, of course. I don’t smoke cigarettes any more, nor will stores sell them to minors—but the proverbial cig run was just what he needed. I handed him the keys and dispatched him up the road to Romeroville, about 15 miles up the highway from our house, with instructions to go and buy whatever struck his fancy, then I busied myself around the house and pretended not to worry for the next hour.

He returned, unscathed, with a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos, and reported that he had fully expected to be a nervous wreck, but that in fact, things had gone well and he found himself not only relaxed, but more focused on his driving than ever before. Which got me wondering why a first solo isn’t part of driver’s training early on. Surely, the confidence gained, and the focus on individual responsibility early in driver’s training would be beneficial. I mean, it’s crazy, we give driver’s licenses to people who’ve never even once driven a vehicle by themselves!

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Speaking of when to solo, back in the early days of aviation, solos happened very quickly in pilot training; after only a few hours. In my day, not quite so quickly. Looking at my logbook I had about 25 hours, and as I recall that was on the long side at the time. I must have been a poor student. But nowadays, it’s not uncommon for students to have nearly enough hours to legally get their licenses before the solo. Partly there’s more to learn. Flying and the flying environment have become more complex over the decades, but largely it’s the regs and how the regs are interrupted. Frankly, I think pilots advanced more quickly in the old days with earlier solos, but I digress.

Anyway, in the middle of being proud of Rio, and talking to him about his solo drive, my phone made the teletype clattering that signaled a message from Lisa. It read: Need a stiff drink. Can you help?

Crap. She must have had a bad day. They must’a pushed her solo back. Or worse. Naturally I replied she should head straight over, and I got out a fifth place setting for dinner. When she showed up her shoulders were slumped and her face was long. I opened the door and she pushed past me saying, “I need to see Rio.”

She gave him a big hug, and told him, “I’m sorry, Rio… I soloed first!” Then she laughed and she tickled him.

Yep. Lisa had taken to the air by herself and returned safely to the earth. Three times. Complete with three other airplanes in the pattern and a landing commuter jet. And like Rio on his drive, she reported no nerves. “I knew I could do it,” she said, “and I did.” Simple as that.

Was Rio the least bit bothered that she beat him into the air? No, he’s just not that kind of kid. He was just happy for her.

But in truth, she really didn’t solo first. They both soloed on the same day, at pretty much the same time.

Lisa in an airplane. Rio in a jeep.

 

Little planes, big noise

I can’t make sense of any of the numbers and abbreviations, so I study the graph. A line starts in the upper left at point labeled “normal,” and descends at a roughly 45-degree angle down and to the right, ending below the point labeled “moderate-to-serve.” This line roughly bisects a blocky crescent-shaped graphic that resembles a weight-and-balance envelope.

The bottom part of the line is outside of the envelope.

That can’t be good.

But this isn’t weight and balance, and most of the line is within the envelope, so there’s probably nothing to worry about. At least, that’s what I tell myself until the doctor comes in to explain the results of my hearing test.

He whips out a pen and with careful, deliberate hash marks greys out everything above the line. “This is how much hearing you’ve lost,” he says.

More than half the hearing in my right ear. A good third of the hearing in my left.

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“You’ve completely lost your ability to hear high frequency sounds,” he explains in a loud voice, tapping the chart with his pen, “Like vowels.”

Ah. So that’s why everyone’s mumbling recently.

“Have you ever worked in a loud noise environment?”

My hearing may be failing, but in my mind I hear the cough of an airplane engine starting…

 

If you ask any pilot my age (over 55) what’s the biggest change in aviation they’ve seen in their lifetimes, you might expect them to say the advent of the glass cockpit. But it’s not. That’s just technology. Since the Wrights, aviation has been one tech leap after another: Radios, gyroscopes, the primitive “beam” navigation systems, VORs, autopilots, GPS, digital instruments, glass. It’s the nature of pilots to quickly adopt new toys, and it’s been that way for over a hundred years.

No, the biggest change in in aviation in my lifetime is the headset. In my youth, and for the decades of flying prior to that, no one took any serious action to protect their hearing. It wasn’t from a lack of technology, although like all else, that has improved. No, it was a matter of culture. Pilot culture. We just didn’t wear headsets. I’m not even sure why, but it just wasn’t done.

And I’m not quite sure how it happened, because culture is hard and slow to change, but now everybody wears headsets, and a good thing, too.

But it’s too late for me. Now I’m paying for the sins of my youth… Or I will be if I can afford to.

 

The insistent, slightly maddening ringing in my right ear is, ironically, caused by the fact I can’t hear anything worth a damn with it, according to the doc. Well, “ringing” doesn’t really describe it. It’s a high-pitched electrical sort of noise, deep inside my ear. It almost seems to come from the right third of my skull. It varies little in tone, although the volume varies throughout the day from barely noticeable to loud enough to block out conversations. It’s worse after flying, especially following long cross countries, and ironically much, much, much worse when wearing noise-canceling ARN headsets, instead of the old-fashioned passive models.

It was largely this ringing in my ear that brought me to the audiologist. I mean, I knew I was having some difficulty following conversations around the dinner table, and I’ve had a few comical miscommunications with Starbucks staff at various airports, which I am only now understanding were due to my lack of hearing, not to their lack of proper command of the King’s English, as I had previously assumed.

The good news, the doctor cheerfully tells me, is that my sort of hearing loss responds to simply “turning up the volume.” Of course, as we can’t turn up the volume on the entire universe without annoying the neighbors, I need hearing aids.

He gives me a thick packet of information on my various options. I deposit it in the circular file, unopened, as soon as I get home. You see, my health insurance—like most—doesn’t cover hearing aids and I can’t afford them.

The cost of one set of hearing aids of the type I need is equal to five annual inspections. (After owning a plane for a few years you’ll find that any time you think of money, it will be through the lens of aircraft maintenance costs.) So that’s not an option. At least not right now.

So I’ll turn up the TV. Ask my wife to speak up. And tell the girl at Starbucks that I’m hard of hearing, could she please repeat what she just said?

And I won’t worry if the engine sounds a little less loud. Unless it goes totally silent.

Then I’ll execute an emergency landing.

Or pony up for the hearing aids.

 

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…