Throttle Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll leave it at that.

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

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


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

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

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

I start breathing again.

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

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

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


Racing with Voodoo

This season, I’m racing with Voodoo. What? Oh. No. Sorry. Not the famous Reno Racing plane by the same name. I’m talking about a speed modification that uses some aerodynamic Voodoo to improve Tess’s performance in our never-ending quest to crack the mac barrier in an Ercoupe. Or at least just go fast enough to securely maintain our title of the World’s Fastest Ercoupe, and to keep those pesky Cesena 150s and 152s behind our twin tails in the SARL races.


So this might be our sketchiest speed mod yet, but here’s the tale: One of the bad things about having your plane in the shop is that you spend too much time sitting at home thinking about airplanes, instead of being out at the airport having fun with them. And thinking about airplanes at home often entails surfing through various online catalogs of airplane stuff, and discovering things that you were perfectly happy not owning when you didn’t know they existed, but now can’t live without.

This is why I now have Wig-Wag lights on Tess. But they’re not the only thing we added while waiting for our nose strut to be rebuilt, and then waiting for UPS to locate said strut after they lost it.

I also added Voodoo Propeller Tape to Tessie’s prop. Well, that’s what I call it, anyway. It’s officially called a Propeller Vortelator. It’s a distant cousin of the aerodynamically unlikely vortex generator, which is a small plastic or metal fin which, when glued to your wing along with a bunch of other little fins, does amazing things. Things like lower your stall speed, improve controllability, reduce your takeoff run, and more. How on earth do they do that?

Well, that’s what I was told, anyway. Apparently, the little fins create mini vortexes of air that delay flow separation in the boundary layer, and…

Yeah, like I said, magic.

So when I read about something similar for propellers, it didn’t strike me as impossible. Hey, if a bunch of fins on a wing can work magic on the airflow and improve performance, why wouldn’t something similar work on the prop? A prop is just a perpendicular spinning wing, after all. The advertising copy for the Vortelator—which is made by Aircraft Development, the same folks that make the Slick Air coating that we use to reduce airframe drag—say that, “Vortelators will cause the boundary layer to stay attached to the propeller surface for a greater distance, and to keep the boundary layer thinner. The net result of these two actions is that it reduces both the profile drag and skin friction drag components of the parasite drag.” Going on, they said that the Vortelators are placed on the most inefficient high drag areas of the prop, making it more efficient across its span. As I didn’t understand what they were saying, that didn’t impress me much.

But they also said it would improve my speed by 2 to 4 mph. ThatI understood.

I placed an order.

Now, I knew the Vortelator was some sort of tape, but I couldn’t tell much about its form factor from the pictures at Aircraft Spruce’s website. I think I pictured a row of mini vortex generators, or a quasi-washboard ribbon. I’m sure you can picture my disappointment when my box of Voodoo Propeller Tape arrived, and I discovered that it was nothing more than a piece of flat, thin, clear self-sticky plastic tape—cut in a zig-zag pattern.


Seriously? I was about to send it back in disgust, but decided to do some more research first. The first thing I found was that I couldn’t find anyone who had actually used it. Rather, all I could find were people who hadn’t used it, but nevertheless felt justified in trashing the mere idea. They’re probably the same people who poo-pooed vortex generators when they were first introduced, then later quietly installed them on their planes.

Next, I discovered something called turbulator tape, which is a big deal with the sailplane crowd. Apparently, most current production sailplanes use it to improve aerodynamics, and many older ones are retrofitted. Guess what? Yeah. It’s nothing more than a piece of flat, thin, clear self-sticky plastic tape—cut in a zig-zag pattern.

Hmmm… Those sailplane folks sure know their aerodynamics, even if they don’t have propellers.

But there’s more: The RC model crowd rave about zig-zag tape. Granted, their planes don’t have pilots in them, but they are honestly and truly miniature aircraft. And zig-zag tape is even used in archery to improve airflow of the tail “feathers” of modern carbon fiber arrows for increased accuracy. Who knew?

And although Voodoo Propeller Tape sure looks disappointing to the naked eye, in all things aerodynamic, small changes can net big results. So maybe some thin zig-zag sailplane/model plane/archery tape near the hub of Tess’s prop might make that ol’ piece of aluminum work better.

What the heck, it didn’t cost that much, it’s already paid for, it’s STC’d for my prop (which only means the government thinks that the product is safe, not that it actually works), and my wrench turners don’t want much to install it. And who knows? Maybe it will make Tess shoot through the air like an arrow. Rather than sending it back, I had my team put it on the prop.


So this season, we’re racing with Voodoo.


We now return to our regularly scheduled program…

Enough maintenance tales. I’m sick of telling them, sicker still of paying for them, and you’ve probably sickened on reading them. For a bit there, I was afraid we’d have to change the name of our website to WrenchTales… Or maybe Wrenching Tales of the Wrench… which isn’t bad… I like the way it rolls right off the tongue…

Anyway, Tess is fixed. Again. And home in her hangar. Again.



And before you ask, as usual, no, it didn’t all go as planned—including the fact that United Parcel Service lost track of our rebuilt nose strut altogether for nearly a week. I think they used to call that a Maalox Moment. Only one that, you know, lasted for days. So you really can’t call it a “moment.” But you don’t need to read about that, and I don’t need to relive it.

Of course, maintenance is part of the aircraft experience, and despite being in the shop for nearly half the year, Tessie’s due for her annual inspection in June, so there may yet be more Wrenching WrenchTales in our pages in the future. But in the meantime, I’m looking forward to getting back to flying and getting back to writing flying stories.

Which, hopefully, will include some tales of air racing!

Speaking of racing, I plum missed the Kentucky Derby this year. It just slipped my mind. True, I was in the Air Capital of the World on Derby day, teaching a Rusty Pilot Seminar for AOPA, but I didn’t even set my DVR to record it while I was away. It wasn’t even on my radar that the Derby was coming up. What’s up with that? We usually watch it as a family. With Mint Julips and everything. Too much on my mind with the missing strut I guess…


Anyway, as I’m sure you know by now, the first horse across the finish line at Churchill Downs wasn’t declared the winner. “Maximum Security,” got disqualified for bumping into another horse. Dem’ da’ rules. I think I once read that there’s a similar rule at the Reno air races. Wow. How sport has changed over the years. Did you know that in the Circus Maximus, turning your whip on a fellow chariot racer who was trying to pass you was just considered normal operating procedure?

Not that I’m the kind of guy who would turn my whip on the competing race pilot, even if it was allowed. Although…

Anyway, speaking of getting whipped, the 2019 SARL race season is off to a bad start. We had a short roster of races to start with, and the second race of the season, the Bob Axsom Memorial Air Race, got severely whipped—by the weather.

Originally set for April 13th, weather forced a rescheduling of the race to Debry day, when yet more weather led to its being cancelled altogether. Of course, as I was teaching on Debry day, so I knew I couldn’t participate in the race on its new date (I had blocked off the original date, had my hotel reservations, and everything… all I was missing was an airplane, so I guess it would have been moot anyway…) but just like the Derby, on the day of the race, it clean slipped my mind that there was an air race happening. Usually on the day of a race that I can’t make it to, I spend half the day staring at the sky wondering who’s winning and who’s getting whipped. Metaphorically whipped, of course. No real whipping of the competition in modern racing, as I’ve already noted.

Rubbing my feet in the hotel room that night, and feeling a little whipped myself, I suddenly remembered the race. The SARL race. Not the Derby. I didn’t remember the Derby until the next day.

I jumped up to get my Flightpad to check the standings, and learned that the air race had been scrubbed. Wow. Here we are on the cusp of summer and there’s been only one race so far. And only two remain before the hot weather hiatus: The Hardin Race in Terrell, Texas on the east side of the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex, and the Texas Twister around Galveston Island. Oh, right, and the AirVenture Cup, too. It’s not really a SARL race, but you can get League Championship points for placing in that largest of all air races.

After the summer break there are only three more races left in the season. Am I going to hit all of them? Try for a place on the season champ podium? I haven’t decided yet. I’ll have to see how the first two go, where the standings are, what the chances of success are, and how much money is left in the checking account. My original plan had been to slow down a bit, just do a few races. Enjoy them. Not be quite so competitive.

But my whip hand is itching.

Still, one thing’s for sure, there’s no way I’m going to win first place in my category and class at the Hardin race. Jaden Stapleton, Race 68, flying an Eagle 150, has thrown his hat into the ring. The Eagle is a funky modern composite canard biplane that’s fast, fast, fast. In fact, the Eagle is a category killer for all of us in FAC6. On paper it can do nearly 150 miles per hour. Stapleton raced it with an average speed of 132.3 m.p.h. in four races last season, beating the rest of the pack without even breaking a sweat. Hell, I can’t go that fast with my nose pointed to the earth and my engine on fire. None of us stand a chance against it. It’s almost not worth the avgas to try.

In short, I’m gonna get whipped, and I know it.

At least in the head-to-head race.

But there are lots of other ways to win at Hardin. The race features a parallel “handicapped” class in which each racer is racing his own plane’s maximum performance, rather than the other planes. I might be able to trump Stapleton there. And there’s a Cesena 150 in the race, another plane that can beat me on paper, but a type I’ve bested a number of times. If nothing else, that’ll make for an exciting contest for second place. Plus, there’s a people’s choice trophy, where townspeople come out and vote for the plane they like the best and Tess has a lot of charm.

And, for me, of course, I’m racing against my own past. We’ve yet to really race the new engine, or any of the other improvements we’ve made.

Whoever crosses the finish line first, I’ll consider it a major victory if I whip my own best time.