It was colder than forecast. You can’t trust weatherman and psychics. The easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propeller, and I was feeling some… stress.
“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”
I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
Earlier that afternoon, we’d come to the hangar to deal with some electrical connection issues on the new engine monitor. I sat on a stool with my head under the cowl, my iPhone on speaker, while tech support guided me through the process of checking the wire connections. That actually worked out OK, partly thanks to the fact that we had earlier watched a YouTube video on how to use the hand-held electrical tester that we’ve owned for years and never used.
It was one of those things I bought because an airplane owner is supposed to have one.
The electrical gremlins subdued for the moment, the sun was getting low in the sky, and we had to zip our jackets up. We probably should have called it a day, but I was too excited about our race propeller to have the sense to wait for a warmer day to finish the job. As far as I was concerned, now that the work was done, it was time for some fun.
Fun being painting the black checks onto last week’s white prop tips to finish our new race prop look. Before Rio changed his mind.
I used a seamstress-style cloth measuring tape to mark the centerline of the prop, then drew a thin pencil line from the tipity-tip of the blade to the end of the white paint I applied last week. Next, I carefully lined up the first of the blue painter’s tape squares, making sure its edges lined up exactly with the edge of the white paint and the pencil line, then smoothing it firmly along its edges and lightly in the middle. I need it tight on the edges so the paint lines will be sharp and clean, but light enough that it won’t pull part of the white paint off when I remove it, which would cause me a great deal of pain and stress.
The square didn’t quite reach to the edge, so I added a second piece to extend it a sixteenth of an inch or more.
Then I applied three more squares, bending the tape around the edges of the propeller blade as I worked my way up toward the tip. Then I repeated the process on the other end of the prop. The tape masks off four squares of the white paint. When I hit the prop tips with Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, the exposed white squares will be painted black. When I remove the tape, revealing the protected white squares beneath, I’ll have my very own Barnstormer Propeller. At least that’s the plan. And it won’t be an authentic reproduction. Or, well, maybe it will be.
Anyway, just looking at the checkerboard pattern created by the tape, I was optimistic the final product would look good.
While Rio and Lisa started covering the canopy with cleaning rags to protect the glass from errant spray paint, I added a few more strips of blue tape to the prop to protect the main blade from over-spray.
We buttoned up the hangar. Lisa held a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to catch the overspray and Rio held a shop light.
Remembering the running paint issue from last week, I tried to go lightly. But the damn black paint is a different beast from the white paint. The can spat the paint out in large droplets, leaving a splattered look. I tried patting them flat with a paper towel, but that created a rough look. We had to wipe some of the squares off and start again.
Then the sun set.
And the mercury dropped.
The paint dried slowly between applications.
I had thought two light coats would do, as the paint is so much darker than the white, but it took three. Our feet getting cold, we retreated to the terminal building while we waited for the final coat to set enough that I could remove the tape.
But when we returned, working by the headlights of my hot rod, the easy-remove blue painter’s tape did not want to come off the propellor, and I was feeling some… stress.
“Relax, Dad,” said Rio, “if worst comes to worst, we know how to remove paint.”
I don’t want to remove the paint. I want it to look perfect the first time. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I picked at the tape from the back of the blade, finally freeing a corner. Holding it between two fingers, I began to pull, stretching the tape as I went.
Slowly, stubbornly, the first three pieces came off, revealing magically sharp lines between my white and black checkers. Then it happened.
One of the squares took a large chunk of white paint off with it. My hopes for a beautiful Barnstormer Propeller crashed and burned.
But it was the only one that gave me trouble. The rest came out perfect:
So I’ve got one touch up for another day, but I went home more happy than upset. The next day I had to fly to Santa Fe. In the daylight, on the tarmac, the final effect blew my mind:
And later than night as Rio and I disagreed on paint schemes, he told me, “Well, Dad, at least we agreed on the propeller.”
Sporty’s Pilot Shop has been around as long as I can recall. As a student pilot in the early 1980s I can remember taking a break from my studies of aviation weather, cross country flight planning, and the FARs by thumbing through their full color mail order catalog; drooling at all the wonderful things that were out of my reach.
Leather flight jackets, pilot watches that cost more than my car, and those short boots airline pilots used to wear.
Of course they had practical things, too. Kneeboards, a folding navigation plotter, airspace memory cards, and little rotating plastic calculators to help you figure out the best runway to land on.
And they had mysterious things only airplane owners would need. Tow bars, oxygen systems, cowl plugs, and engine heaters. A back seat air conditioner?
I still get the Sporty’s catalog. And I still thumb through it when I need a mental break from more serious work. They also send me their newer Wright Brother’s Collection catalog, which is more gift oriented. Cool aviation décor and art, books, videos, clothing, and more. In the most recent edition this photo caught my eye:
The trio of props were called “Barnstormer Propellers.” According to the add copy, the handcrafted solid wood propellers are “authentic reproductions,” which if you think about it, is an oxymoron.
But naturally I was taken with the race flag prop.
I could totally see Tess, a.k.a. Race 53, sporting race flag prop tips. Of course, given Rio’s recent reaction to race-themed paint schemes, I didn’t hold out much hope that he’d agree. Still, I tore out the page to show it to him later.
To my surprise, when he looked at it, he was OK with it. He actually thought it would look good, as did his mother and our buddy Lisa. It then it fell to me to figure out how to make it happen. Thanks to a combination of a poor paint choice by a previous owner, and a poor choice of cleaning materials by us, we’ve actually had to repaint the prop tips once before. As I recall, it went badly.
But that’s a paint tale for another day.
The plan for this cosmetic speed mod was simple enough, mask off the tip, sparingly spray paint it white, somehow mask off white checks with some sort of tape, then spay over sparingly with black paint, and voilà!
Off to Home Depot we went. Or maybe it was Lowes. Anyway, after showing our driver’s licenses to prove we were old enough to buy one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white spray paint and one can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte black spray paint, Lisa and I stood in front of a towering edifice of rolls of painter’s tape in every width and length imaginable. “Too bad,” I said to Lisa, “that they don’t make this stuff in pre-cut squares.”
And then it occurred to me: Maybe they did. A quick Google search on my iPhone proved that an angel had just whispered in my ear: 3-M blue painter’s tape comes in a dizzying array of squares and rectangles. But what size of square did we need?
We agreed we’d need to be standing in front of the prop to figure that out.
The next week, after some approach-to-landing training for Lisa, she got out a pad of three-inch sticky notes and stuck them on the prop. It didn’t work out too well. For one thing, putting enough of them on to give a checkered flag look ate up a third of the prop. Too big. Next she cut them down to 2.5 inches, for a momma bear effect. Better, but not just right. At two and a quarter inches, we judged the size of the squares to be perfect.
Naturally, 2.25 inches is the only size of tape squares not made.
Back to the drawing board. Well, cutting board.
In the end, we decided that two inches was the ticket.
And standing in the hangar, I ordered the squares from Amazon. “They’ll be here Wednesday,” I told Lisa. Then thinking for a moment said, “Wanna get the white paint on now?”
“Sure,” said my wing woman, “it’ll give the white paint plenty of time to set before we do the black.”
So we covered every inch of glass on the plane with cleaning rags—as I said, we’ve had some bad experiences with spray paint in the past—and got to work.
We carefully calculated how far down the prop the race checkers should go (eight inches) then spent some time trying to figure out how to get the tape perfectly perpendicular to propeller. I then ran my finger back and forth over the edge of the tape to ensure it was down tightly for a sharp paint edge, and lightly attached several more strips of painter’s tape to protect the main body of the prop from over-spray.
Next, we closed the hangar doors down to a crack to let in light, but no wind. Lisa held up a large piece of cardboard behind the prop to protect the plane, and I starting shaking the can of Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint for the required 60 seconds.
Then, using short, sweeping bursts, I got a lovely coat of smooth white paint over the tip of the propeller. I set the paint can down and pushed the hangar door open to let in more light. A cloud of floating Rust-Oleum outdoor enamel matte white paint particles was sucked out into the breeze like exhaled cigarette smoke. I inspected my paint job. Generally speaking, I’m a poor handyman, but everyone once and a while things work out for me perfectly.
This was not one of those times.
Almost at once, the paint began to run, forming a thick artery of paint on the smooth surface. I let out a choked wail and dashed for the roll of heavy blue paper shop towels that lives in the tool cabinet. Luckily, the prop being so smooth, the thick layer of paint wiped clean off with several strokes.
On the second try, hangar door cracked, paint shaken for sixty seconds, I painted just a kiss of paint onto the prop tip. Then we did the other side. After letting the hangar exhale paint smoke a second time, we inspected the tips. The white paint look grey and thin, but it wasn’t running. We kicked back and started a pair of cigars to let the paint dry, then hit the tips again, drank some whiskey to let the second coat set, then hit the tips a third time, and so forth.
Four light coats did the trick. The last phase was to remove the tape. Naturally I had visions of the tape pulling a large part of the paint on the prop off with it, but no, it came off perfectly clean.
So far, so good. How’d the blue tape squares and black paint work out? I don’t know. We haven’t done the second half of the job yet. I guess that will be next week’s Plane Tale.
“What on earth happened to your paint?” asked our league photographer in her heavy English accent, pointing to several naked places about the size of a dime on Tessie’s left wing
“Oh, I accidently plowed through a flight of baby peacocks at the last race,” I replied, being careful to keep a poker face.
There was a long silence while she processed this, then she said, “I was under the impression that peacocks didn’t fly very high…?”
“They don’t. And your point?” I asked.
I think I told someone else I ran down some baby flying squirrels. In truth, I have no idea where the paint went, or where, how, and when the dozens of other missing paint flakes disappeared. All I know is that Tess is beginning to shed paint like a cat sheds fur in the spring. And that can only mean one thing: Her paint job is reaching the end of its service life, expiring, dying; and that means there’s a new paint job in my future.
Which is both scary and exciting at the same time. But mainly scary.
An airplane’s paint job is more than mere decoration. It’s protective. It keeps the metal from being damaged by the elements. So it’s important, and beyond some point, it’s not something that can be safely put off. But getting an airplane painted is nearly as much work as buying an airplane in the first place, and in our case might cost nearly as much. Why scary? Well, for one thing, there are hundreds of paint shops to choose from, and the offerings and quality vary a lot. As do the prices and the potential for disaster. I’ve read several articles on the whole process, a couple of which—focusing on all that can go wrong—sent me into a nearly cationic state with worry.
But done right, as I understand it, the process goes something like this: First, all the old paint needs to be stripped off. Based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think this was done on Tess’s last paint job or two. Under that pretty blue and white is buff yellow, and in some places green is peeking through. Some shops use chemical strippers to remove the layers of old paint, others use high pressure water, while others still use something called “vacuum blasting.”
Once down to the bare metal, any damaged skin discovered lurking under the paint needs to be fixed, along with any dents and dings, much like auto body repair. Naturally the control surfaces need to be removed to get the old paint off the edges and get the new paint on, as well as all the inspection ports and the like. I read one case where the plane was put back together wrong and crashed right after leaving the paint shop!
Once all of that pre-paint work is accomplished, the new paint is applied, sometimes many layers of it, depending on the design, plus whatever top coats you choose. As you can imagine, protecting the interior and glass requires much taping and paper.
So much for scary. What about the exciting part? Well, that’s scary, too: What paint scheme do you choose? Getting a paint job opens up a universe of possibility. An overwhelming universe. It used to be that airplane paint was pretty pedestrian: White with a stripe. What color would you like your stripe? Tess’s current paint job is actually higher end than that, but now planes come airbrushed with artwork resembling show cars, tattoos, and more.
I’ve seen some pretty drool-worthy paint jobs in my travels. Check out this paint job of the inner race plane shedding its warbird skin like a snake:
So what to do? Tess is sort-of a famous plane. She set a World Speed Record that still stands, and is a well-publicized two-time National Champion race plane. Does that obligate me to simply re-do the livery she sports now? Maybe use a sparkly white instead of gloss? Or should I update the scheme? Or can I let my imagination run wild? I mean, really, what would the perfect Ercoupe paint scheme look like? When I look at the Coupes gathered at our national fly-ins, I’m not that impressed with most of their paint jobs. That’s sad. They are cool-looking airplanes. They deserve cool looking paint jobs. But what would that look like, exactly? And what if I were wrong? I’d hate like hell to take a chance, try to design something, then detest the way the plane looks every time I open the hangar doors.
Not sure what I wanted to do, at AirVenture this last summer I prowled the paint vendor’s booths and talked to many of them, and I also attended a few workshops on the painting process. One of them was led by a scheme designer.
What on earth is a scheme designer, you ask?
It’s not some sort of con man, as the name implies. Think of scheme designers as architects. They are part artist, part draftsmen. They create designs for airplane paint jobs and translate them into precise instructions for the paint shops. One, named Craig Barnett, particularly impressed me. He runs an outfit called Scheme Designers, which does paint jobs for airlines and aircraft manufacturers—and he’s even designed the paint schemes for many of AOPA’s sweepstakes planes. And Craig had an offer for me I couldn’t refuse: For a flat rate, he’d create an unlimited number of paint schemes for our plane, letting us explore the “entire universe of possibilities.” I figured if AOPA trusted him, I could trust him. I hired him on the spot.
Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people, so it took a looooooong time until I saw any exploration of my universe.
Anyway, at AirVenture, Craig looked at photos of Tess’s current paint job, which he declared to be 1970s Mooney-esqe. Fair enough. He asked what I wanted and I said I had no idea, which was why I was hiring him. He said he needed a little more to go on than that, and suggested I send him pictures of planes I liked. Or even cars. I didn’t have anything that visual in mind, so instead we talked concept. For starters, I asked him to create a modern, updated version of Tess’s current livery. Then I wanted something race-themed with checkered flags. He told me that he hated the checkered race flag look, but OK. Then I said, perhaps a muscle car look. I told him to avoid art deco or warbird, as there are a number of Ercoupes that have gone that way (successfully) and I wanted to do something different. I also told him to design one scheme completely based on the lines of the plane.
The first thing he did was send us out paint chips of aviation paints. Dozens of colors. The rainbow and more. As a family, we decided to stay with cool colors, leaning toward the blue and white we are used to (and would match the interior), but we threw in black and a kick-butt sparkly silver as options. In fact, most of the colors we chose were sparkly.
After that, we didn’t hear from Craig for a looooooong time.
Half a year after I hired him, just about when I was ready to abandon any hope we’d ever see anything, we got our first look.
This is his update of Tessie’s current look:
I especially like what he did with the rudders, as I always felt that little triangle back there didn’t fit the rest of the design scheme very well. Filling in the area in front of the triangle really tied it in for me. I also like what he did with the nose pant, making it two tone. So that’s Tess, as we know her, updated.
He also created a slightly more whimsical version:
And playing up the “Herbie” race number theme he submitted this Love Bug meets Ercoupe scheme:
I like it, but wouldn’t use it, though I might consider it in different colors:
The grey isn’t grey. It’s the kick-butt sparkly silver. From any distance it would look like polished aluminum. But the paint job that blew my mind was this hotrod racer one:
I love the silver and black race flag motif. I adore the way it follows the gill-like edge of our cowl and wraps up onto her back. For a man who hates the race flag look, Craig sure nailed it. And the subtle flames licking down the side from the engine compartment completely blew my mind, as did the perfect placement of the bold race number on her flank. I miss the two-tone nose pant from the updated design, but I can see that it would be just too much if we did that, and I’m not sure about the bars on the rudders. Still, this is just a first draft. Any and all details can be tweaked.
I’d love to fly a low pass in this baby, and taxi into the race parking in it. It would be the ultimate racing Ercoupe look. Heads would turn, jaws would drop. We’d be the envy of every racer, even in our humble Ercoupe.
I couldn’t wait to show Rio. I was sure he’d love it as much as I did. His reaction? He shrugged one shoulder and said, “It doesn’t do much for me. I don’t think I want a race flag look.”
I was crushed.
Why does his opinion matter? Well, because, in point of fact, it’s his damned airplane. Or nearly so. The title to the family airplane is currently held by Grandma Jean. I sometimes (well often, actually) refer to Tess as my plane, but she isn’t and never will be. Mom has willed her airplane straight to my son Rio, bypassing me completely. It wasn’t that I’m a bad son, she helped her other grandchildren with their college, but Rio is the youngest and she didn’t think she’d still be around. It was her way of making things even. But the end result for me is that despite all the blood sweat and tears I’ve but into the little beast, I’ll never own her. Now, if mom dies before Rio’s 25… or maybe it’s 23, I can’t remember… then I serve as the airplane’s trustee until he comes of airplane-owning age. But that’s it.
So while I could talk the current owner into a paint scheme that I like that he doesn’t, or could, in theory, acting in my role as future trustee, paint it any frickin’ way I want, it would be a mean butt-head thing to do. Given the cost and complexity of painting an airplane, Rio will need to live with our choice a long time.
Of course, I’m still the only licensed pilot flying Tess, and I’ll be damned if I’ll arrive at a race in a pink plane with purple polka dots—not that he’s suggested any such thing—my point simply being the two of us have to agree on a paint scheme. And I’m finding that now that Rio is becoming a young man, he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with his old man very often. Serves me right for encouraging him to have a brain of his own.
Luckily Tess doesn’t need paint tomorrow, because this is going to be a looooong process. Poor Craig. He really has his work cut out for himself this time.
That looks unfriendly. Over there. To the right. The clouds are reaching down for the ground in a lover’s embrace, a curtain of grey-white cutting off my view of the horizon. When I first spied it, the curtain was parallel to my course, but now it’s converging, its far tip pointing like a finger to my home airport.
A look at the radar shows a cigar-like yellow-orange echo, easily 20 miles long, mimicking what I’m seeing out the windscreen, confirming that the storm is heading to the same place I’m going. I’m 18 minutes out. I advance my throttle from cruise power to its race setting.
The race is on. The race against the weather.
As I close in on SXU it’s clear I’ve lost. The weather is the winner. The curtain slices across my path eight miles out. As I close in on it, it takes on an unusual look. At first, I thought it was rain… but no. It’s not streaky enough. It churns oddly. Uncloud like. It’s clumpy. Could it be smoke? There’s a controlled burn to the southside of the airport today, but the AWOS reports the wind is blowing the other way. Smoke from the fire should be going away from me, not toward me. And besides, how would smoke show up on the radar? I look back over my shoulder and the curtain extends to the far horizon behind me, not thinning. Doesn’t smoke usually dissipate as it drifts away from its fire? Still, clearly, smoke it must be. What else could it be? Maybe the surface winds are different from the winds aloft. Maybe a few hundred feet up they change direction. Hmmm… I must be alert for wind shear.
I close in on the plume, I can see through it, but not well. The land beyond is indistinct. I can see it’s a narrow band, but I’m surprised how opaque it is. Well, no worry. I can sort of see through it, and clearly at this speed I’ll blow through to the clear air beyond it in a matter of seconds. I turn slightly off course to the south to hit the column straight on, and prepare myself for the odor of burning grass and weeds.
As Tess and I plunge into the cloud, it turns into a dizzying swarm of white insects, then a white out. Snow! I’ve flown into an aerial blizzard! My forward visibility is gone in the flash of an eye, dashing through snowflakes at 100 miles per hour makes them as optically solid as London fog. Out my left side I see clusters of flakes churn and tumble as I blast through their mass, and then as suddenly as it started, I’m in the clear again.
I bank left to get back on course, flying side by side with the falling snow. So you are snow. Not smoke. Not rain. Not cloud. I’ve heard of how impossible snow is to fly in, but I’ve never experienced it. Now close, but not in the plume, I can see the flakes falling and I marvel at the long thin band of snow and wonder how it can fall over so many miles in such a pencil-like band.
Our last air race was… gosh… when? Let me check my author index over at GA News… Wow. Seriously? The AirVenture Cup? Last summer? And that wasn’t even in our own airplane!
No wonder I’ve been such a grump lately.
But to be honest, I wasn’t sure whether or not that would be my last race. Sure, I still wear my race jacket with it’s many patches and logos, and when strangers at cocktail parties ask me what I do for a living I tell them I’m an air racer, but in truth my air racing future has been in serious doubt. At the end of last season when I drove out for the Championship awards and my colleagues asked me if I’d race in 2018, my stock answer was: I will always race. At least some. Will I shoot for the championship again? I haven’t decided yet.
But the truth was that I knew I couldn’t afford another try. Hell, I could barely afford the first try much less the last try. This racing is expensive, with the travel, the hotels, the food, the booze, and the wear and tear on the airplane. Last year, in my determination to win Gold, it was racing First for me all spring. I passed up the chance to refill my bank account teaching seminars in favor of empting it out with more racing. Then the maintenance issues started and I missed race after race after race after race while the money drained out of my checking account like water from a bathtub after a long soak.
It’s iconic. Last season there were a record number of races on the books, and a record amount of work available to me. This season, the number of races is modest and the work nearly non-existent. Had I only known, I could have taken last year off from racing, worked my tail feathers off, and have easily banked enough to pay for this season.
Well, that’s hindsight for you, fickle little bitch that she is.
Anyway, this year I knew that work, not racing, needed to come First, and one of my jobs is teaching Rusty Pilot Seminars for AOPA. The seminars are three-hour gigs in various parts of the country, which almost always fall on Saturdays, the same day of the week as most air races. In advance of each quarter AOPA asks me (and the other instructors) which weekends we are available. Last season, I blocked out all the race weekends. That was a lot of weekends, and I didn’t end up teaching much. But, as I said, it was racing First.
When the racing season was announced for this year and I saw that, except for April, it was pretty much one race per month, I briefly toyed with blocking off all the race dates to keep my options open, but I stuck to my guns: Work First. Still, I drew the little race flags over each host airport on our big laminated wall planning chart, marked the race dates on our wall calendar, and penciled them lightly into my desk calendar.
Then I tried not to give them a second thought. I didn’t even check the league website every night at the dinner table to see who had signed up for each race, like I did nightly the last two seasons. I buried active thinking about air racing in some dark recess of my mind and pretended they didn’t exist.
The fly in the ointment was a commitment I made after reading my email following one to many glasses of wine. I promised one of the publications I write for that I’d go to Sun ‘n Fun, a stupid thing to do as the assignment will nowhere nearly pay for my costs of going. But still, it’s the one major aviation event Rio has never attended, so there’s the side benefit of being a good father.
But here’s where it gets complicated: The Sport Air Racing League (SARL) season kicks off with a race into Sun ‘n Fun. Given that I have to be there anyway, shouldn’t I race in?
Maybe. Maybe not. I can hop onto a Southwest Airlines flight and be in Florida in half a day. Flying Tess to Florida is a two or three day project, and arguably more expensive. What to do… What to do?
In the end, I decided to let Fate decide for me. I made no travel plans one way or another. When the days-available request for the quarter arrived from AOPA, I told them I was available every weekend except the weekend I’d be in Sun ‘n Fun, and that even that weekend I could teach one at Sun ‘n Fun if they wanted me to.
Then I waited. And waited. And waited. And didn’t think too much about the racing. I tuned it out. Then, just before lunch a few days ago my assignments came in for the quarter. Oh wait. Not assignments. Assignment. As in one. I think I mentioned that work was nearly non-existent this year. Ironically, this one one gig is on a race weekend, but it wasn’t in April. I was free to run the Sun ‘n Fun race.
And actually, there’s more than one race. There’s a short pre-race in typical “round Robin” SARL style launching from Sandersville, GA; followed the next day by one of the two cross-country races of the season, this one down to Sun ‘n Fun. So I could, quite literally, get two races for the cost of one. Plus, there’s the speed trial out of Sun ‘n Fun that I ran last year. It’s not sanctioned by SARL, so I don’t get championship points for running it, but it’s still a hoot. So I had the opportunity to race three times in nearly as many days. There was no work lost, but it would add to the cost. So what to do?
Debs was off to town for groceries and Lisa was teaching at the college, so my Council of War was limited to Rio and Grandma Jean. Over salads and red wine for lunch I laid out the situation. Mom didn’t hesitate, “Let’s race!” she said firmly, thumping her wine glass down on the table for emphasis. I turned to Rio, who shrugged one shoulder and said, “I don’t see any harm in it.”
Unlike the rest of the clan, he was never fully infected by the racing bug.
“OK,” I said, and went to the library to throw my hat into the ring. I went to the SARL website, pulled up the first race, clicked on the I Am Racing! tab and entered my name, race number, and class.
I hit the return key to submit my entry, and a wave of pure euphoria swept over me.
Our home airport—the Santa Rosa Route 66 Airport—doesn’t just share its name with the famous road. It is the road. Our runway 08/26 is built right smack on the original highway. In fact, the original runway was the highway. I don’t know the real story, but in my imagination I see the city fathers sitting around playing poker and smoking stogies one night in the late 1950s, after the interstate had passed through and around the town, changing the long established layout of the highway.
“What we going to do with the old Route 66 on the south side of town?” one asks. “It’ll be too gosh-derned expensive (people didn’t swear back in those days) for us to maintain it.”
Another scratches his stubble while he studies his cards; “Maybe we should turn it into a drag strip. It’s arrow-straight.”
Poker chips clink on the table as the most-forward thinking of the group calls, “I’ll match your drag strip and raise you an airport.”
Of course, as I said, I don’t know what really happened, but sometime in the late 50s or early 1960s, the triangle of dirt runways on the northwest side of town was abandoned in favor of a single narrow four thousand two hundred ninety four foot-long strip of (paved) mother road on the southeast side of town. They put up a beacon tower that might have been liberated from an abandoned airmail “arrow” site nearby, built a shabby hut for a terminal, installed a gas pump, and opened up for business. The scar of the old road can still be seen on the earth off either end of the runway.
In later years the city fathers built a dirt-floor metal T-hangar for six planes, a crosswind runway, and finally a modern terminal building which quickly fell into a state of disregard until just recently, when it was adopted and refurbished by our buddy Lisa with some help from my wallet.
So now you know why the Route 66 Air Tour folks asked us to host a little pre-tour party, so the flyers on the tour could actually land and/or take off from Route 66 as part of the Route 66 Air Tour. I think they envisioned it as a coffee stop, but as it was scheduled to take place between one and three in the afternoon, I knew we’d need a bit more than coffee. Plus, it was the chance for us to show off our newly respectable terminal, hopefully restoring our image as a good place to land for Avgas or Jet-A, stretch your legs, use a clean bathroom, and grab a fee snack.
I was looking forward to it. After the party, Rio and I would fly, quite literally, an hour up the road to Tucumcari, where the Air Tour events would officially start that night.
But by the time I got there, following my misadventures getting the plane to work, I had nearly missed my own party. As I was gassing up, the first plane landed. Within half an hour we had a ramp full of planes and a happy terminal bursting with pilots excitedly talking everything aviation, drinking coffee and water, and eating sandwiches.
Normally we’re the only people around our airport, as ours is the only plane based there. It was wonderful feeling the community of other aviators, and I looked forward to spending the next four days with them.
We gave some hangar tours and as the day wore on, one by one, the fliers headed out. After the last one took to the air we quickly cleaned up with one eye on the western horizon. The weather was starting to close in, the predicted warm and sunny day replaced with cold wind, low grey clouds, and wandering bands of sleet.
Deb and Grandma Jean, both exhausted from sandwich construction and hostess duties, bugged out first. Lisa dropped us at the hangar and stayed long enough to make sure the plane’s engine started.
It did. But there was a problem.
When I put my headset on, I was greeted by deafening silence. No radio. No Rio. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” I spoke into the boom mike. No response. I tapped Rio on the shoulder, “Can you hear me?”
I could see his mouth forming words, but silence fell on my ears. I pulled off the headset and shouted over the idling engine; “Shut her down,” making slicing motions with my left hand back and forth across my throat. Rio reached up for the throttle, pulled it far back, pulled out the mixture, then turned off the ignition. The engine coughed, the prop slowed, then stopped. I shut off the bat switches, killing the flashing strobes on the wing tips last. Serving as our beacon, they are first on and last off, to warn others our engine is live.
Lisa pulling away, stopped, put the car in reverse, pulled up close, and rolled her window down, “What’s up?”
“Radio out… again,” I said slowly. But my mind was racing. How on earth…? It was fine when I taxied over. All we did was push the plane in to the hangar and pull it out. How did the wires come loose again? And if they are that sensitive, what’s to keep them for coming disconnected in flight? Of course, there’s no real reason for a radio in flight, but as part of a group of more than 20 planes it didn’t seem safe to me to fly NORDO—aviation slang for operating without a radio. We have a handheld, but no adaptor to use it with the headsets. This didn’t look good for the home team, unless I could fix the problem, and be sure it would stay fixed.
Rio pulled himself up and out of the plane. I grabbed the Tessie-blue Eddie Bauer flashlight out of the back pocket, turned sideways and scooted my butt to the left side of the seat, raising my legs and dangling my feet outside the plane. It’s the only way to get your head under the instrument panel.
I directed the light upwards and was greeted by a great maze of wires. I was going to need some tech support. Lying upside down, all the blood in my body rushing to my head, I called the guys. “What the Sam Heck am I looking for down here?” I asked as I dropped my iPhone on my face.
They talked me through the maze of wiring to the back of the intercom. It had a multi-pin connector like an old computer printer. With one headset against my ear, the master switch and radio on, I was able to make the radio first work, then fall silent by tugging or pushing on the wire bundle. The consensus of the experts: Loose wire in the plug. Not a friendly field fix. Bring her back to us.
As I pulled myself back up in the cockpit, it started to rain. Rio and I stared glumly at each other. We both knew we wouldn’t be making the tour. Nothing needed to be said.
Rio looked up at the light rain and said, “We’d better get her back in the hangar, dad.”
I pulled the tow bar out from behind the seat, closed the canopy, and jumped down to the ground. I hooked the bar into the nose wheel, and pushing on the root of the propeller, eased Tessie back into her nest, out of the rain. Rio got out a roll of absorbent paper towels and started wiping the wings dry.
It was Friday night. My mechanics wouldn’t be back until Monday. We wouldn’t be getting any kicks on Route 66 this weekend. Well, that’s not quite true. At least the terminal party was a kick. And we do get to fly off of Route 66 all the time.
But still, it wasn’t the kicks on Route 66 I had hoped for.
Yay! The plane is done. The day is beautiful, and this afternoon Rio and I launch on a four-day adventure. We’re flying the Route 66 Air Tour, joining a fleet of 20-30 airplanes following the historic “mother road” across New Mexico and into Arizona. We’ve just been through a major maintenance event, but I’m confident the one-hour solo flight home will serve as an adequate test flight to ensure that all is in order.
Debs, Grandma Jean, and Rio are at home assembling chicken salad sandwiches for a pre-Tour party at our airport (more about that next week) so Lisa is driving me the hour and a quarter over to Santa Fe to pick up the plane. It’s my second trip over in as many days. She’ll drop me off and head to SXU by car, where we’ll rendezvous in the late morning. My job is to prepare Tess for her adventure and to get the giant silver quasi-antique 40-cup coffee pot brewing. Once Lisa shows up, and I’ll easily beat her to Santa Rosa, we are to lay out the cookies that the city council authorized the airport manager to buy onto trays in an attractive and creative manner.
After the required small talk with my mechanics, the giant hangar doors rumble open and my chief mechanic uses his fancy-pants multi-adjustable tow bar to grab Tess’s nose gear and pull her out into the sun. It’s a perfect flying morning. Not a breath of wind. I do a quick walk around, and assured that all is as it should be, I mount the wing, step down into the cockpit and settle in for the flight.
My only real worry is the flow of fuel between Tessie’s three tanks. I plan to watch the fuel gauge on the new header tank like a hawk to ensure its being kept full by the engine-driven fuel pump as designed, and that the excess fuel is properly overflowing and draining back into the conjoined wing tanks; an invisible process that can only be monitored by proxy, using the compass-style float gauge on the floor of the plane.
If all goes well, I’ll be back to my homebase in a little over an hour. If all goes poorly I’ve got plenty of time, and fuel, to get back to Santa Fe.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I set a pen and a piece of paper on the seat next to me to copy down my taxi clearance, then plug in my headset. As it’s been a few weeks since I last flew Tess, I pull the engine start checklist from the right-hand side pocket and follow it.
Parking brake engaged. Check.
Fuel cutoff open. Check.
Master switch on. Check.
Beacon on. Check.
Crack the throttle a quarter inch. Check.
Push the mixture control full forward. Check.
Ensure the carb heat knob is full forward. Check.
Turn the ignition switch to both. Check.
Clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor. Check.
Give her two shots of prime. Check!
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. At once the new-old tachometer goes crazy, the needle jumping up and down like a seismograph station when the big one hits the San Andres.
Well, that’s not right. I fiddle with the throttle, advancing it, and retarding it to no avail.
I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal “bat switches” (so called because they look like miniature baseball bats) that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Each has a satisfactory solid movement as it’s flipped downwards to its off position. Radio: Thunk. 12-volt power: Thunk. Navigation lights: Thunk… I unlatch my seatbelt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke. Then show them the quick loop of video I shot on my iPhone of the new-old tach.
“It worked fine when we tested it,” they say.
The new-old tach is the one that was originally in the plane, but was removed when we (foolishly) purchased a modern digital engine monitor, which has been nothing but a pain in the ass as far as I’m concerned. I decided to get it to help us better protect our expensive new engine, but it added to the delays that cost us the last race season, plus I find it hard to read in flight, I miss all of my simple old gauges that told me in a half-glance the status of my engine, but most of all I miss the tach.
The engine monitor has a tach, but it’s small and hyper sensitive. It jumps around a lot even when the throttle is rock solid, and I’ve found it impossible to use to get the right power settings for landing. I tried for some time, and finally decided to just re-install the analog tach to make landing operations safer and easier.
But now, in its maiden re-installation, it has gone crazy. Tony, the number two mechanic, heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “It’s a pretty simple system. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane, pulling the canopy halves partway up to protect myself from the prop blast, then double check that the parking brake is engaged. Fuel cutoff open… master switch on… beacon on… crack the throttle a quarter inch… push the mixture control full forward… ensure the carb heat knob is full forward… turn the ignition switch to both… clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor… give her half-shot of prime for a warm engine…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button. The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion.
The tach behaves itself. Oh well, what’s one little glitch? After all, they had to pretty much disconnect everything in the plane to get the old tank out and the new one in. I give Tony a “thumbs up” and he heads back into the hangar.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight. I put on my headset and dial up the Santa Fe ATIS, which stands for Automated Terminal Information Service, a pre-recorded audio loop that gives pilots basic information on airport operations: The wind conditions, the active runway, and more.
I’m greeted with complete silence.
Well, not complete silence, with the engine running there’s always a dull roar in the cockpit, even with the best of headsets. But I’m not receiving any radio signals. I double check. Yeah, I’ve entered the frequency right. I poke at the intercom buttons. I fuss with the volume button on my headset. I pull out the head set plugs, and push them in again.
Well, crud. I shut the engine down. Close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the heavy satin metal bat switches that run all the plane’s electronic systems. Radio, 12 volt, Navigation lights, Thunk… thunk… thunk… I unlatch my seat belt, slide my shoulder out from under the shoulder belt and unbutton the canopy, sliding it downwards into the belly of the plane. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back toward the maintenance hangar. Again. My mechanics heard the engine start, then stop again, and are waiting for me. “Hi, guys, long time no see,” I joke.
It’s not quite so funny this time.
Once again Tony heads out to the plane with a flashlight and a handful of tools. He climbs up on the wing and drops into the cockpit backwards, his feet dangling outside, so that he can see under the dash.
I text Lisa: Another short delay on this end. Keep driving.
After a few minutes of grumbling, he emerges and reports the problem likely fixed. “What happened?” I asked.
Tony shrugs, “I think the plug was loose. I just disconnected it and reconnected it. Let’s test it.”
I climb back into the plane. No need to start the plane to test this problem. I flip the master switch on, then the radio control switch. I hold the headset up to one ear and hear, “Santa Fe information Papa, time sixteen forty five Zulu…”
I nod to Tony and give him a thumbs up again.
“Now don’t be coming back here again,” Tony teases me.
I reach above me and button up the canopy, then secure my lap belt, attach the shoulder belt, cinching it down tight, but not too tight.
Parking brake engaged, fuel cutoff open, turn the master switch, flip on the beacon, crack the throttle a quarter inch, push the mixture control full forward, ensure the carb heat knob is full forward, turn the ignition switch to both, clear the “add fuel” warning message from the engine monitor, give her a half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Time to get this party started!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi, then I engage my Cloudahoy App to record the flight and start to taxi. I notice the GPS link in the App hasn’t turned green yet. I also notice that on my Garmin Pilot Navigation system I’m not moving. I slow down and look at my transponder.
It says “MSG.”
That can’t be good. I call ground control and ask for permission to return to the ramp.
I pull back up in front of my mechanic’s hangar and I shut the engine down. I close the fuel valve, and one by one shut off the bat switches. Thunk… thunk… thunk… Unlatch seat belt, slide shoulder out and unbutton canopy. I hoist myself up on the seat back, step out on the wing, then drop to the ground behind the wing.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in.
“Seriously?” they ask me.
I text Lisa: Third time, assuredly, will be the charm. Keep driving.
This one is more complicated. The coaxial cable has pulled out of its plug. My guys don’t have the magic tool needed to fix it. I text home to tell Rio to search the flight lounge cabinets for our old dash-top GPS unit. I’m not going to let a little thing like no navigation system spoil our adventure. In the meantime, my guys call the avionics shop on the other side of the field, who agree to send someone right over.
I pass the time in my mechanic’s office, in out of the cold late morning air, surfing eBay on my iPad. After what seems like forever, once again, Tess is pronounced ready for flight.
Parking brake, fuel cutoff, master, beacon, throttle, mixture, carb heat, ignition, fuel warning, give her half shot of prime…
“Clear prop!” I shout, and press the starter button.
The propeller starts spinning and the engine coughs to life, its roar filling the cockpit as the spinning prop dissolves into a pale grey blur of motion. Third time is the charm!
I call ground control and get permission to taxi. Everything is working fine. The new-old tach is behaving, I can hear and talk on the radio, and my nav system is alive. I taxi back toward the runway again, scanning the instrument panel for anything out of the ordinary.
Everything looks good. I do my run up and tell the tower I’m ready to rock and roll. They advise me a larger plane is on long final, but the tower controller clears me for takeoff, adding, “Do not hesitate, early turnout approved.” Hell yeah, I’ve just been given permission to have some fun.
I throttle up to full power as I turn onto the runway, foot never touching the brake. Tess surges forward, she has fuel to get home and nothing else onboard. As she leaps into the air I bank left, and barely higher than the tower, fly up over the south ramp, studying the planes parked in neat rows.
It’s good to be back in the air, even if it’s a few hours later than I expected. It’s surprisingly calm air, the engine sounds strong and smooth, and all the repairs seem to be holding. I reach up to the engine monitor and scroll to the secondary screen. Amps and volts good. I scroll to the fuel computer. It shows me that I have fuel enough to reach Hawaii.
That seems improbable.
I check the fuel flow. The gauge is reporting one gallon per hour, not our usual five and a half. I know this is wrong. But what could be causing it? I lift one earphone clear of my head. A blast of sound assaults me. Nothing wrong with the engine. If I were venting fuel above the sensor, the engine would be starved. I look at the fuel gauge on the floor. It’s steady. The float gauge in the new header tank is riding high. Like most of the rest of the repairs today, it must be a wire not hooked up right.
Do I go on or go back? A deep sigh. I’m only ten miles out; I’m going to have to take the plane back to the mechanics at some point anyway. It might as well be now. I bank into a right-hand 180 and dial my radio back to the Santa Fe tower to tell them I’m coming back.
I land, taxi back to my mechanics and park right in front of their hangar doors. Engine shut down. Fuel valve. Bat switches. Seat belt. Shoulder belt. Canopy. Up and out.
I walk back towards the maintenance hangar, and pull the heavy door open enough to slip in. They guys aren’t happy to see me.
“Each time you come back it takes longer to fix,” sighs Tony. I tell him the problem and he gathers his tools and his flashlight.
I text Lisa: Wouldn’t you know it? More trouble. Keep driving.
Tess finally made bail. Her mechanics called to say they’d finished the latest round of repairs: The new header tank was in; the leaking oil sump quick drain had been replaced; and the fuel pump gasket was squared away. Come pick her up.
Reviewing the invoice, I saw that changing the fuel tank gobbled up thirty-two man hours. They had to disconnect the sundry fuel lines, unhook all the controls and cables in the cockpit, remove most of the radios and other modern gear, unbolt the tank from its brackets, drop it to the floor, then maneuver it up over the seat and out through the top of the canopy. Then they had to do the opposite with the new tank, then bolt it in place, reinstall the radios and other modern gear, hook up all the cockpit cables and controls, and connect all the sundry fuel lines to the new tank.
This is considered a “plug and play” installation by one Ercoupe expert I talked to about swapping header tanks.
I also noticed the shop rate had gone up ten dollars an hour from the last invoice. My pay has not. I dealt with that by buying a T-shirt that says: “Welcome to aviation. You are now broke.” It seemed like the right thing to do with the last $14.99 in my retirement fund.
But at least the latest round was behind me. And there’s really not much left on the plane that hasn’t been either refurbished or replaced. Tess isn’t a 1947 Ercoupe any more. She’s a 2013-2014-2015-2016-2017-2018 model. All she really needs now is a new paint job. But that’s a tale for another day.
I handed my mechanic another check that had a number which included a comma, and sat down on his leather couch to check the weather. Ut-oh. It was getting windy back home. In Santa Fe it was as nice as it could be. In Santa Rosa the wind was 18 miles per hour. Gusting to 30.
I don’t like gusting, especially when the gusts are nearly double the base wind speed. It makes for unnecessarily exciting landings.
The winds were forecast to remain high until sunset. Aw, hell.
I had a decision to make. Ercoupes are great crosswind planes. Because their landing gear lets them land practically sideways, they can handle wind better than pretty much any plane out there. And I’ve landed in some pretty hairy wind. But there’s a difference between landing in hairy wind when you have to, and choosing to go and put yourself out in a hairy situation. I was confident I could do it, but was it worth it? Just to get the plane back home again?
I grumbled to myself for a while, and finally, my chief mechanic, who had been sitting politely at his desk said, “I’m going to go back to work while you make up your mind,” and then disappeared out his office door into his hangar where two Civil Air Patrol planes were getting annuals and a local flight school 172 was getting its bent firewall replaced following a nose-heavy landing by a student pilot.
I looked to the next day’s weather. It, too, was windy as the dickens. But the day after was forecast to be lovely. Doubting myself, as always when it comes to this kind of thing, I choose to wait. I wandered out into the hangar, then outside where Tess was tied down. I put her gustlock in place, grabbed the keys, buttoned up the canopy, patted her on the spinner and went back to the car.
At Starbucks thirty minutes later I found myself checking the wind again, just to reassure myself it was still windy and that I’d made a good call.
It was still windy.
I ran a few errands then headed home, to find the wind had gone home to where ever it lives as well. It was a calm evening. If I’d just waited an hour or two the flight, and landing would have been uneventful.
I kicked myself, but I also knew the old adage it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground. The weather the day after tomorrow is still forecast to be lovely. And Tess is happy to wait.
Lisa was somewhere under the plane, scooting around on the wheeled creeper checking screws and rivets on the plane’s belly. I could hear her contented humming over the dull gong—gong—gong—gong of the hangar doors as they shifted and moved in the wind. It was a blustery day out so we’d buttoned up the hangar for preflight, leaving us in dim light, but warm. I was sitting in the cockpit re-attaching the iPad mount to the panel. Its suction cups had come loose again and it fell off and banged me in the knee when I climbed into the cockpit to check the Hobbs reading.
To get the bracket positioned correctly I had to hunch down and peer upwards from underneath it, and despite having tri-focals, I couldn’t get any of the three lenses to line up right so that I could see what I was doing. I took my glasses off, reached up blindly, and set them somewhere on the glare shield above me.
Outside I heard the crunch of car tires on gravel and doors slamming. Must be the city workers either getting or depositing files in the hangar next door, I thought. Then there was a sharp wrap on the metal door. My door. I sat up straight and felt around for my glasses. Suddenly, bright sunlight flooded in as the hangar doors were yanked abruptly back, blinding me. As I blinked and squinted, the dark shapes of six uniformed men entered the hangar, three coming up on each side of the cockpit. In a deep voice one barked, “We have a warrant for your arrest.”
The happy humming from underneath the plane ceased.
I couldn’t process what was happening. “Huh?” I finally managed to squeak, my hands frantically searching for my glasses. I couldn’t recall doing anything arrest-worthy. Not recently. Not ever, really. I live a pretty square life. Could it be a case of mistaken identity? My fingers located the frames and I slipped my glasses onto my face. The towering blue blurs of the cops snapped into focus. There were two local cops, and one state cop. But the other three were two uniformed paramedics and the airport manager, who was wearing a police-style jacket and a big grin on his face.
Then all the men starting laughing.
“Just teasing,” announced the airport manager, “actually we need your help.”
Then he told me that a boy who lived next to the airport had reported that a plane taking off that morning didn’t sound right. This kid hears a lot of airplanes. Apparently some odd transmissions had been heard by someone else, and Center couldn’t raise the pair of aerial mapping planes that had been working out of SXU for the last week. The local emergency responders were worried that they had gone down. Would we mind going up and just flying around to see if we could see anything?
We wouldn’t mind. And we could do even better. The latest version of our navigation app, Garmin Pilot, will display Civil Air Patrol search grids. We could fly a search grid to the south and east of the airport, in the direction the boy saw the plane go. In no time we were in the air.
“What am I looking for?” asked Lisa.
I was a Civil Air Patrol pilot once upon a time, but my unit didn’t have an airplane assigned to it so I never flew a mission, and my search and rescue training was nearly forty years old. I searched my dim memory as I scanned the ground below and to the left of the plane. “It depends on the nature of the crash,” I told my wing woman. “Shout out if you see a plane in a field or on a road. If you see smoke, we’ll divert from the grid and check it out. If things went badly there could be nothing left but little bits and pieces, and if so, they’ll likely form a line in the direction of travel.”
It was a grim image to contemplate.
“Oh, and disturbed earth,” I added, “ like a scar of a freshly plowed field in the middle of nowhere.” I’ve seen several crash sights from the air, and none of them looked plane-like.
Lisa was silent for a moment and then said, “I hope we don’t find anything. I mean, I hope there’s nothing to find.”
Amen to that.
We’d just barely finished the first leg of our search grid when the airport manager texted Lisa to report that Center was in touch with the two mapping planes, and all was well with them. He’d checked the guest register at the terminal and the history on the gas pump, and there was no evidence of another plane leaving that day. Lacking any other evidence of a plane in distress, he was calling off the search.
Of course it was always possible that someone landed just to hit the bathroom. Didn’t sign in. Didn’t buy gas. Kids that live next to airports know what planes sound like. If I were down, I’d want people to make a decent search for me. “Tell him, thanks, but as it’s a nice day up here (it wasn’t) we’ll go ahead and finish the grid just for the fun of it.”
So we flew up one grid line, and down the next. Then up again, then down. Each line about eight miles apart, our eyes searched from Tessie’s wing roots to four miles off her wings. We flew a thousand feet off the deck, low enough to clearly see what was below, high enough to see a ways away. In some areas I could be confident there was nothing to see. In other areas filled with trees and craggy ravines I knew we could fly past a hundred downed planes and not see a trace.
In about two and a half hours, we “searched” 960 square miles. At one point there were odd squawking noises on the emergency frequency. It wasn’t the mournful wail of an emergency locator beacon, it was more strangled. We cut across one search grid diagonally to check a network of small canyons but there was nothing to see and the choked noises on the radio went away.
The radio was silent for the rest of our search, and we saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I was glad to be there at the right time and at the right place to lend a helping hand.
Oh. Right. And I was even doubly glad that three wasn’t really a warrant for my arrest!
Just when I thought all of our maintenance woes were behind us, I opened the hangar door.
Here’s the Tale: Rio and I had mapped out a good training flight. Don’t ask me the details now, I’ve already forgotten them, but I certainly remember the rest of the day. We grabbed a light breakfast, loaded up Grandma Jean and R2D2 (her oxygen concentrator), and headed out to the airport. Grandma wanted to see Lisa’s recent renovation of our Third World airport terminal and said she’d hang out there and soak in the vibe while Rio and I flew for an hour or so.
It was a lovely morning, not too early and not too late, neither too cool nor too warm, and the wind was just barely stroking the surface of the earth with a lover’s touch.
When we arrived at the hangar we parked in front of the double doors so Grandma could see her airplane. I unlocked the padlock, then I took the right door and Rio the left. We dramatically pulled the great doors open at the same time—like the curtains in an old fashioned theater at the start of the show—revealing Tess, the morning light kissing her canopy. Above her the flags in the hangar undulated gently in the morning breeze, and with her sharp wing dihedral she looked ready to jump into the air… Except for the fact that she was sitting in a puddle of her own oil.
Damn. What’s this going to cost me?
Actually, as we know we have a soon-to-be replaced leaky gas tank, at first I mistook the dark pool for fuel. But kneeling down and running a finger through it, I found it to be slick, honey-colored oil. What the….? The pool was centered under and around the front nose gear. Where did it come from?
Now oil leaks from Continental engines aren’t rare. Some folks joke that like a Harley, if it ain’t leaking oil, it’s surely out of oil. But this was something new. The sides of the cowl were clean, as was the front wheel pant, plane’s belly, and the hangar floor underneath the breather tube. Adding to the mystery, after our last flight the week before, Lisa and I had stayed in the hangar a good two hours, cleaning up the plane, listening to the CTAF, smoking cigars, and soaking in the whole airport vibe; and in those two hours no oil had leaked. So how did this much oil escape an engine that’s not running? And how’d it get from the engine, where it belongs, to the floor, where it does not belong?
Of course, oil is a funny thing. A little spilled oil looks like a lot. To my many-times-bitten now crazy-shy eye, it was the entire contents of the oil sump. In reality it wasn’t even enough to detect missing on the dipstick. Still, not understanding what was going on, I cancelled our planned flight. Rio thought I was being a bit of a wuss, but he didn’t argue the point, and thus began the Great Oil Leak Investigation—a tale not likely to knock Sir Arthur Conan Doyle out of first place anytime soon.
We opened both sides of the cowl and looked for oil. Naturally, as we rarely clean the inside of the cowl, there was oil everywhere. Shining my handsome new Tessie-blue 100-lumen Eddie Bauer aluminum flashlight around inside the engine compartment I felt like an explorer of yore trying to trace the source of the Nile.
Let’s see here… These two little streams of oil seem to connect to that stain here, which seems to come from up there, so the oil must be leaking from the… alternator? No, that can’t be right! I took a ton of photos with my iPhone and emailed them to my beleaguered mechanic (who responded two days later that it didn’t look like that much oil to him, and if it was him, he wouldn’t worry about it). Then, using many pale blue paper shop towels I cleaned the inside of the engine compartment better than anyone had in the last 71 years.
I placed clean folded towels in various strategic locations and we left for the day, Rio predicting that we’d come back to a clean airplane and clean towels.
He was half right. A couple of days later we came back to clean towels, and more oil on the floor. It was as if the oil were welling up from the concrete below the plane. I had a brief vision of the start of the Beverly Hillbillies, with me in the role of Jed Clampett, but I knew I hadn’t struck oil. Tess was leaking it from somewhere.
One of the leading contenders from the previous week had been the gasket between the fuel pump and the engine case. There was a clear sign of a leak there, but how that gasket could leak in the absence of engine pressure was a mystery to me, and now the towel below it was clean. The other contender was the valve cover on the number one cylinder, which was also leaking a drip or two, but it could hardly have been the culprit with a resting engine, and again the towel there was clean. And yet, there was fresh oil on the ground.
Adding to the mystery was the fact that oil spilling pretty much anywhere from inside the engine should come out of the bottom of the cowl where the front fork comes through the metal surrounding the engine, but oil exiting the compartment there would stain the front wheel pant, and it was clean. Complicating matters was the fact the oil had just been changed and it was still clean, making it almost transparent.
Lying on the concrete, trying to avoid getting oil on my shirt, I carefully studied the front fork. It had a smooth sheen of oil on it, as did the aft scissors assembly. Mentally, working slowly backwards, I tried to envision the path of the oil, and it led me to the oil sump drain. Suddenly the clouds parted, the sun came out, and it all made sense.
When the engine is off the oil drains out of the case and down into the sump. The only logical place for oil to leak from when the engine is powered down is from the sump. I reached in and fussed with the quick release valve used to drain the oil out when changing oil. Of course I had no idea how it worked normally, which made it challenging to see if it wasn’t working right. Twisting, tugging, pulling, I managed to accidently open it. A gush of gold oil flowed out. Mesmerized, I watched its travels.
As the little stream twisted and turned around various obstacles in its path all the mysteries fell by the wayside. I’d found the source of the Nile.
Now the challenge was to figure out how on earth oil was leaking from the drain. There were three possibilities. The mechanism itself could be failing, it wasn’t closed right, or it might not be screwed on exactly tight enough. To rule out the last possibility, following instructions from one of our two mechanics, I took a paper towel and wrapped the upper part of the drain like a mummy, using a zip tie to secure the towel.
Then I flew. And left the towel in place for a week.
When I returned, there was new oil on the floor and the towel was clean. Well, not clean, but not oil soaked. A new sump drain was ordered and my guys will put it in this week while Tess is visiting them for a new header tank. Once that’s done, I’m confident that all our maintenance woes will be behind us.